Tuesday, September 09, 2008
Pope Benedict will hold a Mass at Lourdes to mark the 150th anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1858. Photo / AP
New Zealand Herald
4:00AM Tuesday September 09, 2008
By Catherine Field
PARIS - Pope Benedict XVI visits France this week in a bid to push back anticlericalism and revive Catholicism in one of the world's most secular countries.
The four-day tour, starting on Friday, will be crowned by a papal Mass at Lourdes to mark the 150th anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary to a 14-year-old miller's daughter, Bernadette Sourbirous.
The visit comes in a context of mounting concern in the Vatican about falling numbers of faithful in a country that once was a Catholic bastion - a decline the conservative pontiff clearly links to France's hard-edged secularism.
On Friday, the 81-year-old Pope is scheduled to make a speech in Paris to guests from France's cultural scene, when he is expected to pound out the message that loss of faith leads to national regression.
"There's no doubt about it, this speech is going to be a big moment," said a source in the French Catholic Church.
The speech will be about "restoring trust in human reason when it opens to the transcendental", but the sub-text is about papal concern about secularist extremism, the source said.
France believes strongly in having a public arena where worship and religious symbols are banned. Politicians may be devout Catholics in private, but are careful never to make references to their faith in public.
In the face of a perceived rise in Islamism, the state has acted firmly to defend secularist principles, banning notably the wearing of crucifixes and Muslim headscarves in state schools.
In the latest controversy, a public prosecutor in the city of Rennes has been blasted for postponing a criminal case after one of the defendants, accused of armed robbery, said he observed the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which entails daytime fasting, and thus would be too weak to stand trial.
Defenders of France's secularism say it is essential to have a space open to all that is free of the toxicity of religious extremism and rivalry.
Critics say it panders to anti-clericalism, which emerged among French intellectuals and leftwingers in the 19th century and persists to this day, sometimes to the point of intolerance.
As guardian of the Catholic doctrine under his predecessor John Paul II, the Pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, has long had France in his sights. In a speech in 1992, he warned the country of the danger of ignoring its Christian roots.
"For a culture and a nation to cut itself from the religious and ethical forces of its history is tantamount to suicide," the future Pope said.