Sign up for Meridian’s Free Newsletter, please CLICK HERE
To get links to all of Meridian’s coverage of the Paris France Temple, click here.
Text by Maurine Proctor. Photography by Scot Facer Proctor
The Paris France Temple will be dedicated this Sunday, May 21, 2017.
If you think the sons of Mosiah had a long mission with their 14 years, Dominique Calmels, a French Latter-day Saint has them beat. He has served as a public affairs director in France for 17 years—and it is not because he can’t get the hang of his calling.
A public affairs calling requires insight and leadership in any area of the Church, but in France it takes on additional tricky dimensions.
“The difficulty in France,” he says, “is that nobody wants to follow an institutional religion, even though 60% of the French say that they believe in God. Religion is viewed with suspicion. The Muslims are growing. Evangelism is growing. The rest of the religions have a very low attendance.” Other institutions want no connection with any kind of religion.
Pauline Todd, who has been serving as a construction missionary in France during the building of the temple added, “The French don’t have conversations about church or God in public. It is not popular to talk about religion. People aren’t allowed to talk about God in their offices.
“The government has control over most of the cathedrals. If they had to wait for donations to survive, they wouldn’t have anything.”
The French Revolution was a revolt against both government and church, and that history has marked the sensibilities of the French.
Area Authority Seventy, Matthieu Bennasar said that this suspicion against religion certainly marks the way the press speaks of the LDS Church, as well. Since the media are always interested in a greater readership, they often portray the Church as secretive or polygamous. A bias often marks the reporting.
That’s why the press’s coverage of the Paris France temple is such a surprising—even remarkable thing. In the first three weeks of the temple open house, more than 200 newspaper articles were written about the temple—and every one of them was positive!
Even those few articles that included a critical comment about the Church from another party, parked those words at the end of the article where most readers have already trailed off and stopped reading.
Elder Bennasar said, “Since the temple open house, the media has been treating the church with the rightful, unbiased point of view which we appreciate. Now the articles are saying true things instead of a few true things and then other statements that are controversial.”
He said that he was having lunch recently with some high-powered French clients and they mentioned the temple to him because they had seen articles about it in the media. In fact, he would estimate that half of the population of France has had exposure to some kind of article or small video on the Internet about the temple. It would be difficult to overstate how singular this is in France.
This media miracle didn’t just happen. Many factors came into play.
Usually media sends their most junior journalists to cover anything touching on religion in a country like France—and even if they write positive stories, they are buried somewhere in the back of the news, in as obscure a place as possible. However, at the opening ceremony before the first VIP tours to which media were invited, in addition to Elder Neil L. Andersen and Bishop Gérald Caussé, Mitt and Ann Romney came.
Mitt had been a missionary in France and his bid for the U.S. presidency had made his name well-known there. The newspapers sent their top reporters to this unique gathering.
Once they were there, however, the temple spoke for itself. The journalists were touched, moved and impressed. The building itself, of course, is elegant. Its unparalleled excellence speaks a sort of transcendent harmony to the soul of even the most jaded journalist. The chance they had to see the teachings of the gospel firsthand also blew away their clouded perceptions not only of religion itself, but this religion particularly. What they saw was neither strange, nor weird, nor some kind of threat to society. It was calm and peaceful.
Frankly, although the temple has not yet been dedicated, the Spirit is so strong already that many were moved. One journalist came to the Celestial room with teary eyes.
Patient Relationship Building
Then, there is one more thing—and it comes back to Dominique Calmels and his 17-year calling as public affairs director, along with the work of other French Latter-day Saint leaders such as Bishop Caussé. Patiently, steadily, unendingly, graciously, they have built relationships of trust in the community and nation with key leaders. This is not a quick, check-it-off-your-list kind of thing.
These wheels of progress grind slowly, but usually bring honest friendship and new understanding. The Church built a friendship with Phillipe Brillault, the mayor of Le Chesnay where the temple is, over a period of time. As a result, he probably visited the temple ten times during its construction, watching it in every stage of the project.
Over long years, as public affairs director, Calmels has developed a very strong relationship with a captain from the internal police in France. (This is a group something like the CIA.) This captain shares information that helps the Church with security, and with time he has become a real friend to the Church.
One national organization is usually the source of the unfavorable comments in media stories about the Church. This captain from the internal police helped persuade some of its leadership to come to the temple open house. They came, along with someone who had been a very strong opponent of the mayor.
Calmels said they had tough questions as they went through the temple, especially about baptisms for the dead, but the conversation they shared together in the garden at the end before the Christus chapel was good. They certainly left with a better understanding of the Church that they have so often disdained.
“It is interesting to see how the Lord manages things,” said Calmels. “If someone had told me before that this organization would come to the temple open house, I would have said that was impossible.”
What Can We Do for You?
Under the Minister of the Interior in France is an office for religious matters. “For years,” said Calmels, “we have set up a good relationship with them. We meet once a year with them, even if we have nothing to say, but keep that contact. Every two or three years they change the head of this office, and so we start again.”
Calmels met with this office before the temple was built to introduce the first drawings of the temple from the architect. The director of the office was new, so Calmels took the opportunity to explain something to him about the temple.
“Then I was very surprised,” Calmels said, “because, after seeing the plans, the director asked, ‘What can I do for you?’”
“Nothing at this stage,” Calmels answered. Then the director continued, ‘I will speak to the préfét [who is the minister of the state for that region]. I will tell him about your project and that we are behind you, and that he should not make any opposition against you.’ We had never met with this man before, and I was very surprised by his reaction and his kindness.”
Another office that Calmels has worked with for years is the Miviludes, which responds to the prime minister. It is a key organization whose responsibility is to monitor groups perceived to constitute a threat to the public order, informing the public, including journalists, about potentially risky organizations.
Calmels said, “We have had a very strong relationship with this organization for ten years. At our first meeting with the organization years ago, the president said he had a trainee with him. After we had been in discussion together for about an hour, the trainee asked an unusual question. He said, ‘Is Mr. Hinckley in better health?’ He was referring, of course, to President Gordon B. Hinckley.
“I answered, ‘I don’t have any news, but he seems OK. Do you know him? Why do you ask?’ The trainee answered that he had spent nine months living with a Mormon family in Seattle and went to church every Sunday with them. His firsthand knowledge made a difference at this significant and very important organization that, based on good knowledge, has always been very supportive of the Church.”
Calmels said, “It is a very good idea to have been kept in this public affairs role for 17 years because relationships are built slowly, and we really spend half our time cementing the relationships that we have already built.
It is immensely difficult for any religion to be clearly seen in France, where biases are so strong.
VIP Open Houses
A temple VIP open house is an opportunity to let leaders in all arenas see the Church more clearly—and since a new temple comes only rarely to an area, the work is intense to network and invite people to come. This was particularly important in France with its culture of suspicion toward religion.
Calmel was pleased that more than 1600 people came to the VIP open houses at the temple (and, of course, scores of thousands more to the public open house.) None of this was easy work.
The open house fell between the dates where the state announced the official candidates and the end of the deputy election, so no politician could go to any official meeting or presentation. “Anywhere, you invite them,” said Calmels, “they answer, no we cannot go.” He said that he heard from so many that he knew well who wrote, “Dear Dominique. All my greetings. Hope it will work very well.”
It was also tough to get business leaders to come to the temple open house. MEDEF, which is the largest employer federation in France, representing perhaps 3 million companies in France, just said frankly, as an organization we don’t want any relationship with religion. They wouldn’t come. “You read that,” said Calmels and think “Where are we as a society, when they couldn’t consider making a visit?”
Creativity was his answer to getting VIPs to come, organizing open houses and events around themes. There was a VIP open house for architects and one for family history. One of the most moving VIP open houses was for the builders and their families.
“When we took them through the temple with their families,” said Ramon Lopez, there were tears on some of their faces. They were so proud of having been participants in building the temple.”
A Big Change
As a director of public affairs Calmels said, “I think the big change that the temple has brought for me is that the people in France will see us as a legitimate religion. We will move from being a small group to an organization more visible and recognizable and legitimate in the eyes of the public.” This, of course, impacts missionary work in a country that has been very difficult for Church growth.
Watching the French Latter-day Saints, like Dominique Calmels, who focused so much of his considerable expertise and time on growing relationships for the Church, is moving and inspiring. What will we do for the kingdom of God? We might look to them for an idea of what devotion, patience and faith looks like.
The Lord, Jesus Christ, directs this Church, but we are his hands.