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1152: Basilique de Ste Germaine, Pibrac, Haute-Garonne, France
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Basilique de Ste Germaine, Pibrac, Haute-Garonne, France
Mystery Worshipper: Raymond X.
The church: Basilique de Ste Germaine, Pibrac, Haute-Garonne, France.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: The basilica was planned as a magnificent byzanto-romanesque edifice to house the cult of St Germaine Cousin, which had long outgrown the parish church. Work began in 1901, money ran out for the first time in 1911, two wars intervened and yet further delays were caused by the lack of certain materials in 1947. Eventually, in the 1950s someone came up with a cheaper solution. For the centenary of St Germaine's beatification in 1967 the basilica at last had a roof, with a certain raw honesty in its armed concrete beams, which is frankly less vulgar than the original conception. The liturgical movement couldn't resist putting the altar on a circular granite plinth under the dome (where the nave was originally meant to be), with indentations like a vast gear wheel, just the right size for wedging in little flowerpots.
The church: The service took the place of the usual parish mass. Today the parishioners were wearing their pilgrimage association hats, showing an unsurprising bias towards the respectable.
The neighbourhood: Pibrac is a market town that is now a dormitory of Toulouse, perhaps a French version of the English town of Esher. I had been told that it was heavily populated by les Allemands from the Airbus factory, but few were obviously in evidence. On the other hand, for an occasion like this, several of the bécé-bégé had made it to church.
The cast: Mgr Jacques Despierre, évêque émérite de Carcassonne celebrated, assisted by various priests. Boy scouts and other uniformed organisations were in attendance. Three choirs (les Amis de l'Orgue de Pibrac, le Choeur du Village and les Petits Chanteurs à la Croix Potencée) sang at various stages.
The date & time: Sunday, 12 June 2005, 11am.
What was the name of the service?
Pontifical Mass for the Feast of St Germaine.

How full was the building?
A large crowd of pilgrims had come for a Sunday out. The announcement that a party had walked with their curé all the way from Cornebarrieu lost a bit of its impact when I looked at the map and saw that Cornebarrieu was about 6 kilometres away.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A man shook my hand and gave me a service sheet as I went in. Seating was the usual free for all, with plenty of space reserved for the uniformed organisations.

Was your pew comfortable?
Institutional benches (with backs). Comfortable enough, if a bit hard.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Outside, the boy scouts were milling around preparing to escort in a statue of St Germaine apparently made of papier-mâché and chicken-wire. A young priest was making ineffectual attempts to stop everyone else from chatting to the scouts, and urge them into the church. In the basilica the groups of pilgrims and locals exchanged muted chat.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Bonjour à vous tous, pèlerins de Ste Germaine ("Welcome to you all, pilgrims of St Germaine").

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A photocopied service book and a hymn sheet.

What musical instruments were played?
A (not too bad) electronic organ accompanied the various choirs.

Did anything distract you?
The walls were covered with an appealing exhibition of the worldwide reach of devotion to St Germaine, close enough to look at when the Bishop's Toulousain accent became too impenetrable. Many fuzzy photographs of statues recording the "miracle of the flowers" testified to the devotion St Germaine excites throughout the Catholic world, and even in one or two places outre-France.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was as dignified as the French church ever gets: very like middle of the road C of E.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
21 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – A classic bishop's sermon – forceful delivery, confident that at least the clergy will be appreciative afterwards.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
As the punters expected, it started by recounting the stories everyone knows about St Germaine – the wicked stepmother, the miracle of the flowers, the incorrupt body, etc. The latter part may have gained something in translation. The example of St Germaine, living as she did during the Wars of Religion, still has much to teach us. Society is as dark now as it was in the 16th century, and even if we now have enough bread there are worse threats than Protestantism to the life of France today. Ste Germaine, priez pour nous.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The solid accompaniment made singing the lush French hymns a real joy.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The sound system was serially abused, most notably by the Friends of the Organ, who sang a motet quite nicely, but spoilt it by some of them standing far too close to a microphone while the others were out of range.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I continued looking lost, as all the pilgrims had come in groups which talked among themselves. The locals all went straight home for lunch, as the mass had lasted a good deal longer than usual.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The refreshments were picnics spread out by each group of pilgrims under a tree, so far as I could see of uniformly high quality. The church had laid nothing on, presumably expecting this.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – The pilgrim's association are obviously an agreeable group of people once one has got to know them, and Book of Common Prayer choral mattins is uncommon in south-west France.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. A pilgrimage where people are obviously enjoying themselves always has this effect on me.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The papier-mâché statue.
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