Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Friday, April 15, 2011

Of Creeds and Tribes

When I first met what was to become my family by marriage here in France, I was rather startled to be questioned closely about my religious beliefs.  Since I had the impression that France was very much a secular country, it never occurred to me that religion would be an issue.  It was and it turned out to be the first point of convergence between my country of birth and my adopted country.

I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and at least part of my education was in religious schools.  When I first arrived at a large public university in Seattle and asked my first question in class, I addressed the professor as "Father."  This comes as a big surprise to my French friends who assume that because I'm an American that I must be a Protestant Christian.   I think there is a great deal of misunderstanding on both sides about the cultural space religion occupies in both worlds.

To understand religion in the U.S. one has to think "diversity."  There is no one sect that has a majority and there is a little bit of everything and something for just about anyone.  My own family in the U.S. is a collection of Catholic and Protestant Christians, Mormons and other faiths.  My friends in Seattle were, in no particular order, Christians, Mormons, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists and so on.  Most of my American friends and quite a few members of my family are converts to a religion other than the one they were born into.  Religion is important in the U.S but I will go out on a limb here and say that I have the impression that the particular creed one follows is not so significant.  It is having a faith and being part of a community of believers that matters. There is no one faith that can claim to be more culturally American than any other (the era of the WASP was over long ago).

Since this was all I had ever known, imagine my shock when I arrived in France and discovered that, for the very first time in my life, I was in the religious majority.   My family by marriage is Roman Catholic as well as the majority of my friends who were baptized in the Church even though relatively few of them actually attend services.

Every day I live here I am struck by how that religion is an integral part of French culture.  It is so much a part of everyday life that the average French person doesn't even notice how it manifests itself.  From the church bells that ring on the hour in my mother-in-law's village in the Limousin to the weather report that gives not only the chance of precipitation but also the Saint's Day.  At my daughter's public school in Paris, the school handed out a flyer from the local church which said that someone from the church would be present after class one day a week to take the children to Catechism classes if their parents wished.  All Saints Day (la Toussaint) is a public holiday as are Good Friday, Easter, Whit Monday, and the Ascension. Catholic schools in France are educating over 2 million students in 2010/2011.

Most of my friends do not go to church but almost all of them have had their children baptized.  When I asked them why, the reply was revealing:  "It's tradition," they said.  It's the ritual:  choosing the god-parents, going to the church with the extended family and the big party after the ceremony with special candies given out to the guests.

Of my friends who are practicing Catholics, the questions I get when they discover I was also raised Catholic are quite interesting.  Having only experienced the Church in France they are genuinely surprised to discover, for example, that American Catholics also baptize their children, go to Confession, get Confirmed, attend Mass on Sunday and so on and that the rituals are exactly the same.  Members of my family who have attended church here in Paris have no trouble following the Mass even though they don't speak a word of French.  The only differences I've noticed are, of course, the language (unless the Mass is in Latin), sitting versus kneeling, and the presence of a national flag -  in U.S. Catholic churches I've visited there is usually an American flag prominently displayed somewhere.

One more difference and I think this one is key.  Roman Catholicism came to America relatively recently through Irish, French, Spanish, Mexican, and German immigrants and so American Catholics are keenly aware that the Church is international.

Most of my French friends seem less aware of the global nature of the Catholic Church and perceive the French Church as being something very unique.  That is both true and untrue.  It is unique, I think, in the sense that it has traditionally been so deeply embedded in the culture and has had enormous influence in shaping that culture. I contend that you can not erase a thousand years of influence by proclaiming one day the separation of church, state and culture.

That influence can be seen even today in ways that are immediately obvious to someone coming from another country.  But the core rituals, the beliefs, the structure are exactly the same and do not differ from the U.S. or any other country where Roman Catholics live their faith.

Welcome to globalization!

1 comment:

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Two comments were sent to me via by family members in the U.S. With their permission I am re-posting them here:

"If you look at the Protestant religions individually, Catholicism is definitely the majority here in America. The tradition here, of course, is diversity. People originally came to America from England and Holland to escape religious persecution and live their own faith the way they see fit. The original settlers here were a mixture of Protestants and Catholics. We now have a substantial amount of Mexican immigrants living in the US which has to have had an affect on the Catholic population, and they tend to hold on to their Catholic traditions very strongly. Our church has a large mixture of people from different nationalities, including French and Japanese. I believe we introduced you to our French friend Giselle, who passed away about two years ago. We also used to have a French priest named Fr. Stephane Dupre, as well as Fr. Lebele who is now in Lyon, not sure if you met either of them. I would say that while American culture is certainly not Catholic, those who call themselves Catholic are more likely to be traditionally Catholic, meaning they go to mass on Sundays and days of obligation as well as participating in the sacraments, which seems to be less common now in France.
Kind of a quick summery of my immediate thoughts, hope this helps! Very interesting article."

and

"I don't know what your take is on how regularly people there attend mass, but here if people baptize their children and get married in the church, but don't go to mass regularly, they are labeled "Cradle Catholics".

The church suffered greatly after the priest scandals and fall out from Vatican II, but is slowly recovering in America. The traditional Latin mass is becoming more popular as well. To the surprise of the older generation here, young people are embracing tradition over modernism which has become something resembling Protestantism and a little too touchy feely for the younger generation. If we look ahead rather than a snapshot view, I think the Catholic population in America will grow as having big families here is now considered "hip". You can see this even in Hollywood. I guess you could say with so much "modern" in America, perhaps tradition is becoming the new modern."