I am so sorry to hear of the death of Fr Jean-Marie Charles-Roux in Rome at the age of 99. I won’t attempt an obituary, but my memories of him from the late 1980s are still vivid. He was a slender, aristocratic figure who wore a frayed but superbly cut soutane; his long hair was combed backwards in the style of the first Doctor Who, William Hartnell. For many years he was based at the Rosminian church of St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, where he celebrated only the Tridentine Rite.
‘When the New Mass came in I tried it in English, French, Italian, even in Latin – but it was like a children’s game,’ he told me. ‘So I wrote to Pope Paul, whom I had known when he was Cardinal Montini, and said, Holy Father, either you let me celebrate the Old Mass or I leave the priesthood and marry the first pretty girl I meet.’
Charles-Roux knew everyone in Rome because his own father had been French ambassador to the Holy See. He told me that the old man was furious when he decided to join the Rosminian order, ‘because it meant that I would never be a bishop or a cardinal. In the end the Pope [Pius XII] intervened on my behalf.’
Names dropped from Fr Charles-Roux’s lips in almost every sentence, brushed by the faintest of French accents. I once took him to Cecconi’s restaurant in Mayfair. ‘Last time I was here it was with the King of Greece,’ he confided. He seemed to know every Catholic aristocrat in Europe. His snobbery was of no ordinary variety, however: it was bound up with a mystical belief in the sanctity of the royal bloodline. Rarely did he miss an opportunity to preach in favour of the canonisation of Queen Marie-Antoinette – and, should no opportunity arise, he would create one, much to the bafflement of his congregation.
Often he celebrated Mass alone in the medieval sanctuary of Ely Place. It was there that I witnessed the Old Rite – then virtually outlawed – for the first time. As Fr Charles-Roux’s voice dropped to the ‘blessed mutter’ of the silent canon, he seemed to enter an ecstatic trance; it was as if he was blinded by the glory of the Host, which remained elevated for an eternity. He was a good and holy priest. Requiescat in pace.