Autobiography of Priest brings Home the simple truth to French



By Bernard Mitjavile, New York City Tribune correspondent



The autobiography of a simple country priest has become an unexpected best-seller this year, to the astonishment of his publisher and most literary critics.

Le Horsain ("The Outsider" in the Norman dialect) by Father Alexandre has sold more than 150,000 copies in hardcover.

Alexandre, who has spent the last 40 years in this small Normandy village, appears to have captured the concerns of most French people in regard to Catholicism, the dominant religion of this country.

Since the Vatican II Council, the Catholic Church in France has been shaken by controversies between so-called traditionalists and Progressives, which culminated in a schism led by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

Traditionalists like to hear the Holy Mass in Latin according to the old rite of Pope Pius V; they are less open toward ecumenical activities; they are often strongly opposed to communism; they defend traditional moral values, and tend still to believe in the pre-Vatican II caveat that there- is "no salvation outside the [Catholic] Church". Progressives are said by their detractors to be "soft on communism" ; they encourage dialogue with other religions; they usually accept the use of the pill, they "understand" homosexuals, they cannot stand traditional Mass in Latin and they believe you can find salvation in many ways outside the Church and its sacraments.

Debates between the two groups have generated a wide echo in the mass media, sparking ideological and theological arguments.

But the point of view of simple country priests has been largely missing in these debates. Many of them are trying to live the gospel in a somewhat depressing environment as the number of both priests and parishioners has been dwindling over the past 25 years.

Father Alexandre says his book appeals to the vast majority of French people, who consider themselves linked to the Church, although only a minority regularly attend Sunday services.

Most people feel a certain nostalgia for traditional religious ceremonies and a rural way of life that is slowly but surely vanishing.

Another reason for the appeal of his book, according to publisher Christian Malaurie, is that it is about a person disappointed by the Catholic hierarchy. "We all feel to some degree disappointed or not cared for by our hierarchies," he said.

Although Bernard Alexandre came from Le Havre, 12 miles from Vattetot, he has always been considered an outsider by the suspicious locals, which explains the title of his book.

He lived in this village of 300 souls for the past 40 years, but as he grew older he began to "collect parishes," as he says jokingly, becoming the priest of several neighboring villages because there weren't enough newly ordained priests.

Shortly after his arrival, he was asked by a friendly colleague, "How could they have sent a young curate like you to such a hole?"

"Reasons of health," Alexandre replied, as he was recovering from tuberculosis after World War II. It seems, they wanted to bury you before you were dead," the friend replied.

He quickly came to realize that his parishioners wanted him to conform with what they saw as the role of a priest, organizing religious ceremonies, occasionally repelling an evil curse and making as few innovations as possible.

He came to like the villagers despite their shortcomings, their stinginess and their fear of the evil eye, and he learned to speak their Norman dialect, adopting their vocabulary in his book.

"Young practicing Catholics in my parishes today are more responsible, more sincere, because they have a minority," he said.

Parishioners now organize prayer meetings and burials, prepare Sunday or Christmas services and communion ceremonies for children, and choose the songs and Bible texts, where previously everything was decided by the priest.

"This willingness to participate gives me hope for the future of Christianity," Father Alexandre said.

According to Alexandre, in teaching Christianity today one should avoid two temptation, the first is to water down essential Christian concepts such as the fall sin and salvation in an attempt to modernize the Catechism; the second, to stick to a literal interpretation of the Bible which is no longer acceptable to adults.

"People no longer take a priest seriously who tells them that in order to go to heaven they should say an Ave Maria every dav, pray to the Virgin Mary, attend mass and obey the Church," he said.

On the other hand, Alexandre feels the Vatican should not have excommunicated Msgr. Lefebvre last June, but should have maintained a spirit of brotherly love for him and his followers.

"You cannot condemn them; after all, people have been taught until Vatican II that there was no salvation outside the Church, and today we see things differently. But not everyone is changing his views at the same pace, some accept new ideas quickly, others not. We have to respect everyone," he says.

Alexandre's daily contact with his villagers over the past 40 years has taught him not to try to impose changes from the outside.

Villagers Feel Proud

Surprisingly, the Vattetot villagers have absorbed their priest's critical remarks concerning their behavior and have even displayed a certain pride in becoming the heroes of a bestselling book, Alexandre said.

In the book, he did not use the real names of parishioners or priests. But they came to him asking for a list of the people involved in order to appreciate the book better, which he agreed to do.

The fame of his book has made Vattetot a tourist spot, with visitors asking for directions to the baker's shop. Alexandre writes about the baker who was a good Samaritan when he, the priest could barely survive on the meager weekly collection at Mass.

"I talked about the poverty of many priests in my book, because this is too often forgotten when we speak about the problems of the Church," said Father Alexandre, who has become relatively wealthy from the copyright on his work.

Shortly after arriving in Vattetot, he tried to share his love for cinema and art by organizing movie clubs and proposing painting exhibitions. But he had to struggle to get his initiatives accepted by his superior bishops.

He recalls that Catholic authorities once complained because he showed a film including dancers in tutus, something which would not shock even the strictest Catholic today.

He said bishops are often too distant from their priests.

"After he read my book, a bishop reacted on a television program by saying he visited each of his priests at least once every 5 years, as if that was enough," he said.

In a part of upper Normandy where witchcraft still plays an important role, he found a way to take care of people and help them open their hearts.

-When someone believes he is possessed or has been put under a curse by a witch, you cannot help him at all with scientific or rational reasoning. You have first to enter into his word and give him confidence," he said.

Works With Psychiatrists

Father Alexandre is working with several psychiatrists to help curing people of mental troubles. By listening to people, offering advice and becoming a kind of exorcist, he came to be seen as a good witch doctor.

,,When people are truly contaminated by the thought that they are under a curse, they need some ceremony, in order to be freed" he said.

Now people are coming to him even when a spouse bar, left them, and he helps them by using a n-dxture of common sense, psychology, Christian teachings and prayer.

"They even come when they have cancer, and in fact, bemuse psychological factors play a role in the development of a tumor, I can help them to a certain extent" he says.

When a neighboring doctor asked him to give the last sacraments to a mother with eight children who was expected to die on Christmas eve, he reacted vigorosly.

"I will go there, but I will not give the last sacraments," he said.

Once there, he told the woman: "You deeply love your children, you cannot leave them on Christmas eve."

She answered obediently, "Yes, Father," and lived 4 months more.