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Lessons from France on taking care of the U.S. church


Last summer, wife Jean and I went to France. It was one of those nicely packaged tours of the Dordogne region around Toulouse, designed to educate and entertain people of a certain age -- the kind that like a bathroom on the bus.

It was a memorable two weeks. The wine and cheese alone were so spectacular that, if I am elected pope during the next consistory, I pledge to move the core administration back to Avignon. (Just don’t eat the escargot. It’s got snails in it.)

The art and culture were so Catholic that we wondered about the tolerance levels of the non-Catholic majority with whom we were traveling. But we needn’t have worried. If anything, they grew even more absorbed than we did by the art and architecture in the amazing profusion of churches scattered in every town and village.

After viewing literally hundreds of Madonnas peering from every cranny, a mildly eccentric, charming woman who was raised a Catholic but for whom the vaccination didn’t take, said, “Oh, I miss her so much!”

Between the mid-11th and mid-14th centuries alone, 80 cathedrals and 500 large churches were built in France. By 1350, more stone had been quarried for their construction than for all the pyramids of Egypt.

Sadly, the French church is now only a shell of its former self. One of the earliest of the Christian churches, it had 30 bishoprics by 250 AD. It produced Hilary of Poitiers and Martin of Tours and hosted the first great Western synod at Arles in 314.

Over the succeeding centuries, the church figured in virtually every important development -- religious, cultural, political and social. It survived -- indeed, often flourished -- through the Carolingian and feudal periods and during a procession of monarchs, including saints and sinners and many about whom one couldn’t tell the difference. The French church survived Arianism, Calvinism, even rigid Jansenism.

It founded the University of Paris in the 13th century and played host to the papacy at Avignon from 1309 until near the end of the 14th century. It endured during the Enlightenment, during which heads of statues on cathedral facades were chopped off.

The church survived the Revolution of 1789, though losing much of its property and privileges. It took the Napoleonic period and an 1801 concordat with Napoleon to restore land and power.

There was growth in the 19th century, but the increasing conservatism of the French hierarchy cost the church dearly, especially the loss of the working class. By 1905, there was complete separation of church and state.

Now, the church continues to struggle with the heritage of the French Revolution, liberalism, the alienation of intellectuals and the estrangement of the working classes. But French Catholics have continued to be at the forefront of the theological and liturgical movements that led up to and followed Vatican II. French Dominican Yves Congar is among the greatest ecclesiologists of the 20th century.

Today, only 10 percent of French people between the ages of 40 and 50 describe themselves as practicing Catholics. Presently, only half the babies born in France are even baptized, and only 2.5 percent of those under 25 attend church with any regularity.

John Paul II is trying. He has made five trips to France. But, while we saw colorful banners celebrating his last visit, the numbers brought back to the altar have not improved significantly.

A massive church structure remains in place. In terms of official registration numbers, France is 82 percent Catholic -- 47,773,000 out of 58,150,000. Only about 80 percent the size of Texas, it has 19 archdioceses and 75 dioceses, headed by five cardinals, 26 archbishops and 148 bishops. It boasts over 32,000 parishes but has only 22,000 diocesan priests.

Much like Italy, it is a country of ironic faith. Thus, while it proclaims fierce separation of church and state, it spends about 1 percent of its total budget on the restoration of art and architecture, much of it Catholic. At Pentecost, we were in the incredibly beautiful cliffside village of Rocamadour. We walked up the hill to an 11th century church just outside the main village for a 9 o’clock Sunday evening liturgy. There were few people in the Romanesque church, which seemed filled with the faint echoes of voices that worshiped there some 300 years before Columbus discovered America.

The priest spotted our small group in the back of the church. He brought us into his homily, praising the faith and vigor of the American church. At the Kiss of Peace, he walked to the back and greeted us personally, thanking us for coming.

It may be my imagination, but the French church may have learned humility. The priest seemed glad of his parishioners and visitors, but beneath that I sensed a loneliness and a sadness. He reminded me of the isolation of the Curé d’Ars and the melancholy of the priest in Georges Bernarnos’ Diary of a Country Priest.

The experience left me wondering if the church is losing Western Europe and whether the United States will follow. Presently, less than half of America’s over 58 million Catholics can be found in church on a regular basis, and the number continues to dwindle, even as the percentage of its over 19,000 parishes that are considered “priestless” continues to grow.

I wondered about the people on the bus and their relationship with the Catholic church. They were a cross-section of upper middle-class America. Perhaps it was just our age or the intimacy that a tour bus provides, but people confide on buses, telling things to each other that they would rarely tell at home. At least five were divorced; two had been widowed; two had lost children and two had seriously contemplated suicide. Most were close to their children, but some others were distanced. Virtually all had been felled by a serious illness -- one had a heart attack on the bus.

About a dozen were Catholics. At least one of them could be classed as devout; most were hanging on by their fingertips. Some had been away from practice for so long they were surprised to learn that the priest was no longer saying Mass with his behind to the people. Others had ceased practice at the time of their marriage because of one impediment or another. I hadn’t realized the paucity of knowledge about church matters among the nominal Catholics. It rivaled that of the non-Catholics.

Listening to their life stories, I couldn’t help but conclude that, under present church discipline, no one was making it.

There was universal recognition of John Paul II, although most did not know the name of their local bishop. John Paul got top marks for his efforts for peace, justice and the plight of the poor. Most were surprised to learn that the church was still dictating policy on birth control, premarital sex and other pelvic issues. “Are they still preaching that stuff?” they asked, almost amused.

The non-Catholics and the two Jewish women might be said to envy us papists because of the richness of our art, architecture and culture. Our guide was immensely knowledgeable, filled with stories that matched the buildings in beauty and age.

Only one tourist gave a hint of anti-Catholic bias, and it was really directed at some misinformation about some questionable popes. I’ve heard worse from aged nuns.

I was proud to be a Catholic. I felt rich. But I was troubled by the thought that the Vatican might be willing to write off Western Europe -- and the United States -- in order to maintain its present stranglehold. I was moved by the relics of the French church but saddened by its present condition.

The U.S. church is arguably the best and strongest of all the national churches. Clearly, however, we need to take better care of those Catholics on the bus and the 58 million they represent.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago. In France, he gained so much weight that he is facing a wattlectomy. You can tweak his wattles at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999