Pope Benedict XVI will give an address to Muslims and representatives from the world of culture Sept. 12 — exactly two years to the day since his lecture at the University of Regensburg, Germany, caused an uproar in the Islamic world.
The address, to be given at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, is billed as the pope’s most important discourse during his intense Sept. 12-15 visit to France. Benedict XVI spent much time working on his speech, said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, papal spokesman. The talk is expected to focus on the crisis of faith in a secularized culture.
The speech will have clear relevance for France: The Catholic Church sees Christianity on the verge of collapse in the country despite its deep Catholic roots.
The French Catholic Church suffers from one of the highest rates of non-attendance in Europe, with latest figures showing that 79 percent of French citizens no longer attend Sunday Mass. The number of priests also has dropped dramatically, although the country has pockets of traditionalist Catholics who are attracting vocations.
President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to receive the pope warmly. Like the pontiff’s visit to the United States in April, when President George W. Bush took the unprecedented step of meeting Benedict XVI at the airport, the French premieralso will break with protocol and, together with his wife, Carla Bruni, meet the pontiff off the plane when he arrives in Paris. Sarkozy also is expected to attend some of the Pope’s other engagements in the French capital.
Despite the strict secularity of France’s Constitution, Sarkozy and Pope Benedict are said to share a similar vision of a secular state and the necessity for religion to make a contribution within it. Sarkozy reportedly does not discourage church interference, but instead invites the church to participate in public debate. He says he values the Christian roots of Europe and, like the Pope, is concerned that the continent is losing its Christian heritage.
Before Sarkozy's election as president, he penned a book on the subject together with French Catholic intellectual, the Rev. Philippe Verdin.
The original purpose of Benedict XVI’s journey to France was to visit the Marian shrine of Lourdes to celebrate the 150th anniversary of apparitions of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous, which will remain the focus of the trip. On hearing of plans for the papal visit, the French president insisted that he visit him in Paris.
During the four-day visit, Benedict XVI will celebrate a large public Mass in Paris and meet Jewish leaders, fellow bishops and priests. He will fly to Lourdes in the southwestern part of France Sept. 13, where he will visit the famous grotto where St. Bernadette saw apparitions of the Virgin Mary. He also will bless the sick who travel to Lourdes to seek miraculous cures.
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