With the quiet support of the Pope, France is seeing an explosion of traditional religious communities, says Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis
We are often told that the Church has to modernise, because the young, especially, can no longer relate to its teachings. It is sometimes even suggested that we should be grateful for a decline in vocations to priesthood: could this not be a sign from the Holy Spirit that the age of the laity is finally dawning? This eagerness to make a virtue out of a necessity finds its most radical conclusion in a booklet entitled Church and Ministry published in the Netherlands by a group of Dominican academics. One of them, Fr André Lascaris, recently explained his thesis in the Tablet. Numbers of vocations to the priesthood in Holland are plummeting, and according to Fr Lascaris there is “no hope of a remedy for this situation”. Apart from his own remedy, of course. His proposal is clear and simple: “In the absence of ordained priests, lay persons should be allowed to celebrate the Eucharist.” He adds: “Whether they be men or women, homo or heterosexual, married or unmarried, is irrelevant.” The beauty of all this, according to Fr Lascaris, is that it is “based on the statements of the Second Vatican Council, and on publications of professional theologians and pastoral experts”. Did the Second Vatican Council really say that? Are we really supposed to believe that the Holy Spirit deliberately manufactured a crisis in vocations, just to make way for the establishment of a new age of laity?Of course, we laity have an essential role in the Church’s evangelisation. We have the awesome responsibility of carrying the message of Jesus Christ to our contemporaries who are searching. If falling vocations force us to acknowledge this, and to act on it, then the Holy Spirit will indeed have brought much fruit from any current crisis.But perhaps Fr Lascaris’s Brave New Church of feminists concelebrating Mass in rainbow-coloured jilabas is not the only remedy to declining numbers of priests. A beautifully illustrated new book on the religious life in France suggests that there might be another solution. Reading the two books side by side you might be forgiven for assuming that the authors belong to two completely different religions.If the photographs in Les communautés traditionnelles en France are anything to go by, then just across the Channel there lies a whole rich seam of Catholic religious life that is young, vibrant and growing. In addition to youthfulness and success, there are two other common features that unite the communities featured in this book. One is that they all have the extraordinary form of the Roman liturgy – the “traditional” rites liberated by Pope Benedict XVI’s recent Motu Proprio – as the heart and foundation of their spirituality. The other is that many of them long enjoyed the steadfast, if unofficial support, of a certain well-placed cardinal in Rome. His name was Joseph Ratzinger.
There is no gain without pain and most of these 18 communities have at someEvery pope has to be father to the whole Church. But looking through this book it does appear that the current incumbent of the See of Peter has a particular affection for his children of the traditionalist movement. On one page there is Cardinal Ratzinger swathed in full Tridentine pontificals, processing into a traditionalist seminary in Bavaria; on another he poses with tonsured monks in their cloister in Provence; elsewhere, we find him presiding at a conference promoting the traditional liturgy at the Benedictine Abbey of Fontgombault.
stage suffered from misunderstanding and prejudice. Before the Motu Proprio
there was often intense pressure from unsympathetic ecclesiastical authorities
to abandon all adherence to the “old rite”. But when the going was particularly
rough, the abbots, prioresses and rectors of these institutes were sustained by
the knowledge that they had an influential friend in Rome – a friend who is now
reigning as Pope Benedict XVI.
Another indication of papal approval can be found in this book’s enthusiasticCardinal Castrillon makes no excuse for this book’s coffee-table format. “Go and teach all people,” Jesus said to his disciples; in order to do this effectively in the modern world, says the cardinal, we need to make good use of images. Looking at these particular images it is not difficult to understand just why the Pope and his right-hand cardinal have invested so much hope in these communities. Whether it is Solemn Vespers in a great baroque abbey, or low Mass celebrated on a rock in a clearing for scouts, the liturgical celebrations depicted in this book are all beautiful and dignified. The average age of the monks, nuns, friars and priests and seminarians is also remarkably young. According to Cardinal Castrillon, this should not surprise us. The message that these communities pursue is the message of Jesus Christ. This message is eternal, and therefore forever young.These intriguing photographs invite us to enter into another world. Despite the obvious challenges implicit in a daily life circumscribed by rules and traditions, the subjects of these communities look remarkably happy. The text often talks of sacrifice and self-surrender, but the pictures show young faces that are smiling and laughing.
preface by Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, one of the Pope’s most loyal
collaborators and head of the Vatican’s Ecclesia Dei commission, which is
charged with looking after traditionalist communities in communion with Rome.
It would be foolish to allow glossy photographs to carry us into the realm of romanticism. No doubt the world, the flesh and the devil pose as many challenges to the religious life as they ever did. But there are no signs in this book of any of those particularly modern crises that seem to have dogged Catholic religious life in recent decades. There is certainly no hint of any crisis of clerical identity. These young clerics do not rely on jeans or Che Guevara T-shirts to make them feel connected to the youth; rather, it is the authenticity of their life that seems to make that connection.
We see seminarians effortlessly skiing through the alps in long black soutanes,Carrying crosses and banners, they all look very glad, and proud, to be Catholic. Neither is there any evidence of a decline in vocations. The story of the Benedictine convent of Jouques is typical. Since its foundation near Aix en Provence in 1967 this community has attracted so many vocations to its novitiate that it has been necessary to open daughter houses elsewhere in France and in Africa to house the overspill. Two of the Jouques nuns have also been commandeered to live in a convent in the grounds of the Vatican, as a result of a request made by Cardinal Ratzinger before his election to the papacy.
while nuns in crisply starched wimples gather hay in the fields outside
Marseilles. At the high point of the traditionalist calendar – the annual
Pentecost pilgrimage to Chartres – thousands of young pilgrims walk behind
priests, monks and friars on the three-day march from Paris.
The 55 young nuns who remain in the mother house in Provence have become famous for their angelic singing of the daily office in Latin. At harvest time they canThe monks of Le Barroux, north of Avignon, still wear the corona – the full monastic tonsure depicted in medieval woodcuts and books of hours. After humble beginnings in a caravan in 1970 this community now worships in a mighty abbey church which the monks built themselves in the form of a Romanesque basilica. In the early hours of the morning, this building hums like a holy beehive as the many priest-monks celebrate their private Mass at side altars, served by novices and lay brothers. The extensive choirstalls here are now so full that this monastery has been able to spare a detachment of young monks to found a daughter house not far from Toulouse.All of the institutes featured in the book are run on strictly traditional principles. But this does not make them old-fashioned. Rather, it gives them a timelessness that many young people are finding increasingly attractive. Some of the communities are contemplative, but many are active. A good example is the Institute of Christ the King. From its picturesque Renaissance villa outside Florence “The Institute” has gradually grown into a global conglomerate. In addition to serving parishes in France and America, it also runs several missionary stations in Africa.
be found negotiating combines around the stony fields of their farm.
The Regular Cannonesses of the Mother of God, meanwhile, maintain a fine balanceTheir convent at Gap has grown rapidly in numbers in the last couple of years, attracting young girls from all over France. The recent Motu Proprio confirms what these communities have known all along: that the traditional Mass never was, and never really could be, abrogated. In his explanatory letter accompanying this decree the Holy Father stated that the extraordinary form of the liturgy is not just for an older generation that found innovation difficult to cope with. He wrote: “It has been clearly demonstrated that young persons, too, have discovered this liturgical form, felt its attraction and found in it a form of encounter with the Mysteries of the Most Holy Eucharist particularly suited to them.” Perhaps Pope Benedict had a copy of this book open on his desk while he composed this letter. A huge percentage of those in these pictures look as if they would be far too young to remember anything of the liturgical upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Most of them look as if they were born after the introduction of the Missal of Pope Paul VI in 1970.Venez et voyez says the cover of this fascinating book, quoting the words of Our Lord: “Come and see.” It is an invitation not to be declined. If there is really a crisis in vocations, Les communautés traditionelles en France might contain the seeds of a solution that is challenging, attractive and, in its own way, really rather radical.
between the vocations of Mary and Martha. It is through contemplative adoration
of the Blessed Sacrament that they gain the spiritual energy required in their
work of educating young girls and tending the old and the sick.
Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis is a writer and journalist
La Nef, Hors
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