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.