GURAT, France, Oct. 9 (UPI) -- There is a good reason for the old adage that everybody has two homelands -- his own and France. The reason is that for all their modernist bluster, the French can be counted upon to maintain traditions, even if others find it chic to abandon them.
Consider a remark by the Most Rev. André Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Tours. "There we thought that marriage as an institution would break down," he told this columnist Wednesday, "but now we find that the number of nuptials is actually even increasing slightly."
Since the early 1990s, the number of weddings has gone up steadily, and this despite the fact that you can now also enter "registered partnerships," an option only 55,000 couples have taken up so far, mostly homosexuals.
But since the all-time low of 250,651 marriages in 1995, more and more French couples had their local mayor or registrar join them in matrimony -- 305,500 in the year 2000. And of those, 40 percent -- or 122,580 couples -- then went on to the altar.
Vingt-Trois, president of his Church's Commission on Marriage, concludes from this that Catholicism exerts a stronger influence on French society that it is usually given credit for.
The Rev. Jean Jonchéray, a renowned sociologist of religion and vice rector of the Catholic Institute (University) in Paris, takes a similar view: "It's not so much that our country, probably the most secularized in Europe, is becoming more religious. It is just becoming less a-religious, and that's already a good thing."
The "marriage boom" is no unadulterated blessing, though, because it also causes the Church considerable problems. For one thing, clerics and sanctuaries are "surbooké," as Figaro magazine described it, using an idiom normally frowned upon by linguistic purists in France as "Franglais."
In English this means of course that they were overbooked. What do you do in this nation of 62 million if so many young people wish to say, "yes," but there are only 25,000 diocesan priests -- average age: 67 -- and 1,500 permanent deacons in front of whom they can do so?
What do you do if you want to start a family with the blessings of the Church in a part of France where two geriatric priests look after 50 or more altars? Do you participate in collective weddings at the end Sunday mass?
Here Vingt-Trois suggests that his fellow-countrymen might become just a trifle less traditional. "Why do they all have to be married on Saturdays?" he wondered. On Saturdays in some areas, especially the large metropolitan centers, five or more weddings succeed each other in certain churches.
Given that the 35-hour workweek in France allows you to knock off on Fridays -- why not take you bride to the altar on that day? Moreover, if you must book a ballroom 18 months ahead of time to feast and dance at your nuptials, says the archbishop, why not book your wedding chapel at the same time?
Jonchéray takes this a little further: "Why must they all get married in June and July when the weather is good? What's wrong with another month?
These practical considerations notwithstanding, Vingt-Trois sees chances for faith in this new development. Not that he has any illusions that all those you have a priest join them in holy matrimony do so out of a deep religious conviction.
As Jonchéray sees it, even the increased interest in things spiritual cannot hide the fact that this "ultramodern" society -- he dismisses the term post-modernity -- "is so deeply relativistic that it even relativizes secularism."
Of those who marry in church, "only about 10 (percent) to 15 percent are deeply committed Catholics," estimates the archbishop. "Fifty percent come from traditional Christian families but may not be fully convinced of the Church's message. Yet a Christian wedding offers us an opportunity for instructing them and integrating them socially."
Finally, there are those "who were touched by elements of the Christian message, have never been catechized but are searching for a way of making their marriage sacred."
This, too, offers an opportunity to bring these people to Christ, but -- more importantly -- have their children be raised as Christians. Vingt-Trois sees a phenomenon now in France that resembles the Kulturprotestantismus, or cultural Protestantism, in 19th-century Germany.
Then, many highly educated people remained church members not because of their theological conviction but because of Protestantism's cultural aspects. In so doing, they saw to it that their children received religious instruction, and thus the faith was passed down to the next generations.
But how do you pass on this faith if there's no priest around? In France, more than a 100,000 faithful Catholic laymen and women have taken on functions that use to be the pastor's province. One such function is marriage instruction.
Says the archbishop, "Married congregants are now doing this job. They visit brides and grooms and teach them what a Christian marriage is all about.
Says Jonchéray, "Why not take the next step and let laymen officiate at weddings as 'extraordinary marriage ministers?' The pope approves of this idea. The French bishops only have to ask him for permission."
They probably should. Next month they'll meet in Lourdes, and the marriage boom is at the top of their agenda.