The announced end of a model Church

The end of the Catholic Church in France is often the subject of speculation by observers. Its progressive disappearance in social life and the decline in religious practice tend to announce its marginalization. The succession of scandals and the often disastrous way of dealing with them add to the discredit. The time is definitely over for the guardianship of the Church over society. Its monopoly is gone. Modernity, supported by secularism, has completely reshuffled the cards, the assets of authority passing into other hands.

The sociologists who scientifically establish these heavy tendencies readily turn into prophets of the end of Catholicism. They do not envisage for a moment that the Catholic Church can be reformed so that faith in Christ the Lord, risen from the dead, remains alive in France. The reflections desired by Pope Francis on “synodalism” (for more communion within the communities on the way) aim at such a reform.

Clergy, parishes, sacraments: a mistreated model

The end of a model Church is not the end of the Catholic faith in France. It signifies the transformation, or rather the imminent disappearance of a familiar figure: a church built around a clergy serving parishes, offering as a way of sanctification, the life of the sacraments.

It is accepted that this model no longer has a future. The figures are stubborn and alas, we have to be convinced of this, the vertiginous fall in the number of priests in France means the end of the very possibility of dispensing the sacraments, therefore of keeping the traditional parochial scheme. The intermediate document of the Synod entering its continental phase after the sequence in diocese, underlines the challenge of “the decrease in the number of priests and volunteers which leads to exhaustion” (“Expand the space of your tent” (Isaiah 54,2), Working Document for the Continental Stage, n° 19). This is all the more so as we have formed “a clergy with a priestly lifestyle and neglected to train them in pastoral coordination” (#83).

To fully understand the demographic consequences of this regression, we must remember that the entire architecture of Christian life has rested on the practice of the sacraments, communion and confession, ensuring the path to the sanctification of the faithful. The clergy was then the centerpiece of the system. Here is why this already abused device will disappear in the years to come.

An untenable system without renewal of vocations

In 2010, Henri Tincq proposed an overview of statistical reality of the number of priests in France: “For one ordained priest each year, eight die. The clergy is an anemic body, deprived of new and regular blood, fallen from 41,000 men at the beginning of the 1960s, to 36,000 in 1975, to 20,400 in the year 2000, to 15,000 today. An increasingly aged and exhausted clergy: half of French priests are over 75 years old. For ages, rural dioceses have not ordained a single priest. They function with less than fifty priests, some, in very dechristianized regions, less than twenty. »

While there are differences in the estimates, it is a fact that in less than 30 years the number of priests (diocesan and religious combined) has been halved, to stand at around 14,000 in 2021. France loses 700 priests a year, or 7,000 over 10 years. Make it count on what the situation will be in 30 years. In 2050, without renewal of vocations, it will have become absolutely impossible to maintain the system as it exists today.

This structural deficit takes away not only the capacity for material management of even renewed parishes, the palliative of parish groupings always resumed having reached its limits, but above all the model of spiritual life offered to the faithful: sanctification through regular attendance of the sacraments.

This situation will certainly not be uniform on French territory. Cities will remain less affected than vast rural areas. It remains that “time is greater than space” as Pope Francis likes to insist. It will therefore be a question of initiating processes which will make it possible to announce the faith through the intensity of the sacramental experiences and the quality of the encounters.

A priority: the permanence of the faith

The fall in the number of priests thus obliges from now on an effort of anticipation, not only to rethink the practical organization, but also to widen the doctrine. Can we continue to teach a model whose application will be de facto impossible tomorrow? There is an unspoken tension between the faithful of the Mass of the pre-conciliar missal and the Mass of the French (and Europeans) resolutely freed from religious practice.

The witness to the permanence of faith in Christ the Savior in so many countries of the world, deprived of priests for decades, proves that Christian life is not exclusively dependent on the life of worship, even if naturally it calls for its ritual expression with the participation of the faithful. Sanctification through charity, service of the poor, family liturgy and study of the word of God will henceforth find new letters of nobility. The Christian faith will be expressed in the sacrament of brothers and sisters, whose humanity saved in Christ once again becomes the heart of witness.

The permanence of the Christian faith in France must remain the only concern of the bishops, more than the service of the parishes by a tired clergy. Sixty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the time has come to rethink the way we organize the life of the communities, and above all to rethink the way of making a community live in the era of the digital world.

It will be necessary to find new supports in new technologies to dialogue and teach, according to unexpected and innovative modes. It will also be necessary to determine new models of encounters in real life between the faithful, for feasts in particular, which will no longer necessarily be exclusively the celebration of the mass. Assemblies of Christians around the study of the word of God, times of service and sharing will put the real life of people back in the center. Life at the center of which is discovered the presence of the Lord who becomes flesh of our flesh.

An effort of creativity and listening

The Eucharistic consecration is not only the consecration of bread and wine, but indeed the consecration of the assembled assembly; she makes this assembly the living Bread, imbued with the Spirit of the Lord, given to console and comfort those who suffer. Will the Mass have a more exceptional character because of its rarity?

The future will not be a linear continuation of the past. To master at least part of our future without suffering the effects of contemporary changes, it is up to us to make an effort of creativity and listening. Listening to what the Spirit says to the Church and also to what the world says to the Church, aware that “The Word of God comes only through human words” (Benedict XVI, September 13, 2008, “Discourse to the world of culture”, Collège des Bernardins).

Such is indeed the stake of synodal reflection. Then faith in the Lord will remain alive and joyful in France, and the Catholic Church, servant of hope and sign of salvation, will be able to inspire society in its quest for unity and fraternity.

The announced end of a model Church