France and the revival of traditional Catholicism

France and the revival of traditional Catholicism

Dr Geoffrey Hull

Dr Geoffrey Hull, who lectures in modern languages at the University of Wollongong, N.S.W., recently returned from six weeks in Europe, during which time he visited several traditionalist centres in France and Italy.

French Catholicism is a paradoxical thing. For centuries France has gloried in the title of "eldest daughter of the Church", yet it was this country that two centuries ago unleashed on Europe a revolution aimed at the destruction not only of the old social and political order, but of Christianity itself. It is a land that has produced in every century an abundant harvest of saints, theologians and missionaries, and yet estimates today place the Sunday Mass attendance figure as low as 11% in a population of some forty million baptised Catholics.

To appreciate French Catholicism one must consider quality rather than quantity, for France is unquestionably the most precocious member of the Latin Church, or, as Hilaire Belloc once put it, the battleground on which the great questions of the Faith and Western civilisation have always been fought out. Some nationalistic French historians would ascribe this precocity and energy to the traditional role of royal France as the protector of the Papacy from the sixth century onwards, when the Roman Emperor, having moved to Constantinople, lost effective control over Western Europe. The heart of Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire was France, not Italy.

Throughout the history of the Western Church developments of the first importance have begun in France and only later reached Rome. One example is the so-called Tridentine (in fact, millenary) Mass, which is substantially the mixed Franco-Roman rite that matured in France and Frankish Germany after the demise of the Gallican liturgy in the ninth century, later spreading to Rome and to the rest of the Roman Patriarchate. Scholasticism was pioneered in the theological schools of the North and University of Paris, and during the Counter Reformation the Jesuits were instrumental in bringing Rome to accept it as the preeminent Catholic theology.

But there is also a negative side to this French contribution to the life of Latin Catholicism. Two destructive movements originating in the francophone countries of Europe were later to affect Rome. The first of these was Jansenism, the Puritan mentality and spirituality which did so much to weaken the vitality of an otherwise orthodox Catholicism in the pre-conciliar era, and hinders the traditional revival today.

The second was Modernism, the liberalism in religion condemned by St Pius X as "the synthesis of all heresies " but tolerated and allowed to poison the work of the Second Vatican Council half a century later.

However if Catholic France produced threats to the Church she also provided the remedies. Against early Jansenism great souls like Saint Vincent de Paul and Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet laboured in defence of orthodoxy.

The strident clash between Rome and Archbishop Lefebvre in the '70s and '80s, and the muted confrontation between Rome and the traditionalist communities of Le Barroux or Wigratzbad in the '90s, is, however, actually symptomatic of a fundamental difference in the understanding and practice of Catholic tradition in the West - two different emphases, one 'Roman' and southern, the other northern and 'Gallic.'

Gallic (as opposed to Gallican) Catholicism, while accepting the doctrine of Papal Infallibility in its fullness, sees the Roman Pontiff as the custodian of a body of ecclesiastical 'traditions' which he cannot alter substantially without compromising the integrity and health of Tradition itself.

It is a position which, in making traditional worship rather than rational catechesis the heart of the faith, approaches that of Eastern Christians, Catholic and dissident alike. By contrast 'Roman' or Ultramontane Catholicism, typical of southern and eastern Europe (as well as Ireland and Australia), stresses unquestioning obedience to the legislative authority of the Popes, who are falsely presumed to be inerrant in their prudential decisions. For these Christians, the liturgy is nothing more than the official cult of the Church, which can be officially changed ad libitum so long as it remains valid and free from doctrinal error.

The traditionalist movement in France is today far more vital than 'mainstream' Catholicism, whether ultramontanist or liberal. Churches and chapels where the 'immemorial' Mass is offered by priests of the late Archbishop Lefebvre's Society of St Pills X or under the 1984 Indult are generally well-attended, whereas the more numerous parish churches and cathedrals given over to the Novus Ordo liturgy of Vatican II are more often than not close to empty, even in former bastions of religious practice like Brittany and Alsace.

Popular phenomenon

Unlike in most other Western countries, French traditionalism is a popular phenomenon founded on families and the younger generation, and its advocacy of the millenary rite of Mass has, amazingly, won active support from the second most lively movement in the contemporary French Church, the charismatics.

Apart from large centres of liturgical life like the Society of St Pius X's church of St-Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris, the Catholic 'Counter Revolution' in France can boast flourishing youth and student organisations (MJCF and Groupe Albert le Grand), social action groups like Action Familiale et Scholaire, two huge annual pilgrimages from Paris to Chartres, catechetical initiatives like Chiré-en-Montreuil, Ictus and the Centre Montauriol, the Association Catholique des Infirmières et Médecins, the publishing companies Difralivre, Editions "Fideliter", Nouvelles Editions Latines and Dominique Martin Morin, learned reviews like Itindraires and Pensée Catholique, didactic popular magazines like Quark and Savoir et Servir, and even a daily, Présent. At Lourdes Mgr. Lefebvre's Society has a priory and runs a hotel for pilgrims.

Every polarised position in Christian tradition contains an implicit temptation. The danger of an exaggerated Ultramontane Catholicism is that attitude of smugness, obscurantism and triumphalism so deplored by the Church's liberal foes, whereas both Eastern and Gallic traditionalism in their extreme form can become so diffident towards the juridical Church as to embrace a schismatical mentality.

Without going into the thorny question of the status of the Society of St Pius X since June 1988, it is clear from the current epidemic of sedevacantism [a belief that the Church has had no 'real' Popes since Pius XII] in France and elsewhere that a good number of Western traditionalists risk going the same way as the Byzantine schismatics of the Middle Ages.

In the light of this it is particularly heartening to see in France the beginnings of a revival which, in the interests of the integrity of the faith, seeks to bridge the widening gulf between 'Roman' and 'Gallic' Catholicism by combining what is most valuable in both. The efforts in this direction of the French Benedictine abbeys of Fontgombault, Le Barroux, Randol and Trior are already well-known. But closely linked with the French Benedictine revival is Opus Sacerdotale, a large association of over five hundred diocesan priests, mostly country curés who in 1963 began to defend Catholic teachings, values and practices already under attack in France. Today the national episcopate still refuses to grant canonical recognition to this priestly confraternity founded by the late Canon Etienne Catta, Dean of the Angers Faculty of Arts. The most obvious reason for its unpopularity with the Liberal Establishment is the fidelity of many Opus members to the traditional Mass.

Dream realised

But what is truly remarkable about these priests is their ability to stand their ground. Typical is the case of Father Pierre Lourdelet, the present Director of the association and author of a successful new catechism. Father Lourdelet is pastor of three parishes near Paris, and has been celebrating the old Mass without let or hindrance since 1960. "How did you get away with it?" I asked him. I simply explained to my Bishop that until the bull Quo Primum was abrogated I had every right to use the Missal it promulgated, a fact he had to concede."

In 1988 an old dream of Canon Catta's was realised when Opus Sacerdotale opened a house of priestly formation at Moissac near Toulouse. Liturgically the seminary was to be exclusively traditional-rite. But when the opposition from the French hierarchy forced professors and students out of the country in 1990, the Benedictines of Fontgombault came to the rescue with the offer of the small monastery of Gricigliano near Florence in Italy. On 1st September the Ecclesia Dei Commission officially approved the venture as an institute of apostolic life under the name of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, and it received strong support from Cardinals Mayer, Palazzini and Stickler. The two superiors, Mgr. Gilles Wach and Fr. Philippe Mora chose as patrons for the twenty-seven mainly French seminarians Sts. Benedict, Thomas Aquinas and Francis de Sales, and declared in their first publicity brochure that "Our House of Formation is intended to prepare future priests in a Roman spirit, priests destined for parish ministries, teaching, spiritual direction and the preaching of retreats, in order to promote all the human and superhuman values of Christian civilisation in an optic of natural harmony between culture and faith.

"For this reason, enjoying the right confirmed by the Holy Father John Paul II in the Motu Proprio of 2nd July 1988, the liturgical books in use in this House are according to the Vatican Edition of 1962."

The seminary offers its students a full program of studies in Latin, Church History, Canon Law, Scripture, Thomist philosophy and theology, modern philosophy, spirituality, liturgy and ecclesiastical chant. Life at Gricigliano is firmly centred on the prayer of the Church, daily sung Mass in the traditional rite being supplemented with the recitation in choir of lauds, sext, vespers and compline. Some of the young priests already ordained are doing parish work in France, some have been employed by the Roman Curia, while others have gone to Africa to labour in the Institute's mission in the diocese of Mouila, Gabon.

The French, then, are in the thick of the Church's epic struggle to regain her identity. It is to be hoped that their attempts to rally the forces of conservation in the Latin Church will lead to a wide revival of Catholic tradition in every continent.

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