Making Pilgrims Out of Tourists

Ministering to Millions at Mont-Saint-Michel
by Zenit Staff Writer | Source: Zenit
MONT-SAINT-MICHEL, France, NOV. 23, 2007 (Zenit.org).- A friar at the historic island abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel off the coast of Normandy says many who visit the site as tourists have been raised in the Christian tradition and the trip reminds them of their roots.

Father Francois De Froberville is a member of the Fraternity of Jerusalem, the community that oversees the spiritual needs of the 3 million tourists who visit Mont-Saint-Michel annually. Since 2001, this contemplative community has prayed with and for the crowd of tourists who visit the national architectural treasure of France.


Mont-Saint-Michel's old stone fortress and abbey church, which was part of the inspiration for the design of Minas Tirith in the 2003 film "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," gives one the sense of walking back in time.

Island History

As legend has it, Bishop Aubert of Avranches built and consecrated a small church on Oct. 16, 709, at the request of the Archangel Michael. In 966, a community of Benedictines settled on the rock. The pre-Romanesque church was built before the year 1000.

In the 11th century, the Romanesque abbey church was founded over a set of crypts where the rock comes to an apex, and the first monastery buildings were built up against its north wall. Then, in the 12th century, the Romanesque monastery buildings were extended to the west and south.

Along with Rome and Santiago de Compostela, Mont-Saint-Michel was a great spiritual and intellectual center for the medieval world. For nearly 1,000 years, men, women and children made a pilgrimage there by roads called "paths to paradise," hoping for the assurance of eternity given by the archangel of judgment.

During the French Revolution, the abbey was turned into a prison and all the monks were expelled from the island.

With the celebration of 1,000 years of monasticism at the abbey, in 1966, a religious community returned to the abbey for one year, bringing back prayer and welcoming pilgrims once again. At year's end, they were asked by the French government to remain.

Friars and Sisters

In 2001, the Fraternity of Jerusalem replaced the Benedictines, moving two communities into the abbey, one for men and another for women.

The Fraternity of Jerusalem, founded in 1975 by Father Pierre-Marie Delfieux in the heart of Paris at Saint-Gervais, now has monastic communities in Burgundy, Strasbourg, Florence, Brussels, Rome and Montreal. New communities are being planned for Cologne and Warsaw.

Father De Froberville told ZENIT: "Our mission is contemplative, looking for God in the desert of the city, finding solitude in the city."

And here at Mont-Saint-Michel, though not a bustling city, "people are reminded they are Christian when they visit the abbey," he explained.

The young community of men and women, all between the ages of 30 and 56, holds Eucharistic adoration every afternoon in the abbey church and one day a week at the small Church of St. Peter in the village below the abbey.

Tourists are welcome to attend morning and evening prayer, while the abbey has a small retreat house available for pilgrims who want to pray for extended periods.

To live at the abbey, despite the natural and architectural beauty, is a difficult life, Father De Froberville reported. "The abbey is not well-lit, as there are few windows. A person must be very mature to live the contemplative life here."

Beauty

The community believes beautiful liturgy is the best way to evangelize. Tourists' children are asked to participate, gathered together to carry candles to the altar when the gifts are offered during Mass. Father De Froberville said, "When we ask the children if Mass was too long, they smile and say 'no,' while the parents look on with surprise. It is the richness of our liturgy that keeps them interested."

As for the tourists who visit, Father De Froberville explained that "the age of anti-clericalism seems to be over. The young people are curious about us as compared to the older generations who still remember the anti-clerical attitude prevalent in France from the 1960s. But those younger than 60 are open to Christianity in a way not seen for a long time. They think it's cool."


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