Several years ago, I came across some odd volumes of the journal of Julien Green in a Paris secondhand shop. I had never heard of him, but a few minutes’ browsing convinced me not only to buy the books but to track down the others—which proved to be nineteen volumes altogether. (Even those are only a selection.) Green remains little known in France and largely unknown elsewhere. Born in Paris to American parents in 1900, he settled there, wrote mostly in French, and in 1971 was the first non–French national to be elected to the Académie française. His output in diverse genres—fiction, drama, autobiography—was prodigious, but the journals are undoubtedly his masterpiece, the record of the spiritual journey of a superbly cultivated man whose Protestant upbringing, and conversion to Catholicism as an adolescent, armed him against the temptations of the flesh that he finally resolved by living a celibate life blessed by platonic friendships.
The journal spans the years from 1919 to 1998, the last entry made just six weeks before his death. An English selection was published in 1964, but most of it remains untranslated. I have translated here a sequence of entries recording Green’s reactions to Vatican II, which posed challenges to the traditionalist faith of his earlier life—a Catholicism in which supernatural events, including the existence of the Devil, were accepted as everyday facts, not as picturesque metaphors. Green’s hunger for truth, receptiveness to the numinous, acute sense of history, and willingness to accept that there is much in religion we not only do not but cannot know are all deeply sympathetic to me, as I hope they will be to you.
The pre–Vatican II entries record Green making his confession and attending Mass, living a life of prayer, undertaking biblical and patristic study, and discussing theology with visiting priests, religious, and lay people. He was struck by stories such as that of the Curé d’Ars, whose confessional was filled with light. A priest admitted that he was sometimes troubled by wicked thoughts when consecrating, but added, “That comes from the Devil. You just have to ignore it.” A young visitor informed Green that he didn’t think the words of Jesus in the Gospels beautiful enough, and that he would have done better himself. The man had doubts; Green told him, “Doubt follows a person as the shadow follows the body.” The man added that, to him, carnal sins didn’t matter. “There’s nothing one can say,” Green concluded (April 16, 1959).
Another visitor claimed to be a Catholic but not to believe in the Devil. “Well, Christ believed in him,” Green commented, “but what good would it do to argue?” This, he recognized, signified a wider malaise already abroad before Vatican II:
Hell, of course, is empty—if it exists. That’s settled. The statues of saints have disappeared from churches so nobody prays to saints anymore. Family prayers are no longer held. Holy water is no longer used in certain churches I could name. Indulgences are undreamed of. Calvinism has never won so many victories since the seventeenth century. The clergy replace prayer by action (May 27, 1959).
Green accepted the personal reality of the Devil. An abbé told of a young priest who was to exorcize a possessed woman whom he had not previously met. The ritual had scarcely begun before the Devil, speaking through her, objected: “It’s not for you to tell me what to do. You skimp your breviary in the evenings. You allow yourself little nips of rum.” The embarrassed exorcist brought the ceremony to a speedy end. The abbé commented that the Devil was not to be tangled with except after one had made a retreat with prayer and fasting: “That’s Christ’s own advice” (June 4, 1959).
Green respected the mystic temperament of Pius XII; his reaction to the election of John XXIII is not recorded in the published journals. With the impact of the changes of Vatican II in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he found more and more to bewilder and distress him. He worried that the vernacular Mass would be open to local mistranslation, and hence to heresy (November 19, 1967), and recorded stories of trendy liturgical innovations: a nun dancing, Loie Fuller style, during the offertory in Chicago (October 4, 1968); a “jazz Mass” in France with a sermon by a priest who spoke about Biafra without once mentioning God (December 29, 1968). He feared that belief in the Real Presence was unknown to some young priests (January 18, 1968); in Holland, he heard, some parish priests had to make a written declaration of their orthodoxy in this respect (September 21, 1968). An article in which Rudolf Bultmann stated, “Nobody who switches on an electric light and listens to the radio can believe in the New Testament miracles,” perturbed him (May 6, 1970), as did an article by Hans Küng anticipating a future pope who would be merely a figurehead. That would not be the end of the Church, Green said, since Jesus promised that the gates of Hell should not prevail against it, but it would be “the end of a Church” (August 15, 1969, my italics). “St Paul says that to be saved one must have faith. We’ve changed all that” (May 2, 1968—“Nous avons changé tout cela,” Green wrote, quoting Molière).
The événements of May/June 1968, when radicals took over the streets, were, in the view of a priest who came to see Green, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Green disagreed: “I can’t bear to hear the gospel preached by the Devil to the accompaniment of Molotov cocktails” (June 12, 1968). In April 1969, Pope Paul VI complained of “a practically schismatic ferment” in the Church, which Green had feared for years. He was prepared to accept the new rite provided the faith remained intact (May 30, 1969), but he was by no means confident that that would be the case. Jacques Maritain, a close friend, discussed the French Mass with him a month later. In the Pater noster, for instance, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris became comme nous pardonnons aussi rather than comme nous aussi pardonnons, losing the point that forgiveness is granted to us only on condition that we grant it to others.
More worrying was the replacement, in the Creed, of consubstantialem with de même nature because, it was said, the faithful did not understand the doctrine of consubstantiality. “Do they understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and the Real Presence, any better?” Green inquired. “But people make less and less mention of Christ’s divinity and the miracles he performed to show this divinity” (November 18, 1970). Similarly, when it was proposed that “Catholic” (in “one holy Catholic and apostolic Church”) be replaced by “universal,” Green protested: “‘Catholic’ is, in effect, a sort of frontier between the Church Christ founded, and the others—Christian, certainly, but, if you removed that frontier, no longer forming anything more than a single church in which the Catholic Church would no longer be recognizable” (December 17, 1970). The change seemed imminent: “By concession after concession [the Church] loses something of her authority, and her features become blurred. It will be one of the great misfortunes of our time” (December 22, 1970). While praying for the greater closeness of the churches, Green rejected the illusion of ecumenical “unity.”
Late in 1969, it was reported that the pope had deferred the official publication of the new rite for two years, while permitting its experimental use in the meantime, alongside the Latin Mass. Only a month later, however, he invited the faithful to welcome the new liturgy “with joyful interest.” Church interiors were simplified. A newspaper article declared that, although some regret the disappearance of the old ornate altars, “it seems that most Catholics approve of these bare tables, surmounted by a cross and simply bearing candles.” “Not I,” Green retorted.
In the end, he accepted the vernacular Mass because the pope had authorized it and the Latin Mass was still permitted (May 3, 1970). Two years later, in a rare public intervention, Green co-signed an open letter to the pope pleading for the Mass of St. Pius V to be retained. He was overjoyed when permission was granted for it to be celebrated “occasionally” (February 1, 1972). Although he admired some features of the new liturgy, he feared that the vernacular Mass weakened the traditional teaching of the faithful. An article in France catholique reported a student chaplain saying, “Christianity is a myth, and the Mass the celebration of a myth.” In another news item, a priest began his retreat meditation with, “Sisters, you see that I don’t reverence the Holy Sacrament. That’s a thing of the past from now on”—whereupon the Mother Superior brought the retreat to an end with one blow of her gavel (December 2, 1969).
To those who demanded a “liberated” Church, Green retorted: “Liberated from what? Must we suppose she has been in error for two thousand years?” Priests who condemn clerical celibacy are unaware that priesthood is “a love marriage with God” (September 26, 1969). Green duly welcomed the pope’s unequivocal reaffirmation of celibacy (February 6, 1970). He watched a TV program in which a young man who wished to be ordained was asked how he dealt with sex. He replied that, being only human, he reacted to a pretty girl but then remembered the Lord. If he yielded to temptation, he picked himself up and returned to the Lord. Green commented:
This kind of language, this bold way of seeing things, this poverty of vocabulary, attracts many young people, but it doesn’t lead to anything very spiritual. It’s playing with fire to talk like that, it would be better to say nothing about these things; a sense of mystery would be better (October 14, 1969).
When the New English Bible appeared in 1970, he noted: “The translation is remarkably banal.” For instance the “still small voice” of 1 Kings 19:12 in the Authorized (King James) text—“a stroke of genius,” according to Green—is replaced by “a low, murmuring sound.” Green pinpointed the reason for the flatness of the new version: “Poetry has fled from this modern Bible, frightened away by twentieth-century scholars who offer us a prose which cannot be retained, whilst the prose of 1611 embedded itself for ever in the memory and in the heart.” He had learned to love the King James Version from his mother’s reading it to him in childhood.
Green worried that theology was being ousted by sociology in the liturgy. In a service at Notre-Dame, where one of the readings was Philippians 2:6, in which it is said of Jesus in the Latin text, “qui cum in forma Dei esset,” forma became image in French. At this point, some of the congregation made audible protests, to the annoyance of the priest, and even began to intone the Credo in Latin, whereupon they were drowned out by the organ (April 5, 1971). In another of Paris’s churches, a preacher could say that the Gospels were not historical documents without anyone demurring (December 23, 1971).
The pre–Vatican II Church, Green told a visiting cleric, “was beautiful and severe, and its authority was great; it was not to be confused with any other church. The new Church is faceless and its authority not great, its power to draw people to it still seems feeble to me, compared to the Church of old” (December 17, 1971). Three months later, he expanded on this theme, a fitting summary of his reactions to upheaval in the Church:
I seek out, as is my right, churches where certain parts of the Mass are still sung in Latin, where one is not plagued by “modern” music, where I rediscover something of that Church to which I went lovingly when very young, when I renounced Protestantism. The Church which has become the Church of the past, no doubt, but still alive in me at my best. With a faithful heart I do homage to that great neglected Church, but that is all I can do and I can go no further. I can ask only for a Church whose visible head is the Pope, for that is exactly what was taught me by the Church of my adolescence. But strong though my attachment to the past remains, I place great hope in the Church of today, because she is the inheritrix of the promises of Christ. I protest, however, with all the force at my command, against the intrigues of a certain section of the clergy which I hold to be irresponsible, whose departure I desire and whose blasphemies provoke horror. I am convinced that, once freed from these troublesome elements in which it is impossible to recognize Catholicism, the Church will one day recover her authority, and that her true face, the face of Christ himself, will be uplifted upon a world from which I shall, no doubt, be absent (March 6, 1972).
Yet Green lived for another quarter of a century. Born in the pontificate of Leo XIII (who himself had been born in 1810!), he died, as he had lived, a faithful son of the Church, in the reign of John Paul II, whose papacy embodied much that he longed for. Liturgical niceties gradually became less important to him, but he never lost his delight in studying the Bible every day and his conviction of the reality of God. In his last journal entry, on July 1, 1998, he reflects that he is no longer interested in the world: “les événements sont intérieurs.”
Paul Dean is a freelance critic living in Oxford, U.K., and a frequent contributor to the New Criterion.