I first visited Le Barroux about fifteen years ago: I was on holiday with a friend in Nice, and we took it into our heads to pay a visit. From the very start, I loved it. Since I was a seminarian, I had been making my retreats at French monasteries with a more traditional stamp—Fontgombault for the most part which, at the time of my first visit, was still using the Novus Ordo. The liturgy and the chant were really wonderful at Fongombault, especially after they began using the traditional rites. The aristocratic severity and hauteur, though, was something that I didn't warm to. I have since been told that this can be rather typical of many houses in the Solesmes Congregation. After this experience, Le Barroux was a revelation. In one sense far more hard line than Fontgombault, there was nonetheless a human warmth which was all the more welcome for the fact that it was unforced; patently genuine. In all my subsequent visits, I have never failed to find their unfailing good humour and friendliness utterly disarming. I know of two priests who went to Le Barroux much as one might go to see a horror film, to see how dreadful things were before the Council, but who were completely won over by the friendliness of the monks and the beauty of the liturgy, celebrating thereafter the traditional Mass themselves. In the interests of fairness, I should add that I have visited Fontgombault more recently and found the temperature to be much warmer than heretofore.
There can be little doubt that the spirit of Le Barroux is largely down to its founder, Gérard Calvet. He was born in Bordeaux in November 1927, entering the Benedictines at Tournay in 1950, where he was ordained priest in 1956, and, one assumes, planned to lay his bones there and spend his life very much as he had begun it.
Such was not to be the case, of course. The ecclesiastical turmoils of the 1960s did not leave his abbey untouched, and so, with the leave of the Abbot, he got on a motorcycle and, with his entire belongings on the carrier, determined that, as he could not live a monastic life in the monastery, he had better try outside it.
After a year as a hermit, he found an old church at Bedoin in the Vaucluse, dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, and he arrived on his motorbike 24th August 1970 to make what he called 'the experiment of tradition'. His first postulant arrived a few days later: Dom Gérard protested that he could not possibly accept novices, but the young man insisted, and definitively moved in that November. Within a year they were eleven, and had set about restoring the ancient priory attached to the church.
The whole life of tradition was vitally important for the community, and so it was to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre that Dom Gérard turned when in July 1974 some of his community were ready for ordination. This put the Abbot of Tournay in a difficult position, and he decided to shut down the community at Bedoin. Dom Gérard went to Rome to appeal, unsuccessfully, but he felt that the work was simply too important to stop, and so the decision was made to continue, with or without Tournay's approval.
The community continued to grow apace, with members living as best they could in caravans and builder's huts, and so, in 1977, the decision was made to build a new monastery. It would cost a great deal, and so Dom Gérard appealed up and down France until he had the funds for the work to proceed at Le Barroux where, in 1980, the first stone was laid. The crypt of the church was the first part to be built, and the guest quarters, and so it was to here that the monks moved in, without heating or electricity, in December 1981. Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated the altar in the crypt, which was then used for the monastic services until the building of the main church above, which began in 1986 and took three years.
Dom Gérard had always enjoyed a good relationship with Archbishop Lefebvre, but found him rather too immobile and unbending, a 'suspicious man', he called him. In particular, he believed that the episcopal consecrations of 1988 were a profound mistake and would lead, ultimately to schism. He believed that Lefebvre should have accepted the accords proposed by the Holy See, and so he himself responded positively to Rome's offer in June 1988 that his monastery be able to function under the terms of the accords. Rome then raised Le Barroux to the status of an Abbey with Dom Gérard as its abbot.
Among the supporters of Archbishop Lefebvre this was seen as rank treason. Many of these folk had given very generously to the building of the monastery, and felt that Barroux should have held firm. Their daughter congregation in Latin America parted ways with them and remained allied to the Society of St Pius X. But Barroux continued to flourish, and, despite baleful predictions, continued to maintain the full traditional liturgy. Another problem arose when Dom Gérard, visiting Rome, was asked by Pope John Paul to concelebrate Mass—in the Novus Ordo—with him. Dom Gérard agreed to do so, and for this was vilified by many traditionalists: 'He says the new Mass!' it was alleged, in shocked voices. Dom Gérard simply threw up his hands and said 'One does not refuse the Holy Father, after all'.
Dom Gérard was no prissy sanctuary-obsessive. One year he and some fellow monks spent Christmas in prison for invading an abortuary and chaining themselves to the surgical equipment. The whole enterprise of building a monastery and holding firm in the face of considerable opposition against tradition reveals the man with the loving smile to have had a backbone of steel.
His health was not to last, however; a stroke partly paralyzed him, though for a while he continued to run the abbey, habitually celebrating the main Sunday Mass and preaching at it, too. I remember him well, surrounded with the various ministers for a Pontifical Mass, gamely wielding his crutch and showing as much energy as he ever had. But in the end, it became too much, and, having made another foundation in France, near Agen, he resigned the abbacy in 2003, being 75 years of age, and was succeeded by Dom Louis-Marie, the present abbot.
Last week, returning from a family funeral, Dom Gérard had another stroke and gave his soul to God. May he rest in peace, and may his foundation flourish.
In a talk he gave in Paris in 1977, raising funds for his new monastery Dom Gérard commented:
Recently an agnostic, faced with our foundering civilisation in thrall to liberalism ("to every man his own religion", and so "to every man his own morality":- you see just how far that can go!) and to materialism ( a two-dimensional universe without after-life or a beyond) remarked: "You monks, you are the most useful members of society." We retorted: "How can you say that if you believe neither in God, prayer nor heaven?" He replied; "Because we are witnessing a haemorrhage of values, a continuing evolution where everything is questioned, a real collective suicide. Now amidst the general rout you monks are witnesses to the permanence of values. And make no mistake, the day you cease to be uncompromising you will interest us no longer."
Dom Gérard's 1977 talk here
Le Barroux website here
An interview with Dom Gerard, telling of his break with the Pius X Society here.