Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Pope's Legion: The Multinational Fighting Force that Defended the Vatican

By Charles A. Coulombe, 250 pages.

Coulombe has done a great service to the Church in unearthing a long-forgotten moment in nineteenth-century Church history, when powerful political and military forces were uniting to upend the old civilization, which had centred around Christianity and to a lesser extent the papacy.

The Zouaves, named after a north African berber tribe that had fought for the French in Algeria in the 1830s, came together in 1860 under French Major Lamorcière to defend the papacy against Italian nationalists determined to steal the papal lands away from the Vatican.

Men from all classes and Western counties, including the U.S., Canada, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Holland, Poland, Britain, and above all France, streamed to Rome to fight the good fight. They saw the pope as the centre of freedom and civilization, much as Polish Catholics would in their long struggle against communism in the 1970s and 80s.

Coulombe brings these men alive by offering simple portraits of many, often citing correspondence to capture their feelings and the level of their devotion to the papacy and to Christ. Many became priests after their Zouave experience.

“When enough English-speaking men had joined the unit, they formed a billiards club. Although Julian entered fully into the unit's social life and was zealous in his military training, he was renowned for his piety – which, in that company, was not looked down upon. A frequent guest at the English College ... Julian attended Mass every day, the rosary each night, and confession weekly.”

Perhaps because of the depth of their beliefs, time and again the Zouaves would be outmanned and outgunned, yet inflict asymmetric damage on the enemy. Sometimes just a handful of Zouaves in a fortified position could hold off entire companies of Garibaldi's men or allies:

“The woods were secured and hundreds of Germans were taken prisoner. They were about to attack the village when the Prussians realized the very small size of the force with which they were contending and brought up three regiments from their reserve.”

In other words, the Zouaves were able to outfight the dreadful Prussians, even with hopeless odds.

The Zouaves were part of the great Catholic revival of the nineteenth-century, which included devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This revival included the construction of Basilique Sacré Coeur de Montmartre in Paris in 1873; the great bishop of Montreal, Ignace Bourget, who did so much to make Quebec a devoted Catholic province for another 100 years and who supported the 137 Zouave recruits from Quebec in 1868; Vatican I; and the papacy of Leo XIII and his energetic defense of Catholic theology.

Because of this Catholic energy, the Zouaves enjoyed a special mystique well into the twentieth century, and were often celebrated in France or Spain even though, “Except perhaps for Joubert's campaign against the slavers, all of the Zouaves' ventures ended in failure....Indeed, the philosophies of government and humanity that they fought against in peace and war are completely triumphant.”

The Zouaves' continued honor reflected a world ill-at-ease with the choices it had made.

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