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As history demonstrates, in France as elsewhere, the Church is always rising from the dead because the gates of Hell cannot prevail against her…

Notre Dame

“Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” —G.K.Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

In a recent essay, “Is the West Lost Forever?,” I wrote the following:

What will be left when the secularist ‘West’ is dead will be the Permanent Things. Christianity is alive and well, and thriving and growing, in Africa, Asia, China–and yes, even in resurrected embryonic form in Europe and other parts of the ‘West.’ Europe and the ‘West’ might be committing collective suicide, but Christendom is always new, as it is always old, because it is the Permanent Thing.

In light of these words, a recent essay in America about the rise and renewal of Christianity in France illustrates all too clearly the “resurrected embryonic form” of the Christian revival in Europe.

“A few years ago,” writes the essay’s author, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, “I started to realize something. Whenever I was less than five minutes early for Mass, I had to go to the overflow room, and I would typically have to step over people sitting on the floor to get there. The church was filled to the gills every Sunday, with young families and children most of the time.” Mr. Gobry, who lives in Paris, experienced the same thing when he moved to a different part of the city. The church was packed. There were wealthy and elderly Parisians but also many immigrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and Indian Ocean countries, as well as “the kinds of hipsters you might not expect to be religious.” Also, and significantly, Mr. Gobry tells us that “there are children everywhere.”

Mr. Gobry makes a point of attending other, random parishes on Sundays, “just to see if this is a real trend” and has found that Sunday high Mass is packed in most parishes in Paris and that the same is true in Lyon, the second largest city in France.

Surprisingly perhaps, at least for those of a neo-atheist persuasion who consider religion the preserve of the ignorant, the Catholic revival in France is a phenomenon most marked among the “highly educated” in the large cities. It is not the remnant of a disappearing past or a disappearing peasantry but the manifestation of a revitalized present promising a revivalist future.

“But now I have seen something I never expected,” continues Mr. Gobry. “I think that in my entire life I had never seen more than a dozen people in the church in the village that my family hails from on any day other than Christmas and Easter. When I returned recently, it was about two-thirds full. There are also more activities outside of weekly Mass than I remember; the parish is now caring for a family of Iraqi Christians, and local teenagers have started a project with a local crafts school to beautify the church.”

This religious revival was first felt “fleetingly” by Mr. Gobry when he began to notice how some of his lukewarm Catholic friends from college, who had previously only gone to church at Christmas and Easter, had begun to post things on Facebook about their going to church, or raising money for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, or becoming involved in Catholic charities working with the homeless. Meanwhile, two of his previously irreligious friends surprised everyone when they suddenly abandoned their high-flying careers to walk the road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, one of the most ancient pilgrimage destinations in the world, having a religious experience when they got there and changing their lives when they returned.

The seeds of this Catholic revival in France might have been planted as far back as the 1980s when the Socialist Government tried unsuccessfully to merge private and public schools but it can be said to have begun to blossom in 2013 with the widespread populist uprising against the imposition of same-sex “marriage.” It now appears to be opening into full bloom, even as the decadent weeds of secularism, les fleurs du mal, begin to sicken and wither.

For those who know a little history, this latest Catholic revival in France is but the latest of several, each of which signified the resurrection of the Faith after the “experts” had solemnly pronounced it dead. In the 1790s, after the secular fundamentalists of the French Revolution launched its Reign of Terror against the Church, it was widely believed that the Church in France was now well and truly dead, snuffed out by “progress.” Then, against all modernist expectations, under the influence of François-René de Chateaubriand and others, France experienced a Catholic revival, largely as a healthy reaction against the murderous excesses of the Revolution and the Napoleonic imperialism which followed in the Revolution’s wake.

After the establishment of the French Second Republic, following the Revolution of 1848, many believed that this second effort at secularism would succeed in destroying the power of the Church, even though its progenitor had failed. In the event, a new Catholic revival followed. From the Marian apparitions at Lourdes in 1858, the story of which would be told so evocatively and dramatically by Franz Werfel almost a century later in The Song of Bernadette, to the witness of great saints, such as Jean Marie Vianney and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Church proved herself to be alive and well in nineteenth century France. Even the leaders of the French Decadence, those who had drifted furthest from the Faith in the narcissistic pursuit of sin, fell under her spell, Baudelaire being received into the Church in his final illness, Verlaine converting in prison, and Huysmans becoming, post-conversion, a frequent visitor to monasteries, and even an Oblate of St. Benedict.

Secularism reared its ugly head again in 1905, with the passing of the law establishing the laicism, or secularism, which has characterized French politics ever since, but this “triumph” was followed by a further Catholic revival, particularly in philosophy and the arts. Giants of this revival include Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson, Charles Péguy, Léon Bloy, Paul Claudel, François Mauriac, and Georges Bernanos.

The next blow for secularism was struck by the student uprising in Paris in May 1968, France’s equivalent of the so-called “Summer of Love” in San Francisco, the latter of which had brought the hippies to the world’s attention in the previous year. Although the Parisien students shared many of the same goals as their American brothers and sisters, they set about achieving those goals in the time-honoured French fashion, using revolutionary violence, believing that a molotov cocktail in the hand is worth more than any number of flowers in the hair.

And yet the “spirit of 1968” did not represent the final triumph of secularism over the spirit of Christendom, any more than any of France’s previous secularist uprisings had done. Indeed, Mr. Gobry sees the new Christian Revival as representing “the reversal of May 1968.”

It’s not that secularism is dead as a political force. It isn’t (like the poor it is always with us). It is simply that it does not have the power to defeat the forces of Christendom. Although it is always proclaiming the Christian Faith to be dead or dying, secularism does not have the power to kill it; or, rather, if it does have the power to kill it, as it indubitably has the power to kill its disciples, it does not have the power to keep it killed. Christendom, like the God of whom it is the Mystical Body, always has the power to find its way out of the graves being dug for it. As history demonstrates, in France as elsewhere, the Church is always rising from the dead because the gates of hell cannot prevail against her. She is always rising from the dead because her God is Risen indeed.

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10 replies to this post
  1. What an encouraging article — thank you! Mr. Peace, I always find your writing insightful and uplifting, and I have told my kids and husband about your remarkable, delightful conversion. God is awesomely hilarious sometimes…from neo Nazi to profound & faithful Catholic, what joy! Happy Easter to you & your family!

  2. A swallow does not make a summer. Numerous surveys indicate that less than 5% of Catholics in France attend Mass.

  3. France has always been a bastion of the Faith, while also an open society tolerating dissent. I love cinema and probably my favorite film director is Eric Rohmer. Beginning in the early 1960s he was identified with the French New Wave in cinema that included the iconoclastic Godard, Trauffaut, Chabrot, Resnais and Varda. His began with six films he called the “Six Moral Tales,” among which were films successful in France and on the foreign art house circuit such as “My Night at Maud’s”, a wonderful movie in which the French star Jean Louis Trintigant played a devout Catholic, first depicted attending Mass at a provincial cathedral, who spends the night with a beautiful and highly articulate woman who challenges his faith in an attempt–more or less–to seduce him. Those contemptuous of French movies might say that all that happens is that they talk a lot, which is of course the protagonist’s triumph. It was nominated for an Academy Award in America in 1969. It is witty, funny and fascinating to watch, at least for me and many others. Other early hits for Rohmer were “Claire’s Knee” and–my personal favorite–“Love in the Afternoon.” It would have been easy for Americans to find these films about a man in his late 30s about to finally marry who engages in some pretty serious flirtation with a pair of truly lovely teenage girls, and a married Parisian lawyer’s affair with an old flame as risqué, at least in the 1970s. They would have missed Rohmer’s point, which was that ultimately the protagonists make the right moral choice. Rohmer was devout, and remained married to his first and only wife for 53 years despite his obvious appreciation of les jeune filles. He also continued to make films that at least the French continued to like and see until his death at age 90 in 2010. There are about 30. “Pauline at the Beach”, from the 1980s, is indeed risqué–but never obscene or pornographic though some might find its frank depiction of relations between the sexes and uninhibited French taste in vacation swimwear shocking– and involves the love affairs of two cousins on vacation in Normandy, one of whom is a teen. It is nevertheless very beautiful and thought provoking and Catholic in its perspective though this might not be as apparent as it is in other Rohmer films. It is entertaining in ways American films are not, and which I prefer. “The Tale of Winter”, from the 1990s is one that is more overtly religious in its content. The female protagonist, a beautiful single mother, has a suitor who is clearly shown to be the most attractive of her pursuers and is a serious Catholic intellectual who ultimately makes a conscious decision to sacrifice his love for her as an act of faith and bless her return to the father of her child, a man of no apparent religious conviction, though evidently not a bad man. He does so because he has hope of thereby leading or helping the woman he loves back into the Church, and he must pray before he has the strength. Rohmer outlasted the other New Wave directors in making movies that the French cared to see, and was always arguing a Catholic perspective very persuasively. He was also a radical environmentalist and Luddite who refused to have a telephone in his home (much less an I-phone) or even to ride in cars for many, many years. I’m sure he would have been enthusiastic about Francis, but that is another subject. C’est la vie.

  4. Well if one is going to hold to a belief, one that has lasted for two thousand years, you can’t be to wrong.

  5. I lived in the 7th arrondissement of Paris in 2012 and 2013 during the demonstrations against gay marriage in France. My apartment overlooked a street on which these demonstrations would pass by. One thing struck me: there were a LOT of people demonstrating against gay marriage and it wasn’t just old people. Most of the demonstrators were young and middle-aged.

    Surprise no. 2: The Church of Saint Francois Xavier (5 min from my apartment) was packed to the rafters on Sundays, especially for the 9:00 Latin Mass (“messe chantee en gregorien (rite de Paul VI”)). Before I moved to Paris, I though the French were thoroughly secular, that the Existentialists had wiped out church attendance, especially in the 7th arrondissement where a lot of champagne-socialists live. But no!

    I contrast this to church attendance in many villages and cities in Italy. I have been to Rome many times and it shocks me that the churches in Rome (except St. Paul’s Basilica and the Basilica churches) are quite empty on Sunday. It’s worse in other Italian cities and village.

  6. Excellent commentary. If the Catholic faith is presented as it should be, most of our problems would be resolved.

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