The challenges of migrant reception are dividing the French Church, as Catholics struggle with how best to welcome, house and integrate new arrivals.
Driving the news
The dilemma of where to put and how to care for foreigners making their way to France was well illustrated by an article in La Croix.
That piece said that Catholic properties all over the country, from Nantes to Avignon, are being occupied – at times illegally – by refugees.
Such is the case of Bon Conseil, a now-abandoned Catholic school in Nantes now rebaptised la Maison du peuple (“The House of the People”).
There in that school, some thirty homeless people and migrants with nowhere else to go – and some with children – are squatting in unsanitary conditions, and are facing the ever-present threat of eviction.
Other Catholic buildings in Nantes which have at one time or another hosted refugees include another school in Saint-Herblain or a presbytery in Doulon.
“The diocese welcomes migrants whenever it can but that doesn’t mean they should squat in all our places either”, Xavier Brunier, a pastoral care coordinator in Nantes diocese, told La Croix.
Brunier warned his diocese is at near capacity in terms of receiving migrants, with some 300 now being housed in Church premises from parish offices to religious houses.
But that ‘excess’ of migrants unable to be cared for… should the Church turn to the courts to evict them from Catholic properties, as dioceses have done in Nantes, Avignon or Marseille?
Some migrant advocates, such as Christophe Jouin, co-founder of L’autre Cantine, which serves meals to migrants in Nantes, said relations with the Church over the migrant issue “are extremely tense”.
“We worked for three months with the diocese on a housing project that never saw the light of day”, denounced Jouin.
Why it matters
La Croix reported that the French Bishops’ Conference considers it “normal” for Catholics and Catholic organisations to have differing views on the migrant question, due to the “different working cultures” reigning in those solidarity groups.
“But by working together we can overcome them. We share a common conviction that migrants must be welcomed in dignified conditions” Marcela Villalobos Cid, national head of diocesan delegates, told La Croix.
And the truth is that not all the French dioceses have adopted such a combative attitude towards migrant squatting as have Nantes, Avignon, Marseille, and others.
Other dioceses, such as Nevers and Lille, have set up dedicated associations to welcome migrants and asylum seekers, and have opened up the doors of parishes, presbyteries, seminaries and the like to offer these new arrivals a home.
For the record
The differing diocesan attitudes are the show of a deep division in the French Church on the migrant question.
That discord goes so deep that a 2018 La Croix survey found that about 33% of French Catholics are “rather hostile” to welcoming migrants, compared to 22% who are “ambivalent” on the issue and just 45% who are “rather benevolent” to newly-arrived foreigners.
Still, the number of Catholics volunteering to migrants in France is on the rise, according to journalist Pierre Jova, author of a book on Christians and migrants.
When they can’t find support in their parish or diocese, these Catholic volunteers often turn to working in NGOs to comply with the Gospel mandate to “welcome the stranger”.
They’re people like Olivier Prache, who described himself to La Croix as “a basic Catholic, who is no longer involved in parish activities but always outraged by everything that hurts man”.
The image of the Pope crying over migrants drowned in the Mediterranean, Francis’ idea that we all share a “common home” and the pontiff’s call for every parish in Europe to house refugees are burned in Prache’s memory.
“I thought I had to do my part”, said Prache, of his desire to help migrants.