How Catholic France can recapture its brilliance
One of the luxuries of my holiday in Normandy was fresh bread for breakfast. There is a simple joy in making the journey to the quiet village early in the morning for bread, still warm, from the spotless bakery on the village square. Opposite stands the church, and on a third side the arcades of a medieval market hall. The church is a neo-classical building dating from the early 19th century dedicated to a local saint, the beautifully named St Opportune, a medieval abbess who educated the poor. Unusually for rural France, the church is open, and even more unusually the Blessed Sacrament is reserved on the high altar, the Real Presence indicated by a real sanctuary lamp.
The interior decor is shabby and neglected: the blue walls are pockmarked where the plaster is crumbling; the paintwork is flaky and many years old. Nevertheless, there is evidence of a living devotion on the part of the parishioners beyond the hopeful sign that the church is open. The touchingly devotional statues and the altar all have fresh flowers in front of them. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the original tabernacle in the simple but dignified high altar, with a beautiful crucifix above and winged seraphs on either side and six silver candlesticks. The church has escaped the attentions of the liturgical ‘‘experts’’ and retains a beautiful carved pulpit and wrought-iron altar rails.
But a rather sad notice at the entrance announces that there will be no Sunday Mass here this week. Mass will be celebrated at another of the parish “cluster’’ of 13 churches in a village some seven miles away.
A stroll round the churchyard reveals that at least until the 1970s there was a resident parish priest of St Opportune – in fact, two long-serving curés in succession ministered for the first 75 years of the last century, long enough to see children born, baptised, married and bringing their own children for sacraments; long enough to minister through two world wars and enormous social changes; long enough, one might think, to hope that the flame they tended would burn strongly enough not to be snuffed out, least of all by the fresh air which was supposed to blow in when Second Vatican Council opened the windows of the church to a renewed, mutually beneficial engagement with the world.
I am sad to say that half a day in rural France – eldest daughter of the Church – reveals all too painfully that the Church in Europe is dying. Talk of a great renewal in the wake of the Council now belongs with eulogies for the emperor’s new clothes. Secularism may be in part to blame, but it was abetted by many who ignored or traduced the Council documents in favour of their own version of reform.
Perhaps if St Opportune had retained her resident priest she would have suffered the same kind of iconoclasm as churches nearby. Shabby and down at heel the church may be, but it is instantly recognisable as a place of Catholic devotion connected organically to a sacred past. A visit to the magnificent basilica of Notre-Dame in Alençon, where St Thérèse was baptised, shows the brave new world of the liturgical reformers. The fine high altar and beautiful Lady altar both look like furniture left behind when someone has moved house. They have been rendered irrelevant, since an area in the apse behind the high altar is now sufficient to seat the congregation.
There I finally discovered the Blessed Sacrament. The wall of the apse has been denuded of any crucifix, statue, image or colour, except two pieces of crossed metal which could pass for some kind of tool or fixing in the wall. What looks like a large bar stool is presumably the new altar. A wooden box is set into the wall to one side. The light shining next to it proclaims it to be a tabernacle; without that one might think it to be a cupboard for the fuses. It is impossible not to see cause and effect here.
My prayer is that the martyrdom of Fr Jacques Hamel, in just such a town in Normandy, might provide the impetus for the Church and people of France to reclaim some former glory. By glory, I do not mean some secure triumphalism; I mean rather, the silent, quotidian glory of thousands of village churches where the bread that came down from heaven will again be broken in sacrifice and worshipped with devotion, just as opportune and characteristic of rural life as the bread which, however delicious, does not lead to eternal life.
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