Catholic Mass in France, and a special pilgrimage under the oak trees

For All Saint’s Day, I wanted to write about going to mass in France.

Back home we try to take our family of four small children to mass every week, and in France we have been doing the same.

The first mass we attended marked the “Rentree”, which is the return to school and work after the long summer holiday. After the priest’s homily, everyone was given a small candle to hold.

I didn’t take a candle at first, because I thought I’d better make sure that the children didn’t set fire to themselves. When the priest noticed that I was empty-handed, he shook his head firmly and fetched me one himself.

We all lined up to have our candles lit, and thankfully I found a spot against the pillar beside our pew where we could put the children’s candles. They looked beautiful, with the warm, yellow flames flickering against the rough, centuries-old stone.

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Watching a candle is definitely a good distraction for wiggly, chatty children. (My assumption before coming to France was right: the French kids were very well behaved).

Overall our children did well keeping still, particularly since they couldn’t understand any of the words of the service.

Perhaps it helped that the order of the mass was reassuringly familiar.

To me, this is one of the most appealing and lovely aspects of Catholicism: it is a universal faith, and the mass is exactly the same everywhere in the world, albeit spoken in different languages.

Certainly the church, built in the 16th century, was beautiful: there are rich blue-toned stained glass windows behind the altar, and the ceiling is a formed from a series of pointed Gothic arches, cast into sharp relief by high spotlights. The wooden pulpit is intricately carved, rising all the way to the ceiling and topped with an angel holding a trumpet. At one side of the altar is a beautiful carved stone tableau of the Passion of Christ, and there’s a spectacular gold-edged memorial to more than one hundred men of the parish killed in the First World War – especially poignant when many of the horrific battles were fought in this area.

The church is dedicated to St Medard, a French saint. Medard was a popular sixth century bishop, said to have sheltered from the rain as a child under the wings of an eagle. His feast day is June 8th, and there’s a well-known saying that if it rains on that day, it will rain for 40 days more: “Quand il pleut à la Saint-Médard, il pleut quarante jours plus tard…”

There were a few other families in the congregation, but it was mostly older people. Church attendance has declined in France, and parishes have effectively been consolidated. The church of St Medard is about fifteen minutes from us: there’s another wonderful church in our own village, but there’s been only one service there every month, and the doors are almost always locked.

Since that first service, we’ve been to many more masses. When the children have been noisy, the French people around us have turned and given us encouraging smiles, which is so much appreciated!

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Lighting prayer candles in Reims cathedral

 

The most memorable mass we’ve attended was held to mark a fascinating local legend. In the early 17th century, a group of villagers reported that they had discovered a statue of the Virgin Mary in an oak tree close to our rented gîte, in the same woods where we’ve built our stick forts with the children.

The statue was placed in a small oratory. For many years, believers would come from the surrounding countryside to say prayers. As far as I can gather, the original statue was lost during the upheaval of the French revolution, but in 1866 a chapel was built with the name “Our Lady of the Oaks,  Notre Dame du Chêne.

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Notre Dame du Chêne

This chapel is across the field from our back gate, inside the grounds of a private home called the Manor of the Four Winds, “Manoir des Quatre Vents”.

(Just an aside, but this seems like a great name for a manor house…it seems most likely the four winds refer to the points of the compass, but it makes me think of the fierce, seasonal winds in Afghanistan and Iran that have their own evocative names, like the fierce summer “wind of 120 days”, the “shamal”, and the “black wind”…)

Once a year there is a pilgrim’s procession through the woods to a small shrine beside the oak tree where the statue is believed to have been found.

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Setting out from the Manoir des Quatre Vents

We met at the gate to the manor and walked with a couple of dozen of the villagers along a footpath under the trees. A man led the way with an banner embroidered with pictures of Mary and an oak tree. Everyone sang a version of Ave Maria, with words that described the story of the statue (fortunately we all had hymn-sheets).

Michael dropped back with Gaston, who as usual had a lot to say about trains. The rest of us followed along, and stopped in front of the shrine to say prayers.

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On the way back through the woods, Roman helped lead the procession. He was very proud, as you can imagine!

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Afterwards there was a Saturday night mass at the chapel on the estate. The interior is relatively sombre in decoration, but there’s a beautiful stained glass window at one end and it seemed fitting that the pews were built from oak.

Did the villagers actually find a statue in a tree 400 years ago? Perhaps, but in any case it’s a beautiful story, and we really enjoyed joining in with the local tradition!

Wishing you a blessed and peaceful All Saint’s Day!

 

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