I have been blessed to have served my last two Air Force assignments in French colonial country. The cultures of southern Illinois and northwestern Louisiana retain a lot of their French-Catholic character, complete with Mardi Gras and those wonderful French names. This has given me a newer appreciation of the French influence in America and our Church.
France, sometimes called the “Eldest Daughter of the Church,” is the mother of a great number of saints. Wikipedia alone lists 198 articles about les Saintes Francais, and the Catholic Encyclopedia reminds us that France once safeguarded the pope, both in Avignon and in Rome. In fact, it was only Napoleon III’s withdrawal of his troops from Rome that enabled the Italian army to capture the Eternal City and Papal States. France is the mother of St Joan of Arc, St Therese of Liseux, St Louis, and the North American Martyrs. She is also the mother of the evangelizers of the New World. Her sister in faith, Catholic Spain, spread the faith here as well. Together, French Jesuits and Spanish Franciscans brought the Good News of Jesus Christ to the native Americans, building missions across the continent that would one day become American cities and landmarks.
The French influence in Western Christianity is never more prominent than during the month of June (with apologies to February and Mardi Gras), the Month of the Sacred Heart. It was a French nun, St Margaret Mary Alacoque in 1690, who gave us the devotion of the Sacred Heart. If you don’t know the story, it’s worth reading sometime, but the short version is Our Lord appeared to St Margaret and gave her the devotion to His Sacred Heart. The Church gives us the month of June to reflect on the superabundant love of Jesus Christ, symbolized by the image of His Sacred Heart.
There is no more sublime demonstration of the love of God than the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Here Jesus Christ reaches across space and time to bring His very life to us — we stand simultaneously at the foot of the Cross and the Throne. The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church has a marvelous description: “The liturgy as the sacred action par excellence is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed and it is likewise the font from which all her power flows. Through the liturgy Christ continues the work of our redemption in, with and through his Church” (#219).
Not far from my home is the Log Church in Cahokia, Illinois. It is a French colonial mission church and is the only place in the Diocese of Belleville where one can regularly attend Holy Mass prayed in the Extraordinary Form (the 1962 Roman Missal). My wife and I took our children on a “liturgical field trip” one Sunday to give them a chance to see the old Mass in a truly unique setting. I love the Holy Mass, in both its forms, and here was a chance to marry two of my passions, liturgy and history, in a single moment.
We entered the 209 year old church and stepped into another world. Silence reigned inside as we found our missals and knelt to pray. The sanctuary and nave of the church were simple, and with the exception of air conditioning (for which we were grateful!) and electric lights, it was easy to set our mental Wayback Machines for 1940 or even 1840. At the simple ring of a bell, the priest and two altar servers entered the sanctuary. The general order of the Mass was, in its most basic elements, easily recognizable: opening prayers, penitence before God for our sins, reading of the Word and a homily, and the Eucharistic prayers and communion. We followed the Latin as best we could in the missal, we’re not experienced at the ancient form of the Holy Mass, and then approached the altar rail for Holy Communion. Kneeling to receive Our Lord, and hearing the familiar words, “Corpus Christi,” as He was placed on our tongues we were instantly connected to Him across two thousand years of Christian history.
Interesting when I reflect on it: here I was, a Texan of Italian and English descent, worshipping in a French colonial church where colonists and Indians found Jesus 200 years ago, in the ancient Latin language. What’s more, my affirmation of “Amen” is an even more ancient language: Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. The combination of cultures and languages, silence and vocalization, Word and Sacrament, ancient and nouveau, is a microcosm of the Catholic experience. That is, the Holy Mass is not provincial or parochial, but universal in character.
In the liturgical celebration at our local parish, the Holy Mass is the intersection of Heaven and Earth. In the 1970 Roman Missal we speak Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and our local language, tracing a linguistic path from Jesus to us in the Liturgy of the Word, then back to Jesus again in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Our connection to Jesus Christ is through the Holy Mass. It is a connection so intimate that only the union of husband and wife approaches it in intensity. The linkage between how we worship and what we believe is so powerful that when we worship badly, we tend to act badly. It is the reason liturgical abuse robs the Faithful of our birthright and connection to the ancient and universal Church. This is why Father John Zuhlsdorf says “Save the Liturgy, Save the World.”
My wife reminded me that among the first things people did when they came to this country was to build churches and evangelize. The colonists brought priests with them, claiming the new land for God and for their kings…the Cross of Christ was planted before any royal banner. The greatness of the West is not found in relativism or secular humanism…the greatness of Western civilization is that it is built on the foundation of the Christian Gospel. This is Pope Benedict’s message when he decrys the “dictatorship of relativism.”
In the Holy Mass we see our whole history laid out before and behind us — our beginning and our destination. Sacre Coeur de Jesus, nous vous aimons!