Last Saturday, I attended a Confirmation ceremony of my wife’s thirteen-year old niece in a school chapel in Vesinet. This is quite a chic area near Versailles and in the Diocese by that name. The nineteenth-century houses are in leafy avenues and sport large windows for plenty of light. It is difficult to imagine who has that kind of income. In reality, you come by such property by inheriting it from your parents.
The Diocese of Versailles is exceptional in France. People in that area are loaded financially and there is a high proportion of conservative Catholics, conservative politically too. The Bishop is a conservative, as is the Vicar General, Vicars Episcopal and most of the parish priests and school chaplains. They dress in strict black clerical suits with slip-in collars and have the same kind of manner as we can discern when meeting lawyers, doctors and engineers. Just over the road from my brother-in-law’s house (he is an engineer working for Total), there is a large nineteenth-century house owned by the Diocese and used as a seminary for the first two years.
I briefly met the Vicar Episcopal who conferred the confirmations. When you meet these people, you turn your tongue ten times round your mouth before saying anything! The immediate impression is someone you wouldn’t trust further than you can throw him. Introductions are restrained and brief, as unthreatening as possible. I simply mentioned that I was an Anglican priest living in Normandy. My time over 2009 to about 2012 taught me extreme circumspection. Behind the smooth ecumenical talk, there is the harsh conviction that there is a “true Church” and the “heretics and schismatics”. You just don’t let the conversation go into that direction. He wondered why I was there. The reason was as banal as any – on invitation from the Boutin family for the Confirmation of their daughter.
The Mass was standard Novus Ordo, celebrated on a 1970’s stone altar facing the nave of the chapel from that era. The movements and gestures were formal and “conservative”. Both the celebrant and concelebrant were wearing chasubles (modern “gothic”) and had the manner of conservative priests. The music was the new French tendency of Gregorian, Byzantine or Anglican inspired melodies, accompanied by an electronic piano and two violins. The singing was led by two young girls at a microphone, with raucous Lebanese style voices. It was quite excruciating on the ear! Well, there were no clowns or dancing as is still often the rule in America, but it was straight-down middle-of-the-road Versailles.
I was not angry about anything, just detached and quiet like someone from outside the religious world. My wife and mother-in-law went and received Communion. I didn’t even bother looking. I observed the manner of the large congregation (there were some 20 candidates for Confirmation), the generally respectful attitude but obviously “in the box”. There was a “happy-clappy” song at the end of Mass, and then the cacophony of human voices like in any public place. I was glad when it was all over, and then we went to my brother-in-law’s house where there was plenty to eat, but I had to be careful about my wine-consumption since I was driving.
I live in the country and remain indifferent to the many gadgets that are essential in people’s lives like smart-phones and video cameras. They are less vulgar than people attending family ceremonies in the provinces, but one can tell that television is a big part of their lives. These church services are clearly made for them.
The traditionalist view tends to blame everything on the lack of asceticism and recollection. I am naturally influenced by my childhood when we were expected to be quiet and respectful in a church like in a public library. I have spent time in the monastic milieu. I suppose my liturgical observance as a priest is more monastic than anything else, with the only concession of using English when someone is present. Again, I am brought to think of extroversion and introversion, as well as the “classical” and “romantic” temperaments. Over the last ten years, we see the difference between Benedict XVI and Francis, Ratzinger and Bergoglio. I don’t think the Versailles priests have changed between the two.
I met some of the Versailles seminarians in 2011 at the Naviclerus regatta (eight Dufour 34 yachts with crews of six or eight). They were young and bright faced, extroverts the lot of them. It’s obviously the expected profile, otherwise they would be joining monastic communities rather than aiming to be diocesan priests. Gone are the days of country curés with lives like the nineteenth-century Anglican vicar with his eccentricities. The eccentricities are ironed out, frowned upon and relegated to the past. The Diocese of Versailles, so it seems to me, is as corporate as any large company producing oil, making cars, managing money or whatever. Gone are the days also of the working priests or guys like Guy Gilbert and his work among recovering drug addicts. Versailles and the outlying towns have no poor people. The gentrification is complete.
I don’t really seem to have any point to go to with this, except to express feelings and impressions faced with this reality in the world. It is a Church that doesn’t attract me. My past experience (through Gricigliano and a brief stay in the Archdiocese of Paris) of it has largely faded and the passing years take their toll. It is essential not to brood over the past or be like a dog that returns to its vomit. We have to look ahead, relate to what we can relate to. My own future as a priest is fragile. The Church I belong to is fragile. The whole Gospel message of Jesus Christ is fragile and always has been. Perhaps I prefer this fragility to the “too big to fail” corporate structures of the mainstream churches to which people relate less and less.
Both my wife and I are now living in fear of the storm clouds of war on the horizon. It is all happening today in Syria and Irak like in Bosnia in 1914. Some of those big corporate men would kill millions for their financial ambitions! I am reading both the alternative news and mainstream sources, and discover that conspiracy theories often get verified by later events and mainstream news sources. We live in fear, but we should not – Fear not! as Pope John Paul II often repeated. War not only destroys lives, but also love and creativeness. Create for what? The first two world wars caused millions to lose faith, and others found solace only in God when they had nothing else. My heart goes out to the refugees, both those who are killing themselves to get to Europe where they will not be allowed to live normally until they have been through the immigration bureaucracy (the terrorists have to be kept out). I also pain to read about those still in the camps in Turkey, completely destitute and faced with the only option of returning to Syria – even if it means getting blown up or decapitated by psychopathic Daesh terrorists. This war will spread everywhere if there is ever a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO. It does put “churchy” things into perspective somewhat. Of course, if it goes nuclear, perhaps the mutant cockroaches will learn to spread the message to their posterity!
We just have to carry on doing “our thing” and being confident we are serving God and humanity in some good way. Je veux passer mon ciel à faire du bien sur la terre – I want to make of my life in heaven a way to do good on earth, said Saint Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus in her correspondence. It is the only attitude we can have.