Following the LOUDfence we held in February at Christ the King Church in Plymouth, the Catholic Church in France held a LOUDfence between the 28th and 29th March.  This was held as part of the Plenery Assembly of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of France.  The Diocese of Plymouth sent several messages of support that were added to the Lourdes LOUDfence.

Fr Mark’s Skelton’s poem about LOUDfence, ‘A Sanctuary Reclaimed’, was translated into French by Josephine Collins Attar from our diocese, and was read at Lourdes during the LOUDfence.

Antonia Sobocki, the LOUDfence Project Manager attended the LOUDfence in Lourdes and has kindly shared a summary of her experience of this:

The journey to Lourdes started on a bus on the way to the Diocese of Plymouth LOUDfence. A Theologian called Katherine Shirk Lucas whom is part of a working group for the Bishop’s Council of France followed the work of the LOUDfence on Twitter. She brought our work to the attention of her colleagues in the working group in Paris who unanimously decided to adopt the LOUDfence.  She sent me an email which I received somewhere near Taunton.  She asked if the working group could have photos and feedback from the church in Plymouth for the Bishop’s Council.  We supplied them with all the information they needed. The news we were to be adopted by the Bishop’s Council in France was astonishing.  It still is.

Our trip to Paris and Lourdes was a journey of immense hope, joy and sadness.  My daughter Catherine and I met many lay activists and clergy who have a shared desire for justice and reconciliation in our church.

On our first night we stayed with the founder of Rubans Contre L’oubli (Ribbons Against Oblivion) in France, Katherine.  Katherine is a Theologian and Senior Lecturer at the Catholic University in Paris.  She lectures on ecumenical theology, the need to heal the church of abuse and is involved in the ongoing professional development of priests.  Her zeal and determination to be the church which cares is an inspiration.  We are overjoyed to have met such a committed fellow guardian of the domestic church on our journey to spread the word about compassion.  We stayed with her and her family at her apartment in Paris on our first night.

The next day we all met with other activists at Montparnasse Station in central Paris and caught a very modern sleek train to Bordeaux. The train even left exactly on time. At Bordeaux we met more activists on their way to the Bishops Conference too and we caught the train to Lourdes. We arrived at Lourdes late in the evening.  We stayed in a hotel which overlooked the basilica.

The next day we went to the Bishop’s Conference in the large modern church of St Bernadette which is located opposite the Grotto on the over side of the river. When we entered the conference we met so many people who were working for the changes we want for the church. It helped me to realise that we are not alone.  There are countless others in our church who want the same thing.  We spoke to lots of bishops and senior clergy. We were met with a whole range of reactions. A lot of positivity, some apprehension and much curiosity.  They asked us lots of questions, they talked together over coffee and then they all descended on us to tie ribbons and messages. The Archbishop of Reims and President of the Bishops Council was very thankful for the supportive messages from the church in the UK.  I was touched to see him tying on messages from his brother bishops in England.

I met priests who all told me they were victims of sexual violence since ordination. I sat with them and listened to all their stories. I gave them my contact details and told them we are here whenever they need us.  I thanked them for being brave enough to speak because in doing so they not only free themselves from their prison of silence, but they also  throw open the door for others in the same situation.  They told me they have no formal support and feel left to cope alone. This reinforces our belief a national care service for survivors and those affected by abuse is a necessity for everyone in the church.

At the end of the day all of the bishops gathered together for closing prayers.  They had asked for the LOUDfence to be erected in front of the steps of the main altar in the church where the conference was being held. They asked us to sit and pray with them in front of the main altar.  It was a surreal experience to be sat with those responsible for the care of the church in France praying to God in front of a project I started on my kitchen table.  I still can’t quite believe this happened.

The impact of the LOUDfence lead to religious sisters who were in attendance at the Bishop’s Conference asking if the LOUDfence could be taken to the Conference of the Annual National Assembly of Ordained Religious of France from 11th to 12th April in Paris.  We are so heartened by their enthusiastic embrace of the LOUDfence.  Sadly this is also motivated by recent revelations that on an anonymous poll of the religious ordained of France conducted by the heads of the religious orders, two thirds of those who participated said they had experienced sexual violence since ordination.  When the conference is concluded the LOUDfence will be dismantled and re-errected in the Headquarters of the Bishops Plenary Council in Paris where it will remain on display. The LOUDfence has spread to France.

The bonds we have all formed as an international movement have resulted in a delegation from the Roman Catholic Church in France now preparing to come over to the LOUDfence being hosted at St Chad’s RC Cathedral by the Archdiocese of Birmingham.  We are looking forward to welcoming them all.  As Fr Hans Zollner from the Pontifical Gregorian University in the Vatican would say, “Keep doing what you’re doing – the network is growing”.