By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
If yesterday Pope Benedict XVI addressed the broader culture of both France and Europe, today he spoke directly to the French Catholic church – a church which, by all accounts, embodies the famous prediction of the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that the future of Christianity in the West is as a “creative minority.”
Facing a shrunken and sometimes demoralized Catholic community in France, Benedict XVI urged his flock, “Do not be afraid!”
In an open-air Mass held in Paris’ Esplanade des Invalides, before an estimated 200,000 worshippers, the pope urged Catholics to remain true to Christ and the church, meditated on the importance of the Eucharist, and delivered a special appeal for vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Indirectly, the pope also made reference to the strong polarization that has long been part of French Catholic life between liberals formed by the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and traditionalists who look back fondly to the era before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
The reference came in the form of a warning against idols, including “the temptation to idolize a past that no longer exists, forgetting its shortcomings; [and] the temptation to idolize a future which does not yet exist, in the belief that, by his effort alone, man can bring about the kingdom of God on earth.”
The crowd that greeted Benedict this morning was enthusiastic, and featured a striking number of children and young adults. Most observer, however, believe it’s too early to speak of a renaissance. At least in the short run, it seems clear that France is not returning to an era of cultural Catholicism, in which the faith was the air one breathed. Rather, it’s groping its way toward a new model – one option among many on the smorgasbord of post-modern pluralism, but an option animated by a more personal faith.
In a word, French Catholicism appears to be becoming steadily more “evangelical” – faith understood not as a matter of cultural inheritance, but as a freely embraced personal choice. It appeals to a substantially smaller, but arguably more dynamic, slice of the French population.
“We are at the moment where the end of the old French Catholicism is coming, and the new French Catholicism is coming on but not quite present,” said Fr. Matthieu Rouge of St. Clothilde parish in Paris.
There’s no doubt about the “end” to which Rouge refers.
Officially speaking, the Vatican considers three-quarters of the French as Catholic on the basis of baptismal counts, yet recent polls show that fewer than one in two French actually think of themselves that way. The most commonly cited rate for Mass attendance is 10 percent, though most observers say even that number is probably inflated – in the cities, perhaps no more than five percent of attend Mass on a weekly basis. Today, 30 percent fewer marriages are celebrated in church as compared to a generation ago.
Although the ratio of priests to Catholics in France is relatively high by global standards, there are noticeable shortages, especially in rural areas. There are just 700 seminarians currently preparing for the priesthood to serve a nation of 60 million people.
In one illustration of malaise, a crew from CNN recently went out to a Paris parish, located just blocks away from the route of the papal motorcade, to film a sign-up session for religious education classes. The turnout was strikingly sparse, making the plaza in front of the church seem almost deserted.
It’s enough to make some local observers positively depressed.
“It’s extremely sad especially in a country with Christian roots as deep as in France, a country they used to say was the oldest daughter of the church,” said Henri Tinc, a veteran French journalist.
Yet there are also important counter-signs.
For example, the last decade has seen a substantial increase in adult baptisms in France, with roughly half coming from people who were born Christian but never practiced, and the other half coming from adults of a purely secular formation. Compared to the erosion in infant baptisms, the numbers are still small; over the last two decades, baptisms of children have fallen by almost 100,000 a year, while perhaps 3,000 adults enter the church annually. Nonetheless, the rise in adult baptisms indicates a new degree of evangelical fervor in a church that has historically relied on neighborhoods and institutions to transmit the faith.
Church sources also say that the number of French men and women signing up for monastic retreats is at an all-time high, and pilgrimage sites such as Lourdes are doing a booming business. Lourdes attracts an estimated six million visitors each year, and recently underwent a $5 million upgrade to accommodate an even larger influx this year marking the sanctuary’s 150th anniversary.
The bottom line, according to most observers, is that Catholicism in France is not dying but rather mutating. The as yet unanswered question is whether what will emerge is a Catholicism that’s simply a shell of its former self, or a smaller but more passionate and more incisive cultural force – that “creative minority” that Ratzinger once compared to the first generation of Christians.
In his homily this morning, Benedict noted that Sept. 13 is the feast of St. John Chrysostom, a fourth century Greek saint and doctor of the church. The pope quoted from Chrysostom’s commentary on the letters of Paul that idolatry is a “scandal” and a “real plague.” In addition to the examples noted above, the pope also cited “money, the thirst for possessions, for power and even for knowledge” as modern idols that have “diverted man from his true destiny.”
Benedict argued that mania for idols is irrational, and distracts humanity from arriving at the truth about God. That truth, the pope said, is expressed in the Christian faith and its sacraments, especially the Eucharist. In that regard, he urged Catholics to deep their devotion to the Eucharist.
“Millions of times over the last twenty centuries,” the pope said, “in the humblest chapels and in the most magnificent basilicas and cathedrals, the risen Lord has given himself to his people, thus becoming , in the famous expression of Saint Augustine, ‘more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.’”
Benedict also urged young French Catholics to be open to the possibility of a vocation.
“At this point, dear inhabitants of Paris and the outlying regions, but also those of you who have come from the rest of France and from neighboring countries, allow me to issue an appeal, confident in the faith and generosity of the young people who are considering a religious or priestly vocation: do not be afraid!”
“Nothing,” the pope said, “will ever replace the ministry of priests at the heart of the church! Nothing will ever replace a Mass for the salvation of the world!”
That message echoed the pope’s comments last night to a group of young Catholics in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
“Don't be afraid,” said the pontiff, speaking under a spotlight with his arms outstretched. “Have the audacity to proclaim [the faith].”
Benedict concluded his homily this morning by asking French Catholics to stand fast with the church itself – not because of the holiness of its members, he said, but because of God’s promises to it.
Before this morning’s Mass, Benedict XVI paid a brief visit to the Institute of France, the prestigious academic body into which he was inducted in 1992, taking the spot vacated by the Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov. Some 200 fellow intellectuals gathered under the institute’s dome to greet the pope.