Off Hiatus

October 11, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments
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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.


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  1. Marian, glad you had such a good trip to France and glad you are back blogging. I didn’t realize you were so steeped in the French culture. I really enjoyed your blog. Since you are living in a predominately Spanish-speaking parish, do you speak any Spanish? Probably wouldn’t be difficult for you to pick up if you don’t. Sorry you missed the first debate. I surely hope the second one goes better for Obama. Lyllis


  2. Marian – Having visited (while in Paris) the town of my paternal ancestors in Le Perche region of France – (Maternal ancestors came from La Rochelle) – and having grown up bi-lingual in Maine, my parents born in Quebec Province, I was riveted by and could identify with much in this delightful blog entry. Merci! Gracias!


  3. Marian, I so envy you. I would love to visit ALL of France.–Judy Schiavo


  4. So glad you have such a deep appreciation for your own neighborhood!


  5. Lovely blog, Marian. So sorry you missed our book group conversation on David McCullough’s THE GREATER JOURNEY about Americans in Paris in the 1800s. Hope to see you soon.


  6. welcome back, homey


  7. Welcome back, Marian! I am glad you had such a good reason for the hiatus.
    I look forward to reading your blog (and, I promise, commenting!) each time. Doretta


    • Thanks, Doretta! I look forward to it.


      Sent from my iPad


  8. Really lovely. Thank you for writing this.

    I hope you ate some good food, even if it cost a fortune.

    Jeanette Stokes Durham, NC Blog:

    REPEAL Amendment One


  9. Reading so much about pre- and post-revolutionary French Catholicism these days, I was so grateful to read this post, Marian, including its explanation of the Irish connection, which I could not quite figure out. What amazes me is that a whole quadrant of French Catholicism that was very “Vatican-II-like” way before its time never made it to Ireland or the missions or the 1950s U.S. Catholic schools; it was squashed and gone after the French Revolution gave ultramontane Catholicism all the justification it needed, apparently up until the present day. But there was an un-ultramontanism back then, that was so French, fascinating, forward-thinking–and now largely forgotten. Sometimes I wish I could be an early modernist after all. (But I could never hack that level of archival work …) Thanks again and see you soon!


    • So can you tell me the names of some of these pre-Revolution French Catholic modernists? I’d like to learn more about them.

      Thanks, Julie.


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