|What the Gargoyle Saw:|
Pilgrimage to Chartres hailed as triumph
for Christ the King
Michael J. Matt
|EDITOR, The Remnant|
HE REALLY IS HIDEOUS! Blackened by time and ominous by design, he wears an expression which is marked by a sort of eerie blend of the comical with the maniacal. Wind and years seem to have done little to soften the baleful pose he strikes day and night, year after year, century after century. And because he was assigned to his lofty post partly to fend off evil spirits, one can almost detect a hint of guilt in his stony scowl at having failed at his fair-weather task. For indeed, he did not put the evil spirits to flight in recent decades; in fact, some seem to have demanded sanctuary in the very places he and his granite regiment were sculpted to guard.
For centuries, Europe itself was like
one great Catholic cathedral filled with saints, virgins and
martyrs. In the old days, the gargoyles rightfully spewed their
gutter grime from high atop flying buttresses down to the ground
outside the cathedral walls. Now, however, Europe is more akin to a
Catholic museum bursting with tourists, where the Protestantized
liturgies therein are so offensive that one could hardly blame a
gargoyle for electing to spew the roof water down on the proceedings
inside those walls instead. The old faith is so forgotten in the
heart of Christendom that even the gargoyles seem ashamed.
But he was also up there when the Parisian mobs invaded Chartres after 1789. He saw the “citizens” attempt to wreck the relics and the ancient veil of Our Lady which, to this day, is kept in the Chartres cathedral and which was miraculously spared the evil designs of the “liberated” ones. They tried to desecrate the Chartres cathedral just as they’d done to Notre Dame in Paris, where a prostitute—the Goddess of Reason—was stripped naked and laid across the high altar.
The French Revolution—operating under
the satanic benediction of the Protestant Revolt—was the inaugural
ball for a new administration that would spend the next two
centuries trying to drive Christianity from the shores of Catholic
Was anyone seriously surprised when the Catholic altars, subjected as they were to the same philosophic erosion that compromised the thrones, finally crumbled and fell into disrepair, as well! And without the twin buttresses of altar and throne to support the steeples of Christendom, it wasn’t long before Catholic culture, Catholic liturgy and the Catholic family began a freefall from the heights of Christendom only to crash-land in the modern world.
Today’s zeitgeist is evil incarnate; it has no more fear of the modern Church than it does of those stone creatures glaring down from cathedral walls. For forty years the world has been forced to bear witness to that zeitgeist’s greatest triumph: Europe—which Hilaire Belloc rightly observed was the Faith—has cast the Faith aside.
Her priests and bishops and nuns have disappeared from her streets; instead of being cradled in loving arms at the baptismal font, millions of her newborn babies are sacrificed at the altar of freedom of choice and women’s rights; and, of course, her myriad pilgrims have been replaced by an endless queue of half-naked tourists. Where once the sound of Gregorian chant reverberated in the stones that kept the walls and the towers and the gargoyles aloft, there is now the weird racket of the New Age, of cameras clicking, and of roaring buses transporting sightseers to famous cathedrals—the elaborate gravestones of Christendom.
Bedecked in shorts, tank tops, and flip-flops, the tourist parade makes its way unthinkingly across those hallowed sanctuary stones where Charlemagne knelt and Joan of Arc prayed; they shoot their pictures and crane their necks and marvel at these granite milestones that, for whatever reason (they know not why), were erected along the road of man’s “great progress” out from the mists of the “dark ages” and into the “light” of the modern world.
Where saints, kings, and pilgrims once beat their breasts and fingered their beads, there are now so many of those poor souls whom Belloc described as being “convinced by the study of geology and recorded History, that the Catholic Church is but one more example of man’s power of self-delusion.” “Catholic” Europe has become a playground for tourists and a nesting place for pigeons. Her ancient cathedrals stand as silent memorials to a Faith that has fallen into ruin.
The traditional Catholic pilgrim, desolate and somehow out of place as he actually prays inside those cathedrals, is left to decide for himself whether he’s visiting a lost battlefield, a Catholic graveyard or a museum of Catholic history. No matter; what is clear is that Europe is no longer Catholic, and he wonders if the world has any idea what an awful price we all will pay for Europe’s “religious freedom.”
Beneath the Gargoyle’s Gaze
Such were my thoughts in early June this year, when I again had a chance to renew my acquaintance with my old friend the gargoyle at the conclusion of the great Pentecost Pilgrimage of Notre Dame de Chrétienté to Chartres, France. The midday heat was sweltering in the square just outside the cathedral by the time we’d limped into Chartres on Pentecost Monday. A crowd of several thousand pilgrims—not tourists, for a change—prayed in the open air beneath the spires.
Since the cathedral itself holds 8,000 and was filled to capacity with traditional Catholics, another 7,000 of us had to hear Mass from outside her massive walls. It’s true, we longed for the cool stone and shadows of the nave, but, after eleven years of being ushered inside, we—the American Chapter of Our Lady of Guadalupe—were asked to take our turn outside. After eleven years of the best seats in the house, we could hardly complain.
So, there we were—fifty traditional Catholic Americans—bathed in brilliant sunshine, listening to the sounds of the old Mass taking place inside, and taking in every detail of the magnificent exterior of the famous gothic cathedral. Ancient carvings of saints, apostles, Our Lord and Our Lady are literally sculpted into every square inch of the façade. And there, just below and off to the left of the famous rose window, was perched our friend, the gargoyle.
Framed by part of the stone tower and
masked by a glorious blue sky, his face was menacing as ever as he
glowered down at the fifteen thousand traditional Catholics who’d
come back to commandeer his cathedral once again. If he could
reason, perhaps he would have asked: “What brings them back? I
thought Clovis had been forgotten and the old faith guillotined.”
The Little Catholic Girls from Riaumont
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:
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:
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 Vatican anymore; you will look for it in vain 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 faint glimmer 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!
My thoughts were interrupted when two black birds suddenly collided in midair, just above the gargoyle’s head. There was a triumphal joyousness in the air which even the birds seemed excited about. The sun still blazed, but a welcome breeze had picked up and was facing off against a seemingly endless line of fluttering flags that were just then exiting the great doors of the cathedral.
The Mass had ended, and flags and banners from all around the world were being processed around the square in Chartres. I wondered what the gargoyle thought when he saw the United States flag (with a cross and Sacred Heart sewn over a few stripes) processing solemnly just behind the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Empress of the Americas. Even in the New World the old Faith isn’t dead.
I moved to the side of the square for a better view of the procession, and there they were—the tourists, dozens of them, having been pushed aside by the massive Catholic throng. They were staring at the spectacle like anyone might if he went to an Old West museum, for example, and suddenly saw the Indian and gunfighter mannequins come alive. They were stunned!
The thunderous sound of fifteen thousand Catholics singing “Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat” over and over again and according to the ancient medieval melody drowned out the sounds of whatever cameras and busses might have still been clicking and roaring in the streets of Chartres.
For a few glorious moments, the tourists were silent and only a Catholic clamor could be heard. The Church was speaking, and, as it used to be in the old days when the Church spoke and the world shut up, the entire city of Chartres seemed to have come to a grinding halt as the Pilgrimage reached its glorious climax, just as parts of Paris had when the Pilgrimage had commenced three days before.
Hundreds of traditional priests and seminarians in cassocks and surplices were passing by just then. These young men—the hope of the restoration and the Catholic counterrevolution—also sang the hallowed words which the modern world has long forgotten: “Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat.”
Canons in white, Benedictines in black, Dominicans in black and white passed by solemnly. Quite suddenly, the sun’s rays danced in dazzling reflection off something gold and shiny that was held aloft at the front of the priestly column.
It was a golden crucifix held high for all to see. For a few breathtaking moments, it was that image of Our Lord crucified which, even in the shadow of the famous cathedral, seemed to transfix the gaze of thousands, even the tourists.
“Christus vincit…” again and again resounded like trumpet blasts heralding the coronation of a king.
At last the “rear guard”—the main celebrant and the other clerics—came into view, distinguished as they were by the royal vestments of the Catholic priesthood. Flags fluttered, bells tolled, children sang, old folks prayed, sunlight dazzled—a Catholic pilgrimage was drawing to a close.
Bringing up the rear was the main celebrant, the Bishop of Orléans, Andre Fort, crook in hand and miter in place, giving his triple blessing again and again as he made his way through the sea of Catholic humanity. I don’t know what was in his mind, but on his lips were the same words: “Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat…”
I glanced at some nearby tourists in that dramatic moment of ecclesial blessing. When the bishop passed, the Catholics genuflected while the tourists continued to stand and stare. Their eyes were wide; some appeared almost dumbfounded. But they stayed and they watched and they listened…and I’ll bet they’ll never forget.
I looked up just then as the strains of the “Christus vincit” swelled to a gigantic crescendo, as if suddenly becoming desirous to compete with the deafening peals of the cathedral bells. Which was louder—the “Christus vincit” or the famous tower bells of the Chartres cathedral—is anyone’s guess.
In that moment, I noticed him again. He was still looking down on us, even through the thunderous surge of song and celebration. His face was as ugly as ever, of course, but in the pageantry of that moment, even the old stone gargoyle looked somehow transformed. It was almost as if he would smile.
Perhaps it was just the heat combined with my exhaustion, I don’t know. But I do know this: If I were a gargoyle on the wall of the Chartres cathedral that day, I’d have smiled. After all, the Catholics had come back; the same folks he’d spent the last five or six centuries glaring at had returned with a kind of holy vengeance that I would imagine a medieval gargoyle would appreciate.
Standing there in that indescribable state of post-pilgrimage bliss, and in the shadow of “Our Lady’s playhouse”—the great Notre Dame de Chartres—I smiled back at that fearsome gargoyle and said half-seriously: “We’ll be back, my old friend. Someday, we’ll all be back; and then your stone museum will become a cathedral once again. You just hang around up there on that wall and wait. The dawn of all is breaking. The Revolution hasn’t gained total victory on this battlefield just yet—the old faith is coming back…”