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In our parish, preparations are underway for the Christmas pageant; food baskets are collected for the poor; gifts are donated for a shelter and the choir rehearses. Advent is underway. But this is not the case everywhere.
Two weeks ago we made a last minute trip to France. We were able to book a flight with frequent flyer points, and we stayed with friends for several nights.
France is a Christian country, at least historically. The French, like the rest of Europe, struggle with immigrant groups who don’t particularly want to be French and especially don’t want to be Christians. They want to be Algerians or Turks or something else. On the other hand, it was easy to get the impression that the French are not taking being Christian very seriously.
France still has an architectural patrimony of Catholic churches dominating the center of most small villages. In even the most remote, walled towns, there is always a lovely stone Gothic or Romanesque church.
Besides being things of beauty, French churches instruct our architectural tastes; so we visit these churches -- when they are not locked. Apparently, like here, there is too much vandalism to leave them open. Romanesque art survived longer in Provence than it did in the rest of France. Small baptisteries at Aix and Venasque of the Gallo-Roman style developed from Catalonia in the 10th century. In Provence a brilliant architectural renaissance unfolded in the 12th century and many people worked in the quarries to meet the demand for evenly cut stone. One marvel which remains from the Romanesque period is St. Sauveur Cathedral in Aix en Provence. It was built on the site of an old Roman forum, so we were able to see styles from the 5th to the 17th century side by side.
In the 14th Century, there was a great schism between the French cardinals and the majority of Italians cardinals over who should be pope. These divided loyalties split Western Christendom in a conflict which went on for 39 years and split kingdoms, dioceses, religious orders, even families. When Benedict XIII lost the support of the French king (you can be sure treasuries were at stake) and the state threatened him, he fled to Avignon. Here six subsequent Popes built great halls and cloisters which are now tourist attractions.
In Avignon a style called Papal Gothic developed in the 14th century. Gothic church architecture, with its vaulting and pointed arches, was introduced in northern France and the popes who resided in Avignon attracted to their court artists from different regions of France, Germany, Flanders and Italy. The cardinals embellished their palaces, churches and cloisters. Aisles and chapels were added to certain older churches as the new style took over.
The Catholic traveler marvels at the great art of Romanesque and Gothic inspiration. It is as though we see the Holy Spirit carved in stone, with Gothic steeples carrying voices, even whispers to God. The papal palaces, decorated walls, painted frescoes and tapestries stitched with biblical scenes attract many international tourists.
In these beautiful churches, basilicas and even cloisters cameras click away and people chat with their companions about their guide books. But few come to worship.
On Sunday we attended Mass in Pernes des Fountaines, a small village with 37 fountains. Until recently each fountain had a caretaker, a sign of how highly the French once regarded their monuments. The Mass we attended in an ancient, Romanesque church was the one and only one for seven area towns, owing to the lack of priests.
On another day we were among other visitors touring the Palais des Papes in Avignon. It was dark when we emerged and we heard the church bells calling people to Mass. We joined the congregation at the Basilique St. Pierre, one of the most ancient churches in this medieval city. Many times it was partially destroyed by barbarians and vandals and was finally consecrated to celebrate July 13, 1458. This was a high Mass with four priests and a master of ceremonies. Pope Benedict has given a plenary indulgence to the basilica and worshipers were called. The church had printed leaflets and posters. It was a well advertised event. Yet, there were in the neighborhood of 50-60 people gathered in this sacred space.
In Paris at the central tourist site, Notre Dame Cathedral, barbarians (the post-Christian version) are everywhere. While a tape of Gregorian chant is played encouraging silence, they chatter. Only a few engage in prayer.
They may not take away corner stones, but they preen before their cameras and click away, despite ubiquitous requests for no flashes. A country of such rich heritage must be squandering its patrimony.
They look, but they do not see.
We were reminded of the words of Acts 28:27: “For the heart of this people has been hardened, and with their ears they have been hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest perhaps they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted, and I heal them.”
For this Christmas we pray the holiday festivities are more than local customs of food, drink, gifts and parties. We pray that, starting with our own, hearts will be healed and eyes opened this Christmas.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.