Off HiatusOctober 11, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments
Tags: "The Thirteenth, Cardinal Mazarin, France, French Catholicism, Greatest of Centuries", Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou, Little Pakistan, Marine LePen, Paris, St. Vincent de Paul, The Paris Commune of 1871, Thomas Aquinas
Well, I’m back. And I have some thoughts to share with you. But first, I have a confession to make.
I didn’t just take September off. I went to France (with a few days in Switzerland visiting a dear friend). But it seemed as if announcing online that our apartment in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn would be empty for a month might not be entirely wise. So I said I was going “on hiatus.”
The business about me and France demands some explanation. Basically, I grew up thinking that France was the center of the universe, and certainly the center of the universal (that is, of course, the Catholic!) church.
At bottom, I believe this was connected to the fact that Irish men who wanted to become priests after the Reformation (and the repression of Irish Catholicism by the English) went to France to be trained, after which French theologians went to Ireland to teach in the seminaries after the bloody French Revolution. Then in the US, Irish-Catholic immigrants inherited an American church founded by French missionaries. And some of the post-war French theologians–Danielou, de Lubac, and others–had enormous impact on US Vatican II Catholics like me.
But another piece of all this was the Catholic church’s fixation on the 13th century Catholicism that centered around the theologian Thomas Aquinas and the Cathedral of Notre Dame, constructed in Paris around the time that Aquinas was doing his work. From the late 19th century to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), a return to Aquinas’s “perennial philosophy” was the church’s primary antidote to the evils of the modern world. In the first half of the 20th century, a wildly popular book among American Catholics was James J. Walsh’s The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries.
I was taken up by much of this early on. In 1957, when I was ten, I chose Joan of Arc as my confirmation saint. Joan’s statue sits to the left of my computer as I am writing this blog post. Four years later I enrolled at a Catholic girls’ high school conducted by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a congregation of Catholic Sisters founded in France just after the French Revolution. With their encouragement and example, I eventually took seven years of French in school–this in a country tied irrevocably to Hispanic geography and culture.
It was pretty much inevitable, then, that I would get myself to France sooner or later On my first visit, in 1983, I checked into my hotel on the Left Bank and went directly to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. When I got there, I took one look at it and burst into tears. Some of this, I admit, was jet lag. But a lot of it was the Francophile Catholicism instilled in me by my (primarily) Irish-American Catholic nuns.
Since then, I have returned to France–mainly Paris–six times. For much of the time I continued to be mesmerized by France, and by French Catholicism. How did they manage to build that gorgeous cathedral more than eight centuries ago, when buildings built a few decades ago in New York fall down with some frequency? How did exquisitely beautiful medieval polyphony grow out of Gregorian chant in Paris in the 13th century? And for that matter, how did the French manage to welcome African-Americans even as we ourselves (and I include here many American Catholics) were defending slavery and Jim Crow or resisting African-American civil rights?
I still harbor some of these thoughts and feelings. But in recent visits, the French have come to seem a lot more human to me. Maybe my husband and I have just gotten too old to be crammed into two-star hotel rooms for a month. Or maybe it’s realizing how much more often people in Brooklyn smile at strangers than Parisians do. Or maybe it’s listening to Marine LePen denounce Jews for wearing yarmulkes and Muslims for wearing head-veils in public when my neighborhood is (happily) thick with folks wearing such items.
Even French Catholicism, and its binary, the French Republic, are assuming human scale for me. While I was away I read on Project Guttenberg a biography of St. Vincent de Paul, the great Parisian founder of Catholic religious orders that serve the poor. I must say, the problems he had with Cardinal Mazarin, the papal nuncio to France, sounded not so different from the problems US Catholic Sisters are having with the Vatican today. Another book I read, on the Paris Commune of 1871 and how its communards massacred their hostages, after which French loyalist troops massacred thousands of them, sounded not unlike current violent struggles–the stand-off in Syria, for example.
So I may go back to France one of these days. But considering how much CO2 such a trip shoots into the atmosphere, maybe in the future I’ll be mesmerized by Brooklyn, worshipping in my Haitian-Carribbean-Hispanic parish, walking around little Pakistan, gazing on the trees in Prospect Park.