Rorate Caeli

Traditional-minded Catholics and the Traditional Liturgy:
Living well in the age of Francis
- a beautiful interview with the Abbot of Fontgombault

Founded in the 11th century [Rorate note: its original founder and first Abbot, Petrus a Stella / Pierre de l'Étoile, buried in the middle of the abbatial church, died exactly 900 years ago, in 1114], Fontgombault discovered Benedictine life once again in 1948, becoming a foundation of Solesmes. A fecund abbey, already at the origin of four monasteries erected later as abbeys, it recently took over the Abbey of Wisques.

A meeting with Dom Jean Pateau, elected Abbot in 2011

La Nef - How are you living your new position of Father Abbot?

Dom Jean Pateau - These years have gone by quite fast. Saint Benedict gave two golden rules to the Abbot: "Let him be convinced that it becometh him better to serve than to rule... and let him aim to be loved rather than feared." (Rule of St. Benedict, c. 64). By trying to put this in practice, with the help of God, Our Lady, and the community, I can say that I am a happy Abbot.

What is the role of a Benedictine abbey in the 21st century, in our age of materialism and hedonism? Is such a vocation still possible?

Paul VI told a group of laymen that, "modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses." (1) Abbeys, through their presence, by way of the witness of lives offered to God, fulfill this role in an eminent way. For this, vocations are necessary. The unilateral promotion of the individual, the search for comfort typical of the man of our time, do not favor them. But that is not the worst of obstacles. The difficulty today, both regarding marriage as religious life, is that of making a lifetime choice for an entire life: to dare to donate oneself without foreseeing giving it up.

Fontgombault Abbey is the oldest of the foundations of Solesmes to have chosen to keep the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite: why this choice?

The extraordinary form was preferred, and remains so, because it seems to us particularly adapted to monastic life. Let us emphasize two crucial points. The more contemplative nature of the celebration promotes the vertical dimension of the liturgy. The moments of silence in the Offertory and the Canon favorable to introspection fall within this structure. Even though not exclusive to this form, it is necessary to add to this point the fact that concelebration is not used habitually, and that the Mass is said "turned towards God." Secondly, that could seem contradictory, I emphasize the participation of the body, required for so many gestures: genuflections, inclinations, signs of the Cross. From the consecration forward, these gestures, carried our on the Species of Bread and Wine, bring the attention of the priest to the Christ really present on the altar. In the monastic tradition, the body is widely associated to prayer. The monk's life is a liturgy. Provided that each of the gestures detailed in the Ritus Servandus be given its weight of spiritual meaning, its orientation towards God, the body in the extraordinary form is associated in a particularly intense way to the spirit and the soul by incarnating the word, by manifesting the humility of him who celebrates before the mystery of the God who is present.

With the passing of time, how to you assess the current liturgical situation, notably the cohabitation of two forms within the same Latin Rite [sic] after Summorum Pontificum?

Two expressions come to mind: thanksgiving and hope. Thanksgiving because this initiative of Benedict XVI has indisputably contributed to pacify the liturgical question. What a success for the devil to have sowed disagreement precisely in the celebration of the Sacrament of love! Today, the two forms are respected and, in an ever-growing number of parishes, are side-by-side. As for the future? Many young priests attached to the lectionary of the ordinary form, that they follow habitually, want a liturgy that is richer in the level of rites, associating more strictly the body to the celebration. Would it not be possible to propose in the ordinary form the prayers of the offertory, to enrich it with the genuflections, inclinations, signs of the cross of the extraordinary form? A rapprochement would [thus] easily take place between the two forms, giving an answer to a legitimate and, additionally, longed-for desire of Benedict XVI (2).

Following a pope who had Saint Benedict as patron, we now have one who has Saint Francis: what is your analysis of the previous pontificate, and how do you view that of Francis, and notably his wish for reform?

I would not venture making a assessment of the action of the Holy Spirit, but rather marvel before its power. Some oppose the two popes... I do not believe that the election of Pope Francis changed the plans of the Holy Spirit, but rather that He pursues his goal: to render the members of the Church more similar to their head, Jesus Christ, notably by their humility and their sanctity, so that the Gospel be taken to the ends of the earth. Is there not a real continuity between both pontificates? Popes Benedict XVI and Francis are two men deeply in tune with God. It is a lesson to each one among us. Fulfilling their program does not matter to them, while they busy themselves with discerning God's plan. Humility is their precious asset. The form changes. Benedict XVI is a professor, a most reserved and discreet theologian; Francis, a disciple of Saint Ignatius, a missionary. But did not Benedict XVI wish to reform the Curia? His teachings, his clear-cut speeches, did they not touch plenty of hearts? Would Francis not have concern for doctrine and truth? Let us remain in peace, waiting with confidence the gift of the Lord through the pontificate that begins. God knows where He is going!

Your abbey was involved in the 1990s in officious doctrinal discussions with the Society of Saint Pius X: how do you see the future of this delicate issue?

Every Christian should wish and work for unity, because it is the will of God. Benedict XVI did all that was within his power to reach it. Francis will do likewise. It is, one might say, in the Pope's genes. The Pope cannot choose otherwise. He is the flock's shepherd and he must reach the dispersed sheep. The Pope's heart is by nature stretched out to the peripheries of the Church, to the whole world. What about Christians? The Pope would be quite lonely if he were the only one to work for the unity of the Church! Nobody should therefore be satisfied with the current situation. The problem now is more one of ecclesiology than one of liturgy. The solution seems to me to be a response of faith, made before God, to two questions: What is the Church? Do we have the right to tear it apart? No one is exempt from the duty to answer these questions. We all must give account one day before God of the actions and words that may have favored or hindered the unity of the flock. I refer in this connection to the words pronounced by the Pope to the Congregation for Bishops on February 27, 2014, regarding the choice of bishops, but which can apply in the end to every discernment in ecclesial functions, and also to every Christian who manages to take his conclusions: "Are you certain that the Lord has spoken your name? Are you certain that it is the Lord who has numbered you among those called to remain with him in a unique way, and in order to entrust to you the mission that is not his own but rather was entrusted to the Lord by the Father?"

You have sent monks to aid the Abbey of Wisques (where the monks celebrate the ordinary form), with a lack of vocations: what is exactly the brokered agreement (notably in liturgical matters)?
There was no "brokered agreement". The condition for the move into Saint-Paul de Wisques was that the Fontgombault observance be established there. This should seem so clear to everyone that things have happened in a truly fraternal fashion. Otherwise, we wish to do everything so as to favor the monks of Wisques with stability in the monastery. The current modus vivendi meets the expectations of the whole of the community. While the recently arrived monks celebrate the morning masses in the various altars of the abbey in the extraordinary form, the old ones [who were there before] concelebrate in the ordinary form. The conventual Mass is said, other than exceptional cases, in the extraordinary form. Being in Wisques for the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, day of the infirm, I presided over the concelebration [in the ordinary form] with our ancient ones, some of whom carry the weight of the years and have persevered, despite the collective and personal ordeals. The objective of the move into Wisques was of a double nature: to allow the monastery to survive while preserving thew unity of the monastic family of Saint-Paul. I rejoice that this objective be achieved for the sake of the unity of the family. The arrival of vocations will allow for the serene consideration of the future. Our nun friends of Notre-Dame [the female monastic community near Wisques] making use the ordinary form, the fathers of Saint-Paul celebrate there in this form. [***]

Fontgombault Abbey has spread several times [Randol, Triors, Gaussan/Donezan, Clear Creek, and now the refoundation of Wisques]: what explains these numerous vocations while other abbeys or religious congregations are in crisis?

The psalmist says that, "Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it" (Ps 126/127). Many young men come to Fontgombault to discover Benedictine life. Not all persevere. God rules hearts according to the plans of His Providence, and provides the means to achieve them. The motto chosen for the monastery by Father Abbot Dom Édouard Roux at the moment of its refoundation is Fons Amoris, Fountain of Love. I believe that this fountain truly gushes forth in Fontgombault, and that it is good to come here to drink from it. For those who have the grace of living in this place, it remains to take note of this fact, and to discern what the Lord expects from them, so that their gifts may fructify and that this fountain may flow elsewhere.

(1) Allocution to members of the Laity Council, Oct 2, 1974, quoted in Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 41.
(2) Cf. Letter to Bishops accompanying the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum.

Interview by Christophe Geffroy for La Nef, May 2014 issue. Main excerpts translated by Rorate.

*** An important note is necessary here. Some might understandably criticize the choice made by Fontgombault in allowing a bi-ritual ("bi-formal") existence in Wisques. Wisques was not a new foundation, but an existing abbey: what actually happened was a complete takeover, by request of the Solesmes Congregation, of an ailing abbey by the only abbey in the congregation with members to "spare" for this venture. This only abbey was an abbey dedicated to the Ancient Rite, not coincidentally. Any confrontational attitude would have been unwise, and a serene takeover of an "ordinary form house" by a traditional community shows in many ways a possible image of the future. The current bi-ritual situation (minority Paul VI celebration) at Wisques will resolve itself with time, as the "old members" are gradually replaced by the new vocations. It provides many in the Church with a template of respect and charity for the future, decades and centuries ahead.