Pope Francis does not dodge the shock. He doesn't shy away from words that baffle. Even his faithful. Before starting the macro-mass that this Saturday closed the two-day visit to Marseille, a French Catholic said: "You are right about the substance, but how to apply it?" Jacques, a pensioner who had travelled four hours by bus from Grenoble to see and listen to him, spoke of the resounding message these days in favour of welcoming immigrants. On paper, all right. In practice, it is something else. "We cannot allow these poor people to drown in the sea," agreed his wife, Élisabeth, "but neither can we take in all the misery in the world."
At the gates of the Stade Vélodrome, Olympique's football temple converted for a few hours into an open-air cathedral, Jacques and Élisabeth expressed the complex relationship of many French Catholics with the Pope. He is their leader. They listen to him. It challenges them. They also feel a distance, reciprocal perhaps: "With him, the Church is no longer so European."
The same is true of its relation to earthly power, the political power of the most secular of the Western republics. In a speech in the morning before Mass, Francis issued several warnings to President Emmanuel Macron, who was listening in the front row with his wife, Brigitte. A warning on immigration, in the midst of French and European debate – the extreme right attacks the Pope; the left applauds him on this point—and a few days after the disembarkation of more than 12,000 people on the island of Lampedusa. A reflection, also, on the integration and assimilation of foreigners. And on euthanasia and assisted suicide, at the precise moment that Macron finalizes a legislative proposal.
Francis had been insisting for weeks: his trip was not to France. The trip was to Marseille, an eccentric city, Mediterranean port, cosmopolitan, and very football, like the Argentine Bergoglio. The atmosphere of the Vélodrome had something of a sports derby, although the stadium was not finished. "Papa Francesco, Papa Francesco!" the stands chanted. The fans of Olympique de Marseille (OM) unfurled in one of the backgrounds a giant flag with the face of Francis and the profile of Notre Dame de la Garde, the church that from a hill dominates the sea and the city, the "good mother" of the Marseillais.
Banner unfurled at the Stade Vélodrome stadium in Marseille, Olympique's football temple, to receive Francis on Saturday. ALESSANDRO DI MEO (EFE)
"This is like Naples: the same fervor, in sport and religion," he summed up as he waited for the pope's arrival at the stadium Christian Brunet, a retired policeman. "Here we mix everything. And it all has to do with the Virgin of Notre Dame de la Garde." His wife, Nathalie, a nursery school teacher, says: "Whether we are happy or unhappy, we go up to thank the virgin, even Muslims. In the Vélodrome, the same thing happens: it is cosmopolitan." "Here we are mixed: if there is a city in France that welcomes foreigners, it is Marseille, it is seen in OM matches," adds Christian, before specifying: "You have to be able to welcome them in good conditions." "There is already a lot of misery here, I see it at school," says Nathalie. "It is true that we must welcome, but how? Under what conditions?"
The Pope avoided the most explicitly political words at Mass; he reserved them for the closing speech of the Mediterranean Meetings, hours before. There he spoke of the Mediterranean, "burial" of some 2,500 migrants so far this year, "a cry of pain," he said, "that resonates more than any other and that transforms the mare nostrum into mare mortuum; the Mediterranean, cradle of civilization and tomb of dignity". He spoke of Europe, where "opulence, consumerism and waste reign", where there are politicians who feed the fear of the "invasion" of the helpless, where "archaic and bellicose nationalisms" threaten common humanity.
"France does not have to be ashamed for what it does: it is a country of welcome and integration," said a source from the Elysee after the half-hour meeting between the pope and Macron, who requested anonymity. The third message – after the Mediterranean and Europe – was addressed specifically to France, the country he was both visiting and not officially visiting. It is a country in which revelations of child abuse have left the institution touched. The temples are emptying and there are crises of vocations.
"It's true, in church you see a lot of old people, and it's a shame," said Nicolas, a Marseille political science student. At the entrance to the Velodrome, Nicolas comments on the Pope's position on immigration: "It is a message of tolerance, but we must differentiate the church from politics." It is no small thing, in this country that strictly separates the State and religions. Before the representatives of this Republic that demands that everyone, profess whatever religion and of whatever origin, respect for secularism, and that prohibits the veil in schools or, for a few weeks, also the abaya or Arab tunic, Francis wanted to distinguish between integration and assimilation. The first, according to this view, is voluntary; the second, forced; the first respects difference; the second standardizes. Integration, he explained, "prepares the future that, whether we like it or not, we will all do together. Or it won't be done." Assimilation, on the other hand, "does not take into account differences and is rigid in its paradigms," and "provokes ghettoization, which causes hostility and intolerance."
Macron, on the eve of his proposal on the regulation of the end of life or dignified death, also had to listen to some words of the Pope that sounded like a rebuke: "Who listens to the groans of isolated elderly people who, instead of feeling valued, are parked with the falsely worthy prospect of a sweet death, actually saltier than the waters of the sea?" The president — a "spiritualist agnostic," as one of his advisers once called him — did not respond.
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