Walking along the Boulevard St Germain this afternoon, in the shadow of the Sorbonne’s Faculty of Medicine building, it occurred to me that probably nobody in the world had done what I had done that day. it’s been a long time since I attended church twice (or even once, truth be told) on a Sunday, and even longer since I went to two rather different ones on the same day.
Hillsong Paris is a Sydney transplant, in most respects, it would seem, similar to its parent church. It meets in a large rented theatre in chic Montparnasse, flanked by a sex shop and a couple of Japanese restaurants. The building is modern, seats almost a thousand and the church is able to make best use of a fully equipped light and sound system. Because of the hour change, we were late, but the greeter in the teddy bear costume didn’t seem to mind and someone escorted us to a couple of balcony ringside seats. Worship accompanied prayer and preaching, nothing was over the top or out of place, with the possible exception of myself who must have raised the average age in the room by a couple of months at least. I really enjoyed myself, it was joyous, upbeat and grace-filled but it was clear that there were quite a lot of spectators – it’s France, after all – and much like anywhere else, energy, drive and enthusiasm, although available in abundance, was being generated by comparatively few. The service was bilingual, the Australian pastor was being expertly and simultaneously translated shotgun-style – it’s rare to see it done so well – while the band slipped effortlessly in and out of the preaching. They weren’t restricted to the usual drummer in a cage with lead, rhythm and keyboards – a string quartet put in an appearance who clearly were soloist standard and it was quite nice that nobody seemed to have a musical axe to grind. Bought the newest CD which might come in useful.
I asked who the pastor was and in fact the people I spoke to had trouble recalling his name, so whatever else he was he certainly wasn’t in the business of developing a cult of personality. He was young, smart, street-savvy and ate, anonymously, at the same restaurant as we did afterwards.
The Left Bank has a reputation as the cradle of the Revolution and something of its stubbornly rebellious nature hangs in the air like a half-smoked Gauloise. It is crammed with bookish types with earnest expressions, as well as large numbers of Orientals, probably educational tourists who attempt to copy Parisian languor which combines sang-froid and boredom.
L’Eglise de St Nicolas du Chardonnet on the corner of the rue Saint-Victor was the second spiritual oasis of the day. The Archbishop of Paris has served an eviction order on the building, since it is used by an heretical, right-wing Catholic sect, who conduct Mass in Latin, perform Gregorian chants and refuse to acknowledge the authority of any Pope elected after Vatican II. They call themselves the Society of St. Pius X, founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970. It is their only church in Paris and although many others exist in France and it’s not their official French headquarters, it is seen as their de facto national centre. We hit the scene just in time for Vespers. Beautifully choreographed, bowing, chanting, ten steps, sharp right, hold the book up, bow some more, genuflect, censer swinging – you get the idea. The priest, dressed in Lenten purple unsmilingly intoning the prepared Latin script with various cantors doing the backing track. There then followed some kind of homily delivered by a vulpine looking individual from a pulpit positioned in such a way as to discourage the faithful from actually looking at him, the gist of which appeared to be something of a diatribe on the evils of not following Church teaching during Lent, at which point I had had enough and slithered out under a hundred condemnatory eyes, mostly elderly and female. I probably didn’t bow in the right places either.