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The Jungle

La Messe du Mercredi

On the Traditional Latin Mass in Paris.


La tradition, c’est la jeunesse de Dieu. “Tradition is the youth of God.” These are the words of Dom Gérard Calvet, founder of the Benedictine Abbey of Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux in the South of France. One can interpret Dom Gérard’s words not simply as a statement about the being of God but also as a sociological observation. In France and elsewhere in the secular West, the minority of young Catholics who practice their faith are often particularly visible among the ranks of traditionalists who seek to preserve the form of the Mass and the other sacraments as they were celebrated before the Second Vatican Council. For younger generations, an attachment to older expressions of the Christian faith is not a form of nostalgia reflecting a desire to recreate a world they never knew. On the contrary, this attachment shows a desire and a need for stable reference points that help young people to live as Christians in the twenty-first century and to transmit their faith to future generations. In one of the great paradoxes of our time, what is often called “the old Mass” is particularly popular among young Catholics.

One of the places where I have experienced this reality firsthand is the Church of Saint François-Xavier, located in a relatively quiet Parisian neighborhood nestled between the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides. Saint François-Xavier can be considered a “normal” parish, one where most Masses are celebrated according to post–Vatican II rites. Nevertheless, for many years the parish was also home to the “Messe du Mercredi,” a Mass in the old rite celebrated on Wednesday evenings from September to June by priests of the Fraternity of Saint Peter, a traditionalist group in communion with Rome. Begun in 1989 in a smaller chapel nearby, the Messe du Mercredi moved to Saint François-Xavier in 2009 in part to accommodate the ever-growing crowd who regularly attended the Mass. The Messe du Mercredi was distinctive insofar as it was intended specifically for young adults, particularly university students and young professionals. In recent years, the Messe du Mercredi attracted as many as two hundred young Catholics each week, with long lines for confession, a volunteer chorale singing Gregorian chant and polyphony, and a large group of altar servers. At the Messe du Mercredi, the experience of worship flowed naturally into fellowship as many lingered after Mass for drinks or a meal at a nearby brasserie. Over the years, the Mass also produced an important number of vocations, not only to the priesthood and religious life but also to Christian marriage: for many, the Messe du Mercredi was an ideal place to meet a future spouse with a similar commitment to the Catholic faith in its traditional expression.

The Messe du Mercredi flourished in the context of a diocese with a vibrant liturgical life, one in which practicing Catholics attached to the newer and older forms of the Roman Rite had long since learned to live together peacefully. English-speaking Catholics accustomed to thinking of the Church in France as uniformly progressive and increasingly moribund would likely be surprised by the vitality of the Diocese of Paris, where believers of all ages fill parish churches on Sundays and where it isn’t unusual to see a dozen new diocesan priests ordained each year. In many respects, this vitality is the legacy of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris from 1981 to 2005, who combined a commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy with a creative approach to evangelization and an openness to the diverse movements that make up French Catholicism, from liturgical traditionalists to charismatic groups born after the Second Vatican Council. Under Lustiger and his successor, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, initiatives such as the Messe du Mercredi were given room to grow and to flourish—all the more so after the motu proprio Summorum pontificum in 2007, which gave the many tradition-friendly priests in the Diocese of Paris greater freedom to respond to the growing demand for the old Mass, particularly among younger Catholics with no interest in the sterile polemics that divided earlier generations.

The long period of liturgical tolerance in Paris ended with the release of the motu proprio Traditionis custodes in July 2021, with dire implications for the Messe du Mercredi. When Michel Aupetit, then the archbishop of Paris, issued a letter on the application of the motu proprio in his diocese, his unexpectedly harsh terms had the effect of an earthquake. Out of fourteen sites where the traditional Mass was offered regularly, Aupetit proposed to maintain only five. Saint François-Xavier was not among the five, so the Messe du Mercredi could no longer be celebrated there. Moreover, the right to celebrate the older form publicly would be limited to priests chosen by the archbishop who were, in the terms of the letter, “open to both missals,” the new as well as the old; since this demand contradicted their charism, the priests of the Fraternity of Saint Peter were no longer welcome to celebrate the sacraments in the diocese. After thirty-two years, the Messe du Mercredi seemed to be no more.

The story of the Messe du Mercredi might have ended there, if not for the fortitude and determination of the Christian faithful. In the weeks following the release of Archbishop Aupetit’s letter, the young Catholics who attended the Messe du Mercredi launched a public effort to save the Mass, a campaign waged through letters and emails but above all through the recitation of the Rosary and hours spent in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. After about a month, the diocese offered its response: the Messe du Mercredi could continue, but in a different location and with different priests. The Mass would be celebrated by a diocesan priest at Notre-Dame du Lys, which was ironically the same small, unprepossessing chapel where the Messe du Mercredi had begun in the 1980s, before its success and the opening offered by Summorum pontificum led to it being moved to larger, more prominent parish settings. Though they were heartened by the reprise of the Mass, the faithful of the Messe du Mercredi continued to seek a more complete restoration: each Wednesday before the Mass, many young people would gather first outside Saint François-Xavier and pray the Rosary together as they made the twenty-minute walk to Notre-Dame du Lys, praying that the Mass would return to the parish church many had come to consider a spiritual home.

The Messe du Mercredi continued to be celebrated at Notre-Dame du Lys until June of last year, when the habitual summer hiatus began. When the Mass resumed in autumn, it rotated unpredictably among different parish churches where the traditional Mass was still authorized, such that, from week to week, one could never be certain where the next Mass would be celebrated—or whether it would be celebrated at all. In the meantime, Paris had a new archbishop, Laurent Ulrich, an owlish and soft-spoken prelate seen as more in tune with Pope Francis than his Lustigerian predecessors but also thought to be conciliatory toward traditionalists. (In Lille, his previous diocese, Ulrich had even celebrated confirmations in the old rite, something that Aupetit had never done.) Sadly, hopes that Ulrich would roll back the restrictions imposed by Aupetit proved to be unwarranted; last November, the new archbishop reaffirmed the decision to limit the celebration of the traditional Mass to the five locations chosen by Aupetit, adding that the Mass alone could be celebrated according to the traditional form—other sacraments were out, including confirmation. At the same time, Ulrich iterated his commitment to the underlying aims of Traditionis custodes: the continued celebration of the old rite was to be understood merely as a temporary concession on the way to a future—apparently a very near future, in the eyes of some Roman authorities—where only the new, reformed rite would be permitted and the traditional Mass would be definitively consigned to the dustbin of history.

Though the Messe du Mercredi has earned a sort of reprieve, its future remains uncertain. For churchmen of Archbishop Ulrich’s generation, men who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, and for all who support the vision offered by Traditionis custodes, the Messe du Mercredi must seem particularly aberrant: to their way of thinking, what good can come from a “youth Mass” celebrated in a rite marked for extinction, giving false hope to young people who wish to preserve the faith of their ancestors? In a similar vein, another French prelate—Bishop Percerou of Nantes—recently told traditionalists in his diocese that it was “not normal” to raise one’s children in the old rite, words that must have stunned the many parents in his audience. One is sometimes tempted to think that, in the eyes of some of our shepherds, an empty church is preferable to one filled with young people who happen to be traditionalists.

In spite of all of this, at the beginning of Advent, the season of hope and expectation, a small and unexpected ray of light appeared. Following a meeting with the district superior of the Fraternity of Saint Peter, Archbishop Ulrich offered an admittedly limited concession: after having earlier been forbidden from offering the sacraments for not being “open to both forms,” a Fraternity priest who had been in the diocese for years could once again celebrate the old Mass publicly, albeit only at Notre-Dame du Lys. Hence, the Messe du Mercredi can now resume at the chapel where it had started over three decades ago, once again under the spiritual care of the Fraternity. Although Ulrich’s concession applies to exactly one priest and to one chapel, it remains a sign of hope for the beleaguered faithful of the Messe du Mercredi. Still deprived of their longtime home at Saint François-Xavier, they can nevertheless take comfort from the ministry of a beloved priest whom they had known in happier days before Traditionis custodes. As we await better times, just as we prepare for the Resurrection of the Savior in this Lent, we are all the more appreciative for the smallest of consolations.

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Amaury de Vallon lives in Paris. He writes under a pseudonym.