For a Catholic country that takes pride in many magnificent, world renowned cathedrals and commemorates a significant number of Catholic feast days by the closure of schools, businesses and government offices, church services are rarely
well attended. Media has asserted that only about 51% of the population claim to be Catholic and that less than 5% admit to attending church services.
Villages in Herault bear testimony to this declining
number of participation. Our local church is only open for service on Wednesday evening mass every other week. During this time, I count the three of us to be the only attendees under 70 years old. We receive curious then appreciative
glances among the small number of elderly parishioners and sometimes, the exception rather than rule, we get an acknowledging look from Pere Bernard.
On Sundays, we have some options for mass service. Our parish includes about 6
villages with Capestang, Puisserguier and Quarante being the closes churches to our own. We alternate among these based upon schedule, weather, and sometimes the preference for the attending priest. Although, as our luck would have it, we
tend to see and be seen by Pere Bernard.
Other than our local church, we have a soft spot for Quarante. True, it is as easily accessible as Puisserguier but there is much history and grandeur with Quarante. The Romanesque church
was build between 982 and 1053 and its interior space includes a 3rd century marble sarcophagus decorated with a “very leonine bus of St. John the Baptist with almond eyes and a Gallic nose.” The smaller church in Puisserguier shows
more recent renovation. It is also better illuminated. And the winding walk along the largely pedestrian path from parking area to the church is always a charming experience.
St. Etienne is the grandest in terms of size and capacity. The top of the church can be seen for miles around but its imposing sight is best admired when approaching from the Canal du Midi bridge. It is also the coldest among the parish churches
during the winter months. The gas fueled lamps do not ease the chill of the space due to the height and width of this imposing place of worship. Attendance tends to be more numerous here than the other churches helped by the presence of the Sunday
market which swells up from Spring to Fall.
As we rotate among these churches, we are beginning to be recognized as regular churchgoers and been invited to participate in “extra curricular” activities targeted to children.
We attended one of these on Ash Wednesday where children wrote down Lenten intentions which were then combined together so that each child can randomly draw one from the mix. Once picked, the child will commit to adopting this during the Lenten
period. Fortunately, second daughter’s selection was fairly easy to comprehend and do.. help others.
We were puzzled, however, when during the ash service Pere Bernard marks our palms then points us (as we were the obvious
novices) to a basin behind him to dispose of the ashes by wiping our hands together. This explained why we could not see any ashes in the forehead from among those who went ahead of us. We were left wondering if we accomplished our Ash Wednesday obligation
without reminders on our forehead. Much later, a local resident supposed that this may be a legacy of the time when Catholicism was not favored (we are, after all, in Cathar country here in the Midi) and by this palm act, Catholics can participate
in Ash Wednesday but not draw attention to themselves or what may have been considered an illegal practice.
Another interesting observation happened on Palm Sunday. We arrived in one of the town squares in Capestang where
people were already assembling with their olive branches and some other greenery but not the usual palm reeds we have been accustomed to in the US . I have not seen these olive branches on sale in any shop and I speculated whether these were just cut
or ripped off the many trees around villages. Although we came empty handed, second daughter’s friend spotted her and shared one of her olive branches. Our local doctor secured some for us as well. We then marched solemnly through
the streets and entered the church where Pere Bernard stood in the doorway and blessed us with holy water as we came through.
Despite the long sermons by Pere Bernard, and despite his sometimes indifference towards us foreigners,
we actually look forward to attending mass. There is something so moving and awe-inspiring in century old buildings whose stained glass windows depict biblical figures and stories and where statues of saints play prominent roles. One, in particular,
St. Therese of Lisieux, first daughter’s namesake, is ever present and much beloved by French Catholics. These building are ancient but beautiful sacred places of quiet retreat. They are both humbling and inspiring… giving us the necessary
confidence to face the unpredictable week ahead.
But not all is always solemn. During the summer months, church attendance may increase with vacationing French and non-French population. This is when we truly
feel local as we are seen more frequently than many of those in attendance. It is also during this season when villages celebrate mass in honor of the primary produit de terroir. On a special Sunday, local groups representing the varied
winegrowing villages come with their flag bearing insignias, their flowing robes, and the various medallions hung around their necks and march down the aisle of the church. In St. Chinian last summer, two members presented a bottle of wine during
offertory which the priest uncorked in front of the assembly, blessed during the Eucharist service, and served during communion. Following such service, us parishioners exit the church in a formal procession led by the groups and a local band.
Everyone ends up in the town square to beaucoup servings of the local rosé …. gratuit.
There is something to be said, nicely and with enthusiasm, for a country that celebrates mass in honor of the fruit of
the vine and, afterwards, freely shares this with everyone. By then, or course, it truly does not matter whether you are Catholic or not.