On September 12-15, Pope Benedict XVI made a pilgrimage to Paris and Lourdes, France, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to St. Bernadette Soubirous. It was a visit that deeply moved the French people who, despite living in a deeply secularized society, still remember their Christian roots. Here are excerpts from the many speeches of the Holy Father during this journey to France, the "eldest daughter of the Church":
After having been welcomed at the airport by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, the Holy Father was officially received in the Elysee presidential palace, where he gave an address to State authorities.
In his address, Pope Benedict XVI said among other things: "The principal reason for my visit is the one hundred and fiftieth 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.
"During your visit to Rome, Mr President, you called to mind that the roots of France – like those of Europe – are Christian. History itself offers sufficient proof of this: from its origins, your country received the Gospel message… The thousands of chapels, churches, abbeys and cathedrals that grace the heart of your towns or the tranquillity of your countryside speak clearly of how your fathers in faith wished to honour him who had given them life and who sustains us in existence.
"The Pope, as witness of a God who loves and saves, strives to be a sower of charity and hope. All of human society needs hope. This hope is all the more necessary in today's world which offers few spiritual aspirations and few material certainties… 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, through her many institutions and works, together with many other associations in your country, often attempts to deal with immediate needs, but it is the State as such which must enact laws in order to eradicate unjust structures. From a broader perspective, Mr President, I am also concerned about the state of our planet. 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."
In the evening, the Pope celebrated vespers at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris with the priests, religious, seminarians and deacons. Before the beginning of the ceremony, the Holy Father venerated the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ during His Passion. (See text below.)
Here are excerpts from the Holy Father's homily:
"Notre-Dame Cathedral rightly remains one of the most celebrated monuments of your country's heritage. Following a tradition dating back to the time of Saint Louis, I have just venerated the relics of the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns, which have now found a worthy home here, a true offering of the human spirit to the power of creative Love.
"The Son of God took flesh in the womb of a woman, a virgin. Your cathedral is a living hymn of stone and light in praise of that act, unique in the annals of human history: the eternal Word of God entering our history in the fullness of time to redeem us by his self-offering in the sacrifice of the Cross. Our earthly liturgies, entirely ordered to the celebration of this unique act within history, will never fully express its infinite meaning. Certainly, the beauty of our celebrations can never be sufficiently cultivated, fostered and refined, for nothing can be too beautiful for God, who is himself infinite Beauty. Yet our earthly liturgies will never be more than a pale reflection of the liturgy celebrated in the Jerusalem on high, the goal of our pilgrimage on earth. May our own celebrations nonetheless resemble that liturgy as closely as possible and grant us a foretaste of it!
The next morning on September 13, feast of St. John Chrysostom, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of false idols in his homily at a Mass celebrated at the Esplanade des Invalides (a hospital for soldiers founded by Napoleon in 1804), which gathered some 260,000 people. The Pope was joined by some 90 cardinals and bishops and 1,500 priests:
"In the First Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians, we discover, in this Pauline year inaugurated on June 28, how much the counsels given by the Apostle remain important today.'Shun the worship of idols'(1 Cor 10:14)…
"This appeal to shun idols, dear brothers and sisters, is also pertinent today. Has not our modern world created its own idols? Has it not imitated, perhaps inadvertently, the pagans of antiquity, by diverting man from his true end, from the joy of living eternally with God? This is a question that all people, if they are honest with themselves, cannot help but ask. What is important in my life? What is my first priority?...
"Saint Paul explains to the Colossians that insatiable greed is a form of idolatry (cf. 3:5), and he reminds his disciple Timothy that love of money is the root of all evil. By yielding to it, he explains,'some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs'(1 Tim 6:10). Have not money, the thirst for possessions, for power and even for knowledge, diverted man from his true Destiny, from the truth about himself?"
In the afternoon, the Pope headed for Lourdes, in Southern France, the main purpose of his pilgrimage. Here are excerpts from the address he gave at the end of the torchlight Marian procession:
"One hundred and fifty years ago, on February 11, 1858, in this place known as the Grotto of Massabielle, away from the town, a simple young girl from Lourdes, Bernadette Soubirous, saw a light, and in this light she saw a young lady who was'beautiful, more beautiful than any other'. This woman addressed her with kindness and gentleness, with respect and trust:'She said vous to me', Bernadette recounted,'Would you do me the kindness of coming here for a fortnight?'she asked her.'She was looking at me as one person who speaks to another.'
"It was in this conversation, in this dialogue marked by such delicacy, that the Lady instructed her to deliver certain very simple messages on prayer, penance and conversion. It is hardly surprising that Mary should be beautiful, given that — during the apparition of March 25, 1858 — she reveals her name in this way:'I am the Immaculate Conception.'
"Let us now look at this'woman clothed with the sun'(Rev 12:1) as she is described for us in Scripture. The Most Holy Virgin Mary, the glorious woman of the Apocalypse, wears on her head a crown of twelve stars which represent the twelve tribes of Israel, the entire people of God, the whole communion of saints, while at her feet is the moon, image of death and mortality.
"Mary left death behind her; she is entirely re-clothed with life, the life of her Son, the risen Christ. She is thus the sign of the victory of love, of good and of God, giving our world the hope that it needs. This evening, let us turn our gaze towards Mary, so glorious and so human, allowing her to lead us towards God who is the victor.
"Countless people have borne witness to this: when they encountered Bernadette's radiant face, it left a deep impression on their hearts and minds. Whether it was during the apparitions themselves or while she was recounting them, her face was simply shining. Bernadette from that time on had the light of Massabielle dwelling within her.
"The daily life of the Soubirous family was nevertheless a tale of deprivation and sadness, sickness and incomprehension, rejection and poverty. Even if there was no lack of love and warmth in family relationships, life at the cachot was hard. Nevertheless, the shadows of the earth did not prevent the light of heaven from shining.'The light shines in the darkness…'(Jn 1:5). Lourdes is one of the places chosen by God for his beauty to be reflected with particular brightness, hence the importance here of the symbol of light…
"By coming here to Lourdes on pilgrimage, we wish to enter, following in Bernadette's footsteps, into this extraordinary closeness between heaven and earth, which never fails and never ceases to grow. In the course of the apparitions, it is notable that Bernadette prays the rosary under the gaze of Mary, who unites herself to her at the moment of the doxology. This fact confirms the profoundly theocentric character of the prayer of the rosary.
"When we pray it, Mary offers us her heart and her gaze in order to contemplate the life of her Son, Jesus Christ. My venerable Predecessor, Pope John Paul II, came here to Lourdes on two occasions. In his life and ministry, we know how much his prayer relied upon the Virgin Mary's intercession. Like many of his predecessors in the Chair of Peter, he also keenly encouraged the prayer of the rosary; one of the particular ways in which he did so was by enriching the Holy Rosary with the meditation of the Mysteries of Light…
"In this shrine at Lourdes, to which the Christians of the whole world have turned their gaze since the Virgin Mary caused hope and love to shine here by giving pride of place to the sick, the poor and the little ones, we are invited to discover the simplicity of our vocation: it is enough to love."
On Sunday, September 14, feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Holy Father celebrated the Holy Mass in the "Prairie", a field in front of the grotto of the Apparitions:
"What a great thing it is to possess the Cross! He who possesses it possesses a treasure. On this day when the Church's liturgy celebrates the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Gospel you have just heard reminds us of the meaning of this great mystery: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that men might be saved (cf. Jn 3:16). The Son of God became vulnerable, assuming the condition of a slave, obedient even to death, death on a cross (cf. Phil 2:8).
"By his Cross we are saved. The instrument of torture which, on Good Friday, manifested God's judgement on the world, has become a source of life, pardon, mercy, a sign of reconciliation and peace.'In order to be healed from sin, gaze upon Christ crucified!'said Saint Augustine (Treatise on Saint John, XII, 11). By raising our eyes towards the Crucified one, we adore him who came to take upon himself the sin of the world and to give us eternal life.
"And the Church invites us proudly to lift up this glorious Cross so that the world can see the full extent of the love of the Crucified one for mankind, for every man and woman. She invites us to give thanks to God because from a tree which brought death, life has burst out anew. On this wood Jesus reveals to us his sovereign majesty, he reveals to us that he is exalted in glory. Yes,'Come, let us adore him!'In our midst is he who loved us even to giving his life for us, he who invites every human being to draw near to him with trust.
"This is the great mystery that Mary also entrusts to us this morning, inviting us to turn towards her Son. In fact, it is significant that, during the first apparition to Bernadette, Mary begins the encounter with the sign of the Cross. More than a simple sign, it is an initiation into the mysteries of the faith that Bernadette receives from Mary. The sign of the Cross is a kind of synthesis of our faith, for it tells how much God loves us; it tells us that there is a love in this world that is stronger than death, stronger than our weaknesses and sins.
"The power of love is stronger than the evil which threatens us. It is this mystery of the universality of God's love for men that Mary came to reveal here, in Lourdes. She invites all people of good will, all those who suffer in heart or body, to raise their eyes towards the Cross of Jesus, so as to discover there the source of life, the source of salvation."