Before leaving Notre Dame for my semester studying abroad in Angers, France, numerous students and professors claimed that my four-month relocation would be transformational. I did not really understand the truth of that statement until I actually experienced small-town life in a foreign country.
Angers—or as one friend dubbed it, “the Iowa of France”—has already pleasantly surprised me in many ways. For the first time in my life, I feel that I am experiencing what I have always thought of as small-town Catholicism.
By small-town Catholicism I mean more than the number of churches, Catholic schools, and parishioners, though all three of these abound here. Angers is the first place where I have noticed Catholicism visibly, tangibly, and irrefutably permeating the entire town’s daily way of life.
A few days after traveling overseas and moving into my host family’s home, I attended Sunday Mass at Angers’ Cathedral. Slightly larger than Notre Dame’s Basilica and with a much more ancient interior, the church contained a number of people reminiscent of post-football Saturday. There was barely enough standing room for the 90 minute, beautifully traditional Mass.
Though I understood maybe 60 percent of the rapidly-spoken French homily, the sheer size of the building and the crowd it contained really moved me. Exiting the cathedral took a good 20 minutes, as a huge crowd of socializing townspeople congregated outside the ornate doors.
As I looked around, I noticed large families with four generations present, evidence of the stasis of this small town. Children are born here, and even if they leave, they likely will return to be close to their families, close to their roots. The people seemed genuinely interested in each other, and they smiled kindly while exchanging the typically French double-cheek touch (resembling a kiss) called the bise.
The pace of life is slower here, and the Catholic idea of concern for one’s neighbor abounds. From watching my host family’s interactions and those of the other French people whom I have met, it appears that people do not let busyness or personal preoccupation impede relationships. In this way, the literal meaning of catholic—universal—comes to mind, as I have noticed the people of Angers valuing and cherishing each other as human beings, old and young alike.
Volunteering is common, my host mother explained over one dinner, and the various churches have extensive community outreach programs targeting the town’s poor and homeless. After reflecting upon these descriptions, I realized that here, the conception of poverty, and its solutions, have a regional focus and exemplify a return to the principle of subsidiarity. The poverty of other continents, or even other towns, was not mentioned, though surely its alleviation is the subject of many prayers. Rather, the townspeople focus on the poor person they pass on their walk to work each day, the indigent with whom they are inhabiting the same space.
My host father then began to talk about a French custom which originated in the south called la place de mendicant. Over the holidays, especially Christmas, it is common for families to set an extra place at the table for someone who might arrive at their door without the means to feed himself or herself. Even if no one were to arrive outside the family’s door that night, the empty chair rests as a constant reminder of the less fortunate and is a lesson to children and adults alike to be continually thankful for one’s blessings.
The people of this town live their faith in other, more subtle ways. Stewardship is a facet of daily life, as the people truly seem to cherish the earth they inhabit and the food it produces. One is hard-pressed to find a supermarket in town, but there are almost as many farmers’ markets as churches. Food waste seems rare, and households are conscious of their consumption of precious natural resources. People live, eat, and dress more simply, relying on local produce and neighborhood stores for their needs.
The “throwaway culture” that Pope Francis described in Laudato Si does not seem as prevalent here. Genuine respect for other human beings, daily concern for the poor, a desire to live simply, stewardship over the earth’s resources, and an appreciation of the nourishment it provides are characteristics of this small town where I am lucky to spend four months. It is my hope that I may allow my faith to influence my daily life in both small and large ways, as do the people of Angers.
Kate Hardiman is a junior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and minoring in the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) Program. Besides the small-town Catholicism, her favorite things about France so far are the dozens of delicious cheeses. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.