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The Catholic Church through the eyes of a young priest

Latest update : 2008-09-11

As Pope Benedict XVI visits Paris and Lourdes on Sept. 12-15, we take a look at the French Catholic Church as seen through the eyes of Charles Cornudet, a 30-year-old priest ordinated in 2007.

 

Yellow banners boasting the smiling face of Benedict XVI, his hand raised in blessing, run down the imposing facade of the Saint-Lambert de Vaugirard church in Paris’ 15th arrondissement.

 

Parishioners and priests are rallying a few days away from the first Parisian mass of John Paul II’s successor. They won’t be alone on the vast Invalides esplanade: 250 000 people are expected to show up.

 

This will be the second time Charles Cornudet, a 30-year-old priest who was just assigned to the parish, meets the Pope. He and dozens of others have been invited to co-celebrate the mass. “To co-celebrate with the Pope is a way of demonstrating the Church’s unity and the communion to which everybody is invited,” he says.

 

Eleven years after John Paul II last came to the French capital, the papal visit is also a chance for French Catholics to show that the Church hasn’t forfeited its central role in society, despite its internal difficulties and criticism from advocates of secularism. These are the questions that young priests like Cornudet, still full of hope but without much illusion, deal with on a daily basis.

 

Fewer but better trained young priests amid an aging clergy

 

The Saint-Lambert parish is very much a reflection of the neighborhood it is nestled in, populated with young upper-middle class families. “People who are at a point in life when they feel like they want to get back in touch with the Church, for a wedding or a baptism,” says Cornudet. Four priests, one deacon and 300 volunteers work together to liven up the parish.

 

As in many other French parishes, one of the priests, who is in his seventies, is about to retire and won’t be replaced. This is official Church policy. There are only 20,500 priests left in France, half the number in 1965; nor is their renewal guaranteed given the low number of new vocations.

 

Father Cornudet heard the call to be a priest at 16. After earning an undergraduate degree in econometrics, he joined the Paris Seminary. “It helped me realize that the calling was still there. I thoroughly enjoyed my studies, which gave me the possibility to act upon my calling in complete freedom,” he says.

 

But young priests’ profiles can be very varied, says Céline Béraud, a sociologist and author of several books on priesthood. “The average age of ordination increases, as well as the priests’ education level. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a great diversity of backgrounds."

 

The generational divide doesn’t always make dialogue easy, she adds. “They tend to disagree on what their role should be. The older priests lived through Vatican II [which ushered the Church into modernity] and a time of contestation. They favour a Church that’s more modest, less visible. Young priests today are more inclined to trumpet their identity.”

 

The Church’s values resist as faith becomes a private matter

 

It’s not just the conceptions of priests that are changing, but the parishioners’ demands as well, says Father Cornudet, who wears a Roman collar to lay down his priestly identity. “Priests over 65 have a vision of the parish that has a lot to do with that of charities. However, people today don’t want to be part of movements but of networks, which are a lot harder to manage.”

 

Even if French people don’t go to church as often as they used to, the Catholic Church still has a reason to be, he says. “The Church responds to three essential demands: to be listened to, to be loved and to be comforted. That’s what makes the reality of Christ, not some theory.” According to Father Cornudet, the proportion of French people – practicing catholic or not – who are attached to the Church’s values is rising, even if they don’t agree with everything.

 

As a result, the number of Catholics who go to Sunday mass has dropped significantly, even among those who call themselves practicing Catholics. According to an August 2006 La Croix-Ifop poll, 65% of French people declared themselves Catholics but less than 5% of them said they went to mass.

 

 "Our society has turned faith into a private matter,” concludes Father Cornudet.

Date created : 2008-09-11

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