Chartres Pilgrimage, 2005

The Little Catholic Girls from Riaumont

Michael J. Matt
Editor, The Remnant

(Except taken from "What the Gargoyle Saw" by Michael J. Matt)

Scouts from Riaumont just outside the Chartres Cathedral

The afternoon heat was almost suffocating at Chartres that day. We’d been walking for three days, and I almost wished my feet would once again become numb, as they’d been earlier that day. The throbbing was as intense as the sun’s rays. We’d slept on the ground for the last two nights, and we hadn’t had a good meal in three days. In the blistering heat and fatigue, my thoughts began to wander a bit. I sat just at the base of the north tower, but, in my mind, I returned to the road to Chartres…

I revisited the previous day—Pentecost Sunday. The solemn high Mass was to be celebrated in the middle of a forest; it was cool there beneath a protective canopy of towering oaks, which, in their own way, were as magnificent as the spires of the Chartres cathedral. Our chapter was situated about one hundred yards from the spacious, three-sided tent, beneath which the Mass was to be celebrated. Having already been walking for a day and a half, it felt good just then to stop, sit, and collect our thoughts

Shortly before the Tridentine Mass began, a young priest dressed in traditional habit made his way into the small clearing just in front of the spot where our chapter was to hear Mass. Silently, he knelt down on the ground—and thus began a wordless sermon, sublime as it was Catholic, that no one who witnessed it will soon forget.

At first it was just one little girl who approached the kneeling priest. She was so tiny—couldn’t have been more than eight years old. Her blue skirt was made of a sturdy fabric, and it was ankle-length; on her feet she wore big hiking boots that were covered with crusted mud; her blouse was light blue, and on her head she wore a blue beret.

Around her neck and beneath tresses of blonde hair, was a yellow scarf; and sewn to her shirt sleeve was a badge which read: Scouts de Riaumont.

Riaumont is a place near the Belgium boarder where a French priest named Abbé Revet established a center for Catholic scouts in the middle part of the last century. When he was 13, Revet read a book about St. Don Bosco. He never forgot that book or the story of the great saint who gave his life to God’s children.

Abbé Revet followed Don Bosco’s lead, and the rest is, as they say, history. Riaumont is located in a part of France where the Faith suffered hideous persecution; it is also a place where traditional Catholicism, thanks to Abbé Revet’s apostolate, is today being raised in the hearts, minds and souls of thousands of scouts. In the History of Riaumont the place is described as follows:

[Riaumont is built on]...soil which suffered from the revolutionary exactions and its string of confusions, of destruction of monasteries, abbeys, churches, and castles. It is also on soil which, during the two world wars, saw the most terrible battle between men which has left behind numerable traces….The cemetery, the trenches, the bomb holes are today the witnesses of those terrible hours….This is land of suffering where our Lord threw a glance in order to allow Father REVET to found a village. A village from where will resound and for a long time, prayers, cavalcades, songs and shouting of hundreds of children.

The little girl from Riaumont whom I saw kneeling in the forest was not technically one of Abbé Revet’s famous “scouts” (troubled boys who are rescued by the traditional priests and Benedictine monks of Riaumont and transformed into soldiers of Christ). Rather, she was one of the “jeannettes,” a scout, yes, but more refined and gentile, as befits young ladies. Her angelic face was made exquisite by a combination of indescribable physical beauty and a loveliness of soul which manifested itself through clear and blissful eyes.

At first, she positioned herself several yards behind the priest. Kneeling up straight as an arrow, she folded her arms across her chest in the French way, closed her eyes, and began to collect her thoughts.

After a few moments, the diminutive penitent rose to her feet and approached her confessor. She knelt discreetly at his side and slightly behind his shoulder, and, after the priest raised his hand in benediction, she confessed her sins.

A gentle breeze fluttered through the treetops just then as rays of golden sunshine somehow managed to penetrate the leafy awning above and play on the branches below; the Mass was underway, and, there amidst the cool shadows of the forest, the lulling murmur of penitent’s prayer and priestly absolution became barely audible over the whispering breeze. One sensed that angels were near.

The Mass progressed, and, as the Kyrie was being sung, I noticed that two more little girls from Riaumont approached the clearing and knelt among tall ferns that grow there on the forest floor.

“Christe eleison…” the sung words resonated through the trees, and the realization came over me that we were praying with the children of the Vendeans. It wasn’t difficult to imagine what it must have been like for those Catholic traditionalists fighting the diabolic French Revolution over two hundred years ago in the forests of the Vendee. They too celebrated their Masses in the woods; their children also knelt in groves outside country hamlets to confess their sins. Indeed, in woods very much like these, the forefathers of the Catholic traditionalists spilled their blood for the old Faith.

The first little “jeannette” rose up from her place beside the priest, but she didn’t return to her chapter right away. Instead, she walked a few paces and returned to her knees. She must have been trained by a saint: her confession—at least in every detail of outward appearance—was flawless. Alone, and partially concealed behind leafy ferns as tall as she was, she made her penance.

For only a moment the priest remained unoccupied. Soon another little Catholic was kneeling at his side. And then another and another…each as sweet and guileless in appearance as the one before.

As the Mass progressed, there must have been ten more who came forward to confess themselves. They knelt at a distance far enough removed from their chapter leaders, however, so as to guarantee that the natural grimaces or nudges or momentary lapses in good behavior that children are disposed to would go unnoticed.

But there was none of that. Each child, kneeling next to the other, treated the sacrament and the priest as seriously as would a soldier on his way to a bloodied battlefield. In stature, these were little Catholics, to be sure, but that didn’t mean that they considered their sins diminutive. Like all good Catholics, they knew that any sin—no matter how slight—is offensive to the Crucified.

Kneeling at the feet of Our Lord’s representative, then, they manifested such prayerful contrition that it brought tears to the eyes of those who looked on.

Sophistication? Forget about it! This was the road to Chartres. We all envied the innocence and the childlike faith of the little girls from Riaumont. The words of Abbé Revet are perfectly applicable to this scene:

"The paradise of my dreams as a man is exactly the same one as the paradise of my dreams as a child.” One does not give a larger treasure to a man than to have had a happy childhood. If, moreover, these moments coincide with a moment when he was Christian, where he was pure, then he is saved. He will always be able to rebound. This is one of the great strengths of the Catholic scout movement. Later, when he is man, he will remember.

If this is true of Catholic scouts in more normal times, how much more is it true today when these precious children are being trained to live the life of traditional Catholics! Indeed, when they are grown, they will surely remember.

Let me set the stage: From my vantage point, I can see the little girls on their knees and at prayer with their chaplain; they are in the foreground. A hundred yards beyond them, in the background, other priests are at the altar and going about the business of worshipping God through the Holy Mass.

Clouds of incense waft back and forth but eventually find their way through the sunrays and tree trunks to the place where we stand; a happy descant for the Credo is gaily sung, incredibly, by a choir of songbirds in the treetops. The sites and sounds of the old Latin Mass seem to ride those golden rays up through the foliage of this natural cathedral to the blue sky above and straight on to heaven itself. The scene is literally breathtaking!

To say that this was a Catholic moment would be to utter an understatement. In that moment there was no heresy in the world, no Protestantism, no schism, no Vatican II, no New Mass; there was only the present, and it was Catholic.

Always and forever, it would be Catholic, and the old Faith was so palpable and alive in those woods and in those thousands of dust-covered pilgrims that one couldn’t help but embrace the joyous confidence welling up from within the soul that the old Faith will survive, not in the far off distant future through some miracle, but here and now and always and forever.

The Consecration was drawing near; confessions would be interrupted for the solemn observance of that greatest of all Catholic moments. But in the short time that remained, one more little girl took her turn at the side of the Catholic priest. Her list of crimes must have been short, for after only a few moments, she was up again and making her way back through the ferns. Her furrowed brow and downcast eyes said everything there is to say about the merits of the sacrament.

Without so much as a glance at her companions, she knelt, produced a rosary and began to work the beads through her tiny fingers as her lips silently formed the Aves. Moments later, the sound of the bells of Consecration jingled through the trees, and, with the exception of the birds’ happy song, everything grew perfectly silent. God had entered the forest.

Do you think all is lost? That we have no reason for hope? That God has abandoned the Church? Well, clearly you’ve never knelt in a forest filled with thousands of pilgrims from all over the world hearing Mass celebrated to perfection according to the ancient rite; you’ve never watched the Catholic girls from Riaumont going to confession in a quiet clearing along the road to Chartres.

Take my word for it—all is not lost and God has most certainly not abandoned His Church. You may not find it inside the great cathedrals here and abroad; but if you know where to search for it, the old Faith is still thriving, even in Europe. And as long as it thrives somewhere, there is always the chance that, given time and God’s good grace, it will take the world by storm once again.

Shortly after the Mass had ended, I approached the chapter leaders who were in charge of these “jeannettes” from Riaumont. By now the little girls were a laughing, busy troop of merry scouts. It was, after all, lunch time and they were hungry. Sitting together in happy conversation as they blithely ate their lunches, I’m sure they didn’t know what to make of the American journalist who, with a tear still in his eye, wanted to know all about them and who it was who was so carefully tending the gardens of these little souls.

But in their eyes, I saw that flame of the old Faith which once was the soul of Europe and the light of the world. You can’t imagine the thrill of seeing it once again in Europe, even if only in the eyes of little children. After witnessing such a scene, what else can be said to describe our situation as Catholic traditionalists other than this: At least in some places, like the village of Riaumont, the future is ours!