Rorate Caeli

The missionary vocation of the Centre Saint-Paul in Paris

The following is Paix Liturgique's latest monthly English newsletter:

The Centre Saint-Paul: How Tradition Helps with the New Evangelization

Centre Saint-Paul. 

Since 2005 a "Sentier" workshop* serves as an improbable yet fruitful venue for the experiment of tradition at the service of evangelization--or more precisely, of what Benedict XVI himself defines as the "New Evangelization," which aims at reviving the faith of historically Catholic nations. The originator of this project is an atypical priest, formerly of the Society of Saint Pius X: Father Guillaume de Tanoüarn. He and one of his faithful gave us a tour of the Centre Saint-Paul, a place where liturgical tradition, cultural innovation, and intellectual effervescence are in full harmony for the love of Christ. The vitality of the place, however, continues to be studiously ignored by the Cardinal-Archbishop of Paris.

I – A Portrait of the Centre Saint-Paul

It's a weekday, across from the Café du Croissant in Paris, the very place where Jean Jaurès was assassinated.** We meet up with Father de Tanoüarn after his morning Mass; one of his faithful is there too. Naturally we know Fr. de Tanoüarn and have been following his unusual theological as well as philosophical trajectory. Yet we never have paid much attention to the apostolate he has been heading up at the Centre Saint-Paul ('CSP') for close to seven years now, ever since he left the Society of Saint Pius X.

We do know that in 2006 he was among the founders of the Institute of the Good Shepherd (Institut du Bon Pasteur, 'IBP'), an Ecclesia Dei institute Cardinal Castrillón was very keen on to receive Society priests desirous of returning to full communion with Rome. We also know that the IBP is a young and composite reality and is therefore subject to many hiccups and growing pains; in fact it was recently the object of a canonical visitation conducted by Cardinal-Archbishop Ricard of Bordeaux. But it is not the business of Paix Liturgique to meddle in the internal affairs of allied religious communities. No: today we seek only to understand what is being done at the Centre Saint-Paul, to measure the breadth of its field of action, and to find out what place it occupies in the diocesan landscape of Paris. We well know how closed-minded the latter ordinarily is when it comes to the experiment of Tradition.

Our very first question to Fr. de Tanoüarn is: "Why Saint Paul?":

"In the first place because Saint Paul is the missionary par excellence, and I wanted to open a center with a missionary vocation. It is not enough to rest content with a certified traddy™ public, which is increasingly non-militant. One must seek out resources elsewhere.

Next because I am particularly sensitive to Saint Paul's theology, which is also that of Saint Augustine and Pascal, a theology founded upon original sin and sanctifying grace (Rom 5-8), a theology that is no longer preached today, with the risk of emptying out the churches.

Lastly because in Saint Paul one finds not any specific spirituality but the universality of beginnings."

The missionary vocation of the Centre Saint-Paul is expressed first of all by its location on Rue Saint-Joseph in the heart of the Sentier. This neighborhood is, on the one hand, very active during the week and therefore open to the world of labor, and on the other hand sufficiently metro-accessible for the faithful to come out on Sundays. The place is also far enough from the Latin Quarter not to appear to compete with or feed off Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, where Fr. de Tanoüarn was vicar for over ten years. 

Physically, the Centre Saint-Paul is 400 square meters (4,305.6 square feet) divided into four floors on Rue Saint-Joseph, one of the most typical streets of the Sentier neighborhood. The decline in the garment industry there has, for the past ten-odd years, been freeing up inexpensive locations that have character but, often, also an irregular layout. The CSP, whose rent is covered by the generosity of the faithful, is one such.

The street-level chapel is a large room with massive pillars that do nothing to help the faithful see the altar, particularly since a modern staircase on the left leads up to the upper floors. The second floor houses the classrooms and the priests' offices. The third floor is residential. The basement, also accessible from the chapel, consists of cellars that are pleasant enough but are cellars nonetheless, and are used half for storage and half for the Center's times of conviviality.

The CSP offered three Masses every Sunday back in 2005. This has since gone up to five celebrations on Sundays: 9, 10, 11, 12:30 and 7pm. Two or three priests say them as Fr. de Tanoüarn always has a confrere as assistant. He also relies, as the situation arises, on extra help from visiting priests. The result: every Sunday the center draws 250 faithful with a high rate of renewal. There are two Masses on every weeekday.

This is a pretty dense liturgical timetable for such a building. Add to this the center's specificity: catechesis, which is particularly oriented towards adult baptism; lectures and debates on a broad selection of themes; classes and services geared towards the participants' social integration. Indeed, a good number of the center's faithful and regulars are unmarried or isolated people.

"With our lecture series, our adult ed. classes, and our vocational training, we wish to allow people, especially isolated workers, to come into contact with the Church's social tradition," Father explains. To offer to all and sundry daily access to Mass and Catholic spirituality and culture: such is in a word the challenge that has been met for the past seven years on the improbable Rue Saint-Joseph premises.

The commentary that comes at the end of our tour is from Willy, the layman accompanying Father. He says: "This place is small and inconvenient; meanwhile, so many chapels in Paris are vacant . . . ."

Speaking of Willy, who is so representative of the work done at the Centre Saint-Paul: A native Parisian from the Saint-Antoine suburb, he is a young Catholic despite his eighty years of age. Indeed he was just baptized on Easter of 2009, at the CSP naturally. This conversion intrigues us and Willy explains it to us with cheeky simplicity: "I've got friends in Provence, near Le Barroux, who usually get an extraordinary bread to eat. Every time I praised it, they told me that the nearby Monks made the bread, and immediately added: 'They make good bread, but they're bad priests.' As I understood that what they were being reproached with was being too traditional, my curiosity ended up being whetted and led me to discover Le Barroux. I made a retreat there to begin with, followed up with another until I told the monks of my desire to be baptized. And it was they who told me of the Centre Saint-Paul."

For Willy, who had no knowledge of the Catholic liturgy, the traditional form of worship was obvious in that he finds it to be "right". Then, coming from the protected jewel-box that is Le Barroux to the discomfort of the Centre Saint-Paul, he admits to have felt "angry when I discovered under what conditions worship is conducted here." Until, that is, he convinced himself that it was tantamount to "the destitution of Christ's nativity in the stable at Bethlehem." Although he harbors no illusion regarding any possible acknowledgement from the ecclesiastical authorities in Paris, Willy nevertheless wishes the diocese to grant some small fraternal attention to its faithful and priests, for there is no doubt in his mind that there would be "even more of the faithful if the worship space were better suited."

On this point he is in agreement with Father de Tanoüarn, who confides to us that he has asked the archdiocese for a time slot in a church on Sunday evenings for worship and evangelization. He specifies that the Motu Proprio has altered relations with the clergy, and assures us that Paris pastors would be willing to make room for the Centre Saint-Paul--so long as the bishop gives carte blanche. As an illustration of the relations between Summorum Pontificum clergy and diocesan clergy, he reports that the occasional celebration of the traditional liturgy for baptisms, anniversary Masses, or weddings only very rarely causes a problem at the parish level any more.

On his end, Father de Tanoüarn unhesitatingly manifests his communion with his bishop and his fidelity to Benedict XVI by participating in the Chrism Mass since 2007: "The pope has given us the theological framework for a true peace in the Church. One has to be faithful to this framework, without cheating," he explains. To his mind, only a sincere and humble commitment--which does not mean a naive and submissive one--will contribute to "inventing the future of traditionalist resistance", giving rise to the "New Evangelization Traddies." "Our wish, our challenge," he concludes, "is to show that the traditional liturgy is a missionary one and can serve reevangelization."

II –The reflections of Paix Liturgique

1) The history of the Centre Saint-Paul involves a coincidence, which its founder is quick to point out: it was born at the same time as Benedict XVI's pontificate. During the center's inaugural Mass on 1 May 2005, feast of St. Joseph the Worker, Fr. de Tanoüarn had defined this concurrence in his sermon as "a sign in which Providence is manifesting itself." A pope named Joseph, a chapel located on Rue Saint-Joseph, under the patronage of Saint Joseph and inaugurated on a day dedicated to Saint Joseph . . . . Providence does indeed provide. It provides so well, in fact, that it is precisely to Saint Paul that the new Pope dedicated the first Jubilee year of his pontificate!

2) The fate of the Centre Saint-Paul certainly points up the lack of generosity in the way that faithful and priests returning to Rome are treated, in Paris but elsewhere too. In these days of reconciliation between Rome and Écône--with which we are delighted--it is worthwhile to remind our Pastors of their first duty: charity for the souls entrusted to them.

3) By way of explanation for the double patronage of Saint Joseph, the guardian, and of Saint Paul, the evangelizer, Fr. de Tanoüarn expressed himself as follows in the first sermon ever given at the Centre Saint-Paul: "There can be no diffusion without conservation, else we should be fooling ourselves." A motto that would be a perfect fit for the pontificate of Benedict XVI . . . .

4) While certain French prelates, in the first place the cardinal of Paris, continue to pigeonhole the faithful according to their liturgical or political stripe, Fr. de Tanoüarn's courage in daring to propose an approach to the Faith that is all at once spiritual, cultural, and liturgical deserves to be saluted. In fact one of the CSP faithful defines the Centre Saint-Paul as "a place where freedom of thought has been preserved. It is also home to charity where, at last, traddies aren't angrily brandishing their banner or dishing out invective and banishment. That is why many have found THEIR place here, in this place where you've got the right to THINK without all the dictates of modernism . . . or of integrism."

* The "Sentier" is a garment industry district in Paris.
** Jean Jaurès, a popular French socialist parliamentarian and pacifist, was assassinated there on the eve of World War I.