Rorate Caeli

“The True Meaning of Our Liturgies” (and the Meaning of Chartres, the Largest Pilgrimage in Europe) - by Fr. Luc de Bellescize

In this beautiful meditation, Father Luc de Bellescize, a priest of the Diocese of Paris, looks back on the difficult post-conciliar years and their abuses, on the extraordinary success of the Chartres Pilgrimage, on the thirst for transcendence, on the mystery of the Trinity, and on the true meaning of the liturgy. 

La Nef

June 6, 2023

My grandfather was a Lefebvrist. He was not present at my baptism or ordination. 

He had organized dozens of retreats for men. He ran the village choir. Overnight, his parish priest told him not to sing a single word of Latin and ordered work to be carried out to break up the beautiful marble altar and replace it with a roughly squared cube of wood, in homage to Christ the worker against bourgeois oppression. In extremis, the bishop prevented the massacre. The sacred vessels had disappeared, replaced by rough-hewn pottery, and the ornaments were rotting in the empty, moth-eaten confessionals. He spoke to me of those difficult years for the rest of his life, like a wound that never healed. He couldn't bear the violence of the liturgical change. Many had left religious practice. He had found in Archbishop Lefebvre what he had always known. 

I was very close to him, but I did not follow him in his break with Rome, out of love for the Church as it is, confidence in the work of Providence and gratitude to the great Pope of my youth, Saint John Paul II. But I never judged my grandfather. In a way, I understood him. Lex orandi lex credendi. The law of prayer is the law of faith. The way we pray, our gestures, our attitude, expresses our faith. He had the impression that his faith had been changed. This impression hardened over time. 

Faced with all these tensions, this lack of finesse that all too often caricatures the "Trad” world - which can also be found among progressive ideologists - part of my family lost the practice of the faith. My parents remained Christians and faithful to the Church, but we talked very little about religion. Out of modesty, no doubt, or to avoid stirring up old wars that had torn the family unit apart. 

My grandfather's main criticism of the new liturgy was that it forgot the mystery, and replaced it with a reality that was too flat, too horizontal, a self-celebration of the people. It's true that in my childhood, in my village in the Dauphiné, I witnessed countless liturgical abuses. I knew the "I believe in God who sings", the multicolored stoles instead of chasubles and the slides on the war in Rwanda during Christmas mass. The faithful communicated by intinction, like soft-boiled eggs. The drops from the chalice fell to the floor. I mentioned this to the parish priest, a father of the order of the Blessed Sacrament. He told me it did not matter. Saint Pierre-Julien Eymard had to turn over in his shrine. A childhood memory...

 I later met up with some priests from that era, who are now dead. They had returned to adoration, confession and prayer, as one returns to the river of one's youth. For nothing is impossible for God. Over the years, I have come to realize how courageous they were to have remained faithful. 

In just a few years, I saw the parish collapse, the clustering of parishes, the few remaining priests scattered over ever larger territories, with the nagging impression of ploughing the sea. "Leave a parish without a priest for twenty years, and you'll be worshipping beasts!" said the saintly Curé d'Ars. There are no longer any practicing priests in our village. Among a few old-timers, the memory of Christ remains, like a distant shadow that fades with time. But we must not idealize the past. I'm certain that the liturgy in its ordinary form, as we live it, can lead souls to God, provided it retains the sense of silence and respect for the sacred that attracts so many young people today. 

There were 16,000 pilgrims on the Christian pilgrimage to Chartres, following in the footsteps of Péguy.

This made it Europe's largest pilgrimage. Their average age was 25. It is all too easy to anathematize them and see them as nostalgic, sclerotic throwbacks to a bygone era. There is even a certain condescension in believing to be intellectually superior, as if they had remained at an infantile stage of development. The future belongs to those who get up early. And even if some take them for low-brow imbeciles - heaven forbid! -we must always remember Audiard's brilliant words: “A seated intellectual covers less distance than a walking idiot…” 

Many young people are at ease with multiple sensibilities, from the charismatic renewal to more traditional forms of faith expression. They marry, they have children and teach them the faith, they have their lives ahead of them and life will always win. Progressivism is an old moon that has been leading the way for too long and leading souls in its funeral march. It's an "old beau" living out its last days. It has produced no children, no priests and no consecrated persons. 

Young people have no use for the old fratricidal wars. They thirst for beauty and truth. They thirst to have their souls lifted up and turned to the Lord. They thirst for a demanding word that truly loves them, that invites them to free themselves from everything that shackles man in the slavery of sin. They thirst for purity, freedom and silence. The liturgy must be beautiful, like a reflection, albeit always imperfect, of the liturgy of Heaven, the song of the angels who prostrate themselves before the eternal Trinity, the infinite beauty of God.


When I used to go to Notre-Dame de Paris, there to celebrate mass with the archbishop, I was always touched by the people there. Very simple people, from all nations, who came for a moment to experience the gratuitous beauty and magnificence of the divine mystery. The "divine liturgy" is the noble spectacle of poor hearts. Not a worldly spectacle, but an ars j celebrandi where "perfumes, colors and sounds respond to each other", as Baudelaire puts it in Correspondances. We are "born for glory", as little Thérèse used to say. "The glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God", wrote Saint Irenaeus of Lyon.

As a child, I remember that the liturgy's concern was to explain everything, to make everything accessible. I can still hear the refrain: "People have to understand! You have to speak their language...". The temptation remains to explain every gesture, to make it immediately understandable and legible to everyone. 

But by dint of explaining everything, we risk levelling the scale of the mystery. I do not come to Mass to hear my everyday language, but to take part in a "sacred banquet" - the "sacrum convivium" of Saint Thomas Aquinas - that is always beyond me. Brassens sang it well: "Ils ne savent pas ce qu'ils perdent, tous ces foutus calotins, sans le latin sans le latin..." (They don't know what they're losing, all those damn fools, without Latin without Latin...). I'll let you finish so as not to offend your chaste ears. 

I'm not arguing for an exclusive return to Latin, although it's good that we know a few songs from the great Catholic tradition, but for our liturgies to rediscover a sense of God, a spirit of adoration, a gift of awe. The awareness of the infinite greatness of the Lord who humbly hid himself in a small wafer of bread. I've been rereading what Pope Francis says about the liturgy in his latest letter Desidero desideravi. He denounces "a ritual aestheticism that takes pleasure only in outward formality", but also "the opposite attitude, which confuses simplicity with sloppy banality".

Jesus Christ is the Lord. He calls us his friends, but he is also our Master. He's not a good buddy to be patted on the thigh. Our liturgies are not a country-style meal, but they turn us towards the Lord, raising our gaze to the Father in the breath of the Holy Spirit, our inner host, who sanctifies us. "Nothing is too beautiful for God", said the holy Curé d'Ars. God is a pure Spirit, infinitely perfect," taught my grandfather, reciting his St. Pius X catechism, "Creator and Master of all things. I didn't understand a word of it, but I learned my lesson... And when he took me to "Holy Mass" with him, I was drawn to the grandeur of it, as I was drawn to the incense rising to Heaven, the beauty of the ornaments, the communion of the hymns, the vague impression that a great mystery was being played out. Can infinity be explained? Can we explain God? We must first bow down like the angels, like Moses before the luminous cloud, like Peter before Jesus.

Today we celebrate an infinite mystery, the very source of all mysteries. God the Trinity. And we understand little or nothing about it. "What's so strange that you don't understand? If you understand, it's not God", said Saint Augustine. What he meant was that God is not an idol, that we can't confine him to our own categories. Dogma, the statement of faith we make in the Creed when we speak of God the Father Almighty, his only Son who is consubstantial with him, and the Holy Spirit who is Lord and giver of Life, does not claim to exhaust the mystery of God. The Creed is a window on the Invisible manifested.

Shm'a Israel. God is the One, without being solitary. God is communion. In other words, God is Love, Love itself, a relationship without fusion or alteration between Father and Son, in the spiral of the Holy Spirit who cries out in our hearts: "Abba, Father" (Gal 6:4). Love, as a distinction of communion, as a creative distinction, is the source of all life in this world. New ideologies are emerging that see difference as a source of oppression, par excellence the fundamental distinction between man and woman, which is the "matrix" of all living things. The exaltation of indistinction under the pretext of equality, the search for inclusivity at all costs, even in writing, is a chaotic regression towards the absurd and the night of nothingness. This dictatorial "bien-pensance" claims to correct injustices, but it denies the creative difference inscribed in humanity, in the difference between the sexes open to life, a reflection of the invisible Trinity. The aggressive demand for indifferentiation, left to the arbitrariness of freedoms gone mad, is the inescapable consequence of forgetting God, who creates by separating. I am one, born of two. I am made to give myself to the other who corresponds to me in his difference, without consuming him in an illusory fusion, and to let life spring from this gift.

The Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Father. But they are One, in the perfect communion of the Spirit that unites them. True love is not fusion. Fusion is destructive alienation. Love is a communion that must open up, that must give life without closing in on itself. Saint Augustine said: "When you see charity, when you see love, you see the Trinity". Yesterday, I celebrated a wedding near Vézelay, the basilica surrounded by mysteries. The Mass - in ordinary form - was beautiful and beautifully sung. The ornaments were superb, the altar of sober stone where the cross rose under the light of the candles. Times of profound silence alternated with bursts of praise. As I watched these two young people give themselves to each other forever, opening themselves up to life, I thought to myself that the love of man and woman was the most beautiful icon of the Mystery of God. Quite simply, and so mysteriously. And that it was enough to speak of love to say something of the Trinitarian mystery, without betraying the silence in which the angels prostrate themselves.