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.
The 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.
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.