.- The theme of a letter released Saturday from Pope John Paul II to the bishops of France concerned relations between the Church and French civil authorities in the perspective of this year's 100th anniversary of the law of separation between Church and State in France.
The papal letter, addressed to Archbishop Jean-Pierre Ricard of Bordeaux, president of the Conference of Bishops of France, and all the bishops of France, focused on a discussion the Pope had with the bishops during their "ad limina" visits during 2003 and 2004
The Holy Father began the 3200-word document, begins by noting that the 1905 law, "which denounced the 1804 Concordat, was a painful and traumatic event for the Church in France," which ruled that the way of life in France "would be according to the principle of secularity" and "relegating the religious factor to the private sphere and not recognizing a place in society for religious life and the ecclesial institution."
John Paul II noted that, since 1920 "the French government itself has recognized in a certain manner the place for religion in social life."
Likewise, during the past century, there has been a dialogue between Church and State, in which diplomatic ties were re-established and an entente was signed in 1924, all of which has allowed "a certain number of difficulties to be overcome."
"The principle of secularity”, the Pope said, “to which your country is very attached, if it is well understood also belongs to the social doctrine of the Church. It recalls a just separation of powers, which echoes Christ's invitation to His disciples: 'Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's'. ...
“The Church has no vocation to administer temporal affairs, ... but at the same time it is important that everyone work in the general interest and for the common good."
"Christianity has played and still plays an important role in French society, be it in the political, philosophical, artistic or literary domains," John Paul II emphasized, pointing to great French theologians, pastors and educators.
"One cannot forget the important place of Christian values in building Europe and in the lives of the peoples of the continent. Christianity in great part formed the face of Europe and it is up to the men and women of today to build a European society on the values which presided at its birth and which are part of its richness."
France, the Holy Father continued, "can only rejoice" at having men and women "who draw upon the Gospel ... to serve their brothers in humanity, ...and to spread harmony, peace, justice, solidarity and good understanding among everyone."
He urged the bishops to focus on teaching the Church's social doctrine to the faithful, especially the young of today who are France’s future.
The Holy Father also turned to "the crisis of values and the lack of hope that one sees in France, and largely in the West," saying that, "this is part of an identity crisis modern societies are going through. ... The Church questions such a situation and hopes that religious, moral and spiritual values, which are part of France's patrimony, which have fashioned its identity and forged generations of persons from the first centuries of Christianity, do not fall into oblivion."
He invited France’s faithful to "draw from their spiritual and ecclesial life the strength to participate in public affairs" and urges collaboration, not antagonism or separation, between the religious and civil domains. He also told the bishops that, "by reason of your mission, you are called to intervene regularly in public debate on the great questions of society."
John Paul II also noted that he knew the bishops "are very attentive to the Church's presence in places where the great and formidable questions about human existence are asked," especially in hospitals, health centers and schools.
On education, he wrote that, "the State must guarantee to those families who wish it the possibility to have their children receive the catechesis they need."
The papal letter concluded by expressing the Pope’s "confidence in the future for a good understanding between all components of French society. ... May no one be afraid of the religious path of people and special groups! If it is lived in respect for a healthy secularity, it can only be the source of dynamism and the promotion of man."