Rome Newsroom, Mar 23, 2021 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- An experimental pastoral center in the heart of the French capital closed down on March 1 on the instructions of the Archbishop of Paris.

Archbishop Michel Aupetit announced his decision to suppress the Saint-Merry Pastoral Center, in the Beaubourg-Les Halles area, in a Feb. 7 letter to the community.

The decision, which received widespread media coverage in France, is reportedly the result of years of tensions between some of the parish’s lay members and its three last pastors.

The pastoral center was created in 1975 by Cardinal François Marty, the then archbishop of Paris. Following the Second Vatican Council, the center was intended to be a place to “invent new modes for the Church of tomorrow.” It quickly became a hotbed of Catholic progressivism.

Activities in the 16th-century Gothic church were overseen by both priests and lay people, who could participate in the liturgy and preach during a Sunday Mass.

The Spanish theologian José Arregi has described the center as “an open church where neither legal papers, nor religion, nor doctrinal orthodoxy, nor sexual orientation, nor gender identity matter.”

In response to Aupetit’s letter, lay members of the community launched an online petition, which has gained around 12,000 signatures, urging the archbishop to resume dialogue and let them pursue their mission.

Karine Dalle, a spokesperson for the diocese, told CNA that the decision was in no way related to the pastoral nature of the center, but rather to serious excesses at the parish dating back many years.

She said that the two last pastors of Saint-Merry — Fr. Daniel Duigou (2015-2019) and Fr. Alexandre Denis (2019-2020) — resigned because they were unable to establish a dialogue with key figures at the pastoral center. Their predecessor, Fr. Jacques Mérienne, also left after nine years as head of the parish amid difficulties at the end of his tenure.

The spokesperson explained that the archbishop decided to revoke Saint-Merry’s special status after Fr. Denis departed a few months ago in poor health.

“The collaboration between priests and the lay was no longer one, and Archbishop Aupetit took a decision of responsibility in the face of a hopeless situation where his priests were falling ill one after the other,” she said.

In his Feb. 7 letter — seen by CNA — Aupetit denounced “the wickedness, the lack of charity and the will to destroy” which he accused the pastoral group of showing to successive pastors.

He said that the administrator he appointed after Duigou’s departure — Msgr. Benoist de Sinety, vicar general of the diocese — told him that a small group at the center “contributed to block any free discussion process” and “generated a climate whereby charity seemed to be totally forgotten.”

The last three pastors were known for their progressive views. Duigou, in particular, extoled the virtues of the experiment at Saint-Merry and its form of governance in a 2018 book entitled “Lettre ouverte d’un curé au Pape François” (“A pastor’s open letter to Pope Francis”.)

According to a well-informed source inside the parish, the poisonous climate was caused by a hard core of the community — about 20 people, mostly aged over 70 — whose “intolerance” and “sectarian mentality” also led to the departure of lay people, many of them young.

The source told CNA: “These people were all in their twenties in 1968 [a period of civil unrest in Paris] and they shaped this community together with a beautiful initial intuition. But then they grew old together with their own codes, without ever renewing themselves or welcoming new people, cutting themselves off from reality.”

“The youth fled because their proposals were systematically refused and they didn’t recognize themselves in such a Church environment.”

The source said that the group’s aggressiveness was mainly directed towards their pastors, who they regarded as unwelcome authority figures.

“It was not the person who was contested but his very office. They refuse the institution itself and they wanted the pastor to be quiet,” the source commented.

“During the pastoral meetings, they were systematically against the pastor’s ideas and opinions. They thought they were the only ones who understood what the Church of today should be and were incapable of questioning themselves.”

CNA asked the lay people concerned about these allegations, but they did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

In an interview with the French daily Le Monde, Guy Aurenche, a long-time member of the pastoral team, denounced the “radicality of a brutal and unilateral decision” by the Diocese of Paris, but noted that the last pastor “may have been challenged aggressively.”

Aurenche suggested that the decision to close the center might have been motivated by the diocese’s hostility towards a place of “unconditional welcome, for example, to homosexual Christians and remarried divorcees, the participation of men and women in the preparation of the liturgy and the co-responsibility of lay people and priests.”

This accusation, however, was vigorously denied by the diocese, which argued that if that were the case, then the archbishop could have ended the experiment a long time ago.

“We are aware that, behind all this, there were sincere people who used to go to that church regularly and did not understand the archbishop’s decision as they were not part of the heart of the group and did not experience the methods of governance from the inside,” Dalle told CNA.

While not excluding the possibility that the diocese might allow similar pastoral experiments in the future, she said that they could not follow the model of Saint-Merry, with people who reject the very institution of the Church as well as its foundations.

Despite the archbishop’s ruling, the center’s former leaders are seeking to reestablish the community. They recently launched the website Saint-Merri-Hors-les-Murs (“Saint-Merry Outside the Walls”), after the diocese regained control of the parish’s official website. They intend to “set up think tanks and look to their ecclesial future.”

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