NOVEMBER 23, 2007 THE CATHOLIC HERALD
The return of the tonsure, wimple and soutane
With the quiet support of Pope Benedict XVI 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 Andréé 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 communautéés traditionnelles en Franceare 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
Clockwise from left: Mass at the Abbey of Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux; the Canonesses of the Mother of God in Gap; the Office at Notre-Dame de Fidéélitéé de Jouques; Cardinal Ratzinger at Wigratzbad
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 wellplaced cardinal in Rome. His name was Joseph Ratzinger. There is no gain without pain and most of these 18 communities have at some 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. Every 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. Another indication of papal approval can be found in this book’s enthusiastic 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. Cardinal 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. 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, 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. 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. 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 can be found negotiating combines around the stony fields of their farm. The 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. The Regular Cannonesses of the Mother of God, meanwhile, maintain a fine balance 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. Their 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 voyezsays 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 communautéés traditionelles en Francemight contain the seeds of a solution that is challenging, attractive and, in its own way, really rather radical.
Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis is a writer and journalist
La Nef, Hors-séérie N° 20, Av: Les communautéés traditionnelles en France is available from www.Amazon.fr
Restoring sight in a land blinded by hate
Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, visits one of the few old British institutions in Jerusalem that is truly respected by Israeli and Palestinian alike
In his role as envoy in the Middle East Tony Blair will hear much criticism of the British Mandate in Palestine. But there is one institution, set up by the British in Jerusalem in 1882, that will always be praised: St John Eye Hospital. As the sole hospital in Palestine devoted to eye disease, St John fulfils a desperate need. Over a million patients have passed through its doors in the past 20 years. It remains the largest individual Christian medical centre in Israel. Anthony Chignell, a retired ophthalmologist from London and former pupil of Downside, who is the current Order Hospitaller, explained that the incidence of blindness in the West Bank and Gaza is 10 times higher than in Britain.
While the St John Ambulance Brigade with 400,000 volunteers has an international public role, the principal charitable foundation of the Venerable Order of St John is its eye hospital. The distinctive white cross set against a black field identifies both. Linking back to its Catholic origin in the 11th century, the order retains its Christian ethos but is now non-denominational. Today it has eight constituent priories in England, Wales, Scotland, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Discussing the challenges faced by the hospital Mr Chignell said: “Access to Jerusalem has been rendered so difficult, time-consuming and expensive, we have set up clinics in Anabta, Hebron and Gaza in addition to our
mobile outreach clinics in specially equipped vans. We are doing our best to reach those who cannot get to us.” Asked what the main cause of local eye diseases was, he did not hesitate in his answer: “Consanguineous marriages.” Thankfully, the rate of first-cousin marriages is now down to 27.4 per cent –lower than that in Saudi Arabia and Sudan. The three-acre hospital complex, with its airy stone buildings near the British Consulate in the Sheikh Jarrah district of East Jerusalem, has a 49-bed facility but most of its clients are day patients. Last year 70,000 outpatients were treated, while over 3,000 major operations were performed in the hospital’s two sophisticated operating theatres and at its centres in Hebron and Gaza. This year
the numbers will be higher. In addition to the operating theatres the hospital has a renowned nursing school and runs various special clinics, including ones for retinal and cataract surgery, and those for dealing with paediatric and diabetic disease. The hospital’s story began over 900 years ago during the Crusades when Benedictine monks near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre set up a small hospital. Their priestly infirmary was so applauded that the pope gave monks working there special recognition. In 1113 he confirmed their title: the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. Like many other Catholic institutions after the Reformation the order disappeared in Britain. However, during the Industrial Revolution it was reconstituted in England
in a non-Catholic guise to care for workplace injuries. The ambulance service was established in the 1870s. Next, as a result of two royal visits to the Holy City, came the eye hospital. Queen Victoria had sent her eldest son and heir, the future Edward VII, to the Holy Land in 1862. This historic trip was retraced 20 years later, in 1882, when the Prince of Wales sent his two eldest sons for “40 days and 40 nights”. That same year, the Prince of Wales, already committed to the cause of St John, enquired what the British could do for the Holy City. On learning that there was an urgent need for an eye hospital, the Prince became the force behind the order setting one up opposite the Old City walls. Today, the Mount Zion Hotel occupies the original hospital, which
moved after the War of Independence in 1948. The present hospital was opened in 1960. Despite the medievalsounding titles and the outward appearance of the hospital still being Britishrun, the hospital is supported by a worldwide organisation. About 25 volunteer doctors who come from everywhere from Australia to America and in Europe from Sweden to Scotland visit the hospital annually. Their roles combine performing operations with the training of local Palestinian doctors. Money, too, comes from across the globe. Earlier this week, while on a visit to Jerusalem, Tony Blair unveiled plans to spur Palestinian employment. He could well add to jobs by helping to expand the St John mobile eye clinics in the West Bank.
An examination at the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem