A Changing Church in France
By Awake! correspondent in France
“‘Church attendance is about nil. Every morning I say Mass for sparrows and spiders. Last year I celebrated one baptism and 26 funerals. What about that? Not even one marriage.’ When [this priest] first arrived at La Bastide [in the south of France], he had 85 children attending catechism. Today, there is a grand total of five in all. There is only one seminarian in the diocese, and 120 parishes have no priest.”—A priest, quoted by Paris daily Le Figaro.
“Who will decide to give back to Catholics the Gregorian hymns, the beautiful canticles, . . . the flowered altars, the ritual vestments, the incense, the organs, and the parish priests at the pulpit? . . . A long lost Catholic, who decides to come back to the fold, would resemble the prodigal son. However, nowadays he wouldn’t find the warmth of his father’s home but a parking lot fitted out with loudspeakers.”—Geneviève Dormann, writing in Le Figaro Magazine.
SINCE the end of the 1970’s, there have been substantial changes for Catholics who marry Protestants. Until 1966 the Catholic marriage mate had to write an oath that he or she would bring up as Catholics any children born from the union. The Protestant husband or wife also had to sign this agreement. These days, the church is more lenient. The wedding ceremony may take place in either a Protestant or a Catholic church in the presence of a clergyman of either religion or both.
“Since Vatican II, not only does the Catholic Church have a new public image but it sees itself in a different light. . . . The church is now less pretentious, closer to other Christian religions, recognizing freedom of conscience, and declares itself ‘at the world’s service.’”—French daily Le Monde.
For some decades now, and especially since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has undergone many changes. How do the faithful supporters and the clergy view these changes?
Things Are Not as They Used to Be
In the early 1960’s, Cardinal Feltin, archbishop of Paris, allowed the priests in his diocese to put aside their priestly robes and wear more secular clothing, even a plain suit with a small cross on the lapel. The Roman Catholic cassock practically disappeared from the French scene, being worn only by traditionalist priests. About the same time, Catholics were granted the option to attend Mass on Saturday evenings instead of Sunday mornings.
The Liturgy, unaltered for centuries, underwent many changes. Modern songs were introduced into the Mass, though not necessarily to everyone’s taste. The church altar was turned around so that the priest now faced his flock during the ceremonies. However, one of the most noteworthy changes in the Catholic Liturgy was the celebrating of Mass in the language of the country. This resulted in the virtual disappearance of the Mass in Latin.
François, Maryse, and Gilles are examples of how some fervent Catholics reacted to this situation. François was an ardent supporter of having the Mass said in French. He stated: “You could at least understand what the priest was saying.” Maryse was against the change because, as she said, Mass “was prettier before.” Gilles shared Maryse’s feelings. He confided: “When we changed from Latin to French, to me it seemed like a breach of faith.”
Among the Catholics who favor these changes, many feel that things have not gone far enough. Some suggest that the church should have a more active role in world affairs. Others are in favor of marriage for priests and even the ordination of women.
Are the Faithful Quite So Faithful?
These changes have affected more than church ritual. In many countries, church attendance has fallen considerably. Thus, the percentage of French Catholics attending Mass at least once a month has dropped from 45 percent to 20 percent in the past 25 years. Regular confession to a priest is now out of fashion. According to a recent survey, only 14 percent of the French population go to confession at least once a year, compared to 51 percent in 1952.
Supervision of the flock has become an acute problem too. The clergy are growing old. Priests renouncing the cloth or dying are not being replaced. As a consequence, the laity have been taking a more active part in worship.
The priesthood crisis is much more acutely felt in the rural areas. Hundreds of rural parishes in France no longer have priests, and many of the faithful either travel to nearby small towns for Sunday Mass or have to be content with what the church in France refers to as ADAP, Les Assemblées Dominicales en L’Absence de Prêtres (Sunday Assemblies in the Absence of a Priest). How do people feel about these assemblies that can no longer be considered a Mass? A nun spoke out frankly on the situation in central France: “People are not really asking for anything. If nothing was held here on Sundays, they would eventually be satisfied with that.”
New—generally charismatic—Catholic groups provide a sign of hope for many. However, they affect but a very small proportion of the Catholic faithful and do not offer a solution to what is called the church crisis.
But why are these changes taking place? When did they start? What triggered them? To answer these questions, we need briefly to review the history of the Catholic Church over the last 30 years.