Ending a holiday is a rehearsal for death

I take up my pen after a summer break on the 21st Sunday of the Year, when the collect for Mass asks that “amid the uncertainties of this world our hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is to be found”. It struck a chord, perhaps because over the holiday I met Fr Patrick Hala, a monk of Solesmes who has published several books on the spirituality of the collects of the Roman Missal, so I am noticing them more, and perhaps because there is something about a good holiday which does allow one to meditate on where one’s heart truly rests.

I was in France for the feast of St John Vianney. I reflected, as I have many times, on his robust style of preaching and imagined the kind of letters the bishop would receive if a priest emulated his pastoral approach nowadays. Back then, the man who would become the patron saint of parish priests was effectively banished to the backwater of Ars because he wasn’t thought clever or presentable enough for anywhere else. It is the essence of the Paschal Mystery that the stone that builders rejected has become the corner stone, but it is hard for us in our own lives not to confuse the blessings of natural gifts – success, charm and ambition realised – with holiness, which will always be somehow hidden, obscure and peripheral to the ways we think the world is moved, or indeed the Church is reformed, since its only power is over the self, to give the self away.

It is myself I need most to remind of this as the demands of routine once more assert themselves. To accept that God’s will is revealed in how things are and not how I would like them to be: this is the route to holiness and, as St John Vianney would say, it can be sweetened with prayers. “To pray and to love, that is the happiness of man on earth.”

But it is hard, seeing the moribund state of the Church in rural France, not to lament for the glories that were once hers. What an irony that not one of the excellent Sisters who keep the shrine of St Thérèse’s birthplace, the Martin family home in Alençon, is a native of France. At Mass in the little chapel which opens off the room where St Thérèse was born and St Zélie died, the congregation consisted entirely of septuagenarian ladies. There were encouraging signs, however. The young French priest explained that as it was a Thursday he was celebrating a votive Mass of the Blessed Sacrament and he preached an excellent catechetical homily, reiterating teachings on the reality of Christ’s Eucharistic presence and urging the utmost reverence and devotion to it.

Afterwards, I visited the basilica in Alençon where Ss Louis and Zélie were married and St Thérèse was baptised. There the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a completely unadorned wooden box offside in a chapel from which all decoration has been removed save some tortured metalwork presumably substituting for a crucifix.

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