Combating Bible Illiteracy in France
“ILLITERACY” and “France” may strike many readers as words that are incompatible. The French have a reputation of being very proud of their culture. This is understandable, for French literature is among the richest in the world. The standard of education being quite high in France, illiteracy in the general sense of the term is well-nigh nonexistent.
Yet there is a field where the education of the French is sadly lacking, namely, knowledge of the Bible. However, they are not to blame for this dearth of Bible knowledge. Whose fault, then, is it?
The popes of Rome called France “the eldest daughter of the Church.” Even today 85 percent of the French consider themselves to be Catholics. When one learns that before the French Revolution there was one priest for every 110 French men, women and children, and that as recently as 1970 there was one priest, monk or nun for every 297 inhabitants, one will readily agree that the Roman Catholic Church has had a wonderful opportunity to teach the French people the Bible. But, instead, she has kept them in ignorance of the Word of God.
Yes, until recent times, Bible illiteracy among the laity was the consistent policy of the Catholic Hierarchy. In 1229, the Council of Toulouse (France) decreed: “We forbid the laity to have in their possession any copy of the books of the Old and New Testaments.” In 1564, Pope Pius IV forbade the reading of the Bible in the vulgar tongue. In 1897, Pope Leo XIII stated: “ . . . if Bibles in the vulgar tongue are authorized without discernment, . . . more harm than good results.”
A four-volume Manuel Biblique published in Paris in 1905 for the use of future Catholic priests states: “The Church does not allow indiscriminate reading of the Holy Books, especially the Old Testament.” As recently as 1955, Daniel-Rops, Catholic author, spoke about its being “commonplace to hear people repeat that . . . a Catholic should not read the Bible.”
True, since the 1950’s a number of French Catholic Bibles have been published, such as the Jerusalem Bible, but these are quite expensive. Consequently they have not found their way into many French homes. All of which explains the amazing fact that one of the most cultured peoples on earth is, for the most part, made up of Bible illiterates.
AN UNPRECEDENTED BIBLE EDUCATIONAL CAMPAIGN
Such then was the situation in France when the small group of less than 2,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses resumed their Bible educational work after the war, in 1946. How could this tiny group hope to reach the then over 40 million inhabitants of this Catholic country?
They did what Christ told his followers to do, namely: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations . . . and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you.” (Matt. 28:19, 20, Jerusalem Bible [Je]) They courageously “preached . . . in private houses,” and went from house to house to distribute Bibles and Bible-study literature.—Acts 5:42, Je.
Over the years this group of zealous Christians has grown in number from a mere 1,985 in 1946 to 63,428 in 1976, these figures being the average number of Witnesses sharing each month in Bible educational work. During this thirty-one-year period, they have devoted over one hundred million hours to defeating Bible illiteracy in France. They have distributed at cost price 6,680,584 Bibles and Bible-study manuals, not to speak of well over a hundred million booklets and magazines, every one of which contains enlightening explanations of the Holy Scriptures.
While for years Jehovah’s Witnesses in France used current French-language Catholic and Protestant Bibles to teach the people Scriptural truths, since 1974 their efforts have been greatly facilitated. That year, the Watch Tower Society (publishers for Jehovah’s Witnesses) printed the French edition of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures and made it available to the public for a voluntary contribution several times lower than the price of the cheapest Protestant and Catholic Bibles. Thus, thanks to the untiring efforts of the voluntary workers in the Watch Tower printery, the poorest French family can now obtain an unabridged copy of God’s Word. During the past two and a half years, some 700,000 copies of this excellent Bible translation have been shipped out to the French congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses for distribution among the public.
But the efforts of Jehovah’s Witnesses to spread Bible education in France have not been limited to distributing Bibles and religious literature. Since the second world war, they have made no less than 47,556,317 return visits on people who have shown interest in the Bible message, and at the time of this writing they are conducting free weekly Bible discussions in nearly forty thousand French homes.
In comparison, what are the some 44,000 Catholic priests, the 22,000 monks and the over 100,000 nuns doing to combat Bible illiteracy in France? Precious little, judging by the following testimonies given by ex-Catholics who have been helped by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
HELPING CATHOLICS TO DISCOVER THE BIBLE
From Montchanin, in east-central France, comes the following report: “My parents died when I was thirteen. A Catholic sisterhood took me in. Years went by, and I decided to undertake the novitiate [with a view to becoming a nun]. I spent three years in a convent in India, where I took my temporary vows. Next I was sent to the Seychelles islands, then to Ireland, and finally to France, near Carcassonne. I was now twenty-five, and the time had come for me to take my perpetual vows. But, disliking the heavy, hypocritical atmosphere of the convents, I refused. My mother superior put me out to service with a French family, who gave me much work but little pay. It was then that I met my future husband. He spoke to me about Bible truth. In spite of all my religious education, I had never heard of God’s personal name—Jehovah. . . . I thought that this man who someday would become my husband was mad, but he remained calm. This made me think, so I accepted a Bible study with the help of the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. I asked many questions. This little book taught me more about the Bible than did all the learning I had received during the thirteen years I had spent in various convents. My wish now is that many nuns might hear the wonderful good news of the Kingdom and, like me, become real ‘sisters’ who know their God.”
Brittany, a picturesque peninsula that separates the Bay of Biscay from the English Channel, is one of the provinces of France that has best preserved its traditions. It has kept alive its Breton language and also its attachment to the Catholic religion. However, recent changes, contradictions and crises within the Roman Church have opened the eyes of numerous Bretons who conformed to Catholic traditions out of a sincere desire to please God. Many of them reason as follows: ‘I have faithfully followed Catholic traditions all my life because my priest told me that these things were necessary in order to have God’s approval. Now he tells me such things as meatless Fridays are no longer necessary. For me it is one thing or the other. Either the Church has been wrong all along, in which case I have been deceived all my life, or the Church is going astray today.’ Obviously, such sincere Catholics need help. They are receiving it from the some sixty congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses that are combating Bible illiteracy in Brittany.
Take the case of a man of over seventy in Brest, France’s westernmost seaport. He had been brought up in a devout Catholic family. He was educated in a school run by friars. He then studied for the priesthood in a seminary, where he was initiated in Thomist theology-philosophy and learned English, Latin and Greek. At the age of twenty-four and a half, just before taking his solemn vows for the priesthood, he decided to quit what he called the atmosphere of “blue mystery” in which he had been living. One would think that after having spent so many years studying in Catholic institutions this man would have an excellent knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. Yet he confesses: “I had to wait until my seventy-second year before getting to know the Bible and recognizing its truthfulness,” through one of Jehovah’s Witnesses who studied with him free of charge for two years. He adds: “I should like to thank and congratulate this [Witness] for his patience and humility.” This man is himself now a baptized Witness who helps still others to understand the Bible.
From Arles, a historical town in southern France, probably best known throughout the world for Bizet’s music L’Arlésienne (The Girl from Arles), an ex-Catholic writes the following: “I was a practicing Catholic, educated entirely in Catholic schools, and I was an active member of Catholic Action. After going through university I became a philosophy teacher in a Catholic school run by nuns. I also held catechism classes for senior students. I first met one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in February 1974. . . . Confident in my knowledge of the Bible, of philosophy and in my experience as a debater, I accepted an invitation to discuss matters. I raised many objections, but, to my great surprise, I received calm, precise and well-documented answers. . . . I perceived, to my shame, that I actually knew little or nothing about the Holy Scriptures. . . . I also knew very well that Christendom had borrowed much from Greek philosophy.” This sincere Catholic accepted a home Bible study and ended up by quitting the Catholic Church and resigning from his position as philosophy teacher in a Catholic school. He accepted a menial job, and he and his wife became baptized Witnesses at the Divine Sovereignty district assembly held in 1975. He concludes his report by saying: “Today, my mind is no longer polluted by Babylonian mysteries and philosophical gobbledygook. My wife and I are really happy, and we appreciate Jehovah’s blessings.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses in France rejoice at having been able to help so many honest Catholics to discover the wonderful truths outlined in the Bible.
BIBLE KNOWLEDGE IMPROVES FAMILY LIFE AND HELPS DELINQUENTS
Combating Bible illiteracy brings many rewards. Not only does Bible knowledge give people a wonderful hope for the future, but it also brings immediate benefits in terms of practical living.
For instance, in a mountainous region of eastern France there was a couple with five children: three sons and two daughters. The husband often came home drunk, and the three sons wore long hair and eccentric dress, took girls out at night and would come home in the wee hours of the morning. One day, the eldest son subscribed for the Awake! magazine offered to him by a Witness at work. He became interested in the Bible, and soon he and his two brothers were studying the Scriptures with the help of a Witness. Within three months they had completed the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life and went on to study deeper Bible truths.
As the study progressed, their hair got shorter, their clothes became more pleasing and their conduct improved. Noticing this, the father, the mother and the two daughters joined in the study. The marked improvement in their family life so impressed another family of seven that these too began studying the Bible. The youngest son of the first family succeeded in arousing the interest of one of his schoolteachers, who also consented to study the Bible. Thus, within a year, fifteen persons dedicated their lives to Jehovah God and were baptized. Several of the sons and daughters of these two families are now full-time proclaimers of the Good News.
Or take the case of that professional poker player living in a town at the foot of the Pyrenees, who for ten years spent his nights playing cards in cafés, driving his wife and three daughters to despair. Nothing had been able to deliver him from this vice until he agreed to study the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Bible knowledge not only freed him from his life of idleness, but also brought back happiness to his family, who discovered the truthfulness of Paul’s statement that “godly devotion is beneficial for all things, as it holds promise of the life now and that which is to come.”—1 Tim. 4:8.
Do not these true-life examples prove what a powerful force for good the Bible can be in people’s lives, and why the fight against Bible illiteracy is so important?
On April 14, 1976, 123,696 persons were present in the Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout France to celebrate the Memorial of Christ’s death. This shows that thousands of people are interested in the hope given by God’s Word, and doubtless many more thousands are yet to be found and taught. Jehovah’s Witnesses will therefore continue to do their utmost to combat Bible illiteracy in France.
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Les Saintes Ecritures Traduction du monde nouveau Available for a voluntary contribution several times lower than the cheapest Protestant or Catholic Bible in French
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La Vérité qui conduit à La Vie Éternelle “This little book taught me more about the Bible than did all the learning I had received during the thirteen years I had spent in various convents.”