On a recent Sunday, my family and I only showed up 10 minutes early for Mass. That meant we had to sit in fold-out chairs in the spillover room, where the Mass is relayed on a large TV screen. During the service, my toddler had to go to the bathroom. To get there, we had to step over a dozen people sitting in hallways and corners. This is business as usual for my church in Paris, France.
I point this out because one of the most familiar tropes in social commentary today is the loss of Christian faith in Europe in general, and France in particular. The Wall Street Journal recently fretted about the sale of “Europe’s empty churches.”
Could it be, instead, that France is in the early stages of a Christian revival?
Yes, churches in the French countryside are desperately empty. There are no young people there. But then, there are no young people in the French countryside, period. France is a modern country with an advanced economy, and that means its countryside has emptied, and that means that churches built in an era when the country’s sociological makeup was quite different go empty. In the cities — which is where people are, and where cultural trends gain escape velocity — the story is quite different.
But back to our parish. Is our pastor some outlier with megawatt charisma? In terms of flair, he would win no public speaking contests. But there is something that sets him apart from many of the Catholic priests my parents’ generation grew up listening to: he is unapologetically orthodox. He is tactful, but unafraid to talk about controversial topics. He will talk about a lackadaisical approach to the liturgy being a kind of unfaithfulness to God. A few weeks ago, I even got to see something for the first time in my life: a Catholic priest preaching about Hell.
But there is no rigoristic hectoring at our parish. Our pastor will stress the importance of living in accordance with the Church’s rules, and in the same breath say something like: “Is the real problem in the Church people who are divorced and remarried, or people who are homosexual? No, the real problem is people who go to church every Sunday and are not willing to see everyone as a child of God, are not willing to welcome them.” It is the kind of approach modeled by Popes John Paul II and Francis: a Catholicism that is both doctrinally robust and joyfully welcoming.
This is not an isolated phenomenon. My wife and I now live in an upper-crust neighborhood with all the churches full of upwardly-mobile professionals. When we were penniless grad students, we lived in a working class neighborhood and on Sunday our church was packed with immigrant families and hipster gentrifiers.
It was only recently that I was struck by the fact that, imperceptibly, the majority of my college and grad school friends who were Christmas-and-Easter-Catholics when we met now report going to Church every Sunday and praying regularly. On social media, they used to post about parties; now they’re equally likely to post prayers for persecuted Middle East Christians or calls to help the homeless over the holidays.
My friends live all over town; some of them are young singles who move around a lot; all of them report looking for those mythical “empty churches” we hear so much about — and failing to find them. In fact, it’s closer to the other way around: If you don’t show up early, you might have to sit on the floor — and people are happy to do it.
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