'France, what have you done with your baptism?' (John Paul II)
Rev. Msgr. Ireneusz Skubis talks to Fr Jerzy Skotnicki, the parish priest of five French parishes.
FR IRENEUSZ SKUBIS: - You are a priest of the Archdiocese of Czestochowa; then you ministered in the Diocese of Sosnowiec, and today you are the parish priest of five parishes in the French Diocese of Poitiers.
FR JERZY SKOTNICKI: - I was ordained by Bishop Stefan Barela on 22 May 1983 - it was the last class of seminarians he ordained. For seven years I worked in the Diocese of Czestochowa. After the Holy Father John Paul II had established new dioceses in Poland I worked in the southern part of the Diocese of Czestochowa that was attached to the new Diocese of Sosnowiec. I worked there for 14 years. I was a parish priest: five years in the Conversion of St Paul Parish in Dabrowa Gornicza and for nine years in the parish of the Elevation of the Holy Cross in Losien-Dabrowa Gornicza. Ministry in Poland means involvement in various activities: pastoral, liturgical, school, family and patriotic. After 21 years of priesthood in Poland I felt I was called to missions, due to the fact that Fr Eugeniusz Bubak, who had worked in Cameroon for 16 years, looked for a successor (he could not go back to Africa because of heart disease). I decided that if my bishop let me go I would serve in Africa. I went to Warsaw to take one year of missionary formation to prepare myself to go to Cameroon. To improve my French I received a proposal to stay in the Diocese of Poitiers for a year. But when I asked my bishop to let me go to Africa he asked how old I was and stated that at my age priests returned from missions rather than go on missions. Indeed, I suffered from leg vein problems, which disqualified me from missions, and working in a tropical country was impossible for me. Then the Bishop of Poitiers proposed that I should use my time to prepare for missions and minister in his diocese. The Bishop of Sosnowiec let me work there for three years. After having worked in one of the French parishes, and actually in 12 parishes, I was delegated to be the parish priest in another part of the diocese where there was only five parishes. It is a rural area, with some 7,000 inhabitants and the priestly ministry there is completely different from that one in Poland.
- How much different?
- When I began my work and the parish priest told me that we needed to serve 12 parishes I thought that their priests might have been on holiday. But it turned out that nobody was on holiday. This was our mission, i.e., lack of priests in France. It was the first strike. The second one was a small number of believers. Perhaps as many as 5% are practising Catholics. Therefore, our work is rather elitist. Yet I think that this small number of Catholics is recompensed by the depth of their faith and their need of a priest. Here, in Poland, it is obvious that there is a priest in every parish whereas in France if believers can experience a funeral with a priest they are very lucky, which is something we might have never experienced. When I am on holiday and there is a funeral in my parish it is conducted by only laymen. The next thing is that the French revolution left a big stamp on the French Church. In 1905 there was the separation between the Church and the state, and the state seized all Church's properties: churches, presbyteries, fields, forests, etc. In 1968 there was the so-called Cultural Revolution, also called sexual revolution, which coincided with the post-conciliar changes in the Church. Over half of the French priests left the priesthood. Actually, until today there is no unity in the Catholic Church in France: there are traditionalist priests and integrist priests who still celebrate Mass in Latin, facing the altar and with their backs to the people, and - strange enough - their churches are crowded; there are progressivist priests that treat the Liturgy very lightly. There is no cult of the Eucharist like we have in Poland. Currently, we are waiting for a new bishop in Poitiers. The one we had retired. And if the new bishop asked me what was first of all needed in the diocese I would answer - a diocesan Eucharistic congress. There is no Church without the Eucharist. Generally speaking, we are waiting for a pious bishop, a shepherd. I am personally waiting for a Eucharistic bishop.
- What does it mean? The term 'episcopus' - bishop comes from the word concerning organisation; bishop is also an administrator.
- Now I am reading the extended interview with the Holy Father Benedict XVI. He clearly stresses that the mission of the Church is not only based on activism. The element of spirituality is indispensible: prayer, contemplation. A pious bishop does not organise charity or support activities ex officio. Although the French Church is not rich it is involved in many missionary activities in Africa. But one cannot reduce the Church to the material sphere. I can share my experiences again. When I became a parish priest I decided to expose the Blessed Sacrament on Saturdays, when the square in front of my church became a huge market. After our first adoration, which gathered only 8-10 people, had ended a woman with tears in her eyes approached me and said, 'Father, I saw the adoration 40 years ago!' Such a practice was not conducted in the diocese. The bishop did not propose such a service… But the Church does not exist without the Eucharist. The diocese emphasised the Sacrament of Baptism and the Bible, the obvious reason being the lack of priests, and then one seeks ways to deepen spiritual life. There is no Eucharist without a priest; lack of priests - lack of the Eucharist. But the thing is not the numbers but the organisation. Despite few priests one can cultivate love for the Eucharistic Christ; one can expose the Eucharist and live a Eucharistic life. But the post-conciliar 'glide' led to the removal of the traditional forms of religious life from churches; pulpits were removed and focus was on us, community, and Christ among us present in his word, in the Bible. The Lord, the Eucharistic Jesus disappeared. That's why every week more and more people came to adore Jesus on Saturdays. Catholics from the neighbouring deaneries came because they had heard that in Vivonne Lord Jesus was exposed in the Blessed Sacrament for two hours. But the mentality of the faithful in France and the mentality of the French priests are a little different. We are Slavs and in France there is the Romance culture. I can see certain Orthodox practices in the Polish Church, e.g., the cult of holy paintings: Our Lady of Czestochowa, Our lady of Piekary, etc. The French religiosity is three-dimensional - the French venerate statues and not pictures. In our French church there are two valuable, historical paintings and a middle class statue of Mary. But it is in front of the statue that people light candles, asking for graces and not before the paintings. One should accept and understand this way of expressing religiosity. Thus, speaking about a pious or Eucharistic bishop I think a little in the Polish categories. John Paul II and Benedict XVI clearly show us the way of the Eucharist as the centre of the Church's life. Of course, bishops can have their collaborators but bishops must stimulate, inspire and in some ways control their activities. Bishops often become involved personally in some actions although, for instance in the French Church laymen may be more active than the laymen in Poland. In each of my five parishes there is someone that fulfils the function of the parish priest, the administrative function, and there are also a treasurer and a financial manager; there are people responsible for promotion of the faith and for charities. I was not appointed to a concrete parish but to the parish sector consisting of five parishes. I am to supervise these parishes, minister as priest but the communities are managed by such laymen.
- In Poland the laity is described as a sleeping giant. Could you activate such laymen?
- I would certainly try to. In Poland the situation is slightly different: we have priests - one priest is in a small parish and in a medium-sized parish there are 2-3 priests - that's why they need no help of laymen. In the French Church this responsibility falls on the laity in a natural way and laymen are supported by priests. I think that I would try to delegate some elements of responsibility for the parish Church to laymen, e.g., the organisation of catechesis, material matters, charities. I have begun visiting the sick, the lonely and the old who stay in their homes in my French parish. In each parish the person responsible for charity knows these people, visits them, proposing to get to know their parish priest. I visit these people so that they get to know me. And when I pay my first or second visit they ask me to hear their confessions, to receive the Holy Communion. I was surprised to learn that some people had had no personal contacts with a priest for 4-5 years.
- Now we come to the sacraments. How do you manage to administer them as the parish priest of five parishes?
- As far as the Eucharist is concerned the organisation of Masses is: in each parish Mass is celebrated twice a month: on Saturday evening and Sunday morning, and Mass celebrated every Sunday in Vivonne where I am living. As far as the confession is concerned I reprimanded my colleagues, French priests, several times for making the exception the rule in the French Church. I mean the collective absolution, which is very common. People come to penance services on All Saints Day, Christmas, Easter and there are of course the examination of conscience, prayer, adoration of the Cross and then the priest gives absolution to all the gathered. This form of absolution exists in the Church but in strictly determined conditions. I do not give collective absolution. I invite people to individual confessions. I collaborate with two priests, an Italian one and a priest from Congo, and we hear individual confessions. At first it was hard. People were surprised that the priest invited them to individual confessions. But they became convinced that it was worthy. I most frequently hear confessions when requested - someone phones me and arranges a confession. I set the day, the hour. Confirmation is not popular at all in France. It has been replaced by the confession of faith. Catechesis (religious instruction lessons) lasts four years, two hours a month. The last lessons are conducted by parents or people of good will. Children finish the fourth year and make the confession of faith and then sometimes we meet only at their weddings. Once a month I meet all children together during a lesson of religious instruction. When at first I invited children to church to show them the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament they were delighted to see the lit monstrance, incense and asked their catechist what the little sun was called. She answered that she did not know and told them to ask the priest…
- What is the reaction of the bishop who administers the sacrament of confirmation?
- He accepts that. That's why I mentioned a pious bishop, a Eucharistic bishop who could propose more frequent confirmations - now once in five years. And a strong catechumenate. During my five year ministry I prepared eight adults to receive baptism. The last person was a 33 year old man whose fiancée wanted to have a church wedding. They came to talk to me and it turned out that they must ask for a dispensation from the curia and get ready for the baptism. After a year the man discovered Christ and asked for the sacrament of baptism to become Christian. I have a team of six people helping me prepare adults to receive Baptism. One of them is a man who completed a six-year programme of theology and by profession he is an electronics engineer. He may become a permanent deacon. In the diocese we have ca. 270 priests and almost 140 permanent deacons.
- I remember the first visit of the Holy Father John Paul II and his question, 'France, what have you done with your baptism?' What should be done in France to renew its Christianity? Can the mission you wanted to conduct in Africa be realised in France?
- One can convert any person until he/she lives. One can convert France and Poland - we should not be cheap optimists and state that we have nothing to do in Poland and we should convert only France. But we cannot compare conversions of Africa and France. In Africa we should firstly feed people before we begin proclaiming the Gospel to them. When they are not fed they will not listen to us. In France we need not feed people since there is abundance of food but there are many psychological problems. I have never met so many people having so weak psyches in Poland. Our religiosity makes us psychologically strong and we can see the sense of our lives although sometimes we experience hardships but we tend to endure. The French are not tough and tend to become easily discouraged and they break down. Speaking about France's conversion we need what Benedict XVI spoke about in his interview: to restore God's place in each person's life. I keep repeating my faithful parishioners that there is no Christianity without life in unity with Jesus. God is a great mystery, even to the outstanding theologians, e.g., for Saint Hilary, the third Bishop of Poitiers, specialist in the Holy Trinity. And Jesus became man, is our brother and friend. By nature Jesus is God, Saviour, but he offers us the ordinary human friendship and through it he introduces us into the mysteries of the greatness of faith and God's life. All people know me for that - I promote Jesus as Friend. I think that it is the key to convert France and Poles since Jesus is present, concrete in our lives so that he may be someone very close, someone who accompanies us, who was born, died and resurrected for us and he remains for us in the Eucharist. Without Jesus one cannot speak about the great Church, religion since God is so big and holy that we cannot comprehend that. Thanks to Christ God the Father becomes close to us and the Holy Spirit acts in a concrete way.
- Was the appeal of John Paul II, made in France, effective in any way?
- In the third millennium the Church in France has quivered a little. It is partly because of the fairly distinct Islam - the Catholic Church actually becomes the only real counterbalance for the pressure of the culture of Islam. France is the most Islamic country in Europe. Officially, eight million Muslims live there. The Muslims' children born in France are French. It is said that there are 20 million French Muslims in France, with its population of 60 million people. That's why the Catholic Church in France is blurred a little. I am a chaplain in the prison in Vivonne. There are 600 prisoners, men and women, and 80% of them are Muslims. There are three imams and one priest to serve the prisoners. There is also the problem of certain pressure on Islam. The Muslims claim their rights as living in the former French colonies. They come to France as their own country, to their acquaintances and they feel at home here. This pressure is so big that I have the impression that the Catholic Church in France is delicately favoured but not because of love of Christ but out of fear of Islam.
- In Poland after the beatification of John Paul II one can see a revival of adoration movements, e.g. in Krakow under the care of Fr Stanislaw Szczepaniec. Since John Paul II was a man of adoration and adoration is to look at and contemplate the Face of Christ. It correlates with your approach towards the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It embraces a development of true religiosity.
- In France the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is for example, in Paris, at Montmartre (day and night); there are religious churches where the adoration is conducted. But for instance, as for priestly vocations are concerned there are very few places of the adoration since there is no cult of the Eucharist. And the Eucharist is strongly connected with the priesthood since the sacraments were established on the same day - Holy Thursday. How can a boy fall in love with Christ if he has no contacts with the Eucharist? Mass once a month, in some parish sectors - every second month, which is decisively too little. Of course, you can drive to the neighbouring parishes but if parents do not take their children there they will not go there on their own. But one can notice a great revival of men religious, e.g. the community of St Martin. After high school or university young men join these communities, seminaries. Christianity does not exist without Christ. That's why I promote the cult of the Eucharist in various forms: Mass, confession preparing for the Eucharist, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The Church does not exist without Christ. He is the founder, foundation, cornerstone of the Church. Christ always points to the Father, lives in unity with him; together with the Father he sent the Holy Spirit upon the Church that continues his work. Therefore, there can be no revival and strengthening of the Church without the Eucharist. This is my reflection based on my experiences in France - in the Catholic Church that is beautiful. In my first parish there was the 9th century church, consecrated in the year 910, i.e. before Poland officially received Christianity! In Vivonne the church dates back to the 11th century and during its renovation some 5th century sarcophagi were discovered. In France one can see the roots of the living Church - some in the museum version as monuments but one can also see some revival, which - as John Paul II said - comes slowly as spring but it does come. There are young priests who are active, spontaneous and joyful. Despite my troubles and difficulties, which can be found everywhere, I am trying to be joyous and smiling to show that our faith gives council, even in difficulties.
- In Poland the family is said to be 'home Church.' What can be said about the French family?
- In France there is the term 'old France.' It means multi-generational families who cultivate faith, traditions and care for family relationships as we do in Poland. Unfortunately, modern French family communities get rid of their old members. Old People's Homes are very popular (every Monday I celebrate Mass in one of such homes). But there are families that live with the old members. Ca. 80% of the so-called modern families live without the marriage act, even the civil one. It is the so-called peace marriage - a contract signed in the mayoralty and it concerns finances, material matters; there are marriages after divorces, previous relationships in which children are at loss. Speaking about God as our Father I have a problem because some child has its third father and no feeling of true fatherhood since he spends one Saturday with its mother and spends next Saturday with its biological father whereas at home the child has the second or third 'uncle' whom the child calls by his name. These families are not strong as for their state, social and, of course, religious aspects are concerned. But as I have mentioned there is the so-called 'old France.'
- Certainly, the families of this old France are the basis for the Catholic parish in France...
- Yes, they are. They regularly attend Mass, are active in the parish and meet its needs. I want to refer to the prison ministry where ca. 60 laymen and 4 priests are involved. Half of them belong to this old France. They are women and men who come to help prisoners to find their ways. Some prisoners have asked to be baptised and some have asked to be confirmed. Yes, they are the basis of Catholic parishes. And they are young married couples who ask for the sacrament of matrimony. Once a year I invite all those who got married the previous year. There is also Mass for the families whose children were baptised. Even those who have no Catholic marriage come on these occasions. There is always a chance to say something, to show and encourage people.
- What about the Marian cult in France? Lourdes or other Marian sanctuaries surely play some roles in the religious lives of the French...
- Those that do not come to church during the year are obliged to come on All Saints Day, Palm Sunday and 15 August because the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a big holiday in France. In my diocese there are four big pilgrimages to Lourdes every year. Every church has at least one big statue of Mary at which candles are lit. It is a slightly different form of worship but the cult of the Mother of God is strong all over France. In Poland October is the rosary month and May is such a month in France. People come half an hour before Mass and recite the rosary. And in France there is no church without the Marian cult, without a statue of Our Lady. It gives optimism since the Mother of God is close to people and they are familiar with praising God through her mediation.
- Do the French seek God's help in difficulties?
- It is normal -when in fear, God is near. People phone me asking for prayer when an accident happens or someone gets ill. It is human and natural that in crises people remember that God exists - Someone is over us and we can seek his help, support and rescue. I have met people who are not religious but when in trouble they ask to accompany them with prayer. Even non-believers sometimes ask for a church funeral for their relatives.
- France is a Christian, Catholic country...
- Yes, it is. Although it lacks priests I am not sure but there are more French missionaries than the Polish ones in the whole world. They can share the little they have…