03 Oct Understanding Catholic France: A Conversation with a French Country Priest
By Harry Stevens
France is a confusing place for outsiders, especially when they don’t speak French and they are trying to understand the position of the Catholic Church there. Thankfully, a chance encounter with an English-speaking country priest with a broad and deep education led Regina Magazine down a fascinating path. Here’s our interview with Pere (‘Father’) Gregoire Cieutat, who shares with us his background and his experience up close with Catholic France.
Where are you from, Pere?
I was born in 1971 in Nancy, in Lorraine, the fourth of five children. My parents separated when I was 2 years old. I was baptized as a baby but faith was not a part of our family life.
At age 21, as a student in an engineering school, I met a family whose testimony of luminous faith led me to live a personal encounter with Jesus Christ and through Him with the Holy Trinity , Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was a complete and radical reversal of my life in this atmosphere of charismatic renewal.
The family that led me to the Lord was a member of the Catholic Community of the Beatitudes, founded in 1973 in France during the Charismatic Renewal. This Community’s life involved intense prayer; their apostolate for the new evangelization included families, priests, religious and lay single people. I made my first commitment to this community in 1993 and the next year, armed with my engineering degree, I had a missionary experience in Africa, in Bangui.
What is your training?
In 1996, I began studying at the seminary in Rennes. In 2000, I had one year of pastoral internship in the Vendee, Les Sables d' Olonne, a chaplaincy for students. In 2001, I was sent for one year to Israel to study Judaism and the history of the Church, in contact with the holy places of our Christian faith. From 2002 and 2005, I studied theology at the Catholic University of Toulouse where I was ordained a deacon in June 2005, after which I was posted in Lebanon for one year to the Pontifical University of Kaslik Maronite, where I supervised the studies of some seminarian. I was ordained August 4, 2006 in the Basilica of Lisieux by Mgr. Square, my titular bishop.
You have some experience in the New World as well, don’t you?
A month after my ordination, I was sent to Peru to join a parish entrusted to the community of the Beatitudes, as vicar from 2006 to 2007. Then, having learned Spanish, I was sent to Denver, Colorado, to another parish entrusted to the community of the Beatitudes to take care especially of the Hispanic community which represented 25% of the parishioners.
I stayed from July 2007 to May 2011 in the parish working with both the Anglo – American and the Hispanic communities. The approach of these two communities of faith may be different, but I can say the common thread is a public expression of faith without complexity and a commitment of time, talent and financial hardship.
In America, faith is very much part of everyday life and the Christian understands he supports his own parish by his personal commitment to follow Christ. Through the Ministry of perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in this parish, I can attest to the power of prayer that unites the Anglo-American and Hispanic Catholics beyond the many differences in their communities of origin.
It sounds like you were impressed with your experience in Denver.
The Diocese of Denver overall is very attached to the great Tradition of the Church and therefore also very involved in the new evangelization. The professionalism with which the parishes work impressed me. This is largely due to the fact that the secretaries, heads of key ministries of evangelism (marriage, youth , etc) are employed by the generosity of the parishioners.
So, my parish in Denver was very average size and yet it could pay salaries of four people plus three priests who worked there. In France, this is unimaginable because the mentality linked to the history of the Church in relation to the state is very different.
I was able to get training in preparation for the sacrament of marriage — the quality is very high and it’s requirement for couples.
We have the impression of polarization — that there is a Catholic France, and an anti-Catholic France. Most people outside France are only aware of the secular, liberal France.
The effect of the French Revolution of 1789 as a result of the age of “enlightenment” actually created a divide in French society between Catholics and non-Catholics. It seems to me that one cannot understand this divide without mentioning the omnipotence of the ‘marriage’ between the absolute monarchy in France under Louis XIV and the Church.
This created ‘Gallicanism’—wherein the Church in France actually stood apart from the authority of the Pope in Rome. This very overwhelming power provoked the religious wars of the seventeenth century; Catholicism triumphed with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the rejection of the Protestants.
The absolutism of the French monarchy, to which the Church was compromised, aroused the hatred of an entire section of French society towards the Church. This hatred erupted violently with the events of the French Revolution, which then crystallized this social divide between Catholics and anti- Catholics.
Most people outside France have no idea of the thriving Catholic life there of the many Church ‘movements.' What are some of these and why would you say they are so important to the French?
These movements are mainly movements of community life with a strong attachment to the life of prayer born with powerful breath of renewal in the Spirit — the “springtime of the Church” in the words of John Paul II following the Second Vatican Council. Some examples are the Emmanuel Community, the Chemin Neuf, the Beatitudes, Point heart, Arch Jean Vannier, etc
They are so important in France, precisely because the anti-Catholic hatred unleashed during the French Revolution of 1789 shed so much blood of martyrs of the Christian Faith.
This blood of the French martyrs was the seed for an extraordinary revival of holiness and missionary spirit in the nineteenth century, to the point where France was sending missionaries, priests and nuns — more than any other country around the world – to the colonies in Africa and Asia. At the same time, inside of France, many communities of nuns and monks who founded schools and hospitals to care for the poor were created.
In the early twentieth century further violent persecution broke out against the Catholic Church, which once again strengthened Christians in God's strength. The current trends are from this tradition of testimony and adapting to adversity and persecution.
We have met several young people very much on fire for the Faith associated with the Boy Scouts in France. Do you have experience of the Scouts and what role they play in French Catholicism?
From 1960 until today, the French government has greatly reduced the freedom of religious education in schools. By increased taxes, the state took more control of the management of schools, rejecting more faith outside of schools. Today the Scout movement is the one that has the most guarded values of education and transmission of the Faith. That is why it is so important.
Last May 26 more than a million people marched for marriage and life in Paris, and there was a virtual media blackout about this. Are there no media outlets in France where the truth can be heard?
The demonstrations in defense of traditional marriage in France have shown how the French media is controlled by political power. Unlike the USA, there is only one mainstream media in France and it is dominated by liberal ideology and anti- Catholic. It is called AFP ( Agence France Presse) and all large public television and newspapers draw their information from there. Whereas in the USA , for example, there are two main different currents represented by Fox News and CNN, unfortunately the opinion of the majority of French is managed by the dictatorship of a liberal media which is both political and anti- Catholic.
We often hear French Catholics say that they are royalists or monarchists. What is the emotional connection between these ideas for some French?
There is indeed a royalist and Catholic power in France; however they are a minority among Catholics. But it is important because the Republic was born in significant anti- Catholic violence. By cutting off the head of King Louis XVI, the Revolution fueled this nostalgia for royalty for some Catholics.
Finally, you are a priest in the Vendee region of France where during the Revolution a ‘hidden massacre’ occurred of Catholics who opposed the enforced ‘liberty, equality and brotherhood' agenda of the Revolution. Do French people know about this?
With the recent emergence of the ‘Cristeros’ film telling the story of the uprising of Mexican Catholics against the pagan and Masonic dictatorship of the Mexican government in the 1920s, we saw a lot of rapprochement to the war of Vendée and this massacre of Catholics — including the fact of the historical manipulation to distort the truth that trapped in silence the memory of these events.
This is to the point where historians have recently said that after the genocide officially scheduled by the revolutionary assembly in Paris in 1793-1794 in the Vendée against Catholics there was a ‘memoricide;’ that is to say, they wanted to kill the memory of these events. (For more on recent films about this, click here.)