I have a confession to make. I am a Francophile. It started when I was in grade school and I came across my dad’s French I book from his time at Ignatius. My dad then proceeded to teach me to count to ten – which I still remember to this day, and he taught me the words from the first chapter of the text, words like book and pen and paper. He also taught me how to ask, “What time is it?” I was thrilled. Très bien.
Fast forward to the spring of eighth grade, and my pondering of course choices for my freshman year at Ignatius. There were two foreign language options, Latin and French, and as I looked ahead to the options for upperclassmen the choices expanded to include Spanish and Greek. Greek! How cool – in the mind of an eighth grader (well, in the mind of one eighth grader) – was Greek? They had a whole different alphabet! Remembering that my dad told me that back in his time all the really serious students, guys like my godfather Pat McGreal ’52, took Greek, I decided to take Latin as the logical gateway to taking Greek as a junior.
Thus, at the first fork in the road I turned my back on the French language. C’est la vie.
But then in college, as I continued with Latin and Greek, I also studied philosophy and came across the writings of men like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the heavy hitters of French existentialism. This happened to coincide with my roommate George Kennedy exposing me to some very “existential” (and, to almost everyone, very unknown and very unlistenable) Francophone bands like Magma, Art Zoyd, and Univers Zero. These all fed nicely into the pseudo-intellectual persona that a certain college junior was cultivating. What could be more heavy, deep, and real than reading French existentialism while listening to pretentious Belgian and French bands? C’est magnifique!
Several years later, while pursuing graduate studies at John Carroll, my Francophile center shifted from the fringes of culture to the heart of the Church when I came across the writings of the Jesuit theologian Cardinal Henri de Lubac, S.J. Reading Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man opened my eyes to a theological vison centered on the Cross, encompassing every aspect of Catholic thought (dogma, the Church, sacraments, eternal life, Church history, scripture), and filtered through the lens of culture. I fell in love with the theology of this brilliant French Jesuit, and after reading his autobiography, At the Service of the Church, I developed a heartfelt admiration for the man who produced that theology.
Not needing much of a nudge, I began to look more deeply into the important contribution made to Catholic theology and culture by the children of the Eldest Daughter of the Church. The list of prominent 20th Century French Catholic saints, thinkers, and writers is lengthy: Jacques Maritain, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Charles Péguy, Paul Claudel, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry are just a few of the more prominent examples. Vive la France!
Great French minds of the past century struggled vigorously with all of the profound questions of life’s meaning, and in my Christian Manhood classes we engage with some of those minds and their answers to those questions. The atheists and existentialists like Sartre looked at a world of suffering and pain and wondered whether a life of authenticity and meaning was even possible. They also often proposed that the best response to the pain might be utter surrender.
But, for the humble Jesuit de Lubac, who had experienced the pain of service in World War I as well as the pain of having his life’s work put on hold by his religious superiors, the answer to all of life’s suffering is the Cross, and the key that unlocks the door of authenticity is the love offered by the One Who was sacrificed on it.
There is a lot to love in the French approach to life - pommes frites fried in duck fat is a prime example. Their great thinkers help us to ponder the nature of suffering as an unavoidable part of the human condition, and the very best of those thinkers, like the profound and sublime Henri de Lubac, help us to see that through love and the Cross we can experience true and authentic joie de vivre.