My French friends, colleagues and family are often very surprised to discover that I am a Roman Catholic. In their minds, "American" is synonymous with "Protestant Christian." Some even go so far as to imply that "French" and "Catholic" just naturally go together even in this secular Republic. This seems to be true even of my friends who are supposedly atheists. It has not escaped my notice that the vast majority of my friends here have had their children baptized in the Church. "It's tradition," they tell me or, "It's part of French culture."
Well, mes amis, it's also a part of my culture of origin. Just as the English language was brought over by European immigrants to the U.S., the Roman Catholic religion was carried to the New World by generations of German, French, Spanish, Italian and other immigrants where it took root and flourished. Catholics are not a majority in the U.S. but they do constitute a very large minority. In times past there was discrimination against them - you have only to look at the religious affiliation of American presidents to see it. Out of over 40 U.S. presidents, only one Roman Catholic was ever elected to that office: John F. Kennedy.
Growing up Catholic in the U.S. I was always aware of this. It was never a problem per se, just a fact that, nevertheless, meant keeping a discreet silence when my Protestant friends enthusiastically talked about being "born again" or when Catholic positions on birth control and other controversial topics were dissected and found wanting over a dinner date.
So it was very odd to find myself in a country where Roman Catholics were firmly in the majority (around 65% in 2006) and Protestant Christians a very tiny minority (around 2%). In some ways it has been liberating. To know what Saint's Day is being celebrated, I have only to look at the weather report (for example today, March 18, is the day of Saint Cyrille). When I walk down the streets of Versailles or Paris, there are churches everywhere if I want to light a candle or pray before going about my daily business. If I want to go to Mass I have a multitude of options since most churches offer early morning, lunchtime and evening services every day. Some of the Church's Holy Days of Obligation are also national holidays (something that seems rather unfair to other religions and contrary to the secular nature of the French Republic).
In other ways, however, it has been a little like walking through a minefield. I have frequently been drawn into surreal conversations with French Catholics who were obviously having a moment of cognitive dissonance as they tried to square "American" and "Catholic" in their heads. Some have assumed I converted when I married a Frenchman (not at all - I was baptized Catholic as an infant by my Catholic parents) and others have tried to explain to me that Catholicism in France is not at all like Catholicism in the U.S. or in other parts of the world. One member of my French family even refused to believe that the sacraments (Baptism and Confirmation, for example) were the same in both countries or that the Mass is celebrated in the same way all over the world.
Another complication has been my status as an immigrant. In theory, as a baptized, confirmed, practicing Catholic I am welcome in any church, anytime, anywhere. In reality, I have learned to be very careful since some parishes (not the Church itself but the parishioners) seem to have an rather unhealthy connection with some of the more xenophobic anti-immigrant elements of French society. If I so much as catch a whiff of the Front National, I back off immediately. In all fairness I cannot know how such people would react to me (in all likelihood they would consider me "not so foreign" and I would be very welcome) but I still find it painful to be around such people and the rhetoric hurts even when they carefully explain that they are not talking about me. In fact, their words only make it worse because if I gratefully accept belonging on those terms then I am complicit in their hatred and ostracism of the Other.
With that in mind, and after much trial and error, I have found a few churches where I am comfortable and attend Mass on a regular basis. The French churches that I attend (or have attended in the past) are Sainte Odile (the church where I was married and my children baptized) and Saint Ignace (the Jesuit church rue de sevres). But the church where I feel the most comfortable and the most welcome is Saint Joseph's (the "mission anglophone") on Avenue Hoche near Etoile. It is not so much that the Mass in in English (though it is nice to be able to sing hymns from my childhood) but the sheer diversity of the population. In this context "English-speaking Catholic Church" means serving all the people in Paris who speak English as a first or second (or even third) language which means Chinese, Indians, Americans, Australians, Irish, Canadians, Sri Lankans, Africans and many other nationalities. United by faith, national origin is irrelevant here.
Something that, in my view, ought to be the case everywhere.