He is 32 years old, often deployed, supporting French troops as a Catholic priest wherever the winds of war may take them. His experience is telling, not only because he is from a country whose media and intellectual elite are often vituperatively anti-clerical, but because he is serving on dangerous missions to protect that same country. In this exclusive interview with REGINA’s Paris-based correspondent, Isabelle Divo, Father Etienne d’Escrivan gives us privileged access into his world.
REGINA: Tell us about your growing up years.
Fr. d’Escrivan: I was born in a large family and I’m the second of four boys. My parents were also born in large families, so I had many cousins that I was lucky enough to see at my grand-parents’ house in Auvergne during the holidays. My mother stayed at home, so we could spend every holiday together as a family. As a child, I lived between the Paris suburbs and Auvergne.
REGINA : Was there anything special about your childhood ?
Fr. d’Escrivan: I was raised like lots of kids. I attended public school and catechism classes, and I was an altar boy. I liked the parish priest a lot and I admired him.
Fr. Escrivan: He was a bit of a rugged man, but a holy man with infinite goodness. He was completely dedicated to God and to others. Even though, on a daily basis, we weren’t especially religious, religion was part of our education. I don’t remember ever seeing a priest at home. Other than attending Sunday Mass, we didn’t do anything special when it comes to religion. Though one of the values taught to us was effort and work as a way to be autonomous, which was very important. I’m grateful to my parents for teaching me the meaning of effort and a work ethic.
REGINA: And as a young man ?
Fr. Escrivan: After living between the Paris suburbs and Auvergne as a little boy, I moved to Tours for high school. I spent three years there, majoring in sciences. Those were wonderful years, because I was part of a very tight group of friends. So those were really awesome years of which I have great memories. At the time, there was hardly any room for religion or spirituality in my life.
REGINA: How did you know you wanted to be a priest?
Fr. Escrivan: I felt I wanted to be a priest when I was a 6 or 7-year old boy, as the priest of my parish inspired me to want to do like him, with at the core of priestly life, the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. I don’t have specific memories, but this desire was becoming clearer little by little in the heart of the child I was. I talked about it to the people I trusted, and I remember I went to the parish priest after a catechism class, mustering all the courage necessary to a child to tell a grown-up –and a priest! — about a very big thing.
I told him: ‘Father, when I am older, I want to be like you: a priest’. Some time later, the man of faith talked about it with my mom, to ask her if she would let him talk with me about it. My mom’s answer, which the priest abided by, was a ‘no’. I happened to learn about that discussion only years later. And even though I had the secret desire to attend the junior seminary, given my age, I wasn’t in a hurry. That priest died holy two or three years later, and he took with him my desire for priestly life, to his grave, so to speak.
REGINA: And then what happened?
Fr. Escrivan: Then, the rough and tumble of teenage years took over my Christian spiritual life. Not that the idea of priesthood had become ridiculous to me, but rather I no longer felt I was worth it, given what kind of a teenager I was being. That’s how spiritually empty my life was, when I started attending the military high-school. And that would be the case for a few months still, until the day a friend tried to have me attend Sunday Mass with him. He finally convinced me: Mass was at the school, so exclusively for young people. And the chaplain was a 30-year-old priest. That was how I started a new intense spiritual life, so that the issue of being called to priesthood resurfaced quickly. The chaplain soon became my spiritual director, so I could discern this ‘old’ vocation. The burden of the past rapidly helped me answer the call of the Lord.
REGINA: And after graduation ?
Fr. Escrivan: After graduation, I had two goals: working on building a future for myself, and becoming independent. I went to boarding school: I decided to attend science preparatory classes at Saint Cyr l’Ecole military high-school, near Paris, to study for the entrance exams to the army officer school and engineering schools. Finally, after two years of preparatory classes, I didn’t go to the officer school but to the seminary instead, under the armed forces’ diocese.
REGINA: Why the military?
Fr. Escrivan: Until my spiritual father asked me a question that had me stumble: ‘where do you want to be a priest?’ That’s the way it is with the Lord: when you think you have overcome something difficult, He promptly comes up with another one… I didn’t want to go back to the Paris region where I had grown up, nor to Tours where I had lived for 3 years, nor to Auvergne… Visiting various communities didn’t help me find an answer to the question either. I was told that there was no such thing as a freelance priest. Then, providentially, I was asked about being a military chaplain. And even more than the military I had been interested in anyway, it’s being a chaplain in the military that appealed to me: right in the middle of people –not only Christians. There was this perspective of a life of adventures with these young sporty people, in France and abroad, without the heavy organization of a parish. This appeared to me like a sort of priesthood fitting my character. I agreed all the more willingly that, not being especially skilled for that kind of life, I took that proposition as from divine providence.
REGINA: What was your training as a priest like ?
Fr. Escrivan: At the time, incardination into the armed forces’ diocese was brand new and there was no set procedure –today, things are different as all the seminarians are trained together. The bishop sent me to the seminary of the diocese of Autun, in Paray-le-Monial, where I did preparatory studies for one year, and then philosophy. Then, this seminary closed down for lack of applicants, so the bishop sent me to the Great Seminary in Metz, where I graduated.
My first pastoral placement was at the First Heavy Cavalry Regiment in Verdun. I was already a military chaplain, since a military chaplain can be a priest, a deacon or a lay person. At the end of the pastoral placement, I was ordained a deacon on October 10, 2010 in the soldiers’ church, St Louis des Invalides, the armed forces’ diocese’s cathedral, in Paris. A few months later, I was ordained a priest, on May 15, 2011. And about 10 days later, I was deployed in Lebanon with the Regiment, for four months.
REGINA: What has been your experience in the military?
Fr. Escrivan: In 2012, I was transferred to the parachute brigade where I was the chaplain of the garrison of Tarbes – composed of the 35th Parachute Artillery Regiment, 1st Paratroops Hussars Regiment, and a local gendarme unit. And almost immediately, I went for a new six-month deployment in Lebanon, with the 1st Paratroops Hussars Regiment. Eleven months after being back from Lebanon, I was deployed in Ivory Coast for four months. And ten months after being back from Ivory Coast, I was deployed for 6 months and a half in Central Africa. I spend a lot of time not only on oversees deployments, but also on deployments in France. And in the spring and summer, I try to make as much time as possible to celebrate soldiers’ marriages and the baptism of soldiers’ children.
REGINA: Is your pastoral ministry different from that of a non-military priest ?
Fr. Escrivan: I always say I do exactly the same thing as a usual parish priest. As people see me wearing combat fatigues, they sometimes have a hard time understanding that it’s only a uniform, that I’m a priest first. A military chaplain is a special soldier who’s not armed, not a combatant, nor does he have to report to any military hierarchy. His mission is to support the armed forces in their religious practice, to support soldiers individually and spiritually, and to advise the command. I had the same training as my priest colleagues, in the same schools, and I do the same thing: celebrate the sacraments and support God’s people.
REGINA: But, your ‘parish’ is among the troops, correct ?
Fr. Escrivan: Granted, though, the environment is totally different from a parish priest’s. I have no church, no secretary, nobody responsible for the church flowering, no catechist, no meeting to attend… There’s no set way for me to carry out my mission, but I have to adapt to each and every case.
REGINA: Can you elaborate?
Fr. Escrivan: Due to their job, soldiers have very heavy constraints. They are often away. Attending three meetings planned on specific dates is something they can’t possibly do. So I work according to how available they are. All the meetings preparatory to a baptism or a marriage and all the catechesis meetings for catechumens are personal meetings whenever they are available to attend. In addition to this, I share their daily life, which gives me opportunities only a few other priests have. But it’s important, because that’s when trustful and respectful relationships are developed which will be the basis for pastoral work. Thus, every day is different. I participate to hikes, sports contests, mountain treks, parachute jumping sessions, military ceremonies…. These are occasions of bearing testimony, of exchanging personal stories, and talking about the Gospel, but with all due respect to individual convictions and to duty to my country.
REGINA: We were told that your participation in the regiment’s activities, just like any other soldier, was really appreciated by the soldiers. Do you think that’s essential to your mission?
Fr. Escrivan: The chaplain lives among the military and each and every soldier is free to believe in God or not, to have a religion or not. Some of them, while not belonging to a specific religious denomination, do have a more or less vague and more or less strong faith. As a priest, my mission is about helping soldiers and soldiers’ families who have religious, spiritual and worship needs, but also about morally supporting our troops and advising them individually. If soldiers only see the chaplain’s religious side they may not relate to, they may not even want to know him. And then, he wouldn’t be able to support them in any way. Soldiers should find it easy to go talk to the chaplain, when they need advice, or when they want to discuss something, that’s why sharing as many activities as possible with them is essential.
They realize that, although a priest, the chaplain is a man just like them, and that, whatever their opinions about religion, he shares values with them, like love of homeland and respect for the republic.
REGINA: And then… ?
Fr. Escrivan: That’s just common sense: sharing the soldiers’ daily life simply allows you to get to know them and allows them to get to know you. Then, more profoundly, I think that it’s really important to always be everywhere with the soldiers, to embody prayer and contemplation, right there in their military life. The chaplain’s ways stem from Christ’s spirit of humble and selfless service as He washes the apostles’ feet. I like to say, a bit provocatively, that I’m useless. In a combat situation, I’m useless –I’m not a combatant–, and can even be sometimes a burden to soldiers, since the reason why I’m there with them is that I’m witness of the love of God for them. God’s grace takes care of the rest.
REGINA: Despite this, do you think your presence there, in the war zone, impacts soldiers?
Fr. Escrivan: The chaplain’s accompanying presence is also a sign of God’s concern for them in their professional and daily life. It’s a life which demands sacrifices and renouncements –especially when it comes to family life– and other difficulties –especially when it comes to having good discernment, as each decision may be a question of life or death, for the soldier, his fellow soldiers, the enemy, a civilian. Even in case of self-defense, even when the act is militarily ‘legitimate’, it’s never simple for a soldier to bring death to others. Even more so when he’s witness to that death he has brought, with the violence going with it depending on the weapons used.
REGINA: Such a terrible burden to bear.
Fr. Escrivan: When our soldiers think about all that, they’re happy to find a priest they can talk with, to be able to take in what they’re going through. Then, the priest’s accompanying mission is about helping them find inner peace, and self-confidence again as well as trust in God. They don’t necessarily say it, but sometimes, they look at themselves with disgust because of what they have done and they think they can no longer be loved by God.
REGINA: What do you tell a soldier who believes he can no longer be loved by God?
Fr. Escrivan: More often than not, I suggest Confession: when a man takes another man’s life, he takes over God’s place. Going to confession allows him to put himself back in his place before God and among people. The chaplain’s not there to justify the action of combat, but to accompany the suffering it implies. He’s there to heal soldiers’ inner wounds.
REGINA : Could you tell us about the book you have written (Un Monastère cistercien en terre d’Islam [A Cistercian Monastery in the Land of Islam], éditions du Cerf) ?
Fr. Escrivan: The book is about a specific experience. Through Providence –here It is again– for one month, I found myself sharing the cloistered life of Cistercian Trappist monks in their priory of Midelt, in Morrocco. I was eager to experience monastic life over a ‘long’ period of time. The Lord took care of the rest. That’s how I landed there, in that tiny precarious community, uncertain about its future and faithfully living the monastic life in a very special context.
REGINA: What were you thinking about?
Fr. Escrivan: I asked myself, like many people: what’s the point ? Can their way of life really be called monastic? At dawn, in the scriptorium, I would read a book about Charles de Foucault. I realized that the life of those few Trappists was exactly what he had imagined in his days: a friendly and selfless presence stemming from contemplation. As I realized that, while asking myself all those questions –and starting to find answers to these– I felt compelled to write. I wrote an outline, to be able to write the most comprehensive and scientific –while spiritual and religious– study about the community. That’s how the book got started.
REGINA: Why is this book relevant ?
Fr. Escrivan: Beyond the facts dealt with, it seems to me the book is very relevant today. For, more than the precise example of these monks, the book tackles the issue of living together in harmony whatever our religions, and allows us to think about how to pass on Christ’s message among people who don’t want any of it. In a different way, it’s not that far from what Western countries are going through today. All over the world, the issue of living together in harmony whatever our religions is at the core of today. It’s also a challenge. And you learn from others’ experiences. There’s also the message of Hope emanating from the monks’ particular experience, which inspires you something different from the pessimism often expressed today.
REGINA: Would you have a message to pass on, especially to young men like yourself ?
Fr. Escrivan: I always say that, at the end of the day, only few things are genuinely bad. More often than not, it’s about how you use things, or how you look at them, or the context. Christianity is a religion of love, of course, but also one of freedom and responsibility. People often have a negative opinion of the Church, because they only see what is prohibited, what is limited, what you ‘can’t do’. While, in fact, you can almost do anything as long as you do it for the love of God or for the love of others, with love for God and love for others. It’s what you do with things and events that make these good or bad. Christian faith is a path of freedom. It’s sad to see that lots of people consider it a constraint. God is everywhere and is waiting for us everywhere.