Gentrified Catholicism

Last Saturday, I attended a Confirmation ceremony of my wife’s thirteen-year old niece in a school chapel in Vesinet. This is quite a chic area near Versailles and in the Diocese by that name. The nineteenth-century houses are in leafy avenues and sport large windows for plenty of light. It is difficult to imagine who has that kind of income. In reality, you come by such property by inheriting it from your parents.

The Diocese of Versailles is exceptional in France. People in that area are loaded financially and there is a high proportion of conservative Catholics, conservative politically too. The Bishop is a conservative, as is the Vicar General, Vicars Episcopal and most of the parish priests and school chaplains. They dress in strict black clerical suits with slip-in collars and have the same kind of manner as we can discern when meeting lawyers, doctors and engineers. Just over the road from my brother-in-law’s house (he is an engineer working for Total), there is a large nineteenth-century house owned by the Diocese and used as a seminary for the first two years.

I briefly met the Vicar Episcopal who conferred the confirmations. When you meet these people, you turn your tongue ten times round your mouth before saying anything! The immediate impression is someone you wouldn’t trust further than you can throw him. Introductions are restrained and brief, as unthreatening as possible. I simply mentioned that I was an Anglican priest living in Normandy. My time over 2009 to about 2012 taught me extreme circumspection. Behind the smooth ecumenical talk, there is the harsh conviction that there is a “true Church” and the “heretics and schismatics”. You just don’t let the conversation go into that direction. He wondered why I was there. The reason was as banal as any – on invitation from the Boutin family for the Confirmation of their daughter.

The Mass was standard Novus Ordo, celebrated on a 1970’s stone altar facing the nave of the chapel from that era. The movements and gestures were formal and “conservative”. Both the celebrant and concelebrant were wearing chasubles (modern “gothic”) and had the manner of conservative priests. The music was the new French tendency of Gregorian, Byzantine or Anglican inspired melodies, accompanied by an electronic piano and two violins. The singing was led by two young girls at a microphone, with raucous Lebanese style voices. It was quite excruciating on the ear! Well, there were no clowns or dancing as is still often the rule in America, but it was straight-down middle-of-the-road Versailles.

I was not angry about anything, just detached and quiet like someone from outside the religious world. My wife and mother-in-law went and received Communion. I didn’t even bother looking. I observed the manner of the large congregation (there were some 20 candidates for Confirmation), the generally respectful attitude but obviously “in the box”. There was a “happy-clappy” song at the end of Mass, and then the cacophony of human voices like in any public place. I was glad when it was all over, and then we went to my brother-in-law’s house where there was plenty to eat, but I had to be careful about my wine-consumption since I was driving.

I live in the country and remain indifferent to the many gadgets that are essential in people’s lives like smart-phones and video cameras. They are less vulgar than people attending family ceremonies in the provinces, but one can tell that television is a big part of their lives. These church services are clearly made for them.

The traditionalist view tends to blame everything on the lack of asceticism and recollection. I am naturally influenced by my childhood when we were expected to be quiet and respectful in a church like in a public library. I have spent time in the monastic milieu. I suppose my liturgical observance as a priest is more monastic than anything else, with the only concession of using English when someone is present. Again, I am brought to think of extroversion and introversion, as well as the “classical” and “romantic” temperaments. Over the last ten years, we see the difference between Benedict XVI and Francis, Ratzinger and Bergoglio. I don’t think the Versailles priests have changed between the two.

I met some of the Versailles seminarians in 2011 at the Naviclerus regatta (eight Dufour 34 yachts with crews of six or eight). They were young and bright faced, extroverts the lot of them. It’s obviously the expected profile, otherwise they would be joining monastic communities rather than aiming to be diocesan priests. Gone are the days of country curés with lives like the nineteenth-century Anglican vicar with his eccentricities. The eccentricities are ironed out, frowned upon and relegated to the past. The Diocese of Versailles, so it seems to me, is as corporate as any large company producing oil, making cars, managing money or whatever. Gone are the days also of the working priests or guys like Guy Gilbert and his work among recovering drug addicts. Versailles and the outlying towns have no poor people. The gentrification is complete.

I don’t really seem to have any point to go to with this, except to express feelings and impressions faced with this reality in the world. It is a Church that doesn’t attract me. My past experience (through Gricigliano and a brief stay in the Archdiocese of Paris) of it has largely faded and the passing years take their toll. It is essential not to brood over the past or be like a dog that returns to its vomit. We have to look ahead, relate to what we can relate to. My own future as a priest is fragile. The Church I belong to is fragile. The whole Gospel message of Jesus Christ is fragile and always has been. Perhaps I prefer this fragility to the “too big to fail” corporate structures of the mainstream churches to which people relate less and less.

Both my wife and I are now living in fear of the storm clouds of war on the horizon. It is all happening today in Syria and Irak like in Bosnia in 1914. Some of those big corporate men would kill millions for their financial ambitions! I am reading both the alternative news and mainstream sources, and discover that conspiracy theories often get verified by later events and mainstream news sources. We live in fear, but we should not – Fear not! as Pope John Paul II often repeated. War not only destroys lives, but also love and creativeness. Create for what? The first two world wars caused millions to lose faith, and others found solace only in God when they had nothing else. My heart goes out to the refugees, both those who are killing themselves to get to Europe where they will not be allowed to live normally until they have been through the immigration bureaucracy (the terrorists have to be kept out). I also pain to read about those still in the camps in Turkey, completely destitute and faced with the only option of returning to Syria – even if it means getting blown up or decapitated by psychopathic Daesh terrorists. This war will spread everywhere if there is ever a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO. It does put “churchy” things into perspective somewhat. Of course, if it goes nuclear, perhaps the mutant cockroaches will learn to spread the message to their posterity!

We just have to carry on doing “our thing” and being confident we are serving God and humanity in some good way. Je veux passer mon ciel à faire du bien sur la terre – I want to make of my life in heaven a way to do good on earth, said Saint Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus in her correspondence. It is the only attitude we can have.

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27 Responses to Gentrified Catholicism

  1. Stephen K says:

    Father, you are articulating something I fully understand and in my own way have been expressing from time to time, albeit in different words. You’ve just experienced a-new the clerical Church as a machine, a corporation, an enterprise with a product with its new wave of militant (extrovert and pugnacious) clerical salespeople. How modern men can swallow the recycled patronising pap that they are expected to dish up to the ‘mere laypeople’, I have no idea. Before Vesuvius spewed its lava and fumes over Pompeii, soothsayers and witches foretold of the disaster, but no one listened. The signs are all about us: the old model of Church is deeply corrupted, and compromised, and the generation of Joannino-benedictine clergy is like a phalanx of Metternichs busying themselves with pumping fluids and voltages into a moribund comatose patient for the sake of an arcane and intellectualising principle.

    It’s sad. But what we regret, I suspect, is our rose-tinted memory of youthful days of similar exuberance, not any actual objective golden age. Two thousand years ago, young men and women were also capable of much enthusiasm and romance, but like us, they experience realities and grow older and wiser and hopefully are not physically butchered or assaulted along the way. We start out as full-blown Romantics perhaps but end up as philosophers who can still imagine what it is like to be in love….just…..and if we are lucky and not grown too cynical or weary.

    It’s in part why I have to the view that Christianity is not a Church but a Way. Its establishment is its death-knell. There is no truth that any group can claim a mortgage on, and we would do well to stop trying to define – or insist on a definition of – Jesus and what He was on about. Let us simply try to fall in love with him…….and each other.

    • Thanks for the kind words. There is another thought that comes into my mind. What if we are living in the “baddie” countries like Germans in the 1930’s and during World War II? What if we are part of the “evil empire”? I don’t want to go into matters I hardly understand in cultural and political terms. The Middle East (and the American vested interests) has always been a powder keg, the explosive combination of Petroleum and Islam. All the same, the shadow hangs over us. In our world that we used to like to call “Christian”, we seem to be full of self-loathing. We look at the Daesh head-chopper in the same way as the hidden babushkas feared the KGB, the Jews ran for fear of the SS and the Gestapo, and the early martyrs contemplated their fate in the Colosseum. Are we ready to be strong?

      To what extent is the Church a part of all this? It seems more of a matter of human unconsciousness than malice. In Germany, a well-positioned priest gets the same perks as an executive. I am more and more disgusted with my native country. In England, a person is worth his money. In America, the problem of poverty is “solved” by criminalising it. Actually, it is cheaper to house people than leave them on the street, but then poor people are morally defective and deserve their fate. N’est-ce pas?

      That is the message I received from those two brave Versailles priests. I may be completely wrong, but their life is not mine. They and I come from different planets. I am not jealous of them, because I have a freedom they don’t have.

      We can only be “signs of contradiction” and try to understand the prophetic dimension of Christianity, the Eternal Church outside of human politics and greed. That is something we often discuss in our little Church, and try to live with God’s grace.

  2. Dale says:

    Father, your wrote: “Some of those big corporate men would kill millions for their financial ambitions!” I know that this is a popular image, but I do not think an honest one.

    Bertrand Russell, wrote whilst watching the absolute joy that war was announced in England in the Summer of 1914, the following (which I believe to be very true):

    “I discovered to my amazement that average men and women were delighted at the prospect of war. I had fondly imagined what most pacifists contended, that wars were forced upon a reluctant population by despotic and Machiavellian governments […] the fact that the anticipation of carnage was delightful to something like ninety per cent of the population […], I had supposed until that time that it was quite common for parents to love their children, but the War persuaded me that it is a rare exception. I had supposed that most people liked money better than almost anything else, but I discovered that they like destruction even better. I had supposed that intellectuals frequently loved truth, but I found here again that not ten percent of them prefer truth to popularity.”

    We love to blame war on big business, on the government, on anything, but ourselves…

    • ed pacht says:

      Yes, it is indeed true that fallen mankind frequently expresses the basest and most violent of desires, usually against their own interests. However, it is equally true that the rich and powerful full well know this tendency and oftentimes know how to use and manipulate it for their own benefit. No, we do not get off the hook by blaming others, but the ill-will of the common people simply does not organize itself or rarely does) without the leadership and demagoguery of the powerful. Put blame where it belongs — in ourselves AND onthose who pull the strings. Father’s statement stands.

      • Dale says:

        I am not really convinced Ed. In the Spanish-American War the wealthy interests, especially in sugar, were bitterly opposed to going to war with Spain over their treatment of revolutionaries in Cuba. They preferred the stable conditions of a Spanish colony over the possibility of Cuba becoming a banana republic; and had good relations with the Spanish colonial authorities, but according to most revisionist textbooks, it was the nasty business interests that caused this imperialist war against Spain. The same goes for the Kingdom of Hawaii, the business interests were opposed to accepting the “Republic” of Hawaii as an American territory because of the fear that a tariff free sugar would have on American sugar interests, mostly based in Louisiana and Cuba, but that is not the spin put on this issue in most revisionist textbooks who wish to blame everything on big-business and gasp the military/industrial complex. It is tiresome, and ahistorical.

      • Dale says:

        Ed, one could also mention that the greatest manipulators of the lower orders, and even many of the upper orders were not the wealthy; both Hitler and Stalin come to mind.

    • Stephen K says:

      ”We love to blame war on big business, the government, on anything but ourselves..”

      Just two things, Dale. “Big Business” is a code word, a convenient short-hand name, an abbreviation; same with “the government”. But in the sense you mean here they appear to be simply abstractions, remote and distinct from your “ourselves”. Both critics and apologists for both (i.e. ‘big business’, ‘government’ etc) invest these notional entity categories with human motivations and intentions. It is a convenient and common vernacular usage to do so, but it lets the humans who run companies and hold political office off the hook. It is certainly arguable that if you talked up in favour of the business leaders who supported war with donations and enterprise, or voted for the politician(s) who signed the order to mobilise troops, then you could blame yourself. But somewhere along the line, there was a politician who actually did vote in the Congress or Parliament or signed the document, and a man (perhaps also a woman) who ordered a transfer of cash and these latter are who we mean by these terms. These latter are in positions where things are critically set in motion. The jingoistic flag-waving crowds manipulated into fear or arrogance in 1914 soon realised the bitter realities and this is a moral progress of sorts – the same cannot be said for the business leaders and politicians who smiled their way to the Banks with arms and related sales profits between one War and the next….and the next.

      Let us therefore modify the phrase somewhat: we should blame War on ourselves if we talk it up; but we should continue to blame those who make it happen directly. Quarantining the latter from the rest of us is simply not an option.

    • Dale says:

      Big business does not wish to murder anyone, they only want to sell junk to them.

      • ed pacht says:

        “Big business does not wish to murder anyone, they only want to sell junk to them.”

        True, at least in part, but neither has big business shown a real desire for the avoidance of the death and injury of workers and customers as a side effect of “selling junk” .has much effect on its priorities. I see no reason to accuse business of deliberately starting wars, but I see plenty of evidence that business interests are capable of producing situations that make war a likely result — and it is simply so that big business profits from wartime situations, whether they planned it that way or not.

  3. ed pacht says:

    Yep — as I said, though, (or thought I said) it’s not either/or, but both/and. The roots of such things are never simple, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. Power, whether it comes from economic, political, ideological, or religious sources, begs to be used, and will be used, not always (actually, not often) for good ends; and someone will manipulate the masses. Simplistic answers on one side or another just don’t work As Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    • Dale says:

      This I will completely agree with. One has to be careful not to fall into traps of any sort; on one side blaming the rich and on the other elevating the poor to a status of suffering and sanctity that is undeserved as well. I much prefer Aristotle’s via media of a Middle Class republic. of course, I am middle class, or try to be anyway.

      • The notion of middle class is an interesting one. It tends to be associated with income (more than 30,000 $ or € or whatever per year), one’s own house and financial security (savings). Below that you are either working class or down and out, and above that you are stinking rich. Money isn’t everything. There is the question of nobility, culture and world view. There are plenty of ruined nobles and former “middle class” who have the same financial status as workers and paupers. Conversely some of the most glitzy rich folk are vulgar and base in their culture. What are your thoughts on this?

      • Stephen K says:

        Yes, there are classes and always have been, and money and taste and education are all variously involved in characterising and shifting their boundaries and we all belong to one or another, and often we might be said to move from one to another through the course of our life-time, and across generations. Any person can be a snob no matter what class they think they belong to or are thought to belong to by others; any person can be treated like a leper from any direction. We can all be reduced in an instant by catastrophe, or elevated by serendipity or miracle, though the latter might be thought to be less certain.

        This is my view: in the political and economic and social dimension there is such a thing as a “class struggle”. Social justice may be thought as the movement or concept of mitigating the radical inequalities or oppressions which feed civic disorder and injuries, personal and structural, to human dignity and freedom. Jesus, as far as I can tell, thought the poor and oppressed and the suffering had to have hope and that the rich and powerful had their moral challenge cut out for them. That is to say, being rich and powerful was not an intrinsic good, and not a good at all if it was not used for good, which involved serving – in various ways – the poor, oppressed and suffering. His kingdom was open to all but it was not entered merely by class membership but how one’s strengths were used. To him who is given much, more is expected of him etc. etc.

        Christianity is incarnational, which means that it must deal with the realities confronting us, but it is a call to a way of being that does not see wealth or power as personal merits and their absence as personal moral failure, justifying bastardry.

      • Stephen K says:

        One has to be careful not to fall into traps of any sort; on one side blaming the rich and on the other elevating the poor to a status of suffering and sanctity that is undeserved as well.

        Was there an unintentional slip there, Dale? Saying blaming the rich and praising the poor were both traps? [I presume by ‘traps’ you mean ‘mistakes’.] What about blaming the poor and praising the rich? Are they also “traps”?

        The way you’ve put it, the ‘mistakes’ would be only in one direction. To have agreed with ed, at least roughly speaking, you would have had to say something like one should avoid the trap of blaming only one group.

      • ed pacht says:

        and let me add that the fact that the “masses” can be and are “manipulated” does not get them off the hook either. Those with the power to manipulate can only do so by reaching into the baser (i.e. fallen) aspects of human nature, and our yielding to those inclination is sin and thus indefensible. Thus war, even if under “just war” theories it may be necessary is always an expression of sinfulness and invariably brings forth sinful attitudes of prejudice and hatred.

      • This sounds to be something like the rise of Hitler in Germany. Those who could read had access to Mein Kampf and could see that he wanted to kill the Jews, take over the world, etc. This would make the entire German people guilty, except those who did not vote for Hitler or actively resisted (and ended up hanging from a meat hook on piano wire). However, what creates guilt is knowing consent, the lack of invincible ignorance as for any moral act or omission.

        The present situation is much more muddied and difficult to understand. We are confused by propaganda that make Göbbels look like a bungling amateur. I personally go about finding out what I can by reading alternative / conspiracy theory news and then seeing what I can glean from mainstream news in that light. I am naturally extremely sceptical of stories of “shape-shifting reptiles” or the “Illuminati”, but I can readily believe that the US government’s interest in the Middle East is all about oil and Petrodollars, and the threat to American imperialism. Also the US is trillions of dollars in debt, and one day it will all have to be paid back…

        Then, what is Putin’s interest? Is it altruistic, the idea of defending Christendom against ISIS head-choppers and “moderate” head-choppers, or what? If this thing becomes World War III, do we follow the government of our own country because we want to be loyal and patriotic citizens, or do we seek what is right insofar as we can discern Russia’s motives?

        This one goes beyond “just wars”, but the 300 pound gorilla in Syria, Irak, Afghanistan and elsewhere – not eliminated after years of warfare by NATO forces – is the pure evil of Daesh, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Devil knows who else. There will be no peace in the world until Islamic jihadism is beaten like Nazism had to be beaten at the enormous cost that Europe paid in 1944-45.

        I have tended to be 1960’s pacifist until now, but I can only pray for victory over the barbarians and the same reconstruction as had to take place in Europe in the late 1940’s until the last refugee was rehoused in the 1960’s.

        Presently, I see Putin as the present-day Churchill. I think we Brits, Europeans and Americans have every interest in siding with Russia against this plague in the Middle East and in the midst of our own cities.

      • Dale says:

        Father, for me anyway, middle class is not an issue of income. I have been reading the British author, Theodore Dalrymple’s (Dr Anthony Daniels) books on this issue, and tend to agree with his analysis that the middle class is more an attitude than an economic position. His own parents, especially his father, lived in absolute poverty in a British slum, but their aspirations, demand of hard-work, love of nation, cultural attitudes, and independence were middle class attributes. The peasant communities of an older Switzerland were this type of people, poor, honest, independent and hard-working. Today, at least in the west with entitlement driven growth of a huge under-class, such people actually, at least in the United States, enjoy all the benefits of the middle-class; their own apartments or homes, automobiles, schooling, free food etc. yet they are most certainly NOT middle class in either attitudes or aspirations.

    • ed pacht says:

      I’d be very careful about supporting Mr. Putin. I think it manifestly clear that his prime purpose is to reestablish Russian domination of what was the Warsaw bloc — and, yes, to safeguard his own personal power. The man really scares me.

      That said, what you say about US policies certainly does hold. If our intent since becoming “the only superpower, had been to destabilize the world as quickly as possible, we couldn’t have done a much better job of it than what we have done. Our foreign relations have been dysfunctional, even destructive. and several stable (if unappealing) nations have been turned into failed states, with others yet to come if we continue on the same road. Will Russia do any better in the Mideast? I’m sure they won’t. I don’t think they have the resources they need to support the heavy-handed policies Mr. Putin desires. The Communist regime pretty well used them up, and his policies stand a fair chance of destroying his nation.

      As for Russia as a Christian nation: I’m very much influenced by Orthodox theology and piety, but that said, I am very uncomfortable with the conduct and posture of the official Russian Church. Under the Tsars, under the Bolsheviks, and now, that church acts much like a department of the government, and its bishops have as much of the appearance of political appointees as they did under Stalin.

      As I reread this post, I think I appear pretty negative here, and I don’t like that, but I see no way to view the situation otherwise. The US is not the savior of the Middle East, but neither is Russia. I’m not sure there is an answer other than simply allowing them to fight it out and perhaps destroy one another.

      • I’m not sure there is an answer other than simply allowing them to fight it out and perhaps destroy one another.

        Then someone has to foot the bill for the social benefits of millions of refugees and economic migrants riding piggy-back. Then I suppose the barbarians will take over the entire north part of Africa and all the other countries on their “black” map including parts of Europe. Then they’ll get the Bomb. Then it’s Good night for us all.

        A nice thought for autumn…

      • Dale says:

        Ed, I completely agree with this analysis of both Putin and the official Russian Church, whose kowtowing to the state makes it in many ways simply a more conservative version of the Church of England’s present prostration before the forces of a failed multiculturalism in England. If there is any Russian Church that I can personally support is those small groups that refuse to submit to the official line and the Old Believers.

  4. J.D. says:

    In some ways the Old Believers are my own cup of tea as well, a group who, flaws notwithstanding, perfectly manifest the very real Gospel idea that the Kingdom of God ” is not of this world.” I too love and am influenced by much of Slavic Orthodox piety and theology, and I too am wary of how close any within the official Russian Church have aligned themselves with the powers that be.

    I’m a bit excited to see what appears to be a rivival of Orthodoxy in Russia, but still not totally trusting Putin or many within the Church to do more than to use the trappings of religion to wield state power.

  5. I so agree about what I call the BaBa Church…the Russian Church preserved in secret under the shawls of the suffering Russian grandmothers. When I need some serious spiritual ‘recharging’ this site pulls me into the ancient Church of incense and bells, something seriously lacking in my parish church.

    Thanks for the wonderful writing and sharing here!

    • I have always emphasised the sense of awe and wonder, which requires a simple and innocent soul. For those who have lost that quality that Christ demands of us, it is very difficult to relate to anything. The reference in England in the 15th century was the ploughman – hard work and closeness to nature.

  6. While I have not commented here in some time, I always appreciate your insights, Fr. Chadwick. I comment now because you have been particularly insightful in this present post. Yes, modern Roman Catholicism is unappealing, because of its present totalitarian ethos. While it would perhaps be tolerable, were that ethos at least somewhat informed by Scripture, Tradition, and the Authority of the Church, I fear that for most clergy, and many laity, expediency is the order of the day. Let’s shovel the masses into a place which looks more like a warehouse for souls than an icon of the Kingdom of Heaven, give them third rate entertainment, call it a Liturgy, and then step repeat four or five times a Sunday. And if divorced and remarried people, or two gays or two lesbians, want to get married, by all means give that to them as well. Let’s not rock this sinking (and stinking) boat.

    Similarly, our so-called leaders (or at least mine) destabilize the former regimes of the middle East, supply various factions of enraged children with high grade weapons, and then do nothing while those children destroy any possibility of civilized life in those former regimes. And those same so-called leaders do nothing while many thousands of refugees (including many of those enraged children) go as refugees into Western Europe and the United States. As though that would end well. You are right to fear war. The Four Horsemen are fast approaching.

    At this point, I am re-reading my W.H. Auden’s “Collected Longer Poems”, and in particular, his “New Year Letter”.I would commend you to do the same. The question is: ‘Where can one go?” Auden had the United States. I fear that this time, there will be the center of the coming storm.

    • Thank you, Bernard. I share your same conflict about love of the country where we were born (England in my case) and realism about the gathering storm clouds. At the same time, we were spared nuclear annihilation in 1962. God must care about us in some way! Our ancestors were granted victory over Hitler and Hirohito. I believe that Russia will beat ISIS / Daesh and that there will be a Military Tribunal to declare once more to the guilty – “on the indictment of crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, death by hanging” as the judges of Nuremberg pronounced against Göring, Von Ribbentrop, Keitel, Streicher and the others. Indeed, I hope they get a load of them alive.

      The Churches are of no help, because they are part of the “world”. Where can we go? I fear that the answer is the cheapest and with the least effort – stay where we are. It is always worse elsewhere than where we are. I’ll take your recommendation and read the Auden poems.

      • Ever since I came home from Ireland I have felt nothing but hatred for England, I am sorry to say. The country is defiled. At least in remote corners of Ulster there echoes still what I would discern as the Music of the Ainur.

      • If I were you, I wouldn’t hate anything. However, you might do well to go to Ireland, find a way to earn your living, rent or buy a little house by the sea and write and write and write.

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