Celebration of the Assumption of Mary

Tonight we saw police in the street outside our apartment as we were leaving the building. A short time later we were engulfed in a parade celebrating the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. Clergy and several thousand Catholic followers from Notre Dame paraded down our street to celebrate the Assumption of Mary. We had heard the church bells and observed a large group with candles proceeding to the church last night, but didn’t know of the parade we now observed.

If you’ve studied the Bible you may have noted that it doesn’t contain much information about Mary and Joseph. As far as I know they are not a big part of the message of the Gospel. Yet at the same time, one need not look far to find Mary as an iconic figure in the Catholic Church. Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris (Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris) is a reference to Mary, not to mention the US university you see on TV every weekend in the fall. The figure of the Virgin Mary in sculpture and paintings may be as common as artwork for Christ. While I could try to decipher the terminology of the church, suffice it to say that the Catholic Church realized that Mary was an important part of their message of Christianity. Even before 500 AD there was tacit acceptance that the end of Mary’s life was a holy event and that the anniversary was to be celebrated and recognized.

It was not until 1950 that the Catholic Church officially incorporated the Assumption into its dogma, thus vouching for a practice that had long been condoned. This event was noted at the time by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung to be “the most important religious event since the Reformation”. Protestant movements have not similarly included Mary, to which Jung at the time commented,”Protestantism has obviously not given sufficient attention to the signs of the times which point to the equality of women. But this equality requires to be metaphysically anchored in the figure of a ‘divine’ woman. . . . The feminine, like the masculine, demands an equally personal representation.” He said that many years ago, but his observation seems rather modern to me.

You can see a few photos of the event below:

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What’s in a Name?

Brenda and I were having our French lesson, and I asked our tutor Anna for help creating a telephone answering message for our home phone. She suggested, “Vous êtes bien chez Brenda et Hugh. S’il vous plaît laissez votre message après the bip.” Knowing that in French the h is silent, I asked about how to pronounce my name.  Anna told me it would be pronounced [EWG], that in French my name is usually spelled Hugues, which would ensure that the G was a hard G rather than a J sound. She noted that Hugh after all is a French name that came from the Huguenots. I didn’t know that. Wikipedia says Hugh is a common English name, but if you look at the list in their article, the majority of people listed come from France. Who were the Huguenots?

The Huguenots were a Protestant religious group that sprang up in France in about 1530 after Martin Luther started the Protestant movement. They followed the teachings of the French theologian John Calvin of Geneva, Switzerland. They rejected the excesses and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the French Monarchy, which sponsored the Catholic Church as the state religion. There were many steps in the decline of the Huguenots, but suffice it to say they were in conflict with both the Catholic Church and the state. At first there were isolated incidents of attacks on communities. Later the opposition received the support of the King of France, Charles IX, who ordered the death of all the Protestants of France. Though there was a period of relative stability for the Huguenots in the late 1500s, this changed with the ascension of Louis XIII in 1610. His regent, Cardinal Richelieu, wanted to eliminate all the Huguenot communities. We’ve seen where Richelieu lived in the Marais, and the King then lived just down the road at a palace near the Louvre. History lives!

In the mid 1600s, Huguenot men and women were imprisoned, their children sent to be raised as Roman Catholic, and a period of forced religious conversion was begun. Many Huguenots were killed. The Protestant churches were destroyed. Of about 800 thousand Huguenots at the start of the period of oppression, approximately 550,000 of them recanted their faith (under pressure). About 250,000 left the country for Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, and parts of Belgium. Others escaped to England, where they embarked for the West Indies and North America. The refugees were generally merchants, craftsmen, and weavers or skilled tradesman, including many well educated. Their flight was also France’s loss. The French King succeeded in ridding the country of the Huguenots, but the forces of unrest with the alliance between the King and the Catholic Church would continue, and within a hundred years both King and Church would fall in the French Revolution.

Though I’m not aware of having French blood, part of my family could have once lived as Huguenots in France and later escaped to elsewhere in Europe. Branches of my family, all Protestant, eventually came to America from England, Ireland, Germany, and Sweden. I’m hoping to do more with tracing the family roots in Europe while we are here.

Paris welcomes a new Pope

Wednesday night’s selection of the new Pope Francis was momentous here in Paris. At about 7 pm the single large bourden bell at Notre Dame started ringing with a low and unmistakable gong. We had heard it only once before, the night Pope Benedict stepped down. I turned on the TV and saw the white smoke at the Vatican. The church bells tell a lot.

We haven’t yet started to tour the most visited sites in Paris – haven’t been up in the Eiffel Tower, haven’t been inside the Louvre, the Musée de Orsay, or any of the other museums. We’ve been on a couple Paris walks and toured Notre Dame de Paris after stepping inside almost by accident one afternoon. The Catholic Churches are the thing we’ve seen most of in living here thus far. In addition to Notre Dame, we’ve been inside St Paul-St Louis (which was built by the Jesuits), St Gervais et St Protais, St Séverin, St Étienne du Mont, and the Abbey of St Germaine du Pres. All, not just Notre Dame, are spectacular Gothic works of art.

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France is predominantly a Catholic country (Wikipedia said between 51 and 88% – don’t know why such a large uncertainty). Nevertheless, its huge ancient gothic cathedrals were irreparably damaged during the French Revolution. King Louis XVI inherited a financial crisis as a result of years of war, including the French support of the American Revolution. In an effort to restore a bankrupt treasury, the Revolution of 1789 stripped the Churches of most of their valuables. Thus relics (such as remains of the saints) were discarded and their gold containers melted down, the bells were taken from church towers, etc, and over the ensuing centuries with the French government no longer supporting the church to maintain its enormous infrastructure, much has fallen into disrepair. For instance, only the stained glass in the east and west roses of Notre Dame is original. The stained glass replacements for much of the rest did not in any way duplicate the originals. Unlike Italy, the French cathedrals have an asterisk beside the feeling that they are ancient treasures. Still the faithful of the Church turn out to visit – thousands and thousands come to Notre Dame, rain or shine or snow. We saw a wedding couple posing in the snow and cold last weekend, just so they could have a photo with the cathedral as the backdrop.

Our guide at Notre Dame spent perhaps an hour and a half explaining in great detail the symbolism of the sculptures, art works, and carvings in the cathedral. She conveyed clearly the biblical significance of all that we saw, and how that message was conveyed through the ages to give meaning to life, and does even so today for the faithful. In addition to honoring the common symbols of Christianity, the art works and carvings document in a most personal way those individuals important to establishing the church in Paris. To me, our guide seemed to be telling us that the church had much to provide, but not as a service to the tourists but in service to the faithful. The Church is committed to finding more members who are committed to the Church. This was a young woman who sacrificed a lot to come from outside the city to give a tour in English to whomever may have stumbled into her fold that day. She represents a tiny portion of the energy of the Church, all over the world, that glides beneath the surface while much of what we see and hear focuses on more sensational problems, such as the criminal acts of a tiny minority whom the church leadership may have failed to ensure were brought to justice. Over the years, British author and former nun Karen Armstong has published work after work showing how religions have changed over the ages to adapt to changes in society, thus enabling them to remain relevant in the lives of their believers. Such may be happening now with the Catholic Church, and perhaps to other world religions.

The Catholic Church is the largest non-government provider of education and medical services in the world. With more than 1.2 billion members, it constitutes about 20% of the earth’s population. What happens with the Catholics affects us all. Now the Church has selected a new Pope, clearly with the idea of pushing out in a new direction that emphasizes to the faithful the good that the church is doing in our world and the role of its membership in continuing that good. It will be interesting to see what impact that may have for Catholic France.