Simon Cotton on a remarkable disagreement between a bishop and a priest in northern France

Thiberville is a small town with a population of around 1,700, on the western edge of the Eure départment of France, at the extreme of the diocese of Évreux, a largely rural diocese with a population quoted of over half a million. For the past two years it has been the centre of a remarkable disagreement between a diocesan bishop and an experienced and successful parish priest, which only recently appears to have found a resolution.

In 1986, the then Bishop of Évreux, Jacques Gaillot, himself a controversial figure, made a new appointment as curé of the ‘groupement interparoissal de Thiberville’. This comprised 13 parishes, each with their own church, and a total population of 4,500. His choice was the 35-year-old assistant priest of Évreux cathedral, Père Francis Michel, who was faced with a group of run-down parishes with churches attended by few.

A flourishing unit

Over the next 23 years, this group of parishes was transformed into a flourishing unit, with a daily Mass and three Sunday Masses; the 5pm Sunday Mass at Thiberville has for more than ten years been conducted in the extraordinary form, anticipating by some years Pope Benedict’s desire for the Moto Proprio. Mass was usually celebrated using the eastward position.

Other traditional aspects of the liturgy included the use of black vestments at requiems, not to mention the maniple. The other churches were used in rotation; the laity were engaged, there was a large children’s choir and the traditional confréries de charité were active. Père Michel habitually dresses in a soutane, in contrast to many French clergy, who these days confine themselves to a cross in the lapel.

There was an active catechesis conducted by the parish priest himself, whose success can be judged by the figures quoted for 2009; the Thiberville group of parishes contributed 40 of the 170 confirmation candidates in the diocese that year – over 23% of the candidates from less than 1% of the population.

Proposed changes

In December 2009, Mgr Nourrichard, the present Bishop of Évreux, decided that the parish grouping would be transformed into a ‘communauté locale’ within the parish of Notre-Dame de Charentonne, a big group of parishes centred upon the large town of Bernay. Père Michel would leave and not be replaced.

Accompanied by the abbé Vivien, his Vicar General (and parish priest of Bernay, who was to be in charge of the new grouping), the Bishop arrived at Thiberville to announce it personally to the congregation at Mass on Sunday 3 January 2010 and was greeted with profound hostility by a packed church, reportedly with the local Mayor and his council sitting in the front pew.

Père Michel had the active support of the large majority of Catholics in the parishes and all the maires had petitioned the bishop in favour of Père Michel (a petition went into circulation which attracted 4,000 signatures wanting him to be allowed to stay).

Most of the congregation then left the church and went to BournainvilleFavrolles, another church in the group, where Fr Michel celebrated mass in the ordinary form (facing east).

This was all worthy of one of Giovannino Guareschis Don Camillo stories (this time with Peppone on the priest’s side against outside interference). French television filmed the events, reported both by local and amazed Parisian journalists. Videos of this event posted on YouTube went viral.

Père Michel appealed three times to Rome against the Bishop’s decision. He was by now living in the presbytery (which belongs to the parish, not to the diocese) and continuing to minister to the faithful, whether in private houses or in the open air, with summer Blessed Sacrament processions continuing.

Move to Le Planquay

The Holy See nominated Mgr Boulanger, the bishop of the neighbouring diocese of Bayeux-Lisieux, as a mediator. In late November 2011 it was announced that Père Michel would become rector of Le Planquay (population 140), one of the smallest parishes of the Thiberville group, which would otherwise be merged with the Bernaybased parishes, as was the intention of the Bishop of Evreux.

Père Michel will be able to say Mass there, whether in the ordinary or extraordinary forms, but will require permission of the abbé Vivien, who is in charge of the Bernay grouping, before being able to conduct a baptism, marriage or funeral. He will eventually have a presbytery at his disposal at Le Planquay, whose maire is the wife of the maire of Thiberville.

An oasis

The curé celebrated his first Mass at Le Planquay on Advent Sunday, 27 November, with the assistance of a goodly number of the faithful, the church ‘pleine à craquer’ (full to

bursting point) as the French press put it.

A rapprochement of sorts has been reached; ‘Ils acceptent d’enterrer la hache’, said one blog. Some traditionalists saw this as a victory (as one said, ‘Mgr Nourrichard a dû manger la moitie de son chapeau’), but it should not be seen in those terms. Still, it is good that there remains this one tiny corner of the diocese where the extraordinary form of Holy Mass is still celebrated, an oasis in the desert acres of Evreux diocese. According to the blog of Père Michel’s supporters (‘Soutien à Monsieur l’abbé Michel’), there are three Sunday Masses, a daily Mass in the week, and weekly catechism classes.

By coincidence, November 27 saw the annual Requiem at Thiberville for Fr Quentin Montgomery-Wright, a Scottish convert from AngloCatholicism, the curé of the small neighbouring village of Le Chamblac from 1956 until his death in 1996, who continued to celebrate Mass according to the old rite and was greatly loved by his parishioners.

I visited Thiberville just over a year ago, entering the church through the west doorway late one August afternoon in 2010. It was several minutes before I realized that an elderly lady was sitting in absolute silence up by the chancel arch saying her prayers, not something you often encounter in France these days. ND