THE HIGH ALTAR IN THE CHURCH OF ST PETER, PONT REMY
I think it was Mother Theresa SSM, when she was at Haggerston Priory, who wrote that it was difficult to find time both to do the work and to find time to write about it. However, I have been persuaded by David Murphy that I should try to write a few lines about the celebrations of Holy Week in the parish. David was very generous with his time, coming over from Germany to stay the week. It was made particularly difficult for him as he fell and broke his arm just weeks before coming. His son Alexander stepped into the breech and did all the driving, and I am enormously grateful to him as well.
Holy Week began with the celebration of Palm Sunday – ‘Rameaux’ in French. Here was my first surprise. I arrived at the village of Long for the Saturday evening Mass to find that the congregation, normally 15- 20 had more than tripled. We were in the main church again! There is no tradition of ‘palm crosses’ and the people had come with huge amounts of box hedge which after Mass they distributed to friends and family. The Sunday morning Mass at Pont Remy saw substantial growth too, and the children of the Catechism had made long red streamers to wave in the Procession: some reticence about going outside, so we started at the main door.
The week before at Pont Remy the men had moved the Lady Altar which was hidden behind the pulpit to a more prominent site in the south aisle and on Monday we began to prepare it as the place of repose for Maundy Thursday night. Monday evening Mass was at Francières, Tuesday at the Cathedral for the Chrism Mass, and Wednesday evening at Cocquerel.
Maundy Thursday evening we kept at Pont Remy, and I was privileged and moved to wash the feet of six parishioners; and also to concelebrate the Mass with Fr Jean-Francois Lefebvre, a religious who was visiting his mother in hospital. At the end of Mass we took the Blessed Sacrament to the beautifully decorated place of repose, and kept watch for an hour.
On Good Friday morning David led Stations of the Cross at Long with a congregation of 30 (the people there were buzzing about the numbers). I think
it is worth saying that during the previous two weeks members of the congregation had delivered to every house in the parish (nine villages and a couple of hamlets) the ‘Journal’. We had produced a photocopied sheet for Christmas, but the team had developed the idea and the Easter Journal was in full colour and four pages.
THE CENTRAL ALTAR AT LONG
Good Friday is a working day in France and so the Liturgy was in the evening at Pont Remy. Many of you will be familiar with its stark simplicity: the stripped church, the red vestments, long silences, the tramp of feet as the cross is brought to the altar and the people come to venerate, holy communion but no Eucharist …
The Vigil on Holy Saturday night has been traditionally celebrated at Long. It is quite a setting for it. The church was totally rebuilt in the 19th century when Long was one of the wealthiest communes in France, based in the sale of peat cut from enormous reserves in the Somme valley. A full team of servers were gathered in the sacristy; we had discovered two fine Paschal candlesticks, and cleaned and renovated them for Long and Pont Remy; the gold vestments were a present from my 59 Club friend Fr Dennis McSwiney, priest of Northampton diocese who died last year. Seventy people gathered on the steps high above the valley, as the fire was blessed and the candle carried into church. I managed to sing (with quite a few mistakes, I think) the Exsultet in French, and the chorale led the psalms of the Vigil and the Mass. We had brought the font back into use, and water was blessed for the Baptism which was to take place on Easter Day. By the time we had finished the Liturgy the heavens had opened, the rain poured down, but the enthusiasm of the people was undampened. ‘Une belle messe’ was said again and again as we greeted each other at the door.
And I heard the same for the Mass of Easter Day at Pont Remy. Lots of people, the chorale singing with care and enthusiasm, white and gold flowers, the refurbished shrine of Notre Dame des Etangs, renewal of baptism promises, sprinkling … then back to Long for the baptism.
Even so, Easter was not over. Traditionally, Mass is celebrated on Easter Monday in the tiny chapel at Longuet, in honour of St Julien the Hospitaller. Seventy people squeezed in on the ancient benches, a fascinating mix of music with one of the youngsters on a keyboard for the hymns – and Missa de Angelis for the Mass!
Quite a week – Holy Week & Easter in English is quite a lot to do; for me doing it for the first time in French was pretty tiring. But wonderful! And the people responded magnificently. It should not surprise me – but often does – that the celebration of Easter should be so significant for renewal. Perhaps when we’ve calmed down I’ll try to think a bit more about that – and to do a post before another six months is up.
THE CHRISTMAS CRIB AT PONT REMY