A new, distinctly conservative generation of French priests is reviving Catholic life in France
It is the end of mass at Saint-Sulpice, the fine 15th-century church in Nogent-le-Roi, an old market town 40 miles west of Paris. A few dozen parishioners are chatting outside in the timid January sun. It is the month of the grim French tradition of les voeux du nouvel an when every person of authority, from the president of the Republic to the mayor of the tiniest village, subjects as many people as his status can command to a sort of Queen’s speech.
Don René-François Charbonnel, this parish’s amiable curate, “built like a wardrobe”, as they say in France, strides over from the Saint Mother Theresa Hall where he has been waiting rather too long to deliver his New Year’s message and vaults his karate black-belt 14 stone up on top of a high wall where he stands, black cassock billowing, like the figure in an etching of a medieval saint.
He berates his parishioners for lingering in the churchyard to faire salon (the gatherings of 18th-century Parisian ladies that began the French intellectual tradition). “There’s not even anything to drink here,” he reasons; and the faithful, happily corrected, amble over to the hall.
The French Catholic Church is facing a crisis that threatens its very existence. The number of Catholic priests in France shrank to just over 11,000 in 2017, roughly half the number 20 years ago. With the average age of a French priest now 75, there will be only about a third of that number left in 2030.
But while the church is caught in a vicious circle of falling church attendance and falling numbers of men entering the priesthood, the Community of St Martin has created a virtuous one; with keen, young, usually joyful and often brilliant priests bringing vitality to old parishes, higher church attendance and more vocations. This year it will ordain 12 men into the priesthood. Next year, it will be 27. As well as France, the Community has priests in Italy, Germany and Cuba, and visits have been exchanged between the head of the Saint Martin’s Community and the Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth with a view to sending priests to England.
In the hundreds of towns and villages where the 122 priests of the Community of St Martin now tend to the faithful, they are bringing back a Church that is recognisably the one France knew for centuries.
There is the cassock. “In my generation, a lot of young people dressed in a way that identified them . . . as rockers, as punks, or whatever. Wearing the cassock’s a bit like that,” says Don René-François.
They love Gregorian Chant (all in Latin) and the “beautiful sobriety” (Don René-François again) of plainsong. The Community of St Martin is the new repository of this extraordinary musical tradition; it has published The Gregorian Hours, a 6,388-page collection of these chants that date back to the first centuries of Christianity. At their new seminary all the masses are sung in Gregorian.
Much of this is very monastic. The priests even salute each other the way monks do, touching heads on one side then the other in the manner of playful goats. At Nogent-le-Roi, there are Don Guillaume (41), Don Antoine (33) and Don François-Xavier (30) as well as the curate Don René-François (53). They live together as brothers, sharing meals and singing psalms in the large presbytery next to the church from where they deploy over a large territory, celebrating mass in 18 churches in all.
Communal living is good for priestly morale, an antidote to the loneliness and isolation suffered by so many priests through the ages. It may even serve as a limit to the wayward morality that has done so much damage to the church in France, as in the rest of the world.
The Community of Saint Martin was founded in 1976, in the middle of and partly as a reaction to a period of unprecedented upheaval. The Second Vatican Council had ushered in a host of reforms: vernacular language in place of Latin, celebrating the Mass facing the congregation, simplification of clerical regalia. In France, those reforms were applied with revolutionary zeal. Critics complained that the word God was sometimes shunned for fear of alienating part of the congregation.
“We French,” says Don René-François, “perhaps have a weakness for over-theorising, over-intellectualising.” The “Don” title the priests use instead of “Father” is a tribute to the Community’s Italian origins. France was such stony ground that the Community’s founder, the late Jean-François Guérin, started on the other side of the Alps, where the Bishop of Genoa put a seminary at his disposition.
Guérin wanted to embrace the whole magisterium of the Catholic Church: its authority, but also the mystery and the glory of its ancient rites, liturgy and music. But instead of rejecting the reforms promulgated by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, as the traditionalist schismatics of Monseigneur Lefebvre had done, Guérin opted for obedience and, therefore, orthodoxy. He accepted the new interpretation of doctrine and liturgy of the Church of Rome, arguing that it was not the Council’s reforms that were in error, but the extreme way they were applied in France. This is much more than a nuance: the St Martin’s Community is traditionelle, it is not traditionaliste.
Guérin knew this new equilibrium was possible. He’d seen it—above all heard it—at the monastery at Solesmes, where scholarly monks, working on manuscripts from all over Europe, have succeeded in restoring and safeguarding ancient Gregorian chant but also celebrate the (post-Vatican II) mass. He appreciated that the Second Vatican Council, though a product of the swinging Sixties, allowed for much more safeguarding and perpetuating of the old forms of Roman Catholic worship than its detractors appreciated.
In 1983, the Community was granted its first French parish; in 1993, it moved its seminary to the country of its founder; in 2014 it opened what is now the biggest seminary in France at Evron Abbey, in northwestern France, close to Solesmes. In an atmosphere of amiable discipline that you might expect to find in a military academy, 120 young men take seven-year courses in philosophy, theology, Greek, Latin and Hebrew, as well as learning the humility and sociability required of communal life. It is a lively, holy place. And there can be few more beautiful things, in the seeming twilight of European civilisation, than those 120 young voices singing the liturgy of the hours, the notes rising and turning in the air like smoke from an incense-burner.