In the first of a new series featuring expats doing work normally carried out by native French, Patrick Middleton talks to Father Peter Watts, a Welshman and the Parish Priest of Grimaud in the Var
As a young boy growing up in Pembrokeshire Peter Watts was sometimes taken by his mother to pray in the local Catholic Church. "In fact, we weren't a Catholic family but that's the place she liked to go. At the time, of course, I wasn't clear about Church history. I realised that the Church in Wales – part of the Anglican family – had a shared faith with Catholics but at some time got separated from Rome. Anyway, from quite early on I decided I wanted to be a priest and after reading theology at university I was ordained as an Anglican. I worked in Wales, then in Cornwall – in Falmouth. As time went on, I began to feel more and more unhappy with certain aspects of the Church of England, especially in the way that unilateral decisions affecting fundamental faith and practice were taken. Like a lot of people I thought that the ordination of women would be a step that would create a new barrier between Canterbury and the ancient Churches of Rome and the Orthodox Churches at a time when it was generally thought that the reconciliation between Canterbury and Rome was imminent.
A wonderful welcome
How has he come to be a Catholic priest officiating in the Var? "I was received into the Church and, to cut the story short, got to know Bishop Madec of Toulon, a Breton and so a fellow Celt. He invited me to join his diocese and eventually I became curé of Grimaud and just recently a Canon of Toulon Cathedral." Was it a difficult transition from Anglican parson to Catholic priest? "I have to say I received a wonderful welcome – from Bishop Madec and later from his successor Bishop Rey, from my fellow clergy and from the people of Grimaud, including the mayor. One difference, I'd say, is that the Catholic clergy are more solidaire than their Anglican counterparts. There aren't the same sharp contrasts of what across the Channel is called "churchmanship". For example, one Anglican clergyman might be happy to be called ‘Father’, while his neighbour may recoil at the very idea."
How would he describe his parish? "Well, Grimaud has two faces, one in summer, the other in winter. During the season there's a great mixture of people amongst the holiday-makers and in Winter I deal mainly with the locals. Some of these are Anglophones, often well established here, and they usually seem quite happy to speak with me in French." What exactly does a parish priest do? "Obviously, his major duty is to offer Mass in his church. In Summer I celebrate four masses at the weekend, and two in winter. During the week I have a wide range of pastoral duties such as visiting the hospital and the old people’s home, a certain number of house calls, catechising the children, preparing people for marriage and adult baptism. It's always gratifying to welcome an enquirer. Currently I am preparing a former Anglican and a Presbyterian for reception into the Church. Then there are special events of various kinds. I'm always invited to join the mayor at the Armistice Day ceremonies, for example. In France, of course, the Church isn't ‘established’ but here, as in many places, the curé is treated as a significant figure within the community."
Anyone following the media must be aware that there are controversial issues in society which concern the Church, currently that of gay marriage, for instance. “Firstly, we have a duty to care for everyone and to reject anything akin to homophobia. Secondly, it seems plain to me that marriage, in its historic sacramental sense, is not open to people of the same sex. This is not bigotry, far from it, it's simply a recognition of reality." On a different issue, what about relations with other Christians? We have at Port Grimaud an ‘ecumenical church’ which is used by Catholics, the members of the French Reformed Church and more recently by Anglicans. The Reformed Church has a definite presence during the Summer months with a weekly Sunday service. The Mass is celebrated twice each Sunday in French and in Polish. “I've always had an excellent relationship with local Anglicans who are based at St John’s Church in St Raphaël and have enjoyed a particular degree of co-operation with Ben Eaton and since his retirement with Keith Bretel. You may have noticed that people from all denominations came here for a Christmas service of traditional English carols. Once a month an ecumenical service is held at Grimaud Parish Church when one or other of us conducts the service or preaches. Our Lord prayed ‘that they may be one’. Well, in Grimaud and St-Raphaël we’re trying to make that possible."