Centre of Liturgical Arts: L'Eglise Saint-Just de Lyon Where Popes and Kings Worshipped

In the Primatial See of Lyon - Prima Sedes Galliarum - is one of France's grandest and most vibrant parishes and one of the flagship parishes of the FSSP. I wish every Catholic could visit here for Sunday High Mass. This community deserves recognition and should be known by all: Saint-Just in Lyon, France. I had the privilege of visiting here for Sunday Mass in 2018 and it was one of the most impressive liturgical experiences of my life. The parish is also known for their renowned Corpus Christi procession, clothed in a raiment of beauty. The community has been served by the FSSP since 2014.   

The Rite of Lyon

The diocese of Lyon has a very ancient particular liturgy, the Rite of Lyon (Rite Lyonnais), that is occasionally celebrated at the parish. This immemorial rite dates from around the Carolingian period (8th-9th century) and comes in direct line from Rome. This historic link with the memory of the past is thankfully being preserved by the parish, thus saving an immense cultural edifice that has been a part of local spirituality for centuries, helping to put Lyon on the map as a liturgical capital of the world. 

The Rite of Lyon has many very interesting "extras" that developed organically over the centuries. One such worth mentioning here is the linen corporal. In Lyon, they have kept the use of the large corporal which has the same width as the normal one, but double the length. It is larger because in the rite the back part of it covers the chalice and covers it like a shroud, as seen in the photos below. 

The Original Site and First 3 Churches

The current church is located at number 41, Rue des Farges. However, this is not the location of the original church. That church was located down the street about 200 meters, a few minutes walk, at number 11, Rue des Macchabées. This was an immensely historical church, built in the High Middle Ages and consecrated by Pope Innocent IV in 1251. Today the site is covered by modern apartment buildings and a grass park. However, the site has been excavated. 

This original site was massive. Around the property was built over the centuries a fortified citadel intended to reinforce the protection of the inhabitants, church, and the cloister of the canons which housed Roman Pontiffs and crowned heads. Pope Innocent IV stayed here as a guest for seven years from 1244 to 1251 after he secretly fled Rome when it was besieged by Frederick II. He presided over the first Council of Lyons in 1245 (the 13th and 14th Ecumenical Councils were held in Lyon). In 1274 Pope Gregory X convened the Second Council of Lyon. Also, the coronation of Pope Clement V was held here in 1305. Kings of France such as Saint Louis (Louis IX), Philippe le Bel, and Charles VIII also resided here, as well as the Regent Louise de Savoie, mother of François I.

Tragically, the church and cloister were destroyed in 1562. On the night of April 30 to May 1, 1562, the Protestant Huguenot Reformers in their campaign against Catholics, took control of the city of Lyon. Two days later the troops of the provincial military leader François de Beaumont, baron des Adrets, entered Saint-Just and began the destruction of the cloister and plundered everything it contained. The church was torn down in September of the same year. The massacre of the Catholics of Lyon, victims of popular violence in the name of Calvinism, has been condemned by historians. 

In 1971, when construction workers were digging and moving earthworks on that large site, a veritable archeological garden was revealed that gave a glimpse of the remains of the previous structures that stood there for centuries and were destroyed during the sack of Lyon. In fact, three successive churches were revealed. Various sarcophagi were also exhumed during the excavations. Ruins and foundation markings made it possible to follow the historical evolution. The first basilica church was built in the first half of the 5th century along with a mausoleum, a second larger one was built during the 6th century and restored in the 9th century. A third was built in the 12th and 13th centuries, making it the largest church in Lyon after the cathedral. 

The Patron Saints of the Church

The original church was named after the 7 holy Maccabean martyrs. These were Jewish martyrs who were tortured to death during a persecution by King Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The story is described in 2 Maccabees 7, and is popularly known as the women with seven sons. In the story, the king asked the mother and her sons to prove their respect by consuming pork, a forbidden meat. They refused and were tortured and killed one by one in front of the courageous mother who was unflinching and solid in her faith. The event likely occurred around the beginning of a religious persecution in around 167 B.C. Although the mother is unnamed, she is a woman of great courage. 

Later the name of Saint-Just was added to the title of the church, after his remains were returned from Egypt. Saint-Just is mentioned in the Roman Martyrology on the anniversary of his death, October 14 (p. 225): 

"At Lyons in France, St. Justus, Bishop and Confessor, a man of wondrous sanctity and endowed with the spirit of prophecy. He gave up his bishopric and departed with Viator, his lector, into an Egyptian desert and, after leading an almost angelic life for many years, and the fitting end of his labour drew night, he passed to the Lord to receive just reward. His holy body, and the bones of blessed Viator, his minister, were afterwards translated to Lyons on September 2."

Saint-Just was a fourth century French saint and the thirteenth bishop of Lyons. He took part in the Council of Valence in 374 and that of Aquileia in 381. Shortly after, he renounced his episcopate and went into exile in the desert of in Egypt. This was following the lynching of a murderous madman at the gates of his cathedral, a lynching for which the saint blamed himself as responsible. He died in Egypt a few years later, soon followed by his priest friend who had accompanied him, Fr. Viator. A contingent of faithful from Lyon make the long journey to Egypt to retrieve their bodies and brought them back to Lyon where they were entombed in Saint-Just.

Construction of the Present Church

When the canons rebuilt shortly after the sack of Lyon, they chose to do so outside of any military protected citadel so the past would not repeat itself. They made the decision to rebuild their collegiate church away from the fortified walls, on the site where it is today, just a brisk walk up the hill. The current church structure was built from the 16th to the 17th centuries and a majestic facade was added in the 18th century.

The construction of the main building began in about 1565 and went quickly enough so that at Christmas 1565 the canons could celebrate services inside the new church and expose the relics that had escaped the destruction a few years earlier, the head of Saint-Just and the hand of Saint Alexandre. 

Then for lack of financing the pace of construction slowed down considerably. The shell of the church was finally blessed in 1591 by Bishop d'Epinac. The new sanctuary remained without apse or facade for seventy years. In 1661, a choir was added that extended nearly a third to the total length. The newly expanded church was again blessed by Bishop de Neuville in 1663. This choir was closed by the construction in 1666 of a rood screen which has since been removed. It was necessary to wait until the beginning of the 18th century for the construction of the current facade by the Delamonce architects, a father and son team who designed the front of the church with its of the beautiful current facade with its distinctive Corinthian pilasters and entablatures.

Saint-Just has a beautiful Baroque exterior that was added much later after the structure was rebuilt. Although it is boxed in by apartment buildings on either side, the front facade still shines and has a small plaza in front of it. The architecture, as with the interior, reflects the revival of the Platonic-Pythagorean ideal of seeing the world as an orderly mathematical or geometrical harmony, the exteriorization of the intelligible order of the Divine Mind. Every measure of the design of the church was intended to reflect divine interposition. 

The facade was designed in 1704 by the French architect and painter Jean Delamonce (1635-1708) and was completed in 1711 by his son, also an architect, Ferdinand-Sigismond Delemonce (1678-1753). The father and son team provided the church with a majestic facade to rival similar churches in Rome. The father never lived to see the church completed. 

The design is balanced, very Roman, in the Counter-Reformation style of the Jesuits. There are three doors in honor of the Blessed Trinity. Four fluted pilasters define the facade, with a large oval shaped window in the middle. Above the central door can be seen the arms of the chapter of canons. Above the door on the left is a bas-relief image of the translation of the remains of Saint Just to Lyon around the year 400. In the bas-relief above the door on the right is the depiction of his martyrdom, according to tradition in the year 202 in the Roman city of Lugdunum in Gaul (modern-day Lyon, France). 

High in the top triangular pediment is an unusual sight - a clock. Under the clock is a Latin inscription commemorating the dedication of the church first to the 7 Holy Maccabee Martyrs (commemorated in 2 Maccabees 7) and then to Saint-Just: MACHABAEIS PRIMO DEINDE SANCTO IVSTO. A cross surmounts the very top with two carven torches on either side. The original two sculptures on the exterior were destroyed during the French Revolution,. They were later restored in 1828 by the French classic sculptor Jean-François Legendre-Héral (1796-1851). On the left is a statue of Saint Just and on the right is a statue of Saint Irenaeus. 

The Devastation of the French Revolution 

In 1791 the chapter of canons was abolished. Although the exercise of worship resumed in the church on November 15, 1795, it was not officially reopened until 1803 within the framework of the new Concordat. Although before the Revolution it had both  collegiate and parochial status, after it was given only parochial. The dedicated priest, Fr. Irénée Boué  (1827-1844), deployed all his energies to embellish his church and repair the damage caused by the Revolution. In 1831 he called upon the architect J. Gay to raise the triumphal arch of the high altar and establish on the back of the entrance facade the two altarpieces which serve as a setting for the baptistery and the holy water font. 

The destruction of the rood screen in 1805, purely for liturgical reasons, had revealed an existing imbalance between the choir and the nave and a very small apse. To remedy this, the architect J. Gay designed and had installed a delightful triumphal arch over the main altar, supported by 4 columns with Corinthian capitals, which took its inspiration from Roman antiquity and works of the Italian Renaissance. The inside of the arch has a display of colorful classical rosettes in red, blue, and gold. For special occasions the columns are covered in rich red damask.   

The seven medallions seen in the triumphal arch evoke Christ (at the top) and His great witnesses, the four evangelists, symbolized by the "four living beings" of the vision of the Prophet Ezekiel and that of the Apostle John in the Apocalypse. Saint John: the eagle; Saint Luke: the bull; Saint Matthew: the angel; Saint Mark: the lion). Not to mention Saint-Just and Saint Alexander. 

The marble high altar in a Neo-Paleo Christian style, with one gradine for candles, was inspired by a Gallo-Roman sarcophagus and bears in its center the monogram of Christ (Chi-Rho) surrounded by a crown wreath of laurel leaves. On the back of the altar is a Latin inscription that commemorates the three successive consecrations of the church in 1591, 1663, and 1831 (see photo below).

Tough times continued for the parish. The February Revolution of 1848 also featured the parish priest of Saint-Just caught up in the civil unrest, Fr. J.M. Gonin. He proclaimed while blessing a "tree of Liberty": "The son of the carpenter died on the tree of liberty. The Republic has all the sympathy of the priests."

The Interior Decoration

The current interior layout and decoration seen today was carried out at three different periods: Fr. I Boué & J. M. Gonin (1827-1862). Fr. Frécon (1872-1887). And Fr. P. Vernet (1917-1934). Successive artists were able to integrate their work well into classical architecture. The interior was last restored in 1830 and 1967. Much work remains to be done to restore the interior walls and decorate the ceiling.  

Every section of the church has beauty and meaning. The interior has a fine collection of paintings by nationally renowned 18th century masters. The beautiful collection of stained-glass windows speaks of the evolution of this delicate art in Lyon over nearly a century (Lesourd 1826-1827; Brun-Bastenaire, Gentelet and Godart-1845; Barrelon and Veyrat-1860; Dufêtre-1881; the workshop of Nicod-1920/1930). 

Above the exit in the rear of the church, completed in 1839, is imagery related to holy water and Baptism. The clergy wanted to show the existing link between baptism, entry into the church by the people of God, and the sign of the cross made at the entrance at the holy water fount or stoup, a symbolic reminder of baptism. Above the entrance door is the Latin inscription of dedication: "To the Sovereign Pontiff Innocent IV, generous host of the chapter of this parish, the Year of the restoration of the Church in 1746." The medallion portrait evokes Pope Innocent IV, who blessed the previous church in 1251.

The thoughtful layout of the sanctuary reflects great care taken by the canons who helped design their own liturgical space. The present altar is free-standing. The floor plan is large, with an extension into the areas of the two side altars, that double as extra chapels.  The main altar of white marble reflects a Neo-Paleo style that evokes the Roman catacombs. 

Visitors notice the church has wooden choir stalls in the chancel, or extension of the sanctuary. That is because Saint-Just had the status of "collegiate," meaning it was served by a chapter or college of canons. Historically the canons of Saint-Just were about twenty in number. These were priests whose principal duty was the recitation of the Divine office daily together in choir. This ended with the French Revolution. The Sunday High Mass of a collegiate church is known as a "Capitular Mass," and the daily Mass offered before the chapter of canons is commonly known as the "Conventual Mass." The wooden stalls and pulpit date from the 18th century. 

The organ was built in 1921 by the Lyon organ builder Merklin and Kuhn and was restored in 1972. It has two 56-note keyboards, a 30-note pedalboard, and 22 stops.

The side of the baptismal font shows eight cherubs bearing attributes evoking the unfolding of the sacrament of baptism, while the serpent of evil (the devil) flees along the foot of the font. On the altarpiece of the baptistery is the baptism of Christ (a copy of a painting by J. Restout, dating from 1733).

A Community of Martyrs

The community of Saint-Just has boasted many martyrs through the centuries, including those killed in odium fidei during the sack of Lyon in 1562 and those who were killed during the French Revolution. Saint-Just was in the spotlight from the beginning of the French Revolution because one of its priests, Fr. Bottin, was the first priest in Lyon to take the oath of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy a few months after it was passed, on November 14, 1790. The oath of fidelity required every single priest in France to make a public choice, through coercion, that they believed the nation of France had authority over all religious matters. That same year the chapter of canons was dissolved and all its property is confiscated, with many of its members guillotined.

It is helpful to read the story of the mother and her seven sons, whom the church is named, taken from 2 Macchabees 7. In one day all of her sons were martyred in front of her. She spoke to them in Hebrew and encouraged them to die for their Faith:
"It came to pass also, that seven brethren, together with their mother, were apprehended, and compelled by the king to eat swine's flesh against the law, for which end they were tormented with whips and scourges. 
But one of them, who was the eldest, said thus: 'What wouldst thou ask, or learn of us? We are ready to die rather than to transgress the laws of God, received from our fathers.'  
Then the king being angry commanded fryingpans, and brazen caldrons to be made hot: which forthwith being heated, he commanded to cut out the tongue of him that had spoken first: and the skin of his head being drawn off, to chop off also the extremities of his hands and feet, the rest of his brethren, and his mother, looking on. 
And when he was now maimed in all parts, he commanded him, being yet alive, to be brought to the fire, and to be fried in the fryingpan: and while he was suffering therein long torments, the rest, together with the mother, exhorted one another to die manfully, saying: 'The Lord God will look upon the truth, and will take pleasure in us, as Moses declared in the profession of the canticle: and in his servants he will take pleasure.'  
So when the first was dead after this manner, they brought the next to make him a, mocking stock: and when they had pulled off the skin of his head with the hair, they asked him if he would eat, before he were punished throughout the whole body in every limb. But he answered in his own language, and said: 'I will not do it.' Wherefore he also in the next place, received the torments of the first: and when he was at the last gasp, he said thus: 'Thou indeed, O most wicked man, destroyest us out of this present life: but the King of the world will raise us up, who die for his laws, in the resurrection of eternal life.'  
After him the third was made a mocking stock, and when he was required, he quickly put forth his tongue, and courageously stretched out his hands: and said with confidence: 'These I have from heaven, but for the laws of God I now despise them: because I hope to receive them again from him.'  
So that the king, and they that were with him, wondered at the young man's courage, because he esteemed the torments as nothing. And after he was thus dead, they tormented the fourth in the like manner. And when he was now ready to die, he spoke thus: 'It is better, being put to death by men, to look for hope from God, to be raised up again by him: for, as to thee thou shalt have no resurrection unto life.'  
And when they had brought the fifth, they tormented him. But he looking upon the king, said: 'Whereas thou hast power among men, though thou art corruptible, thou dost what thou wilt: but think not that our nation is forsaken by God. But stay patiently a while, and thou shalt see his great power, in what manner he will torment thee and thy seed.' 
After him they brought the sixth, and he being ready to die, spoke thus: 'Be not deceived without cause: for we suffer these things for ourselves, having sinned against our God, and things worthy of admiration are done to us: but do not think that thou shalt escape unpunished, for that thou attempted to fight against God.'  
Now the mother was to be admired above measure, and worthy to be remembered by good men, who beheld seven sons slain in the space of one day, and bore it with a good courage, for the hope that she had in God. And she bravely exhorted every one of them in her own language, being filled with wisdom: and joining a man's heart to a woman's thought, she said to them: 'I know not how you were formed in my womb: for I neither gave you breath, nor soul, nor life, neither did I frame the limbs of every one of you. But the Creator of the world, that formed the nativity of man, and that found out the origin of all, he will restore to you again in his mercy, both breath and life, as now you despise yourselves for the sake of his laws.' 
Now Antiochus, thinking himself despised, and withal despising the voice of the upbraider, when the youngest was yet alive, did not only exhort him by words, but also assured him with an oath, that he would make him a rich and a happy man, and, if he would turn from the laws of his fathers, would take him for a friend, and furnish him with things necessary. But when the young man was not moved with these things, the king called the mother, and counselled her to deal with the young man to save his life.

And when he had exhorted her with many words, she promised that she would counsel her son. So bending herself towards him, mocking the cruel tyrant, she said in her own language: 'My son, have pity upon me, that bore thee nine months in my womb, and gave thee suck three years, and nourished thee, and brought thee up unto this age. I beseech thee, my son, look upon heaven and earth, and all that is in them: and consider that God made them out of nothing, and mankind also: so thou shalt not fear this tormentor, but being made a worthy partner with thy brethren, receive death, that in that mercy I may receive thee again with thy brethren.'  
While she was yet speaking these words, the young man said: 'For whom do you stay? I will not obey the commandment of the king, but the commandment of the law, which was given us by Moses. But thou that hast been the author of all mischief against the Hebrews, shalt not escape the hand of God. For we suffer thus for our sins. And though the Lord our God is angry with us a little while for our chastisement and correction: yet he will be reconciled again to his servants. But thou, O wicked and of all men most flagitious, be not lifted up without cause with vain hopes, whilst thou art raging against his servants. For thou hast not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty God, who beholdeth all things. For my brethren, having now undergone a short pain, are under the covenant of eternal life: but thou by the judgment of God shalt receive just punishment for thy pride. But I, like my brethren, offer up my life and my body for the laws of our fathers: calling upon God to be speedily merciful to our nation, and that thou by torments and stripes mayst confess that he alone is God. But in me and in my brethren the wrath of the Almighty, which hath justly been brought upon all our nation, shall cease.'  
Then the king being incensed with anger, raged against him more cruelly than all the rest, taking it grievously that he was mocked. So this man also died undefiled, wholly trusting in the Lord. And last of all after the sons the mother also was consumed. But now there is enough said of the sacrifices, and of the excessive cruelties."

The Church Today 

In 1970, Saint-Just was merged with the nearby parish of Saint-Irénée de Lyon, located just up the hill on the heights of Lyon. The parishes were merged for practical reasons, in light of dwindling Mass attendance in the wake of the collapse of Catholic culture amid sixties cultural revolution. 

This led gradually to the choice of the church of Saint-Irénéeas as the usual place of worship. The church of Saint-Just, once famous, was therefore abandoned and hardly came to life except for very occasional concerts and rare celebrations. In 1996, the Orthodox community of the "Holy Meeting" was established in the church's sacristy and remained there until 2014. 

As God's grace would have it, the parish of Saint-Irénée-Saint-Just had new life breathed into it when it came under the care of the FSSP on September 7, 2014. Saint-Just is a thriving community and a model success story, once again open for parishioners and passers-by to pause for peace and prayer, with regular parish life fully restored. Saint-Irénée, meanwhile, is thriving as home to a Byzantine Rite Catholic community.  

The upkeep of such an old edifice comes at a cost. In addition, the parish supports their own nearby school. I encourage readers to give generously to the FSSP in Lyon here. The maintenance of Saint-Just is a costly enterprise and there is much work to be done in the area of restoration of the physical property, both inside and out.   

The memory of Saint-Just and Saint-Irénée are maintained by a cultural association set up in 1995 known as Association Culturelle des Sanctuaires de Saint-Irénée et Saint-Just. The volunteers behind this organization educate the public on the historical importance of these churches and they offer guided tours that include the 9th century crypt of Saint-Irénée that once held countless relics of saints and martyrs, before the site was despoiled during the French Revolution. I will forever treasure the memory of my visit to both churches in 2018. It was an unforgettable experience and I encourage others to visit for Sunday High Mass with choir. 


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