But for Bishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, this is not a cause for despair.
“The Church in France is being challenged in many ways; he’s reacting, which proves he’s alive, ”he told CNA in an email interview.
The Archbishop of Reims, in the Grand Est region of north-eastern France, has had busy recent months.
In October, he was among the bishops offering comfort to Catholics after an assailant shouting “Allahu Akbar” stabbed three people to death at Notre-Dame Basilica in Nice.
In November, he successfully challenged the French government’s proposed 30-person limit for mass attendance in the face of rising coronavirus cases.
At the beginning of December, he had a private audience with Pope Francis during which he discussed the initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron against “Islamist separatism”.
This may have left him little time to reflect on the condition of the Church in France, often referred to as “the eldest daughter of the Church” because Frankish King Clovis I embraced Catholicism in 496.
As a remarkably trying 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 office abuse crisis. An independent commission reported in June that at least 3,000 children had been sexually abused by approximately 1,500 Catholic clergy or officials in France over the past seven decades.
“The revelation of sexual assaults committed by priests on minors or of abuse of power against vulnerable people gives rise to the work of bishops, religious superiors and a certain number of faithful responsible for movements or associations”, did he declare.
“However, it should be noted that French society as a whole trusts 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 the priestly ministry will be illuminated and repositioned.
“It is about abandoning any model of social control or of supervising society in favor of a ministry of accompaniment towards Christ (which Pope Francis strongly calls for). The light shed on these facts is a gift of the mercy of God who wants to purify his Church.
Moulins-Beaufort said vocations to the priesthood and to religious life were “at a mediocre level”, with the exception of a few dioceses, priestly societies and religious communities.
But he made an optimistic note about young Catholics, who took part in protests when public Masses were suspended this year and who led efforts to protect churches from vandalism.
“Catholic youth is often impressive: in fervor, in the sense of the poor, in the taste for prayer, especially adoration, fairly radical life choices… This no longer fills seminaries and novitiates but promises Rather impressive generations of lay people, ”he said.
He explained that the hundred or so dioceses in France were looking for a “pastoral transformation”. This requires a reorganization of the three functions, the three duties of teaching, of sanctifying and of governing, allied to the triple office of Christ as prophet, priest and king.
“It is fundamentally about putting the three functions in order, ”he said,“ as ‘to rule’ has taken on more and more importance, but in the degraded form of ‘to administer’, bishops and priests must proclaim the Word of God, the good news of salvation, then sanctify and rule, which is not primarily to administer but to lead souls (that is, people in their singular freedom) in the ways of God, where God comes to meet them.
When 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 world where each person only wants to do what will contribute to his own. personal achievement. ”
“There is something in this passage about the passage from law to grace that Saint Paul discovers in Jesus Christ, 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 entering a richer, more vibrant, more joyful, more brotherly humanity?”
In recent years, French Catholics have found themselves among the targets of Islamist terrorism, not only in Nice but also in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray in 2016, when Father Jacques Hamel was killed at mass by two assailants who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
Moulins-Beaufort said the Church’s response to the violence was marked by calm, dignity and the absence of fear. He stressed that Catholics accept the “signs of friendship and brotherhood” offered by Muslims following the terrorist attacks.
“It should be noted that all the Islamist terrorists who acted in France were not French citizens, nor inhabitants of France,” he said. (The alleged perpetrator of the Nice attack, for example, is believed to have traveled from Tunisia to France months before the attack.)
The archbishop said the country needs to do more than just “trust its” values. ”
“Freedom is not reduced to the possibility of having a drink on a terrace as we heard after the attacks of November 2015”, he declared, referring to the murder of 130 people in Paris, including 90 in Paris. Bataclan theater.
Moulins-Beaufort believes that, with its long experience of secularism, the French Church has something to teach Catholics elsewhere on “the price of freedom in relation to the State”.
“But American Catholics know it 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, to the last of the elect” “, he said, citing the Vatican II document ” The light. »
“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 disadvantaged.
In conclusion, he spoke of a popular activity among young French Catholics in which they go out into the streets to meet and talk with homeless people. This practice is known in French as “une maraude”.
“To discern the Body of Christ and to discern the infinite dignity of a damaged human being is all one,” said Moulins-Beaufort.
“Hence the importance in France of groups of young people practicing Eucharistic adoration and walking the streets of cities to meet ‘street people’.