It is by participating in “dances of peace”, during which participants move to the rhythm of the recitation of sacred texts from all religions to seek “universal communion”, that Father Édouard de Laportalière, currently parish priest of Foix (Ariège), met several “spiritual seekers”. Among those we call “neorurals”, who came to settle in the Ariège mountains from the 1970s to escape the city, escape the consumer society and experience a way of life close to nature, there are many followers of alternative forms of spirituality.
The first time he participated, Édouard de Laportalière did not say that he was a priest. Wanting to first enter into a relationship, he thought that if those present “welcomed the man,” “they would also welcome the priest.” “I had to be myself, Édouard, without wanting anything,” he remembers today. “I was there to allow a meeting. »
The dynamic of Father Édouard de Laportalière, diocesan delegate for new beliefs, was strongly encouraged by Mgr Jean-Marc Eychenne during his episcopate in Pamiers, completed in 2022. Since his arrival in 2014, the bishop had thus encouraged the opening from the local Church to the world of neo-rurals, favoring the creation of links with these environments very open to spirituality, but often suspicious of the institutional Church.
“We realized that for these people, if the relationship was established not on questions of dogma, liturgy or morality, but on questions of spirituality, this gave rise to very rich encounters,” explains Mgr Eychenne today.
During his mandate, places for meetings between the Church and spiritual seekers emerged, such as a Sunday evening mass in the original form, or a training course in Ignatian spiritual discernment. And the bishop supported the mission of two priests, Father Antoine Renault and Father Édouard de Laportalière, in the direction of these alternative networks.
Traditionally in the diocese, these two environments nevertheless remain quite sealed, as in Saint-Girons, where despite a large weekly market bringing together natives and “neo”, contacts are infrequent between practicing Catholics and new spiritualists. In the local Church, the bishop’s voluntarism towards non-Christians may have initially offended sensitivities.
At the start of his episcopate, the rental of the diocesan center of Ornolac to an association of neo-rural people thus gave rise to some tensions. “This was poorly accepted by some, because the diocese was deprived of an advantageous location for summer camps,” reports today Father Gilles Rieux, at the time vicar general. However, this center had become “a financial pit” for the diocese.
A few years later, the bishop, keen to create a bond, also unsuccessfully suggested that the marriage preparation team of the parish of Pamiers benefit from a training session on couples offered by the neighboring ecovillage. of Sainte-Camelle. But “there was no desire from the parish community to go that far,” reports the vicar general, mentioning some rather traditional families reluctant to take the initiative. He welcomes this openness: “The bishop has really forged links with people outside the Church, and that seemed very positive to me,” he emphasizes.
In fact, it was with his blessing that Father Édouard de Laportalière, as well as Father Antoine Renault – known for his caravan tours in the department – launched in 2015 the formula of the Sunday evening mass, celebrated today. today at the Montgauzy chapel, in Foix. “We wanted to reach people who usually do not go through the doors of churches,” recalls Father Édouard.
This rather special mass begins with praise. The reading of the Gospel is followed by a time of sharing, and the sequence of Christ’s peace lasts a long time. “A certain number of people from alternative circles felt at ease because there was a very warm and fraternal side,” believes Father Édouard. Quickly, the assembly formed a community which meets regularly for shared meals.
Alain, 74, a former arborist who was inspired for a long time by Indian spiritualities before returning to Christian tradition, found his place there. He and Ursula, another member of the community, have long rejected the Church, particularly because of its inquisitorial past and its rites which, according to Ursula, “are not inhabited”.
Mass at home
Through his meetings and friendships, the priest also celebrated masses at home, with one or other of his friends. “It was an exceptional moment of silence and communion,” remembers Maryline, referring to “the sharing of bread and words.” This yoga and Ayurvedic massage teacher, inspired by the Indian spiritual figure Amma, says she does not find “this authenticity” in the institutional Church.
In this mission, Father Édouard also says he learned to discern “confusions”. He testifies to having visited places “charged with bad energies”. In this same mission in contact with new spiritual people, the posture of Father Antoine and Father Édouard varies, each participating or not in alternative spiritual practices.
During his episcopate, Bishop Eychenne also initiated the establishment of a training course in spiritual discernment according to the Ignatian method, open to these networks. “When we are overcome by emotions, it is about asking ourselves what comes from God, what comes from the spirit of the world or what comes from the Evil One,” he explains. “These are questions that also resonate with people far from the institution. »
Claire, 48 years old, teacher, had been in spiritual search for a long time in other traditions before experiencing an “encounter with Christ”. “This training really interested me because I have often made the wrong choices in my life,” she says. “I wanted to learn to listen to the voice of the Lord and no longer be fooled by other voices. »
She then trained and today provides individual spiritual support in the diocese, according to the method of Saint Ignatius.
A diocese lacking priests
For a territory of approximately 150,000 inhabitants, Ariège has twenty-two active priests. and seven retired priests, some of whom still provide services. As well as fourteen permanent deacons, who also officiate throughout the diocese.
In 2022, 486 people were baptized in Ariège, including twenty-four adults. In addition, one hundred and eleven couples were married in the church and 1,401 funerals were celebrated.