18 February 2021, The Tablet

Paris closes 'church of outreach' experiment

Paris closes 'church of outreach' experiment

A 'Sacred Night' in the church of Saint Merry in Paris in 2019.
Jan Schmidt-Whitley/PA

Archbishop Michel Aupetit has decided to end the special status of a parish in the heart of Paris that for almost half a century has been a “church of outreach” open to marginalised Catholics and led equally by clerics and lay people.

St Merry, a 16th-century Gothic church in the heart of the French capital, was chosen by Cardinal François Marty in 1975 to “invent new models for the Church of tomorrow”. Its pastoral centre welcomes gays, divorced and remarried couples, and other Catholics not always accepted in other parishes. 

Located only two blocks from the Centre Pompidou for modern art, it has also opened its doors to artists, hosting exhibitions and concerts within its spacious church, and granted illegal immigrants refuge. 

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis urged all Catholics to “boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast”. He called it a chiesa in uscita, a church that “goes forth” with outreach toward the peripheries.

Without challenging this mission, Aupetit wrote to the pastoral centre that some members had shown such “malice, lack of charity, and destructive will” that two parish priests had given up in frustration in the past three years. 

If there was no charity, he argued, Catholics could not show “the face of Christ to the world”. 

He said the special Sunday mass prepared with the laity, meant as a magnet attracting marginalised Catholics back to the Church, will end next month and the pastoral centre – jointly run by priests and lay people – will disband. 

Those who want to continue usual parish activities will regroup under an archdiocesan vicar general, he added. 

“We are surprised and hurt by the brutality and speed of (this) decision,” the pastoral centre responded, saying they had not been consulted about the abrupt end of their project. 

Some centre members“expressed their disaccord vehemently”. Most did not oppose the parish priest and were sad to see him go. It was also working to redefine its mission, as suggested by the vicar general two years ago, and was due to present conclusions in June.

“Hundreds of people, some of whom had drifted away from the Church, attend the 11:15 a.m. Sunday Mass as well as the many activities offered by the pastoral centre,” the centre added.

A pastoral centre petition to save their mission said “such a decision is baffling” at a time when the Church is debating synodality, encouraging participation “and Pope Francis invites people to go to the peripheries”. 

It had gathered about 1,850 signatures, including from some French priests, in its first two days. 



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