“The Church does not bring together only perfect people”: the end

As every year, Bishop Rey will celebrate midnight mass in the Sainte Baume grotto, before leading the mass on December 25 in Notre-Dame-de-la-Seds cathedral in Toulon. On Christmas Eve, the bishop of Fréjus-Toulon gave us an interview.

With Argentina world champion, Francis is a happy pope. Can this joy reflect on the church?

First of all, I should point out that the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon welcomes some Argentine priests. Of course, for those who are keen on football, the joy of seeing their team win the World Cup can have an impact. But there is no immediate connection between Christmas – the feast of the incarnation of God made man – and this sporting competition.

However, we can draw some parallels between religion and collective sport, be it football or rugby. In both cases, it requires a strong mobilization for something that is beyond us, a combination of efforts, harmonies. The dimension of communion is in the DNA of Christianity.

More seriously, how do you live the escalation of qualifiers with regard to Messi “the equal of God”.

It is normal that we feel admiration for someone who achieves feats, but be careful not to fall into adoration, idolatry. It is dangerous to take an athlete almost for God. There is an unhealthy excess in wanting to take the place of God. But very often athletes like Messi, who are thus extolled, do not have this claim because they have already experienced failure, taken blows and know that this moment of apotheosis is only temporary.

Does football hoisted to the rank of religion reflect a loss of spirituality?

We are witnessing a devaluation, a loss of Christian and spiritual identities which push some to project themselves onto mythical, heroic characters, even sportsmen or artists. I repeat: we are on a ridge line. We can recognize someone’s talents but without idolizing them.

After the revelations of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE) in the fall of 2021, the year 2022 was once again difficult. With the Santier and Ricard affairs, it was the episcopate that was hit. How do you live with these repeated scandals?

When I learned the facts during the Conference of Bishops of France, I first felt flabbergasted. Particularly with regard to Cardinal Ricard, a character from whom we had the right to expect the greatest probity. Especially after the strong words he had expressed vis-à-vis the clerics who committed sexual abuse. This tragic inconsistency between words and deeds may have provoked incomprehension, even revolt among some of us. These completely inexcusable facts discredit the entire institution, which it is unfair to reduce to these excesses, this violence. At the same time, this obliges us to further strengthen prevention measures, listening to victims and training the clergy. A more serious accompaniment of pastors, priests and bishops is necessary. And of course, omerta within the church is not tolerable. We must continue our collaboration with the civil authorities so that there is a judicial treatment of these cases.

Is the Catholic Church of France in danger? Have you noticed a disaffection of the faithful?

In a number of places, it may have caused some people to turn away from the church. But others show their support and refuse to assimilate the excesses of priests, even bishops, to what they know of the church. The church does not bring together only perfect people. It’s a laundry room with a lot of dirty laundry in which a work of resilience, of repair is carried out. Recent revelations have highlighted the very poor treatment of these files by the diocesan authorities, and dysfunctions in relations between the local, the national and the Roman authorities. Since then, arrangements and protocols with the Vatican have been put in place to improve this treatment.

The diocese of Fréjus-Toulon was not spared since the Vatican prohibited you from ordaining priests in the spring. How are your relations with Rome?

This is a suspension, not a ban. This clarification having been made, negotiations with the Roman authorities continued. We are still working on lifting this suspension in order to allow seminarians who are preparing to become priests to be ordained. It is a very long process, but we hope that we will be able to resume ordinations next spring.

A word precisely on the pastoral tour that you undertook throughout the territory of the diocese in the wake of the Vatican’s decision.

The diocese first adopted a moratorium on welcoming communities. To ensure better integration of the so-called traditionalist communities, we have also drawn up the charter of “Saint Léonce”, named after the first bishop of Fréjus. I also launched a major inventory of the communities which are visited by a dozen priests and lay experts.

To come back to the pastoral visits that you mention, I travel to the parishes. I have already visited twenty parishes including Rians, Saint-Maximin, Le Pradet. Only yesterday I dined with the priests of Mourillon. These are more than 80 priests met personally in the last three months. And I intend to continue to explore all these realities. The idea being to see how the parishes operate, what proposals they put in place to bring pastoral life to life and, if necessary, submit corrective measures to them. I am confident that all of this will bear fruit.

We cannot talk about 2022 without mentioning the war in Ukraine. How to explain that a religious – in this case the priest Kirill – condones such a conflict?

Traditionally in Russia, there is an involvement, a strong link between the political and religious authorities. In France, in the name of the principle of secularism, things are different. The separation of public institutions and religious organizations is a reality. And if the Church engages in politics, it is in the noble sense of the term, for the defense of life, of the fundamental principles of the common good, of solidarity with the poorest. In no case is it a subjection, a submission of the church to political life. We must be careful not to serve God, instead of serving God.

At this time of Christmas, what message would you like to send to Christians?

Christmas is above all the celebration of a child, the child Jesus who reminds us of the dimension of wonder. As Georges Bernanos wrote: “When I present myself before God, it is the child that I was who will precede me”. Christmas is the day of hope. It is also a family day. Around the family of Nazareth, we find the founding relationships of our social bond. It is in the family that we learn to live together, that we accept the other, with their differences. And then I would also like to send a message of solidarity for the most disadvantaged and of peace. The forms of violence that run through our societies are numerous. However, at Christmas time, it is a bit of peaceful light that bursts. And we really need it!

“The Church does not bring together only perfect people”: the end-of-year confessions of Monsignor Rey