Rorate Caeli

That is the Catholic Church!”: Cardinal Ratzinger’s Reaction to Private Masses at Fontgombault

In his recently published book Le grand bonheur (Fayard, 2020), Nicolas Diat relates a singular—and now, in light of the tragic suppression of private Masses in St. Peter’s, highly topical—anecdote about the then Cardinal Ratzinger’s reaction to witnessing the early morning private Masses simultaneously celebrated by some twenty monks at various side altars at Fontgombault Abbey in 2001. Diat had related the same story in an earlier book entitled L’homme qui ne voulait pas être pape (Albin Michel, 2014).

On July 22nd to 24th, 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger attended an international liturgical conference at Fontgombault Abbey where he delivered a lecture and gave a further impromptu lecture when he was asked to provide closing remarks on the Monday evening of July 24th. The next morning as the cardinal is preparing to depart back to Rome Diat relates the following story, as recounted to him by the then Abbot of Fontgombault, Dom Forgeot:

To the monks’ great regret, the high-ranking prelate left Fontgombault Tuesday morning around seven-thirty. Before he left, Dom Forgeot invited him to enter the abbey church at that very remarkable time of the private Masses. The cardinal is captivated, almost dumbfounded. He prays on his knees, on the ground, for a long while, at the back of the church. As he was leaving, now in the abbey’s narthex, he says in a low voice to the Father Abbot, who still recalls his precise voice inflexion: “That is the Catholic Church!”

The original French text:

Au grand regret des moines, le haut prélat quitte Fontgombault le mardi matin vers sept heures trente. Avant son départ, dom Forgeot lui propose d’entrer dans l’abbatiale au moment si exceptionnel des messes basses.* Le cardinal est saisi, presque interdit. Il reste un long moment en méditation, à genoux sur le sol, au fond de l’édifice. En sortant, sur le parvis, il dit tout bas au père abbé, qui se remémore encore l’inflexion précise de sa voix : «Ça, c’est l’Église catholique!» (pp. 198–99)

If that is the Catholic Church . . . what, then, can be said about the now-desolate altars of St. Peter's, built, blessed, privileged, and designated for the daily renewal of the Holy Sacrifice, in order that a continuous stream of adoration, supplication, and thanksgiving might rise up to the Father from the hands of men conformed to His Son?

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(*Diat here says “messes basses,” which translates to “low Masses”; however, in the text of the earlier book, he uses a different expression, “offices privés,” which would translate as “private Masses,” which better expresses the intent of the text: what the cardinal is seeing are the early morning devotional Masses of the priest-monks. The earlier book also indicates the number of monks who would have been present: “une vingtaine,” meaning around twenty.)

My thanks to the Rorate reader who sent me this information. The photo above, which was the only one I could find on the internet, shows monks of Fontgombault saying Requiem Masses on November 2nd. Ratzinger would have seen a sight like this. Here is a similar scene from Le Barroux: