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France: The French people and John Paul II

By Yann Opsitch

April 20, 2005

According to a survey published by the daily Le Figaro (April 8, 2005) 39.1 percent of the people in France were saddened by the death of John Paul II; 39.2 percent were indifferent and 21.7 percent were glad the Pope had died.
These numbers confirm what Michel Labro writes in the Nouvel Observateur (April 8, 2005) in his article on the “paradoxical” pontificate of John Paul II as he ruled the Vatican for 26 years. According to Labro, the pope was not as successful in his efforts within the Catholic church as he was outside the Catholic church. The Catholic church in France is still going through a crisis that has not been halted by the efforts of the Pope. However the Pope’s impact on the younger and secular generations in France has been significant.
The Pope drew huge crowds of young people whenever he came to France. Throughout the past 20 years the younger generations in France (in their 20s and 30s) have been listening carefully to the pope as he defended human dignity and opposed the “death” nature of modern culture. Thus thousands of unbelieving young men and women have come back into the fold of the Catholic Church every year while their unbelieving parents looked on in dismay.
This phenomenon has a lot to do with the charisma and sincerity of the pope as well as his intellectual abilities. However it is also related to other factors that are well described in the March issue of Christianity Today describing the important spiritual transformation that is occurring in France and all over Europe, especially among the younger generations: “People in their teens, 20s and 30s are the generations who reject the cynicism of their socialist parents. They are Europe’s Christian hope. Theirs are the faces I saw in 1993 in Taizé, a French ecumenical community near Lyon where hundreds of thousand of Europeans lose themselves in simple worship.” (Christianity Today, March 2005).
The Catholic Church in France remains, however, in a condition of crisis and uncertainty. Things are happening in the Catholic parishes that John Paul II did not wish for. The fundamental problem facing the Catholic Church in France is the shrinking of the number of priests, from about 50,000 in 1970 to 25,000 in 2000. The desire of the Pope for a renewal of vocations to the priesthood has not happened in France where “many congregations are being led by lay people, chiefly women…”. (Christianity Today, March 2005 p.33). Not only so but these Catholic worship services “are Protestant in many ways, preaching gospel-centered sermons…” (ib, p.33).
Lucienne Salié of the Pontifical Counsel for Lay People writes that for her “the meaning of everything the Pope did was centered around the Redeemer and Mary the mother of the Church” (La Croix, 04/02/05). Mrs. Salié expresses the two things French people have felt about John Paul II all along his pontificate: 1. A deep commitment to the teachings of Jesus, especially in their ethical and human dimensions and 2. A commitment just as complete to the veneration of Mary.
John Paul II makes this clear in Tertio millennio adveniente, his apostolic letter written November 10, 1994 to prepare the 2000 Jubilee. In this letter the pope showed his strong faith in Jesus; the letter even mentions that the invocation to Mary must not in any way diminish the dignity and efficiency of the only mediator, the Christ (article 43). However the Holy Virgin should be contemplated and imitated (article 48); “The Most Holy Virgin Mary is the elect daughter of the Father” and calls us to come back to the Father (article 54).
Many Catholics in France have turned and are turning to the Protestant and Evangelical expressions of the Christian Faith. My readings and encounters with French Catholics make me believe that one of the reasons for this is the emphasis of the Pope on the importance of Mary. Catholics in France have been more divided than ever on the importance given to Mary. They will not join easily a Protestant or Evangelical church but their beliefs and practices are becoming more Protestant and Evangelical.
John Paul II has been greatly criticized by the secular media in France who have never understood his opposition to artificial birth control and abortion. More recently the Pope had expressed his opposition to the marriage of homosexuals. The Pope has resisted pressure within the European parliament to legalize all over Europe the marriage of homosexuals. However, I have talked to many Catholics who admire the pope but do not agree with his positions on sexual morality.
Michel Labro of the Nouvel Observateur (April 8, 2005) makes the statement that the image given by the pope has “hidden the deep loss of influence of the Church” even in areas of the world such as Latin America (where the influence of Evangelical Christianity has been growing steadily in the past 30 years). He concludes mentioning some of the huge questions facing the Catholic Church, in particular the role of women in the Church and the need to reform the role of the priest.
Yann Opsitch is a longtime missionary to France and an instructor at Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas.

Filed under: International Staff Reports

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