How Catholic France can recapture its brilliance

One of the luxuries of my holiday in Normandy was fresh bread for breakfast. There is a simple joy in making the journey to the quiet village early in the morning for bread, still warm, from the spotless bakery on the village square. Opposite stands the church, and on a third side the arcades of a medieval market hall. The church is a neo-classical building dating from the early 19th century dedicated to a local saint, the beautifully named St Opportune, a medieval abbess who educated the poor. Unusually for rural France, the church is open, and even more unusually the Blessed Sacrament is reserved on the high altar, the Real Presence indicated by a real sanctuary lamp.

The interior decor is shabby and neglected: the blue walls are pockmarked where the plaster is crumbling; the paintwork is flaky and many years old. Nevertheless, there is evidence of a living devotion on the part of the parishioners beyond the hopeful sign that the church is open. The touchingly devotional statues and the altar all have fresh flowers in front of them. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the original tabernacle in the simple but dignified high altar, with a beautiful crucifix above and winged seraphs on either side and six silver candlesticks. The church has escaped the attentions of the liturgical ‘‘experts’’ and retains a beautiful carved pulpit and wrought-iron altar rails.

But a rather sad notice at the entrance announces that there will be no Sunday Mass here this week. Mass will be celebrated at another of the parish “cluster’’ of 13 churches in a village some seven miles away.

A stroll round the churchyard reveals that at least until the 1970s there was a resident parish priest of St Opportune – in fact, two long-serving curés in succession ministered for the first 75 years of the last century, long enough to see children born, baptised, married and bringing their own children for sacraments; long enough to minister through two world wars and enormous social changes; long enough, one might think, to hope that the flame they tended would burn strongly enough not to be snuffed out, least of all by the fresh air which was supposed to blow in when Second Vatican Council opened the windows of the church to a renewed, mutually beneficial engagement with the world.

I am sad to say that half a day in rural France – eldest daughter of the Church – reveals all too painfully that the Church in Europe is dying. Talk of a great renewal in the wake of the Council now belongs with eulogies for the emperor’s new clothes. Secularism may be in part to blame, but it was abetted by many who ignored or traduced the Council documents in favour of their own version of reform.

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