A pope for Mary

Pope Benedict prays at the Grotto of the Apparitions at Lourdes

Pope Benedict prays at the Grotto of the Apparitions at Lourdes. (CNS/Catholic Press Photo)

LOURDES, France — Pope Benedict XVI is known to the world as a bookish theologian and an academic. When he arrived at the French sanctuary of Lourdes Saturday afternoon, people discovered he has a “Marian” side, too.

The pope first stopped at the parish church where St. Bernadette Soubirous was baptized, and then visited the small house — a former prison not much bigger than a cell — where the young girl and her family lived in the mid-19th century. There, he kissed her rosary and said a prayer.

Next the pope went to the grotto at the base of a rocky cliff, where Bernadette experienced 18 apparitions of Mary 150 years ago. Like millions of pilgrims each year, he paused to take a drink of water from the spring she discovered there, said to have miraculous powers.

I was among the group of reporters at the grotto, watching the proceedings through the umbrellas of bishops who stood near the pontiff in a steady rain.

Earlier in the day, we had flown down with the pope on his plane from Paris, where he spent about 30 hours in events with politicians, academics, pastoral workers and a massive crowd of faithful.

In Lourdes, the focus was clearly on Mary.

The night of his arrival at the sanctuary, the pope watched a torchlight evening procession in Rosary Square. Here, addressing thousands of pilgrims, he paid tribute to simple devotion.

At Lourdes, he said, Mary stirred hope and love “by giving pride of place to the sick, the poor and the little ones.”

“In this shrine at Lourdes … we are invited to discover the simplicity of our vocation: it is enough to love,” he said.

The traditional nighttime procession stems from St. Bernadette’s habit of lighting a candle when Mary would appear to her. Today, the pope said, the light from pilgrims’ torches represents a powerful symbol against the darkness of sin.

The procession expresses the mystery of prayer in a form that everyone can grasp, like a luminous path in the dark, he said. It should also remind Christians of those who suffer, he said.

“We think of innocent victims who suffer from violence, war, terrorism and famine; those who bear the consequences of injustices, scourges and disasters, hatred and oppression; of attacks on their human dignity and fundamental rights; on their freedom to act and think,” he said.

The pope remembered those experiencing family problems, illness, unemployment or loneliness, as well as difficulties related to immigration. Those who have suffered or died for Christ must not be forgotten, either, he said.

He described Lourdes pilgrimages as leading to a spiritual place “between heaven and earth.” Pilgrims may come secretly hoping to receive some miracle, he said, but more often leave with a different kind of spiritual experience and a changed outlook.

“A small flame called hope, compassion, tenderness now dwells within them. A quiet encounter with Bernadette and the Virgin Mary can change a person’s life,” he said.

On the plane carrying him to France, the pope told journalists that his April 16 birthday fell on the feast of St. Bernadette, and for that reason he felt very close to her.

He said that at Lourdes, people encounter Mary and find that “the mother’s love” is what provides true healing for all sickness and suffering.

“I think this is a very important sign for our era,” he said.

Laicitè and lipstick

Pope Benedict delivers a speech to French intellectuals

Pope Benedict delivers a speech to French intellectuals. (CNS/Reuters)

PARIS — When covering Pope Benedict’s travels, journalists sometimes feel they’re in a parallel news universe, far from the realm of political mudslinging or hurricane tracking.

In this universe, theological and philosophical ideas are the stuff of stories. It matters if the pope uses a phrase like “positive laicitè.” Attention is duly paid to his citations of church thinkers who died many centuries ago. And reporters try to distill a lead from the pontiff’s explication of medieval monasticism and its impact on Western culture.

There were signs in France, however, that breaking into the U.S. news cycle — dominated these days by who was calling whom a pig — may not be easy for the German pope.

The pope’s address to academics in Paris was a case in point. The speech came with a Vatican build-up. We were told earlier in the week by the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, that this was big, that it would treat the theme of faith and reason, and that the pope was working hard to hone the text.

It would come almost exactly two years after the pope’s address at the University of Regensburg in Germany. That speech, as we all remembered, was supposed to be a dry academic treatise and turned out to be a bombshell because of what it said about Islam and religious fanaticism.

His speech Friday night in Paris, however, did not offer many catch phrases or easy news hooks. It presented his strongly argued case that the connection between Western civilization and Christian theology runs deep, and that Christian values cannot simply be jettisoned today, as if they were unreasonable or a merely sentimental indulgence.

The pope’s historical survey of the contributions of the “culture of monasticism” was long and detailed, touching on monastic scholarship, Scripture, worship and work. It drew from many sources and was studded with Latin phrases.

Most French media found the pope’s content worthy of consideration. It was indeed a “theology lesson,” as the newspaper Le Figaro put it, but one worth some space. Even the leftist daily Liberation described the talk as an erudite contribution to an ongoing debate.

I’m guessing that this speech won’t make much impact in the mainstream U.S. media. It just didn’t push the right buttons. A quick check of newspaper Web sites, in fact, shows that the pope’s trip to France so far is ending up in the “around the world” briefs column.

Maybe this trip is just too geared to a European audience. Or maybe in these days of Sarah and Ike, Benedict’s message is bound to make fewer waves in the United States.

In Paris, a warning about modern idolatry

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.