An American in Paris: “Religion in France is far from dead…”

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.

Read it all.

  • Catherine

    I recall visiting Burgundy in the late 80s or early 90s, and being very disheartened to find that the famous pilgrimage spot of Vezelay had been taken over by New Agers. I went back a decade later with my husband, and (having warned him about the New Agers) climbed the hill to the basilica. We heard beautiful chant being sung, and I said, “oh, that must be a tape playing for the tourists.” Instead, we found a Mass in full swing. The bishop had sent in a new, orthodox order which had re-evangelized Vezelay. We had similar experiences at other churches in the region. When we asked what had happened, everyone said the same thing — “the Holy Father [JPII] visited this area, and evangelized the people.”

  • Peter

    I attended the baptism of my niece in Bordeaux last spring. There were about 30 children baptized at that time. However, although the ceremony was very upbeat, the priest’s homily was a sot of reality test. He spoke words to the effect that he knew that he very likely would not see any of the parents or children until they would appear one Sunday for First Communion, in several years, and then, not until marriages or family funerals. He encouraged families to pray in their homes, to develop a sense of God in their children, and to consider attending Mass at least a couple times a year, perhaps Christmas and Easter, he said. A week later for Mass, the Sunday Mass was very sparsely attended, with large areas of the church roped off, to collect the attendees in a small area. i originally saw this in Boston in the ’80′s.

    I hardly think that it is a sign of encouragement the mention of the movement of the St Pius X Society, followes of Marcel Lefebvre.

  • Nate

    A couple years back my wife and I were in Paris for business during a random winter week. We went to a pretty random Catholic church in Neuilly-sur-Seine for Sunday Mass, close to our hotel. Packed. With families. We arrived a little late, and actually couldn’t find a seat.
    Certainly, this is no reason to think that all is well, given all of the other horror stories that could temper this once. But upon leaving Mass that Sunday, my wife and I thought, “Well, that’s not nothing.”

  • deacon john m. bresnahan

    I think we tend to compare today to the so-called “Age of Faith” in the Middle Ages or Counter-Reformation Era. The image
    in many people’s minds is of a population constantly on its knees in prayer or at Mass or attending church where Gregorian Chant is always being sung in the background and monasteries were all places of lively, mystical Faith.
    However there were no Pew, Gallup, or other type polls taken to plumb the depths of what people really believed, how deep their faith really was (as if polls can adequately measure religious faith). We do know St. Francis of Assisi was faced with crumbling churches to repair, that many monasteries were corrupt and nothing but holding pens for youngest sons and unmarried daughters of wealthy families, that the Church was always in need of reformers like St. Teresa of Avila or St. Catherine of Siena or St. Ignatius Loyola, and there was all sorts of dabbling in what today we would call New Age religion. So one can genuinely wonder how real the faith was in those times. It seems the Church has always been on a rollercoaster from death to New Life and that each generation or two sees a fall off of the Faith in one way or another only to have the Holy Spirit reinvigorate the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church in one way or another.

  • RGB

    This time ominously, the pendulum has gone so far into a de-Christianized France and Western Europe in general that there is more here than just a matter of perception. While corruption, abuse and nominal faith have always existed, the situation today in Western Europe is entirely different. Now the secular governments, the secular schools, the secular institutions, the secular scientific establishment, are all hostile to Christianity; and not only that, but there is true forgetting and drifting away from the faith incomparable to other eras. Today a young French man or woman can live their entire lives away from any experience of religion. The convergence of forces against the Church is now so powerful that it does threaten the faith in Europe. Remember that only about 1- 3 % of the French are practicing their Catholic faith.

  • Esther

    Peter:

    I have to disagree with your dismay at the SSPX mention..I thought it was a very lovely mention, and was heartened to see it. I am not SSPX, and don’t even attend a Tridentine Mass, but that was the liturgy of the Church for 1500 years (give or take..for the most part…) and was the liturgy that formed saints from Theresa of Avila to Dorothy Day.

    I was glad to see it tossed into the mix in that post, as if it not a big deal, as if it just ..Catholic. Which it is.

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    Those are excellent thoughts Deacon. I believe you’re right.

  • Will

    Paul Doherty, who is English, has a series of historical fiction books that take place during the reign of Edward I, who was king of England from 1272 to 1307. While the books are fiction, Mr. Doherty is a historian. The impression one gets from the books is not always “of a population constantly on its knees in prayer or at Mass or attending church where Gregorian Chant is always being sung in the background and monasteries were all places of lively, mystical Faith.”

  • http://imaginemdei.blogspot.com Maggie Duffy

    While acknowledging that the situation in Europe is pretty grim, since the governments are so often actively hostile and that, as in the US, the sex abuse scandals have done damage to those with weak faith as well as given ammunition to those who literally hate the church, there is good news. I had similar experiences in recent years in both France and Italy, most recently in Paris during a three-day trip. Wandering around on my first evening, I stopped in at St. Germain le Auxerrois near the Louvre and found an evening Mass in progress in a chapel that was well attended. The next evening I wandered into Notre-Dame and found it JAMMED with people attending the consecration of two auxiliary bishops. I grant that this was a special situation, but what a wonderful experience to be in that historic place with a full house. The people near me were devout too. On the Sunday I attended a morning Mass at the Madeleine, which was again jammed, largely with young families. Again, there was a palpable sense of devotion, even among the children. By no means is this “nothing”. When I returned home and told people about these experiences, most people refused to believe me. Nice to see that someone else has had similar experiences.

  • Drake

    I believe in letting a thousand flowers bloom, letting variations exist with respect within the Church. However, this is not the situation of the St Pius X Society. They formed a schism in defiance of Pope John Paul II, as well as in defiance of the decrees of Vatican II. In case you forget, the highest authority of the Church is a council, supreme even to the Pope. The Pius X folks formed a cult of personality around Marcel Lefebvre. They also have the Holocaust denying Bishop Richard Williamson who has aroused ire with his uncontrite antisemitism. This is not all about smells and bells, Gregorian chant and Latin. If it is “just Catholic” as you call it, it is a shameful part of Catholicism.

  • Melody

    Lately in this space we have read about parishes in the US which have closed in part because the people who used to go there have moved away; also “intentional parishes” where people go because of the welcoming atmosphere, the good music or homilies, or perhaps they are interested in the Latin Mass or some other feature. I imagine it is the same in France; it is hard to come up with hard and fast statistics about how many are regular Mass attenders because there is so much crossing of geographical parish lines. I question the 1 to 3% statistic we are hearing, that may be true in some locations but not others. I would be interested in seeing the figures on how much attendance varies from parish to parish, how much of it is Christmas and Easter attendance, how it is affected by rural vs urban locations. And in the parishes which are well attended, what is drawing people to them? The answers to this last question are important no matter what country we are speaking of. I have a passing interest in Catholicism in France since it is where the Catholic segment of my family came from in about 1850.

  • midwestlady

    Well, that’s judgmental.


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