A popular success
“Hello Marseille, hello France”. The Pope’s first words spoken – in French – at the Vélodrome provoked a general ovation. And turned the page on the questions raised by the declaration made upon returning from World Youth Day in Lisbon (“I am coming to Marseille and not to France”). Because in the stands or behind their television screens, tens of thousands of French people of all ages, origins and religions responded. Coming from the Phocaean city, but also from Aix, Nîmes, Montpellier…. the 57,000 pilgrims and curious people gathered around Francis experienced a “unique” moment of communion. At the end of the mass, the smiling faces betrayed a unanimously shared emotion. Of course, the reluctant Catholics did not make the trip. But after 10 years of long waiting, Francis’ meeting with the “Eldest Daughter of the Church” undeniably took place.
Cardinal Aveline hits the screen
His face and name are now known to the general public. Omnipresent alongside Francis throughout the pontifical visit, Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline, whom some already present as a papabile, knew how to impose its tempo. The archbishop of the Phocaean city played the intermediary, between the pope and the clergy, the representatives of the different religions, the participants in this 3rd edition of the Mediterranean Meetings. Simple and warm, the words of the conductor of the pope’s arrival hit the mark, particularly with the people of Marseillais. At the end of the mass at the Vélodrome, a phrase kept popping up on everyone’s lips: thanks to the arrival of François in their legendary stadium, the Marseillais feel “forever the first”, in reference to the slogan of the Olympique Marseille. Bishop Aveline, whose friendly and pastoral proximity to the Pope struck all those who did not yet know him, hit the mark.
Very political messages
Rarely has a pope raised a political subject with such determination during a papal trip. In a context of tensions over the migration issue and a few days after the arrival of nearly 10,000 people from Africa on the Italian island of Lampedusa, the Pope urged Europe not to look away. “People who risk drowning must be rescued. It is a duty of humanity, a duty of civilization,” he declared upon his arrival in Marseille, delivering as rarely his vision of the reception of refugees . But the power of his appeal clashed with the firmness of Emmanuel Macron’s speech, who nevertheless displayed great closeness with François throughout his stay in Marseille. “We cannot accommodate all the misery in the world, (…) we must better protect our borders,” insisted the French President in an interview given to the 8 p.m. newspaper, the day after the Pope’s departure.
In Marseille, the question of migrants was not the only political intrusion of the Sovereign Pontiff. While the final decisions concerning the bill on the end of life, which should establish active assistance in dying, are currently being made, François spoke of “the groans of the elderly who, instead of being valued, are parked in the falsely dignified perspective of a gentle death”. A message directly addressed to Emmanuel Macron, who was present in the room of the Pharo palace at the time of the pontifical speech. Let’s see if this time, François’ call will be heard.
The Mediterranean, a rising community of churches
Coming from Greece, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Spain…, the 70 bishops gathered to work together on the challenges of their communities and countries of origin, embodied for several days the “5 shores of the Mediterranean” mentioned by their host, Cardinal Aveline. At the Pharo Palace, Francis invited these Mediterranean Churches to take a further step by evaluating “the opportunity of a Conference of Mediterranean Bishops”.
This would not be entirely new: on October 9, 2021, the Pope established the “Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon”, giving it the aim of promoting common pastoral care, in particular a greater inculturation of the faith in the territories that compose it. These new structures centered on a common context among the member churches recall Celam, the Latin American Episcopal Council, founded by Pope Pius XII at the request of Latin American bishops. A synodal assembly where Jorge Bergoglio had a very positive experience as bishop.
And now, Francis goes so far as to formulate the idea of a Mediterranean theology – an expression to be compared to the “liberation theology” born in Latin America – which would develop “a thought which adheres to reality.”
The spiritual energy of an old pope
“I hope I have the courage to say what I am going to say,” François confided on the plane taking him to Marseille. Unusual words. A clear allusion, no doubt, to the harsh words he was about to pronounce: “The indifference which is bloodying the Mediterranean… which is becoming fanaticism”, “the gestures of hatred disguised as ‘balance'” of those who prevent help at sea to go out to meet the shipwrecked…
This moral strength is not the only aspect of his courage. The close-ups of the television cameras also showed the paradoxical ardor of an eighty-six-year-old man carrying the weight of heavy responsibilities, limited by his body in his movements and gestures, tired. Everyone was also able to see his soul as a pastor come alive as soon as he entered into contact with people or prayed among the faithful. His face then lights up.
Will this 44th trip of the pope from the other side of the world be the last? No one can say it, so passionate is the mission of announcing Christ to today’s world. As a young Jesuit, Jorge Bergoglio dreamed of going to bear witness to the Gospel in Japan. In Marseille, he revealed the heart of what still drives him, as if pressed by urgency. With prophetic accents, he calls on civil society to open its eyes: “We are at a crossroads of civilization”, “we need fraternity like bread”.
To Christians tempted by withdrawal into identity and by an idealized Christianity, he says: “We are not called to regret past times or to redefine ecclesial importance, we are called to bear witness: not to embroider the Gospel with words, but give it flesh. Not measure visibility, but spend ourselves freely.” And Francis lists the names of some of these witnesses, Charles de Foucauld, the martyrs of Algeria, among “so many artisans of charity with a scandalously evangelical style”. Looking to the future, he gives a key: “On the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus began by giving hope to the poor… This is where we must start again, from the often silent cry of the last. Let’s start listening to the poor again!”
By asking the faithful as usual: “Don’t forget to pray for me”, he ranks himself among these.