On July 4, you co-signed a letter addressed to the bishops of France1 in which you ask them to support the priests and the parishes of the cities. Why this call?
Father Patrice Gaudin: The churches of working-class neighborhoods are located in the heart of the reactor, and yet remain off the radar. Exercising the priesthood in a city is such a special and little-known mission within the Church. Sent to this city north of Bondy, in Seine-Saint-Denis, after having been the priest of a large Bordeaux parish for ten years, I discovered the richness and complexity of these districts. It was necessary to understand and accompany Christians of more than thirty different nationalities, each with its own rites and cultures, to face interreligious questions or serious situations. I measured to what extent the dynamism of a parish is essential and bears fruit in an often difficult local life. Here, the role of the priest is at the heart of the life of the city. With other priests and lay people, involved in working-class neighborhoods, we have created the Missionary Fraternity of Housing Estates to support each other. But we also want to draw attention to the reality of our parishes.
In recent weeks, you have experienced the riots on the front line… What happened on the first evenings?
I was in the Holy Land to celebrate my twenty years of ordination when I learned of Nahel’s death. I discovered with horror the burnt cars, the looted shops and services, the only devastated supermarket… Social networks contributed to the excitement and everything took on terrible proportions. The destruction is enormous. At the time, I felt a terrible helplessness. On Friday, on the plane, I counted the hours. Once there, I put down my backpack and immediately went out into the street to understand and discuss with the young people.
What did you tell them?
I listened to them first. I then told them that I heard their anger. But that the way she spoke was horrible, that they had no right to destroy. The car they burn belongs to a mum, a dad who needs it to work and repay the loan he had to take out to buy it. Here, everyone believes in God. There is no indifference to religion. Quite quickly, I can therefore commit myself to the spiritual field. I tell them that God, Allah or Jesus will never agree with stealing and destruction cannot come from it. That the devil uses everything he can to do evil: our wounds, our weaknesses, our anger. They are sensitive to it. During last Sunday’s homily, I also called on young Christians to speak to their friends as ambassadors of peace. In the Gospel, the non-violence of Jesus challenges them.
But are young people listening to you?
The city is a family and the priest is part of it. We live among them. Regardless of the religion, the figure of the priest inspires immense confidence. It always touches me, even upsets me. The evening of the looting of a major appliance store, I knew that an action was brewing. I couldn’t prevent it. On the other hand, I am convinced that, that evening, I saved some of them from participating.
Why all this violence?
Young people experience a deep malaise at all levels. The death of this child who could have been their brother served as a trigger. “One more.” It is unfair. But there is also a very strong need for recognition, to say that they exist, to verbalize their feeling of feeling “forgotten by the system”. Life in the city is difficult, the inflation dreadful, most families find it difficult to last the month. So much so that, for some, the looting of the only supermarket in the neighborhood was a relief. Confronted daily with dirty streets, unsanitary infrastructure, inaccessible transport, they feel abandoned and fed up.
School or town hall burned, shops looted… Anger cannot justify so much damage!
These are very young children who get into the fray. Some are barely 12 years old! It’s dramatic, and I don’t think they realize the impact of their actions. More than ever, I measure the lack of education among the youngest. At their age, the notion of evil and good remains subjective. And when no one helps you define them and set boundaries, you tinker with them your way. I’m amazed to hear some say to me, “I didn’t break the store! I just helped myself once it was open, that’s not a bad thing.” And their thinking stops there.
However, massive investment plans have been put in place in recent years for cities…
Yes, for example, there has recently been a policy of building new housing. On paper, it’s great. But come and see what state they are already in! And it has nothing to do with the locals. The construction is sloppy, the materials deteriorate very quickly. Regarding schools, the world of health, shops, services appear undersized compared to the number of inhabitants. Writing checks is not enough, you also need to be able to follow up and get involved.
These last few weeks have only fueled the animosity of the population towards young people “from the neighborhoods”. Is reconciliation still possible in this context?
This violence complicates an already difficult situation. As Christians, our mission is to believe in this reconciliation and to ensure harmony. Artisans of peace, it is up to us to tirelessly preach the possibility of living together, that it is worth sitting down and listening to each other. We cannot accept destruction and must tell those who break that they are hurting. However, we must also listen to what the working-class neighborhoods have to say. In the cities, I am convinced that the Church has a real role to play.
Is this a reason for hope for the future of the Church?
Our parishes are goldmines of humanity, spirituality, missionary zeal, service, reconciliation and joy. Despite the difficulties of everyday life, people here yearn for happiness. The parish fills up a little more each week. I have so many young people that I no longer know where to put them! When I tell of having celebrated forty baptisms in one weekend, some can’t believe it. In my neighborhood, ninety nationalities live side by side. In a Mass, we bring together thirty nationalities and as many cultures who pray together. The spirit of fraternity and the human warmth that emanates from it touch me a little more every day. For me, the future is here. And he is handsome.