Monday, September 15, 2008

Clovis, Benedict and Sarkozy

The Pope's recent visit to France can be declared a success. While the official aim of the trip was a pilgrimage to the shrine at Lourdes for the 150th anniversary of the apparitions, bolstering the Church in Europe and reminding Europeans of their roots--central themes of the life and work of Pope Benedict XVI--were the underlying themes to the trip. Anyone watching the crowds in Lourdes and Paris would agree that the reports of the death of French Catholicism seem greatly exaggerated; furthermore, the face of the Church in France appeared much younger and much more fervent than one would expect. Also, for the first time in decades, French Catholics have an ally in the president's office, Nicholas Sarkozy.

In a speech at St. John Lateran on Dec. 20, 2007, Sarkozy said...

With the baptism of Clovis, France became the eldest daughter of the church. It’s a fact. By making Clovis the first Christian sovereign, that event had important consequences for destiny of France and for the Christianization of Europe. Following that turning point, French sovereigns repeatedly had occasion to demonstrate the deep ties which connected them to the church and the successors of Peter. Beyond the facts of history, France has had a particular relationship with the Holy See above all because the Christian faith penetrated deeply into French society, into its culture, its towns, its mode of life, its architecture, its literature. The roots of France are essentially Christian. Christianity has counted for a great deal for France, and France has counted for a great deal for Christianity …

As with the baptism of Clovis, secularism is also a fact in our country. I know the suffering that its application in France has produced for Catholics, for priests and for religious congregations, before and after 1905. I know that interpretation of the law of 1905 as a text of liberty, of tolerance, and of neutrality is in part a selective reconstruction of the past. It was above all through their sacrifices in the trenches during the Great Wars, through their sharing in the suffering of their fellow citizens, that the priests and religious of France disarmed anti-clericalism; their common intelligence has allowed France and the Holy See to overcome their disagreements and to reestablish diplomatic relations …

Laïcité is to be affirmed as necessary and opportune, but laïcité should not mean negation of the past. It does not have the power to eliminate from France its Christian roots. It has tried to do so, and it shouldn’t have.

Along with Benedict XVI, I believe that a nation which ignores the ethical, spiritual and religious inheritance of its history commits a crime against its own culture, against that blend of history, patrimony, art and popular tradition which deeply impregnates our way of life and our thought. To take away those roots means to lose meaning, to weaken the cement of national identity and to further fray social relationships that need symbols of memory.

For that reason, we have to hold together the two ends of the rope: accepting the Christian roots of France, while also valuing and continuing to defend a laïcité which has reached maturity."

Sentiments Benedict shared, speaking alongside Sarkozy in Paris, NCR's John Allen reports...
"In fact, it is fundamental, on the one hand, to insist upon the distinction between the political realm and that of religion in order to preserve both the religious freedom of citizens and the responsibility of the state toward them,” the pope said during the encounter with Sarkozy and other officials of the French government.

“On the other hand, [it is important] to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences and the contribution which it can bring to – among other things – the creation of a basic ethical consensus within society,” the pope said.

Benedict pointed to five specific areas where church and state can work together:

• Moral formation of the young
• Social justice, especially a “surreptitious widening of the distance between the rich and poor”
• Environmental protection
• Human rights
• Countering a “resurgence of old suspicions, tensions and conflicts among nations” – among other things, an indirect reference to the current conflict between Russia and Georgia.

While calling for a re-think of laïcité, Benedict also said that “past suspicion” between church and state in France has abated, saying that today a largely “serene and positive” dialogue exists between the two forces.

Quoting past remarks by Sarkozy, Benedict said that “the roots of France – like those of Europe – are Christian.”
“The transmission of the culture of antiquity through monks, professors and copyists, the formation of hearts and spirits in love of the poor, the assistance given to the most deprived by the foundation of numerous religious congregations, the contribution of Christians to the establishment of the institutions of Gaul, and later France, all of this is too well known for me to dwell on it,” Benedict said.

“The thousands of chapels, churches, abbeys and cathedrals that grace the heart of your towns or the tranquility of your countryside clearly speak of how your fathers in faith wished to honor him who had given them life and who sustains us in existence,” Benedict said."

It seems that on all of Benedict's previous trips, his presence has been a force for revitalizing Catholic life in the places he visits; meetings with seminarians and bishops are building a positive fraternal bond between the pontiff and his priests (and priests to be).

The Church in France is faced with special difficulties: the French bishops have been rather tepid in engaging in dialogue with the secular culture, and conflict between the bishops and the formidable block of traditionalist adherents to the Latin Mass have been a tragic central element to the past few decades of French Catholic life.

The Pope however expressed his hope to the French Bishops that they would reevaluate their stance towards the traditionalists and embrace them, "So that the seamless robe of Christ is not torn anymore." As the Popemobile traveled down the streets of Paris, traditional-minded Catholics held banners thanking the Pope for freeing the Tridentine Mass with Summorum Pontificum. Likewise the old Vendee flag of the Sacred-Heart and Cross imprinted on the Republic Tri-Color waving to greet the Pope was a common sight wherever Catholics gathered.

France has historically been both the eldest daughter of the Church. The land of saints, Joan of Arc, Martin of Tours, Jean Viany, Isaac Jogues, and Crispin just to scratch the surface, it is also home to arguably the most beautiful Cathedrals in the world. On the other hand, France has been the modern birth-place of brutal anti-Catholic repression during the Revolution and subsequent Reign of Terror, complete with attempts to eliminate Sunday from the calender and institute worship of various cults such as the Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being, efforts which at times seem only like more frank efforts at embodying popular post-Christian worldviews.

Post-Revolutionary Church-State relations ranged from Napoleon III taking it upon France to be the defender of the Papal States to the 1905 secularism law that sought to push religion completely out of the public square and essentially became the ideal standard of secularism that many other nations imitated.

Benedict and Sarkozy would both seem to think that the days of France the Christian nation are over, but the impact the Christians of the French nation have and will continue to have on France, Europe, and the wider world remains strong and everyone will be the better for it.

No doubt the Pope's hope for France can be found in the words he spoke about the Europeans whilst he was a Cardinal: "Believing Christians should look upon themselves as such a creative minority and help Europe espouse once again the best of its heritage, thereby being at the service of humankind at large."

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