Some national holidays in France are tied to the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church and its Holy Days of Obligation. Next Tuesday Roman Catholics everywhere will be celebrating All Saints Day which is known in France as simply as "La Toussaint".
La Toussaint is actually two feast days in one: la Toussaint (la fête de Toussaint) is November 1 and All Souls (la fête des morts) the following day. The former is indeed a national holiday here with everyone given the day off to go to Mass (if Catholic) or relax (if not). Traditionally during this period many French families go home to their villages or town of origin and visit the family cemetery. This year la Toussaint falls on a Tuesday and almost everyone I know is also taking the Monday off (this is called taking the "pont" (bridge). Hence the exodus from my building the past two days.
In past years our family has celebrated by going to my mother-in-law's ancestral village in the Limousin and staying in a house the family still owns in a small village not far from Limoges. This is a sparsely populated rural region of France which is still not terribly prosperous. During World War II the Resistance was very active here and until very recently the Communist Party was too. Strangely enough (strange to outsiders but not considered odd to the people I've talked to over the years) the Catholic Church in the area and the Communist Party seem to have co-existed quite nicely for many years.
Reading the papers one might have the impression that France is gradually becoming a purely secular nation. My left-leaning French friends like to point out with a certain glee that church attendance is down as well as baptisms. My more conservative friends however just smile serenely and quietly point out that the Church has been here since the 2nd century AD and what exactly is the problem/progress that everyone is so concerned/happy about?
I see the their point. The Church has been down before. There is a lovely church near La Republique that I have visited many times that was once used as a warehouse for storing flour after the glorious Revolution. It has been beautifully restored and has a lively congregation of believers. In fact nearly all the places where I have lived or visited here in France (the Limousin, Brittany, Passy, Versailles) churches are everywhere and they are very well-attended.
I think those who predict the demise of religion in France are indulging in a bit of wishful thinking. True the Church and her adherents are rather quiet compared to the more raucous religious atmosphere that exists in places like the United States. But I would argue that the Church here has reason to be content: Catholics remain the solid majority in this country, the Catholic Church having a near monopoly in the religious realm, and the Church has real power to mold and shape the culture from the shadows. In all the years I've been here I have never heard a Frenchman or woman frame the religious debate in terms other than Catholic versus atheist or secular versus Islam as if other options (Protestants, Jews, Buddhists and others) were simply irrelevant to the conversation.
In this context I can see why the Catholic Church in France is sailing serenely into the 21st century. Protected by the laws that separate Church and State, the Church owns vast property, educates a large number of French citizens in its wide network of schools and quietly makes its wishes known in a continuing shadow dialogue with the secular authorities both at the national and EU level in Europe.
This year the Flophouse has decided to stay in Versailles and so we will not make the usual trek to the Limousin. Nevertheless, I will be in Paris early in the week and no doubt I will probably find a moment to slip into one of the ubiquitous churches to light a candle and say:
Réquiem ætérnam dona eis Dómine; et lux perpétua lúceat eis. Requiéscant in pace. Amen.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.