Paris Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, chairman of the French Bishops Conference, held a press briefing on Saturday evening on the lifting of excommunications of four bishops of the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). France is home to the largest of the provinces of the dissident group, with around 100,000 faithful of a worldwide total of 600,000. Sitting in a medieval meeting room in Notre Dame cathedral, he defended Pope Benedict’s decision to take the four bishops back into the Roman Catholic Church and indicated the SSPX would have to bend to Church discipline.
The tension in France because of the Gaza conflict has taken a new twist with a charge by three Muslim youths that Jewish militants had beaten them up because one of them had thrown away a pro-Israel pamphlet. The focus until now has been on rising anti-Semitic attacks, presumably mostly by Muslims angered by Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, but this puts another layer of complexity on the story. The attack happened almost a week ago, on Thursday Jan. 8, but the details are still unclear and the versions being put out don’t match up.
Whenever the Palestinian issue heats up, the temperature rises in the gritty neighbourhoods the French call the banlieues (suburbs). These areas, best known for the low-cost housing projects that postwar city planners planted out there, are a vibrant and edgy mix of local working class, recent immigrants and minorities now in France for several generations.
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.
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.
One of the largest medieval buildings in Paris reopens this week as a forum for discussion about faith in the modern world after more than two centuries being used mostly as a fire station and police training centre. The Collège des Bernardins was founded in 1247 by the English Cistercian monk Stephen of Lexington as a residential college for the order’s monks. After the French Revolution, it was taken over by the city.