.- Upon arriving in France on Friday afternoon, Pope Benedict XVI called on the French people to engage in a new level openness to the Church, one which recognizes the “irreplaceable role” of religion in forming consciences and in creating a “basic ethical consensus within society.”
The Pope delivered his address to President Nicolas Sarkozy, numerous civil and religious authorities, and the entire nation of France from the Elysee Palace, just after having held a private meeting with the president at 12:30 p.m.
After thanking the French for the “warm reception” they have given him, the Holy Father explained that the principal reason for his visit is to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes.
“It is my desire to join the multitude of countless pilgrims from the whole world who during this year are converging on the Marian shrine, filled with faith and love. It is this faith and this love that I will celebrate here in your land during these four days of grace which have been granted to me,” the Pope said.
Benedict XVI then launched into a recounting of the pivotal importance of the Church in the history of Gaul, which later became France. This history, he reflected, should lead people to look at the modern relationship between the Church and State, a relationship which has been characterized during the last two centuries by secular society dismissing anything influenced by faith. In practice, this strict division between secular and religious life has been implemented under a policy know as laïcité.
Yet, the Holy Father said in his address that, since 2002, the Church in France has benefited from a "regime of freedom." A regime in which “Past suspicion has been gradually transformed into a serene and positive dialogue that continues to grow stronger.”
Using President Sarkozy’s term of a “laïcité positive,” Benedict XVI said that he is “firmly convinced that a new reflection on the true meaning and importance of laïcité is now necessary.”
“In fact, it is fundamental, on the one hand, to insist on the distinction between the political realm and that of religion in order to preserve both the religious freedom of citizens and the responsibility of the State towards them; and, on the other hand, to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences and the contribution which it can bring to—among other things—the creation of a basic ethical consensus within society,” the Pontiff stressed.
“My greatest concern," the Pope went on, "is for young people." Many of them "are suffering from a loss of connection to family life," others are abandoned on the margins "and often left to themselves, they are vulnerable and must come to terms on their own with a reality that often overwhelms them."
Under a laïcité positive, the Church and the State must cooperate “to offer them a sound educational environment and to encourage them to respect and assist others if they are to develop serenely towards the age of responsibility.”
The gap between rich and poor was also an item of concern for Pope Benedict: “I am also concerned by the social situation in the Western world, marked sadly by a surreptitious widening of the distance between rich and poor. I am certain that just solutions can be found that go beyond the necessary immediate assistance and address the heart of the problems, so as to protect the weak and promote their dignity.” The Church offers her help in this arena, the Pope said, “but it is the State as such which must enact laws in order to eradicate unjust structures.”
The Holy Father also expressed his concern for "the state of our planet," highlighting how "With great generosity, God has entrusted to us the world that he created. We must learn to respect and protect it more. It seems to me that the time has come for more constructive proposals so as to guarantee the good of future generations.”
Lastly the Pope touched on the responsibility that France has to “bear witness—in accord with her noble tradition—to human rights and to their promotion for the good of individuals and society,” as it holds the presidency of the European Union.
“When Europeans see and experience personally that the inalienable rights of the human person from conception to natural death – rights to free education, to family life, to work, and naturally those concerned with religion – when Europeans see that these rights, which form an inseparable unity, are promoted and respected, then they will understand fully the greatness of the enterprise that is the European Union, and will become active artisans of the same,” the Pope encouraged.
Following his address, Pope Benedict traveled back to the apostolic nunciature where he had lunch in private.
At 5 p.m. today, the Holy Father will participate in a brief meeting at the apostolic nunciature with members of the local Jewish community before going to the College des Bernardins, where he is due to meet with representatives from the world of culture and deliver a much anticipated speech.
To read the full address of the Holy Father please visit: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/lourdes08/resource.php?res_id=822