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from issue no. 12 - 2004

A mass for Paris

For four hundred years a solemn liturgy has been celebrated in the Lateran for the prosperity of France

by Gianni Cardinale

Ambassador Morel greets Cardinal Ruini

Ambassador Morel greets Cardinal Ruini

On the afternoon of 13 December, while the Aula Magna of the Pontifical Lateran University hosted the new installment of the by now considerable dialogue between Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the President of the Senate Marcello Pera, a few meters away, in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, a completely specific and in some ways unusual liturgy was being celebrated. In the mater et caput omnium ecclesiarum the Pope’s vicar, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, presided in fact over the mass «pro felici ac prospero statu Galliae». A particular liturgy because there is no news of other masses celebrated so solemnly in the capital of Christianity in favor of other nations. An unusual liturgy because celebrated «for the happiness and prosperity» of a Republic that considers itself proudly “secular”.
The celebration of 13 December last was particularly solemn because of the anniversary of the fourth century of its institution. As Monsignor Louis Duval-Arnould wrote in the Roman supplement of Avvenire of 12 December, the origins of this mass go back in fact to the time of Henry IV, King of France. He, having become heir to a kingdom fiercely divided between Catholics and Protestants, first embraced Calvinism to then return definitively to the Catholic Church, obtaining the absolution of the pope. «That conversion», Duval-Arnould explains, «which was followed by a legislation conceding important religious freedom to the Protestants – the celebrated Edict of Nantes in 1598 - re-established peace in the Kingdom». And specifically to manifest his recognition toward the Church of Rome, whose pardon had allowed this reconciliation, Henry IV made a notable donation to the Lateran Chapter in 1604. And one of the clauses of this donation established that the Chapter would celebrate a mass every year on the day of the King’s birthday (3 December) specifically for the prosperity of France.
Now times are changed, there has been no monarchy in France for more than a hundred and fifty years, but the mass of Saint Lucy continues to be celebrated punctually every year. And this year, as already mentioned, in a particularly solemn way. All the members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See were invited. The ambassador of France Pierre Morel with his wife, and the French cardinals Roger Etchegarry and Jean-Louis Tauran sat in the front row. The ambassador, as a good Catholic, received communion and at the end of the celebration read a brief address of welcome to those attending. The diplomat – who in the past has represented France in important posts such as Moscow and Beijing – first of all thanked Cardinal Ruini for this «celebration to which you have been faithful every year» and renewed good wishes for the fiftieth anniversary of the cardinals’ priestly ordination. Then Morel spoke of the particular link between the Lateran Basilica and France, testified also by the fact that it was indeed another King of France, Charles V, who restored the Basilica in the 14th century and who was responsible for the construction of the monumental ciborium containing the relics of the heads of Saints Peter and Paul; and it is for this reason – the diplomat added - «that the lilies of France are represented at the top of the arch».
Particularly interesting was the homily given – entirely in French – by Cardinal Ruini. The cardinal from Emilia greeted Ambassador Morel with the words: «Let us not forget that in this circumstance you represent the president of the French Republic [Jacques Chirac, ed.], heir of the kings of France, to whom the Chapter recognizes the title of “first and unique honorary canon” of our Basilica and who came here, in 1996, to take possession of the symbolic stall to which he has a right». The cardinal vicar then sketched a small apologia for King Henry IV, known to most for the saying attributed to him: «Paris is worth a mass». «When Henry IV», Ruini said «had chosen the Catholic Church and obtained the pardon of Rome, he did not give himself over to the intransigence and intolerance that were the rule in the divided Europe of the time; far from applying the principle of “one faith, one law, one king”, whereby a kingdom or principality could only allow one religion, he granted great freedom to the French Protestants with the celebrated Edict of Nantes». «Political calculation or sincere respect for freedom of conscience?» the cardinal then wondered. And immediately added: «This is not the place to discuss it; I want only to recall that Henry IV thus brought religious peace back to France, even if the situation remained precarious, and this despite the lack of understanding of a part of public opinion, whose fanaticism armed the hand of the regicide François Ravaillac [the former Feuillant monk who killed Henry IV in 1610, ed.] It is not a matter of canonizing Henry IV, of making a saint of him, a martyr. But perhaps this sovereign can offer a lesson to our times, that of tolerance and the seeking of peace».

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