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The Pope's direct challenge; the French bishops' tepid response September 15, 2008

During his weekend visit to France, Pope Benedict XVI issued a series of provocative messages to residents of a country marked by severe religious apathy. The Holy Father challenged political leaders to allow room for religious influence in public life; he challenged intellectuals to recognize the partnership of faith and reason; he challenged young people to live their faith openly; he even challenged the sick to unite their suffering to the Cross.

Yet of all the addresses that the Pope delivered in Paris and in Lourdes, perhaps the most noteworthy challenge was the one he delivered to the French hierarchy.

To appreciate the force of the papal message to the French bishops, one must understand the context. France is a country with a proud Catholic history, but the level of religious practice among French Catholics today is shockingly low. Only about 5% of Catholics attend Mass each week, and a growing number of young couples do not bother to arrange a church wedding or baptize their children. The country once known as the "eldest daughter of the Church" has slipped into religious indifference.

But the flight from the Catholic faith is not uniform. Traditionalist Catholics are unusually active in France, and unusually successful in attracting congregations. The vigor of traditionalist groups-- in sharp contrast to the torpor of ordinary parishes-- has given rise to severe tension. Traditionalists have frequently complained about what they see as the hostility of the French hierarchy, and the bishops in turn have strongly opposed efforts to accommodate the traditionalist liturgy.

Last year, when Pope Benedict released his motu proprio encouraging full acceptance of the traditional Latin Mass, French bishops made no effort to conceal their dismay. Before the release of Summorum Pontificum the French hierarchy had lobbied openly against the papal initiative; when the document appeared they accepted it grudgingly. So the tensions between bishops and traditionalists have endured.

During an exchange with reporters on board his flight from Rome to Paris on September 12, Pope Benedict addressed the fears among French prelates about the consequences of his motu proprio. Those fears are groundless, he said, because Summorum Pontificum "is simply an act of tolerance." Suggesting that only a relatively few Catholics would prefer the extrarordinary form of the liturgy, the Pope said: "But it seems to me a normal requirement of faith and pastoral practice for a bishop of our Church to have love and forbearance for these people and allow them to live with this liturgy."

Coming from Benedict XVI, who is known for his deep appreciation the traditional liturgy, that statement was striking for two reasons. First, the Pope was effectively conceding what many critics of his motu proprio have argued: that only a few Catholics are interested in the Latin Mass. Second, the Pope was suggesting "tolerance" for a form of liturgy that he has consistently praised as beautiful and good. One does not "tolerate" something that is intrinsically good. What, then, was the Holy Father suggesting?

Reading between the lines, it seems clear that the Pope was sending a message to French bishops, and others who have resisted implementation of the motu proprio. Even by their own standards, he was saying, they should "tolerate" the liturgical form that many faithful Catholics embrace. "There is no opposition between the liturgy renewed by Vatican II and this liturgy," the Pontiff assured his in-flight press conference. Thus there is no reason for hostility toward the extraordinary form.

If that message was conveyed subtly during the Pope's trip toward Paris, it was delivered quite explicitly on Sunday when the Holy Father addressed the members of the French hierarchy in a meeting at Lourdes. Noting that a year had passed since Summorum Pontificum was issued, the Pope told the bishops that he recognized the tensions within the French Church-- and expected them to address the problem.

"I hope that, thanks be to God, the necessary pacification of spirits is already taking place," the Pope said. "I am aware of your difficulties, but I do not doubt that, within a reasonable time, you can find solutions satisfactory for all, lest the seamless tunic of Christ be further torn."

By expressing his confidence that the French bishops could implement the motu proprio, Pope Benedict was clearly saying that they should implement it. "Everyone has a place in the Church," the Pope added, indirectly addressing the bishops' suspicions toward traditionalists. "Every person, without exception, should be able to feel at home, and never rejected."

The message came through, loud and clear. But will the French hierarchy follow the papal directive? That is another question. The newspaper La Croix described the bishops' reception of the Pope's talk as "lukewarm." Cardinal André Vingt-Trois of Paris, speaking in his capacity as president of the French episcopal conference, told a press conference that the bishops do not have a "servile" attitude toward the Roman Pontiff. "The relationship of the Pope with the bishops is not a boss-employee relationship," the French cardinal reminded journalists. "He is not the chief executive of a multinational corporation coming to visit a branch office."

Cardinal Vingt-Trois was right, of course, when he emphasized that the Pope is not a commanding officer but "a brother who has come to reinforce the faith of those with whom he works and with whom he is in communion." But in light of the Pope's message, the cardinal's appeal to collegiality seemed to indicate that the French hierarchy would not treat the Pope's challenge as their top priority.

Still, while the bishops of France were lukewarm in their response to the papal visit, the ordinary Catholics of France were surprisingly enthusiastic. Despite the reigning climate of apathy, healthy crowds greeted the Holy Father at each stop on his weekend tour. About 100,000 joined the Pope for Mass at Lourdes; nearly double that number were present in Parish for the Saturday Mass on the Esplanade des Invalides. The Pope was visibly moved by the number of young priests who clustered around him after the Mass, anxious to hear his words and to show their support.

The Catholic people of France, in short, were ready to hear the Pope's message and answer his challenge. In his homily during that Mass in Paris, the Holy Father touched on a need that many sophisticated Parisians feel today: a need to recover the sense of the sacred and a grounding in the secure reality that faith can provide. Commenting on St. Paul's warning to the Corinthians against the worship of idols, Pope Benedict said that the same temptation to idolatry is felt in every age. He expressed that temptation in terms that a 21st-century French Catholic could easily understand: "the temptation to idolize a past that no longer exists, forgetting its shortcomings; the temptation to idolize a future that does not yet exist, in the belief that, by his efforts alone, man can bring about the kingdom of eternal joy on earth."

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