Home > Archives > 01/02 - 2009 > If everything becomes simple like a prayer
from issue no. 01/02 - 2009

If everything becomes simple like a prayer

Paris, Lyon, Rennes, Ars. A journey through Catholicism in France

by Gianni Valente

Children listening to the Christmas Mass in the church of Notre-Dame Saint-Vincent, Lyon, 24 December 2008<BR> [© Ciric]

Children listening to the Christmas Mass in the church of Notre-Dame Saint-Vincent, Lyon, 24 December 2008
[© Ciric]

A cold snowy wind takes the breath away even from the more daring children cruising the square in front of Saint-Denis on their skateboards. The last tourists wrap their scarves and button their overcoats and hurry away from the cathedral-museum which houses the remains of the kings of France: closing-time ladies and gentlemen, that’s an end to the guided tours among the aisles that tell a thousand years of the history of Christian France, when dynasties ruled the kingdom, one after another, by divine right under the protection of the saint. It was he who saved Dagobert’s soul from hell. And all the kings believed that it was precisely Denis who kept them and their families in good health. For centuries, they made the abbey one of the throbbing centers of the Christian West. There they were consecrated, and there they wished their remains to be preserved. Pepin the Short had been trained in the monastery school of Saint-Denis. There Saint Louis received the oriflamme before leaving for the Crusades, there Joan of Arc placed the arms with which she had liberated Orléans as ex voto. The monastery complex, covered in privileges by Charlemagne and his successors, enjoyed independence from the archbishop of Paris. Its lands free, stretching as far as the eye could see, called merchants, peasants, craftsmen. Now, on the same land, stand the most restless neighborhoods of the Parisian banlieue. Those that in 2005 lit up the night with burning cars, in the most widespread and worrying social unrest to occur recently in a western country. In that corner of France just north of Paris, Christians are also in a strictly statistical sense a minority population, exceeded in number by immigrants and the French of the Umma of Muhammad.
“The Faith”, Charles Péguy has God say in his Mystery of the Holy Innocents “is a church, is a cathedral rooted in the soil of France... But without Hope, all this would be only a cemetery”. The deserted Cathedral seems an immense relic ready to fall, with all its history, into the looming night-cold. But then comes Pierre, who has dark skin and sets himself in front of the altar to whisper the Ave Maria of his rosary. On his knees, just like the statue of a king that one can barely glimpse behind him in the darkness of the nave. (“All the prostrations in the world”, God says according to Péguy, “are not worth the fine upright kneeling of a free man... When Saint Louis fell on the floor slabs of the Sainte-Chapelle, of Notre-Dame, it was a man who fell to his knees, not a rag, not a scrap, a trembling slave of the East”). After him, others arrive: ten, twenty, a hundred. Quick and silent signs of the cross, some prayers before the evening Mass celebrated by Father Jean Baptiste, a Vietnamese. Many are “black” immigrants from the banlieue. They are only few, but they’re there. And no one has “marshalled” them. They come of themselves. Individuality without warrant.

<I>Jesus with three apostles</I>, stained-glass window in Chartres Cathedral [© Ciric]

Jesus with three apostles, stained-glass window in Chartres Cathedral [© Ciric]

Paris after Lustiger
They say: it’s all over in France. The Church is in a state of decomposition, Christianity is dying out. Frowning Catholic intellectuals wrote such even before the Pope arrived, last September. Yet, if on Sunday you enter the church of the Lazarists, where the body of Saint Vincent de Paul is laid, you find hundreds of people who get in line for communion and many climb the steps to pray before the saint who “went about doing good”, as the Latin inscription above the arch of the altar says. The nearby chapel of Notre-Dame de la Médaille miraculeuse, kept by the nuns of Saint Vincent, is closed for renovations until April. When it reopens, the silent flow will begin again of pilgrims and penitents who without pause animates the sidewalks of rue du Bac. Even in Saint-Ignace, on rue de Sèvres – altar in the center and chairs arranged all around, in full concordance with the post-Council stylistic clichés – the learned Eucharistic liturgies of the Jesuits register hundreds of faithful at every mass. “New parishes continue to be inaugurated in Paris: at least ten, intra moenia, in recent years,” says Don William Jean, parish priest of the Basilica of Saint-Séverin, wrapped in the alleys and tourist restaurants of the Latin Quarter. In satisfaction he then sketches the situation of his church, anything but deserted: 1,500 faithful at Sunday Mass, even with Baroque church music; middle to high intellectual level, at least fifty parishioners who come to Mass every day. And every day, from 5 to 7pm, there is a priest in church for confession, “and there are always people coming, of all sorts, including the sans-papiers who work in the restaurants nearby. At Saint-Séverin there were the first marks of the Council liturgical reform, with the first masses in French celebrated ad experimentum as early as 1954. Saint-Séverin greeted “fugitive” parishioners from Saint-Nicolas when, in 1977, that “sister” church (they formed a parish together) was taken over manu militari by traditionalist Lefebvrians. There were brawls, fights, some people even going to hospital. “I was afraid that the withdrawal of the decree of excommunication might reopen old wounds here and the quarrel explode again. Instead”, Don William assures us, “many parishioners have welcomed the decisions of the Pope. They tell me that for them, now, dialogue and reconciliation are possible”. But it is in the large working-class parishes and suburban districts of the outlying arrondissements swollen with immigrants, that the Dominican Jean-Miguel Garrigues – a clear-eyed and non-conformist observer of French ecclesial affairs – sees the most interesting things: “There is a people that has a very simple faith and often stays out of parochial organizations also. They visit the places of pilgrimage, fall in love with the saints of France, drop into church for a prayer, but then may not participate in the mass and not listen to the sermons, finding them too complicated. Perhaps in recent decades the French Church has sacrificed this popular Christianity, when everybody was looking for “Adult Christianity”. But nowadays a lot of these people come from globalization. There are a great many of them, still growing, and even when they become French they retain their particular sensitivity. This, over time, will have consequences”.
Like every evening, in front of the parish of Oratorians, close to the Beaubourg, the wretched of Paris line up to get their soupe Saint-Eustache. Hundreds, clochards and drunks, but not only. Even groups of young immigrants, old people, whole families. And with the crisis – say the volunteers – there has already been an increase in the number of meals handed out. Snow in the air. The point of the Tour Eiffel is shrouded in low clouds. On the Seine barges pass carrying salt. “Charity”, Péguy wrote, “is a hospital, a shelter that takes in all the miseries of the world”.

Palm Sunday procession in front of the church of Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris, occupied by the Lefebvrian traditionalists since 1977 [© Ciric]

Palm Sunday procession in front of the church of Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris, occupied by the Lefebvrian traditionalists since 1977 [© Ciric]

Provisional solutions
The huge, extraordinary Christian history of France is studded with new beginnings. Just as happened with the Brittany Pardons, the popular festivals that until a few years ago dotted the countryside in north west France, between May and September, when at least once a year all those who wanted – and they were always many, countryfolk, gentlemen, sailors and housewives, educated and ignorant – went to the closest chapel, confessed to the priest and then forgave each other the mutual offences and malice into which they had stumbled since the last time. The Breton dioceses had also come out worn down from the forced uprooting of Christian memory following the Revolution. But then the “parish culture” of Brittany had rebloomed more robust than before, imbued in devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and that of Mary, full of goodness and mercy for sinners, as the Breton saint Louis Grignon de Montfort always recalled. Until the middle of last century it was all a bustle: words and works, Lenten missions to awaken tepid hearts and social weeks so as not to lose contact with the peasant masses. Marian conferences and blessings of the sea. Seminaries, Catholic churches and schools put up with a momentum boosted by a sense of revenge against the “stepfather” State who, with the Law of Separation of 1905 had cut all funding to church activities and put its hands on ecclesiastical property. Until, in a few decades, everything has seemed to evaporate. Yet, earlier in France than elsewhere, already between the two wars it was seen that the old Christian lands of Europe had returned to being mission lands. And already by the middle of last century, all the ecclesial experiences – from Action catholique to Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne (JOC), to the worker priests – were marked by the attempt – generous, at least in initial motivation – to witness Christ in a world in turmoil.
Today, the trajectory of the great change even in Brittany is measured in dizzying numbers. The region of Léon and Quimper used to be called La Terre des prêtres, the land of priests. Even in the ’sixties, the dioceses of Brittany had more than a thousand and another thousand Breton priests were scattered over France and throughout the world, in the mission lands. Today, the clergy of Brittany totals 307 priests, mostly over sixty years old, and with an average of five seminarians per diocese. Here, as in the whole of France, there is the amalgamation of parishes entrusted to “itinerant” parish priests splitting their time and energy among parish communities.
At the Saint-Yves seminary in Rennes the rector Gérard Le Stang occupies a fine position for lucid observation of things old and new. He doesn’t minimize or censure what went wrong, the wreck of good intentions, the effects of that “collective amnesia” (“in some ways it remains a mystery”) which has in the span of a few years made a relic of the old Breton slogan that merged together Feiz ha Breiz, Faith and Brittany. But also registers quietly and without triumphalism what is moving discreetly in the fabric of the given circumstances. Unpredictable happenings that, growing out of arid soil, show with more clarity gratuitous and germinal features. He speaks of the elderly priests, “growing up with the a little cerebral model – see-judge-act – of Catholic Action movements, who in the ’seventies felt they were the vanguard of the new, and now are changed by the simple faith of the immigrants they find as parishioners”. He tells of deserted chapels in aging neighborhoods, which suddenly find themselves organizing courses of catechism for dozens of young adults seeking baptism. Of “days of forgiveness” that are taking hold in the parishes, along the lines of the old Pardons, “after a long time when the sacrament of confession had almost vanished from the horizon”. Above all, he tries to conceive the future, watching the boys in his seminary. If in the last century the legions of Breton priests were largely the sons of peasants, now the 34 seminarians of Saint-Yves are an image of the new French pattern: former communists alongside members of new charismatic communities, young people who have refound the faith rediscovering the traditional pilgrimages to the 7 cathedrals of Brittany, along with Haitians and Vietnamese who will become priests in the villages from which French missionaries once left for overseas; people who come from steadfast traditional Catholic families, in addition to the children of divorcees or those who have long since turned their backs on the Church, and suffer the fact of having a priest son as a disgrace. “In many of them”, notes Le Stang, the rector, “there is an almost physical need to remain simple. Being and declaring oneself Christian is already a miracle, no point in inventing anything else. They feel instinctively in tune with what is the Church in elementary fashion, with the situation described in the Acts of the Apostles. If they think about their future, they don’t imagine themselves the respected leaders of super-parishes. They have an inner expectation of doing simple things: prayers, masses, the sacraments, teaching the faith of the Apostles. Albeit as ‘itinerant’ priests they don’t want their dedication to be lost in a distant, vague humanism”. Even the Pope’s decision to revoke the excommunication of Lefebvrian bishops, elsewhere received with puzzlement and controversy, has not disturbed the young men training in Rennes to become priests. “For them,” says the rector, “the Pope’s desire for unity is a good thing. And in any case they see it as the end of a past affair, which doesn’t much touch them. They don’t regard Vatican Council II as the central event of their Christian life. They were born and raised in the Church after the Council and don’t consider the whole of history beforehand as a skeleton to be hidden in the cupboard...”. Out there, in the refectory kitchen, Tanguy, Jean and the other lads of whom Father Gérard speaks, are hurriedly washing and drying the plates and cutlery from lunch. Before scattering into the parishes of Rennes, as they do every Saturday afternoon.

The church of Saint-Eustache in the Les Halles district of Paris [© Ciric]

The church of Saint-Eustache in the Les Halles district of Paris [© Ciric]

Mirages that vanish
In 1948 there were more than 42,000 French priests. In 2007 the number had fallen to less than 20,000, with an average age over 60. In 1996 there were still 1,050 seminarians throughout France, now there are 741. New arrivals in the seminaries reached the lowest figure (116) in 2002, when the wave of euphoria of the Great Jubilee had shortly passed in the Church; in 2008 there were 139. In 2007, 50 dioceses of France did not register a single priestly ordination, and in 24 dioceses there was only one.
There are people who have accepted this numerical décalage as a chance to move “towards a new face of the Church.” Such is the title of the book in which Archbishop Albert Rouet and his collaborators celebrate the “Poitiers model”, the one tried for the last 12 years in the diocese of Saint Hilaire, centered on the “organization of local communities” in which “the laity take a large hand” and “the priest no longer appears as a centralizing agent but as a source of confidence”. A work plan inspired by the shared observation that today, in France, the old maxim of Tertullian that “one is not born Christian, one becomes it” seems more true and faith – as the episcopal vicar Jean-Paul Russeil remarks – “is not in the order of possessions taken for granted, an advantage gained for sure. But this taking account of the given circumstances, instead of suggesting a liberating simplification, flexible and provisional solutions favored by the times of shortage, seems to become entangled in a maze of new tasks to be spread among the teams of professionalised laity: pastoral équipes and councils, sectors, pomotion teams, election of representatives, in which the life of the Christians appears as the end point of activity, an occupation for experts of the subject. Questions of technique, of genetic engineering applied to pastoral methods, to select new secular and democratic nomenclature rather than hierarchical-clerical. An approach that does not fail to stir criticism: “They address the crisis in priestly vocations by following only rational and functional criteria, and they are in danger of sinning against hope: it is the Lord who builds the Church, not us with our programs”, says Marc Aillet, young bishop of Bayonne. Meanwhile in France another cliché seems destined to vanish, one that appeared in the mid-eighties according to which the only effective response to the desert of dechristianization were the new movements and the new communities. “Small islands of perfect Church, and all around Christianity goes away, disappears”, Gérard Le Stang says curtly. While the Dominican Garrigues remarks that the new communities “remain a minimal part of the Church”. He says he feels dislike for “the repeated announcements of periodic Church springtimes entrusted to the militant avant-gardes” that have been the rhythm of recent decades, or for a certain rhetoric of the New Evangelization that has deteriorated into “taste for the sensational and the spectacular” or “exploitation of the techniques of worldly pressure to condition the faithful”. To the point of declaring that “it was the rigid and traditionalist training from before the Council that produced the priest-protesters of ’68, and now the balance is swinging in the opposite direction, inspiring new conformism, in an atmosphere that makes me think of Fellini’s parade of cardinals and prelates in the film Roma”. Even the bishops most open to the new communities set out their sympathies with reserve: “In the Church”, says Monsignor Aillet, every charism can find its place. The movements and new communities are a temporary response, which can make its contribution to the parishes where the people of God ordinarily gather”. Guy-Marie Bagnard, Bishop of Belley-Ars agrees: “It’s not that the movements have no purpose. But if today in France all that happens routinely, without noise, in the parishes, were to lack, Christianity would disappear”.

The presbytery of the Curé d’Ars [© Danièlle Bouteaud/Sanctuaire d’Ars]

The presbytery of the Curé d’Ars [© Danièlle Bouteaud/Sanctuaire d’Ars]

Without inventing anything
Ars isn’t a place for rallies. A few houses immersed in the relaxed countryside, the Carmelites, the convent of the Poor Clares, the road that curves around the church of the Curé Jean-Marie Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests. And inside there’s almost always someone. One goes there alone, in small and large groups. A continuous and discrete flow. Nearly half a million pilgrims a year, “every year a few more, and, among them, the priests are more than eight thousand”, adds Father Jean-Philippe Nault, the young rector of the sanctuary. An increase that has occurred in recent times, after decades in which Saint Jean-Marie Vianney seemed to have fallen into oblivion. The Société Jean-Marie Vianney was founded in the ’eighties, a group of priests who don’t want to have any particular spirituality except that which comes from their priestly ordination, for the salvation of souls. And this year, the 150th anniversary of the death of the saint, the “program” is the same as ever. Without a schedule, one can confess and say mass, “lay down the weight of one’s sins and taste a sip of mercy. At any time, from half six in the morning until evening”. Soon they will open a chapel for perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The people of the village asked for it. Ten years ago – Father Nault confides – it was unimaginable.
When Jean-Marie arrived, in February 1818, the Church of France was emerging from the ruins of the Revolution. The parish of Ars was like a wasteland. “And he only did what every priest, ordinarily, can do: prayer, catechism, confession, celebration of the Eucharist, helping the small and the poor”, Bishop Bagnard repeats. “In the tiny hole where he was penned because incapable”, writes René Laurentin, “he made the crowds come on a national scale. Unwillingly he founded a center of pilgrimage.” Even today, there is no need to organize anything. They come by themselves. “He is a poor saint”, Father Nault says, “and meeting a poor man isn’t frightening. Like Little Theresa. Like Bernadette. They say to us: if you’re poor, I’m even poorer. We’re poor together, before the Lord. You pray for me, and I for you”.
“If the good Lord had found a priest more wretched than me”. said the Curé d’Ars, “all these wonderful things would have happened to him”. Perhaps the world, in France as elsewhere, is homesick for a Church like this. That does not presume to dictate law, doesn’t complain about bad times. That just lets expectation of the miraculous appear on the horizon. “They’ve told us so many things, O Queen of the Apostles. We’ve lost the taste for speeches. We no longer have altars if not yours. We know nothing else but a simple prayer”(Charles Péguy).

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