For the last ten years, the Reverend Abbé Guillaume de Tanoüarn has been celebrating Holy Mass in the cramped quarters of a tiny shop on a narrow street in central Paris. Located on Rue Saint-Joseph, the rather nondescript locale is flanked on one side by a pair of massage salons of questionable repute and a travel office specializing in cheap flights to Africa. The ground floor is occupied by the Centre Saint-Paul, which offers cultural and spiritual conferences, catechism classes and courses in ancient languages and theology. The chapel, situated on the second story and reached via spiral staircase, offers two daily Masses and five Masses each Sunday. Of the few locations in Paris offering the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass, it is by far the smallest. But it may well be the most beloved.
To hear of people being drawn to the Traditional Latin Mass because of the beauty of the liturgy is so commonplace as to border on the cliché. Indeed, there is little this side of heaven which is more beautiful than a Latin Mass, especially when celebrated in its proper architectural setting and accompanied by a well-rehearsed schola. It is far less common, however, to hear of people drawn to the Old Mass because of the pastoral care they receive from the priests who offer it. For the faithful gathered about the Reverend Abbé to forgo the sights and sounds of an ornate Neo-Gothic SS. Eugène and Cécile, where the traditional liturgy is offered daily, and instead make their way down Rue Saint-Joseph to the comparatively humble Centre Saint-Paul – a mere half-mile away – it cannot be the aesthetic beauty of the place that draws them, but something deeper.
On Wednesday, August 3rd, a scene unfolded in Paris that captured the imagination of the Catholic world. A group of the faithful had gathered together to assist at a Traditional Catholic Mass in the church of St. Rita — a privately-owned chapel built in 1900 and slated for demolition to make way for a parking facility. Police decked out in full riot gear made a noisy entrance into the building, removing the pews used as barricades by those in attendance at the Mass. One priest was dragged from the sanctuary, while the faithful closed ranks to protect the other, still offering the Mass facing the altar, his back to the coming threat. Eventually, he too was removed by police before he could conclude the liturgy. He was escorted out while fully vested in his fiddleback chasuble.
Early reports indicated that the Mass was offered by members of Paris’ “Gallican” community — a schismatic group that had obtained use of St. Rita for their liturgies in 1988. But when this independent community abandoned the church of St. Rita in October 2015, Abbé de Tanoüarn was personally invited to celebrate the Latin Mass for a group of three dozen faithful. It was an invitation he felt duty-bound to accept. The risks involved were clear to him: without the permission of the owners of the building, it would mean engaging in an illegal occupation. In any other country, that might be deterrent enough to prevent anyone from getting involved. But this is France, where occupying churches illegally is something of a tradition in its own right.
In 1977, members of the Society of St. Pius X, led by Fr. François Ducaud-Bourget, expelled the diocesan priest in charge of Saint-Nicholas-du-Chardonnet, located in the 5th arrondissement, and occupied the church. The municipal council promptly ruled that the occupation was illegal and issued an order of eviction. There was, however, little political will behind the order, and it was never enforced. Ten years later, the Conseil d’État determined that the public disturbance which would inevitably result from a forceful eviction would be greater than that of the occupation itself – a decision which effectively permitted the Society to continue using the church, which remains under its care to this day.
A similar action was carried out in 2002 by Fr. Philippe Laguérie (SSPX) to obtain the church of St. Eloi in Bordeaux, which had stood empty and unused for many years. In that case, the city council eventually approved of the occupation, and Archbishop Jean-Pierre Richard permitted the establishment of a personal parish under the guidance of the Institute of the Good Shepherd at St. Eloi in 2007.
Thus, there was good reason for Abbé de Tanoüarn to hope for a happy resolution to the situation, with the occupation being an admittedly regrettable but nonetheless necessary first step toward that end. The faithful of St. Rita deserved access to the Sacraments, and the church served an important role in the local community. The Institute of the Good Shepherd was willing to purchase the property, though it was not in a position to pay the asking price of 3 million Euros. Local elected representatives, too, agreed that St. Rita should be spared from demolition. The only party in favor of destroying the church was the new owner, who plans to convert the property into a financially lucrative parking lot. Yet perhaps, with the heavenly intervention of St. Rita, patroness of impossible causes, a mutually acceptable agreement could be reached. Hope, therefore, was not lost.
After obtaining permission from the archbishop, the Reverend Abbé and his brother priests began the work of establishing an authentic Catholic community at St. Rita. Like any good parish, they offered the Sacraments and performed blessings, teaching the truths of the Faith to all who would listen. But above all else, they offered a spiritual home marked by genuine charity and love of neighbor. They opened wide the doors of St. Rita to the poor and the socially undesirable, to the distraught and the disaffected alike –in short, to those existing on the peripheries of Parisian society — allowing them, perhaps for the first time in their lives, to feel truly welcome. And the Lord did not withhold His blessing: in less than a year’s time, the community at St. Rita grew to number some 200 souls.
In the following interview, Abbé de Tanoüarn provides his own side of the story for the first time.
OnePeterFive: Thank you, Reverend Abbé, for taking the time to give this interview.
The Catholic world was shocked by the images released on Wednesday which document the violent eviction of the faithful from St. Rita – perhaps most so by that of a priest being dragged across the sanctuary. Can you reveal to us the identity of that priest? Was he physically harmed during the eviction? What is his condition now?
Reverend Abbé Guillaume de Tanoüarn: The young priest you mention is Fr. Jean-François Billot. He was ordained in 2010 for the Institute of the Good Shepard. The pictures are shocking, yet the violence was merely symbolic. The police are very professional; they know how to drag you without hurting you too much. So, yes, it’s impressive when you see it; it’s even more impressive when you experience it. I mean, the body armor, the helmets – even if they do not use it, it’s supposed to impress you. And it works. Plus, they used tear gas, which goes into your nose and eyes. That being said, Fr. Billot wasn’t harmed and he’s well, thank God, as are the rest of us, even if we’re all saddened by the eviction.
Faithful Catholics were appalled to see riot police armed with truncheons, shields and tear gas storm a church during the celebration of Holy Mass. We are greatly relieved to learn that the Sacred Species was not profaned despite the violent interruption. If the police had decided to wait until the conclusion of the Mass, do you think the eviction would have progressed more peacefully? Or were the parishioners prepared to actively resist, regardless of when the eviction took place?
An ‘active resistance’, as you put it, was never an option for us. We are Catholics and I am a priest; we reject violence and yet we were not willing to leave the church by ourselves, just because some lawyer asked us to. The police came in during the Mass I was celebrating, but strangely, they paused at the very moment of Elevation. France, after all, still has a Catholic culture, even if the practice melts down like snow in summer. Again, we do not have a problem with the police – they’re just obeying orders.
Some have questioned the motivation and/or justification of the parishioners in their decision to resist eviction. According to many reports, the owners of the property had the law on their side, and you were essentially trespassing on private property. Some have suggested, however, that discussions with the owners were ongoing, and that you were seeking a peaceful resolution to the situation. Can you explain the circumstances of the eviction, as well as your reasons for resisting?
The formal owner of the church wants to turn it into a parking lot. The congregation wants to keep it a church. Lawyers are still arguing and the legal battle is not over. Our basic idea is to buy the property, but that’s big money. One way or the other, we have to find some common agreement, between people of good will, and sending the police won’t help. It speaks volumes that we have the mayor of our district on our side. Plus, we’re publicly supported by a variety of local politicians. They’re not necessarily Catholics, but they understand what this church means for the community.
Some sectors of the French media are portraying the community of faithful at St. Rita as “fundamentalist militants,” with one online magazine describing St. Rita as catering to “traditionalist Catholic splinter groups and far-right pseudo-revolutionaries.” How do you respond to such accusations? Are these accusations also being used to tarnish the reputation of the Institute of the Good Shepherd (IBP) in France?
There is a fair share of ideology involved – yes. But frankly, I’ve been amazed by the good articles about us by journalists who came and spoke with us. Just to name two examples, Liberation and Le Monde are left-wing newspapers; you would call them ‘liberals’. Yet, they came, and they reported from their perspective, but in a fair way. There were harsh criticisms, too, but that was from people who did not bother to come by or to call.
You have said that you plan to continue your fight to save St. Rita from demolition. What steps remain open to you? Is there anything the international community could do to assist you?
As I mentioned, the legal fight is not over, the local mayor and city council is on our side. Thus, we still have some cards in our hand. I continue to say the Mass for the congregation; not in the church, since it has been sealed, but right in front of it. I celebrate – for ever growing numbers.
National Assembly Member Fréderic Lefebvre has publicly called upon Pope Francis to intervene and help save St. Rita from demolition. Would you welcome such intervention on the part of the Holy Father?
I would welcome any intervention, from anybody. And from the Holy Father? He is our Father, literally. As you may know, I was ordained in 1991 for the SSPX, then in 2006 I co-founded the Institute of the Good Shepherd. That means that I have celebrated over 10,000 Masses in my life, with each and every one of them in spiritual union with the pope: una cum papa nostra. That being said, I do not know if Fréderic Lefebvre will be heard, but I believe in Providence.
The Institute of the Good Shepherd is not very well known outside of France. Could you explain your personal relationship to the Institute and describe the role it plays in the life of the Church in France today?
We’re 10 years old, which means we’re still a young institute. This year, five priests were ordained for the Institute, which puts us above the average French diocese. Our aim is not to exist everywhere – we’re much too small for that – but to serve here and there. We do our best.
To outside observers, Catholic France appears to be under siege from both Islamic terrorists and a secular government historically dedicated to reducing the influence of the Church in the public domain. Is this an accurate portrayal of the experience of French Catholics? Have you sensed an increase in interest among French Catholics for the traditional liturgy and teachings of the Church in recent decades and/or months? What has been the reaction among traditional Catholics in France to the martyrdom of Fr. Jacques Hamel?
I won’t minimize the problems we’re facing. But our biggest enemy is our own laziness and cowardice. If you’re Catholic, you can spend your life lamenting about how bad politics and the media and the society as a whole are. Or you can just say your prayers, raise your kids, do your job, meet your friends, use your rosary, share a meal … in other words: live the good life of a good Catholic. We have a saying here that goes «C’est un triste saint qu’un saint triste», which could be rendered as “He who is a sad saint is a poor saint.”
Regarding the development of Traditionalism here in France, it’s a mixed bag. A quarter of all priests ordained in France are ordained for the Latin Mass, which has an ever rising share. But it’s like having the same slice of an even shrinking pie. In France, a mere 100 priests get ordained each year, while 800 die. Every second French priest is over 75 years old.
We learned this week that Fr Hamel’s last words were: «Va t’en Satan», “Be gone, Satan!” It’s not up to us to decide who is a saint and who is not. But Father certainly set an example that left us «tremblants et confiants», as his bishop said: “trembling and confident”. Trembling because of his fate, and confident because of our common faith.
Thank you, Reverend Abbé, for your time and for your tireless service to Holy Mother Church.
Matthew Karmel is the nom de plume of a teacher, freelance writer and translator living in Zurich, Switzerland with his wife and four children. A lifelong Catholic, he is also the author of the blog The Radical Catholic.