The Cure: continued /2
For the second week running the only altar server was Vieux Nicolas, who did his best, but with only one leg and crutches could hardly be expected to carry the blessed vessels with any degree of security. It looked as though young Yves had finally decided to play golf with his father on Sundays rather than coming to Mass with his mother. She was there, as every Sunday, in the second row, with long red hair, jeans and check shirt, by far the youngest of his predominantly female congregation.
Père Benoît leaned briefly against the newly plastered wall by the lavabo, and said a swift prayer for patience and an end to frustration.
During the desultory singing of the first hymn, he noticed a strange family halfway down the left side of the aisle. Mother, father and two young children, with open faces, expectant, devout. As the Mass went on and he was keeping it as simple (and short) as Canon Law allowed he surmised that the family were not French speakers. From a piping comment by the youngest child, urgently hushed during the consecration, he realised that they were English. It wasn't often he got English Catholics in his church. It was rare enough to get any families at all, these days.
The children came down with their parents at communion time, the boy, about six, came quietly, hands crossed on his chest, bowing his red-gold head, expecting the blessing which almost caught in Père Benoît's throat. His little sister, blonde curls bobbing, fidgeted, too young to be solemn.
The English children each had coins to offer for the collection, but they looked puzzled when he announced the second collection "for special purposes". The basket was held up while they struggled to find a second handful of small change. They'd probably only arrived in France yesterday, thought Père Benoît. They probably didn't have much change yet. "Special purposes" was a euphemism. He'd introduced the second collection as his congregation dwindled. Two collections encouraged more giving, and made the difference between an austere lifestyle for the priest and having to go begging to his richer parishioners, such as M. Barnard, whose Mairie was just across the road from the church, and who stood in the second row every Sunday, but never joined in the hymns.
After communion Père Benoît watched the family, whispering together, disappointment clearly etched on their faces. Saying his final prayers, Père Benoît was struck by a vision.... a vision of the past when his church was full and the parish was synonymous with the village community. Oh, the splendid services, the Benedictions and processions and Pardons!
Père Benoît stood before his congregation, which was shuffling awkwardly in the narrow sloping pews. He found his face was stretched in an odd way he hadn't felt that way in a long time he was grinning widely! A strange elation bubbled within him.
Next Sunday we will have the Pardon of Saint Anne, he announced.
His regulars looked perplexed. He continued:
The last Sunday in July has traditionally been the Pardon of Saint Anne.
Madame Céline started nodding and the five dames nudged each other and smiled. He repeated it in English for the benefit of the visitors.
We will have a procession round the village, starting from the church after Mass, said le Père, warming to his theme. Then we will hold a service of blessing of St. Anne's well at midday.
Part of this work was submitted as the Dissertation for the MA in Writing
Last amended on 14th May 1998 / copyright H. M. Whitehead