Not just another papal visit to France
I’m going to take a punt. Pope Benedict XVI’s four-day visit to France, beginning this Friday, is set to be one of the defining moments of his pontificate.
The theme of his papacy has always been to challenge the "dictatorship of relativism" -- his memorable term for the newly-invigorated European secularism which sees faith as hostile to reason, equality and tolerance.
Here’s the moment when the challenge is issued clearly and dramatically.
This is above all an exercise in communications, for that is any pope’s solemn task: to communicate Christ, and the Church, to the world, smoothing the paths to the reconciliation of humanity with God.
Sticking to the communications brief, one might describe his efforts so far as "neutralising the negatives" -- overturning the stereotypes of authoritarianism and dogmatism which accompanied his election, and showing himself to be a gentle, compassionate listener. He has not always been successful in the effort, but overall there’s a firm tick in that box.
The Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, has been underlining this effort by tellingLe Figaro that the Pope "deserves to be known as he is -- a man of welcome and of dialogue, who is very attentive to others". But the old "the Pope is not who you think he is" line is getting stale.
Now is the moment to crank up the strategy: not just earning the right to be listened to, but attempting to reclaim some of the territory swamped by secularism. There is no country more apt for this than France, and within France no theatre more apt than the south-west mountain town of Lourdes, where he will celebrate Mass this weekend.
And now is the time: not just because this is France, but because of two contemporary French paradoxes.
The first is that the radical exclusion of religion from the public sphere known as laïcité is increasingly being questioned. There are many reasons: social breakdown and high levels of Muslim immigration are causing the French to see the Church as "theirs" more than they did, while church-led social movements are among the most prophetic and energetic in France.
Whatever the reasons, it is France’s own president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is recognising this shift in his call for a "positive laïcité", calling for the state to have a "structured dialogue" with faiths and for Catholics and others to play a greater role in public life. This is an attempt, not without its risks, to move the French model more in the direction of the American one -- towards Church-state separation as a means to protect the freedom of faith rather than to put it into a box marked ’private’.
Seven hundred leading intellectuels -- scientists, philosophers, artists -- will attend Pope Benedict’s address to the College des Bernardins in Paris on Friday. Both Pope and President will be seeking to strengthen France’s ties between society and faith, steering through the minefields of a painful past, and no doubt slaying a few shibboleths along the way. Expect from Benedict XVI one of the great speeches of his pontificate.
The second contemporary paradox is that France is the Catholic country with the strongest-declining congregrations and clergy while also being the Catholic country with most vigorous Catholic "revivals" and movements.
Lourdes is not a movement, but a nineteenth-century shrine; yet its extraordinary popularity -- six million annual visitors make it the most visited religious site after Rome and Mecca -- gives it much in common with the ecclesial movements which increasingly dominate the French church scene.
Because France has long been the signpost to where the rest of the European Church will follow, the vitality of its pilgrimages, movements, new religious communities, and new forms of ecclesial allegiance allow Pope Benedict XVI to argue that there is nothing more "modern" than reason open to transcendence.
There’s nowhere better for that message than Lourdes -- the ultimate gentle rebuke to the closed narratives of rationalism. For it was there that 150 years ago an unlettered, impoverished, asthmatic 14-year-old at the margins of the modern world saw visions of the Virgin, and stuck to her story in the face of astonishing pressure. She was never less than reasonable, while those around her who made a god of reason made ever more irrational attempts to quash her.
Compare -- as the Pope will surely be tempted to -- the fates of each today. On the one hand, Positivism -- looking decidedly shaky and unsure of itself; on the other, the faith of Lourdes -- unmistakably alive, and more popular by the day.
What better stage? What better moment?
Meanwhile, I’ll be doing my bit here in London -- taking the part of Vital Dutour, the imperial prosecutor, in a parish play about Lourdes based in part on the Song of Bernadette. Our opening night is Friday.