I am now in Paris to conduct research for my next book, on a French bishop in China, but I always come to Paris as a pilgrim first, and despite the refrain one often hears that, “France is no longer Catholic,” Paris is still a Catholic city.
As large groups of Asian tourists snap photographs of the medieval vaulted arches and rose windows, daily Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral is well attended by French Catholics; before Mass they kneel in the choir stalls, pray rosaries, read the Divine Office, or say devotions in front of the Blessed Sacrament. As I prayed at a side chapel before Mass, the young man beside me prayed his rosary, and when he received a phone call he answered his call with a whispered, “I’m praying right now” (Je prie maintenant).
At another church, almost as famous as Notre-Dame Cathedral here in Paris – the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal – one barely has room to stand as the crowds make their way to pray to Saint Vincent de Paul or Saint Catherine Labouré. The city’s churches have displayed large banners in appreciation of the life and example of Benedict XVI, each one simply saying, “Merci.” At the renowned La Procure bookstore near Saint Sulpice church, a book exhibit in honor of Pope Benedict XVI is located at the store’s entrance, and commemorative photo books in his honor are sold throughout the city.
It is clear that most Parisian Catholics are attached to Benedict XVI; Catholic bookstores brim with his books and recent DVDs about his life, though it is also clear that they anxiously await the next Holy Father. The Church in France remains divided – the majority of vocations are in Traditionalist seminaries – and the next Pope’s ability to mitigate the antagonisms between the growing Traditionalist community and the historically unsympathetic French Catholic hierarchy will figure largely in the future of French Catholicism.
But despite the Church’s internal tensions in France, larger tensions between French Catholics and the secular culture that surrounds them has, it seems, begun to create greater Catholic solidarity. As the Church in France recoils temporarily from political and secular assaults, it continues to celebrate the life and service of Benedict XVI, and waits to replace the “Merci” banners in appreciation for the service of Benedict XVI with “Bienvenue” banners to welcome the next leader of the Church, and of France, the “eldest daughter of the Church.”
Below, photos taken March 6-7 in Paris (top to bottom, taken by author): Notre Dame Cathedral Thanks Benedict XVI, Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church Thanks Benedict XVI, and La Procure Catholic Bookstore Benedict XVI Book Exhibit: