Snapshots of France's Soul

When they arrive at the Basilica of St. Madeleine, south of Paris, tourists gradually realize they haven't stepped into just another cathedral of marvelously arranged stones and glass.

Late in the afternoon, there's organ music, almost on a subliminal level, pushing toward them quietly in the dim light, not intruding, not even inviting, but for some, at least, beckoning.

There are fewer than 20 people in the basilica, once a mustering point in the French countryside for thousands of crusaders. Perhaps 200 feet from the entrance, just near the altar, backlit through high, high windows by the receding sun, an Asian friar, eyes downcast, no sign of emotion on his face or in his body language, raises the keyboard in prayer. The three tenors at Carnegie Hall should have such a stage.

Most of the visitors to Vezelay south of Paris at least pause to absorb a few moments. Some, startled by the unexpected concert, are virtually transfixed. They sit, suf-fused by images of sight and sound from another world, in the straight-backed wooden chairs common in French churches. This is no plush audio room in the shopping mall's stereo chain store.

Nearby, praying in a crypt under the altar, a Franciscan nun in full habit kneels before the Blessed Sacrament. She is bent over, forehead only a couple of inches from the stone floor. From the time we stoop to enter the low-ceilinged room until we leave several minutes later, she is motionless.

Deep feeling permeates another side of France's Catholic Church as well. On the Riviera, a Vietnamese woman lives grandly, her family's narrow escape from the Vietminh a distant, 50-year-old memory. Her neighbors include Tina Turner and Roger Moore, and across the bay, Elton John. “He [John] has eight gardeners,” reports the woman's husband.

But the wife has other soil to till. She is concerned that a French widow, fallen away from the Church for many decades, be returned to the fold. The student instructs the teacher who brought Catholicism to Vietnam.

Near the Italian border, on a winding mountain road, there's a church noted for miracles. The Vietnamese wife and her husband will pray there for the French-woman's son, terminally ill with cancer. The approach to the sanctuary of Notre Dame de Laghet is scarcely marked, even by French road-sign standards.

Founded in 1652, the exterior is hardly imposing. Inside, the walls of the vestibule are spotted with plaques and drawings. Pilgrims who believe God answered their prayers put them up. Judging from the number of mercis dated in 1998, he is still listening.

At 11:30 on this weekday morning, there is a slight bustling sound outside. Eight nuns, two by two, appear at the church door. They range in age from young to middle-aged. Their singing and precise devotional actions during Mass establish Laghet as another Christian outpost, despite only about 15 lay attendees.

Is this France, home of socially accepted presidential mistresses, popularizer of virtually every degeneration the human mind can conjure? The answer appears to be a qualified “yes.”

Our impromptu pilgrimage resonates more like the catacombs than a great crusade. But the Church's eldest daughter shows signs of being a fervent lady-in-waiting.

One woman, daughter-in-law of a famous French military leader, talks about her Monday night Bible study with Opus Dei. “We are to be the grain … the seed,” she says in self-conscious English. Indeed.

Vatican officials say they are concerned about overcrowding at Rome's airport during the year 2000. The officials suggest a prayerful overland approach to the Holy City. They might have this kind of France in mind.

John Flynn is based in Burbank, California.