Attending mass at Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet Catholic Church in central Paris soon showed me that that I was about to encounter a unique experience. The sign outside the church advised against shorts, miniskirts and bare shoulders, and the smell of wood polish and incense inside signalled that I was about to transported back to another time. The congregation consisted of smartly-dressed young men and women – many of the men wore suits and ties, others were smart casual. Most women were in dresses, and several wore mantillas (both young and old). I was surrounded by people kneeling, praying and holding missals as I took a seat close to the altar. Beautiful artwork adorned the walls, depicting the Stations of the Cross. Crystal chandeliers hung from the high ceiling. The altar and surrounding areas were lit with multiple candles and coupled with large arrangements of white and pink lilies.
The church is run by the Society of St Pius X, a religious movement founded by a French Catholic archbishop in 1970. The Society functions outside the control of the Vatican after opposing the liturgical changes and other widespread reforms introduced by the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XX111 in 1962. For example, one of these reforms was having mass said in the national language of each country instead of the customary Latin. This modernisation was rejected and the clergy continue to celebrate Latin Mass turning their backs to the congregation during the liturgy and Eucharist. My visit coincided with the confirmation season and the presence of the diocese’s bishop, whose name I later discovered was Alfonso de Galarreta. Having been excommunicated by Pope John Paul 11 in 1988 for being a heretic, a term often attributed to all members of the Society, he was certainly no ‘ordinary’ bishop. However, his excommunication and that of other clerics in the Society were lifted by Pope Benedictine in 2009, during negotiations to improve relationships with the Society in the hope of reunification.
The organ signalled the start of mass. The choir and orchestra started the opening hymn as Bishop de Galarreta, dressed in a red chasuble, made his way from the sacristy. He was surrounded by an entourage of four priests, also dressed in red chasubles, six young adult males, dressed in black and white robes, and a further twelve altar boys, dressed in red and white robes. The reverence received by the bishop was instantly noticeable People genuflected as he passed by the aisles on his way towards the altar, making me realise how this degree of homage would once have been the norm in Catholicism for a bishop. Old-fashioned ceremonial continued at various times during the liturgy when the bishop’s mitre was removed and later replaced at other intervals. Every action was executed with a high degree of professionalism which was captivating to watch, as if a stage performance was in full flow.
I could not help but muse that sometimes, even among the deepest of traditionalism, the modern world has a way of creeping in. A woman next to me was following the Order of Service on her mobile phone app, while an old lady in the row ahead of me read from a well-thumbed missal. I found the whole experience uplifting, which may be in part because I was more an observer than a participant, owing to the language barrier. Perhaps this resembled the disconnection my parents and forefathers felt when mass was only said in Latin. Yet this distancing, as I sat during communion and listened to the cello, generated in me a warm sense of being Catholic and pride at being part of its faith.
The Society has rejected new customs and traditions being introduced into the Catholic faith, and their most dramatic stance is their refusal to acknowledge the Pope, whose position they have declared vacant at present. So it was not surprising that there were no pictures of Pope Francis on display in the church. There was no sign of peace offered amongst the congregation. Communion was distributed via the mouth whilst kneeling at the altar rails. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church held entrenched anti-Semitic views, but I have no idea if the society has abandoned or held onto these unacceptable views.
Despite some progress being made between the Society and Vatican, the relationship between both is still sometimes cold and distrusting. The guidelines from Rome regarding a Catholic attending a society mass is that it should be avoided if possible, although it is not a ‘sin’ if anybody attends, provided they are not intentionally separating themselves from communion with the Pope. Some steps towards reunification occurred in 2017, though, which saw the Holy See give canonical recognition to confessions and marriages conducted by society priests.
When the mass ended, and the bishop left the altar, he received a repeat acknowledgement of huge respect from the congregation, who once again genuflected as he passed them. My attention was drawn towards the stained-glass window above the altar depicting Jesus and could not help but wonder what He would have thought of the pomp and grandeur on display, and what he would suggest as means of reconciliation between the Society and Rome.
The Society boldly carries out its activities in 70 countries with less than 700 priests. There are only about seven of its churches in Ireland and over twenty in Britain. It certainly had a following in Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet Church in Paris, where there was hardly an empty seat during the mass. I would like to visit the church again one day to experience its flamboyant feel, which is at odds with the modern world, but yet provides something of an alternative to mainstream Catholicism without losing its core essence.
Article previously published in an Ireland’s Eye Magazine