Martin Dumont is a historian of Catholicism and Secretary General of the Research Institute for the Study of Religions at Sorbonne University. He has published La France dans la pensée des papes, de Pius VI à François (Cerf, 2018).
The long-awaited day finally arrives: after a whirlwind visit to the European institutions in Strasbourg in 2014, Pope Francis comes to Marseille, thus setting foot again on French soil, Marseille "which represents a door open to the world" (to the newspaper La Croix, May 2016). "I'm coming to Marseille, not France," he was recently able to tell the Spanish magazine Vida Nueva, a joke sufficiently commented on to make it useful to return to it here. The papal visit, brief and limited to the Phocaean city, was so often desired by the French authorities and the Catholics of this country so that this fact became a source of regular questioning, even provoked, in a minority of believers, this firm conviction, that of Franciscan indifference towards the France.
Consider it: John Paul II, between 1978 and 2005, came to France eight times; Benedict XVI (2005-2013), in 2008, had won the hearts of Catholics whose language and culture he knew so well long before he became pope. Now, it can easily be seen, in a fairly general way, the Catholic of France has a somewhat tendency to take himself for the measure of the universal Church (but perhaps after all it is a very French character?) Thus, comparing the Argentine pontiff to his two predecessors could only lead to this feeling in some: the reigning pope is indifferent to the France, he is not interested in it, in short, he does not like it.
The place that French saints or writers occupy in the life of Pope Bergoglio is real: "My spirituality is French," Francis told the editors of La Vie in 2016.
However, it must be said clearly: nothing could be further from the truth, this feeling is an illusion. In fact, it must be perceived that the heart of Rome always beats for France, but that Francis has his priorities: the peripheries, the small lands of Christendom, where no pope has visited before. Fascinating in this regard is the recent papal trip to Mongolia. But if one can conceive that the "Francis style" is disconcerting, one may suggest that French Catholics pay attention to an aspect of Franciscan thought: the perception of the greatness of the country's religious history, its influence and its place in the life of the universal Church and in his personal life, An aspect that remains unknown and yet visible if we want to take an interest in it.
The place that French saints or writers occupy in the life of Pope Bergoglio is real: "My spirituality is French," Francis told the editors of La Vie in 2016; Thérèse of Lisieux is his favorite saint, and the Curé d'Ars is for him the model of the pastor, with the French Jesuit Pierre Favre. As for the authors who may have been quoted or put forward throughout his pontificate, let us mention the Jesuits Henri de Lubac and Michel de Certeau, Charles Péguy, Father Charles de Foucauld, Léon Bloy, Joseph Malègue (the "middle classes of salvation"), Jean-Joseph Surin, Blaise Pascal... Therefore, Pope Bergoglio expects a lot from French Catholicism, placing himself in the line of his predecessors, Benedict XVI, but especially John Paul II and Paul VI.
If Franco-Vatican relations have returned to a serene climate after a period of tension linked to debates on "marriage for all", the state of French Catholicism is a source of concern in the Eternal City.
The France is "the 'eldest daughter of the Church' but not the most faithful," he told La Croix in May 2016. The joke marked the spirits, but it is too often forgotten that Francis had to evoke at the same time the situation of Catholicism in France, and the hopes he placed in this country, especially religious. Indeed, if Franco-Vatican relations have returned to a serene climate after a period of tension linked to the debates on "marriage for all" (a "reconciliation" that cannot make us forget that differences still exist between Rome and France), the state of French Catholicism is a source of concern in the Eternal City.
However, this is by no means a novelty, this demanding hope for a "creative Catholicism", possibly inspired by other ecclesial experiences, has been in the background of relations between Rome and the Catholicism of our country since the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, even if these questions can be traced back much further: "France, country of mission", it was said in the immediate post-war period following the book of abbots Godin and Daniel (1943), and this is also one of the reasons that had pushed a certain Karol Wojtyla to discover the France in 1947, including a visit to Marseille, coming to pray at Notre-Dame de la Garde. Having become pope, John Paul II regularly expressed this concern throughout his pontificate, and his interpellation at Le Bourget on June 1, 1980, continued to resonate: "France, eldest daughter of the Church, are you faithful to the promises of your baptism?"
Francis is in line with his Polish predecessor, affirming at the same time that "[the France] is a periphery to be evangelized. But you have to be fair to the France. The Church has a creative capacity there."
The Polish pope was to return to this point during his visit to Lyon in 1986, pushing the Church of France to let itself be inspired by the Churches of Africa: "Dechristianization is not fatal, it is a disease of course, a challenge to be met. Church of France, let yourself be challenged by the young Churches, those that your missionaries have gone to plant. They may have a new impetus to give you!" Thus, when questioned by La Croix in May 2016, Francis placed himself in line with his Polish predecessor, affirming at the same time that "[the France] is a periphery to be evangelized. But you have to be fair to the France. The Church has a creative capacity", and we know the importance that the notion of "creative minorities" had in Benedict XVI's eyes in the face of the secularization of Europe.
But history being what it is, it is not useless to go back by turning to the Phocaean city. 75 years ago, on May 27, 1948, Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) and then apostolic nuncio in France, paid tribute to the city of Marseille, "one of the most beautiful cities in the world", located "facing the sea, at the gates of the France", on the occasion of a mass celebrated at Notre-Dame de la Garde for the erection of Marseille as an archbishopric. He then recalled that "Marseille is the land of France where I had the honor of setting foot, when for the first time – it was in May 1905 – I stopped here during my pilgrimage to Lourdes". May 1905, a particularly symbolic period: six months later, on December 9, 1905, the separation of Church and State was to leave a lasting mark on the spirits of Rome and France, and it is therefore not indifferent to see this year recalled by the then Apostolic Nuncio.
While perceiving the poverty of Catholicism in this part of southern France (he presented it, in a letter to the Bishop of Bergamo, as a "desolate land"), Angelo Roncalli saw in this event of May 1948 the "expression of the eternal youth of the Catholic Church [...], at the service of the future".. Three quarters of a century later, it is therefore a pope from the end of the world who walks in his footsteps, also lucid about French Catholicism, in its greatness as in its miseries, and confident in his "creative spirit" to find a new vigor.