09/11/2008, 00.00
VATICAN

Pope: visit to France marked by themes of Mary, challenges of secularization

Benedict XVI leaves tomorrow on his tenth international voyage. The central reason is the conclusion of celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the apparitions in Lourdes. But there is also great anticipation over the address that he will give tomorrow evening, in Paris, to the intellectual world.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - A trip marked above all by faith, and in particular by Lourdes, but also with strong cultural implications. Paris and Lourdes are the stops on Benedict XVI's tenth international voyage, which begins tomorrow and will end next Monday, September 15. The two destinations are connected by the pope's intention to help the Church of France on its difficult journey of confronting the new challenges posed by the development of a lively society full of contradictions, and will give Benedict XVI a chance to emphasize two aspects of the "response" of faith.

The reason for the visit is the conclusion of celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the apparitions in Lourdes, and so they will have a fundamentally Marian character. But the visit will begin in Paris, at 11 o'clock tomorrow morning. Although it is not part of protocol, the pope will be met by the president of the republic, Nicholas Sarkozy. This is significant. But above all, on the afternoon of his arrival he will go to the Collège des Bernardins, where he will meet with intellectuals. More than 700 people have asked to participate. There will also be representatives of UNESCO and the European Union present. So for the pope, it will be a platform from which he can speak to all of Europe. "The pope prepared his address personally and with great care, in German", says Fr Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office. According to Le Monde, "his decision to add - beyond the obligatory visit to Lourdes - the meeting in Paris on September 12 with 700 intellectuals leaves no doubt about the principal meaning of his trip: to question France about the crisis of faith in secularized culture".

One visible sign of this will be the chemin de lumière, a torchlight procession of young people that will leave the Basilica of Notre-Dame that same evening. The participants will meet the pope at the Esplanade des Invalides, where he will celebrate Mass the following morning. Before this, it will pass the Institut de France, which houses five academies. Then-cardinal Ratzinger was a member of its academy of moral and ethical studies. This will be commemorated with the unveiling of a plaque highlighting the uniqueness of the fact that an academic has become pope.

The visit to Paris will also be the occasion for meetings with the Jewish and Muslim communities, and with representatives of other Christian confessions, in addition of course to priests, religious, and Catholic laypeople.

Benedict XVI will arrive in Lourdes on Saturday afternoon. The pope will make all of the stops along the "jubilee path" in the Marian city, and will also visit the Cachot, the home of Bernadette's family, and the grotto of the apparitions.

After this will be an evening procession, and the central moment of the trip: the Mass on Sunday that will conclude the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the apparitions. As the pope himself said in a message sent yesterday to the French, "I will pray intensely at the feet of Our Lady for the intentions of the whole Church, in particular for the sick and the marginalized, but also for peace in the world. May Mary be for all of you, and above all for the young, the Mother always attentive to the needs of her children, a light of hope illuminating and guiding your journey!".

The last appointment of the trip will be dedicated to the sick. Monday morning, after stopping at the oratory of the hospice where Bernadette received first communion, Benedict XVI will celebrate Mass for them. He will return to Rome in the early afternoon. (FP)

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