The best word to describe the funeral of French rock star Johnny Hallyday was rarely heard last Saturday, but the million fans who turned out in the cold to pay their last respects felt it and exhibited it in silent testimony.
Mgr Benoist de Sinety, who led a religious service with many of the trappings of a state funeral, pronounced it twice in his sermon. President Emmanuel Macron described it in his address without saying its name.
“Communion” in the broad sense of fellowship and sharing was palpable in La Madeleine church during the service, among the one million fans who stood outside in the cold, even among the estimated 15 million French who followed the proceedings live on television.
Trying to explain the “Johnny phenomenon” — one name was enough to identify him — would fill a whole book. It would start with his wild early days as a French-singing Elvis wannabe through a later phase with original songs and stories that won him a wider following. After a career spanning over half a century, many French can name at least one of his songs they feel speaks to their emotions and experiences.
All this hung in the air as Mgr de Sinety, the vicar general of the Paris archdiocese, received the mourners on Saturday. They included the departed’s widow Laeticia, two of his three ex-wives, and in addition French President Emmanuel Macron, two previous heads of state, and as many other family, friends and fans who could fit into La Madeleine church
“I was born a Catholic and I will die a Catholic,” Johnny used to say, despite his irregular practice and tumultuous life "pas très catholique", as the French say. “Whatever happens to me, I remain a Christian. I’m sure that Jesus is not angry with me.”
As if to underline that, the giant black-and-white portrait of Johnny draped over part of the church’s facade prominently showed the silver crucifix he usually wore at his concerts.
There was no Eucharist — the line coming forward might have been short — and the ceremony mixed the sacred and the secular. There was organ music, Schubert’s Ave Maria and a solemn piano and cello rendition of Edith Piaf’s "L'hymne à l’amour".
The actress Marion Cotillard read the celebration of love in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.”
At the Prayer of the Faithful, though, the responses came from four of Johnny’s stage musicians playing passages from his hits on acoustic guitars.
Mgr de Sinety cited Jesus and the epistles of Paul and John in his sermon focused on love.
“In his own way, throughout his life, (Johnny) sought love and understood that the most certain way of achieving it was to love, to love without counting, to love always. We’re here because one day, through his songs, we understood his generosity and his availability. We understood that we were loved by him,” he said.
“All life is mortal but what never dies is love … These bonds put us in a communion more and more intimate with God himself … Because it manifested love, including in its deficiencies and flaws, Johnny Hallyday’s life invites us to raise our eye towards Him who is its source and fulfillment.”
He ended the sermon saying God would welcome Johnny with the words of one of his biggest hits — "Que je t’aime", “Oh, how I love you’".
Addressing crowds of fans outside the church just before the service began, President Macron stressed the bonds between Johnny and his fans.
“He must have fallen down 100 times, but it was your fervour that kept him going, that got him up again. It was the love you gave him,” he said. “We are a nation expressing its gratitude. We are a people united around one of its prodigal sons.”
The huge crowd outside La Madeleine, which stretched down the Rue Royale and across the Place de la Concorde, stood silently in the cold to watch the service retransmitted over large screens.
Thousands had lined the Champs Élysées and Avenue Foch before the service to watch as the hearse slowly carried his coffin to the church. Behind it rode about 700 bikers in black leather, loudly revving their engines as their idol — who often rode a Harley-Davidson on his concert stages — would have done. Some played Johnny's hits on boom boxes strapped to their bikes.
At the end of the service, mourners lined up to sprinkle the coffin with holy water in the shape of a cross. Because of France’s official secularism, or "laïcité", it was a delicate moment for the politicians present because they are not supposed to manifest any religious belief when appearing in an official function.
Macron, the first to approach the coffin, started to reach for an aspergillum, stopped short and then awkwardly laid his hands on the coffin. No longer in office, Sarkozy sprinkled the coffin. Hollande, an agnostic, bowed his head respectfully.
“France is still a Catholic country,” Isabelle de Gaulmyn, deputy editor in chief of La Croix, reflected in a blog post that evening. “The funeral of Johnny Hallyday has shown this once again … it’s a country steeped in Catholic history, culture, symbols and sacraments …
“Deep down, the singer’s funeral expressed the core of Christian faith — hope. For the emotion, the sorrow and the love that shone through this immense crowd expressed better than any speech could that death will not have the last word …
“It’s good that the Church still knows how be present at times like this.”