FIGAROVOX / GRAND INTERVIEW – At a time of the desertification of churches and the countryside, Father Christophe Bazin questions the priest’s mission in rural areas.
After having lived an experience of international solidarity abroad, studied at the university and worked as a high school chaplain, Father Christophe Bazin is now the pastor of the five parishes of Luxeuil-les-Bains in Franche-Comté. . He publishes with Charles Rouah Country parish priest, published by Robert Laffont.
FIGAROVOX. – Why did you feel the need to write this book, entitled “Country priest”?
Christophe BAZIN. – In the difficult times that the Church is going through, this book gives me the opportunity to speak openly about my personal journey, that of a young man who decides to become a man of the Church. It also tells the story of the beauty of faith and answers the frequently asked questions about my condition as a priest, loneliness, celibacy. But above all, I want to show that my ministry is at the service of others and that it responds to Jesus’ command: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Every Christian is invited to live this mission, for my part I have chosen to do so as a priest. By offering my life, I am fulfilled!
This testimony will surely not have the impact of the work of Bernanos Diary of a country priest, but I hope that it will allow the reader to open wide the doors of a world which will give him faith in the future. This faith that I am trying to share with you, simply. I am now convinced, this book represents a beautiful gift: to be able to take the time to reread my life, to discover with you the joys and sorrows, the impulses and doubts that dot that of the Church and of the one of his ministers.
How do you live your ministry, as a rural priest?
The priests of the Church of France in rural areas all come up against the same pitfall. The territories have expanded, our schedule has stretched. As far as I’m concerned, the village of yesteryear has turned into a deanery of sixty-nine villages, forty-three churches, dozens of small chapels and forty thousand souls! The deanery of Luxeuil-les-Bains brings together five. The challenge is immense! Because, five parishes, it is five times more meetings, decisions, councils. I go from the Excel table to my Citroën C3 to work with my teams, to explore the large territory of my deanery which stretches over fifty kilometers long and thirty wide in order to meet my parishioners. I would like to meet people one by one, to hear from them, but time is running out …
We see fewer Christians at mass. Perhaps it is time to go to them since they no longer come to us.
To ensure pastoral care, the deanery of Luxeuil has five priests, three of whom benefit from all the wisdom that can be claimed by men over the age of seventy-five. To fully understand the situation, you should know that twenty years ago, this sector had sixteen priests. Weddings, baptisms, confessions, masses, our missions remain unchanged, but the requests for the sacraments have decreased less quickly than the number of ministers. At that time, we celebrated three hundred and forty baptisms compared to one hundred and fifty today; two hundred and thirty communions against sixty; two hundred and twenty professions of faith against forty … But more than a certain overload in terms of celebrations, it is the growing geographical distance from our faithful that makes our task so complicated.
Last November, Benoît Bertrand, bishop of Mende, in Lozère, conducted the study on the health of priests carried out by an independent cabinet. He estimated that 2% of priests are victims of “severe burn-out”. Are you afraid of this?
I believe very much in supporting parishioners, my family and my friends so as not to suffer from loneliness.
The essential element, it seems to me, is the support of my brother priests. This fraternity constitutes one of the keystones of our balance. Nothing would be possible if it did not exist! Twice a week, before the Covid episode, we had lunch together at the abbey. These meals are precious. They allow us to experience almost family moments. We share our little worries there, health or otherwise. I can also gather the experience of the oldest among us, which was particularly precious to me when I arrived in Luxeuil in 2015. When I arrived as parish priest, I had less experience than the priests who were and still are with me in the field. Some of them have forty or fifty years of practice behind them. I needed their advice and support.
In this dechristianized France, does the Church still have a role to play?
The Church of France will no longer be the Church it once was. This is not a reason to mope, we must find solutions to reinvent it. For several decades, I have realized that we are in the dark about the life of the Church – where are we going, what should we do? We see fewer Christians at mass. Perhaps it is time to go to them since they no longer come to us.
In our parishes spread across the territory, we offer another solution: celebrate Mass directly with the locals. The places of celebration are proposed by the faithful, those who, for example, cannot move because of their old age. The choices are made with the priests, of course, to ensure their availability. Heating a church for a handful of faithful, asking a parishioner to take care of it twenty-four hours beforehand, wasting fuel and wood, destroying our planet a little more, all this has a cost and was not everyone. more possible ways. The practice is, it seems to me, quite new in our sector, although we know that the first Christians already gathered around a table to relive the last meal of Jesus. If I want to continue to celebrate Masses on weekdays in joy, good humor and warmth while maintaining closeness, this is a good alternative.
These discussions with the inhabitants of the villages are very rich and allow us, as priests, to better understand the expectations of those whom we are to serve.
Finally, are you not participating in the “uberization” of the Church?
No, because the bond between people is not broken. It is not a service in the commercial sense of the term, but an exchange. I began to experience these “Masses in a different way” during my mission in Besançon. They were born from my experience with young people, which was very useful to me when I arrived in Luxeuil, because I immediately noticed that the less assiduous of the faithful were counted among them.
How can we make the young generation want to come and see what a mass looks like? When I thought about the music they were listening to and what I was offering them, I instantly saw the gulf between us. But I couldn’t see myself changing things on my own. Little by little, I associated the other priests, I consulted the teams, and this project was able to see the light of day thanks to the exchange and the conclusion of a consensual agreement on how to build it. The opposite would not have been possible. It is for this reason that Masses-Otherwise have become so easily and so strongly rooted in the landscape of celebrations. Moreover, they continued in Besançon after my departure; I think it will be the same at Luxeuil.
You invite priests to come into contact with people …
It is not me who invites them, but Pope Francis! It is up to us to go out to meet others, to stop waiting in our churches. At the level of our dioceses, we are all faced with the same situations and must face the same difficulties. We are therefore going to have to find new ways of proclaiming the Gospel to this world, which is in great need of it, I am convinced. For me this has become a major question: “Christophe, you are a parish priest, you invest yourself generously in your mission, you organize celebrations, but concretely, do you proclaim the Gospel with your words, your actions, the meetings you make? And do you do it for a bit free? “
The setting up of village missions was an important stage in my life as a priest. For the first mission that I organized, I was accompanied by Olivier, a young Christian with a strong faith. We left for four days, dividing our time between four villages, going to meet the inhabitants of my parishes. In total, we have experienced nearly forty meetings, with a lot of in-depth exchanges. The Church of the twenty-first century must be made up of Christians who move to the peripheries.
These encounters also bother us, because it forces us to step out of our comfort zone, they can be beautiful and amazing. During our last mission, we knocked on the doors of the inhabitants of these villages of Haute-Saône. A lady was looking through the curtain, I had put on a Roman collar, which is not the tradition in the East, she immediately understood that I was a priest. I didn’t think she would come to open the door to us, but she came to confide in: “I do not trust anyone, neither in my husband, nor in my children and not even in myself”, did she say. After discussing, we prayed together. It was unexpected.
We have met several homosexual couples who are no longer comfortable in the Church. These discussions with the inhabitants of the villages are very rich and allow us, as priests, to better understand the expectations of those whom we are to serve.
The mayors are asking us to recreate links in the villages.
Is it also a way to revitalize rural areas?
We also organize village festivals, with the help of town halls. I want to stress this because one might think that we belong to two opposite worlds. This is not the case. I always contact them before each of my missions, asking them to help me communicate with their constituents. The reactions are generally warm, sometimes even enthusiastic. The city councilors are spreading the message by posting the program of the festivities and the time of the celebration of Mass on municipal notice boards. More surprisingly, once in two, it is the mayors themselves who propose to drop the program in letterboxes, not necessarily because they are Catholics, but because they too want to recreate social ties. in their village. They don’t try to please us, but they take the risk of communicating about our coming because they trust us. I am often encouraged by those who welcome us to have a coffee with their neighbors, to share even a moment. Everything becomes different when you take the time to sit around a table …