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from issue no. 10 - 2010


Vocations cannot be invented: it is the Lord who calls

An interview with Don Sylvain Bataille of the Jean-Marie Vianney Society. He is the first diocesan priest to head the Pontifical French Seminary, after one hundred and fifty-six years in which it was administered by the Congregation of the Holy Spirit

Interview with Don Sylvain Bataille by Pina Baglioni

He has just turned forty-six and has the air of a youth: Don Sylvain Bataille looks more like a student than the rector of the Pontifical French Seminary in Rome. He has held the post since 4 August last year, the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the death of Saint Curé d’Ars. A figure with whom the new rector is much concerned: he is a member of the Jean-Marie Vianney Society which was founded on 18 April 1990 by a group of young priests, including Bataille himself, along with Monsignor Guy Bagnard, bishop of the Diocese of Belley-Ars. In 2000 came his appointment as head of the senior seminary of Ars, until, on 6 June 2009, the French Bishops’ Conference chose him as the new rector of the Pontifical French Seminary in Rome. The appointment of a diocesan priest ended the tradition dating from 29 April 1853, the day the seminary was founded, that it be governed by the fathers of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit. A tradition established by Pope Pius IX that was supposed to last à perpétuité.
We went to Don Sylvain Bataille to ask him about his first year in Rome, a city to which he is very attached since living there between 1985 and 1988, while studying theology at the Gregorian University. “Rome never ceases to amaze me: I’ve found it even more beautiful than before”, he declares. “Here you can breathe the air of the universal Church and I’m happy to be back.”

The rector of the seminary, Don Sylvain Bataille [© Paolo Galosi]

The rector of the seminary, Don Sylvain Bataille [© Paolo Galosi]

Don Bataille, your appointment to the seminary was judged by some of your country’s media to be a sign of a conservative shift by the French Bishops’ Conference. What do you think?
SYLVAIN BATAILLE: What’s true is that the fathers of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit asked the French episcopate to be relieved of their task. For one simple reason: in recent years there has been a significant decline in vocations and, consequently, the capacity to send fathers to the French Seminary was reduced. At this moment the Congregation prefers to concentrate its forces in missionary action in the countries of Africa and Asia. In those circumstances, the French Bishops’ Conference decided, in agreement with the Holy See, to deal directly with the Seminary. However, in a spirit of continuity, three fathers of the Congregation continued to work with us for a certain period. I was chosen personally. Consequently, my successor will not necessarily belong to the Jean-Marie Vianney Society.
The progressive French website Golias has described you as “an old-fashioned forty-year-old more attracted by the Council of Trent than Vatican II”. Before leaving Rome, Father Yves-Marie Fradet, the last Congregation rector of the seminary, confessed to 30Days that he thought of himself chiefly as “a son of the Council”. Whose son do you feel yourself?
God’s, the Church’s, the Pope’s, a son of the Magisterium, of the Catechism, of the Second Vatican Council. And also of the Tradition, of which the Council of Trent, I believe, is still part. The issue is not about being progressive or conservative, but of living the Christian faith, with the Church, in today’s world, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit that touches the hearts of men.
Pope Benedict XVI offers a striking example in this regard. At a time not too easy for the Church, we Christians might fall victim to the temptation to close in on ourselves, like a hedgehog, in a position of withdrawal. It’s important, however, to stick with the facts, to remain open and confident in the face of reality as it is, understanding it in its context. In a word: we must keep the doors of the heart wide open. Just as the Pope does. Our task as educators is to help young men become good priests who love the Lord and their brethren, in peace of heart. We are not against anyone.
For many years you have been involved with the training of future priests. What thoughts do you have about the tragedy of priests accused of pedophilia?
Two thoughts: first, that the facts came to light in recent months are terrible and we must recognize them as such. For the most part the episodes occurred long ago and involve elderly priests or ones who died time ago. But if it’s true that what is emerging does not concern us directly, it’s equally true that it mustn’t leave us indifferent. Because seminarians will be priests one day.
Second thought: the point which we must consider is the human balance of future priests. It’s vital for the Church to be able to train priests who are at peace with themselves, with their own lives. That is to say people who can recognize what the Lord has written in their hearts. The seminaries, rectors, spiritual directors serve this purpose only: to help these young men recognize the call of the Lord and answer with all their heart, with their whole life, for the good of the entire world.
Returning to the issue of priests accused of pedophilia, obviously it’s spoken of in the seminary. The seminarians were very upset by the attacks on the Church and the Pope. One must be realistic: this is the life of the Church, always. One only has to read the Acts of the Apostles to realize how, in its first moments of life, the Church found itself living in difficult situations. One shouldn’t get scared, but pray to the Lord, live the Beatitudes, remain in peace and joy. And forgive. If we don’t we put ourselves on the same level as those who want to harm the Church.
What we have seen in recent months certainly can’t be described as persecution. But we mustn’t be guilty of naivety: if it’s true that Christians need to recognize their sins it’s also true that those sins have been used instrumentally to strike at the Pope.
May the crisis in vocations have led, over the years, to an insufficiently careful scrutiny of entries to the seminary?
Yes, there may have been that temptation. Although in France it didn’t occur much.
To become a good priest, one needs three things: the Lord’s call, the ability to exercise the ministry, the will to respond to the call. The most important thing is the call of the Lord: it is He who freely chooses His apostles. Still today. I sometimes have to tell a bishop who had enthusiastically pointed out to me very talented, intelligent and good youngsters, that unfortunately they had received no call from the Lord. And that it was necessary, in charity, to get them to change course. For their own good and that of the Church.
In short: in every seminary the young men must be helped to give a true answer to the call of the Lord, in the giving of self, in authentic pastoral charity. One mustn’t be alarmed about numbers and statistics, a single saintly priest can do so much good!
<I>Pentecost</I>, the central scene of the mosaics made by Father Marko Ivan Rupnik inside the Seminary church; at its center, the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes: it is one of the four statues sculpted for the Grotto of Lourdes and rejected by Bernadette Soubirous because she considered them to be unlike the Virgin Mary [© Paolo Galosi]

Pentecost, the central scene of the mosaics made by Father Marko Ivan Rupnik inside the Seminary church; at its center, the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes: it is one of the four statues sculpted for the Grotto of Lourdes and rejected by Bernadette Soubirous because she considered them to be unlike the Virgin Mary [© Paolo Galosi]

What did you think when Benedict XVI decided to entrust the Year of the Priest to the protection of Saint Curé d’Ars?
For me it was a very important confirmation because Saint Curé d’Ars transmits two things: first, that the priesthood is a great and beautiful gift, one of the most precious that the Lord can grant to the Church. The second is that the priest is always small. No one is worthy to be a priest, and all need the Lord in prayer and humility. One cannot take His place but one must serve Him. In this sense, Saint Curé d’Ars is one of the most extraordinary priestly figures that the Church has ever had. Because he simply acted as priest, celebrating Mass, administering the sacraments and welcoming all. In particular the poor. I was very happy to find that the Saint Curé is much loved in Rome as well. So much so that in the course of the Year of the Priest we decided to put on a play about his life: it took us three months to prepare as best we could and it involved fifty-three people including actors and extras. Two performances were given in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, where a great many people came, fascinated and moved by the figure of the Curé.
Perhaps because Jean-Marie Vianney does not embody a specific spirituality, a special charism, or a typically “French” religious personality. He embodies the very heart of the priestly ministry.
What is the nature of the Jean-Marie Vianney Society?
Our spirituality comes simply from the sacrament of Holy Orders. At the heart of our “activities” lies the Eucharist, in which the Lord gives us all and in which we can give ourselves to the Lord. The entire ministry, shaped after Christ the priest, consists in fully living the Eucharist, in living only by that love to spread it around the world.
The priestly society of Jean-Marie Vianney was founded twenty years ago when I and a small group of diocesan priests, along with Father Bagnard, realized we needed help to make the best of our priestly ministry. The priesthood is a great gift but living it alone, in everyday life, can become tiring or difficult. So we started meeting once a month to pray and celebrate the Eucharist. But also to address together all the issues that everyday life set in front of us. We then moved on to meet for a week during holidays. But that was still not enough. At that point we decided to set up small communities to live together our vocation as diocesan priests, mutually supporting each other. In that same period Pope John Paul II appointed Guy Bagnard as bishop of the diocese of Belley-Ars. And again in that same period we chose Saint Curé d’Ars as patron.
On what basis do you select the seminarians who come to study at the French Seminary in Rome?
The selection is up to the diocesan bishops. The seminarians come after attending an introductory course and a two years course of Philosophy in the French seminaries, which gives them a good training for taking on the study of theology at the pontifical universities and getting the baccalaureate and the licentiate.
This year we have sixty students: forty-five seminarians and fifteen priests. Not all come from the French dioceses: three of them belong to the congregation of the Holy Spirit and are African. We host, as well as a fourth African student, a Serb of the Orthodox religion, one Chinese and six Italians. The fact that there isn’t an all-French “bloc” is very interesting for us.
The French bishops and we in charge of the house want our young men not to limit themselves to study but also to become involved in the life of the diocese of Rome. Which, from a pastoral point of view, displays great dynamism. That is why all are engaged in some activity. Upon arrival, when they still haven’t mastered the Italian language, they go to teach catechism to the French students of the Chateaubriand High School or the Saint Dominique Institute, north of Rome. Others, instead, make themselves available as tourist guides to French pilgrims visiting the city. Thanks to the extraordinary Christian remains and the immense heritage of the city, it’s particularly exciting to tell the story of the Church to our fellow countrymen. At a later stage, when they can speak good Italian, they go to work in many Roman parishes, in hospitals, in the services for the poor and the elderly, or wherever there’s need of them.
For students of the seminary who return to France can the fact that they’ve studied in Rome be an advantage?
Our sole objective is to train good ordinary diocesan priests, ready for the various pastoral needs. It’s not a matter of making ecclesiastical careers but of responding promptly to God’s call and putting oneself at His service, without reserve, wherever He destines us. Probably those who have had the grace to study in Rome, may, for special needs of the diocese, be asked to perform demanding jobs. The most important thing, however, is that each of our students give all of themselves as a response to God’s call by making their talents available to serve the Church.
The facade of the Seminary Church dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Mary and to Saint Clare [© Paolo Galosi]

The facade of the Seminary Church dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Mary and to Saint Clare [© Paolo Galosi]

Is there any particular feature that sets off this new generation of seminarians from that marked by the Council and post-Council periods?
We’re going through a more tranquil moment: today there are no tensions of an ideological sort: rightwing, leftwing, conservatives, progressives... There is no doubt that our seminarians and young priests have at heart their Christian identity and certainly don’t hide it. It’s not a matter of an identity badge: they’re just young men glad to belong to Christ and the Church. The problem, if anything, is an excessive individualism and a too “self-indulging“ approach to themselves: even a legitimate desire to fulfill oneself can in the long run become an obstacle in offering oneself to God and to others. I notice a certain dictatorship of the self!
What do you hope for this segment of the Church of France that is the Seminary?
That this house of ours in the heart of Rome may act as a bridge between French Catholics and the Church of Rome, not least in restoring an image of French Catholicism closer to reality. In our country the situation is neither quite as splendid nor quite as disastrous as is often supposed. There are situations emerging that are very encouraging, in some particularly lively dioceses. Not only that. New communities and many Christian families live the Gospel in simplicity, along with their children, in prayer and fidelity to the Church. Milieus in which vocations are flowering. And we see the fruits here also in the seminary. Even if some young men converted as adults.
After many years of service dedicated to this, for me it’s always splendid to have before my eyes a young man who has received the priestly vocation from the Lord. Because it is truly God who calls. We are small, poor and we can invent nothing for ourselves.
Those who were called to the priesthood, thanks to constant prayer and an intense spiritual life, recognize ever more clearly what the Lord has set in their hearts. And then the vocation becomes stronger, the desire to give themselves completely becomes purer, the motivation is more just, more spiritual. And then what is being proposed by authority becomes a free and personal exigency. Celibacy, then, is the sign of the joy of being wholly Christ’s, dedicated to his mission. One discovers that following the path that the Lord has shown is joyous, that it is a source of fruitfulness for life.

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