An American in Paris at Holy Week

Before heading over to the Right Bank, I stopped into the Church of Saint-Louis-en-l'Île, a 17th-century structure tucked into the heart of the island in the Seine named after the sainted king, Louis IX. A substantial congregation made its way to the well-lighted altar to venerate the cross, as an excellent choir sang a French hymn.  

After a simple luncheon of crab salad with a Dijon aioli (I was in Paris!), I wandered to the Right Bank and encountered a large and diverse crowd carrying placards and a crucifix. The Emmanuel Community, a charismatic group dedicated to the renewal of the French church, was leading an outdoor stations of the cross, gathering people and steam as it moved from one station to the next. The stations ended at the Church of Saint-Nicolas des Champs, once the site of a powerful Benedictine abbey before the Revolution. The church was grimy and worn, but evidence of its function as the home and center of renewal were everywhere.

Holy Saturday is always a quiet day, so I made my way to the famous flea markets north of the city center. After poking around stall after stall, I decided to head to the pantheon of the French kings, the Basilica of Saint-Denis, which is considered the first experiment in Gothic church architecture. The former abbey church, which is owned by the state, remains a working church, but the structure seemed forlorn despite its recent overhaul. I heard Arabic—not French—in the streets that surrounded the structure and grew annoyed with children using the royal portal as a goal for their soccer match. Shafts of light, filtered by the colored stained glass for which the basilica is famous, flooded the interior of the church, illuminating the royal tombs and cenotaphs.

Despite the statues, the stained glass and the high altar, I felt an absence of devotion, of love of worship. Here was a museum, I said to myself.

Later that night, I made my way back to Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais. The parish church was packed with people holding candles lighted after the chanting of the Proclamation of Easter, or the Exsultet. Hymns were sung boldly and the number of catechumens received into the church numbered more than 30. The hip, well-dressed congregation was there to stay, as they made themselves as comfortable as possible in the aisles, ambulatory and transept of the late Gothic church.

Later, during a late supper of oysters and duck breast with cherries and mushrooms at a nearby cafe, the bells of Paris pealed, announcing: "Christ is Risen!"        

Easter Sunday, I traveled to Chartres to celebrate the feast in perhaps the greatest cathedral constructed in medieval France. Sunlight enveloped the structure, bringing to life inside the magnificent medieval glass. The organ pounded and a children's choir from Cracow processed into the packed edifice, which loomed above what really is no more than a village.

A youthful bishop—56-year-old Michel Pansard—bounced onto the altar, taking the thurible and gently guiding a young server with Down syndrome, who held the pot of incense. The liturgy was jubilant. The singing was joyful, and confident. Under the soaring vaulted crossing, Bishop Pansard spoke how Christ's death and resurrection healed what had been broken. He spoke of hope, of renewal, of new life.

As I listened, I thought of what I had experienced in just a few days. This foray into the center of France had fortified my senses with glorious architecture and fine menus, yet the spiritual vibrancy so evident all around me was providing the unexpectedly sweet finish.

France may be secular. But again, after all these years, I have learned not to believe everything I have read. Perhaps the Catholic Church in France is experiencing a revival, a resurrection. Or perhaps the church has always been alive, but just not in the way it had been once accustomed. Either way, the story of the Catholic Church in France may provide important lessons to those of us on this side of the Atlantic eager to understand the place of religion in a modern secular society.  

4/17/2012 4:00:00 AM
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