It is wholly appropriate that the motto of the city of Paris is Fluctuat nec mergitur: “Tossed by waves, she does not sink”. It would be hard to find better words to describe the Barque of Peter, whose Holy Father the Pope has spent the past two days in the French capital. From time immemorial, France has been described as “the eldest daughter of the Church”, its primatial see of Lyons established in the second century and Clovis, its first Christian king, receiving baptism in 498. But alongside the 1,500 years of Christianity, France has, for the past two centuries, also been a font of revolution and disruption — the very spirit of that first “non serviam“.
It was the French thinker Charles Maurras — not himself a Catholic until the very end of his life — who conceived of the notion that that (since the Revolution) there was not one France but two: le pays réel and le pays legal; The real France, Catholic and true, versus the official France, irreligious and contrived. Just as Maurras differentiated the two visions of France, we in the English-speaking world know that England is truly a Catholic country that is suffering from a four-century interregnum (and so with Scotland, and Ireland, and America, and Canada, and Australia…). We love our homes but we know they are not truly themselves — they do not truly reflect that idea of their essence — until they enjoy the fullness of Christian communion.
And so, on his way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the great shrine of Lourdes, the Holy Father came to Paris, to remind France of her roots, of her history, and of her Christian birthright. Benedict XVI has strangely found a friend in the President of the Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy. “Sarko” is France’s answer to a question no one asked — what would it be like if one man were both Bill Clinton and George Bush? — but this non-religious man of Hungarian Jewish extraction has been enthusiastic about replacing the negative “secularism that rejects” with (in his words) a “positive secularism that debates, respects and includes”. Instead of a situation in which the Republic restricts the Church, Sarkozy argues for one in which the Republic and the Church (and the Mosque, and the Synagogue, and the Masonic Lodge…) can peacefully coexist and even interact.
While Sarkozy’s “positive secularism” falls short of the traditional Christian vision of society, Benedict XVI is a pragmatist, perhaps because he is an intellectual. He knows that reason is in the Church’s corner and that the Faith has the intellectual weight of centuries of thought to back it up. If “positive secularism” will free a space for the Church to proclaim the gospel, than it is to be welcomed.
As is custom, the Pope’s first visit was a courtesy call to the President as one head of state to another. President Sarkozy welcomed the Holy Father to the Elysée Palace with full honors. After private discussions with the President, Benedict met with other state officials including members of the cabinet.
In the late afternoon, the Pope visited the Collège des Bernardins, a medieval monastery which was recently restored and is now a Catholic center for academic research and debate.
At the Collège, the Holy Father held a “Meeting with the Cultural World”, one year after his famous Regensburg address. With seven-hundred academics, intellectuals, and cultural figures as his audience, Benedict denounced the rampant nihilism which was eating away at the foundations of Europe.
“It would be a disaster if today’s European culture could only conceive freedom as absence of obligation,” the Pope noted. “Absence of obligation and arbitrariness do not signify freedom, but its destruction.”
Outside the Collège, many young Catholics watched a live broadcast of the “Meeting with the Cultural World” and were joined by those who were interested in hearing the Pope’s mind.
“God has truly become for many the great unknown,” the Holy Father said. “But just as in the past, when the question concerning the unknown God was hidden and present, so too the present absence of God is silently besieged by the question concerning Him,” he continued. “To seek God and to let oneself be found by him is today no less necessary than in former times. A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences. What gave Europe’s culture its foundation — the search for God and the readiness to listen to Him — remains today the basis of any genuine culture.”
Leaving the Collège, Benedict took a moment to hold and bless a number of babies among those who lined the streets.
In the evening, Pope Benedict celebrated Vespers at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame with priests, religious, and seminarians, as well as representatives of the Eastern Catholic churches, the Orthodox churches, and the Protestant denominations.
After the finish of Vespers, Benedict addressed the 60,000 people — mostly young — who assembled in the square and the streets surrounding Notre-Dame. In his words, the Pope condemned “fanatical fundamentalism”, which many took to be aimed at radical Islam, but which could just as easily be understood as attacking the atheist nihilism of the European establishment, or the warmongering liberal imperialism of Washington.
Following the completion of the Pope’s words, a statue of the Blessed Virgin was processed through the streets of Paris, from the Cathedral to the Apostolic Nunciature where the Pope resided during his stay in the city.
Outside the Nunciature, Catholics young and old gathered, awaiting a few more words of wisdom from the Supreme Pontiff.
Benedict duly obliged, addressing the crowd from the balcony of the Nunciature before giving them his final blessing of the day.
Saturday began with a visit to one of France’s most august institutions, the Institut de France, a learned society composed of the five académies (most famous among them the celebrated Académie française whose members are known as les immortels — the immortals). The Chancellor of the Institut de France welcomed the Pope, who spoke to assembled academicians in the great hall of the institute. While the Institut itself was founded by freemasons from the lodge Les Neuf Soeurs, most of the academies which are now part of it have their origins during France’s Catholic monarchy.
The Académie française, founded in 1635, is the most ancient of the five academies. Corneille, Racine, La Bruyère, Chateaubriand, Lamartine, de Tocqueville, Montalembert, and the latecomer Maurras are just a sampling of the long list of Catholic members throughout history. It has numbered no less than 15 cardinals, 10 archbishops, and 26 bishops among its academicians.
The highlight of the Holy Father’s visit to Paris, however, was the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, offered on the massive Esplanade des Invalides on Saturday mid-morning.
Hundreds of thousands — literally hundreds of thousands — of people attended the Mass.
They came to participate in the Eucharist, and to hear what Benedict XVI had to say to them.
The large congregation listened to the Pope’s homily attentively. The pontiff questioned the assumptions of “post-Christian” culture.
“Has not our modern world created its own idols?” the Pope asked. “Has it not imitated, perhaps inadvertently, the pagans of antiquity, by diverting man from his true end, from the joy of living eternally with God? Have not money, the thirst for possessions, for power, and even for knowledge, diverted man from his true destiny?”
Pointing to sacred scripture, the Pope reminded that “the love of money is the root of all evil” and decried the “insatiable greed” of modern society as a “scandal, a real plague”. Benedict’s words recall the constant reminder of his predecessor John Paul II that a materialist society divorced from the love of God would ultimately self-destruct.
Many of those in the crowd interviewed by the news agencies said that the Pope’s message was exactly on target, and expressed a hope that the numerous government ministers and officials in attendance would take note of the Pope’s condemnation of materialism and strong exhortation towards the love of God.
We will not know the true effect of these two brief days the Holy Father spent in Paris for some time. France has some of the most obstreperous bishops, who have thwarted the Pope’s plans for renewing and reforming the liturgy which is central to Christian life. Nonetheless, since the very dawn of the Revolution, the eldest daughter of the Church has had a consistently counter-revolutionary subculture which is large enough to act as an important springboard for the Church. For decades, France’s modernist bishops have cut themselves off from the most consistently lively and reliable part of the Church in France: those devoted to the ancient form of the Roman liturgy. The visit of Benedict XVI will no doubt have provided much inspiration and hope to many of France’s Catholic faithful, but whether the bishops will end their resistance remains to be seen. For the time being, we can hope and pray.