The Fire in Paris

cathedrale fermee
April 2019 screenshot from

In April 2019, we all looked to Paris, France, with sorrowful eyes. You don’t have to be a Disney musical fan to care about the Cathedral of Notre Dame. I had nightmares for a week, of burning wooden beams falling from soaring Gothic arches, crushed altars, and darkness in the church.

hunchback notre dameThe fire occurred on Monday of Holy Week. The then-Archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, celebrated Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter at the nearby downtown-Paris churches of St. Sulpice and St. Eustache. I remember tuning-in, to the Paris Archdiocese’s YouTube channel, to watch the archbishop’s sermons. I found myself comforted by his evident faith. He communicated an impressive sense of resolve.

To be perfectly honest: I had spent time in a few sacristies in France, on a trip when I was a seminarian–and they were highly unpleasant experiences for a straight man to undergo.

So in April 2019, when the world turned its eyes to Paris, I was amazed that the French church had managed to produce such a strong leader as Aupetit. Here was someone who could give the Christian world a real sense of hope, in the immediate aftermath of the Notre-Dame fire. It seemed like a miracle.

Turns out that I was far from alone in my esteem of Archbishop Aupetit.

Over the course of the past few weeks, Parisian Catholics, as well as others all over the world, have had occasion to express their appreciation of Archbishop Aupetit’s preaching. I have studied a great number of French-Catholic on-line comment boxes lately. Those comment boxes are full of remembrances of Aupetit’s good sermons.

But wait. Why now? Why are Catholics weeping for Aupetit right now? Because the Holy Father has rather suddenly, and rather inexplicably, removed Archbishop Aupetit from his post.

Holy Thursday Notre Dame 2018
Paris’ Archbishop Michel Aupetit (back) takes part at the start of the procession of Easter’s Holy Thursday on March 29, 2018 at Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral in Paris. / AFP PHOTO / Ludovic MARIN (Photo credit should read LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images)

The general idea is: it has to do with a woman.

Last week, a French reporter asked Pope Francis to explain why he had removed Archbishop Aupetit. The pope spoke of Aupetit’s “violations of the sixth commandment.” But “not total.” He gave “small caresses and massages to the secretary.” And this, supposedly, led to gossip. So much gossip that Aupetit could no longer govern the diocese.

Problem here is: The Vatican press office later removed the words “the secretary” from the official transcript of the papal press conference. The pope had referred to rampant “gossip.” But no one in Paris had ever heard anything about Aupetit having an affair with his secretary. In fact, the general public had never heard anything at all about the Archbishop giving “little caresses and massages” to anyone.

Shortly after Pope Francis gave his explanation–which only served to cause further gossip–a Paris magazine published pictures taken with a telephoto lens, under the heading “Archbishop of Paris, Lost for Love.”

The pictures show the now-removed bishop on a walk in a park with an attractive woman. In an article accompanying the photos, the venerable Vatican reporter Caroline Pigozzi reports that: “Aupetit lied to the pope.”

Problem here is: The photos show nothing compromising. To the contrary, we see two friends walking and talking. Also: The woman in these photos is not the woman the pope had mentioned. Rather, it is a Belgian theologian named Laetitia Calmeyn, known by Parisian Catholics as a dear friend and confidante of the former archbishop. Both Aupetit and Calmeyn have since given forthright interviews, lamenting the bad intentions of the magazine Paris Match.

Archbishop Aupetit denies ever having had an affair with anyone. He has made his denials calmly and with a great deal of lucidity. And no real evidence of any affair has ever appeared, despite Paris tabloids promising for weeks now to “reveal it all.”

The pope’s press-conference answer about why he removed the archbishop apparently refers to this:

Over nine years ago, then-Father Aupetit “mishandled” the attentions of a woman who had grown overly fond of him. Aupetit acknowledged in an interview this week that he once massaged the woman’s shoulders, apparently at her suggestion. Aupetit practiced medicine before he became a priest and asks the reader to keep that in mind.

Aupetit said in his interview that he hasn’t had anything to do with the woman in question since 2012, and that he reported the whole affair to the then-Cardinal Archbishop of Paris. A report of the episode has been in Aupetit’s Vatican file for the past 18 months (if not longer.)

Now, is Michel Aupetit one of the most adroit liars ever to don a clerical collar? He would have to be. Or: His removal from office actually does not have to do with any actual immoral relationship with anyone.

In fact, it has to do with this: A circle of French churchmen and wealthy lay-people have conspired for some time to get rid of their archbishop. They have not seen in him the qualities necessary to lead the French church. He lacks the right “theological culture.” He is too interested in spending his time preaching the Gospel.

The Vatican nuncio in France has long agreed with this sentiment. He has been working for months, if not years, on getting Aupetit removed from office.


Aupetit became Archbishop of Paris almost exactly four years ago, with a mandate to govern for 9-16 years, depending on his health. (He remains vigorous at 70.)

Since his installation in office, the Church in Paris has suffered: the Notre Dame fire, the coronavirus crisis, and the release of the comprehensive report on Catholic sex-abuse in France.

I think you could roll up the leadership virtues of Julius Caesar, Nelson Mandela, and Winston Churchill, all into one person, and make that masterful person the Archbishop of Paris, and even he would have had a hard time dealing with the challenges of 2019-2021.

There is an enormous irony here–as there usually is, when it comes to high-level ecclesiastical decision-making. Apparently, Aupetit’s enemies feared a disaster for the Church in Paris, under the government of Aupetit. They convinced the pope to go along with their plan.

And now they have managed to make a much-greater disaster than any other disaster that could conceivably have happened.

The whole thing seems all-too-terribly familiar to me.



3 thoughts on “The Fire in Paris

  1. It’s hard to make any sense out of Pope Francis’s remarks on the plane. I’m not sure it’s worth the effort to try to understand what appears on its face to be incoherent ramblings. It seems to me these “in-flight” press conferences are just devices that let anyone to take from them anything they want. The pope always says controversial things, like that sins of the flesh aren’t really all that bad, and if someone objects, they are told that his true meaning was lost in translation. Since none of the last three popes have been native Italian-speakers, this has enough plausibility, or plausibly deniability rather, that anyone upset at the papal remarks can be upbraided for not giving him the benefit of the doubt. Is there ever any video of these press conferences so that fair-minded people can judge for themselves?

    Anyway, I don’t think your righteous cause will be strengthened by feeling too badly for Archbishop Aupetit. After all, he DID resign. Even if it was requested by the pope, if he truly was innocent and wanted to continue, he could have refused. You didn’t voluntarily resign your two parishes; you forced your bishop Heston-style to pry them from your cold, dead hands so-to-speak. That’s why people like me respect what you’re doing so much–you’re a fighter. Aupetit went willingly into whatever plan Pope Francis has for him; he’s not the fighter we need.

    What the situation in the Church needs most are more bishops willing to stand up to the pope the way St. Paul challenged St. Peter at Antioch. Aupetit is not such a man. In fact, not a single bishop is willing to call out Pope Francis’s horrible behavior regarding this crisis, despite the fact that Scripture shows us sometimes even Peter needs a Paul to keep him straight. (And don’t tell me Vigano; he only came forward once his reputation was on the line–for years he held power and did little to nothing for victims and their families.) Alas, instead of a cadre of righteous bishops who could pressure the pope into change by opposing him to his face, all we have willing to stand up to the machine, to my knowledge, is one priest. We’ll have to make do for now I guess and keep praying.

  2. I too have been curious about this story, also in part because of Aupetit’s poise when handling media appearances after the Notre Dame fire. And Pope Francis’s in-flight press conference added a new twist to the story.

    At first I was quite surprised that he’d let slip the detail that Aupetit’s firing had to do with massaging the secretary, since this had been reported nowhere else. It seemed imprudent to just throw that detail out there, so off the cuff.

    In addition, Francis’s immediate caveat that “sins of the flesh are not the most serious” made me think of McCarrick. “They were just massages… just touching… plus sins of the flesh are not the most serious.” Seemed like a dangerous sort of defense—something that could be used to wave away actions that in reality were worse than they sounded.

    Then I read that Aupetit had to go to the media to clarify that actually the secretary had nothing to do with it and suddenly the whole thing became kind of hilarious. Seriously, telling the entire press corps that Aupetit had done “small massages on the secretary” when the secretary wasn’t even involved?

    The Tablet article you link to does lean heavily on the argument that “Paris needs a cannier politician for its bishop,” but I’m not sure that it supports your interpretation that Aupetit was “too interested in spending his time preaching the Gospel.”

    And frankly, there is so little information about Aupetit’s “ambiguous” relationship that it’s impossible to tell whether it was totally fine, actually pretty bad, or somewhere in the middle.

    At least at this point, I have no clear notion of WHAT is going on other than that Aupetit has enemies who wanted him gone and Pope Francis went along with it even though he didn’t understand the situation.

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