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Voices Online Edition
Lent/Easter 2003
Volume XVIII, No. 1

Faith of the Eldest Daughter -
Can France retain her Catholic heritage?


by Mary Jo Anderson

A matron of indeterminate age touched the arm of a foreign visitor to the church of Saint-Suplice in Paris. "Pray for France. When you pray for your children, pray for ours too; they do not know the Church".

France won the title eldest "Daughter of the Church" in 498 A.D., when Saint Rèmi baptized King Clovis. Despite 1500 years of Catholic history, heroic saints and glorious apparitions, today France fights for her soul. More than eighty percent of Frenchmen identified themselves as Catholic in 1980. Yet during Pope John Paul II's 1996 visit to the "eldest daughter", only sixty-three percent said they were Catholic. (France has 40 million baptized Catholics of a total population of 59 million.)

Whether this decline in Catholic belief reflects a true apostasy or simply indifference, it weakens France's social fabric. Native French families are in decline: divorce, cohabitation and illegitimate births are no longer considered moral issues. The birthrate is 1.2 births per couple. And the Muslim population of France (currently six million) is growing five times faster than the nominal Christian population. If these rates hold steady, Muslims will outnumber Christians in less than three generations.

Considering the alarming decline in Catholic belief and practice in France, it is heartening to report green shoots of faith sprouting in the crevices of this ancient Catholic nation. The France that gave birth to two of the most beloved Catholic devotions -- Devotion to the Sacred Heart and the Miraculous Medal -- has not forfeited the fight for the Faith.

Whatever the socio-political influences may be, there is evidence that faith is making a comeback among ordinary French Catholics.

On a recent visit to the basilica at Lisieux -- the popular shrine of Saint Thérèse, the "Little Flower" -- I found that the pilgrims were predominately non-French. One might mistakenly assume that French piety was nearly extinguished. Yet blocks away, at the convent where Thérèse lived, an early Mass was jammed with French communicants.

A meandering route through the countryside just beyond Lisieux toward Falaise takes one past innumerable personal shrines. Set in the niche of a stone wall or over a doorway of the village bakery, these devotional tributes to the "old faith" are adorned with fresh flowers. It is not uncommon for a restaurateur to display a statue of the Virgin at the entry to his establishment. Further on, in a day's journey through town after town, there is evidence of an unabashed and active Catholicity.

Piety at Pontmain
At Mayenne the countryside is dotted with bright red crosses, the symbol of the late nineteenth-century apparition of Pontmain. In January 1871, during the Franco-Prussian war, villagers feared the imminent attack of the German army, who were at the gates of Laval, twenty-five miles to the south. Typhoid and smallpox, camp followers of war, were spreading throughout the region. The people were near despair.

One evening, young Eugène Barbedettes saw a vision of the Virgin Mary clothed in a starry robe, her hands outstretched toward him. Eugène called others, but only children could see the apparition. They described a blood-red crucifix that appeared in her hands, and a miraculous message appeared beneath her image: "Do pray my children, God will answer you very soon". Three days later the German troops withdrew and the village of Pontmain was spared. An armistice was signed on January 28, ending the Franco-Prussian war. In 1872 the bishop of Laval authorized devotion to Our Lady of Hope and the construction of the shrine at Pontmain. Today the spires of the Basilica of Pontmain soar over rolling pastures forty miles inland from Mont Saint Michel, just off the coast Normandy.

Unlike Lourdes, which attracts pilgrims from all over the world, Pontmain has remained essentially a French devotion, drawing more than 250,000 pilgrims each year. The Oblates of Mary fathers operate a family retreat house, Bocage Le Relais, behind the basilica. Each year hundreds of families come to make a retreat at Pontmain, strolling the woodland walk of Calvary with rosaries or breviaries in hand.

A red crucifix, twenty feet high, stands opposite a statue of the "starry Virgin", partially hidden in the woods. In villages and towns for miles around red crosses stand in the fields as a commemoration of the Virgin's deliverance of her children.

Notre-Dame du Chêne
On the edge of the Loire region, near Sable, is the great Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes, home to the Benedictine monks whose Gregorian Chant recordings are popular worldwide.

Thousands of visitors find the Abbaye, but few realize that only five miles away is the diminutive basilica of Notre-Dame du Chêne (Our Lady of the Oak). This image of the Virgin also seems to be curiously reserved to the French. Seldom do foreigners see the endearing church, which is filled with oak leaves and acorns carved into the floors, the altar, woven into the carpets, and crowning the vault -- a tribute to a kernel of faith that grows into a mighty spreading tree.

Centuries ago a newly ordained James Buret placed a statue of the Virgin and Child in the crook of the oak tree that stood in the center of the hamlet of Vion, near where Urban II preached a crusade. People of the region brought their petitions to the Virgin, leaving tokens of their prayers, a lock of hair, a scrap of cloth. Soon reports of miracle cures and favors granted spread. In 1515 the first chapel of Our Lady of the Oak was built. Today the basilica is visited by more than 70,000 pilgrims each year.

Virgin of Rocamadour
At one time the shrine-filled city of Rocamadour was as important of a pilgrimage place in the Christian West as Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Religious wars, however, laid waste to the shrines. In the nineteenth century, the restoration of the Romanesque shrines revived it as a pilgrimage site. Today, there is an upsurge in visitors to the magnificent city perched over a gorge.

An ancient blackened statue of a seated Virgin and Child from the twelfth century is the object of popular devotion. Dozens of pilgrims to this crusader city on a warm May afternoon last year said they came to seek the help of Our Lady and to make the Stations of the Cross in the woods behind the caves. Some admitted they were not "good Catholics" but that in this place they felt they were still "in the family".

In the countryside to the east of Rocamadour are farms that post homemade notices of goat cheese or foie gras for sale. Frequently the signs carry the image of a cross, a saint or the Virgin.

At the Abbaye Sainte-Foy (Faith) in Conques, the monks report a renewed interest among their countrymen in the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Charlemagne established this abbey town, where the relics of Saint Foy -- a young girl martyred in the fourth century -- are revered. Once a bare trickle, pilgrims on this arduous route through the beech forests of the Aveyron fill the Abbaye's guesthouse. Some make the trek for the adventure, but many are seeking a connection to the saints of old who passed this way.

"What have you done with your baptismal promises?"
After the Holy Father's 1996 papal visit to France, reporters quizzed Cardinal Lustiger about the pope's omission of the question that he had asked during his first visit to France in 1981: "France, eldest daughter of the Church, what have you done to your baptismal promises?" Cardinal Lustiger replied that the question was still in the air: "it is stamped in everyone's heart and conscience already".

Cardinal Pierre Eyt of Bordeaux, speaking about the famous title "eldest daughter of the Church" counseled that it should be regarded "not as conveying some right of the first-born, but as imposing an obligation to set an example".

A 2001 report from the French Bishops Conference noted an unexpected phenomenon: Thousands of adult converts. Bishop André Dupleix, national director of catechumens, listed 8,934 adults preparing for baptism: 59% are in the 25-to-40 age range; 25% are in the 18-to-24 range; and 16% are older than 40.

Bishop Dupleix attributes adult baptisms to a renewed hope, a sign that the French -- at a time of crises, tensions and uneasiness about the future -- are returning to the Church.

All across France, convent and abbey guest quarters are finding more religious pilgrims at their door. Increasingly, families combine reunions and celebrations with retreats at a nearby religious house. And while France is still in grave danger of losing her soul to secularism, there are genuine signs of hope.

Mary Jo Anderson, a member of the Voices editorial board, writes on the United Nations and family issues for Crisis, WorldNet Daily, and other publications. Her commentaries have appeared on radio and television.

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