Messe de nuit is the midnight mass at Christmas Eve, which in France is hardly ever celebrated at midnight. That’s why these days it’s simply called ‘night mass’, but even that is a misnomer.
At our local church, night is defined as 6 pm, which was the kick-off time yesterday. The church is quite modest, by French standards.
We used to go to one of the most glorious churches in Christendom, Abbaye de Fleury at St Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire. Since the seventh century, the Abbey has housed the relics of St Benedict, whose name the French perversely gallicise to St Benoît.
The midnight mass there starts closer to midnight, at 11 pm to be exact. The monks sing Gregorian chant, not quite to professional standards, but movingly nonetheless.
That Romanesque church has two drawbacks though. It’s an hour’s drive away from us, and it’s unheated.
Since people come there from all over central France, one has to arrive at least an hour in advance to have any hope of a seat in a pew. The mass itself lasting over two hours, that’s three hours to be spent in a fridge at its maximum setting.
Those factors combined to trump our aesthetic longings, so off to our local church we went. Modest it may be, but it’s nearby and heated, which is nothing to sneeze at when one is no longer in the first flush of youth nor, truth to tell, even the second.
A quarter of an hour before the start, L’Eglise Saint-Ferréol was already filled to the gunwales with the local worthies in their finery. Ten minutes later it was standing room only.
At six on the dot, the amateur choir conducted by its own ever-present worthy went into a rendition of Silent Night. The accompaniment was provided by two guitarists and an electric keyboard player, whose mind was perpetually open to the variety of keys he was using, sometimes within a single phrase.
Still, a mass isn’t a concert. Music is merely a side dish to the meat and potatoes, and we waited for the arrival of the main course: the priest and his retinue.
Half a dozen songs and twenty minutes later, we were still writhing on tenterhooks. There was no priest anywhere to be seen, no one to tell us in whose name we were gathered.
Finally, we examined the order of service only to realise that the mass, though advertised as such, wasn’t a mass. There was no priest, no communion – no anything that makes a mass what it’s supposed to be. We felt cheated.
No one else seemed to mind. The worthies joyously sang along, and they commendably knew all the lyrics by heart. We didn’t, but that wasn’t the real problem.
We were seething, but Penelope, whose delicate nature balks at rocking the boat, was reluctant to leave in mid-song. But then we remembered that there was a mass in another village, some 15 miles down the road.
So we left, walking up the aisle under the weight of the disapproving glances our fellow non-communicants were casting at those two obvious heathens who didn’t even look French.
We hopped in the car, and I went on to break not only the speed limit but also conceivably the speed record on the D956. The other church turned out to be full too, but it was blessed by the presence of not just one priest, but two.
One was its usual curé, a man who has served the parish since before the Catholic Church suffered the indignity of the Second Vatican Council (c. 1962). Now in his nineties and extremely frail, he was assisted by a locum sent over by the diocese.
I shan’t describe the ensuing Christmas mass, lovely as it was. If you’ve ever attended one, you’d be bored. If you haven’t, you’d be uninterested. But in either case, I hope you’ll lament the collapse of Christianity in one of its erstwhile strongholds.
France officially went secular in 1905, when the law on the Separation between the Church and the State ushered in laïcité. That was simply codifying the fait accompli: the Enlightenment had reigned supreme for almost two centuries, and that’s plenty of time to brainwash people in the delights of materialism.
Now church attendance in France is about as low as in the UK. But there is a salient difference: in Britain people who don’t go to church don’t mock church-goers. In France they do.
A couple of years ago I was invited to play doubles on Easter Sunday. I wish I could, I said, but I’ll be at mass. That caused an outburst of mirth among my partners, none of whom was a youngster. “Bonnes cloches”, they laughed (have good bells, literally).
Rural France suffers from a dire dearth of priests. One curé has to cover 20, 30, sometimes even 50 churches. That’s why regular masses are a rarity, though until now high festivals have tended to be celebrated properly.
That leads to situations straight out of Catch 22. A few years ago, a friend of ours, the local châtelain and a devout Catholic, died. Since he was the mainstay not only of the village church but of the whole diocese, the Vicar General himself wanted to officiate at the funeral mass.
But the bishop said non. There are so few priests, he explained, that not everyone can have his last rites. And if everyone can’t have them, no one will. Our friends’ soul must have cried foul.
Isn’t modernity wonderful? Perhaps French Catholics should do what their ancestors did to save their churches during the Revolution. They declared them Temples of Reason, reconsecrating the churches to the new deity. Many churches, including the magnificent Chartres Cathedral, were saved that way.
Now there’s an idea. I don’t know if Richard Dawkins speaks French but, if he does, I can’t think of a better priest to celebrate Reason, as defined by strident atheists. Do you know his phone number?
Anyway, Merry Christmas!