Pope Benedict XVI is traveling to France in mid-September, making a four-day visit that is loaded with events and charged with pastoral challenges.
The Sept. 12-15 trip was designed primarily to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Marian apparitions in Lourdes, a southern French town that has become one of the world's most popular pilgrimage sites.
But the pope will spend the first day and a half in Paris, speaking to political and cultural leaders, meeting with priests and seminarians, and celebrating Mass with the lay faithful.
For the 81-year-old pope, it will be a trip to the heart of an increasingly de-Christianized Europe, an area where, as he once put it, the "great churches seem to be dying."
The pope wants to encourage a revival, and his schedule offers him several possibilities:
-- In meetings with civil and cultural leaders on the trip's first day, he is likely to defend the legitimate voice of religion in today's secularized European culture.
-- By personally commemorating the anniversary of the Lourdes apparitions, the pope will have an opportunity to evoke the long tradition of Marian devotion in France and explain its relevance today.
-- The papal events in Lourdes, a place where millions of sick pilgrims go to pray every year, will highlight the church's solidarity with the suffering.
-- His three meetings with French bishops -- two regional encounters behind closed doors and one national meeting with a public speech -- present occasions for a frank assessment of pastoral problems and strategies.
Those pastoral problems are real, and numbers tell a somewhat bleak story.
Although officially more than 75 percent of the population in France is Catholic, participation in local parish life has declined steeply over the last 50 years. Studies have shown that probably no more than 12 percent of French Catholics attend weekly Mass, and a majority of Catholics go rarely or not at all.
The number of diocesan priests in France has plummeted almost 50 percent in the last 25 years, and the priestly vocations rate is one of the lowest in the world. The rates of baptism, marriage and other sacraments also have declined steadily.
To church leaders, perhaps even more disturbing than French religious practice, or lack of it, are attitudes. A World Values Survey in 1999 showed that 56 percent of the French people did not believe in the concept of sin, nearly 60 percent said churches do not give answers to moral problems, and 62 percent said they did not receive comfort or strength from religion.
Pope Benedict has set his sights on these kinds of challenges from Day One of his pontificate. In sermons and speeches, he has argued that a life without faith is ultimately empty and unfulfilling, and that the evidence of such unhappiness is all around us.
In France, he is likely to make the point that simple faith -- like that of St. Bernadette Soubirous, the young Lourdes visionary -- is still relevant in the 21st century.
The pope was working on his speeches for the French trip over the summer and in mid-August gave a hint of what was on his mind. Marking the feast of the Assumption , he spoke of the value of "pure and simple faith" in the modern world.
The life of Mary, in particular, he said, can inspire Christians to live their daily lives "oriented toward the beatitudes." Faced with all the false happiness in modern society, he said, people can learn from Mary to "be witnesses of hope and consolation."
The pope sees the sanctuary of Lourdes as a place where the church carries out its Gospel of hope in a very concrete way, helping relieve the burdens of individual sufferers and the families who care for them.
At a Rome conference earlier this year to mark the Lourdes anniversary, he said a society that did not show compassion to its sick and suffering was "a cruel and inhuman society."
Citing his latest encyclical, "Spe Salvi" (on Christian hope), he went on to say that families, especially poor families dealing with a member's illness, risk being "swept asunder" in communities that value only productivity.
In France, the pope also may remind society of its duty to help relieve the loneliness of the sick and dying. He has warned that such isolation has contributed to the growing acceptance of euthanasia; in France, there has been a strong push for the decriminalization of euthanasia in recent years.
Here, too, the pope can point to the church's own efforts to bring spiritual and physical healing and, in the process, reinforce his point that Christianity is lived, and spread, more by witness than by arguments.
As on previous trips abroad, the pope's strategy appears to be to raise these broader themes -- Christian hope, the faith as love in action, and the need for moral truths and religious values in a materialist society -- and make them resonate with his audience.
French Catholics probably will not receive a papal dressing-down or a lecture on Mass attendance. In the pope's view, it's not just a question of making time for the church in their weekly schedules, but making room for God in their lives.
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(Source: CNS )