“Shun Idols”

Pope Benedict’s September visit to France recalled its Christian roots.

The Roman Pontifex Maximus Julius Caesar, in words destined to be translated by generations of Latin students, observed that “all Gaul is divided into three parts.” Over two millennia later, during his apostolic journey to modern-day Gaul, the Roman Pontiff observed that all of France, and indeed all of Europe, faces three paths. The first is the “subjective arbitrariness” of “a purely positivistic culture”; the second, a “fundamentalist fanaticism” in which reason has no place; and the third, the “search for God and the readiness to listen to Him” that are at the heart of Benedictine monasticism and the European culture it shaped so profoundly.

Pope Benedict’s September 12-15 apostolic journey, undertaken to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Marian apparitions at Lourdes, itself accomplished three tasks. As head of the Holy See, which has endured troubled relations with France for centuries, Pope Benedict diplomatically called for a greater ecclesial role in public life. As a scholar—and indeed, as a member since 1992 of the prestigious Institut de France’s Academy of Moral Sciences and Politics—Pope Benedict showed that recitation of the Psalms and reflection on Sacred Scripture formed the common thread that linked Jesus Christ with the life of Western monks, the glories of European culture, and the renewal of the Church today. And as a pastor preaching to large crowds— 270,000 young people in Paris, and 150,000 pilgrims at Lourdes—Pope Benedict urged the faithful to embrace the Cross and turn to Mary, principal patroness of France.

Departing from Rome on Friday morning, September 12, Pope Benedict arrived at Paris-Orly airport and received an official welcome at the Palais de l’Élysée, the residence of French presidents since 1874. French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s warm reception would have been inconceivable for much of the modern era.

Even after the brutal anti-Catholicism of the French Revolution gave way to the 1801 concordat between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII, serious tensions between France and the Holy See remained. The final decades of the nineteenth century witnessed an erosion of the government’s commitment to the concordat, and after renouncing it, France passed a law on the separation of Church and state in 1905, with implications far more hostile to the Church than the American sense of the phrase.

In establishing the “separation of Church and state,” France established a regime of secularity (laïcité) in which the Church could do little except maintain buildings for worship. Relations between France and the Holy See began to thaw in 1921 with the restoration of diplomatic relations. Nonetheless, the principle of laïcité, which sharply limited the role of the Church in public life, remained intact.


In his warm welcoming address at the Palais de l’Élysée, Sarkozy five times addressed Pope Benedict as très
Saint Père (very Holy Father). Calling the Church “a spiritual family whose contribution to the history of the world and civilization is neither contestable nor disputed,” President Sarkozy paid tribute to Pope Benedict’s statements on the compatibility of faith and reason and said that democracy, too, needs to be open to reason, which can serve as a common meeting point between religion and the secular state.

“Positive secularity, open secularity,” said Sarkozy, “is an invitation to dialogue, tolerance, and respect … In the hour when so many fanaticisms reappear, in the hour when relativism exerts an increasing seduction, where the possibility even of knowing and of partaking in a certain share of the truth is questioned, in the hour when the hardest acts of selfi shness threaten the relations between nations and within nations, this absolute option for human dignity and its anchoring in reason must be held to be a most precious treasure.”

Expressing gratitude for President Sarkozy’s words of welcome, Pope Benedict said that the “principal reason for my visit is the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes. It is my desire to join the multitude of countless pilgrims from the whole world who during this year are converging on the Marian shrine, filled with faith and love.” After dwelling upon France’s deep Christian roots, which date to the second century and earned France the title of “eldest daughter of the Church,” Pope Benedict reflected on laïcité:

You yourself, Mr. President, have used the fine expression “laïcité positive” to characterize this more open understanding. At this moment in history when cultures continue to cross paths more frequently, I am firmly convinced that a new reflection on the true meaning and importance of laïcité is now necessary. In fact, it is fundamental, on the one hand, to insist on the distinction between the political realm and that of religion in order to preserve both the religious freedom of citizens and the responsibility of the State towards them; and, on the other hand, to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences and the contribution which it can bring to—among other things— creation of a basic ethical consensus in society.

Pointing to areas in which Church and state could work together—the ethical formation of youth, the amelioration of poverty, and the stewardship of the environment—Pope Benedict then diplomatically yet unmistakably challenged Sarkozy to defend human rights, including the rights to life and religious freedom.

Pope Benedict left the Palais de l’Élysée for the apostolic nunciature, where he met with representatives of the Jewish community. Pope Benedict immediately discussed the recitation of the Psalms and prayerful refl ection on Sacred Scripture, a topic he would emphasize in his subsequent addresses. Also using the occasion to condemn “every form of anti-Semitism,” Pope Benedict observed that “the Church herself … compellingly repeats, through my voice, the words of the great Pope Pius XI, my beloved predecessor: Spiritually, we are Semites.” Recalling that Pope Pius XII referred to his time as “the hour of darkness,” Pope Benedict also paid “heartfelt recognition” to Holocaust victims and those who keep alive their memory.


Pope Benedict then went to the Collège des Bernardins, which from its foundation in 1245 to the French Revolution served as the residence of Cistercian monks at the University of Paris. At the initiative of the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Collège since 1984 has served as an educational and cultural center. Addressing many of France’s leading intellectual and political figures, Pope Benedict delivered a profound lecture reminiscent of his famous address exactly two years earlier in Regensburg, Germany, which provoked cries of protest from the Muslim world.

“We are in a place,” Pope Benedict told the French intellectuals, “that is associated with the culture of monasticism. Does this still have something to say to us today, or are we merely encountering the world of the past? In order to answer this question, we must consider for a moment the nature of Western monasticism itself.”

The monks’ goal, said Pope Benedict, was simple: quaerere Deum (to seek God). But the monks’ simple goal had consequences that profoundly shaped the history of Europe. Because God has revealed Himself in Sacred Scripture, “by inner necessity, the search for God demands a culture of the word,” a culture in which a love of language, libraries, and education could flourish. From the monks’ life of corporate worship, a love of music also developed:

…This intrinsic requirement of speaking with God and singing of him with words he himself has given is what gave rise to the great tradition of Western music. It was not a form of private “creativity” in which the individual leaves a memorial to himself and makes self-representation his essential criterion. Rather, it is about vigilantly recognizing with the “ears of the heart” the inner laws of the music of creation and thus discovering music that is worthy of God, and at the same time truly worthy of man, music whose worthiness resounds in purity.

In their life of worship and refl ection on Sacred Scripture, the monks, said Pope Benedict, avoided two extremes. In contemplating the one Word in the many books of the Bible, the monks had a “growing realization of the different layers of meaning” in which “the word is not devalued, but in fact appears in its full grandeur and dignity … This particular structure of the Bible issues a constantly new challenge to every generation. It excludes by its nature everything that today is known as fundamentalism. In effect, the word of God can never simply be equated with the letter of the text.” If monastic biblical interpretation, through its use of both letter and allegory, moves beyond fundamentalism, it also avoids an arrogant emphasis on “the exegete’s own idea, the exegete’s own vision … a clear limit is placed upon arbitrariness and subjectivity.”

This discussion of monastic biblical interpretation, said Pope Benedict, has profound implications for Europe today. “This tension presents itself anew as a challenge for our own generation as we face two poles: on the one hand, subjective arbitrariness, and on the other, fundamentalist fanaticism. It would be a disaster if today’s European culture could only conceive freedom as absence of obligation, which would inevitably play into the hands of fanaticism and arbitrariness. Absence of obligation and arbitrariness do not signify freedom, but its destruction.”

Monastic culture, continued the pontiff, is not only a culture of prayer and reflection (ora), but also a culture of work (labora) in which manual labor is not despised, but rather seen as a “sharing in the work of the Creator.” Nor is it a culture absorbed in itself: it longs to proclaim Jesus Christ, the “Logos—the presence of eternal reason in our flesh,” as St. Paul did at the Areopagus. To banish discussion of God from public life is tantamount to driving reason from life, which would be a “disaster for humanity”:

Quaerere Deum—to seek God and to let oneself be found by him, that is today no less necessary than in former times. A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences. What gave Europe’s culture its foundation—the search for God and the readiness to listen to him—remains today the basis of any genuine culture.

Pope Benedict then went to Notre- Dame Cathedral to celebrate Vespers with priests, religious, seminarians, and deacons. Among his other exhortations, he said to priests, “Do not be afraid to spend much time reading and meditating on the Scriptures and praying the Divine Offi ce!”


Pope Benedict then addressed the 270,000 young people who had assembled outside the cathedral for a nighttime prayer vigil. At 9:10 the following morning, Pope Benedict paid a brief visit to the Institut de France, the prestigious French learned society that oversees five academies. Historian Gabriel de Broglie, the institute’s chancellor, awarded Pope Benedict a medal, and the pontiff signed the Golden Book for distinguished guests with the words of St. John’s Gospel: In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum (“in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”).

At 10:00, Pope Benedict preached to 260,000 gathered at the Esplanade des Invalides, which grew from a hospital for French veterans in 1676 to a series of monuments to French military figures. Preaching a short distance from the tomb of Napoleon, who had imprisoned two of his predecessors, Pope Benedict repeatedly urged the French faithful to “shun idols”:

Has not our modern world created its own idols? Has it not imitated, perhaps inadvertently, the pagans of antiquity, by diverting man from his true end, from the joy of living eternally with God? This is a question that all people, if they are honest with themselves, cannot help but ask … Have not money, the thirst for possessions, for power and even for knowledge, diverted man from his true Destiny, from the truth about himself?

Following a private lunch with French bishops, Pope Benedict fl ew to Lourdes, which is located in southern France near the Spanish border. Some five million pilgrims visit Lourdes each year, and on Saturday evening, he joined their number.

Praying first at the parish Church of the Sacred Heart, where St. Bernadette was baptized, he visited the cachot— the 12-by-14-ft. former prison cell where the six members of the family lived, cooked, prayed, and slept. The pontiff then prayed at the Grotto of the Apparitions before taking part in the nightly Marian torchlight procession and preaching a homily to 40,000 other pilgrims. “A quiet encounter with Bernadette and the Virgin Mary,” he said, “can change a person’s life, for they are here, in Massabielle, to lead us to Christ who is our life, our strength and our light. May the Virgin Mary and Saint Bernadette help you to live as children of light in order to testify, every day of your lives, that Christ is our light, our hope and our life!”

The following morning, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Pope Benedict celebrated outdoor Mass. He told the 150,000 faithful that the Church, like Mary, points to the crucifi ed Christ and invites all to “authentic conversion of heart.” Urging the faithful to evangelize and look to Mary as the “star of hope,” he called upon them to heed the Blessed Virgin’s message of “conversion, prayer and penance” so that they, like St. Bernardette, might “render fruitful the grace of their Baptism.”

In his Angelus address at the conclusion of Mass, Pope Benedict appealed to the faithful to live as “sons and daughters of Mary,” who “shows us the right way to come to the Lord. She teaches us to approach him in truth and simplicity. Thanks to her, we discover that the Christian faith is not a burden: it is like a wing which enables us to fl y higher, so as to take refuge in God’s embrace.”

Following a private lunch with regional bishops, Pope Benedict’s Sunday afternoon schedule was free until 5:15, when he delivered a lengthy address to French bishops, who guide a Church that suffers from exceptionally low rates of weekly Mass attendance (10 percent according to the U.S. State Department’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report) and priestly vocations (169th among the world’s nations and territories in the ratio of seminarians to Catholics). In his address, he emphasized eight points:

• the need to base catechesis on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Catechism of the Bishops of France

• a greater “promoting and welcoming” of priestly and religious vocations

• attentiveness to the spiritual life of priests, making sure they do not delegate specifically priestly missions to others

• a faithful implementation of Summorum Pontificum, which allowed for a much wider use of the 1962 Roman Missal, “lest the seamless tunic of Christ be further torn,” so that “every person, without exception, should be able to feel at home, and never rejected.”

• support for “the stable union of a man and a women, ordered to building earthly happiness through the birth of children given by God,” including a firm defense of the indissolubility of marriage and a refusal to bless “irregular unions”

• attention to youth, who “even while living in a world which courts them and flatters their base instincts … retain a freshness of soul”

• attentiveness to France’s Christian roots and a search for “a new path” beyond the Church-state framework in force since 1905

• a reminder that the ultimate purpose of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue is the proclamation of the Catholic faith: “Good will is not enough. I believe it is good to begin by listening, then moving on to theological discussion, so as to arrive fi nally at witness and proclamation of the faith itself.”

Remarkably, the German-born pontiff concluded his address by comparing the Church’s mission to the liberation of Normandy from German occupation. “France was then celebrating its temporal liberation, at the conclusion of a cruel war which had claimed countless victims. Now, and above all, it is time to work towards a genuine spiritual liberation.”

Pope Benedict’s most tender words at Lourdes—among the most moving words of his pontificate—came during the Sunday evening Blessed Sacrament procession that followed:

Whether we are walking or confined to a bed of suffering; whether we are walking in joy or languishing in the wilderness of the soul: Lord, take us all into your Love… Mary, the holy Virgin, Mary, the Immaculate Conception, accepted, two thousand years ago, to give everything, to offer her body so as to receive the Body of the Creator. Everything came from Christ, even Mary; everything came through Mary, even Christ… Let yourself be embraced by him! Gaze no longer upon your own wounds, gaze upon his… In his wounds, he takes hold of you; in his wounds, he hides you. Do not refuse his Love!

On Monday morning, the pontiff concluded his pilgrimage to the shrine by celebrating a Mass for the sick in front of the Basilica of Notre-Dame du Rosaire. He repeatedly urged the 70,000 in attendance to contemplate “the smile of Our Lady.”

Pope Benedict also issued a heartfelt appeal to those tempted to suicide. “I would like to say, humbly, to those who suffer and to those who struggle and are tempted to turn their backs on life: turn towards Mary! Within the smile of the Virgin lies mysteriously hidden the strength to fight against sickness and for life. With her, equally, is found the grace to accept without fear or bitterness to leave this world at the hour chosen by God.”

Prime Minister François Fillon delivered a farewell address later that day at Tarbes-Lourdes-Pyrénées Airport. “You reminded [us],” said the prime minister, “that the fundamental separation of the Church and the state does not prevent them either from engaging in dialogue or from being enriched mutually…You invited us to take the way of Reason and of the Word to progress in humanity and spirituality…The Republic, deeply secular, respects the existence of the fact of religion.”

For his part, Pope Benedict avoided any reference to laïcité as he bade France farewell. Lourdes, he said, “is like a light in the darkness of our groping to reach God. Mary opened there a gate towards a hereafter which challenges and charms us… From Rome I shall remain close to you, and when I pray before the replica of the Lourdes Grotto which has been in the Vatican Gardens for a little over a century, I shall think of you. May God bless you!”

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About J. J. Ziegler 58 Articles
J. J. Ziegler, who holds degrees in classics and sacred theology, writes from North Carolina.