"We'll put out the five kilo chasuble" said Reverend Mother through the grille. "It dates from when our House was opened in Antwerp in 1619. But we'll also put out a lighter chasuble in case it's too much for you."
Of course, I wore the five kilo chasuble, its embroidery a heavy riot of baroque cornucopiae. How could one resist such a challenge? After Mass, as I left the Chapel, and looked at the gravestones surrounding the first millenium crucifix outside the door, this inscription caught my eye: Beneath is interred the Rev Louis Dourlen Chaplain of Lanherne formerly priest of the Diocese of St Omers and Canon of Arras Cathedral 1839. Aged 85.
It suddenly dawned upon me that M le Chanoine would very probably have worn that five kilo chasuble; that he must have been a gentleman clergyman who had left France during its Revolutionary troubles. I later discovered (George Oliver, Collections, page 287) that Dourlen joined, for a while, the considerable community (unmentioned by Jane Austen) of French emigres in Bath. There, "he was much respected and esteemed for his integrity and polished manners"; he was gout-ridden but never wore spectacles! I suppose he was in his thirties when Arras Cathedral was declared the Temple of Reason and, presumably, he lost the stipends of his canonry; he had lived through the days when the ambiguities of the Oath, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and of the Concordat tried the consciences of the Clerus Gallicanus; the despoiling of the Church in the Hiberian and Italian peninsulars; the period in 1799 when "the last pope" died, a prisoner of the triumphant and invincible French revolutionary regime ... the pope at whose death the long history of the Catholic Church came, manifestly, unmistakably, definitively, to its end: and the gates of Hell prevailed.
Dourlen became chaplain to the Carmelites of Lanherne, an exiled English women's community which in the summer of 1794, nineteen days before the Blessed Carmelite Sisters of Compiegne were to be butchered on the guillotine, had set sail from the Continent to England to escape the murderous armies of the Enlightenment.
After a very short hiatus, the Carmelite charism, and its ancient Liturgy, again flourish at Lanherne. Come to think of it, next year, 2019, will be the 400th Anniversary of the Foundation at Antwerp and of the Five Kilo Chasuble.
As people say, the rumours of the Catholic Church's demise were much exaggerated. So Pius VI did, after all, have a successor, and Bonaparte was, happily, vincible. There are no historical inevitables except her indefectibility.
Ambiguities; ruptures; continuities. The Church Militant always has, in her institutions, even in the Papacy, a tension between continuita interiore and appearances of discontinuity.
Does her life really change much?