"They are creeping up on us little by little"- traditionalists gaining ground in France

Prayers in Latin, Gregorian chants, processions... While the Pope has spoken out against the Tridentine rite, traditionalist celebrations seem to be attracting more and more of the faithful.

The priest Jean-Claude Sauzet is "Christian, yes". But this member of the chaplaincy team of psychiatric hospitals in Seine-Saint-Denis finds it "increasingly difficult to say" that he is "Catholic". "There are celebrations I no longer go to," he confides.

Ordained some forty years ago, this former chaplain in Jerusalem for Catholic Relief Services and national chaplain for the NGO CCFD-Terre Solidaire regrets what he sees as a traditionalist turn in the Church. "It's spreading at an incredible speed," he says.

"During Lent, more and more often, statues and crucifixes are covered with purple hangings, which is typically a custom that dates back to before the Vatican II Council (the reform that modernised the Church in 1965, editor's note)," he observes.

This priest also mentions the multiplication of Stations of the Cross on Fridays, whereas they used to be reserved for Good Friday - preceding Easter Sunday. "In the church next door to me, it was even decided that these processions would take place in the streets of the city," he says.

A "demonstration" that offends this priest. And "excesses", he believes, which made him "distance himself" from the institution.

Latin, aspersions and kneeling

This return to grace of traditionalism is manifested in many forms: a revival of Tridentine Masses, celebrated according to the old ritual; more texts and prayers in Latin, incense, aspersions and kneeling; communion in the mouth; priests dressed in pre-reform liturgical vestments...

"The traditionalists define themselves first and foremost as attached to the old ritual form of the mass, and they prefer to call themselves traditional Catholics," explains Jean-Benoît Poulle, a history professor and specialist in Catholicism.

"But we must not confuse traditionalists with fundamentalists," says priest and sociologist Nicolas de Bremond d'Ars, who mentions the case of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X, which has broken with Rome. "Originally, the fundamentalists defended the integrity and wholeness of faith and religion," explains Jean-Benoît Poulle. "Today, they are the most extreme fringe of traditionalists."

As far as traditionalists are concerned, the Catholic monthly La Nef has estimated their number in France at just over 50,000, for some 250 places of worship that regularly offer the liturgy according to the Extraordinary Form - i.e. before Vatican II.

Jean-Benoît Poulle estimates their number to be between 100,000 and 200,000. But if this total seems low, it should be seen in the light of "the general decline in Catholicism", says Jean-Benoît Poulle.

"There is not a huge dynamic, but their relative share is growing a lot," he says. "Just like the tide that is receding, they are more visible."

This is all the more true because the traditionalist world remains a "nebula" whose borders "are not watertight", warns the historian Yves Chiron, author of a History of Traditionalists and close to these circles. The proof is in the pudding: not all Latin Masses necessarily follow the ancient liturgy and some Reformed Masses may contain Latin or Gregorian chants. "There are different degrees of traditionalism," says Nicolas de Bremond d'Ars.

A "generational conflict"?

Another illustration of the phenomenon is the Chartres pilgrimage, a walk from Paris organised on the weekend of Pentecost since 1993 by a traditionalist Catholic association which brings together more and more pilgrims each year - 15,000 in 2022 - with an average age of 21.

This is the case of Alice, 21, a history student, who says she grew up in a family "very attached to the traditional rite". She has been taking part in this pilgrimage since the age of 13 and speaks of it as a "great moment of faith" which "gives her a boost", she says.

"My five brothers and sisters had already done it, so it was the next logical step. There are many young people, it creates emulation, it affirms us in this choice and it gives hope to see that we are not alone in following this rite.

For doctoral student Jean-Benoît Poulle, the fact that young Catholics grew up in a society where Catholicism was in decline gave them "the feeling of representing a minority

For doctoral student Jean-Benoît Poulle, the fact that young Catholics grew up in a society where Catholicism was losing ground gave them "the feeling of being a minority". This would have led to a change in the way they live their faith, with a more visible practice. "For young people, there is something uncomplicated about affirming their religious affiliation, it's almost trendy," he says.

"The 'tradi' mass appears to be newer and the Mass in French, an old man's thing. This creates a kind of generational conflict that could accentuate the malaise of Catholicism.

"Since the 1970s, tradition, rites and symbols have been abandoned to traditionalists," says Anthony Favier, co-author of Religions et classes sociales. For this historian of Catholicism, "young people are looking for the pomp and circumstance that has been lost", even if it means idealising the past and "reconstructing a mass that was not the one before the Council".

Yves Chiron, who is close to traditionalist circles, welcomes a "refocusing" of worship after a "lawlessness" allowed by the Second Vatican Council, with sermons "not of a high spiritual level", "not always in the best taste" and sticking "to good feelings", he believes.

"The Latin masses, the Gregorian chants, don't have the same look as the French Mass with poor music," he said.

"Everything is more codified".

"This rite elevates me and makes me grow in my faith," confessed Alice, who testified earlier. "It's a whole atmosphere that transports you, the impression of being in a bubble outside of time," she adds. "It's more in-depth, a bit like being in a one or five star hotel," compares Guillaume.

The 39-year-old Parisian bookseller went through "the usual process": baptism, catechism, Catholic schooling, first communion and confirmation. Coming from a practising but non-traditionalist Catholic family, he never misses a single Sunday mass, always celebrated according to the ancient rite.

The young man was "amazed" when he discovered these celebrations during his higher education studies in Versailles. "As everything is more codified, we are more attentive, there is nothing to invent, no distractions," he says. "The heart and mind are freer to let themselves be carried away by the rite."

But within his family, the subject is almost "taboo". "They know that I go to the 'traditional' mass but they don't talk to me about it and it wouldn't occur to me to suggest it. For them, there must be something ideological. For his part, Guillaume maintains that this is not his case and regrets a form of political "recuperation" of the Tridentine Mass.

"Some Catholics accuse traditionalists of having very right-wing, identity-based and ultra-conservative ideas," says Jean-Benoît Poulle. "There is not necessarily an ideological dimension behind liturgical questions, even if it is true that traditionalists are rather right-wing, like the majority of Catholics in fact."

Numerous surveys have indeed pointed to the links between traditionalist Catholic networks and the far right. During the last Presidential election, the far-right vote among Catholics was higher than the national average.

What is the role of the Church in this dynamic? In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI authorised the celebration of the Tridentine Mass - a conservative shift after the Vatican II era. "It is clear that Benedict XVI has given full freedom to the traditional Mass, encouraging the multiplication of places of worship," points out historian Yves Chiron.

But in 2021, Pope Francis decided to severely limit Masses according to the Tridentine rite. He thus cancelled the expansion allowed by his predecessor, who, according to him, had reinforced "divergences" and encouraged "disagreements that hurt the Church".

"The Vatican's will is that there should be only one rite, the modern rite, and the extinction of the ancient rite," summarises the researcher Jean-Benoît Poulle. "But it is the most dynamic. The bishops are therefore applying this measure cautiously and do not want to reopen the liturgical war."

Nicolas de Bremond d'Ars even considers that traditionalists are today perceived "with a certain favour". This is evidenced by the number of Masses celebrated according to the Tridentine rite - even though it is condemned by the Pope - in the Diocese of Paris.

In the seminaries, vocations are also more traditionalist. Last year, some 122 priests were ordained. Of these, between a fifth and a quarter were ordained according to the ancient rite. "Young priests are more rigid," remarks priest and sociologist Nicolas de Bremond d'Ars. "I see more and more cassocks, it's quite clear that they are trying to distinguish themselves," agrees Patrice Dunoyer de Segonzac, president of the Poissons roses, a left-wing Christian movement.

"If they don't celebrate the Mass according to the ancient form, they put Latin back into the liturgy with a more evangelising discourse," observes researcher Jean-Benoît Poulle. "And when they are not traditionalists themselves, they are less unfavourable to them."

"They are creeping up on us little by little"

Marie-Françoise* can also testify to this new "tradi" atmosphere. This retired practising Catholic, a member of the liturgical team - responsible for preparing the masses - of her parish in the Paris region, remembers an "extremely stormy" incident two years ago. At the heart of the controversy were two families who objected to their daughters serving Mass like little boys.

"One of the mothers was almost crying," she says. "She said that the girls might distract the boys from a potential vocation to the priesthood through altar service. She was really convinced and very moved."

A compromise was initially considered - to clothe the girls in capes and relegate them to welcoming and placing the faithful - before the idea was abandoned. "Eventually, these two families joined another, more traditionalist church. We never saw them again." A "split" that worries this parishioner and her husband Claude* a lot. "It's not a revolution, but it's creeping in little by little.

A "step backwards", deplores Patrice Dunoyer de Segonzac, of the Pink Fish. "There is something infantilizing about traditionalist celebrations. It's appalling, repetitive and uninspired."

Cathcon: Mean-spirited and disrespectful of people and Rite.

So much so that ordinary Catholics are turned off? Priest Jean-Claude Sauzet says that some of those he works with in committed movements have confided in him that they have given up going to Mass and no longer attend their parishes. "They tell me that they no longer have anything to do there, that the morals they hear there do not nourish them and that they no longer find their place in their community.

Contacted by BFMTV.com, the French Bishops' Conference did not respond.

* The first names have been changed at the request of those concerned.