As history demonstrates, in France as elsewhere, the Church is always rising from the dead because the gates of Hell cannot prevail against her…
“Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” —G.K.Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
In a recent essay, “Is the West Lost Forever?,” I wrote the following:
What will be left when the secularist ‘West’ is dead will be the Permanent Things. Christianity is alive and well, and thriving and growing, in Africa, Asia, China–and yes, even in resurrected embryonic form in Europe and other parts of the ‘West.’ Europe and the ‘West’ might be committing collective suicide, but Christendom is always new, as it is always old, because it is the Permanent Thing.
In light of these words, a recent essay in America about the rise and renewal of Christianity in France illustrates all too clearly the “resurrected embryonic form” of the Christian revival in Europe.
“A few years ago,” writes the essay’s author, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, “I started to realize something. Whenever I was less than five minutes early for Mass, I had to go to the overflow room, and I would typically have to step over people sitting on the floor to get there. The church was filled to the gills every Sunday, with young families and children most of the time.” Mr. Gobry, who lives in Paris, experienced the same thing when he moved to a different part of the city. The church was packed. There were wealthy and elderly Parisians but also many immigrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and Indian Ocean countries, as well as “the kinds of hipsters you might not expect to be religious.” Also, and significantly, Mr. Gobry tells us that “there are children everywhere.”
Mr. Gobry makes a point of attending other, random parishes on Sundays, “just to see if this is a real trend” and has found that Sunday high Mass is packed in most parishes in Paris and that the same is true in Lyon, the second largest city in France.
Surprisingly perhaps, at least for those of a neo-atheist persuasion who consider religion the preserve of the ignorant, the Catholic revival in France is a phenomenon most marked among the “highly educated” in the large cities. It is not the remnant of a disappearing past or a disappearing peasantry but the manifestation of a revitalized present promising a revivalist future.
“But now I have seen something I never expected,” continues Mr. Gobry. “I think that in my entire life I had never seen more than a dozen people in the church in the village that my family hails from on any day other than Christmas and Easter. When I returned recently, it was about two-thirds full. There are also more activities outside of weekly Mass than I remember; the parish is now caring for a family of Iraqi Christians, and local teenagers have started a project with a local crafts school to beautify the church.”
This religious revival was first felt “fleetingly” by Mr. Gobry when he began to notice how some of his lukewarm Catholic friends from college, who had previously only gone to church at Christmas and Easter, had begun to post things on Facebook about their going to church, or raising money for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, or becoming involved in Catholic charities working with the homeless. Meanwhile, two of his previously irreligious friends surprised everyone when they suddenly abandoned their high-flying careers to walk the road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, one of the most ancient pilgrimage destinations in the world, having a religious experience when they got there and changing their lives when they returned.
The seeds of this Catholic revival in France might have been planted as far back as the 1980s when the Socialist Government tried unsuccessfully to merge private and public schools but it can be said to have begun to blossom in 2013 with the widespread populist uprising against the imposition of same-sex “marriage.” It now appears to be opening into full bloom, even as the decadent weeds of secularism, les fleurs du mal, begin to sicken and wither.
For those who know a little history, this latest Catholic revival in France is but the latest of several, each of which signified the resurrection of the Faith after the “experts” had solemnly pronounced it dead. In the 1790s, after the secular fundamentalists of the French Revolution launched its Reign of Terror against the Church, it was widely believed that the Church in France was now well and truly dead, snuffed out by “progress.” Then, against all modernist expectations, under the influence of François-René de Chateaubriand and others, France experienced a Catholic revival, largely as a healthy reaction against the murderous excesses of the Revolution and the Napoleonic imperialism which followed in the Revolution’s wake.
After the establishment of the French Second Republic, following the Revolution of 1848, many believed that this second effort at secularism would succeed in destroying the power of the Church, even though its progenitor had failed. In the event, a new Catholic revival followed. From the Marian apparitions at Lourdes in 1858, the story of which would be told so evocatively and dramatically by Franz Werfel almost a century later in The Song of Bernadette, to the witness of great saints, such as Jean Marie Vianney and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Church proved herself to be alive and well in nineteenth century France. Even the leaders of the French Decadence, those who had drifted furthest from the Faith in the narcissistic pursuit of sin, fell under her spell, Baudelaire being received into the Church in his final illness, Verlaine converting in prison, and Huysmans becoming, post-conversion, a frequent visitor to monasteries, and even an Oblate of St. Benedict.
Secularism reared its ugly head again in 1905, with the passing of the law establishing the laicism, or secularism, which has characterized French politics ever since, but this “triumph” was followed by a further Catholic revival, particularly in philosophy and the arts. Giants of this revival include Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson, Charles Péguy, Léon Bloy, Paul Claudel, François Mauriac, and Georges Bernanos.
The next blow for secularism was struck by the student uprising in Paris in May 1968, France’s equivalent of the so-called “Summer of Love” in San Francisco, the latter of which had brought the hippies to the world’s attention in the previous year. Although the Parisien students shared many of the same goals as their American brothers and sisters, they set about achieving those goals in the time-honoured French fashion, using revolutionary violence, believing that a molotov cocktail in the hand is worth more than any number of flowers in the hair.
And yet the “spirit of 1968” did not represent the final triumph of secularism over the spirit of Christendom, any more than any of France’s previous secularist uprisings had done. Indeed, Mr. Gobry sees the new Christian Revival as representing “the reversal of May 1968.”
It’s not that secularism is dead as a political force. It isn’t (like the poor it is always with us). It is simply that it does not have the power to defeat the forces of Christendom. Although it is always proclaiming the Christian Faith to be dead or dying, secularism does not have the power to kill it; or, rather, if it does have the power to kill it, as it indubitably has the power to kill its disciples, it does not have the power to keep it killed. Christendom, like the God of whom it is the Mystical Body, always has the power to find its way out of the graves being dug for it. As history demonstrates, in France as elsewhere, the Church is always rising from the dead because the gates of hell cannot prevail against her. She is always rising from the dead because her God is Risen indeed.
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