Wednesday, 17 May 2006

The Religious Life of Paris

Paris is a city of contrasts. The skyline is dominated, on the one hand, by the Eiffel Tower (constructed in 1889 during the celebrations marking the first Centenary of the French Revolution) and, on the other, by the white Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Montmatre (built as a votive and expiatory offering following the horrors of 1870-71, when Paris was terrorised by the besieging Prussians and the revolutionary Communards, who even murdered the city's Archbishop). The rivalry between the Eiffel Tower and the Basilica is a fitting image for modern French history - an on-going story of revolution and restoration, of atheism and belief, of prejudice and piety.

Many of the problems of the modern world have their historical origins in the city. I was therefore expecting to find Paris pretty secular and anti-clerical - a priest friend of mine once even had a glass of water thrown in his face at a restaurant! And, of course, the imminent release of the DVC only intensifies the image of Paris as an anti- or post-Catholic city. However, I'm glad to say that I found the opposite to be the case.

The central Parisian churches are magnificent and, on Sunday, absolutely packed. Even Notre Dame still feels like a Church, despite the queue of tourists at the main entrance. A charming area south of the Seine contains some important shrines which still attract hoardes of pilgrims - a leaflet calls it the Route des Saints. Most famous is the shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal on the Rue du Bac (where St Louise de Marillac and St Catherine Laboure are buried) and, nearby on the Rue de Sevres, the shrine of St Vincent de Paul. Perhaps, for me, the greatest discovery was the Missions Etrangeres de Paris, also on the Rue du Bac. This seminary was founded in 1663 to train missionaries and a small museum contains the relics and mementoes of the College's martyrs, mostly from the early nineteenth century. Once I download my photos, I'll post more information about them.

The Church of Paris has many signs of life. On the north bank of the Seine I stumbled across the beautiful church of Saint-Gervais. A service was going on, packed with young people and, in the sanctuary, robed male and female religious were sitting on the floor, singing a simple polyphonic chant that resembled that of Taize. It's not quite my style but it was impressive. The church is run by the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem, founded by Fr Pierre-Marie Delfieux in 1975 and recognised by Cardinal Marty in 1979. It aims to combine the contemplative life with that of a busy modern city (the holy city of Jerusalem is a sort of model for all modern cities), creating 'an oasis in this urban desert of solitude and anxiety, yearning and indifference.' The brothers and sisters (see picture above) rent their housing ('in order to avoid the risks of becoming too settled and of accumulating property') and work part-time ('earning their living in a way which expresses both solidarity and challenge to the workplace'). Although they are not cloistered, they have regular times of prayers - including evening Vespers, which is packed with workers on their way back home. The institute also has a presence in such 'high profile' sites as Mont-Saint-Michel and the Trinità dei Monti, Rome.

There are many French dioceses which, in terms of vocations, are more or less dead. Three years ago John Paul II referred to the 'grave crisis of vocations: a sort of wandering in the desert that constitutes a real trial of faith for pastors and faithful alike.' Yet, there are more new Catholic shoots in France than any other European country, confirming her status as 'the eldest daughter of the Church.' One thinks, for example, of Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe's Community of St John or the traditional Benedictine communities at Le Barroux and Fontgombault. The Western Church can indeed learn valuable lessons from this country scarred by war and revolution!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad you have returned from Paris and resumed your postings, also looking forward to seeing the photos. I am a daily reader here, and find your postings most informative and peaceful to read. Continued success to you, and God bless.

Judith (in Illinois)

1:07 am  
Blogger Fr Nicholas said...

Thanks for your continual support -it's nice to know there is a daily reader in Illinois! I'll be posting some photos once I'm back in the parish tonight.

12:10 pm  

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