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United in Christ

by glynch — last modified 26 Jan, 2016 09:32 AM

Visit to twin Roman Catholic Diocese of Évreux in France focuses on schools and youth

Twelve people from this Diocese travelled to our twin Diocese of Évreux in the French Roman Catholic Church this month, part of a mutual exploration of one another’s work with schools, children, young people and families in the parish context.

The Dioceses of Salisbury and Évreux have been twinned for over 30 years now. They share much in common – both are located in largely rural regions with many market towns and no large cities. Both look after many churches in villages with small populations, and clergy are consequently thinly spread, especially on Sundays. Both operate in societies perceived to be among the most secular in the world.

The visitors from England were particularly keen to learn how the work of the Diocese of Évreux in both Catholic and other schools is hampered or enabled by the wider French national principle of laïcité.

During the trip, the visitors were warmly welcomed and hosted by families from Évreux itself, Acquigny, Bernay and Avrilly.

The formal programme began with a visit to an “all through” Catholic College of the Immaculate Conception in Évreux, covering ages 3-16. The Salisbury delegation found both similarities and differences to the situation in England. Around one-sixth of French children are educated in Church schools, but they are more restricted in their religious activities than their English counterparts.

As in England, many French parents choose Church schools as they are seen as better in standards and also provide a more caring pastoral setting for children. Also as in England, the majority of children attending are not from churchgoing families and Church schools are popular with parents of other faiths, Muslims in particular. Like Church of England schools, Catholic Schools in France argue that the quality of care and well-being reveals the Christianity that lies at their roots, more than formal indoctrination.

The next visit was to a state school, and in particular to a teacher who was a practising Catholic, born and raised in England. Having taught in both the British and French education systems, she provided particular insight.

France recognises the right for all children to attend Catholic Schools and they are obliged to deliver the National Curriculum. Teachers at Catholic schools are paid by the state, although they are paid less than their equivalents in the state sector. The upkeep of buildings falls entirely on the schools which charge limited fees. Currently the fees at Immaculate Conception are €815 per annum. Catholic Schools cannot teach Religious Education or Catechesis within the curriculum, but non-compulsory sessions are provided on Wednesday afternoons. Attendance at three Masses per year, on the other hand, is compulsory. 

In state schools, although there is teaching about religion in subjects like history, there is no religious education. Philosophy is taught, but this is purely secular in motive and content.

There is a strong ethic and prejudice against allowing any religious teaching in state schools, and an absolute ban on proselytising or evangelising. Indeed, some argue there is a reverse evangelisation in state schools to embrace only the secular.

This assertive, some might argue aggressive, secularism follows on a strong anti-clerical strand in French political culture since at least the Revolution, which culminated in the imposition of laïcité in 1905. This saw the complete eradication of all religious imagery, culture and teaching from the state sector. 

This was a violent event with religious orders being ejected and some moving abroad. Clergy could no longer teach and were prevented from doing so, on occasion at gunpoint. At times even today, some hosts said, the application of laicité has been inconsistent and extreme, particularly in the context of a multi-faith society with a significant Muslim population. 

After visiting another Catholic school in Louviers, the visitors moved on to the Diocesan Chaplaincy to Children and Young People in State Schools. The chaplaincy operates outside state school premises at centres based in the parish, aims to help children and young people reflect on meaning and develop personal autonomy in thinking and in social awareness: 

The politics surrounding laïcité means the chaplaincy has to be careful and sensitive to the context. It attempts to work in dialogue with the state schools and with the civil authorities. Activities include singing, trips, learning about the faith, discussions about the self, and support for school studies.

The chaplaincies are open to all and those who attend are encouraged to bring along friends. The hope is that every young person involved, regardless of their religious viewpoint, will have their horizons and views widened.

Their work is supported by diocesan events, and those on an even larger scale including World Youth Day, a world-wide Catholic celebration.

The final event for the visitors was to express their prayer for Christian Unity by being present at the parish Mass at La Madeleine, a multi-racial church south of Évreux. The Parish Priest, Fr. Jean-Serge, had been part of visit to Salisbury last year, and the parish bade farewell to the visitors after lunch.

The shared work of the Dioceses will continue, with visits in each direction proposed for 2016, most likely on the theme of the Church and the environment.

More information both about the visit and the link with Évreux are available from Canon Harold Stephens on

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