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Sant’Egidio to run outreach to poor from disputed Paris church

Tom Heneghan - The Tablet - Sun, Jul 4th 2021

Sant’Egidio to run outreach to poor from disputed Paris church

The entrance to St Merry Church in Paris. - Tom Heneghan

Two missionary priests from the Sant’Egidio Community will soon take over a pastoral mission to the poor at St Merry, the disputed church in central Paris where a 45-year-old experiment in lay-clerical equality was abruptly shut down by Archbishop Michel Aupetit last February. 

The decision to bring in the Catholic humanitarian group, which has an office but no church in Paris, got a warm welcome from many parishioners attracted to St Merry by its outreach to the poor and the local artistic community. 

“We had been worried for weeks about what would happen to our community,” one said. “Sant’Egidio fits well with the spirit of St Merry.”

But criticism came from the banished Pastoral Center of Les Halles and Beaubourg (CPHB), the Vatican II-inspired experimental pastoral council where clergy and laity had equal say in trying out new paths in liturgy and community service. 

While they welcomed Sant'Egidio, CPHB leaders stressed it was not the same as the former council. “We are delighted for Sant’Egidio. But for us, it changes nothing,” CPBH spokesman Pietro Pisarra told La Croix. 

Archbishop Aupetit said: “St Merry’s privileged location puts it in  contact with the poor, but also with foreigners and tourists, especially through its solidarity and prayer.” His statement did not mention the reason for the change. 

The lay leaders, now calling themselves “St Merry Outside the Walls”, said  the archdiocese had not responded to its requests for a meeting. It noted its appeal against the council’s closure had 12,000 signatures.

They expressed “astonishment at this strange conception of communion which consists of excluding and replacing, without any dialogue, the ‘undisciplined’ and supposedly ‘nasty’ people”.

Their statement added that caring for the poor, welcoming those on the margins of the Church and allowing lay co-responsibility for the liturgy “are not accessories but Gospel priorities”.

The decision to shut down the CPBH, which apparently led the archdiocesan vicar responsible for St Merry to apply for a transfer, ended a series of disputes between the reform-minded council and the archdiocese. The last two priests assigned to run the parish quit in frustration. 

The lay leaders say they were defending their equal voice in the experiment, while archdiocesan sources accused them of intransigence and a failure to attract younger worshippers.

The Sant’Egidio priests will take over their mission in September in the 16th-century church near the busy Centre Pompidou art complex and Les Halles shopping area. St Merry’s open doors, modern art and varied concert programme make it a unique showcase for the Church in Paris. 

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