It’s a late summer morning at the Église de la Madeleine in Paris. As tourists wander into the imposing neo-classical church, hundreds of the faithful rise from their pews, singing their hearts out to the accompaniment of the church organ. Standing before them, a priest dressed in a green chasuble raises his hands heavenward in prayer.
Nothing unusual, you might think. Except that the faithful are singing the hits of the recently deceased French rock star Johnny Hallyday, who gazes out with his distinctive lupine eyes from a portrait placed on the steps of the altar. “Je t’en supplie, à l’infini, retiens la nuit,” they sing (“Please hold back the night forever”).
It’s been nearly a year since the “French Elvis” departed this mortal coil. “Johnny”, as he is known to the French public, died at 74 after nearly six decades of lip curls and hip swings, his 79 albums running the gamut from yé-yé to blues, country, hard rock and even Christian rock. (Although a Catholic, he was reportedly almost excommunicated in 1970 for writing a song entitled Jésus Christ which described Jesus as a hippy.)
But more than the music, it was about the man, for people related to Johnny’s candid accounts of depression and drug addiction, health troubles and heartache. Not for nothing did French President Emmanuel Macron tweet: “We all have something of Johnny in us.”
Ever since Hallyday died, after a battle with lung cancer, his fans have flocked to “la Madeleine”, one of the most famous churches in Paris. Far from fading away, the movement has turned into a cult event, an unlikely but potent mixture of religion and pop culture. Attendance is so large that the monthly Masses are likely to continue beyond 2018, says Fr Bruno Horaist.
“More than 200 people came in January, 500 in February, 600 in March and almost 2,000 in June. Normally, I don’t get more than 50 people at weekly Masses,” he says.
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