I am rereading Joanne Harris’ Chocolat. The story is, some people will say, anti-Catholic because the witch triumphed over the priest. The novel is more anti-Catholic than the movie since in the former the priest did not even celebrate Easter mass. Can you imagine? The most important event in the Christian calendar was not celebrated and not even missed by the villagers.
You might say the priest deserved this treatment. He does not know his flock. All he could think of is how to punish their sins. It’s not surprising then that he is not loved though he is respected. In the movie version, the role of the priest is taken by the count. The end of the movie shows the priest preaching about Jesus’ humanity and how He loved people. Why the change, I wonder? Would movie goers not like the novel’s anti-Catholic message?
But that is not what I want to discuss here. I want to highlight that there are many instances when Catholics get angry at anti-Catholic messages. They become defensive, very passionately defensive about their faith.
From what I have observed, this reaction leads to a wider separation. The passionate, almost angry defense by pro-Catholics is somewhat expected by the anti-Catholics who usually take this as an opportunity to mock the other as superstitious, old-fashioned and against any kind of worldly fun. The heresy and sacrilegious actions of the anti-Catholics are also somewhat expected by the pro-Catholics who consider them to be immoral at heart.
Where do we go from here? How do we persuade each other of what we believe in when emotions and insults get in the way?
I can speak for the anti-Catholics because I used to be one. The anti-Catholics are who they are because they are victims of the do-gooders, the moralists who judge people harshly and condemn people on Earth. ‘Believe,’ so the moralists say, ‘or else go to hell!’ Questions remain unanswered and faith, even if based on a lack of understanding or stupidity, is considered ideal.
God said to St. Francis, ‘Rebuild My Church.’ How is this to be done in the 21st century, the age of information and of free internet porn, of secularism and the fruits of the sexual revolution, and of equality and freedom of opinion?
The moralism of the early church leaders was effective during a time when information and knowledge were limited. Nowadays, telling someone to simply believe or else go to hell will result in that person rejecting the truth and accepting something that feels good, e.g. the rejection of organized religion and the embrace of free love, the rejection of saying ‘no’ to sex and the embrace of free sexuality, etc.
We fight fire with water, false information with true knowledge, and hate with love. The Church in the 21st century cannot be rebuilt with moralism. Instead, we knock down anti-Catholicism with love and understanding.
If I could make the novel Chocolat pro-Catholic, I would rewrite it like this: Fr. Reynaud smiles often and rejoices at the arrival of new parishioners. He would give a sermon reiterating the importance and significance of making sacrifices during Lent but without mentioning the chocolate shop. He would repeatedly forgive his parishioners for breaking their promises to avoid indulging in good food no matter how many times they fall.
He would invite Vianne to discuss how they can celebrate Easter with her chocolate creations. He would visit Vianne often to get to know her and to show her that the Church is waiting – very patiently and without judgment – to welcome her after she seeks forgiveness for her sins. He would invite Anouk to receive catechism.
He would visit the Muscats to see how they are getting along in their married life. He would talk with Paul-Marie Muscat and try to understand why he beats his wife. He would befriend Josephine Muscat and help her with what she is going through. Perhaps, if she is being beaten too violently, he would advise her to go away for a while so he could focus his attentions to Paul-Marie.
It won’t be a very interesting plot. It won’t be a best-seller, but that’s not the goal here.
All right. Do you want it to be a best-seller? A page-turner? A very interesting plot?
Here’s how I would rewrite it: It would be written from the point of view of Fr. Reynaud and how, though he smiles, he feels coldness in his heart. Though he repeatedly forgives, he feels disdain for his sinful parishioners. Fr. Reynaud gets into a heated argument with Armande Voizin about a doctrine and he calls her a heretic. After a particularly tearful confession about his inadequacies as a priest, he goes to Vianne’s shop and orders a box of chocolates for Armande as a means of saying sorry only to be spat at by Caroline Clairmont who tells him her mother is diabetic. ‘Do you want my mother to die?’ she screams at him.
Meanwhile, Paul-Marie Muscat kills a cat in rage and comes after his wife in hiding. He is arrested by the police as Fr. Reynaud tries to comfort Josephine, but she becomes angry at him since she thinks it was he who told Paul-Marie where she is hiding. After all, he was the only one who knew where she is.
Fr. Reynaud is at his wit’s end. He goes to Vianne’s shop and she offers him a cup of hot chocolate and a slice of cake. ‘No. Lent,’ he says. ‘Never mind,’ she replies. ‘You have been through a lot of troubles. You need to keep your strength up.’
From then on, Fr. Reynaud always visits Vianne’s shop to talk (though he will only accept a cup of watered down hot chocolate until Lent is over.) They become good friends and soon Vianne’s influence overcomes him. He starts pondering about leaving the priesthood to marry this woman. ‘It would be an easier life,’ he tells himself. After he thinks about it some more, he finally decides that he will leave the priesthood. He will inform his bishop after he celebrates Easter mass. He cannot possibly leave in the middle of Lent.
After making this decision, he goes to his garden and recalls that Narcisse refused to help him, probably because the man hates the Church. Disdain for his sinful parishioners returns to his heart and doubt about his decision to leave the priesthood soon overcomes him. He leaves his garden to pray in his room until in his sadness he falls asleep. A knock wakes him. His servant informs him that someone wants to confess.
When he arrives at the church, he sees that it is Vianne who wishes to confess.
‘Vianne!’ he exclaims. ‘What? You?’
‘Fr. Reynaud,’ she says to him, ‘You told me it is never too late for me.’
He leads her to the confessional. He feels betrayed. He should have told her he was in love with her, that he wishes to leave the priesthood and join her in her lifestyle. It would be a scandal but they would be happy.
As he tears his mind from those thoughts, before he enters the confessional, he glances at Jesus. In that instant, he is reminded of his role as a priest: shepherd to his flock, representative of Jesus to the laity. In that instant he is reminded of what he needs to do, and more importantly of what he wants to do. He became a priest because he wants to serve God and His people.
‘How could I have forgotten?’ he asks himself out loud.
‘Fr. Reynaud?’ asks Vianne who thinks she is being spoken to.
‘Nothing,’ he replies, rather embarrassed. He listens to her sins. She is forgiven. Fr. Reynaud weeps silently and waits until Vianne has said her penance. He does not dare to see her even in the dim light of that church. His emotions are disturbing, but he is sure of one thing: he must remain, now and forever, a priest. That is what God has called him to be.
Pro-Catholic and anti-Catholic. Priests are human and make mistakes. Priests are sinners too. Priests can be evil too. Priests can be tempted too. But we are always invited by Jesus to confess our sins, and also by the devil to continue sinning.
The anti-Catholic can always become pro-Catholic and the pro can always be anti. Who we become is determined by our choices. In the meantime, the forces of heaven and hell are always working behind the scenes.