My colleague at CNEWA Michael La Civita went to France for Easter and expected to find a secularized country utterly devoid of Catholic fervor.
But he found something very different:
I wandered down to my favorite neighborhood, Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Entering the dark medieval church that gives the district its name, I lighted some candles, offered a few prayers and reveled in the quiet. The emptied church suited my need to escape, and I figured it foreshadowed a quiet, low-key holiday spent in dark, empty churches.
I was to be proven wrong. Religion in France is far from dead. Yes, Islam is growing more confident among France’s North African and Middle East immigrants, but Catholicism is alive and well.
After a few hours of walking, I entered the cavernous Church of Saint Sulpice. Only a few feet smaller than the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the vast 18th-century structure was packed for Mass with Catholic school children and their parents. Stunned, I made my way for the northern transept, finding myself among a gang of sixth, seventh and eighth graders. Parental stares notwithstanding, the students did what all students at that age do, they giggled, especially at the Kiss of Peace. Nevertheless, their responses to the French-language liturgy were strong and familiar, and they sang with gusto.
But the giggles stopped during Communion. Approaching the priests, most of the communicants reverently genuflected before receiving the Sacrament; the quiet afterward for adoration was deafening.
Thinking my experience at Saint Sulpice a fluke, I spent the evening visiting the parish churches of central Paris, attempting to resurrect one of the customs of my family in suburban Pittsburgh: the visitation of seven churches on Holy Thursday. And so I visited St. Étienne-du-Mont and Saint-Séverin in the Latin Quarter, Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, which is occupied by the followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, back to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and finally to the Right Bank’s Church of Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais, which is associated with the monastic Jerusalem community.
While the churches of the Latin Quarter were relatively quiet, the dim interiors reflecting scattered worshipers deep in thought and prayer, the rest of the churches were busy. Priests from the Society of St. Pius X led prayers in Latin for a crowd in Saint-Nicolas; well-heeled worshipers made their way to the altar of repose in Saint-Germain while a monastic calm, despite the traffic, reigned in the majestic nave of Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais.