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from issue no. 01/02 - 2009

Interview with Cardinal Philippe Barbarin

The lights of Lyon

“The citizens of Lyon, when they want to entrust to Mary their troubles, their hopes, their families, usually climb the hill of Fourvière. Even Muslims go up, when a child is born, to present it to Notre-Dame

Interview with Cardinal Philippe Barbarin

The current primate of Gaul was born in Rabat, Morocco, to a large family (six sisters, two of whom are nuns, and four brothers) and for five years was a fidei donum priest in Madagascar. A curriculum vitae as eclectic as the city of two rivers which preserves the memories of the first Christians martyred on French soil, and who knows it has become a modern and dynamic metropolis, projected towards a multi-ethnic and manifold “European” future.

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin<BR> [© Romano Siciliani]

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin
[© Romano Siciliani]

According to the Cardinal of Paris, André Vingt-Trois, when Benedict XVI came to France it was seen that the image of a French Church lacking a future did not correspond to reality. Over-optimism?
PHILIPPE BARBARIN: Actually, I think on that occasion, last September, we saw something new. The beauty of the holy mass celebrated on the Esplanade des Invalides, was a reconciling beauty. Cardinal Tauran said to me: I believe that since the Council I have not seen so beautiful a mass. Silence, spirit of adoration, of inwardness. Even the television commentators were surprised by the silence. Even the traditionalists were unable not to admire a mass celebrated in the ordinary form of the Roman Rite, in Latin and French, with the Pope, a hundred bishops, two thousand priests, three hundred thousand believers, where one saw an image of the Church of France; very many families with their children, people from the Paris region, but also from further afield. Very young, devout, peaceful people. Who had come not to see the Pope, but to pray and attend mass with the Pope. And again the next day, in Lourdes, a Christian people gathered.
Speaking of your diocese, if you were to describe the face of the Church of Lyon, what image would you suggest?
BARBARIN: Perhaps what happens during the days of the great city festival known as the Fête des Lumières. On 8 December all the people of Lyon set lights in their windows in honor of the Immaculate Conception. The first time it happened was in 1852. That year in the church in Fourvière a new statue of Mary was to be inaugurated. In the morning a violent storm had cancelled the feast, but then in the afternoon it improved, and the population of the city, which had long awaited the ceremony, spontaneously set lights in their windows and took to the streets, up to late night, to the cry of “Vive Marie!”. Now, already in the days preceding the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the whole city is taken over by a large and popular cultural festival. In those days, in a city that normally numbers 500,000 inhabitants, three to four million French people come. And already from 5 December the churches are open until late at night, there are over a thousand missionaries who are known as “the missionaries of 8 December”, who welcome all those who want to confess, receive the gift of the Gospel. There are also short courses in catechism, for those who want to begin the catechumenate. And on 8 December a procession goes up from the Cathedral to the church of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, where mass is celebrated.
Why is the church of Fourvière so important?
BARBARIN: The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière was built a century and a half ago by people of Lyon, with private funds, in a dominant position. It is visible from all over the city. It is very present in the shared feelings of the people of Lyon, more so than is Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre in Paris, which is a little isolated and visited mostly by tourists. The citizens of Lyon, when they want to entrust to Mary their troubles, their hopes, their families, usually climb the hill, and find in her Immaculate Heart, sweetness and peace. When the Pope died, the people of Lyon, in thousands, did not go to the cathedral: spontaneously they went up to Fourvière, asked for the doors to be opened, and at midnight began reciting the rosary. But Muslims also go up, when a child is born, to present it to Notre Dame.
And the Masons and the Socialists, such as the current mayor, go up at least once a year...
BARBARIN: It is a custom similar to that found in many other cities in France and beyond. I’m thinking of the feast of Saint Lucia, in Palermo. Even the story that generated it is similar to what happened in other places. In 1643 there was plague in southern France, and Lyon put itself under the protection of Mary. The city fathers vowed to pay homage to the Virgin each year, if the epidemic ceased. Since then, every year, on 8 September, the feastday of the Nativity of Mary, a municipal procession goes up to Fourvière, and during the mass the mayor offers a gold medal of the city in homage to Our Lady, while the parishes donate a candle. Then, after the mass, there are speeches. That of the archbishop, that of the president of the Foundation Fourvière – who is Professor Jean-Dominique Durand – and that of the mayor, who is always very affectionate. Recently he wrote that Fourvière is a “treasure of humanity that we want to make live together”. Then the archbishop blesses the city from the hill.
The things you have mentioned so far always relate to exceptional circumstances. But in the fabric of ordinary life, what is the image of the Church in Lyon?
BARBARIN: As in many other parts of France some situations give the feeling of a wall collapsing, so to speak. The Carmel, the Jesuits, many congregations and religious communities that no longer have vocations. Even on the hill of Fourvière you see many religious houses with a for sale sign outside... It’s a saddening thing. At the same time there are new things, new communities. But especially in the countryside it happens that churches are empty, young people and Catholic families go to mass in very “protected” places, in the new communities, where the liturgy is more charmante. It’s a shame, it could lead to shut-in situations.
So you don’t see the resurgence of a normal parish fabric.
BARBARIN: There are many of my parishes in Lyon that are sad. But there are at least ten that are very much alive. In some there are the new communities, and in many others there is mostly a contented priest, and it shows.
The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon<BR> [© Ciric]

The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon
[© Ciric]

In the churches of Paris there is a growing presence of immigrants who are changing the face of Parisian parishes. Is it happening also in Lyon?
BARBARIN: In my diocese there are at least thirty black priests. And five are parish priests. And it’s clear they have a sincere enthusiasm, they give of themselves without stop, it’s as if they wanted to “reawaken” the French ... Revitalize dead and out-of-date situations.
Lyon is also the city of Saint Irenaeus, of Saint etings with the churchmen of today. When I went to Echmiadzin, in 2004, the Catholicos Karekin II asked me to give three talks on Saint Irenaeus. He is an ecumenical doctor. He is a saint shared by all the Christian Churches, before the split. Everybody has deep admiration, and knows Lyon for this saint. We celebrate ordinations in the Basilica of Saint Irenaeus, as in Rome it’s done in Saint Peter’s. This year, at the reunion of all priests held on Holy Wednesday, the theme will be Saint Paul as commented by Saint Irenaeus. We always put Saint Irenaeus at the center of things in our Church. It’s normal. His remains are kept in an ossuary with those of the martyrs of all ages, where they were gathered after they were dispersed during the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants.
The Lefebvrian Capuchins of Morgon told me that you, a bishop who is open and “ecumenical”, has treated them better than some other bishops who are keen to present themselves as “rigorists”.
BARBARIN: I’ve often received them in the archdiocese quarters. In early February I sent them a postcard from Rome to tell them that I had gone to pray for them, for unity, at the tomb of Peter. I sent it to Fellay, the Capuchins of Morgon, and to others in my fundamentalist community in Lyon. “I have prayed at the tomb of Peter, that you may respond to the outstretched hand of the Pope”, I wrote to them so. I don’t know what is going on in their heads and in their hearts. There will be fights amongst them. I had a phone call with the head of my fundamentalist community in Lyon, who repeats my name in every mass, when he prays pro episcopo nostro Philippo. He said to me: Your Eminence, I am now reading the Gaudium et Spes most carefully. I hope to be able to return in full obedience to the Pope. Which is to say that this is a time when for many of them there is also an ongoing inner turmoil, within their own conscience.

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