Arriving in Lourdes a few hours before Pope Benedict, I promptly picked up the local newspapers to see how they were covering the story. His visit was naturally the lead story. What interested me more, though, was the second most prominent story in two regional newspapers here: “Pope hunts the hunters … Pope’s arrival upsets hunters’ high mass … Opening of hunting season delayed in 39 towns.”
As Pope Benedict delivered his major speech on faith and culture in Paris today, some of those listening in the medieval hall and in the press centre listened closely to hear what he would say about … Islam. The Muslim faith was by no means the subject of the lecture addressed to 700 French intellectuals. But two years ago to the day, the former theology professor gave a similar lecture in Regensburg and, seemingly out of nowhere, quoted a Byzantine emperor saying that Islam was violent and irrational. The reaction in the Muslim world back then was violent and irrational. So would he make another gaffe?
The French are a tough audience to please and speaking to them about church-state relations is a tall order. Pope Benedict got right down to it at the start of his visit to France, using his courtesy call on President Nicolas Sarkozy to outline his view of the role religion should play in the public sphere. Fluent in French and well-read in the country’s history and culture, he made several interesting points in his short speech.
The arch-traditionalist Fraternity of Saint Pius X, which broke with Rome two decades ago and saw its bishops excommunicated, hopes Pope Benedict’s visit to Lourdes this weekend will inspire him to roll back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The SSPX rejects the Council’s opening to other religions and upholds strict adherence to Catholic traditions such as the old Latin Mass. It was encouraged when Pope Benedict allowed wider use of the Tridentine liturgy last year. But in recent talks on possibly reentering the Roman fold, it once again baulked at accepting the authority of a pope who defends the 1962-1965 Council. Many ailing Catholics turn to Lourdes as their last hope for healing after all else fails. Is this a sign the SSPX might see Lourdes as its last hope too?
During a Vatican briefing this week on Pope Benedict’s trip to France, a television producer got up and asked the question that surely was foremost in the minds of many photographers and television crews struggling to hold back yawns as subjects such as France’s secular history were discussed:
One and a half million euros ($2.1 million) for 24 hours in Paris? No, we’re not talking about some luxury visit, but the stopover that Pope Benedict will make on Friday and Saturday on his way to the shrine at Lourdes. The pontiff apparently did not even plan to visit the capital on his first trip to France, meant to mark the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary there. But the city’s archbishop, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, argued for a stop in the City of Light and Benedict agreed.
Should a court delay the opening of a trial because a Muslim defendant is weak due to the Ramadan fast? A dispute has broken out in France about this because a court in Rennes allowed just such a delay for a French Muslim accused of armed robbery. His lawyer had said his client would be in “great physical and psychological weakness” due to the fast. Critics promptly cried foul and accused the court of violating laïcité, France’s separation of church and state. The Rennes public prosecutor denied the decision was made for religious reasons, citing other complicating factors he said must be resolved before the trial could start.
Some “firsts” take place amid crowds and television cameras, others happen more quietly. The Grand Mosque of Paris chose the low-key approach when it received Cardinal André Vingt-Trois on Wednesday evening for an iftar dinner. It was the first that a Roman Catholic archbishop of the French capital had visited its leading mosque for the traditional meal breaking the Ramadan fast. After a short prayer by an imam and introductory remarks, they sat down to an North African-style dinner of spicy chorba (soup), chicken and olives and dessert of honey pastries and mint tea.