On Valentine’s Day I travelled back from Lisieux and Alençon feeling a confidence in the intercession of the various members of the Martin family, but also a deep sadness, for it is impossible to ignore the evidence that the Church in France is in terminal decline.
While there I read an article in a French Catholic periodical which described the crisis in so many dioceses where priests in their 80s and even their 90s are still covering anything up to 15 rural parishes. The priests who celebrated Mass in St Thérèse’s Carmel, the vast majority of the congregation and the Carmelite community (save for two young Indian nuns) were in their 80s, I would estimate. In the Little Flower’s Carmel there are no young French vocations. In the Hermitage where we stayed and lodged and at the shrine in the Martin home in Alençon, there was not a single French religieuse; they were all missionaries from South America or Africa.
When Marks and Spencer laments its falling sales and profits and gives shareholders complicated analyses explaining the decline, I think in my man on the Clapham omnibus way that the answer is actually very simple: the reason people don’t buy your clothes is because they don’t like what you are selling. Your products, once a staple of many people’s wardrobes, owed their popularity to a choice of functionality over fashion. Intrinsic quality and the comfortable feeling of a commonality with how many people of similar outlook dressed were factors in the choice. Ever-changing fashion is a folie de jeunesse and those who wanted it would go elsewhere anyway. People who want trendy will never come because you gained your popularity as the arbiter of what was more enduring than fashion. By trying to ape modernity you sawed off the branch on which you were sitting.
I feel the same about the French Church. The chapel of Thérèse’s Carmel has been rendered unrecognisable with its bare concrete altar and floor, its angular panelling around the walls obscuring Stations of the Cross and any religious imagery other than a central cross. The tabernacle, set to one side so as to exalt the presidential chair to pride of place, looks for all the world like a police phone box.
The Mass follows the usual French pattern of “have a nice day” para-liturgical accretions. There is a long homily and bidding prayers but a minimalist Liturgy of the Eucharist, with Prayer II over in less time than it took to say “good morning” to everyone and introduce where the concelebrants were from. Octogenarian priests behaving like game-show hosts and ancient Carmelites fingering Casio keyboards in the sanctuary have all the incongruity and embarrassment of M&S fashion. Nobody but diehards are buying the product. Stop! Go back to what you were good at, your “brand values”.
Nothing is more tragic than the horizontal emphasis of such liturgies in which self-referential phrases about the community that gathers round the altar only serve to emphasise the failure of their own express ethos, for the community is facing extinction.
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