Trip preview: Pope wants to encourage a revival in France

(Cross-posted from catholicnews.com)

Related stories:

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

A man fills a glass with water that comes from the spring uncovered by St. Bernadette Soubirous at the Sanctuaries of Our Lady of Lourdes in France. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

A man fills a glass with water that comes from the spring at Lourdes in France. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI is traveling to France in mid-September, making a four-day visit that is loaded with events and charged with pastoral challenges.

The Sept. 12-15 trip was designed primarily to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Marian apparitions in Lourdes, a southern French town that has become one of the world’s most popular pilgrimage sites.

But the pope will spend the first day and a half in Paris, speaking to political and cultural leaders, meeting with priests and seminarians, and celebrating Mass with the lay faithful.

For the 81-year-old pope, it will be a trip to the heart of an increasingly de-Christianized Europe, an area where, as he once put it, the “great churches seem to be dying.”

The pope wants to encourage a revival, and his schedule offers him several possibilities:

– In meetings with civil and cultural leaders on the trip’s first day, he is likely to defend the legitimate voice of religion in today’s secularized European culture.

Hospitality volunteers assist pilgrims with special needs during a Mass at the grotto of the Sanctuaries of Our Lady of Lourdes in Lourdes, France, in February. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

– By personally commemorating the anniversary of the Lourdes apparitions, the pope will have an opportunity to evoke the long tradition of Marian devotion in France and explain its relevance today.

– The papal events in Lourdes, a place where millions of sick pilgrims go to pray every year, will highlight the church’s solidarity with the suffering.

– His three meetings with French bishops — two regional encounters behind closed doors and one national meeting with a public speech — present occasions for a frank assessment of pastoral problems and strategies.

Those pastoral problems are real, and numbers tell a somewhat bleak story.

Although officially more than 75 percent of the population in France is Catholic, participation in local parish life has declined steeply over the last 50 years. Studies have shown that probably no more than 12 percent of French Catholics attend weekly Mass, and a majority of Catholics go rarely or not at all.

An elderly woman guards herself against the cold at a Mass in Lourdes, France, last February for the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

An elderly woman guards herself against the cold at a Mass in Lourdes, France, last February for the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

The number of diocesan priests in France has plummeted almost 50 percent in the last 25 years, and the priestly vocations rate is one of the lowest in the world. The rates of baptism, marriage and other sacraments also have declined steadily.

To church leaders, perhaps even more disturbing than French religious practice, or lack of it, are attitudes. A World Values Survey in 1999 showed that 56 percent of the French people did not believe in the concept of sin, nearly 60 percent said churches do not give answers to moral problems, and 62 percent said they did not receive comfort or strength from religion.

Pope Benedict has set his sights on these kinds of challenges from Day One of his pontificate. In sermons and speeches, he has argued that a life without faith is ultimately empty and unfulfilling, and that the evidence of such unhappiness is all around us.

In France, he is likely to make the point that simple faith — like that of St. Bernadette Soubirous, the young Lourdes visionary — is still relevant in the 21st century.

The pope was working on his speeches for the French trip over the summer and in mid-August gave a hint of what was on his mind. Marking the feast of the Assumption , he spoke of the value of “pure and simple faith” in the modern world.

The life of Mary, in particular, he said, can inspire Christians to live their daily lives “oriented toward the beatitudes.” Faced with all the false happiness in modern society, he said, people can learn from Mary to “be witnesses of hope and consolation.”

A statue of Mary is seen at the grotto of the Sanctuaries of Our Lady of Lourdes. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

A statue of Mary is seen at the grotto of the Sanctuaries of Our Lady of Lourdes. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

The pope sees the sanctuary of Lourdes as a place where the church carries out its Gospel of hope in a very concrete way, helping relieve the burdens of individual sufferers and the families who care for them.

At a Rome conference earlier this year to mark the Lourdes anniversary, he said a society that did not show compassion to its sick and suffering was “a cruel and inhuman society.”

Citing his latest encyclical, “Spe Salvi” (on Christian hope), he went on to say that families, especially poor families dealing with a member’s illness, risk being “swept asunder” in communities that value only productivity.

In France, the pope also may remind society of its duty to help relieve the loneliness of the sick and dying. He has warned that such isolation has contributed to the growing acceptance of euthanasia; in France, there has been a strong push for the decriminalization of euthanasia in recent years.

Here, too, the pope can point to the church’s own efforts to bring spiritual and physical healing and, in the process, reinforce his point that Christianity is lived, and spread, more by witness than by arguments.

As on previous trips abroad, the pope’s strategy appears to be to raise these broader themes — Christian hope, the faith as love in action, and the need for moral truths and religious values in a materialist society — and make them resonate with his audience.

French Catholics probably will not receive a papal dressing-down or a lecture on Mass attendance. In the pope’s view, it’s not just a question of making time for the church in their weekly schedules, but making room for God in their lives.

Air travelers make friends with Atlanta deacons

Traveling by air can be easy at times. Or it can be a pain, depending on how late your plane is. Certainly though, it’s rarely pleasurable, given the tight security at airports these days. 

No matter what the situation, Deacons Don Kelsey and Mike Landaiche try to make the travel experience as enjoyable as possible for the 250,000 passengers who pass through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest, each day.

The Georgia Bulletin profiles the two deacons and their ministry in a piece by Andrew Nelson. Photographer Michael Alexander also has developed a digital slide show of the men as they make their rounds of the airport.

From helping moms outnumbered by their children to greeting some of the airport staff who unload planes, assist passengers and transport travelers from one terminal to the next, Deacon Kelsey and Deacon Landaiche perform a worthwhile ministry of comfort and friendship.

The men are two wonderful examples of people working in a public venue bringing Christ’s peace to those they encounter. Thanks, gentlemen.

Spotlight on evolution

Charles Darwin is pictured at Down House in Kent, England, in this photo circa 1880. The English naturalist formed the theory of evolution by natural selection. (CNS/English Heritage, National Monuments Record/HIP/Art Resource)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is about to unveil another upcoming international conference on evolution, this one  on the topic, “Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories. A Critical Appraisal 150 Years after `The Origin of Species.’”

Scheduled for March 3-7, 2009, the Rome conference is being organized by the Pontifical Gregorian University and the University of Notre Dame, under the sponsorship of the Pontifical Council for Culture. Next Tuesday, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the council for culture, and other Rome academics will present the initiative to Vatican journalists.

The Rome conference will take place a few weeks after the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the English naturalist who wrote “On the Origin of Species” in 1859. The work established evolutionary theory as the dominant explanation of biological diversity in the world.

The Vatican’s interest in the question of evolution has intensified in recent years. This fall, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences will take its most systematic look at evolution in an Oct. 31-Nov. 4 conference on the theme, “Scientific Insights Into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life.”

Over the summer, the Vatican newspaper ran a series of articles on Darwinism, creation and intelligent design. In a nutshell, they said evolution and Christian faith are compatible as long as evolutionary theories do not exclude a greater divine plan.

Pope Benedict XVI has also shown a keen interest in the issue and its implications for the faith. He described creation as an “intelligent project” in 2005 and hosted his former doctoral students in a symposium about evolution in 2006.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 630 other followers