ABOARD THE PAPAL FLIGHT TO PARIS — En route to France Friday, Pope Benedict XVI spoke with reporters and previewed some of the main themes of his four-day visit.The pope fielded questions on church-state relations, the contributions of French Catholicism and the true meaning of the Marian sanctuary at Lourdes.
Shortly after take off, the pope stood in the front of the coach-class section of the packed Alitalia Airbus 321. The 70 reporters on the plane leaned out into the single aisle to get a clear view of him as he responded to questions.
The reporters had wondered whether the pope would come back to speak to them, because the flight was so short, but Vatican sources said he wanted to meet with the journalists.
He spoke entirely in French, which was very unusual; because the official working language of the Vatican is Italian, the papal press conferences during a trip usually are in Italian with a few questions and answers in the language of the country he is visiting.
Asked about the role of the church in France and in secular societies, the pope said a proper separation of church and state does not contradict the ideals of the Catholic faith. What the church wants, he said, is for Christians to have a voice in society and to be able to “live joyfully the freedom of our faith” and make the beauty of the faith visible in society.
“The world should know that it is beautiful to be a believer, that it’s beautiful to know God, God with a human face in Jesus Christ,” he said.
The pope added that it is essential to the survival of modern societies that there be some people who know God and follow religious values.
Answering a question about his knowledge of France, Pope Benedict sounded like a genuine Francophile, citing the theological and philosophical contributions of French Catholics and praising French culture in general: its art and architecture, its great cathedrals, its monastic tradition and even the joie de vivre of its poets.
He recalled in particular the contributions of great 20th-century theologians, including Henri De Lubac, Jean Danielou and Yves Congar.
Asked about his relaxation of restrictions on use of the Tridentine rite — a move that was controversial in France — the pope said fears that this would set off a liturgical conflict were unfounded.
He said the new rules were designed to satisfy the needs of a small group of faithful who had a special attachment to the old rite; it was “an act of tolerance” toward them. It is clear, he said, that the post-Vatican II Mass remains the normal liturgy in the church.
The last question dealt with his visit to Lourdes where he will mark the 150th anniversary of Mary’s apparitions to St. Bernadette Soubrious.
The pope said Marian devotion has a valuable place in Catholicism today. “We are not going to Lourdes to find miracles, but to find the Mother’s love and true healing,” he said.