Wednesday 17 April 2024

Pascal Delannoy takes up the post in the beleaguered archdiocese of Strasbourg

Pascal Delannoy, until now Bishop of Saint-Denis in the concrete-grey north-east of Paris, says: "You can't just look at the tragedies. Every day, I experience a very different Saint-Denis to the one portrayed in the media. There is enormous fraternity and solidarity among the people here." Solidarity - standing together: This will also be necessary in Strasbourg, which is often considered a tranquil city, where the 67-year-old will be inaugurated as the 107th Bishop of Strasbourg next Sunday.

After all, the metropolis of Alsace, for centuries a bone of contention between France and Germany, is a religious hotspot behind the scenes. Not only is the city of 290,000 inhabitants considered a stronghold of Islamism in France alongside Paris and Marseille. Catholicism - which is comparatively well-heeled here - has also been in a bit of a mess recently.

Resignation of the predecessor after months of conflict

Flashback: A year ago, in May 2023, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Strasbourg Archbishop Luc Ravel (66) after months of controversy over Ravel's conduct in office and following a Vatican review. Catholics had previously demonstrated in favour of his dismissal on the forecourt of Strasbourg Cathedral.

Ravel had headed the archbishopric since the beginning of 2017 and critics described the religious, who was previously France's military bishop, as quick-tempered and distant from people, sometimes cutting and authoritarian. His followers, however, rejected this. In June 2022, for example, the diocese's head of finance, Jacques Bourrier, was dismissed without notice and without justification. The former naval officer announced his intention to appeal - and spoke of the bishop's "banana republic practices".

There were also disputes about the two Strasbourg auxiliary bishops, Christian Kratz (71) and Gilles Reithinger (51). Archbishop Ravel had largely disempowered Kratz - after it was reported that the Vatican had appointed him interim administrator (Apostolic Administrator) in order to remove Ravel's power to lead the archdiocese. After all, this controversy was resolved with Ravel's departure.

Unlike the Reithinger appointment. He resigned two months ago, in mid-February, after he was accused of covering up sexual assaults. The official line was: "due to health problems".

Quite a plucked personnel tableau

The new Archbishop Delannoy's personnel roster is quite a mixed bag. And he will have to deal with another peculiarity in his new role - which doesn't sound very unpleasant at first glance: the Archdiocese of Strasbourg is significantly wealthier than most other dioceses in France.

This is due to a peculiarity of state-church law in Alsace and Lorraine: In 1905, the secular Third Republic cancelled the French Concordat of 1801 and implemented a strict separation of church and state for France. However, Alsace and Lorraine belonged to Germany between the wars of 1870/71 and 1914/18 - so the Concordat is still in force there today. This also means that the French state pays the salaries of the clergy as well as building subsidies.

According to a diocese insider, this also gives some priests "a certain sense of independence from the bishop". Some took good care of their advantages from an economically comfortable position. For example, there was resentment when Delannoy's predecessor criticised Christian complacency just a few weeks after his arrival in Strasbourg and declared that no one could be a good priest without a passionate love of Christ. Many were outraged to be criticised right from the start.

The new man will not make this mistake: Concilience in his dealings, level-headedness, knowledge of human nature and analysis, the ability to listen and mediate; these qualities are valued both in the Bishops' Conference, where Delannoy was Vice-Chairman for many years, and in his former diocese.

"He listens to people. His sermons are concrete"

Jean-Luc Brunin, Bishop of Le Havre, described the new archbishop as a peacemaker in the newspaper "La Croix"; he could overcome the deep crisis of confidence in Strasbourg. And the Jesuit Marcel Remon from Delannoy's previous diocese of Saint-Denis emphasises his modesty and accessibility as a priest: "He listens to people. His sermons are concrete. You can sense that he worked before he decided to become a priest."

Delannoy, who was born in Comines on the border with Belgium, was actually a chartered accountant before he was ordained at the age of 32. His first assignment as a priest: the economically weak Roubaix, also known among cycling fans as "the hell of the north", which was shaken by structural change. After years as an auxiliary bishop in Lille, he was appointed bishop of the Seine-Saint-Denis department in 2009, which is one of the poorest in France. It is no coincidence that Delannoy also heads the Council for Solidarity and Diaconia of the Bishops' Conference.

The new archbishop also has a great sense of cultural diversity: Maghrebi, black Africans, Chinese, Tamils - around 130 nationalities live in Saint-Denis. Delannoy: "This prevents one particular group from gaining the upper hand, as is the case in other regions. Here, it would be a total illusion to believe that you could only do a thing among the French." Of course, Catholics often believe that diversity is an opportunity. "Of course you can say that," says the bishop - "and still nothing has been achieved! That's a pretty thick plank."

Young people are particularly close to Delannoy's heart. "We have to stop always thinking that they are the future of the church," he says. "They are our present!" And: "If we can't offer young people work, then we are signalling to them that we don't need them. And that wreaks havoc in their minds."

Bishop's motto "With humility and confidence"

Delannoy's bishop's motto is: "With humility and confidence". He can make good use of both in his new role. And also his financial expertise as an auditor, which is often in demand from his fellow bishops - because there are actually church funds to manage in Strasbourg; a stark contrast. The same applies to the number of clergy: instead of 140 diocesan and religious priests in Saint-Denis, there will now be more than 600.

The auditor Delannoy should be able to listen to them and understand them. 

Authoritarianism, however, is far from his mind. Some observers believe that making decisions and asserting himself will be a challenge in the future.