(Cross-posted from Catholic News Service)
By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
LOURDES, France (CNS) — Being pope is not a one-dimensional job, a fact that was clearly evident during Pope Benedict XVI’s four-day visit to France.
Arriving in Paris Sept. 12, the pope first engaged in an important political encounter that attempted to build on the new openness shown the church by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Next, in a brief meeting with Jews, he managed to capsulize in 20 graceful lines the church’s respect for Judaism and its firm rejection of anti-Semitism.
That evening, the pope slipped into his academic role and delivered a lecture on monasticism’s influence on Western civilization to 700 scholars and intellectuals.
He then switched gears and led vespers in Notre Dame Cathedral with priests and religious, emphasizing that while their ranks may be thinning their role in the church has lost none of its value and, indeed, is irreplaceable.
Finally, he stepped outside and energized a waiting crowd of 40,000 young people, drawing roars of approval when he said the church needs them and has confidence in them.
It was a whirlwind beginning and demonstrated a remarkable pastoral versatility on the part of the 81-year-old pontiff.
The next day, after celebrating Mass for a larger-than-expected crowd in Paris, he went to Lourdes and showed another side of his role as universal pastor — a Marian side.
It’s no secret that, as a theologian and bishop, Pope Benedict was not always comfortable with Marian devotion and claims of apparitions. But over the years he has widened his views, saying in 2002 that, “the older I am, the more important the mother of God is to me.”
So at Lourdes pilgrims heard the scholarly pope preach the value of “humble and intense prayer” like the rosary. He told his listeners that devotion to Mary was not a form of “pious infantilism” but an expression of spiritual maturity.
When he took a drink from the Lourdes spring that many pilgrims believe to be the font of miraculous cures, he was demonstrating that the Christian lives by simple signs and symbols as well as by theological ideas.
The pope’s trip to Lourdes was bound to be compared to Pope John Paul II’s moving visit to the shrine in 2004. Ailing and unsteady, the late pope had to ask for help on the altar; it was his last foreign trip.
Pope Benedict was not a personal witness to suffering like his predecessor, but he left no doubt that ministry to the sick is a benchmark of Catholicism.
At his Mass with thousands of sick people Sept. 15, the final day of his visit, he thanked Catholics at Lourdes and all over the world who volunteer their time and effort to help the infirm.
That highlighted a key theme of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, one he has underlined in encyclicals but which is sometimes overlooked: that personal charity — love in action — is the ultimate expression of faith in Jesus Christ.
Another difference between Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul surfaced during the visit. The late pope, on his first trip to France in 1980, sternly critiqued the French drift from the faith, asking Catholics, “France, the eldest daughter of the church, are you faithful to the promise of your baptism?”
Pope Benedict took a softer approach, alluding to pastoral problems but keeping the focus on the positive — for example, the enthusiastic crowd of 260,000 people at his Paris liturgy. In his final talk to French Catholics, he praised them for their “firm faith” and said he had been likewise encouraged by the strong turnout of youths at a Paris vigil.
Where he offered more instructional advice was in his talk to French bishops. He touched on a sore point when he urged the bishops to show flexibility toward traditionalists who want to take advantage of his 2007 rule change on the use of the Tridentine rite, the Mass rite used before the Second Vatican Council.
As a whole, though, the pope framed his message in optimistic terms. Whether talking to politicians, pastoral workers, scholars, the sick or the young, he emphasized that the church is at home in France, and its voice — including the voice of prayer — must continue to be heard.