World Youth Day’s French Pilgrims Cling to Faith Without Playing to Identity Politics, Says Bishop

With French WYD pilgrims 40,000 strong, the bishop of Nanterre, where a wave of violent riots started in France at the end of June, discusses some of the challenges facing today’s youth.

The Register interviewed Bishop Matthieu Rougé on the sidelines of World Youth Day activities, taking place through Aug. 6 in Lisbon.
The Register interviewed Bishop Matthieu Rougé on the sidelines of World Youth Day activities, taking place through Aug. 6 in Lisbon. (photo: Courtesy photos / Bishop Matthieu Rougé)

LISBON, Portugal — The current shepherd of Nanterre, Bishop Matthieu Rougé, is particularly well versed in the current challenges of evangelization and the state of young people in secularized, globalized Western societies.

His diocese — located in the Paris suburbs, and home to a large Muslim community — was the scene of violent riots following the death of a 17-year-old boy of Algerian origin, shot dead by a police officer for refusing to obey during a traffic stop, June 27. As violence and looting spread throughout France, the prelate was one of the country’s first religious authorities to launch a public appeal for calm, which was quickly signed by authorities from other religions, including the local Imam.

Chaplain to French deputies from 2004 to 2012, and head of the diocese since 2018, Bishop Rougé has also had to deal with the growing attraction of some of his faithful to the Traditional Latin Mass. Following the publication of the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes restricting this practice, Bishop Rougé was one of the few French bishops to publicly reaffirm his esteem for the traditional communities affected and his commitment that dialogue would continue.

He is also one of the four bishops selected by the French Bishops’ Conference to represent the country at the Synodal Assembly to be held in Rome next October. The Register interviewed him on the sidelines of World Youth Day activities, taking place through Aug. 6 in Lisbon.

France is particularly well represented at this WYD session, with more than 40,000 participants despite recent alarming news about the decline of faith in the country. What’s your take on this French paradox?

For many years now, France has been moving from a mass Christianity — which did not, of course, excluded a great deal of fervor — to a Christianity of personal commitment. Today’s believers more or less correspond to the churchgoers of yesteryear. As this gradual transition progresses, the realization of the facts and figures is obviously painful, but not surprising. What is interesting and encouraging, on the other hand, is the persistence and even development of spiritual and missionary vitality and creativity among the most motivated believers, particularly young people, whether they be of affluent backgrounds or not, whether they are from Africa, West Indies, or ... Portugal!

COVID has dampened the vitality of youth ministry. So it’s good news to see the number of participants back to where it was at the last European WYD. I also believe that the impact of WYD in Paris in 1997 was such that the WYD “brand” became a very strong and positive part of the French Catholic subconscious.

A study published in La Croix highlighted the depth of faith among these young French pilgrims attending WYD, whose quest for demanding, radical values seems to stem from their increasingly minority position. Is this what you’re seeing on the ground?

Choosing to live as a Christian is a courageous choice in today’s world. It means taking on a sometimes stark contrast with the dominant and often imperative ways of life and thinking in contemporary society. This choice expresses and requires a strong commitment to Christ, through prayer and community life. For all that, I don’t share the analysis of certain commentators, who are sometimes prisoners of political or outdated ways of thinking quick to confuse rootedness with “identitarian” withdrawal [editor’s note: identitarian is a term often used in France to describe the collective demands of religious groups who feel their identity is under threat]. The young people I meet, particularly at WYD, are thirsty for real spiritual nourishment, but are very much of their time, particularly in their relationship with technology, ecology, music and globalization.

This same study, as well as the immense success of the Chartres pilgrimage last May, demonstrated the particular infatuation of French youth for the more traditionalist or charismatic movements. This is much less the case in countries such as Portugal and Italy, where Catholicism is still predominantly cultural. As a member of the Catholic hierarchy in France, what do you think should be the pastoral approach to this relatively unique situation, particularly in the context of the Vatican’s gradual hardening of tone since the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes?

Young people are often happy to take part in large, fervent, joyful and well-organized gatherings, whether it’s the Chartres pilgrimage, or the Frat [an annual youth meeting gathering the dioceses of the Ile de France region, around Paris], the Paray le Monial sessions [organized by the Emmanuel Community] or that of the Hautecombe Abbey, pilgrimages to Lourdes or the World Youth Day. These are sometimes the same young people who walk to Chartres, touched by the traditional liturgy, and who rejoice in the Pop Praise at Frat or Paray. These young people demonstrate that it is possible to be nourished by traditional liturgical forms without sinking into the kind of “indietrismo” [backwardness] against which the Pope rightly warned us. As the Pope told us during the ad limina visit, our responsibility as bishops is to welcome and accompany everyone with benevolence and the concern to help them grow in Christ, without making things more difficult, without interpreting the present times with the political or ideological grids of the past. Christ is our unity and our peace. Let’s cultivate them simply, with faith and charity, and the rest will be given to us in abundance.

What do you see as the main challenges of WYD Lisbon for the universal Church, and for the Church in France?

The influx of young people from all over the world – and the influx of young French people – to Lisbon is a magnificent encouragement to persevere in an ambitious youth ministry, which founds life commitments in Christ, known and contemplated in the Scriptures and the sacraments. Thirty years ago, we sometimes had to remind even young Christians of the importance of faith. Today, it is often they who evangelize us with their spiritual thirst, even when they are still far from Christ, or even from baptism, and from a lifestyle authentically in line with the Gospel.

One of the dominant themes of this meeting is interreligious dialogue, a topic you are often confronted with in your diocese, which has a large Muslim population. This proved useful during the recent riots that began in Nanterre and spread throughout France, as your appeal for calm, signed by several other leaders of the Fraternité Amicale Interreligieuse de Nanterre, had a real impact. While some Catholics associate this with a risk of confusion, relativism and even compromise, what do you think should be the right approach to such dialogue?

It is possible — and desirable — to conduct a genuine interreligious dialogue without renouncing one’s faith. I was very pleased that at the start of the recent urban violence in Nanterre, thanks to our regular dialogue, we were able to publish an interfaith appeal for peace within a few hours, first locally and then nationally. These appeals have undoubtedly contributed in their own way to the return of peace.

That said, we must listen to the appeal expressed by these events. In particular, they express the thirst for hope and recognition of young people in poor suburbs, whatever their religion. In any case, that’s how I see it in my diocese, the Church must make progress in its fraternal and missionary presence in these neighborhoods.

You are one of the four bishops elected to represent France at the Synod on Synodality in Rome next October. In an article published in newspaper Le Figaro in 2022, you warned against the temptation to give in “to the sirens of deconstruction and cancel culture,” including within the Church. Given that the pre-synodal discussions to date have not met with consensus, what do you think are the key elements of a well-understood synodality?

Work on synodality can take us forward if it is truly founded on Christ and the Gospel. It seems to me that we need to avoid focusing on deliberative synodality, but rather ground it in contemplative synodality with a view to missionary synodality, i.e. the participation of all in proclaiming the Good News of Salvation. In our groups of WYD participants, this synodality is well and truly at work, and it’s a real blessing. I have great confidence in the Lord’s love, which always accompanies the progress of his Church.