The Church in France
Fr Martin de La Ronciere
The present situation of the Church in France can be compared to the condition of a patient being convalescing after a serious disease. The serious disease of the French Church goes back to the 1960s and 1970s. On the one hand, it was caused by the surface interpretation of the teaching of Vatican Council II and on the other hand, it was caused by the influence of the really cultural revolution of May 1968 on the whole French society and the Church herself.
The effects of the crisis
In the postconciliar years there were radical changes of the essential fields in the life of the Church, such as religious instruction and liturgy, marked by the rejection of the legacy of the past in the name of the so-called spirit of the Council. In many ecclesiastical circles the rich teaching of Vatican Council II was limited to some mottos, for example:
– ‘people of God’ – as if there was no need for authority in the Church; hence the deep crisis of identity of priests and the consecrated people;
– ‘openness to the world’– hence the constant concern not to offend anyone, to be tolerant towards people, even to the point of giving up the missionary spirit and the visible signs; churches without belfries and churches built under buildings, completely invisible, were erected on purpose; almost all priests and consecrated people gave up wearing their religious clothes; many ecclesiastical associations were secularised. Thus within several years the Church as if disappeared from the landscape of the French society. In his book ‘The Ratzinger Report’ Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was right writing in 1985, ‘In those times many Catholics opened themselves without any filters and restraints to the world, i.e. the domineering modern mentality.’ During the same period the Church in France experienced a drastic decrease in regular religious practice (from 25% of Catholics in 1966 to 8% in 1987) and in priestly and religious vocations (from 700 in 1965 to 111 in 1980). Today, looking only at the numbers, the situation of Catholicism in France seems to be catastrophic. So we can see that
– fewer and fewer people declare to be Catholics; according to the latest surveys ca. 60% as compared to 75% in 1987; only 45 % of small children are baptised, which means that more and more parents who are Catholics officially, do not want their children to be baptised;
– only 7% of teenagers receive Confirmation;
– only 35% of married couples receive the Sacrament of Matrimony;
– very low level of regular religious practices (ca. 7% of Catholics, which means only 5% of the population, the decisive majority being people over 50);
– the average age of diocesan and religious priests is over 65;
– there are only 800 seminarians in the whole country; ca. 100 receive Holy Orders.
All research and world statistics cannot express the inner live of particular souls and the mysterious dynamism of the whole Church. The experts in the French Church know that beyond statistics there are undoubtedly signs of hope. One should stress the role of the Servant of God John Paul II. His question posed during his first apostolic visit to the country of human rights in 1980, ‘France, the oldest daughter of the Church, are you faithful to the promises of your holy baptism’, burned deeply into the common memory of the French Catholics.
Signs of hope
Since the 1980s, thanks to the influence and impact of the Polish Pope, especially thanks to his seven apostolic visits to France and the World Youth Day (Paris, 1997), which was attended by huge crowds of French young people, the atmosphere in the French Church has undergone profound changes. One can see a gradual return to some essential dimensions of Christian life (which were undermined in the 1960s and 1970s) like prayer, dignity and beauty of the liturgy, the visible signs of faith (pilgrimages and processions, priestly robes), etc. In a word, since the 1980s the French Catholicism has been experiencing a process of finding this great Tradition of the Church, which was too quickly given up in the difficult period of the first postconciliar years. The new generation of priests and laymen born after 1960, i.e. people who matured after Vatican Council II and the crisis of May 1968, have influenced this process to a great extent. They are called the John Paul II generation since the meetings with the Pope, especially during the World Youth Days, exerted a profound influence on them and many a time began their priestly vocations. A considerable part of the new generation of priests and consecrated people belong to the so-called new communities, i.e. those that originated in the postconciliar years. These are the communities of the Renewal in the Holy Spirit, ‘Emmanuel’ Community, ‘New Way’ and the Community of the Beatitudes; monastic type communities like the Community of St John, the Jerusalem communities, the Little Brothers and Sisters of the Community of the Lamb, Bethlehem Communities and spiritual life communities like ‘Fires of Love’ and the Carmelite Institute of the Most Holy Virgin Mary of Life. The new generation of bishops has been also extremely important to the development of the Church in France. They include a considerable number of religious priests, even friars: four Dominicans, a Franciscan, a Benedictine (Archbishop of Toulouse Robert le Gall, a former abbot) and a Cistercian (also a former abbot). The new bishops have been more involved in work in their dioceses; they participate in many ecclesiastical events. They seem to feel less awkward towards secular society and the media than their predecessors. For example, recently the new President of the Bishops’ Conference Cardinal Vingt-Trois, Archbishop of Paris, voiced a strong criticism of the propaganda made in the media for the cause of legalisation of euthanasia. One must also stress the zealous involvement of laymen in all fields of the Church’s life, especially in religious instruction (the majority of teachers of religious instruction are women), in preparing to sacraments and in the liturgy (the readings, prayer of the faithful and songs). One should add that the present-day France prays more. There are numerous prayer groups: Renewal in the Holy Spirit, rosary groups, groups following the spirit of Taizé, the so-called schools of prayer, etc. Besides France enjoys a great number of contemplative religious communities. Almost each of the ninety dioceses has a Carmelite monastery in its area. There are also dozens of Benedictine and Cistercian abbeys, both male and female, as well as the Poor Clare Sisters, the Dominican Contemplative Sisters, etc. For the last 15 years the French enclosed communities, enjoying a considerable number of vocations, have managed to open their houses abroad, including Central-Eastern Europe. The Benedictines from the famous abbey of Solesmes opened an abbey in Lithuania, the Cistercian of Sept-Fonds built an abbey in the Czech Republic themselves, the Poor Clare Sisters opened a convent in Hungary and then in Romania; since the 1990s the Little Sisters of Bethlehem have been in the vicinity of Gdansk. Furthermore, various missionary congregations, Catholic communities and associations propose a year or two of voluntary work in the Third World countries to help them in various fields of development as well as in charity and missionary works. Thus every year hundreds of French Catholics: young people as well as married couples and families with children, go to all parts of the world in the missionary spirit. The existence of the dense network of Catholic radios, including the RCF network (Radio Chrétiennes en France) is very positive for evangelisation of France. As far as television is concerned the Sunday broadcast entitled ‘The Lord’s Day’ (a documentary and Mass) in the national channel is the oldest and one of the most popular programmes. Looking at these various examples one can see that the Church in France is experiencing a deep spiritual renewal at present. The seed is sprouting but one must wait 15 or 20 years, having the farmer’s patience (cf. James 5:7) to see abundant fruit. Didn’t Lord Jesus say to his disciples, ‘This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come’ (Mark 4:26-29). During his third visit to France (4-7October 1986), in his homily delivered to crowds of believers in Lyon the Servant of God John Paul II uttered the following words of encouragement to the French, ‘The Church that are in France, remember your baptism, remember the covenant that God has never rejected! Remember his love! Remember the Holy Spirit that lives in you and can still evoke in you a new spiritual springtime if you really want it! Do not be afraid…’