Around three dozen faithful gathered for Mass this morning in the little church of St. Rita, located in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. The priest, vested in the traditional manner, celebrated ad orientem, assisted by an altar boy in a red cassock and white surplice.
It was a scene with which all who attend the traditional Latin Mass are perfectly familiar – except, perhaps, for the fact that most of the parishioners were standing. They were standing because the pews had been removed in order to form a barricade at the entrance to the church. A group of police in riot gear and armed with truncheons and tear gas was outside preparing to storm the building. St. Rita has been slated for demolition since October 2015.
Et cum spiritu tuo.
As the police began ripping the pews away from the entrance, the faithful, arms locked, broke out in song. The priest continued reciting the ancient prayers. The altar boy remained at his side. A second priest led a small group kneeling beside the sanctuary in the recitation of the Rosary. Some of the faithful prepared handkerchiefs for covering their noses in the case that the police decided to put their canisters of tear gas to use.
As the police stormed the church, the faithful quickly retreated to the sanctuary, encircling the steps to the altar, using their bodies to protect the priest and the altar boy, who were still celebrating Holy Mass. One by one, they were forcefully torn away. The priest who had been praying the Rosary was thrown to the floor and dragged from the sanctuary and out of the church. Fr. Guillaume de Tanoüarn, still engrossed in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, was pulled from the altar by his vestments and forced outside.
The dramatic events which unfolded this morning were made particularly shocking by the fact that less than 24 hours have passed since the funeral of Fr. Jacques Hamel, the priest martyred at the altar during Holy Mass by ISIS operatives in Rouen last week.
As with any developing story, verifying competing and partially contradictory claims is difficult. Here’s what we know with relative certainty:
St. Rita was built in the year 1900 under the direction of the Association of Chapels Catholic and Apostolic (L’association des Chapelles Catholiques et Apostoliques). In 1988, it was made available to Dominique Philippe, the self-designated “archbishop” of a so-called “Gallican” community. Something of a showman, Msgr. Philippe regularly made headlines in France and around the world for his holding annual blessings of pets and various animals – ranging from Cocker Spaniels to Camels – in St. Rita. But for all his Barnum & Baily-esque showmanship, Philippe was not able to attract enough financially supportive parishioners, and when the owners signaled that they wanted to sell the property, the Gallican community was unable to raise the funds to purchase it. Thus, in October 2015, they abandoned St. Rita and the building was slated to be demolished and the property converted into a parking lot. It was at this time that Fr. Guillaume de Tanoüarn, ordained in the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and co-founder of the Institute of the Good Shepherd (IBP), began offering the traditional Latin Mass to all who desired it.
It is important to note that the IBP, which offers the Tridentine form of the Roman Rite according to the 1962 Roman Missal, is in full communion with the Holy See and is growing rapidly in France: ten years after its founding in 2006, the number of priests in the IBP has grown to more than 30, and the Institute can boast of an equal number of seminarians. It is governed by the same regulations as more familiar Institutes and Fraternities dedicated to the preservation of Tradition, such as the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter (FSSP) and the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest (ICKSP). Contrary to some reports, therefore, it appears that the parishioners who were forcibly evicted from St. Rita were not “Gallicans”, but rather Catholics in good standing with the Church.
While the manner in which the eviction took place is disturbing, what is even more worrisome is the way the evicted Catholics are being portrayed in certain sectors of the French media. One article describes the group as being composed of “fundamentalist militants” and St. Rita under the guidance of Fr. de Tanoüarn as offering safe haven to “the cream of the Parisian far-right” and catering to a combination of “traditionalist Catholic splinter groups and far-right pseudo-revolutionaries.” Various accusations are being leveled against the group, such as having strong ties to Action Française (AF), a right-wing political movement which was condemned during the reign of Pius XI in 1926, only to be rehabilitated by Pius XII in 1939. The modern AF is monarchist, anti-Communist, anti-European Union and pro-immigration reform. Given such a program, it should come as no surprise that the AF does, indeed, resonate with the younger generation of traditional Catholics.
Immediately after the raid, French Catholics took to various social media platforms to express their outrage, notable on Twitter with the hashtag #SainteRita. Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front Party, blasted:
Et si l’on faisait des parkings sur l’emplacement des mosquées salafistes plutôt que de détruire nos églises ? #SainteRita MLP
— Marine Le Pen (@MLP_officiel) August 3, 2016
Translated, the tweet reads: “And if they were to build a parking lot on the site of a Salafist mosque instead of destroying one of our churches?”
Local elected representatives, who staged a sit-in protest at the entrance to St. Rita and were physically removed by police, expressed disbelief at the manner in which the eviction was carried out. Philippe Goujon, Deputy Mayor of the 15th arrondissement, stated, “This is a complete shock.” National Assembly Member Fréderic Lefebvre is now calling on the Pope to save the church from demolition.
Many will say that French Catholics are overreacting. That there is no cause for offense, no conspiracy against the Church. It was a legal action. If they wanted to keep the building, they should have come up with the 3 million Euro required to obtain the property. The riot police would have been unnecessary if the faithful had simply followed orders and abandoned the building.
France’s Catholic pedigree runs deep, her title as “eldest daughter of the Church” tied to her strong Christian community dating back to the 2nd century and the conversion of King Clovis marking a major shift in the political fortunes of Christendom 496. After France’s the revolutionary government desecrated Catholic churches and killed priests and religious during the Reign of Terror, French Catholicism was never to be the same, but one imagines that whatever vestiges of cultural Catholicism (or ancestral blood) still exists in memory of Parisians, they might have exercised a bit more restraint. This was not a violent protest; these were not Islamic militants. They were Catholics offering Mass in a Catholic Church.
Taken on its own, this incident would be unsettling enough. With Fr. Hamel’s blood still fresh on the altar of his parish, however, and with Catholics now being compared by their own pope to the bestial fundamentalists of Islam, this rough treatment of our brethren in the faith at the hands of their own countrymen is a staggering blow.
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.