The Synod as Seen by an Ordinary Paris Priest

We don’t know much about the Synod, because we’re not directly involved. We’re out in the field, patiently ploughing through parish life and “smelling the sheep.” We pick up a few scattered rumblings, which are generally met with indifference; but for some they fuel a vague concern, for others the hope of reforms concerning the place of women or the end of a supposedly “rigid” morality. The advent of a “synodal” Church is also presented, at least implicitly, as a response to the crisis of sexual abuse committed by certain clerics. One of the unstated aims of the “synod fathers and mothers” seems to be to deconstruct the authority of the pastor in favor of collective “decision-making processes,” which would destroy the seeds of clericalism, seen as the root of all evil.

To constantly evoke the dangers of clericalism in an almost totally de-Christianized world and a Church bereft of priestly vocations, which has seen a spectacular drop in the last decade (for Paris, the number of seminarians has fallen by over 50%)—isn’t this just shooting point-blank into what’s left of our feet to walk on? We’d like to hear words about the beauty of the priesthood, implore the Lord to send laborers into His harvest, and pray that priests will be good servants of God’s people, rooted in the interior life. ” Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear,” says the Apostle (Eph 4:29). Priests, especially the younger ones, need so much encouragement and consolation in the trials of ministry.

The least we can say is that this synod is not arousing the enthusiasm of fervent young Catholics, who attended very little of the preparatory phase. In Paris, only 14% of participants were between the ages of 20 and 35. The figure speaks for itself. Young people have a thirst for identity and clarity, a desire for formation and a certain flexibility in expressing their sensibilities. They go from the Christian pilgrimage to the Mission Congress, from the Gloria of the Angels to an evening of praise and healing.

In his homily at the opening Mass of the Synod on October 4, which was overshadowed by his responses to the dubia and its many possible interpretations, Pope Francis tried to strike a balance. He wants to avoid making debates over controversial issues too tense, and dismisses both the temptation of “rigidity” and submission to an “agenda dictated by the world.” The Synod is called upon, says the Holy Father, to build “a Church that has God at its center and that, consequently, is not divided internally and is never harsh externally.” He warns against “an immanent gaze, made up of human strategies, political calculations or ideological battles.”

The Church is Not Her own Creator

It’s obvious that behind the scenes at synods and conclaves, worldly strategies, intimidations and seductions are all around us. This is the way of man, and even more so of the ecclesiastical world, which is easily covered by a veneer of Roman charity and unctuousness. We can only agree with the Holy Father’s desire for unity. This does not prevent us from reflecting and offering constructive criticism. “You can take off your hat in church, but not your head,” said Chesterton. Cardinal Fernandez accuses those who criticize the “doctrine of the Holy Father” of heresy and schism (National Catholic Register, Sept. 8, 2023). Strictly speaking, there is no “doctrine of the Holy Father,” but the Catholic faith revealed in Jesus Christ, of which we are the servants and not the masters, whatever the orientations of a pontificate.

Basically, things are simple. Does the truth about faith and morals, the fundamental structure of the Church, the sacramental life, the final ends, emanate from “below,” through a democratic dialogue supposedly “in the Holy Spirit” that finally reaches a consensus? Or is it to be accepted “on our knees” by the Revelation of a demanding love that surpasses us, transmitted in fullness by Christ and borne by the living tradition of the Church, by those who have borne witness to the faith at the price of their blood? The Church is not the creator of herself, and we don’t have to define our own moral criteria, but listen to the Lord’s Law. “Be holy, for I am holy”, says the Lord (1 Pet 1:16).

Nonetheless, it’s true that new issues are constantly arising in the parish, and that they are growing in scope, and that the Church can’t ignore them. For example, the number of “remarried” divorcees, some of whom claim the right to receive Holy Communion, invoking “the spirit of Pope Francis;” homosexual “couples” who ask baptism for an adopted child or a child born through MAR; engaged couples, almost all of whom live in a form of cohabitation; the ignorance, for many who knock on the Church’s door, of the most elementary foundations of catechesis. Priests ordained for a traditionalist community generally have the grace of being surrounded by trained, culturally homogeneous faithful who take care of them and don’t question the Church’s constant teaching. A priest in a de-Christianized parish, following decades of “inclusive” pastoral care based on an unconditional welcome that strives to avoid any “cleavage,” and focused more on the charitable pole than on catechetical formation, doesn’t have the same support. The Church needs all kinds of people. Pastors who take care of families anchored in the faith, and others who are more on the front line in the shifting sands of a “liquid” society where the Church is trying to make its way along a difficult path that rarely avoids trial and error, pitfalls or lapses in judgment.

What Catholic, what bishop, would not be preoccupied by concern for all souls? How much hidden sufferings, buried guilt and wounds we must encounter by listening to and soothing, just as the Good Samaritan poured oil and wine on the man’s wounds and led him to the inn: the image of the Church? But to love all men is also to show them, as they grow, the way to a demanding and holy life in line with the objectivity of goodness.

Don’t Try to Legislate Everything

Rome must leave it up to the pastors in the field to discern the best path to take in the face of the particular cases that arise, and avoid at all costs trying to legislate everything, at the risk of falling into unbearable casuistry and aggravating divisions. The pastoral charity of a parish priest strives to reach out to people in complex or objectively sinful situations, but “love and truth meet” (Ps 84). Giving milk does not mean renouncing solid food, still less maintaining the vagueness of revealed truths, at the risk of creating extreme confusion. Loving all people means recalling their vocation to holiness.

The wisest thing to do is to do good where we are, to keep our spleens in check, and to continue teaching the faith of the Church, taking care of the sheep where they are, with as much pastoral delicacy as possible, but never giving up on leading them to the holy mountain which, as priests, we must climb first in a tireless conversion. Not primarily that of reforming structures by initiating ecclesial “processes,” but that of a heart resolutely turned towards the Lord. Conversion is personal, or it is not. The rest will pass like snow in the sun, and the mountain may simply give birth to a mouse. Let’s hope it doesn’t nibble away at the threads that bind us to the long tradition that comes down to us from the Apostles, and that it leads us to take one more small step towards the Lord of life, who remains eternally, beyond the contradictions of mankind, Master of time and history.

Father Luc de Bellescize is the Curate of Saint Vincent-de-Paul in Paris. This article comes through the kind courtesy of La Nef.

Featured: Fridolin Assists with the Holy Mass, by Peter Fendi; painted in 1833.

God’s Answer to the Poet Baudelaire

Baudelaire died just over 150 years ago, having received the sacraments of the Church. It would be short-sighted to see him only as a hashish-smoking debauchee, a dandy crushed by ennui, an heir who squandered his fortune. If he took on to his very core the darkness of a world without hope and stirred up “the infamous menagerie of our vices,” he has nothing in common with the bourgeois who quietly confesses his atheism. It is worth rereading the contempt with which he holds, in Pauvre Belgique! the “prêtrophobes” and freethinkers who have stunted the scope of the world by extirpating from the conscience any idea of divine retribution: “Having imagined suppressing sin, the freethinkers thought it ingenious to suppress the judge and abolish punishment. This is exactly what they call progress.”

There is something prophetic in his denunciation of a soulless life, where everything is bought and sold. In this sense, Baudelaire is an anti-bourgeois, an “anti-modern” in the line of the Psalms: “And man when he was in honour did not understand; he is compared to senseless beasts, and is become like to them… They are laid in hell like sheep: death shall feed upon them.” (Ps 48:13;15). He could have written Nietzsche’s words, which mock the health-idolatry of the pagan world: “We have our little pleasure for the day, our little pleasure for the night, but above all we revere health.” Houellebecq also participates in his spirit when he writes: “I am a Catholic in the sense that I show the horror of the world without God.” The poet’s restless soul has something of the mystical about it, like an inverted kinship. He responds to the allure of the Divine by probing his own abyss. “His poetry of unrepentant supplication was so sacrilegious that it became, by antinomy, suggestive of adoration,” writes Bloy in Un brelan d’excommuniés.

He pursues an “unknown God,” masked and versatile, who gives “suffering / As a divine remedy to our impurities” (Bénédiction). Bloy wrote of him that he “was a reverse Catholic, like the demons who ‘believe and tremble’ according to the words of Saint James” (James 2:19).

Like Augustine, Baudelaire had a restless heart. He was implacably lucid on man’s lies, on wounded nature, on the ambiguity of beauty, whose gaze is at once “infernal and divine.” He scrutinized “to the very core the dark and obscure stone” (Job 28:3) of a world in despair. Like Job, who cursed the day of his birth, he made his mother’s mouth fill with the anguish of having given birth to a monster: “Ah! why did I not give birth to a whole knot of vipers, / Rather than nourish this mockery” (Bénédiction).

He is the poet of sin, which implies the knowledge of a deeper clarity and the revelation of a wounded love. He was the man of De profundis that cried out in the valley of tears. He regretted that the priest of Honfleur had not understood that his poems were based on “a Catholic idea,” that of the sinner who awaits redemption through death. Baudelaire descended into the underworld, into the opacity of a world that confusedly awaited the light. He is the poet of Holy Saturday. Did he rise again? Did he experience Easter morning? Nadar asked him just before his death: “How can you believe in God?” With “a cry of ecstasy,” he showed the Place de l’Étoile, illuminated by “the splendid pomp of the setting sun.” “He certainly believed,” concluded Nadar.

Little Thérèse was born just after his death, like a little sister. She lived in the heroic faith of a world devoid of hope. She faced the darkness of the ultimate temptation, that of despair. Her manuscripts should be reread as a mysterious response to the “cursed poet”: “I suppose I was born in a country surrounded by a thick fog…. The King of the homeland with the shining sun came to live thirty-three years in the land of darkness. Alas! the darkness did not understand that this Divine King was the light of the world… But Lord, your child… asks you for forgiveness for her brothers. She agrees to eat as long as you want the bread of sorrow and does not want to get up from this table filled with bitterness where poor sinners eat until the day you have marked…”

May she “throw flowers” to the picker of Les Fleurs du mal, who begged Beauty to finally open the door “to an infinite that I love and have never known.”

Father Luc de Bellescize is the Curate of Saint Vincent-de-Paul in Paris. This article comes through the kind courtesy of La Nef.

Featured: Portait of Baudelaire, by Gustave Courbet; painted ca. 1848-1849.

A Happy Roman Holiday

Why are we Roman Catholics? Because Peter and Paul bore witness to the greatest love, in Rome. Because the Pope is Peter’s successor, charged with strengthening his brothers in the faith. Of course. The heart of the Church is not in Lausanne, where everything is regulated like a precision clock, where no pedestrians obeys crossing signals, or throws a piece of paper into Lake Geneva for fear of being denounced by a citizen mindful of his collective responsibility. It’s not in Berlin, where work is rigorous and the mind is not inclined to the unexpected or to whimsical mentalities. It’s not in the City of London, where frantic, ultra-connected men chase money like Speedy Gonzales, their eyes glued to screens, on which they monitor the course of the world.
No Fuss

Our Church is in Rome, where everything is never so dramatic, where the Tiber flows lazily through the creamy color of the old stones, like a hazelnut coffee. It’s Rome where Audrey Hepburn toured on a Vespa, where lovers throw coins into the Trevi Fountain, where we drink chilled limoncello on a summer’s evening. In Rome, it’s unthinkable to imagine waking a cardinal between noon and 4pm, or expecting an answer before time has largely resolved the issue. Only the Eternal City can manage temporal affairs without giving in to the spirit of haste. The Church has eternity, the world is running behind time. The tragedy is to lose the Roman spirit, i.e., fidelity to faith and the courage of witness, but also the dolce vita that makes life so beautiful. The risk is in forgetting that the Church leads to the port of the Eternal, just as a ship sails through the shores of the temporal, between the contradictions of the world and the consolations of God.

How many are busy “doing nothing” (2 Thess. 3:11). They imagine a Church that suits them, according to their all-too-human reforms, their worldly perspectives and their short-sighted orientations. They reduce it to a little traffic between friends, by dint of political calculations, vain slogans and power struggles. They no longer let God be God. We are in the world, but we are not of the world. We need to live ad orientem, without getting too agitated along the way, not placing our whole heart in the affairs of the world, “keeping our soul in peace and silence” (Ps 130).

Entering God’s Rest

“How many people work in the Vatican?”

“No more than half,” replied good Pope John. “You’re very lucky, I’m just Christ’s vicar,” he replied to La Madre, who introduced herself as the “Superior of the Holy Spirit.” He had that sense of humor that never takes itself too seriously, and teaches us the true measure of our days. Deep down, he knew that not everything rested on him, that it was necessary to know how to enter into God’s rest without pretending to govern, foresee and plan everything. “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap, nor gather into barns, but your heavenly Father feeds them” (Mt 6:26).

The darkest cloud always has its golden lining. He was no idler, however, and his reassuring build concealed a sharp conscience, attentive to the extreme in the care of his soul. He minded God’s business and God minded his own. He combined Augustine’s “cor inquietus,” the noble concern for salvation and the quest for a holy life, with the words of the great Thérèse: “Nada te turbe.. Let nothing trouble you, O Lord! Let nothing trouble you, O my soul. Let nothing frighten you. God alone is enough.” He worked tirelessly, but quietly took his siesta.

You have to be able to sleep a little, which means accepting God’s hand. Accepting that life is slipping away. Consenting to die in the end. Death is a habit to get used to. Learning to rest prepares our soul for the Requiem. There are many calls to watch in the Gospel, but there are two calls to rest: “Stand aside and rest a while” (Mk 6:31). And in the great violence of the Passion, this paradoxical word: “From now on, you can sleep and rest” (Mk 14:41). No doubt this vacation is a time to learn how to sleep. “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).

To sleep is to let go, in the humility of knowing that not everything depends on our actions, and that God Himself rested on the seventh day from the work He had accomplished. “He who does not sleep is unfaithful to hope,” writes Péguy in the Porche du Mystère de la deuxième vertu (Porch of the Mystery of the Second Virtue). Hope begins when man, that “well of anxiety,” can do nothing more than what he has already done. He then lets the Lord correct, sanctify and complete his work. He falls asleep “like a little child against his mother” (Ps 130), having played the beautiful game of his life all day long. Then “the seed grows,” day and night, “we do not know how” (Mk 4:26). So it is with the Kingdom, the Lord tells us. We collaborate in it, but it is not our work. The essential escapes us. Life always runs away from our tightly-knit hands.

Learning to Sleep

Let Péguy eulogize the night, “the dark and sparkling daughter”:

O Night, O my daughter night, the most religious of my daughters,
The most pious
Of my creatures the most in my hands, the most abandoned…
You glorify me in sleep even more than your brother the Day glorifies me in work.
For man in his work glorifies me only through his work.
And in sleep it is I who glorify myself in man's abandonment.

God watches in silence, in His eternal quietude. “He neither sleeps nor slumbers, the guardian of Israel” (Ps 121). Here’s the prayer for this summer: “Give me, Lord, to do what I must to the best of my ability. The rest is in your hands.”

“The glory of God is the living man,” said Saint Irenaeus. The glory of God is also the sleeping man. So, happy Roman vacation!

Father Luc de Bellescize is the Curate of Saint Vincent-de-Paul in Paris. This article comes through the kind courtesy of La Nef.

Featured: A view of the Vatican from the Medici Gardens, by Antonietta Brandeis; painted in 2018.

The Church Must Stand Against New Idols

The great ideologies that ravaged the twentieth century were based on the thought of the salvation of man by man, either through the exaltation of a supposedly superior race, or through the revolution that, by overthrowing dominating structures, would bring about peace. National Socialism and Marxism were two versions of the Antichrist in history and two beasts of the Apocalypse. They ravaged the earth and shed the blood of the saints. They were ideologies of redemption against the only Savior. St. John Paul II, who had experienced them in his lifetime, answered them in his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, that Christ is the only Savior of men and that there is no other Name under Heaven by which we must be saved.

New Idols

In the 21st century, we have entered an era in which new idols are rising. They are even more radical because they are no longer directly opposed to the Savior, but consist in a break with the Creator. The refusal of the Son has been succeeded by the refusal of the Father. The refusal to be saved has been followed by the refusal to be created. Today we want to be our own origin and our own end, like the Phoenix which destroys itself and is reborn from its own ashes. We pretend to be the creators of ourselves in the illusion of a pure freedom, radically autonomous from any natural “given” and from any obedience to reality. The current ideology is that of a freedom which refuses its limit and wants to choose absolutely its life as it intends to choose its death. It is not a question of “becoming what we are,” by consenting to our sexual origin, by accepting to be “qualified in being” by our heritage and our body, but of becoming absolutely what we want to be. We heard it on an astonishing program: “I am not a man. I am non-binary. What makes you say I’m a man?”

God creates by separating. He separates day and night, heaven and earth, man and woman, the fundamental distinction between the human, endowed with God’s breath and spiritual freedom, and the animal world, based on instinct. Not a separation as conflict, but as correspondence. Here we are in a time of extreme confusion where the complementarity of man and woman, naturally open to life, is no longer recognized as a reality that sets a boundary to our inordinate will to power—where, even more seriously, the distinction between man and animal appears to be fallacious among certain minority but incredibly violent “influencers.” These great ideologues obstruct any contradiction, in the United States and more and more in Europe, even in that temple of questioning and debate of ideas that should constitute university research.

These Co-Called Wise Men Have Gone Mad

In Nantes, a festival “to celebrate plural masculinities” opened, with a lot of inclusive writing, where we see not only androgynous and asexual silhouettes, but also hybrid beings, mixing the human body with bird or bear faces. “Let a parish be without priests for twenty years. They will worship beasts,” said the holy Curé d’Ars, as if to signify that man can only survive by way of the High and that without an orientation of his whole being towards invisible Love, manifested in the face of the other, and above all of the smallest, he will lose himself in the abyss of his own navel-gazing. Without God, man fades away like a grain of sand. We must go even further—where God loses His face, where He is venerated only as a “Supreme Being,” a “great architect” infinitely detached from history, men also lose their face.

The French Revolution worshipped the “Supreme Being” and lopped off heads by the thousands. Without the God of love manifested in Christ, the face of man is blurred in the uncertain magma of a freedom gone mad, which, like Rimbaud’s drunken boat, is no longer guided by the winds and descends the rivers impassively, at the mercy of the dominant currents and the most intimidating pressure groups. “If God does not exist,” writes Dostoyevsky in The Demons, “then everything is my will.” And the Apostle to the Romans: ” For professing themselves to be wise, they became fools. And they changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of the image of a corruptible man, and of birds, and of fourfooted beasts, and of creeping things. Wherefore God gave them up to the desires of their heart, unto uncleanness, to dishonour their own bodies among themselves” (Rom 1:22-24).

The Church Will Have to Stand Up

“Take away the supernatural,” said Chesterton, “and what remains is the unnatural.” Christians will have to be faithful to the earth as it sprang from the hands of God. Those who believe in Heaven must have the vocation of giving an anchor to the uprooting of men. The Church in the West will have to resist with renewed strength “a radical liberal ideology of an individualistic, rationalistic, hedonistic type,” Benedict XVI said to Peter Seewald. We must reread his Epiphany Homily of 2013 where he addressed the bishops he had just ordained:

“Today’s regnant agnosticism has its own dogmas and is extremely intolerant regarding anything that would question it and the criteria it employs. Therefore the courage to contradict the prevailing mindset is particularly urgent for a Bishop today. He must be courageous. And this courage or forcefulness does not consist in striking out or in acting aggressively, but rather in allowing oneself to be struck and to be steadfast before the principles of the prevalent way of thinking.”

No doubt the promoters of the “synodal way” in Germany, the native country of Benedict XVI, who in his testament exhorted his countrymen to stand firm in the faith, should be reminded of this.

Extreme Doctrinal Confusion

In a book to be published as his final testimony, the Pope Theologian writes that the Western world, “with its radical manipulation of man and the deformation of the sexes by gender ideology, is particularly opposed to Christianity. This dictatorial claim to be right all the time through apparent rationality requires the abandonment of Christian anthropology and the lifestyle considered ‘primitive’ that derives from it.” The German priests, bishops and even cardinals who preach in front of the rainbow flag unfurled at the altar or erect it on the churches undoubtedly believe that they are demonstrating the Church’s solicitude and its unconditional welcome. If we can only adopt the benevolence of the Good Shepherd for every man in this world, whatever his life situation, we cannot, without perjuring the logos of reason and the wisdom of Revelation, renounce to transmit, in its time, God’s plan for man and Christ’s call to conversion.

To love every man in his particular situation is to show him the way to the holy mountain and humbly try to climb it with him as a poor brother aware of his own sin, between falling and getting up, between shadows and lights, with the certainty that nothing is ever lost to God. Those who love us always believe us capable of a holy life. It is therefore legitimate to ask whether the “path” of the rich German Church—and more generally of those countries where the Church bends to the most liberal injunctions, in defiance of the small remnant of fervent and faithful youth—is not simply enslaved to a progressive agenda and subjected to pressure groups which, under the pretext of reforming the Church, contribute to accelerating its spiritual anemia and the already spectacular fall in its vocations. It is salutary to ask ourselves if they are not leading souls astray into extreme doctrinal and moral confusion by dint of wanting to please the spirit of the world. “But if the salt lose its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is good for nothing any more but to be cast out, and to be trodden on by men” (Mt 5:13).

To Love the World without Making a Pact with its Darkness

The time has come for humble daily courage and supernatural hope. There will always remain the Spirit of God, through whom our sins are forgiven. After having rejected the Redeemer for the illusion of an intramundane salvation, after having wanted to be his own creator in excess of a pride that rejects all limits, there yet remains for man not to refuse eternal mercy—not to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.

Some will be persecuted, at least in the media, for their fidelity to the faith that comes to us from the Apostles. Courageous and faithful pastors will be mocked and humiliated, even inside the Church. It is through their perseverance that they will be able to bear witness to the infinite goodness of Him who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). “To God who reveals himself,” says the Vatican II constitution Dei Verbum, is due “the obedience of faith” (Rom 16:26).

The only synodal way is the way of Christ and the attentive listening to His Word, as it is transmitted to us and as it radiates in the midst of men. God alone remains in the midst of a world that is constantly changing, which we must love and join, without making a pact with its darkness. This battle is played out in the depths of our hearts. Christ is with us always, the slain Lamb and the Lion of Judah, the humbled meekness and the invincible strength. He alone remains faithful in the benevolence of His infinite demand, who wants us holy for He is holy (Lev 11:46).

Father Luc de Bellescize is the Curate of Saint Vincent-de-Paul in Paris. This article comes through the kind courtesy of La Nef.

Featured: Via veritas (The Way is the Truth), by Andrea di Bonaiuto; painted ca. 1365-1367.