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

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Identity and Religion

My French friends, colleagues and family are often very surprised to discover that I am a Roman Catholic. In their minds, "American" is synonymous with "Protestant Christian."  Some even go so far as to imply that "French" and "Catholic" just naturally go together even in this secular Republic.  This seems to be true even of my friends who are supposedly atheists.  It has not escaped my notice that the vast majority of my friends here have had their children baptized in the Church.  "It's tradition," they tell me or, "It's part of French culture."

Well, mes amis, it's also a part of my culture of origin.  Just as the English language was brought over by European immigrants to the U.S., the Roman Catholic religion was carried to the New World by generations of German, French, Spanish, Italian and other immigrants where it took root and flourished.  Catholics are not a majority in the U.S. but they do constitute a very large minority.   In times past there was discrimination against them - you have only to look at the religious affiliation of American presidents to see it.  Out of over 40 U.S. presidents, only one Roman Catholic was ever elected to that office:  John F. Kennedy.

Growing up Catholic in the U.S. I was always aware of this.  It was never a problem per se, just a fact that, nevertheless, meant keeping a discreet silence when my Protestant friends enthusiastically talked about being "born again" or when Catholic positions on birth control and other controversial topics were dissected and found wanting over a dinner date.

So it was very odd to find myself in a country where Roman Catholics were firmly in the majority (around 65% in 2006) and Protestant Christians a very tiny minority (around 2%).  In some ways it has been liberating.  To know what Saint's Day is being celebrated, I have only to look at the weather report (for example today, March 18, is the day of Saint Cyrille).   When I walk down the streets of Versailles or Paris, there are churches everywhere if I want to light a candle or pray before going about my daily business.  If I want to go to Mass I have a multitude of options since most churches offer early morning, lunchtime and evening services every day.  Some of the Church's Holy Days of Obligation are also national holidays (something that seems rather unfair to other religions and contrary to the secular nature of the French Republic).

In other ways, however, it has been a little like walking through a minefield.  I have frequently been drawn into surreal conversations with French Catholics who were obviously having a moment of cognitive dissonance as they tried to square "American" and "Catholic" in their heads. Some have assumed I converted when I married a Frenchman (not at all  - I was baptized Catholic as an infant by my Catholic parents) and others have tried to explain to me that Catholicism in France is not at all like Catholicism in the U.S. or in other parts of the world.   One member of my French family even refused to believe that the sacraments (Baptism and Confirmation, for example) were the same in both countries or that the Mass is celebrated in the same way all over the world.

Another complication has been my status as an immigrant.  In theory, as a baptized, confirmed, practicing Catholic I am welcome in any church, anytime, anywhere.  In reality, I have learned to be very careful since some parishes (not the Church itself but the parishioners) seem to have an rather unhealthy connection with some of the more xenophobic anti-immigrant elements of French society.  If I so much as catch a whiff of the Front National, I back off immediately. In all fairness I cannot know how such people would react to me (in all likelihood they would consider me "not so foreign" and I would be very welcome) but I still find it painful to be around such people and the rhetoric hurts even when they carefully explain that they are not talking about me.  In fact, their words only make it worse because if I gratefully accept belonging on those terms then I am complicit in their hatred and ostracism of the Other.

With that in mind, and after much trial and error, I have found a few churches where I am comfortable and attend Mass on a regular basis.  The French churches that I attend (or have attended in the past) are Sainte Odile (the church where I was married and my children baptized) and Saint Ignace (the Jesuit church rue de sevres).  But the church where I feel the most comfortable and the most welcome is Saint Joseph's (the "mission anglophone") on Avenue Hoche near Etoile.  It is not so much that the Mass in in English (though it is nice to be able to sing hymns from my childhood) but the sheer diversity of the population.  In this context "English-speaking Catholic Church" means serving all the people in Paris who speak English as a first or second (or even third) language which means Chinese, Indians, Americans, Australians, Irish, Canadians, Sri Lankans, Africans and many other nationalities.  United by faith, national origin is irrelevant here.

Something that, in my view, ought to be the case everywhere.




12 comments:

Anonymous said...

My story is somewhat different growing up in majority RC state, but with a twist. We were the children of French-Canadian parents. There were French Canadian parishes and we had our own Central Catholic High School.
We identified ourselves as Franco-Americans. The masses were in Latin, in French after the reforms.
The community has been totally assimilated. The monument to our existence Notre-Dame-des-Canadiens church has been sold to developers.
I converted to Judaism many years ago. It is comforting to step into any synagogue and pray along with the congregation the Hebrew prayers that famaliar to me in Montréal

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thank you for your comment and your story. It sounds like you are from one of the northern U.S. states that once had large French-Canadian communities. My great-grandmother was born into such a community in Wisconsin around 1900. From what I have heard from distant relatives over the years, the assimilation you described happened in many places with the language being the first to go.

That comfort is something I can well relate to. For that reason I welcome the revival of Latin in the Church. For all its drawbacks, it made the Mass truly universal and one could seamlessly join in anywhere in the world.

Le Chroniqueur Berliniquais said...

Goodmorning Victoria, and thanks for another beautiful and thought-provoking post :-)

I've been living exactly the opposite of your experience, sadly. I grew up a Roman Catholic on an overwhelmingly Catholic island of the Caribbean and never spared much of a thought for our tiny evangelical minority whom we really used to consider as hardly better than eccentrics back in the times. (It has improved since then, as I think that most practising Christians tend to unite against rampant secularisation of society as their common "enemy"). Jews and Muslims were unheard of. Even our very own Arab community, the "Syrians" as we usually call them, are indeed Catholics who originally came from the Middle-East some generations ago and blended in well.

In Paris I welcomed being in a much more secular and diverse place than in the Caribbean, although I was glad to live in a still culturally Catholic environment, well not really "glad" to but it was just "normal" anyway. Only after I moved to Berlin did I realise what I had lost... So, in those days, I could go to church just when I felt like, rather than when I was more or less forced to (as it was the case in Martinique) and I could practise my faith as I enjoyed. Just as you, though, I had trouble fitting in with those conservative Parisian Christians and that was a huge put-off. On my campus there was a parish; I joined it to sing in the choir but I kept away from the celebrations. It's so sad, all those indoctrinated young people who otherwise are so intelligent! I remained friends with only a handful of them. I found masses in Paris also too sad and solemn. In the Caribbean, at least, praising the Lord is something joyful and enjoyable! It's loud, cheerful and colourful. People don't feel self-conscious about clapping hands and warming to their neighbours. I missed that too. There is a church whose services are mostly attended by Antillean, Réunionnais, African, Maurician and Latin-American people, somewhere near Rue du Bac. I went there once. It was beautiful. Unfortunately, it was too much travel for me "just" to attend church, I must confess, when there were so many churches around for me to sit in dignified silence during mass... Oh, something else I hated about attending mass in Paris: the TOURISTS!! Dear God, it's just terrible. Why, oh why did they not prevent tourists from visiting churches during prayer times, as they do in so many other countries? I hate closing doors to people, and the teachings of Jesus are just about welcoming everyone, but surely all those mindless tourists not being slightly respectful to others celebrating mass should be made to wait till the service was over, really. Anyway...

Fast forward a few years: I move to protestant Berlin. At least in theory, because in practice it's mostly an impious wasteland :-) After a few months, I suddenly realised that I never ever hear church bells in my flat anymore. I was always so used to it. And to attend catholic mass, I have to travel: 25 minutes by bike or public transport to the Sankt Hedwig Katholische Kathedrale for the saddest and dreariest services in the German vernacular, or 1 hour deep into West Berlin (Charlottenburg) for the Paroisse Francophone St Thomas d'Aquin. That one is great! And it's mostly French-speaking African people who attend mass. It's much livelier, and in my mother tongue. Sadly, 1 hour away is really too far for my precious Sunday mornings.

Yes, that's one of the funny things about leaving your country. I don't consider myself a good, practising Catholic but it did had an effect on me...

End of the rant! :-)

Le Chroniqueur Berliniquais said...

On the content of your post and your own experience: I find it a bit embarrassing that my countrymen prove so helplessly ignorant and prejudice-ridden about the huge and diverse country you come from, Victoria. Yet, I'm sure more than a few of these people are those who feel so intellectually superior to, you know, those clueless Americans... You didn't even mention the Irish among the Europeans who brought the Catholic faith with them to the US. At least many French people would know that hundreds of thousands of Italians and Irish people emigrated to America. Yet they fail to come to the logical conclusion that millions of US citizens should be Catholics as a result of this. How very strange.

I guess they will eventually open their eyes to this reality when Mr Catholic Fundamentalist gets elected to the White House later this year... just kidding of course! God forbid he ever gets anywhere near the Oval Office!! :-)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi JM - Great to see you here and thanks for the comments. I know exactly what you mean about the tourists. I went to mass last week at Saint-Sulpice and it was actually in the chapel, not the main Church which was wonderful because there were a lot of tourists and they were very noisy. I was quite happy when the priests walked in and shut the door to the chapel. :-)

I would love to know the name of that church near the rue de bac. St. Joseph's is a bit like that, I think. It's definitely more laid back then the regular Paris churches. When I was there last week Father Melvin from Atlanta gave the sermon and it was quite energetic. At the end of mass, after Father Melvin had walked out, we kept on singing and then someone starting clapping and a few started swaying and then everyone was clapping away and it was glorious. The hymn was a gospel song called, "This Little Light of Mine."

I think it's important to not be hard on people for what is simple ignorance. Americans have some pretty weird ideas about the French too. What is tragic is that neither side recognizes how much they have in common. I had a strange experience once talking to a French (Breton) farmer who my family here has known for years. He had a lot to say about how hard it was to keep a small farm going in this day and age. As I listened to him I realized that a lot of what he was saying was very similar to what I've heard small farmers in the U.S. say. These people will never know each other (they are separated by language and distance), but if by some miracle they could get together I think they would get along quite well and have a lot to discuss over a glass of cider or a cold beer.

Maybe the essential thing is to remember is life can be about shutting down, throwing up walls and clinging to our "difference" or it can be about admitting our ignorance about many things and being open to waking up and being surprised/delighted/challenged if we are so fortunate as to be given that opportunity. Hard to do because it requires humility and losing our fear of each other. I find that going to Mass tends to steer me in the right direction toward achieving that. :-)

Le Chroniqueur Berliniquais said...

Victoria, your comments are always so thoughtful, I sometimes wonder how you manage. I like this answer you gave me about mutual ignorance between the French and their American counterparts, despite shared traits most of us are unaware of.

I don't remember the name of this church I went to once somewhere around Rue du Bac or métro Sèvres-Babylone. I can't be too sure anymore, if I ever was... even after 10 years in Paris, the Rive Gauche remained much of a mystery to me. I cursorily Googled it but a 10-second search was not fruitful. When I find it, I'll let you know!

Have a nice day,

JM

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thanks in advance. JM. Just for fun I went here today: http://stpierredugroscaillou.com/ with a friend. They have an Adoration Eucharistique permanente (no idea how to say that in English). Another chance to "discover" yet another church in Paris. :-)

I wasn't always thoughtful (and often I'm still not) but I've had a few experiences that have brought me to my knees - lessons in humility. I've also been gifted with friends who have overcome enormous adversity. I'm in awe of their courage. Someday I would like to be like them - compassionate, courageous and filled with "loving kindness.". There is a lot of pain the world but there is a lot of joy too. This prayer is one I love and was a starting point for me when I finally figured a few things out and got pointed in the right direction:

GOD, grant me the serenity
to accept the things
I cannot change,

Courage to change the
things I can, and the
wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardship as the
pathway to peace.

Taking, as He did, this
sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it.

Trusting that He will make
all things right if I
surrender to His Will;

That I may be reasonably happy
in this life, and supremely
happy with Him forever in
the next.

Amen

Jackie Brown said...

"One member of my French family even refused to believe that the sacraments (Baptism and Confirmation, for example) were the same in both countries or that the Mass is celebrated in the same way all over the world."

Il y a quand même deux différences de taille : la présence de drapeaux (ici, le drapeau américain et celui du Colorado) dans les églises américaines, et les "conseils" en matière d'élection que le prêtre (ou le pasteur d'ailleurs) n'hésite pas à donner pendant le sermon.

Thanks for this very moving article. I enjoyed the comments too.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Jackie,

Oh yes, I'd forgotten about the flags. In my church in Seattle I remember the US flag being one side of the altar and another flag of the Church (perhaps the Vatican) on the other side. I also remember (at least in Seattle) a lot of political activism by the Church and the parishioners. I was confirmed by the Archbishop Hunthausen who led many a demonstration against nuclear weapons. Here in Versailles our bishop Mgr Eric Aumonier is very active in defense of the Roma.

The comments I receive here are always always pertinent, interesting and show real reflection on the part of the commenter. I think I've only had to delete one in the entire history of the Flophouse. The mail I get is also really really good. I'm always so grateful when people write because I almost always learn something and people ask questions or propose topics that I wouldn't have come up with on my own.

All the best,

Victoria

Jackie Brown said...

J'avais oublié de préciser qu'hormis ces deux "détails", j'avais retrouvé les mêmes chansons, les mêmes intonations pendant la messe à Denver. Alors, oui, le déroulement de la messe est identique.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

And I just came across this today and thought it might be of interest: Chrétien en politique, chrétien dans la cité !

http://stpierredugroscaillou.com/L-edito-du-dimanche-6-mars-2011.html

This was posted on the site of the church St. Pierre du Gros Caillou and it gives 13 areas where Christians are urged to act according to their faith on social and political matters.

Is this "mixing politics and religion?"

Jackie Brown said...

Pas vraiment, puisque l'on est citoyen et chrétien. Ca ne me gêne pas que des hommes d'église manifestent ou interviennent dans la vie publique. Mais je n'apprécie pas qu'un prêtre me dise pendant un sermon qu'il ne faut pas voter pour tel candidat parce qu'il est pour/n'est pas contre l'avortement. J'admets qu'il s'agit là de la position de l'église, mais la valeur d'un candidat ne se limite pas à ce point. Merci pour ce lien. Je le mets dans mes favoris.