Chartres and the Mass: the Heart of Christendom

In mundo erat, et mundus per ipsum factus est, et mundus eum non cognovit. (St. John, I, 10)

"Sero te amavi, pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova, sero te amavi!" (Late have I loved thee, o beauty ever ancient and yet so new, late have I loved thee!) St. Augustine, Confessiones

"Something quite remote from anything the builders intended, has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame - a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones." Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

Arriving in Paris on May 5 was no different from any other year, in spite of the tremendous advantage of attending Mass in the old rite in St. Patrick's Chapel at the Irish College in Paris. From here in the 17th and 18th centuries, from this oasis of peace in the centre of Paris, scholarly young men returned to Ireland and the prospect of martyrdom. I was indifferent to this, as I was indifferent to the age-old cry of Irish Catholicism, mute only in the last 30 years, it is the Mass that matters. Yet the next morning, I was to put this slogan into dramatic effect.

Crowds of French youths were already gathering outside the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris before 5am. The logistical operation was in full swing. We would not have gained admittance to the Cathedral but for the fact we accompanied Father Michael Cahill, who was to say his private Mass before the 18th traditional Paris-Chartres pilgrimage began with Mass on the High Altar of Notre-Dame. I found myself among the Ukrainian Chapter, identifying themselves by crossing themselves from the right shoulder to the left in the Greek manner, rather than from left to right. Aside from this, there was no mistaking the fact we were in a distinctly western environment. Again Latin chant arose around the Gothic stones.

The Mass of Tradition had returned to the Cathedral. Robespierre failed to abolish it. Napoleon, who crowned himself here in front of Pius VII, did not even try. The periti who hijacked the Second Vatican Council failed in their turn. Irishmen came to this cathedral to pray. Some returned to minister in Ireland where the Mass was abolished by the futile act of a tyrannical usurper, while others would distinguish themselves at Fontenoy and Cremona fighting in the Irish Brigades, in the hope they would return to restore the king.

Idealism is not a feature of the present-day Irish of the Celtic Tiger. Those ideals that are evident do not generally have much to do with faith or fatherland. Now a different group of Irish gathered to celebrate something which was at once ancient and new, the venerable Mass for which our ancestors suffered so willingly over the centuries.

We left Notre-Dame and walked out of Paris, past the Pantheon and the Luxembourg Gardens. All Paris looked on at this curious assembly of nearly 15,000 French and foreigners beneath a plethora of religious banners. The crowd sang Marian hymns, rosaries and other hymns. Without flags or chant, the crowd would have looked like any other group planning to spend Saturday in the warm weather. At length we stopped, for water and apples, and I acquainted myself with the two Danish representatives on the pilgrimage: a father and daughter from one of Europe's most secular and least Catholic countries. I also spoke to Michael Davies and others. We moved on and were soon walking through Verrieres, where we were accustomed to have Mass on Saturday. Verrieres was a green cathedral, until it was re-ordered by the devastating storms that swept France last Christmas. A pity, but Cardinal Lustiger was generous enough to allow us to use Notre-Dame Cathedral instead.

The heat kept up, and the lunch-break was short. Those who followed were sparse. In the afternoon, a short shower of rain was quite welcome, though it left us with damp clothes. The heat returned. We drifted campward in the evening. I spoke to stragglers from the English chapter, while French boyscouts ran races up the final climb to the camp at Choisel. In camp, I set up my sleeping bag in the tent shared by the Poles, Ukrainians and Irishmen. I took my ration of soup in the company of an enchanting English lady, as seated on my tattered mac. I met the Dutch veterans of the Tochar Padraig, and the American-born Bavarian, Roland Weishaupt. The number of foreigners had halved, and the German chapter had shrunk from 200 to 40. The Germans also left their national flag at home, as Monday was VE Day, and they reckoned it was not an appropriate time to carry a German flag through France. Many comment on the right-wing views of the pilgrims; few note how studious the German group is in avoiding any political controversy. Then it was time for bed.

We woke the following morning and availed of our rations in time for Mass, offered by the Lithuanian Bishop of Siauliai, Eugenijus Bartulis. Mgr. Bartulis actually took part in the walk and was most complimentary to a journalist from Le Figaro. We were off immediately afterwards. I spoke to the Canadian Father Paul MacDonald and subsequently Father Timothy Svea of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. Between rosaries, it was a day of talking to Americans, such as old comrades Erica and Andrew Vranitsky and others. An Australian lady, Phillipa Clark and her French fiance, drifted into the chapter. I also had a long discussion with Tony Fraser from Inverness in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, editor of A Propos. Kind words were exchanged with Fathers Franz Prosinger and Franz Brannau of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. Eventually, we hobbled into camp. I felt the ill-effects of dehydration, but could later see Mgr. Chucrallah Harb, Bishop Emeritus of Juniyah in Lebanon, consecrate the entire pilgrimage to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. He was assisted by Mgr. Maixant Coly, Bishop of Ziguinchor in Senegal. When the ceremony was over, I went to bed. Spiritus quidem promptus est, caro vero infirma (St. Mark, XIV, 38).

The next morning we arose and made the last march, quicker yet shorter, with the Cornish Cross of St. Piran flying over us. The Chapter of the Knights of Malta, all four of them, sang litanies and rosaries in Latin. I was with a succession of people - Max Elvins, an Englishman living in Lausanne, a German and American student of the Institute of Christ the King - and others. We broke for lunch, then went on and, at the eleventh hour, availed of confession, courtesy of Father Prosinger - just before meeting Father John Emerson.

When we came to the Cathedral, we entered and waited - bathed in the light pouring through the blue stained glass. While we waited, we sang Marian hymns. The banners processed, then the clerics and finally the bishops, led by Abbot Waldemar of St. John, in the white soutane and biretta of the Canons Regular of the Mother of God. The celebrant of this Pontifical High Mass was Mgr. Juan Rodolfo Laise of San Luis in Argentina. For a while, it seemed as if the Revolution had never happened. The Mass absorbed everything and time itself stood still. The chanting of Chez Nous, Soyez Reine brought this wonderful event to a climactic close. The Ukrainians proclaimed the truth of the Paschal Season to each other in their ancient Slavonic: Christo Voskris! Mweesto Voskris! The essential truth of the faith echoing through this mediaeval cathedral as before: Christ is risen! He is truly risen!

We left, bade farewell to many, with our growing concerns to wash, eat and rest. The next morning we returned to a quiter Cathedral for Mass in the crypt. There were tourists instead of pilgrims, and the pilgrims themselves had become tourists - I enjoyed brunch in the open air with Brian and Maria Elena McCall with their children in the sunshine. But I returned to bid farewell to Notre-Dame de Chartres.

Druids worshipped here once, then Franks built a church. The Frankish church decayed and the cathedral was built and became a great shrine to Our Lady. The revolutionaries tried to eradicate Catholicism here, but did not succeed. Napoleon famously remarked that Chartres was no place for an atheist. Indeed it is not. Today the Latin chants of the thousands of pilgrims assert the creed of resurrection at the Mass that refuses to die.

Peadar Laighleis