I regard myself as fortunate in that, when I am in France on a Sunday, I can walk to Mass in the next village: every Sunday at 11 am. I am told that in one parish in this Diocese the Parish Priest is responsible for around fifty villages and hamlets. Last Sunday I walked through the snow only to find that the priest, who has to drive some distance, had been unable to get through: Mass cancelled. I hurried home to join my elderly neighbours who have a wide-screen television for the broadcast Mass.
It was not a Mass, but rather a Liturgy of the Word for Unity Sunday, from the Archdiocese of Marseille. Full church, magnificent 13th century building, gentle Taizé style music from guitar and flute and twenty singers all under thirty years of age. There was a remarkable gathering of clergy: the Archbishop of course, with several priests all gliding around in very full albs and green stoles (the English clergy never look as stylish in this gear) – the Archbishop only distinguished by his purple zuchetto. Then two traditional French Protestant Ministers, in black gowns and pleated jabots derived from the dress of French lawyers, a woman minister in alb and green stole (who I assumed to be the Anglican Chaplain but turned out to be from the Protestant Diaconal Church if I caught the subtitle correctly – are they liberal Protestants, perhaps?) and the pastor from Marseille’s Baptist Church in suit and open-necked shirt. And then there were the Armenians! Their Archbishop was resplendent in vestments and the distinctive black ‘hood’ and the priests in copes directly over their cassocks. Scripture readings were interspersed with homilies from the various clergy, and the Gospel was the sheep and the goats from Mattew 25.
It is probably twenty five years since I have missed a Sunday Mass, the last time through illness. I missed it very much. Our Sunday Eucharist is very typically French with music which seemed so new and fresh 40 years ago but perhaps now needs some re-thinking. I wish I could persuade them to sing de Angelis again. It is printed in the books, with the music, and I still remember it being sung at Notre Dame in Paris, antiphonally between congregation and choir accompanied on the stunning Cavaillé-Coll organ. (Propers sung in Latin, rest of the Mass in French worked very well) There’s a core of people there every Sunday, but others who only come once in a while. Then there are the families who come for an anniversary or a baptism. In the course of the year half the town probably come, and I guess the assumption is that the church will be there for them until it closes because of the dire shortage of priests. Certainly there are growth points in the French Church, though it is not easy to categorize them. Some traditional style monasteries and parishes are reporting renewal and growth, and equally the Charismatic movement among Catholics is aiding the recovery of faith. This suggests that, as in England, it is faithfulness to scripture and teaching, a deep love of God, powerful worship in the Eucharist, constant prayer and loving service of the world around us – which will engage and hold the people who come searching for something more than the dreary, flashy consumerism which seeks to divert them from the Source of Life.
I walked home through the snow, so grateful to my neighbours with whom I had shared the televised service. Catholic Christians together we had made the best of Sunday. And I had shared and reflected on the experience of many Christians who are deprived of the Eucharist through the changing circumstances of the age we live in.