France’s Catholic ‘influencers’ find new audience online

As church attendance falls in France, we look at how French priests are finding new audiences on social media

Father (le Père) Gaspard Craplet, 48, has 44,700 followers on TikTok
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The first thing that captures your attention is the breathtaking mountain scenery. Next comes the text: “Can a Christian believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution?”

Only then do you notice the figures in the video: a teenager and, next to him, a man wearing a clerical collar.

The man is Father (le Père) Gaspard Craplet, 48, and the video is shared on TikTok for his 44,700 followers. (The answer, incidentally, is yes.)

‘People are intrigued by someone who gives his life to God’

The priest, who runs youth camps in the Mont Blanc massif and the Glières plateau in Haute-Savoie, was convinced by one of the young people he works with to film some of his teachings against the picturesque backdrop.

He uploaded the first videos in February 2022, on Instagram and the popular short video-sharing platform TikTok.

Soon, partly thanks to TikTok’s algorithm, his audience extended far beyond the adolescents who came to his camps.

“I think people are intrigued by the mystery around someone who gives his life to God,” he said.

He was surprised on a recent trip to the railway station to find two separate people recognised him and told him they liked his videos, in which he answers young people’s questions, as they were short and appeared natural.

Read more: Less than half of people believe in God in 2021, French poll finds

He makes some people ‘furious’

“People are slightly ashamed about following a priest. However, if they’ve seen me once and watched or liked the video, the algorithm will still send them things so they will see me again.”

With this added reach, though, come the inevitable trolls. “You have to take it on the chin,” he said.

“Normally, a priest is sent to a population, and they can’t change priests unless they drive further away. Here, if they don’t like you, they will unfollow.”

Read more: What help is available for victims of online bullying in France?

Father Gaspard Craplet’s TikTok video on the topic ‘If God is love, why does hell exist?’; Photo: @peregaspardcraplet / TikTok

In one video, he expressed his opposition to the death penalty, which made some people “furious” and lost him a number of followers.

He said he could sense there was “a degree of fear” among his colleagues when he started out.

“As priests, we might be tempted to give our personal opinion and criticise the Church, that way we are certain to get a lot of views. I don’t participate in that, as I find it dishonest.”

Other members of the church talk about faith online

While Father Craplet does not consider himself an influencer, he is one of a number of members of the Church to have gained an online following.

There is Sœur Albertine, 27, whose videos address some of the common questions and misconceptions people have about nuns and religious life.

Then there is Father Matthieu Jasseron (known online as le Père Matthieu), a priest in the Yonne department whose videos push numerous boundaries, from pretending to catch a nun in a mini skirt stealing wine, to explaining that the Bible does not state that homosexuality is a sin.

He created his TikTok account in August 2020, to help prepare people for marriages and baptisms, as many could no longer attend in-person meetings, due in large part to the Covid pandemic.

His videos proved popular, and he soon found an audience outside of his parish: he now has more than a million followers.

Father Matthieu Jasseron has over 1 million followers on TikTok; Photo: Le Père Matthieu Jasseron

What do Père Matthieu’s parishioners from his small Burgundy town think?

“They are enthusiastic,” he said. “Even if their children and grandchildren don’t come to Mass, at least they continue to have Christian values thanks to these new media.

“Some can even be too enthusiastic, as they’d like the whole parish to do nothing else.”

Father Matthieu sees social media as something he does in his spare time, which is not to intrude on his work in the church.

“It’s great we can meet people in this new moment in their lives - when they are scrolling through social media. But something is missing behind the screen - the ability to see, to touch, to shoulder each other.

“In our religion we believe God became man, so this physical meeting is essential.”

The videos are not always warmly received

In 2021, the Bishops’ Conference of France tweeted that it ‘disapproves of a number of [his] videos which distort the Church’s message’. It warns that their large audience does not mean they are correct.

For Father Matthieu, this was nothing more than the opinion of a single person, but he adds he has deleted several videos in the past. “My goal is not at all to shock people.”

One such video featured the priest pretending to DJ at his church altar over the chalice.

“This video wasn’t badly received in France, but it was in other countries. According to the culture, the reception is often different.”

Vatican asked for his help reaching young people

As for the use of humour, he says the tone simply reflects the way he is in real life. “Finding God transformed my life, which had been grey, into something colourful.”

He says his bishop has always supported him, and the Vatican even asked for his help in reaching a young audience as part of a study into perceptions of the church.

Results of his own study into his followers showed that half were non-practising Christians, a quarter were practising, and a quarter were atheists, agnostics or from other religions.

He is now part of a group of 15 or so ‘digital evangelists’, from South Korea, to the US, to Latin America, who were put in contact by people working at the Vatican, and regularly meet up via video calls to discuss their experiences.

There have been efforts to create a similar network within France. Fifty personalities came together in Paris in September for a ‘Catholic influencers’ night’ to share their experiences and learn from one another.

Read more: Catholic masses are held in English due to popular demand

All are testing the theory that the role of religion in French life is dwindling.

‘There is still a spiritual demand’

Today, just 49% of French people say they believe in God, compared to 66% in 1947, a 2021 Ifop survey for Ajir, a network of religion reporters, shows (1,018 people were consulted).

The only age category in which a majority believe in God are over-65s (58%). However, those aged 18 to 24 are more likely to believe (48%) than those between 35 and 49 (45%).

“I find there is a very strong spiritual demand,” Father Craplet said. “It’s true fewer people are going to church. Today there are lots of gurus and people seeking personal development.”

‘People have less confidence in institutions’

Аnthony Feneuil, a theologian at the Université de Lorraine, has noticed a similar evolution.

“Parish life with Sunday Mass is disappearing, or becoming extremely marginal,” he told The Connexion. “There are a whole heap of spiritual practices that people want: monastery retreats, meditation…”

Prof Feneuil believes the Church has suffered from society’s crisis of confidence in institutions.

“Trust in the state is also being eroded. We could say the Catholic Church is the ultimate institution, so it seems logical that people would turn away from it.”

He suggested this rejection has been accelerated by the Church’s decision to position itself as a “counter-model” in an increasingly secular society, taking a hard line on many issues, rather than trying to convince people to stay.

“The fewer people are in the Catholic Church, the less representative they are of society, and the larger the gap becomes with the rest of society.”

Videos are extension of role not replacement

Social media will create new communities to fill this gap, he said, with influencers who are affiliated to the Church, and others who are linked to movements such as evangelicalism.

“It is in Catholics’ interests to let go of the idea that the form of the Church we knew in the 19th and 20th centuries will remain the dominant form of Christianity in France,” he said.

Father Craplet sees his videos as an extension of his main role, not as a replacement.

“There are no phones during the camps. They are in the present moment, and I think that’s where we can really do good work.”

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