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Temples of Reason and Beauty

Chapelle Saint-Jean - An Enchanted Grove

Chapelle Saint-Jean - An Enchanted Grove

It may come as no surprise to hear that France is traditionally a Christian country.  In every corner of France you will see a testament to its historical, Catholic traditions.  Whether it is the huge cathedral completely surrounded by an urban center, the forgotten chapel high up in a hidden mountain village or a crumbling oratory by the side of a forgotten hiking path, the country is teeming with reminders of its Christian past.  Even the towering peaks of the French Alps are frequently marked with huge iron or wooden crosses!

Alpine Cross

Alpine Cross

Pull the Rope, Ring the Bell!

Pull the Rope, Ring the Bell!

With Christian signs permeating the daily landscape and many public holidays corresponding to a religious celebration, it is somewhat ironic to see how little modern France really cares about actually living its Catholic culture.  Unlike the US where ~40% of Americans attend church weekly, only ~10%1  of French Catholics regularly go to Sunday services, and I can attest from the occasional experience that most of the time mass here seems one step away from a retirement home.  Vocations for the priesthood are plummeting and many are now shipped in from neighboring Italy or even Africa.  The Church also has an image problem in France where it is frequently associated as a community of rich, bourgeois families and ex-nobility who are out of touch with working-class realities.  And in a more somber note, it has also been accused of Nazi collaboration during World War II.

Despite such a rich Catholic tradition, there are many reasons for declining participation in the religion.  To begin with, the Catholic church has a virtual monopoly on Christianity in France.  Although in bigger cities Protestant churches do exist, the vast majority of churches in France are Catholic.  Unlike in America where even the smallest towns will have 4-5 different churches and people tend to “shop around” until they find the community that best fits their spiritual needs, in France there is no incentive for the (usually elderly) priest to lighten up on the guilt, fire and brimstone of their sermons and reach out towards people’s real needs or modern issues.  As a result, many people who are searching simply do not feel “fed”, but rather driven away, and just give up on Christianity - after all, where else is there to go?  And the ones that have no religious tradition in their families would have no reason to attend in the first place…

The Real Faces of Notre Dame Cathedral

The Real Faces of Notre Dame Cathedral

France also has a tradition of secular, scientific humanism and direct conflict with the Catholic Church.  During the French Revolution (1789) many churches, abbeys and other religious buildings were burned, sacred tombs were pillaged and priests were brutally executed.  Even the heads of the statues decorating the doors of Notre Dame Cathedral were chopped off, the result of an explosion of pent-up anger at the abuses of power, not only by the King and the nobles, but also the clergy.  Traditionally, high members of the clergy (bishops, etc.) were usually appointed directly from the noble classes and had vast amounts of wealth and power at their disposal.  The Church also levied a hefty tax on all peasants (know as “la dîme”)2, and the local population was frequently exploited.

Sainte Geneviève du Mont - Church or Temple of Reason?

Saint Etienne du Mont - Church or Temple of Reason?

During the French Revolution, the feudal regime was brutally uprooted and transitioned towards a democratic government based on universal principles.  Religion was seen as an obstacle to scientific progress and many churches were reinaugurated as “Temples de la Raison” (Temples of Reason), the goal of which was to bring freedom and equality to all people.  Traditional Christian holidays were renamed and even the Gregorian calendar was replaced with one based on the seasons and 10 day weeks3.

After the frenzy of the revolution, the French government4 realized that despite their newfound freedoms, most of the country was still very traditional and strongly Catholic, so it was better for civil unrest, not to mention people’s consciousnesses, to make some sort of peaceful compromise with the Church.  The famous “Concordat of 1801″, agreed between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII, returned much of the confiscated property to the Church and also reinstated Catholicism as the majority religion in France while maintaining religious freedom for other sects (Protestants, etc.).  However, it also established government oversight over Church affairs, including such things as nominating bishops and dictating the salary of clergy.  And if your pay now depended on the new French state, it would be wise not to protest too much!!

An Inspiring Heritage!

An Inspiring Heritage!

Fortunately, in modern times, religion is now (more or less) free from state interference in France, but the brutal separation between the church and state during the French Revolution has left scars even to this day.  For example, before you are allowed to be married in a French church, you must first be legally married in the eyes of the French state.  This is why with French weddings, in the morning there is always a legal wedding ceremony at the local town hall presided by the mayor and in the afternoon the traditional church wedding ceremony takes place (if the couple is religious or at least has been baptized…).

The almost sacred upholding of secular traditions of logical and scientific inquiry also can be seen from the French response to certain religious teachings.  For example, most French cannot understand why the Pope insists on discouraging the use of condoms to fight AIDS, despite all of the scientific evidence showing a high correlation between condom use and successful prevention and control of the epidemic. 

L'Abbaye de Sénanque

L'Abbaye de Sénanque

Another recent example is the controversy over allowing young muslim girls to wear headscarves in public school.  Because a public school is an extension of the French state, it was decided that wearing a headscarf in school was too much of a religious provocation against the pure secularism of the state.  And don’t get me started on the French reactions to what are perceived as ridiculous American debates concerning prayer in school, posting the 10 commandments in front of government buildings or whether evolution really happened!

Despite the diminishing participation in traditional Catholicism, France still has an incredible heritage of beautiful, inspiring religious sites.  I absolutely love discovering hidden chapels high on distant mountains and often imagine travelers following these ancient routes, struggling up a difficult valley and offering thanksgiving to the local oratory for a safe journey.  There are also countless places of religious pilgrimage, whether it is visiting well-known Lourdes, walking bits of the “chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle” (Way of St. James) through the Pyrenees Mountains or discovering sacred relics in the chapel of some canonized hermit’s cave.  Touring active monasteries is also invigorating as they are frequently located in gorgeous countryside with delicious cheese, wine or other specialties to sample or purchase.  Many also have a public vespers, an early evening mass where the monks frequently will sing or chant.  So don’t be afraid to explore those hidden places on the map and try to keep the faith!

Links

Those Spooky French Churches!

Those Spooky French Churches!

Sainte Geneviève - Although the Da Vinci Code talks about the imposing Saint Sulpice cathedral, one of the strangest, eeriest churches I’ve ever visited in Paris is “Saint Etienne du Mont” (see my photo earlier in this article).  Hidden behind the Pantheon, it is devoted to the patron saint of Paris, Saint Geneviève, who in the year 451  somehow played the central role encouraging the population to defend the city against Attila the Hun (who incidentally decided to head for Orléans at the last minute).  With its strange towers, ancient interior and worn floor you can literally feel the centuries weighing down on you!

Saint Gervais - There are actually still churches in France with an active, dynamic community, and if you want to participate in an inspiring religious experience where some of the faithful literally walk to the alter on their knees, try out high Sunday mass at St. Gervais in the Marais.  From the outside, this cathedral is dingy and almost unremarkable (in Paris there are cathedrals all over the place) but during the Sunday services the first few rows are full of the singing nuns and chanting priests of the “Fraternité de Jerusalem” (Communities of Jerusalem) - nothing but believers here!

Abbé Pierre -  Beloved by his countrymen and extremely popular (consistently higher than any French president), in 1949 this dynamic abbot started Emmaus, a foundation devoted to helping the poor and homeless.  Always outspoken and a supporter of government initiatives to help fight poverty, Abbé Pierre was also a controversial figure within the Catholic church, openly supporting the ordination of women, married priests and the use of contraceptives against AIDS.

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04204a.htm - Here is the official take on the “Concordat of 1801″ from the online Catholic encyclopedia.  To summarize, Napoleon held all the cards - basically if the Church wanted its property back, they had to sign on the dotted line!

http://www.chemindecompostelle.com/ - This site has a lot of useful information about the St. James Way.  I plan on writing more details about this pilgrimage in a future post.


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  1. some estimates place this number even lower! []
  2. ”la dîme” was a tax requiring 10% of the peasant’s agricultural earnings to be given to the Church []
  3. the traditional Sunday ”day of rest” was replaced by “Décaidi”, the tenth day []
  4. at this time France was “governed” by Napoleon []

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