Don Bosco

The challenge of believing

August 25, 2012



France: faith reborn, the faithful will be reborn?

The situation of faith in France may seem paradoxical. How is it possible that a country with a clergy in contraction and with "parish groupings" geographically increasingly widespread, especially in the countryside, knows today a flourishing of evangelical transmission on a cultural, educational level or through innumerable associative initiatives?
Among opinion leaders and scholars, a well symbolized hypothesis now prevails, in this Olympic summer, from the flicker of the diver who climbs from the bottom with an equal momentum to that of the dive. In the wake of sixty-eight and up to the nineties, France underwent vigorous attempts to eradicate Christianity: think of the universities or the media, where Marxist colonization led to the expulsion of Christian proposals and interpretations. But the lead cap has now been skipped and the French culture rediscovers, often with genuine enthusiasm, its ancient Catholic soul.
Among the "immortals" of the Académie française, the most prestigious intellectual cenacle, today there are especially believers such as René Girard, Michel Serres, Marc Fumaroli, Jean-Luc Marion, Max Gallo and Jean d'Ormesson. And under the Coupole, also sits Monsignor Claude Dagens, bishop of Angoulême. But even in the competing upper room, the Académie Goncourt which awards the eponymous prize, two Catholics such as Michel Tournier and Didier Decoin stand out. Among the younger generation, the critics exalt authors such as the poet Christian Bobin, Sylvie Germain, the incandescent Fabrice Hadjadj or Alexis Jenni, winner of the latest Goncourt debut. And the examples could go on and on, considering the new generation of believing essays.
The first theater festival, that of Avignon, has just been entrusted to the multifaceted playwright Olivier Py, whose work is imbued with evangelical references. And, on a cinematographic level, stars like Juliette Binoche, Gérard Depardieu or Anouk Aimée are happy to express their faith. In this context, above all, the luminous tail left by The Men of God, the film on the spiritual testimony of the monks of Tibhirine , whose stupendous success, so much more enigmatic for an auteur film, has become a "case" does not tarnish which won the cover of the weeklies and the attention of sociologists. Among the many examples of emerging pop music, one can instead cite the intense Camille.
Alongside the vivacity of the theological debate, the intellectual journals Etudes , of the Jesuits, and Esprit , founded by the personalist philosopher Emmanuel Mounier, as well as the Dominican publications of Editions du Cerf , show an unsurpassable prestige  . It is not a detail that the country's most widely read newspaper, Ouest France (800 thousand copies), is proudly faithful to the social doctrine of the Church. Moreover, in Paris, few other cultural centers know the success of the Collège des Bernardins, wanted by the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger.
In reverse, the echo of anticlerical writings seems to be fading. The same success of the essayist Michel Onfray already looks like a flash in the pan. The Express, the first and authoritative weekly of information, has just mocked the self-styled "atheologist" observing that even the most hardened atheists could end up believing that "the books of Michel Onfray are really too poor".
At the associative and charitable level, then, the Catholic constellation continues to expand. Suffice it to recall the luxuriant legacy of works and initiatives left by Abbe Pierre and Sister Emmanuelle, the two religious long at the top of the list of the most loved and popular French. And it is also very symptomatic that Catholic private schools can no longer respond to requests. In constant increase for years, members have now largely exceeded 2 million.
But will this renewed social and cultural effervescence be a viaticum for vocations and for a rediscovery of the sacraments, as well as for a downsizing of the  State laïcité , still often hostile to the religious fact? It seems the great unknown of the French equation, also considering the return to power of the socialists led by President François Hollande: a return that arouses well-understood fears, above all on the ethical front due to obvious "Zapaterist" temptations.
In the parishes, meanwhile, pastoral care is also assured by the generous arrival of hundreds of young foreign priests and seminarians, mostly from French-speaking Africa or from European countries such as Poland. The contribution of about 10,000 lay people who have formally accepted a mandate from their own bishop is now decisive. And for the faithful, these days, the meditation of Saint Therese of Lisieux resounds even stronger, then resumed by Bernanos to close her Diary of a country curate: "What does it matter? Everything is grace ".


a story of conversion that comes from Nogent le Roi, a town in the Eure valley, a tributary of the Seine. The story of Yann, 39, a laborer who for a long time remained insensitive to the faith that has flooded the region for centuries. A man known until last summer as hard and unpredictable. Even feared, with his dog on a leash. Yet a few weeks have been enough to turn Yann into a loved one of the faithful of Nogent. And now that it's gone, his name is remembered with a special emotion.
Stubborn smoker, Yann died of a lung cancer on October 29th, after Mélody's third birthday, born from the union with Marylène. The sudden admission to Dreux did not discourage him in his sudden and overwhelming desire to reconcile himself with the sky. Thanks to Fr Edouard, a young local parish priest, and with the personal support of Monsignor Michel Pansard, bishop of Chartres, Yann was baptized and received the other sacraments, including his marriage to Marylène.
«His smiles and his radiant face, at the time of the ceremonies, gave me something unique. In the end, he was a man in peace - his bride tells - his faith was already born with the death of his mother, since he wanted to be sure of reaching it ".
But if Yann has received so much, he has also managed to give so much in extremis. For Father Edouard, "he totally abandoned himself to God and learned to love in the hospital. As a rebel, he has become a lamb. On the day of the wedding, the corridor filled unexpectedly with parishioners, relatives and hospital staff. Even without a voice, he asked me to pray. He used to say to me with his sweet eyes: "I have the impression of seeing Jesus". In his words there was a mixture of emotion, beauty and gravity ».
It is only one of the infinite whispers of faith in the "profound France" of recent years, linked to the new evangelization. Father Edouard and the other religious in Nogent belong in fact to the community of San Martino, founded in the 1970s in Italy, in Genoa, and active in coming to support evangelization in the transalpine districts.


The Year of Faith is a beautiful gift for France and for the whole Church. We have already experienced a Year of the extraordinary priesthood, with the impression, in Lyon, of being for a year like the banlieue d'Ars. The Year of Faith will allow us to deepen the Creed and to learn more about the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This is what the Pope wanted to do last year with the young people, at the WYD in Madrid, offering them Youcat ». Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, primate of the Gauls as archbishop of Lyon, is known for his commitment to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, but also for the particular echo of his interventions on the national scene. Last week, Figaro he opened on the front page with an appeal by the bishop played as a warning to the whole political class: "We must not distort marriage".

What does the classic expression "France, firstborn daughter of the Church" mean today?

This recalls a very rich history that we must remember and for which we must give thanks to God. But let us be careful not to let ourselves be invaded by the past, however wonderful. The Lord awaits us in the present and future. Lyon, for example, recalls its second-century martyrs, who became a source of evangelization in Gaul and Northern Europe. But let us remember that the Greek word martyr means witness. This impressive initial point of our Church leads us to ask an essential question: "Are we the servants and witnesses of the Lord?"

How is the Church's missionary thrust expressed in the most eloquent ways?

In France we have a lot of luck. Foreigners confide in me their admiration for the many and tonic initiatives taken by the new evangelization. We have very vital and daring theological schools and spiritual movements. Just think of the new studium of Notre-Dame de Vie, Venasque, or that of the faculty Notre-Dame in Paris, or the rebirth of the Dominicans in Toulouse. We know an impressive development of the new communities, similar to that of Brazil. Some, like Emmanuel and Chemin Neuf, already have around 40 years of experience. One can also evoke the innumerable missionary innovations, through music and concerts or the new Internet sites of evangelization. In my diocese, we live the beautiful experience of the "Laboratories of the faith",

Where are the main difficulties?

In a sense, we are currently very poor, as whole parts have collapsed: many monasteries and seminaries have closed. The clergy grow old and this causes real suffering, sometimes even a certain destabilization in our communities. Every year, in Lyon, I order two or three priests and about twenty die. At the same time, we see a real dynamism, a surprising vitality. I wouldn't want to be a naive optimist, nor a gloomy pessimist. There are alarming situations in many dioceses and renewal forces everywhere.

Are the presence and word of Catholics in society a challenge?

We have freedom of speech and the duty to express ourselves for the good of society, especially in this phase of doubt about the future of our civilization. Sometimes, I have the impression that our democracy is cutting the tree on which it lives. In France, we saw the power to lose its head when it became an "absolute monarchy" and we started talking about a "sun king". I hope that we will not enter an era of "absolute democracy", forgetting that every form of power is made primarily to serve. It is often said that democracy is "the least bad regime". In trying to listen and respect the good of all, a parliament must vote for a financial law and legislate. But if you claim the right to change the foundations of society, that is, if you take for the Good Lord, then we are in danger. Even a parliament can lead a country into the abyss. It is always difficult to remain humble in power.

Often relaunched, does the secular debate hide deep faults?

France lives the sequelae of an old conflict. With the separation law of 1905, the State commits itself to guarantee freedom of worship and entrusts the financial responsibility of the Church to believers. This honors the Catholics: the formation of a seminarian costs 20 thousand euros a year. The problem is that behind the word secularity there is often a certain hatred of religion. Therefore, a secular Republic, yes, but a secularist mentality is not. The former president of the Republic had promoted a "positive secularism", which proves well that it is not spontaneously. As a rule, this word should not require adjectives. But in fact, France is still torn between two old currents: respecting religion or fighting it.

Daniele Zappalà