‘In Hoc Signo Vinces’: How French Youth Are Raising the Cross Across the Nation

‘In Hoc Signo Vinces’: How French Youth Are Raising the Cross Across the Nation
‘In Hoc Signo Vinces’: How French Youth Are Raising the Cross Across the Nation

While much of modern society forges ahead with attempts to banish all semblances of Christianity from the public sphere, young Catholics in France are ensuring that the crucifix remains a central and constant sight across the country.

“Stat Crux, dum volvitur orbis!” is translated as “the world turns while the Cross remains.” Such is the motto of SOS Calvaires, a group initially formed under a different name in 1987 but which gained increased momentum and international recognition in the last decade.

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The group dedicates itself to restoring the calvary scenes that are dotted around the lanes, crossroads and squares of the French countryside. It notes that its work is following in the finest tradition of Catholic Europe’s architects, the cathedral builders. By seeking to imitate such artisans of the medieval age, SOS Calvaires volunteers aim “to restore France’s small Christian heritage, and more specifically its calvaries.”

In a description of the group by its president, SOS Calvaires seeks to collate “all those interested in the safeguarding of calvaries, oratorical and chapels that make up our heritage, to restore and maintain them.”

“Restoring a calvary is putting the cross back in the center of the village, putting Christ back at the heart of our lives,” the volunteers state about themselves.

Speaking to the Catholic Herald, Jeanne Cumet, who directs communications for the group, explained the great meaning of such work in France. “If we don’t see the cross, we don’t think about God. Seeing crosses is certainly very helpful for French people, so we believe it will be helpful for everyone,” she said.

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Such a guiding principle has spurred on the volunteers to ensure that France’s crosses are by no means left to crumble away slowly. Their recent growth is significant: they have restored over 4,000 calvary scenes since just 2019 and have grown in size to amass hundreds of volunteers and some thousands of donors. Indeed, in 2023 alone, they restored an average of one calvary a day and made an international foray to Ireland to erect five traditional Celtic crosses across the country.

France and the Cross

Before delving further into the tireless work of the SOS Calvaires volunteers, a little background on the significance of the French Cavalries is necessary. Known throughout Christendom as the eldest daughter of the Church, France presents beautiful reminders of this title in the form of wayside crosses or calvary scenes.

Whether placed at the borders of the property of some religious community, at the entrance of a fine estate, or more simply positioned at a crossroads, the calvary scenes give the unmistakable message that Catholicism was part of the nature of the country.

Some may be to mark places of more particular significance in the local history of the church, while others simply afford passers-by an opportunity to pray.

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Indeed, it would be hard for any journey to be completed without encountering at least one such calvary or cross, serving as a daily reminder to both travelers and locals that Christ must remain the center of one’s life.

While an unfamiliar sight to those from Protestant-dominated nations, such as the United States or England, the visible reminder of Christ’s passion and death is a normal sight for those in France and indeed in much of Europe.

The centuries-old tradition of erecting such shrines throughout the countryside assumed particular significance in light of the anti-Catholic persecutions waged by Protestants and later the revolutionary forces of the French Revolution. Many of the crosses that were so intrinsic to French culture were destroyed or damaged by the successive waves of revolt, particularly during the French Revolution.

What more effective way to signal an attack on the Catholic Church and Her members than to tear down the visible points of reference for Her children—toppling the cross.

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Indeed, historians record how the Catholic counter-revolutionaries of the Vendée would stop at roadside calvaries as they passed to pause in prayer before continuing onwards, even if they were under fire at the time.

Despite the efforts of the revolutionaries, France’s calvaries survived, although with many in poor states of repair.

Indeed, historians have noted the beautiful manner in which the wayside calvaries took on renewed import in light of the First World War. While some English Protestant soldiers fighting in France at first objected to such widespread objects of piety, such opposition swiftly dissipated. Thus, The calvaries became relatable even to those men who, while not necessarily Catholic, understood through their own experience about the nature of sacrifice. British records noted how “the wayside calvary now commemorated not only Christ’s sacrifice but the sacrifice through woundings and deaths of countless soldiers as well.”

Meanwhile, French Catholic soldiers recounted with bitter sorrow the destruction of such wayside shrines through the collateral damage of war, likening their ruin to Christ being crucified once again.

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But the soldiers also observed how many of the Calvaries were preserved in manners that appeared truly miraculous. One such example was found in the much-beleaguered Belgian town of Ypres, which was the center of repeated battles throughout the entire war and severely damaged as a result of constant shelling. Undamaged, however, was a crucifix hit by a German shell, which remained unexploded and lodged between the corpus and the cross. Another undamaged monument was the “Crucifix Corner” in the middle of the incalculable devastation of the Somme battlefield.

Through age after age, war after war, these monuments of the cross remained—often damaged or in need of restoration—but nevertheless stood tall throughout France.

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Under a 1905 law, France officially separated Church and State. As a result, it is now prohibited to erect new religious symbols, such as calvaries, in public places. But restoring existing ones is permitted, as is building new ones on private ground.

Here is where SOS Calvaires come into their own. Formed initially in 1987, the group worked to restore the many calvary scenes in dire need of repair from the hardships of age or deliberate damage.

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The group came under new leadership in 2014 when carpenter Paul Ramé took the reins. A few years later, his brother-in-law Julien Lepage joined and became president in 2020. With this renewed vigor, they embarked upon a project of great religious and cultural import.

“To restore a calvary is very simple. But the impact is huge in terms of testimony, and I immediately saw the evangelizing dimension of it,” said the group’s president in a 2021 interview with Catholic News Agency.

The process of restoring a cross involves ensuring that the refurbished cross resembles the original as closely as possible. Sometimes, figures of the crucified Christ have to be made anew, requiring careful molding of the corpus and then affixing it to the cross.

But even the very event of raising the cross is turned into an act of evangelization. Lepage stated that when the refurbished cross is officially installed, volunteers gather and pray together, singing and enjoying a celebratory meal.

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The president also noted how the intrinsically Catholic work provided young people with a sense of purpose that is otherwise lacking in the modern world, which is so focused on self-indulgence. “Countless young people feel lost, and they seek action. Restoring and setting calvaries in place falls within their competence and gives them a sense of belonging. They can identify with a cause, and it gives them a brighter image of the Catholic world.”

Indeed, he observed that whether the volunteers are Catholic or not, many are actually aware of how France is “declining, collapsing, and they want to preserve the Christian roots of their country.”

Volunteers are thus presented with two of the chief elements that modern society is fighting so hard to eradicate—namely, the cultivation of the Catholic faith and the instillation of heroic qualities. One of the most recent projects undertaken by the group involved climbing up to 4600 feet high in the Glières plateau through the snow and raising a cross atop the plateau.

Such an endeavor is just one example of how the youth-led movement is proving the truth of the Gospel just by its very existence. It is the cross which has brought the volunteers together in a common cause, the same cross which serves as the symbol of everything which anti-Catholic and anti-life ideologies despise so passionately.

The pagan Roman Emperor Constantine won his famous battle at the Milvian Bridge after heeding the vision he received, telling him that he would conquer by using the sign of Christ, the cross. SOS Calvaires’ work is raising that same standard across the landscape of the eldest daughter of the Church once more since the truth remains constant: “In hoc signo vinces,” meaning “in this sign you shall conquer.”

Photo Credit:  © soscalvaires – twitter.com