I was looking forward, come December, to writing a piece to commemorate that 100th birthday of Fr Jean-Marie Charles-Roux. Sadly that is not to be, as Father Charles-Roux died last week in Rome at the age of 99 years and 7 months. Damian Thompson has written about his own memories of this fine priest over at The Spectator, which I would urge you to read. Some time ago I wrote a piece for this paper to mark his 98th birthday, which can be found here. Like Dr Thompson, I feel a complete obituary is beyond me, though I am looking forward with mighty interest to see what out national newspapers have to say.
Fr Charles-Roux was something of an enigma, in that he very rarely let his true position on matters be known. He loved to adopt poses. He seemed to be almost ethereal in his black cassock, and he never ever wore anything else. In summer he used to wear an Anglican cassock (rather an odd choice, but many of his choices were), but in winter his frame was encased in a huge black woollen cassock with over-sleeves and shoulder cape which he pinched from me. (This was years ago; I am not expecting it back, but it was a fine cassock in its day.) He used to wear a rather odd pair of glasses that perched on his nose, but otherwise hung from his neck by a ribbon. I think this is what is known as a pince-nez, a term familiar to me purely from the novels of Agatha Christie. He also had a rimless monocle which he used to fit into his eye socket when he wanted to read the newspaper. His shoes had buckles on them. When they at last fell apart, and could no longer be repaired, he was unable to find a new pair, even at a theatrical costumier; in the end the old buckles had to be attached to a pair of modern slip-ons using superglue.
He used to say Mass in a way that severely annoyed many Tridentinist purists, not least because it took two hours. He celebrated the liturgy with eyes tight shut, knowing the words off by heart. He would move to the right-hand side of the altar with the chalice where his server would proffer the wine and water, eyes closed until he bumped into the server. On one famous occasion the server had seen Fr Charles-Roux go into ecstasy, and momentarily crept off. The result was the Fr Charles-Roux, not finding a server to bump into, had fallen down the altar steps.
His server was a nice man who worked in the railways, and whose name I never knew. He was always known as “the Bishop of Nottingham”, as his signal box was supposed to be somewhere near that city. People were often known by bizarre nicknames. He used to address me as “Child”.
Fr Charles-Roux was a serious man who realised that he had been born in the wrong century, and that people would not take him seriously, and that was why he adopted the pose he did, and after a time found (I think) that he enjoyed the pose. Pius XII had taken him seriously, and so had the Vatican diplomatic service in the War, so had General de Gaulle. He joined the Free French in London by taking a long route round. This involved entering Spain illegally by swimming a river in full spate in winter. The Spanish arrested this dripping and naked Frenchman, and he was imprisoned for some time. But he never really liked talking about the War, or his soldiering days.
Fr Charles-Roux was deeply concerned about the state of the Church; indeed, it made him despair, if a Christian full of faith ever can despair. In private he was always charitable but highly critical of the lack of leadership he saw in various authorities and in particular their refusal to confront the serious problems posed by priests whose way of life was not in keeping with their vocation. He told me on several occasions that he had made his concerns known, but that the superiors simply would not listen. This was a pity, because Fr Charles-Roux was a close and wise observer and they would have done well to have taken his advice.
He was not in favour of “modern” liturgy and he lived long enough to see the traditional way of doing things come back into favour. But he had long ceased to play any active role in the life of the Church by that stage. Indeed, though a very social man, he was adept at avoiding people and situations that he found distasteful. He had retired from the field, shell-shocked in the culture wars. For him, everything had gone wrong a long time ago, indeed in 1789: the French Revolution had been the start of the continuing catastrophe through which we were all living still. Marie-Antoinette, famously, was his favourite subject, though he was hugely knowledgeable on all aspects of recent French history. He was widely assumed to be an aristocrat, but the only ancestor who had played any role in the Revolution, he told me, was one of the guards at Versailles, who was killed during the storming of the Chateau on 5th October 1789. His father was a famous diplomat and head of the Quai d’Orsay, who left behind a several valuable volumes of memoirs. Charles-Roux pére had spent a great deal of his career before the War in Rome, where Jean-Marie was born. On one occasion, Fr Charles-Roux remarked to me: “I switched on the television, and there was this lady singing in Daddy’s office.” The lady was Catherine Malfitano, playing Tosca, and Daddy’s office was of course in Palazzo Farnese. On another occasion, scanning the newspaper through his monocle, a piece of glass that seemed to be no help at all, as he held the paper at such an odd angle, he asked: “Is there anything good on television tonight?” I told him the only thing on was the World Cup. “Ah,” he said after a slight pause. “What is world cup?”
A brilliant speaker, and most amusing company, and also a stimulating preacher – I have heard thousands of sermons, but his I still remember – he was a simply terrible writer, much given to prolixity and eccentric figures of speech. Sentences would continue for pages and pages of typescript. (Needless to say he never learned to use a computer, but was one of the last to keep to a typewriter.) He would send people postcards covered with spidery writing which were allusive and elusive, indeed almost Sibylline. It is a pity that he never produced any memoirs and so sternly resisted anyone writing his life story. His autobiography would have been fascinating, could he have written it. A biography would have been good too, but it is too late for that. His story dies with him, which is how he would have wanted it. After all, he knew very well that it was not about him. He abhorred egotism, particularly in the clergy.
Damian Thompson records how the Elevation used to last an eternity when he celebrated Mass. Now Fr Charles-Roux is in the presence of the reality that lies within the sacramental sign. He loved the Mass, he loved God. May he now enjoy the vision of God forever.