France flaunts its secular identity.

Before entering public schools, students and teachers must remove Muslim headscarves, Jewish yarmulkes, or Sikh turbans based on a 2004 law. Only “discreet” Christian crosses can be worn.

In 1905, France enshrined the strict separation of Church and State. The government took control of Catholic Church property, including Notre-Dame Cathedral, which it owns to this day.

Of course, this attitude can be traced back to the French Revolution. At the height of the Reign of Terror, in 1793, churches were closed, church bells were melted, religious symbols destroyed, and priests and nuns put on trial. Some were even guillotined, as in the case of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne.

But there is another France.

This “other France” is the France of Louis XIII, who consecrated the nation to Mary in 1638. Six months later, his wife gave birth to a son—the first child to survive after 23 years of marriage—whom they named Louis-Dieudonné (God-given).

It's the France I found last month in churches, as well as in the street, on the Feast of the Assumption.

Two Syrian Catholic Churches

Many of the smaller, historic churches in Paris attract new visitors—and precious cash—by hosting classical concerts.

Eglise Saint-Ephrem, a Syriac Catholic church built in 1733, just steps from the Pantheon, sponsors a dizzying rotation of musical events.

It was a profound pleasure to contemplate the church’s stern, almost naïve icons in the mystical twilight of an ancient metal candelabra, while listening to a talented young musician perform Bach cello suites.

Curious to learn more about the current fate of Syrian Christians, the next day I visited Saint Julien le Pauvre (St. Julian the Poor) church, a Melkite Greek Catholic church located across the river from Notre-Dame.

The Melkite Church, headquartered in Damascaus, is in full communion with Rome, tracing its history back to the early Christians of Antioch, Syria and Turkey today.

I found an exquisite, sacred interior with a splendid wooden sculpture of Mary, and an iconostasis decorated with exquisite paintings — as well as a formidable little bookstore with up-to-date accounts of the Christian genocide unfolding today in the Middle East.

Two living churches with roots in Syria, a 15-minute walk from each other, remain fully relevant and engaged.

Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet

Strolling near the perennially chic Boulevard Saint-Germain on the city’s Left Bank, I noticed a giant banner decorating a somewhat dilapidated church, advertising a public procession in honor of Mary — the very next day!

Of course I returned, unable to resist a chance to see how large a Catholic gathering could be assembled in the dog days of August.

And what a crowd! At least 1,000 people turned out.

People in strollers and wheelchairs. Nuns in full habit. Many beautiful children with young mothers. Strong young men bearing a life-size Virgin Mother aloft on a wooden bier. Caped priests. Women with small dogs. Banners with saints and sacred hearts.

What a thrill to process by the Sorbonne, reciting the Rosary, with gaping tourists taking pictures from the sidewalks, some even joining the devotion.

Together we sang hymns, including Je suis Chretien (I Am Christian): “Voila ma gloire, mon esperence et mon soutien, mon chant d’amour et de victoire: je suis chretien” (Here is my glory, my hope, and my support, my song of love and victory. I am Christian).”

Decades ago, I attended the Sorbonne, when the only gathering of this many that I can recall was some Marxist-inspired protest or a transit strike.  

Society of St. Pius X

As I talked to others, I realized this was a manifestation of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).

Although I’ve never known the details of SSPX, any group of faithful that can take over Paris’ lethargic summer streets deserves respect.

The “Procession en l’honneur de la Vierge Marie” (Procession in Honor of the Virgin Mary) made its way about three miles from its origin at St. Nicolas du Chardonnet Church to the Odeon Theatre, where believers knelt in the hard-cobbled streets to pray.

Then they returned praying and singing along Boulevard St. Michel to St Nicolas.

There, I talked to SSPX Abbé de La Rocque, age 46. The priest was part of a group of men who seized the church building in 1976 and never left. He was also one of four SSPX priests to negotiate with the Vatican on the society’s status under Pope Benedict XVI.

“We have two to three converts each week,” the friendly man said. “Atheists, Muslims, all kinds of people find the truth with us.”

Why? “Society is sinking, and people feel it. They realize they’ve been sold a ‘bag of wind’ by secular society.”

To be sure, the situation of the SSPX remains difficult, and the negotiations in which Abbé de La Rocque took part failed to attain a full reconciliation with the Holy Father and the rest of the Church. But new hopes for full communion have been raised recently by Pope Francis, who wrote of the SSPX on September 1st:

This Jubilee Year of Mercy excludes no one. From various quarters, several Brother Bishops have told me of their good faith and sacramental practice, combined however with an uneasy situation from the pastoral standpoint. I trust that in the near future solutions may be found to recover full communion with the priests and superiors of the Fraternity. In the meantime, motivated by the need to respond to the good of these faithful, through my own disposition, I establish that those who during the Holy Year of Mercy  approach these priests of the Fraternity of St Pius X to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation shall validly and licitly receive the absolution of their sins.

Notre Dame

The next day, I rushed to Notre Dame Cathedral for the 6:30pm Mass.

My heart sank as I saw a massive line of visitors from around the world, patiently waiting for entrance. I knew I’d never make it on time.

Then it occurred to me: Isn’t there a special sign for believers?  

As I stepped up to some guards at 6:25 to say I was there for the liturgy, they immediately ushered me inside. A hushed nave was packed.

Soon, an auxiliary bishop was processing up the main aisle, TV cameras trained on him. The 6:30 Mass is broadcast nationally on Catholic TV.

It was a reverent occasion, despite hundreds of tourists tromping around the perimeter of the cathedral. And far more of the liturgy was said in Latin than was true 10 years ago — Gloria in excelsis Deo.  

Yes, there is another Paris and another France. Alive!