Recommended Viewing: “The Churchmen” (“Ainsi soient-ils”)

I have recently had the pleasure of binge-watching a French 2012-2015 TV series with English sub-titles through the media service Netflix. Entitled “The Churchmen” in English (“Ainsi soient-ils” [“So may they be”], a reference to an “Amen” formula in French) the episodes trace the fortunes of five 20-30 something seminaries who study for ordination to the Catholic priesthood in the “Seminary of the Capuchins” in Paris. In addition, the series explores the lives of their formators as well as various authorities overseeing the Church in France and in the Vatican. Not a documentary, but a work of realistic fiction, the 24 episodes of “The Churchmen” depict adjusting to seminary life, the challenges arising from closing the seminary, and the first years of their ministry in various settings. In a way the series reminded me of the 1997-1998 American series shown on ABC, “Nothing Sacred,” but with greater complexity and depth of characterization and plot

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The principal players include: Yann LeMegueur, a scout leader and guitarist from Brittany who is the very embodiment of personal virtue and naivete; his passionate desire to follow God’s call is tempered as he gains life experience; Emmanuel Charrier, a black student of archeology who comes to believe that he is called by God to priesthood in the midst of a neurotic episode; Guillaume Morvan, the elder son of a working-class mother afflicted by severe depression and brother to a 17-year-old sexually active sister; Raphael Chanseulme, the pampered younger son of a very wealthy aristocratic French family; he is disgusted by their bourgeois values yet attracted to social advancement in both secular and ecclesial settings; and Jose Del Sarte, a denizen of the rough streets of a Paris suburb whom we first meet as he is released from a prison in Toulouse for murdering a Russian thug. In addition to the seminarians, we are also introduced to their formators: Fr. Fromenger, a passionate supporter of the Second Vatican Council; Fr. Bosco, a faithful disciple of Fromenger who comes to learn that his hero is not without faults; and Sr. Antonietta, Fromenger’s young assistant. Various other ecclesiastical figures round out the cast, from Monsignor Roman, the calculating and pompous president of the French Bishops’ Conference, through Roman curial officials divided into “progressives” and “conservatives”, to “Pope Gregory” himself (a truly bizarre figure, perhaps blending the end-of-life illness of John Paul II with the personal asceticism of Benedict XVI and the strong influence of Mother Pascalina Lehnert on the last years of Pius XII).

I think readers of Pray Tell will be especially intrigued with the glimpses of liturgical life both in the Capuchin seminary and in various parish settings around France over the course of the series. Just as there are minor lapses in terminology and questionable actions on the part of individuals in the series, so there are questionable depictions of some worship practices (e.g., the seminarians’ ability to sing fairly complex polyphony without reference to scores). It was also somewhat painful to have the vain and conflicted, model-handsome Fr. Adam presented as the liturgical formator, more concerned about the theatricality of the rites (or as he articulates it, their “beauty”) than their spirituality.

The questions posed by Fr. Fromenger in the very first episode as he addresses the new seminarians haunt the entire series: “Who are you, truly?”, “What do you seek at the Capuchin Seminary?”, and “Are you really ready to become a disciple of Jesus?” (While I understand how these three questions embody the core dramatic issues, I would associate “becoming a disciple of Jesus” with Baptism and Confirmation and “becoming an ordained minister in service to the Church” with Ordination.) Over the course of the series it becomes profoundly clear that each of the characters is deeply flawed, yet capable of surprising acts of kindness and generosity, all-too-often haunted by egotism and blind to their own motivations, yet sincerely seeking mercy and forgiveness. In spite of a certain bias against conservative prelates and their mindsets, the series tries to portray Catholicism as an ancient religious tradition bearing and burdened with great wisdom as it attempts to evangelize and transform post-Vatican II contemporary French society. If I had my way, every seminarian and seminary formator in the USA, as well as every bishop, priest, deacon and pastoral minister, would watch this series, discuss its insights with others sharing a common interest in ministry, and ponder how its insights might help us as we seek to serve God and God’s People.

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11 comments

  1. Similarly, why present this as the “Seminary of the Capuchins” where there doesn’t appear to be any particularly Franciscan ethos? I tend to overlook these details both for the sake of seeing what the screenwriters/directors perceive about Catholicism AND for the sake of seeing how the plot will develop.

      1. As to the “Seminary of the Capuchins” name, I presume that the creators of the show were playing on the name of the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, which is where most seminarians of the Diocese of Paris study theology. It’s also not unusual for Catholic institutions in France to bear the name of the founding religious order or congregation even if they’re no longer involved in the place – e.g. the Collège des Bernardins was run by the Cistercians (aka “Bernardins”) before the Revolution and the building kept the name even though it’s now a diocesan institution with no Cistercian affiliation. I assume that the fictional Séminaire des Capucins is meant to be in the same category – not affiliated with the Capuchins at all, but perhaps in a building that once belonged to them.

      2. Knud Rasmussen (below) is close, but I don’t think it’s quite that. The university seminary within the Institut catholique (Catholic University) de Paris is the Séminaire des carmes https://sem-carmes.com/, and seems a better candidate. It is so called because it is housed in a former priory of Carmelite Friars, whose best-known friar is probably Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, and whose recent graduates include the late Cardinal Lustiger, and Christian de Chergé, prior of the Cistercians of Tibhirine. During the Revolution, its garden was the scene of the murder (by shooting, then by blows from pikes and bayonets) of 115 priests on 2 September 1792. So by changing the name to Séminaire des capucins, they just swapped one mendicant order for another. I suppose I should mention that I do some teaching in the Theology Faculty there, but there’s no chauvinism involved because I think Ainsi soint-ils is pretty misleading; the best thing about it is the title, then it’s all downhill.

  2. Maybe something is lost in translation but as someone who has worked with over 15 seminarians in his parish I find real-life seminarians in New York far superior to this. No one is above struggles, falls, and crises but this show (and it’s clerics) is so dark, so manufactured and, if accurate, explains the crises the Church in Western Europe faces.

  3. I presume that Fr. Maurer has watched the entire series. He is doing exactly what I had hoped would happen with interested viewers: gleaning what insights he can from it and offering his own insights. I would ask: What makes the 15 seminarians you have worked with in New York “far superior” to the seminarians depicted in the series? Do you believe the “crises the Church in Western Europe faces” are radically different from the ones faced by the Church in the United States? If so, how?

    1. Thank you. I can see some interest and good coming from it but frankly more bones than meat.

      I was just kind of shocked by the poor moral and liturgical formation. The first episodes mockery of Eucharistic adoration and traditionalists seems almost positively 70s . In addition the scene of one of the men confessing a major violation against the sixth commandment with a child seems like it went unconfessed for a whole year? No.

      Similarly the other young man’s actually writing out the approval for his minor sister’s abortion strikes me as something that should without question have had him dismissed and actually excommunicated latae Sententiae.
      I wasnt asserting necessarily that the man I worked with were of a finer academic or human quality but I think several of the things that the French seminarians wrestled with in the show would not of even been on my guy’s radar.

      Nobody is perfect and certainly I am far from it, the man who I’ve worked with information in my parish also need things to be formed and worked on but The show seems to almost put these poor guys into a seminary with almost nothing faith based .

  4. I’m just on a humorous note where the seminarians get all this freaking time to organize a revolution at the University, move squatters from a condemned French building, and play out at bars? So much free time I should’ve went to that seminary, LOL.

  5. I found the overall production qualities, the acting, and the story line so intriguing that I’m already on episode 6 of the first season. I would not be surprised at all if a formator stepped forward to acknowledge familiarity with some pretty troubled seminarians here in the US. What I am impressed with is that these men from a thoroughly secular culture are men of faith who are discerning the call of God in their lives. They may have a different kind of piety from some of the seminarians I know here, they seem genuine and sincere in their quest. None of them, remember, is about to be ordained, but just first year seminarians. I also like the straightforward way in which the questionable conduct of the ecclesiastics is portrayed. Entirely believable.

  6. I just saw this and I am so glad I did!!!
    I wanted to start watching this series because I used to work at a minor seminary, but my husband, who studied at a Franciscan Seminary, was not wild about seeing it. He was afraid that it would distort his seminary memories. I finally prevailed last Thursday, when we were both home and nothing was on TV.
    I was hooked from the 1st episode, and he was hooked by the end of the third episode. The characters are compelling, as is the seminary ambiance. We see the flaws and virtues of both the seminarians and their formators and families. We see all this in an honest background of the temptations of secular and clerical Paris life. As was pointed out, we did not notice anything particular to a Franciscan seminary – it could be any seminary.
    We are about 1/2 way through season 2 and find the characters and plot lines achingly real and compelling. GOd is still speaking to us and calling us to ministry despite the alluring pull of culturally accepted behavior. I am loving the 5 quite different seminarians and their struggles with the call of Jesus as opposed to the pull of the dark side of culture!!
    With so much “fluff” offered as entertainment, this is anything but and we are relishing every episode.

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