Four hundred years ago pretty well to the day, at the beginning of May in 1619, a Carmelite House was founded at Antwerp for exiled English recusant ladies. The community in 1794 transferred to Lanherne in Cornwall. If you discount a recent hiatus of three or four years, there are four centuries of Carmelite continuity now represented at Lanherne.
During one of my early visits there, "We'll put out the five kilo chasuble" said Reverend Mother through the grille. "It dates from when the 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 cornucopias. 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; the penny dropped 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. The Cathedral was subsequently demolished.
In the aftermath of the recent fire at Notre Dame de Paris, someone ... I think it was President Macron ... said that fire, war, and revolutions had destroyed French Cathedrals before, but they had always been restored. I think he must have forgotten Dourlen's Cathedral at Arras. Not a stone stands upon a stone!
Canon Dourlen 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 lonely 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, as the Enemy had always known they certainly would.
The Carmelites of Antwerp, 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. They settled at Lanherne, with the permission of the owners, the recusant Arundell family. Now, after a brief hiatus, the Carmelite charism, and its ancient Liturgy, again flourish at Lanherne.
As people say, the rumours of the Catholic Church's demise were much exaggerated. Pius VI did, after all, have a successor, and Bonaparte was, happily, totally vincible. There are no historical inevitables except the Church's 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?