Pope and President accept resignation of controversial Archbishop

End of a soap opera in the Diocese of Strasbourg: the Élysée Palace and the Vatican accept Luc Ravel's resignation

The resignation of Luc Ravel, Archbishop of Strasbourg, who has been on the ropes for a month, was finally accepted at midday on Saturday 27 May by the Pope and the President of the Republic. The Archbishop of Metz, Philippe Ballot, will temporarily administer a diocese that has been severely tested, while awaiting a successor.

More than a month later, the statement from the Nunciature finally came down and the bad Alsatian soap opera came to an end. After resigning at the Pope's request on 20 April 2023, the archbishop of Strasbourg, Luc Ravel, has had his resignation officially accepted by Pope François and Emmanuel Macron. Under the Concordat in Alsace-Moselle, the pastor of Alsatian Catholics is appointed jointly by the Pope and the President of the Republic, and can only leave his episcopal see by a joint decision of the religious authority and the French executive.

Luc Ravel was the subject of an investigation commissioned by Rome and led by the Bishop of Pontoise, Stanislas Lalanne. In February, he was forced to resign because of his governance, which was deemed authoritarian and unstable. At the time, he refused to obey, before finally accepting with difficulty.

"Saving time in relation to what?

In an exclusive interview given to La Vie on Monday 22 May, Luc Ravel explained the time taken between Rome's request for him to resign and the public announcement of his resignation on 20 April: "I thought that resigning should be a completely free act of conscience. The Holy Father's decision instantly imposed itself on me. Now, as no date had been given to me, I felt I had to conclude some matters that had just come to light. I preferred to do it when I had the means, rather than regret all my life not having taken certain decisions, concerning close collaborators for example.

However, the archbishop denied that he had tried to gain time by taking advantage of the relative complexity of the concordat agreements and his political connections: "Gain time for what? No one had given me a date for my resignation. I explained to the Nuncio by email that I would do it, but that there were a number of matters I had to deal with. The Nuncio acknowledged receipt. It's one of two things: either it's a forced resignation, and I'm obliged to talk about harassment. Or it's a resignation made in freedom of conscience, in which case it's up to me to set the date when I think the time is ripe.

I met with the Director of Public Liberties and the Prefect," he added, "to find out if the State had anything to reproach me for. I would remind you that our concordat situation is special. I challenge anyone to tell me that I shouldn't have done it: I'm appointed by the President of the Republic, before receiving canonical investiture from the Pope. This is the very essence of the Concordat, which I have never wanted to call into question.

A "suffering" diocese

The press release from the Nunciature states that the diocese will now be temporarily under the care of Philippe Ballot, Archbishop of Metz (and former Archbishop of Chambéry from 2009 to 2022). The son of farmers from the Franche-Comté region, an admirer of the venerable Robert Schuman and much loved by Catholics in Alsace and Moselle, he is an accessible and pious man. Aware that he was inheriting a particularly difficult situation, he asked for a number of guarantees before giving his answer.

The administrator will have his work cut out for him. The diocese is suffering, the despondency is widespread, from the north to the south of Alsace," says one witness. We need to stitch things up, reweave, reconcile. Restore communion! According to our sources, Rome would like this transition to be fairly short in any case, and for a new archbishop to arrive at the end of the calendar year.

The task ahead in Alsace is immense. The two historic churches, Catholicism and Lutheran-Reformed Protestantism, are in decline, while the largest Turkish mosque in Europe is being built in Strasbourg and the Pentecostal mega-church Porte ouverte chrétienne in Mulhouse is still going strong. "When I was ordained 28 years ago, there were around 1,000 priests in the diocese. Today, only half that number remains," explains Jean-Luc Liénard, Vicar General of the Diocese of Strasbourg. 15 years ago, we were celebrating 3,000 confirmations a year, compared with less than 1,000 today. The diocesan Church is changing very quickly, and perhaps we haven't supported it enough. This may explain some of the tension".

Beyond the diocese, the whole region is changing. Those who lived through the Second World War are disappearing. The population speaking the Alsatian dialect has fallen from 61% in 2001 to 43% in 2012, despite a revival of identity among the younger generations. Alsace, which has been part of the Grand-Est region since 2015, wants to return to being a single territorial authority; some dream of an autonomous Alsace. The divide is widening between the villages, which are repositories of the Alsatian soul but run the risk of becoming folkloric, and the multicultural metropolises, while Alsace's dynamism is constantly attracting newcomers. The new Archbishop of Strasbourg will have to initiate a missionary drive in this French and Rhineland land, eager to be loved and shown love.

Encouraging community discernment about the apostolic succession in the Diocese

The Ravel case, which follows the fall of Michel Aupetit to the Archdiocese of Paris in 2021 and Rome's ongoing investigation into Dominique Rey, Bishop of Fréjus-Toulon, illustrates a persistent difficulty in episcopal appointments. In Catholic theology, the bishop is the successor of the apostles, and his role was strengthened by the Second Vatican Council. However, the selection process for bishops remains unclear between the Apostolic Nunciature ("embassy" of the Vatican) in Paris and the administration of the Holy See, and the pool of candidates is shrinking as the number of priests decreases.

What's more, in the de-Christianised France of 2023, the expectations placed on the Catholic bishop are too numerous and contradictory not to reflect on the meaning of this ministry. In the light of the misadventures of Michel Aupetit, Dominique Rey and Luc Ravel, we have read that the bishop must be a good steward, a force to be reckoned with by the authorities, a populariser of Christianity in the media, an excellent preacher, a collaborator with civil justice in cases of sexual abuse and violence, not forgetting being a pastor close to his 'sheep'... All this, against a backdrop of the collapse of existing structures. In this context, it's hardly surprising that Ivan Brient, appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Rennes in October 2022, resigned a few weeks later to avoid "burn-out". The account in the Acts of the Apostles emphasises that the disciples, unable to "forsake the word of God to wait on tables" (Acts 6:2), delegated their power to men "filled with the Holy Spirit" to look after the practical needs of the fledgling Christian community...

Apart from a few exceptions, the contemporary French bishop, consumed by his duties, has almost become a mythical figure, reputedly distant from the faithful and his clergy. Yet many of the priests who have donned the mitre aspire only to preach the Gospel and "smell the flock", as Pope Francis invites them to do. This is how one bishop from a rural diocese recently confided that he longed to visit his villages, but was kept away by the need to sit on all sorts of administrative committees. Was this really his place? The hindsight of recent years also raises the question of whether the bishop, who is supposed to be the pastor of pastors, is really the best person to handle cases of sexual violence committed by priests.

If the unprecedented crisis in the Diocese of Strasbourg could have prompted a community discernment on the apostolic successor, it will not have been in vain. The words of Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, at his Episcopal consecration as Archbishop of Munich in 1977, will perhaps resonate in this reflection: "The Bishop does not act in his own name, but is the trustee of another, of Jesus Christ and of the Church. He is not a manager, a leader by his own grace, but the agent of another for whom he is the guarantor. Nor can he change his mind at will and now defend this or that cause, according to what suits him. He is not there to disseminate his personal ideas, but he is an envoy who must convey a message greater than himself. He will be measured on this faithfulness: that is his task.

"A free bishop?

As for Luc Ravel, when asked a few days ago about his future, the prelate, academician and habitué of the Parisian intellectual milieu, outlined his wishes as follows: "In a certain way, faithful to the Catholic Church, I should be able to be a free bishop, free from all these meetings, who could support the people who ask for it".