‘American Bishops Offer the World an Example of Courage,’ Says French Bishop

Bishop Marc Aillet, author of a new book in which he calls on bishops to dare to go against the flow of the world to lead their flocks to holiness, discusses the central issues raised by today’s crisis of faith.

Bishop Marc Aillet.
Bishop Marc Aillet. (photo: Courtesy photo / N. Lewis)

The statements of Bishop Marc Aillet, head of the Diocese of Bayonne, Oloron and Lescar, in southwest France since 2008, generally stand out in the French religious and political landscape. His outspokenness, combined with his gentle, diplomatic manner and the lilting phrasing of the dialect of southern France, make him a very popular Church leader in a France where the winds aggressive secularism force many Catholics to adopt a low-key, even self-censorship approach.

It is precisely against this backdrop that Bishop Aillet published the book Le temps des saints (The Time of Saints) last fall, in which he calls on his fellow bishops to “not be mute dogs” in order to keep their flocks within the bosom of the faith at a time of great turbulence for the Church.

It’s a prescription he has consistently applied to himself in recent years, never shying away from sensitive topical issues. 

After being one of the only bishops in France to comment on the “motu proprio” Traditionis Custodes restricting the traditional Latin Mass in 2020 — renewing his expressions of trust in the communities involved — he was more recently the first bishop in the country to publicly address the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith’s declaration Fiducia Supplicans and the question of blessing homosexual couples, attracting the wrath of French LGBT activists  in the process.

But it was more broadly the feeling that “truth itself is under threat, and with it the whole of humanity” that prompted the bishop to pen this book, in which he asserts that unity among ordained ministers is “based on the Creed, which suffers no divergence, though in dialogue with the world it is not always possible to wait for consensus before speaking out.”


From the Abuse Crisis to the Antichrist 

It was particularly in the wake of the dramatic abuse crisis that has affected the Church in France and several other countries around the world that Bishop Aillet felt the urgency to take up his pen, and deliver his diagnoses on the various factors that are leading to an erasure of belief in God in some present-day societies.

“The sexual abuse crisis was, in a way, the tip of the iceberg of a crisis of the Church and, more profoundly, of a recession of faith, which Ratzinger had prophetically analyzed as early as 1969,” he commented in an interview with the Register, referencing comments made by the future Pope Benedict XVI. 

He cited indicators provided by sociologist Guillaume Cuchet in his well-known book How the World Has Ceased to Be Christian, recalling that while 94% of French children were baptized in 1960, only 30% were in 2020 and that the median age of priests there is 75. 

Using Pope St. John Paul II’s expression “silent apostasy” to describe the phenomenon at work in the countries of ancient Western Christendom, he also warned against certain causes or movements which, while praiseworthy at first sight, tend to be over-politicized and have the direct effect of distancing the Church and Christians from their original mission of proclaiming the Gospel. In his view, this is particularly the case with ecology, which often gives rise to forms of militancy that are divorced from the Christian conception of the common good and the integral approach advocated by Pope Francis.

These drifts — which are taking place in a context of massive apostasy and are accompanied by a persecution of Christians throughout the world that the prelate deems unprecedented in the 19 centuries that preceded our time —  should make us question the nature of the times we are living through, in Bishop Aillet’s view. 

Drawing on St. John Henry Newman’s “visionary” sermons on the Antichrist, he invited the faithful to observe the phenomena that are taking place today, whether it be "the Church’s distancing itself from its mission of calling men to conversion,” its “obsession with structural reforms,” the "risks of schisms, divisions within the Church, as well as technological advances and the “control they could exert over freedom and consciences.”

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that the return of Christ will be preceded by the advent of the ungodly man, the Antichrist,” Bishop Aillet continues. “We won’t ‘know the day or the hour,’ but we absolutely must reintegrate the events we are experiencing today into a Christian vision of history that cannot do without this perspective of Christ’s return, which must be the key to our understanding.”


Rediscovering the Foundations of Faith 

In this new era, which the bishop calls the “time of saints,” he believes that the starting point is personal, inner reform. “The Church awakens in souls, not in structures, not through reforms but through its saints,” he recalled, alluding to the famous formula of theologian Romano Guardini (1885-1968). 

At the same time, this widespread crisis, and the various forms of martyrdom that threaten Christians, have the merit of forcefully returning them to their fundamental vocation, which is the proclamation of the Gospel to the whole of creation. 

“I remain convinced that the great work of the Second Vatican Council, on the eve of the new millennium, was to spur a new missionary impetus, through the emphasis on the universal vocation of all the baptized to holiness, a call that has subsequently been parasitized by a host of considerations, of claims, that do not stem from faith.”

In his view, many of these claims, which stem from a “hermeneutic of discontinuity” that prevailed in the first decades after Vatican II, tend to resurface today at the instigation of “the same people who are still settling scores with the ecclesial structure, but who are 40 or 50 years older than they were then” and who are not representative of tomorrow’s Church.


The Promise of ‘New Beginners’

In the midst of the global trials that are seriously undermining Christendom and its institutions, Bishop Aillet is already seeing the emergence of the fireflies of creative minorities that Benedict XVI spoke of, and which are a promise for the future. 

“I see signs of a clear renewal of faith in the field, manifested by the significant increase in the number of recommençants [new beginners], adult catechumens asking the Church for baptism, even if this does not yet compensate for the collapse in the number of infant baptisms,” he continues. 

At the same time, he notes a much firmer and more radical commitment than in recent decades on the part of young people, who are displaying a faith that is “ever more radiant and contagious.”

“At a time when a certain number of bridges in the ecclesial institution are crumbling, these small communities of more radical Christians will once again become appealing and attractive to people who will feel even more their own poverty in a world where God no longer has any place.”

In view of the urgency of the mission, Bishop Aillet said it is all the more necessary to avoid liturgical battles between supporters of the traditional Mass and those of the Paul VI Mass, and to take care to preserve unity in diversity.

“Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum [Concilium]constitution allows for both forms, and it would be better to train the faithful better in the treasure of the liturgy rather than create frustrations among young people, especially since in my experience, they go cheerfully from a St. Pius V Mass to a Paul VI Mass if it’s well celebrated. So there’s no point in burdening them with the ideological wars that animated their elders at the time of the great post-Council crises, and which are no longer relevant to today’s world.”


Barking Up the Right Tree

For the time being, the French bishop believes that the most urgent task facing the Church hierarchy is to engage in a dialogue with the world — one that never compromises the truth, without which it would communicate nothing but lies and false charity. 

“I firmly believe that the prophetic mission of bishops in today’s world is to speak of God, the God who gives meaning to man’s life and who alone can fulfill his heart, his existential aspirations,” Bishop Aillet said. 

“If we speak the truth about God again, we will inevitably speak the truth about man, which is so necessary in this anthropological crisis we’re going through, and we must do so without fear of shocking or encountering hostility, but by speaking directly to people’s consciences, that intimate sanctuary where God's voice is heard.”

And in this endeavor, which requires courage, the prelate believes that American bishops often embody a model to follow, not least because of their passionate defense of life. “When I went to the U.S. I found that parishes had services specifically dedicated to the dignity of life, and at every March for Life, a substantial number of bishops participate, which is not the case in France or elsewhere.”

This greater propensity of American clergy to proclaim the truth without fear is a valuable encouragement to him.

“It’s fair to say that many of their bishops are not ‘mute dogs,’” he concluded with a laugh, “perhaps they can encourage us French bishops to bark a little louder?”

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