PARIS — Celebrating Mass in the center of Paris, Pope Benedict XVI urged Catholics to rediscover the power of the Eucharist and reject the modern “idols” of money and power.
About 250,000 people filled the sunny Invalides esplanade Sept. 13 for the liturgy, which was broadcast live on French national television. It was an unusual public display of the faith in a country that prides itself on secularism.
As the 81-year-old pontiff arrived in his popemobile, he was greeted by cheers and a panorama of fluttering yellow flags. Many of the young people in attendance had spent the night in the square, after praying at a candlelight vigil.
The pope smiled as he gazed over the crowd from a wooden altar platform. In his sermon, he recalled the preaching of St. Paul against the temptation of idolatry in the early Christian era, and said the question was still relevant today.
“Has not our modern world created its own idols? Has it not imitated, perhaps inadvertently, the pagans of antiquity?” he said.
He cited St. Paul’s condemnation of greed and the love of money, sins that lead people away from faith in God.
“Have not money, the thirst for possessions, for power and even knowledge, diverted man from his true destiny?” the pope said.
He emphasized that the church’s condemnation of idolatry, including its modern forms, is not a condemnation of the individuals caught up in its attraction.
“In our judgments, we must never confuse the sin, which is unacceptable, with the sinner, the state of whose conscience we cannot judge and who, in any case, is always capable of conversion and forgiveness,” he said.
The pope said the path to God is not always easy today, but he held out the Mass as the best way for Catholics to share in the revelation that comes from Christ.
The Mass, he said, is “the sacrifice of thanksgiving par excellence.” By participating in the Eucharist, he said, the faithful come to understand that only God “teaches us to shun idols, the illusions of our minds.”
The pope’s words represented a subtle prod in a country where it is estimated that fewer than 10 percent of Catholics go to Mass regularly.
The pope also addressed another pastoral sore point in France, the dwindling number of priestly vocations. The number of diocesan priests in France is down almost 50 percent in the last 25 years, and the priestly vocations rate is one of the lowest in the world.
In remarks aimed in particular at the many young people present — but also, as he said, the “not so young” — the pope said he was appealing to their generosity: “Do not be afraid to give your life to Christ!”
He underlined that the figure of the priest is not optional for the church.
“Nothing will ever replace the ministry of priests at the heart of the church! Nothing will ever replace a Mass for the salvation of the world!” he said.
When he left the Mass site, Vatican security agents formed a protective circle around the pope as enthusiastic young priests and seminarians tried to grab his hand.
Before the liturgy, the pope stopped briefly at the Institute of France, the prestigious academy where he was made a member in 1992. He was welcomed by the institute’s top officials and other members.
Later in the day, he was to fly to Lourdes, where he was to mark the 150th anniversary of Mary’s apparitions to St. Bernadette Soubirous.