Fervor and optimism

International | RELIGION: Scholars are detecting a growing interest in spiritual matters in France and throughout Europe

Issue: "Iraq: Bloody Ramadan," Nov. 29, 2003

THE FRENCH VILLAGE OF GURAT had a special event early this month. On Veterans Day, the one and only Mass of the year was celebrated in the local Roman Catholic church, which has not had a pastor in decades. The priest, Father Martial LeBlanc, came from a nearby town: He looks after 40 altars in the area, which tells you something about the decayed state of French Catholicism. But that old story has a new twist.

After the service, several of us walked across the street to the war memorial, exchanging family histories relating to World War I. I told of how my father, a young German lieutenant then, was blinded in both eyes by shrapnel as his platoon charged a French position. Frenchmen spoke of grandfathers they had never met because of this fratricidal conflict. And Rev. LeBlanc, an energetic 31-year-old, said, "These horror stories prove that it is high time for mission in Europe."

That is certainly so-and it is significant that many French citizens are voicing such assertions, even as their government stubbornly opposes any mention of God or Christianity in the new European Constitution. Many Americans think of France as hopelessly godless, yet many young Catholics and Protestants have the fervor and optimism of Rev. LeBlanc. Among Protestants, the French Reformed Church is no longer a hotbed of extreme left-wing agitation. The new crop of pastors is once again proclaiming the gospel without political frills. Evangelical congregations are starting up at the rate of one every nine days.

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France still appears outwardly post-Christian, but a new groundswell is making itself felt. New Bible translations and commentaries are hot-ticket items. Theological issues are creeping into more and more dinner discussions. Catechism classes for grownups have become so popular that some churches now have waiting lists. The influential publication Le Figaro recently ran an eight-part series about the reemergence of Christian intellectuals, who for the last half century had been hiding in cerebral catacombs. The Roman Catholic Church lacks priests-only 25,000 are left in a country of 60 million-yet committed lay leaders have taken over many tasks once performed by clergymen.

The French surge has its counterpart in other European countries. Paul M. Zulehner, an eminent Viennese sociologist of religion, has found a growing interest in matters spiritual in-of all places-Europe's major urban centers. Rev. LeBlanc offers a reason: "Young people are thirsty for God. They are sick to the gills of materialism, broken families, violence. If you can gain their confidence, they are all ears."


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