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from issue no. 04 - 2009


It is the Church of Jesus Christ. That’s why we don’t give up

“During the recent troubled weeks I have often thought of the boat drawn into the storm and of the apostles seeing Jesus sleeping.” An interview with André Vingt-Trois. Cardinal of Paris. Forty years a priest

Interview with Cardinal André Vingt-Trois by Gianni Valente

During the recent troubled weeks, while in France the Church and the Pope were involved in much controversy, the image of the boat drawn into the storm, with Jesus sleeping and the apostles gripped by the fear of being overwhelmed by the waves, came back before his eyes. He himself said so to his fellow colleagues of the French episcopate when he met them in Lourdes at the end of March. “I, too,” confided Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, “needed to hear someone say to me: “Why are you so afraid? Do you no longer have faith?”. With the same frankness, the archbishop of Paris does not try to avoid questions on the current situation of the Church in France and worldwide. Starting from the consideration – in line with his usual balanced realism – that there is no need to “dramatize or spiritualize to excess what we have been through”.

Cardinal André Vingt-Trois [© Ciric]

Cardinal André Vingt-Trois [© Ciric]

In a few weeks you will have been a priest for forty years. It was 1969.
ANDRÉ VINGT-TROIS: Forty years is a long journey. If you then add the ten years of training, it makes half a century... I had the opportunity and joy of experiencing various aspects of the priestly ministry. I was a priest on the parish, I taught, I was vicar general and then I was ordained bishop. Yet now all these years seem like a short time.
If you look back over the way, what is your first impression?
VINGT-TROIS: With the seminarians, with the parishioners, and then with the priests and with the faithful of the diocese where I was appointed bishop, together we have gone through an intense time in the life of the Church: the Council, Paul VI, John Paul II... There have been many difficulties to be dealt with, especially since this period in France coincided with the phenomenon that is sometimes a little crudely termed secularization, namely the eclipsing of Christian landmarks for many of our contemporaries. But I must say that I never had the feeling of having taken a path on which there would be something to regret.
Yet you have said that you seminarians were often proposed an ethic of sacrifice: insistence on the invitation to give up something great so as to generously offer your lives to Jesus.
VINGT-TROIS: In retrospect, it seems to me that it wasn’t the right track. Of course, in every love story there are renunciations. When you love someone in a particular way you renounce other loves, one chooses, one takes up a daily life that always demands renunciation. But they are never renunciations marked primarily by privation. They’re marked by the surprise of love and the fullness that comes from it. I’ve had an ordinary life. Without serious illness, without periods of dark depression. But over all these years I’ve never had the impression that my life was crushed by a burden hard to bear.
In France there are those who point to a sort of generational divide, even among priests, between those who grew up in the years of the Council and those after the Council, and those of the latter generation being marked by a greater need for affirmation of identity.
VINGT-TROIS: I wouldn’t interpret the contrasts mainly in terms of a need for affirmation of identity. The generation of priests that we knew in France up to the Council had an established social space, relatively recognized, and that was rooted in a Church experience that was a community experience that embraced both family ties and participation in the life of parish and ecclesial associations. I’d say that the equilibrium in their position came from their vocation, from their generosity, but also from this entourage, this environment that in a sense “bore up” their existence. Already for my generation, those who set out on the path in the ’sixties, the situation was different. Since then, the role of the priest in society, more evident in the cities (because often in the villages the curate remains the curate), is something very difficult to identify, and the environment in which the priest finds himself does not bear him up, does not offer support. Many find themselves people without a role or social backing. That leads them perhaps to seek points of reference, symbols of identification, with a sharper need than happened in the ’fifties.
Data on vocations are often cited by those who say that the Church of France has no future. You have stressed that it is a caricature of reality, belied by some recent facts, such as the gatherings during the visit of the Pope to France.
VINGT-TROIS: Before the Pope’s visit two questions were being asked: the first was the suspicion looming over the Catholics of France of not being in communion with the Church of Rome. And the second was the waiting to see what image our Church would give of itself. Then we saw that the crowd gathered in Les Invalides consisted mainly of young adults, families with children, young people, a great many foreigners who showed they had found a place in our Church. And to those who said that the Catholics of France were not in communion with the Pope it was enough to watch the crowd that lined his route from the Collège des Bernardins to Notre-Dame, and then on the parvis in front of the Cathedral. On that occasion a situation appeared that is usually not noticed there. We need to evaluate that signal. There are a lot of people, including young families, who live their faith in simple fashion within the bosom of the Catholic Church.
Faithful in prayer during the celebration of the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary presided by Benedict XVI in Notre-Dame Cathedral, 12 September 2008 <BR>[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Faithful in prayer during the celebration of the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary presided by Benedict XVI in Notre-Dame Cathedral, 12 September 2008
[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Cardinal Danneels was struck by the fact that these people “went on their own, not because someone had organized them”. He described it as “generic Christianity”.
VINGT-TROIS: An event can be organized. One can fill Notre- Dame with three thousand people. It’s not difficult. One can fill the parvis in front of the Cathedral with 10,000 people. It’s somewhat more difficult but one can get there. At the Mass on the Esplanade des Invalides there were at least 250,000. They could have been more comfortable at home, because the mass like all the celebrations and meetings in those days was broadcast on television. There, a thing of that sort can’t be manufactured.
Some think that a possible rebirth of the Church is entirely in the hands of groups and movements that have more ecclesial impetus. What do you think of that view?
VINGT-TROIS: I look at how the Gospel describes the way in which they followed Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount, one sees that there are concentric circles, a little like those Paul VI also spoke of in the encyclical Ecclesiam Suam. There are the apostles, Christ himself chose twelve. Then the disciples, those who chose to follow him, left their home to go about with him. Then there is a more fluid group of people who are interested, listen and respond. You can’t define the Church only by the core. Precisely because the Church does not have the mission to concentrate itself into a “hard” core, but rather to proclaim the Gospel to all men and all peoples. The Council says: on the path of history, up to the final rassemblement of mankind around Christ, the Church is in a certain manner the sacrament of unity for all mankind. In the Church there are obviously those more determined, who have made personal choices, those who are on the path, those who have just started the journey... At Easter, in Notre-Dame, there were 311 adult catechumens who received baptism. Obviously they are not yet at the end of the journey in the life of faith and ecclesial life: they have just begun! For me, the real resource of the Church are these communities where there are no super-baptized, those that gather people whose faith is more or less perfect, whose life is more or less perfect, sinners, like all members of the Church, forgiven sinners trying to walk in the footsteps of Christ. The proclamation of the Gospel is always a beginning. We are always at the start. As the Orthodox priest Alexander Men used to say, Christianity only makes a start.
Certain happenings in recent months have sparked debate, misunderstanding, controversy in the Catholic Church. In this complex context came the Letter of March 10 that Benedict XVI addressed to all bishops. What most struck you among the many underlinings it contained?
VINGT-TROIS: The decision to revoke the excommunication of bishops ordained illegitimately by Lefebvre sparked feelings in France more than elsewhere, because the presence of the Fraternity Saint Pius X is very strong here. The bishops were unable to prepare and explain the papal decision, because they knew nothing about it. To correct this problem, the Pope decided to write the personal Letter, but it went far beyond the intention of correcting the clumsy way in which his decision had been announced.
In the letter the Pope explains the reasons for his decision. In particular, when answering the question whether it was so urgent to deal with the excommunication of the Lefebvrian bishops and whether there weren’t more urgent priorities. The Pope says that in fact the priority is always to proclaim the Gospel, but one cannot proclaim the Gospel by resigning oneself to the fact that a part of the members of the Church is completely marginalized.
Both you and other French bishops have spoken several times in the case of the abortion of the Brazilian girl, presented as an example of the insensitivity of churchmen in the face of situations of suffering.
VINGT-TROIS: That business was dropped on us like a meteorite. Faced with the manner in which the facts were reported, a certain spontaneous bitterness arose. It’s two thousand years that the Gospel has been proclaimed tolerant of sin, and as Christians we are not the spokesmen of a group of salesmen who go around saying “we are the best.” We proclaim something that we have not built ourselves, of which we are heirs through grace and which we seek to share with everyone, even in our limitations. It should be added that we now have more critical information about how things went in the affair, and how it was transformed into a media event. We have to recognize that it falls within the current political context of Brazil, where there is an ongoing campaign for the liberalization of abortion. That story, disastrous and painful for the child and for all her family, was in some way exploited for propaganda purposes. The Western media reprinted it without checking how things really went.
There are those who say that some local churches have taken a silent “opposition” stance against the Pope’s. What truth is there in it?
VINGT-TROIS: The French bishops who have spoken have always expressed their closeness to the Pope and their willingness to support his action. Then, it happens that in France – but is not a French specialty, the same happens in other countries – there are groups, currents or people who systematically question the position of the ecclesial institution, and every time an occasion may allow them to express themselves and gain coverage in the media, they exploit it. And there’s another aspect to take into account: in the reactions registered in France, rather than critical aggression of the Church, there was on the part of many Christians the expression of a sadness and a sorrow. It was not so much a denunciation of the Church as the expression of a disappointment: it seemed to them that in those affairs the Church appeared otherwise than it really is. I said this to the Pope, and I think he well understood.
Exit from Mass in Notre-Dame Cathedral

Exit from Mass in Notre-Dame Cathedral

Aren’t the controversies likely to radicalize differences between such diverse sensibilities in the French Church?
VINGT-TROIS: I think that the Church has always progressed in communion by taking on differences. When Paul opposed Peter on the issue of Christians of pagan origin they certainly were not in agreement. If the Church did not end then, it’s because they lived communion despite their disagreement. I think that one of the strong signs that we can offer in modern society is precisely that our communion in Christ enables us to allow differences in assessment, in understanding, to subsist, sometimes differences of interpretation on everything that doesn’t touch on faith and morals. Provided that the different stances that may exist are not expressed as an act of rejection and hatred. Because in that case one is no longer in the communion of the Church. For example, one can’t want to create communion in the Church by decreeing that the Pope is no longer in the Church ...
When faced with criticism some people in the Church seem almost pleased. Some say: if they hate us, that’s proof that we are true witnesses, the genuine article. What do you think of that view?
VINGT-TROIS: In the Christian tradition volunteers for martyrdom have never been encouraged. They have always been viewed with suspicion. First of all, if we look at the Gospel, neither Christ nor the apostles in their apostolic mission aimed at striking or shocking anyone. On the contrary, they always tried to get understood. That said, the criterion for evaluating our actions is not the public reaction we generate, but conformity to the Gospel we proclaim. In our society which is so lax on matters that affect human life, such as abortion or euthanasia, I’m sorry, but I can’t say that abortion and euthanasia are good things, just to please everyone and not upset anyone. At the same time, it should be stressed that the Christian vision of the human being agrees profoundly with human reason. This correspondence between the truth that has been revealed to us by Scripture and Tradition and human wisdom is something that we can make more of.
In the public reaction to the words uttered by the Pope on AIDS and condoms during his flight to Africa certain French politicians distinguished themselves. Whatever happened to Sarkozy’s “positive secularism”?
VINGT-TROIS: The two things are totally different. In France – but I don’t think that it’s so different in Italy – we are in a political society dominated by the image one gives of oneself. The politicians who spoke out criticizing the papal speech on the fight against AIDS did so without checking what the Pope had said, and with the sole purpose of confirming their alignment with the common mentality. They said what they thought everyone wanted to hear. That is not a political line, it’s a media management of social life. A political line is something else altogether. It’s recognizing that there are broad goals that involve the common good, and that are to be set out in decisive and direct fashion, even when achieving them takes time and can’t be done immediately. I believe that the speech made by the President of the Republic Sarkozy on the place of the religions in society appertains to his political objectives, not simply the media management of social life.
This year marks the anniversary of the saintly Curé d’Ars. What may the simple way of caring for souls, followed by St Jean Marie Vianney, suggest to the French today, and to the whole Church, in the era of secularization?
VINGT-TROIS: I can tell you straightaway that in the diocese of Paris, we celebrated the Year of the Priest this year, prior to the announcement of the Pope, who has settled it for next year. During this year, the relic of the Curé’s heart was carried in pilgrimage for a week from church to church in Paris, and drew very many faithful. As for his relevance, there are some who hark back to the Curé d’Ars with a certain nostalgia, they would almost like to reconstruct the parish situation in villages in the 19th century, where there was a priest for every two hundred inhabitants. But the 19th century ended more than a hundred years ago. I, for example, have never been able to lead the life of the Curé d’Ars.
So, what does the Curé d’Ars say to you and the parish priests of today?
VINGT-TROIS: We are called to live in the Church today, in parishes of today, as they are. What is exemplary in the figure of the Curé d’Ars is not the place and time in which he was destined to live, but his pastoral love for his people, everyday catechesis through preaching and catechism for young and old, mercy offered and given through the sacrament of penance and changing lives, which was seen through the way his heart opened to welcome all sinners. These are current matters, whether one is curate of the village of Ars, or archbishop of Paris. The curates of the 21st century certainly have the duty of loving their people, teaching, forgiving them, and changing their own lives. That is why the patronage of the Curé d’Ars is so precious to all diocesan priests.
Alexei II with Cardinal Vingt-Trois in Moscow, 29 October 2008 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Alexei II with Cardinal Vingt-Trois in Moscow, 29 October 2008 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Talking to the seminarians of Paris recently you said that in the priesthood confession is the most hidden but most important activity. What shape does that priority take in Paris?
VINGT-TROIS: The first thing is that habitually, throughout the year, there are in Paris at least a dozen churches – including Notre-Dame, the Sacré-Coeur, Saint-Sulpice, the Chapelle des étrangers – where Confession goes on from morning to night. So the inhabitants of Paris, who are used to moving about, doing so many things, know that if they want, there are places where they can confess at all hours. Secondly, in most of the parishes of Paris, the notices at the door indicate the hours, day by day, when one can find a priest in church hearing confession. Thirdly, at important moments of the liturgical year, such as Advent and Lent, more and more often what are called “days of forgiveness” are organized: one, two or three parishes come together and fix the day when, from ten o’clock in the morning till ten at night, there will be unbroken welcome for those who want to confess. And there are many who actually come.
A question about ecumenical dialogue in conclusion. You have forged a relationship of communion with the Russian Orthodox Church, formerly with Alexei and now with Kirill. Is there an elective affinity between Paris and Moscow?
VINGT-TROIS: The diocese of Paris and, more generally, the Church of France has very fraternal relations with the Orthodox, both with the Patriarchate of Constantinople – which has a bishop in Paris – and with the Patriarchate of Moscow, which also has a bishop in Paris for the Russian community. As soon as I became archbishop of Paris, I was privileged to receive Patriarch Alexei who was visiting France, and I went to visit Patriarch Bartholomew in Constantinople. Then I visited Patriarch Alexei in Moscow, not least to demonstrate that our fraternal relations with the Patriarchate of Moscow are not at the expense of relations with the Patriarch of Constantinople.

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