Thousands turned out for pro-Mass rallies in front of churches in nearly forty cities across France last Sunday, November 15. France is currently enduring another round of lockdowns in which public Masses have once again been declared illegal. Schools are open, supermarkets are open, public transit is available, and you can even go into a church to pray, which you couldn’t during the last lockdown. But you can’t be there while Mass is going on. Not unless you want to be fined 130 euros and see the priest taken away by the police for questioning, as just happened in southern France.
Rally organizers didn’t expect too much in the way of media attention, for secularism rules in France. Turnout, though satisfactory, was not enormous, reckoned at a few thousand; most places drew two or three hundred protestors, with the largest event estimated at two thousand in front of Versailles’ Cathedral of Saint Louis.
But by Monday morning the pro-Mass rallies had become one of the top stories in France, covered on national TV and by most major outlets. Gérald Darmanin, minister for religious affairs, reminded everyone that he had a scheduled meeting with religious leaders on Monday to discuss “conditions” under which religious worship could eventually be permitted. (Spoiler: no concessions were made; the ban on public worship was, as anticipated, extended until mid-December at the earliest.)
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Under lockdown rules, it’s illegal for the French to leave home without filling out an official form stating their intent to carry out an authorized activity. Form in hand, they may go no farther than one kilometer from their homes. An exception to the one-kilometer rule is granted for the purpose of attending a police-approved public protest at a designated location (you still need a form, though).
So the organizers of the pro-Mass rallies—lay Catholics from a variety of associations and groups, some traditionalist, others what we would simply call “conservative” Catholics in North America—approached police in at least forty cities across France, asking permission to hold a protest in the cathedral square, or in front of the main church in the city. In many cases, permission was granted, but at least three cities—perhaps more—refused outright. Elsewhere, protests were authorized, but not in front of the desired cathedral or church; in Strasbourg they were relegated to the churchless Kléber Square (an irony not lost on the protestors, for General Kléber is chiefly famous for helping repress the Catholic uprising in the Vendée during the Revolution).
In Paris, Catholics wanted to rally in front of fire-damaged Notre Dame, but it was forbidden and the site changed to the Church of Saint-Sulpice. As the weekend approached, Darmanin, the minister for religious affairs, issued a warning to pro-Mass protestors: “I don’t want to send the police out to fine believers in front of churches, obviously, but if there are repeated actions plainly contrary to the law of the Republic, I will do it this very weekend.” He added that there would be no more weekends of “leniency.”
For Darmanin and his government officials, any act of public worship—praying at a protest, for instance—is now considered contrary to the law separating Church and State. Police departments across France were instructed to warn organizers of pro-Mass rallies that praying in the street would not be tolerated. Political protests, yes; public prayer, no. While some police departments seemed to take this instruction with a grain of salt, others took it very seriously, even pressuring bishops, at first generally supportive of the protest, to tell the faithful not to pray. The Bishop of Strasbourg at first approved the planned rally, but then instructed organizers throughout the diocese, according to a local participant, that the protest needed to be “100 percent political: no prayers, no blessings, no cassocks or religious habits, by order of the bishop.”
Thus, in Angers, four hundred pro-Mass Catholics gave speeches and shouted slogans in front of the Cathedral of Saint-Maurice—with the open support of the bishop—but remained in silence for a few minutes of “personal prayer.” Parisians were less docile, and already on Friday night had gathered, with police permission, at Saint-Sulpice for a pre-Sunday rally. Videos circulating online showed several hundred (masked) people singing hymns and chanting the Rosary, some on their knees. That was enough for Darmanin, who let Parisian Catholics know that after this blatant prière de rue, or street prayer, they could forget about their Sunday protest. Not only would offenders be subject to the 130-euro fine for violating lockdown; additional punishments would apply for breaking the 1905 law on separation of Church and State. Just in case, dozens of police vans, lights flashing, were sent out on Sunday to block access to the square in front of Saint-Sulpice.
Fortunately, in most places people sang hymns and prayed the rosary without incident. Kneeling seemed to be the signal for police to move in. In Bordeaux, four organizers were issued summonses to appear at the police station since, despite their requests for people to remain standing, some had knelt while praying the rosary. In other locations, it was reported that police were less aggressive—although journalist Jeanne Smits reported that, at the Nantes rally, a man asked a priest to hear his confession; he knelt down on the cobblestones and the priest slipped on his violet stole, only for a policeman to intervene, demanding to know if he was celebrating Mass!
Attendees were overwhelmingly students and families, many accompanied by young children despite driving wind and rain in some areas. A number of cassocks are in evidence in video footage of the events; the diocesan vicar-general was said to have attended the rally in Versailles, and well-known preacher Abbé Michel Viot spoke at the Friday night rally at Saint-Sulpice. The only bishop reported to have attended one of the pro-Mass rallies in person was Bishop Aillet of Bayonne, near Spain.
Bishop Aillet has been a vocal critic of the ban on public Masses, as have a number of other French bishops who believe churches have done an excellent job of respecting coronavirus restrictions, and that the government’s ban on public Masses is caused by anticlericalism rather than concern for public health. Bishop Ginoux of Montauban has also spoken out loudly against the ban, tweeting on October 29, “It’s easy to ask bishops to take the lead if no one stands behind them. Invade the churches at Mass times, ask for the Mass and bishops and priests will come to celebrate it… Actions, not words!” He said Mass himself on Sunday, November 15, in the presence of ten or so faithful, and publicly congratulated pro-Mass protestors.
When the ban on public worship was announced, the outcry forced the government to allow Masses one weekend longer than they had intended, so people could attend Masses for All Saints and All Souls on November 1 and 2. Emergency legal action brought before the highest court in the land on November 5 was dismissed, however, despite the success of a similar suit carried out at the end of the spring lockdown by traditionalist associations. This time the plaintiffs included nine bishops and Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the French bishops’ conference alongside the Society of Saint Pius X, the Fraternity of Saint Peter, the Institute of Christ the King, and several monasteries.
Despite Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort’s support for the lawsuit, many found his approach to the weekend’s pro-Mass rallies disappointing. Last Friday, he wrote to the French bishops, relaying the government’s message that the “street prayers” planned for the weekend were “inopportune,” and would be considered an offense against both lockdown restrictions and the law of separation of Church and State. “We bishops,” he wrote, “must join together in stating that prayer must not be used to make political claims. Prayer is addressed to God, not to public authorities… It remains possible for persons [at a protest] to enter into a church, distancing themselves, for a moment of prayer.”
Catholic leaders certainly have a duty of prudence at a time of social tension, and protests are not always the best way to get things done. Yet one wonders if Pius XI or any of his predecessors would agree, in principle, that prayer must not be used to make political claims. After all, Pius XI wrote in Quas Primas (1925): “While nations insult the beloved name of our Redeemer by suppressing all mention of it in their conferences and parliaments, we must all the more loudly proclaim his kingly dignity and power, all the more universally affirm his rights.”
Such a proclamation might reasonably include kneeling—even in the street.
[Pictured: Catholics pray in front of a banner reading “Public worship, public freedom” as they take part in a rally in Strasbourg on November 15, held to protest against a ban on the celebration of Masses due to Covid-19 restrictions. Credit: Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images]