Catholic archbishop: ‘The Church in France is jostled from many sides’

Mgr_Eric_de_Moulins_Beaufort___photo_Michel_Jolyot_5 Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort. Credit: Diocèse de Reims.

The Church in France is under pressure, according to the president of the French Catholic bishops' conference.

But for Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, that is no cause for despair.

"The Church in France is being jostled in many ways; it is reacting, which proves that it is alive," he told CNA in an email interview. 

The archbishop of Reims, in northeastern France's Grand Est region, has had a busy past few months. 

In October, he was among the bishops offering comfort to Catholics after an attacker shouting "Allahu Akbar" stabbed three people to death at the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice.

In November, he successfully challenged the French government's proposed 30-person limit on Mass attendance amid rising coronavirus cases. 

In early December, he had a private audience with Pope Francis in which he discussed French President Emmanuel Macron's initiative against "Islamist separatism." 

That may have left him little time to reflect on the condition of the Church in France, often described as the "eldest daughter of the Church" because the Frankish King Clovis I embraced Catholicism in 496.

As a remarkably testing year for Church leaders draws to a close, the 58-year-old archbishop assessed the strengths and weaknesses of French Catholicism today. 

The first thing he mentioned was the clerical abuse crisis. An independent commission reported in June that at least 3,000 children were sexually abused by around 1,500 Catholic clergy or officials in France over the last seven decades.

"The revelation of sexual assaults committed by priests on minors or abuses of power against vulnerable people is prompting the work of bishops, religious superiors, and a certain number of faithful responsible for movements or associations," he said.

"However, it is noteworthy that French society as a whole has confidence in the Church that it is making serious progress in this area. Without prejudging the outcome of this work, which should be completed in a few months, it is certain that priestly ministry will be illuminated and repositioned." 

"It is a question of abandoning any model of social control or supervision of society in favor of a ministry of accompaniment toward Christ (something to which Pope Francis strongly calls). The light shed on these facts is a gift of the mercy of God who wants to purify his Church."

Moulins-Beaufort said that vocations to the priesthood and religious life were "at a mediocre level," apart from in a few dioceses, priestly societies, and religious communities.

But he sounded an upbeat note about young Catholics, who took part in protests when public Masses were suspended this year and have led efforts to protect churches from vandalism.

"Catholic youth are often impressive: in fervor, in a sense of the poor, in a taste for prayer, especially adoration, of rather radical life choices... This no longer fills the seminaries and novitiates but promises rather impressive generations of lay people," he said.

He explained that all of France's 100 or so dioceses were seeking a "pastoral transformation." This requires a reordering of the tria munera, the three duties of teaching, sanctifying, and governing, allied to Christ's threefold office of Prophet, Priest, and King.

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"It is fundamentally a question of putting the tria munera in order," he said, "while 'governing' has taken on more and more importance, but in the degraded form of 'administering,' bishops and priests must proclaim the Word of God, the good news of salvation, then sanctify and finally govern, which is not primarily to administer but to lead souls (that is, people in their singular freedom) in God's ways, where God comes to meet them."

Asked to name the greatest challenge facing society, he said it was "the transition from a world where the essence of what a human being does is ordered by duty to a world where each person wants to do only that which will contribute to his or her personal fulfillment." 

"There is something in this passage about the change from law to grace that St. Paul discovers in Christ Jesus, but we can clearly feel that the two movements do not overlap," he commented.

"How can we help as many people as possible to perceive faith as the entry into a richer, more vibrant, more joyful, more fraternal humanity?"

In recent years, French Catholics have found themselves among the targets of Islamist terrorism, not only in Nice but also at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray in 2016, when Fr. Jacques Hamel was killed at Mass by two attackers who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

Moulins-Beaufort said that the Church's response to the violence was marked by calm, dignity, and an absence of fear. He stressed that Catholics accepted the "signs of friendship and fraternity" offered by Muslims in the wake of terrorist attacks.

"It should be noted that not all Islamist terrorists who have acted in France were French citizens, nor inhabitants of France," he said. (The alleged perpetrator of the Nice attack, for example, reportedly traveled from Tunisia to France months before the attack.) 

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The archbishop said that the country had to do more than simply "pride itself on its 'values.'" 

"Freedom cannot be reduced to the possibility of having a drink on a terrace as we heard after the attacks of November 2015," he said, referring to the murder of 130 people in Paris, including 90 at the Bataclan theater.

Moulins-Beaufort believes that, with its long experience of secularism, the French Church has something to teach Catholics elsewhere about "the price of freedom in relation to the state." 

"But American Catholics know this even better. The Catholic Church is not the religious function of a given political society. It is a communion of an order quite different from what national belonging or the framework of the law can provide, a communion open to all, 'from Abel, the just one, to the last of the elect,'" he said, quoting from the Vatican II document "Lumen gentium." 

"Faith is rooted in the spiritual freedom of each person. It is nourished by a relationship with the Word of God and adoration, and it is expressed in works of charity, especially towards the most destitute."

In conclusion, he referred to an activity popular among young French Catholics in which they go out onto the streets to meet and talk with homeless people. This practice is known in French as "une maraude."

"Discerning the Body of Christ and discerning the infinite dignity of a damaged human being is all one," Moulins-Beaufort said.

"Hence the importance in France of groups of young people practicing Eucharistic adoration and going through the streets of cities to meet with the 'street people.'"

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