Wednesday, January 5, 2011

30 and Out: An Interview with (non-)Fr. Alain Chapellier

Fr. Alain Chappelier, was born in 1946 in Houdan in Yvelines (France) into an agnostic and anti-clerical family. After a ten-year long spiritual quest, including numerous trips to study with oriental masters, he entered seminary in Rome at 25. He was ordained and served as parochial vicar in various parishes in the Diocese of Versailles, as well as prison chaplain at Bois d’Arcy. Chappelier left the priesthood last year after 30 years. He is the author of several books: De miel et de fiel (Albin Michel, 1991), La tentation de Fra Lippi (Albin Michel, 2000), Le Christ nu (Le Seuil, 2003), and now what we can consider his exit interview, Ne m'appelez plus Père ("No Longer Call Me Father", édition First, 2010).

By Jérôme Anciberro (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Témoignage Chrétien

TC: By the end of the 1960s, you had toured India and visited the great Hindu spiritual masters. You had very strong personal and spiritual experiences in that country. Same thing in the Holy Land, in the desert of Sinai in particular. Then in Christian prayer groups. Only gradually did you really convert to Catholicism before becoming a priest. This journey is not one of the more conventional ones.

Alain Chapellier: I guess not and that's probably one of the causes of my discomfort in the Catholic Church. I experienced during the first half of my life without realizing it, something quite amazing. I could feel myself in profound agreement as much with a Hindu, a Muslim, an atheist, as with a Catholic, a brother in Christ through baptism in the Catholic Church. When one cultivates a certain kind of interiority, confessional boundaries fall quickly.

Christ spoke to me through the encounter with the disciples of Gandhi and Ramana Maharishi. He spoke to me, always in India, through my ephemeral relationship with a young woman. He spoke to me in the Sinai, through the Bedouins I met. Saint Jeanne de Chantal said that "when we seek God first, we find Him everywhere." I believe that Christ is present through the most seemingly banal and insignificant facts of our lives, through the encounters.

Once I entered the seminary, I felt that this way of thinking was out of step with how a lot of my classmates experienced religion.

TC: But the Catholic Church isn't a block ...

Alain Chapellier: Of course. Among eighty or ninety people, one always finds some friends with whom to exchange. But it is still the Catholics on the most classic paths, practically traced, who set the tone for the institution and it is sometimes difficult to feel in tune with them.

A simple example: when I was ordained a priest, my family and my mother experienced that as a tragedy. However, I can see that for some families, it's a great joy when their son announces that he wants to become a priest. And rightly so. But when you're born into the Catholic faith like those young people, and when you fight like I did to live your faith, you see things a little differently. Both views are legitimate, but coexistence is not necessarily simple.

TC: You wonder in your book, on several occasions, about the importance given to intellectual training of the clergy. This training however has been indeed a step forward in the history of the Church.

Alain Chapellier: Probably. But that was several centuries ago, at the time of the Council of Trent ... In some cases, there's a risk of making the Christian faith something that above all ressembles a well-structured ideology. It's always possible to balance that with a life of piety. But it often lacks the experience of depth, which isn't the same thing as piety.

TC: And how is this deep experience acquired?

Alain Chapellier: One must already believe it exists and that it's possible. And then maybe keep quiet. In general, I think we make too much noise in the Church. And by dint of making noise, we no longer hear the small inner voice. Jean Sulivan made a very nice page about it, on "the spring that flowed at night" (La Traversée des illusions, Matinales II, Gallimard, 1977), a spring whose murmur could no longer be heard because of all those who wanted to attract attention to it and cried "the spring, the spring, the spring!"...

Doctrinal formation without stepping back can also produce undesirable results. I am thinking of a young woman who wanted to receive communion on the occasion of the First Communion of her son. A young colleague told her very forcefully that, according to the regulations, it was not possible because she was divorced, remarried. In terms of doctrine, he was right. In actual fact, he had just driven someone to despair.

TC: Is French Catholicism suffering from a sociological evolution that would tend to make it more and more bourgeois or aristocratic in the recruitment of clergy?

Alain Chapellier: Aristocratic and bourgeois circles have the right to exist. As elsewhere, there are fabulous people in them. But it's not a secret to anyone that since the 19th century, the Church has lost the working class, and everything else follows later ... In the diocese of Ile-de-France to which I belonged, and also in Paris, it's obvious. All or most young priests come from privileged backgrounds.

They have their sorrows too, their difficulties, and that doesn't mean they'll be bad priests, but they are primarily suited to a certain environment: their own. Look at the surnames of the newly ordained in June and count the particles. It's quite instructive. Again, I have nothing against these people, but it's not forbidden to ask what the perpetuation of such recruitment means for the Church in France.

TC: The reality of the lives of priests that you describe is frightening: overwork, loneliness, depression, alcoholism ... Aren't you exaggerating a bit?

Chapellier: I couldn't put all the nuances in my book; it would have made a work of 600 pages and my editor was not very hot. And then it's not when I've left my ministry that I'm going to list all the reasons I should have stayed there. There are a number of realities on which the Church is completely at an impasse and it is indeed those that I stress. This may give the appearance of a hatchet job. But I don't hide, it seems to me, that there are also wonderful moments in the life of a priest.

TC: In terms of overworked priests, do you believe that improvement is possible?

Chapellier: As long as we keep the same doctrine concerning the priest, as long as we want to make him into a sort of reincarnation...I don't like the word, I can't find a different one...a sort of reincarnation of Christ, as long as we ask a diminishing clergy to accomplish all the tasks that were accomplished by a larger clergy, no, there's no reason for it to get better. But I just think that we're going to have to rethink the theology of the priest.

TC: Reading your testimony, one quickly realizes that you are not necessarily what one might call a liberal priest. You take the sacraments seriously, you say that the Mass fascinates you ...

Chapellier: I've often been considered a "cool" priest...perhaps because I was trying to adjust to those in front of me. What I question most is the absence, or lack of emphasis on the authentic spiritual life. This questioning necessarily has critical consequences. But that doesn't make me a liberal, a knee-jerk progressive. I am indeed very serious about the sacraments and the Mass, and much more. This is precisely why I think I can no longer continue my ministry.

Take baptisms. I used to celebrate them while trying to educate people, parents, families ... But now, people invite more and more people to their baptisms. The gatherings at a baptism resemble wedding gatherings, except that in weddings, the idea of human love speaks more or less to everybody. But baptism ... There, things become less obvious. One is really talking about God. And when, for half of those assembled, the concept of God means nothing and those people basically don't understand anything, well, they get bored and they chat.

Add to that the children who run and scream in the aisles and who must be monitored.. the cameras that crackle ... I remember two grandmothers who were showing Polaroids of a baptism to each other while it was still in progress. Also a bride, who I had to call to order several times because she seemed more focused on and stressed out by how her wedding was being filmed than by the wedding itself.

TC: You are indeed fairly tough on those who might be called the "consumers" of the Church or sacraments. So, you challenge certain practices which are quite settled. Your analysis of baptism, precisely, is rather bold, at least from a Catholic perspective.

Chapellier: Yes, I think that baptism, the personal encounter of the human being with Christ in its full sense, probably at the beginning of the Church....and that it [infant baptism]'s really both devaluing it and especially humanly and psychologically keeping a human being from making a journey towards Christ and asking for baptism when there's a free, adult awareness that encounters Christ.

That we welcome the children, that we integrate them into the life of the Church, even some rite...why not? But baptism, no. It's something more important.

I think about my personal case and it's probably what this story is about...Imagine someone like me who belonged to a family of non-believers. I wasn't baptized as a little boy, I didn't make my first communion, my confirmation, all that. When I, to use a term that I don't like at all, encountered Christ and when I had the feeling, felt the need to take a step forward, well...what was left? To become a priest. If I hadn't been baptized, I would probably have become a happy baptized person instead of becoming a priest with problems.

And when I see...especially when I see all the baptized people I've seen in my 30-year career, baptized people who came to see me later for marriage, burial or whatever and telling me: "Yeah, yeah, I'm doesn't mean anything to me", I find it somewhat tragic.

TC: Do you really think that being baptized as a child hinders the development of personal faith?

Chapellier: All I did was state that 95% of the baptized are not interested in their baptism.

TC: Why does the term "encounter with Christ" bother you?

Chapellier: No, I don't like it because I've met too many people who have said to me: "Oh, I've had an encounter with Christ." "I've met Christ" one meets the milkman in the morning. He's Christ. He's God. Well, He's the One who is completely Other. He's the Mystery. He's the Infinite. And you don't talk about Him so easily.

I don't know if I've had an encounter with Christ. I've had experiences that have completely transformed my life and way of seeing things. It's Christ but it's much more than the Christ people talk about when they say: "Yes, yes...when I had an encounter with Christ. I met the Lord..."

When you experience a great moment, you only talk about that. But you don't talk about it just any don't talk about it superficially. You might talk about it with friends. That implies intimacy, that implies restraint. Yes, I don't like people to talk too much about their "encounter" because I have doubts. If it were really Him, I don't think they would talk about Him with so much familiarity.

TC: What do you think of the concept of the "new evangelization", or more generally the idea that one should instead dare to affirm one's faith out loud in a society that has lost the sense of God but that, fundamentally, might be looking for Him?

Chapellier: Theoretically, it's seductive, but in fact this kind of idea is a double edged sword. Very often it yields the opposite of the desired result, or the illusion that one has achieved a result. Take the example of the disc of the three priests [Les Prêtres, Spiritus Dei, Universal], which is experiencing great success right now. If you tell me that people who listen to this disc have realized it would have been better to have given the money from their latest I-pod to a holy cause, I would like to believe you. But if that success simply means that by listening to this music, these people have had a good time, it seems much less interesting to me.

It's sort of the difference between a bright moment of faith and deep faith .... Christ is fire. For us to get burned. Not to warm our feet by it ... I'm afraid, often, religious practice is a finishing touch of psychological, moral and spiritual comfort that helps unleash one's ego, one's desires, one's fears. Christ proposes dying to oneself, one's ego, for a freedom of which we have no idea, but that is extraordinary when we sense it, when we approach it.

TC: Why does one have to wait to leave the ministry to write like you do about being a priest?

Chapellier: I had already written some things that were a bit stormy while being in the ministry, so what happpened was...well...nothing. "I read your book. Interesting. Something to think about." That's all, and it doesn't go any further. So it's not very interesting. I wrote three books that were full of calls for help, that expressed my difficulties. In the best case scenario: "I read your book. How you're calling for help. Bravo, what talent!"

TC: You're not leaving the priesthood to get married?

Chapellier: No. I don't want to get into a career as a Casanova at my age. I don't exclude getting married if I meet someone who wants a good old boy like me, but it's really not the problem today.

TC: You're no longer a priest, but you are Catholic. What is your life as a member of the faithful like?

Chapellier:It's a bit like the one I had as a lad. I'm practicing, obviously not in my area. I'm wait for my administrative status to be regularized. I will then be able to get back to participating fully in the life of the Church. I probably should move, to make it more convenient.

There are details that I don't quite understand. Apparently, the fact of being relieved of the ministry depends on the bishop, but for obligations linked to the commitment to celibacy, it depends on the pope. I'm writing to him to ask him to release me from these obligations without wanting to get married. It isn't clear .. I need to find good arguments ...

TC: How do you see the future of the Catholic Church in France?

Chapellier: As I've seen it for the last 30 years: shrinking. As long as the again I can't find the words...recruits the faithful in its capital, it will lose a certain percentage within each generation and, at a certain level, I wonder if this sort of fast isn't a sort of opportunity on the whole from the spiritual perspective. At the level of the universal Church in general, it's an episode. There have been parts of the Church that have flourished -- in the Middle Ages and earlier, in East Asia, in North Africa...well, it's completely disappeared there. It's moved elsewhere. Well, I have confidence...From time to time, we need a purge of this sort.


  1. Fascinating interview and one that I can relate to totakky especially about baptisms and marriages where there are so many distractions and you have to wonder as a priest what is going on. Cameras flashing, lots of noise often at baptisms with many not even Christian there let alone being catholics. At marriages it more about the dress, the camera angle, doesn't she look pretty etc etc. I really wonder if any know/realise the sacramentality of it all, especially baptism
    The priest (and he is that forever), speaks well and Im sure was a great priest of 30 years.
    Sad when we all lose the way though and for me I can relate to this man, being in the same situation.

  2. Actually I totally agreed with that part too. I once accompanied a priest friend of mine on a mission to El Salvador and was photo'ing both a wedding and a baptism for relatives of the people involved who were unable to make the trip. I was stunned by the aggressiveness of the Salvadorans filming these events. There was absolutely no respect for the sanctity of the occasion, people pushing each other out of the way to get good camera angles, flash going off every 2 seconds. I backed off competing for photos even though it meant I didn't get as good shots, because I just can't act in church like paparazzi chasing down a celebrity. We've had the same problem here in the healing Masses with everyone bringing out their cellphone cameras to take pictures of their buddies resting in the Spirit. It got so bad that I decided to stop taking photos for the Charismatic Renewal, hoping that maybe we could restore some order and solemnity and focus on God.