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Young Catholics stepping forward in Paris suburbs

By Arnaud Bevilacqua in La Croix International 22 March 2024

Sunday Mass at Christ Ressuscité Church, Bondy (Seine-Saint-Denis). On the housing estates, young Catholics are a minority but fervent in their faith. (Photo by BRUNO FERT for LA CROIX)
Sunday Mass at Christ Ressuscité Church, Bondy (Seine-Saint-Denis). On the housing estates, young Catholics are a minority but fervent in their faith. (Photo by BRUNO FERT for LA CROIX)

When walking through the streets of Sarcelles, Trappes, or other low-income suburbs on the outskirts of Paris, it is evident that the people living in these communities believe in God.

Simbron is 24 years old and lives in one of these communities in La Courneuve, eight kilometers away from central Paris. He works in procurement and lives in a 4,000-unit housing project where many other young Catholics reside. The majority of them come from immigrant backgrounds from African countries. They are a minority within the community at large, though they live their Catholic faith devoutly.

“In the 93, many of us are of foreign origin,” observes Simbron, referring to the often-used nickname for Seine-Saint-Denis, the broader area that encompasses La Courneuve. His Tamil parents left Sri Lanka for France before he was born.

“We have no taboos about religion. Whatever it may be, we strongly embrace it: Muslims, Christians, or Hindus,” he says. “Here, religious expression is much more relaxed. Perhaps, at one time, Catholics were a bit more timid because they were very much in the minority.”

In this multi-religious context, it is Islam that serves as a reference point, to varying degrees, depending on the neighborhood.

“The life of the neighborhood is determined by the Muslim faith,” explains 26-year-old Bryan who lives in the vast Val-Fourré district in Mantes-la-Jolie. “During Ramadan, it’s dead during the day and comes alive at night.”

As a result, all the young Catholics interviewed by La Croix, explain how their daily contact with Muslims — many of whom “proudly” practice their Islamic faith —  recount how this both challenges and strengthens their own Catholic faith.

“When I was younger and saw them fasting during Ramadan at 11 or 12 years old, I found it impressive not to eat during the day at that age,” whispers Simbron, speaking in Saint-Yves Church in La Courneuve, where the silence is regularly disturbed by the passing tram. “Around 13 to 14 years old, I asked my mother to teach me how to observe Lent.”

Further reading: Religious coexistence in Marseille undermined by fractures

A relationship with Islam that shapes the identity of young Catholics

The relationship with Islam profoundly shapes their identity and “colors” their Catholicism. Kendhal, a 26-year-old, grew up in Limeil-Brévannes in southeastern Paris in a Catholic family of Congolese origin. He lived in a very mixed neighborhood, and when younger, he was impressed by interacting with young Muslims who were committed to their faith, knew their religion inside out and were capable of dropping everything to go pray.

Kendhal explains that some end up converting to Islam, because being Muslim in working-class neighborhoods is considered “cool” and gives people a “sense of belonging to a community”, something that is not as strong among Catholics.

“Catholics are not necessarily well-informed about their faith and sometimes receive sacraments as administrative formalities,” asserts the young man, who is very comfortable discussing his Christian way of life.

For over two years, Kendhal, a marketing and events project manager, has been heavily involved in Fide, an association bringing together young Catholics from the different suburbs of the Paris region. Founded in 2020, Fide focuses on evangelization, outreach activities, and Bible studies, contributing to bringing young people from the region together and combating their isolation. 

The association has nearly 300 members, but its fame has spread through social media, helping to unite Catholics from the suburbs around a common identity. Fide’s president, Janvier Hongla, is the son of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother from Cameroon. Hongla serves as a spokesperson for these young people who are in need of role models. 

An entrepreneur who grew up in Seine-et-Marne, he was invited to speak to the French Bishops’ Conference last November in Lourdes. And at the beginning of February, he was a guest at the “Assume ta foi en banlieue” – a weekend training in Tigery which brought together 80 young Catholics from the Diocese of Versailles to “assume their faith in the suburbs”. 

Despite sometimes precarious living conditions, these young Catholics are not driven primarily by questions of social justice, although they are not indifferent to them. Their visceral need is to be able to answer their Muslim or evangelical friends’ questions and to justify their faith: why be Catholic? Who is the Virgin Mary? Where does the Church come from?

Learning to testify to one’s faith

Among them, Camille, a 25-year-old physiotherapist from Trappes, is not one to keep her religion to herself. “When I was younger, I would have liked to have more tools to explain what I believe,” she says. “We interact with Muslims every day. They have a lot of knowledge about their faith and sometimes about ours, even quoting verses from the Bible. From time to time, we are also asked why we don’t convert.”

Camille is very involved in her parish in Trappes, just like her entire family, which originated from the Ivory Coast. She can rely on a vibrant Catholic community that focuses on youth, but not all young people have such deep roots, and some feel very alone in their neighborhoods.

Bryan, from Mantes-la-Jolie, has a Martinique father and a German mother. He has become a “specialist” in theological debate after many evening conversations with Muslims in his neighborhood. At 26, he can confidently speak about how Jesus is perceived in the Quran or how the prophet of Islam, Mohammed, died. “Traumatized” when, in fourth grade, his friends told him that as a non-Muslim he would go to hell, he zealously delved into reading the Bible, had discussions with the priest of his parish, and studied religious content on the Internet.

Cyberspace, especially through Instagram and TikTok, also plays a significant role in the awakening of young Catholics on the outskirts of Paris. Social networks help break down barriers and serve as amplifiers, a means of asserting oneself, akin to evangelicals who are very active online. Simbron takes his smartphone and expertly scrolls through the accounts with the most “followers”—from Fide to certain chaplaincies, like the one in Belvédère in Val-de-Marne. All show a joyful, multicultural Catholicism expressed without restraint.

Further reading: Charles de Foucauld: “A great figure of interreligious dialogue”

Proud to be Catholic

Even in the street. Tagra, a 19-year-old Congolese, proudly extols the virtues of his parish in Sarcelles, a bustling, multicultural city in Val-d’Oise. Thanks to social media, he shows us the video of the procession hold in mid-February in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes.

The images are impressive: they show hundreds of parishioners, many of them very young, walking through the streets of Sarcelles, holding candles in their hands, behind a statue of the Virgin Mary. “Here, the Church is dynamic, and it’s a family,” insists the rap and gospel artist. “This encourages us to embrace our faith even more,” he says.

On a Sunday morning in early March, Tagra tours his Sablons neighborhood, passing by the 14-story tower where he lives, with the assurance of someone who knows every corner. He hurries for Mass, “otherwise, we won’t have seats in the church”. In fact, as soon as the Mass begins, the building is packed. Many worshipers have to stand, and among the congregation, there are a lot of young faces.

Today, these young Catholics from the outskirts of Paris – who sometimes feel unrecognized by the official Church of France – challenge it to listen to them and change their perspective on their disadvantaged communities. They are confident in their place within the Church.

An example of this was in mid-December of last year, when over 400 young Catholics from suburbs across the region flocked to Saint-Roch parish in a wealthy section of Paris to participate in a nightlong Eucharistic adoration. The goal of the event was to unite communities and find resources to better embrace their faith, but also to be actors within their neighborhoods.

Behind this unprecedented gathering was a small group from Val-d’Oise, called the “Celestial City.” In early February, these young people were invited to the French Bishops’ Conference headquarters where they were welcomed by Vincent Breynaert, the priest in charge of youth evangelization and vocations within the Church of France.

Another encouraging moment occurred in early January at the initiative of the Missionary Fraternity of the Suburbs, when twelve young representatives coming from Bondy, Trappes, Sarcelles, and La Courneuve had the honor of meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican.

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