Lessons from France on Taking Care of the U.S. Church. (Column)

By Unsworth, Tim | National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

Lessons from France on Taking Care of the U.S. Church. (Column)


Unsworth, Tim, National Catholic Reporter


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 Aries 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. …

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Lessons from France on Taking Care of the U.S. Church. (Column)
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