Marseille, a Mediterranean city, experienced two exceptional days as it welcomed Pope Francis, the first papal visit in almost 500 years. The Pontiff wished to participate in the "Encounters of the Mediterranean" at the invitation of Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline, archbishop of the city. He was also responding to another invitation from France, as President Emmanuel Macron had previously told him, "It is important that you come to Marseille!". And so he did.
Seeing with the eyes of Christ
The central message of the papal visit, the encounter of peoples, was placed from the very beginning in the hands of the Virgin Mary, who presides over the encounter between Jesus and mankind. The "Good Mother" of the people of Marseille, Notre-Dame de la Garde, was venerated by Pope Francis upon his arrival at the airport on Friday afternoon.
The Supreme Pontiff placed at the feet of Our Lady the reason for his apostolic journey. In the "Marian prayer" that he made with the diocesan clergy in the basilica, he presented to us the crossing of two "gazes": on the one hand, "that of Jesus who caresses man", "from above and below, not to judge but to lift up those who are below"; on the other, "that of men and women who turn to Jesus", in the image of Mary at the wedding feast of Cana.
Addressing the priests of the diocese, the Pope encouraged them to look at each person with the compassionate eyes of Jesus, and to present to Jesus the pleas of our brothers and sisters: an "exchange of glances". The priest is both an instrument of mercy and an instrument of intercession. The Pope thus presented the framework for the theological reflection that he would develop in the following meetings.
The occasion of his visit was the interreligious meeting that brought together many representatives of the main religions of the Mediterranean. He met with them, in particular, in front of the stele erected in memory of the sailors and migrants who have disappeared at sea. He recalled that we cannot get used to "considering shipwrecks as news of events and deaths at sea as numbers: no, they are names and surnames, faces and stories, shattered lives and broken dreams".
Having a human and Christian outlook in the face of these sad events is an essential requirement for an adequate political response to the migratory crisis we are experiencing. Pope Francis reminded Christians that "God commands us to protect" the orphan, the widow and the stranger, and that this necessarily leads to "hospitality".
The sea, "mirror of the world
On Saturday morning, Pope Francis addressed the bishops and young people of different religions participating in the Mediterranean Meetings at the Palazzo del Faro. Contemplating the French shores of the Mediterranean, between Nice and Montpellier, he said he was amused to see there "the smile of the Mediterranean". He then focused his speech on three symbols that characterize Marseilles, which he praised as a model of "integration" among peoples: the sea, the port and the lighthouse.
In his opinion, the sea is a "mirror of the world", bearer of "a worldwide vocation of fraternity, a unique vocation and the only way to prevent and overcome conflicts". It is also a "laboratory of peace", but which, according to the Pope, suffers from a disease that consists not in the "increase of problems", but in the "decrease of care".
Marseille is also a port, and therefore "a gateway to the sea, to France and to Europe". In this regard, recalling the words of St. Paul VI, he insisted on the "three duties" of developed nations: solidarity, social justice and universal charity. Seeing the "opulence" on one side of the Mediterranean and the "poverty" on the other, the Pope concluded: "the mare nostrum cries out for justice".
Finally, at the Palazzo del Faro, Pope Francis spoke of Marseille as a "lighthouse", encouraging young people to overcome "barriers" and "prejudices", and to seek instead "mutual enrichment". In conclusion, the Roman Pontiff presented the "crossroads" facing many nations: "encounter or confrontation".
He encouraged everyone to choose the path of "the integration of peoples", even if this integration, "even of migrants", is "difficult". In his opinion, the path of integration is the only one possible, while that of "assimilation" is dangerous: because it is based on ideology and leads to hostility and intolerance. He praised the city of Marseille as a model of integration.
Following the common thread of his visit to Marseille, namely prayer to Mary, the Pope finally presided a Mass in the city's "temple of sport": the Velodrome stadium, home of Olympique de Marseille and Rugby World Cup stadium. There, where the French rugby team played against Namibia last Thursday, the Virgin of the Guard was installed. And it was about her, the Good Mother of the people of Marseille, that Pope Francis spoke during his homily.
Taking up the words of the Gospel of the Visitation, and of John the Baptist's leap of joy in Elizabeth's womb on the occasion of his encounter with the Virgin Mary, pregnant with Jesus, he spoke of two "leaps of joy": "one before life" and "the other before our neighbor". "God is relationship, and he often visits us through human encounters, when we know how to open ourselves to others."
On this occasion, the Pope condemned indifference and lack of passion for others. He again condemned "individualism, selfishness and closed-mindedness that produce loneliness and suffering", citing as victims families, the weakest, the poor, "unborn children", "the abandoned elderly", etc.
A journey under the Virgin's mantle
The people of Marseille gave him a particularly warm welcome and felt honored to receive the visit of the Supreme Pontiff. Above all, the people were delighted to welcome a Pope devoted to their "Good Mother". Many inhabitants, even those who rarely visit the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, wanted to see him pass through the streets: by showing his closeness to the Virgin, the Pope showed his closeness to the people of Marseille.
Local and national political authorities of all stripes honored the Sovereign Pontiff and the entire Church with their presence, as well as large crowds from all over France, in a very festive atmosphere. Before the Mass at the Velodrome, a well-known comedian took the stage to explain that, for once, the whole stadium was supporting the same team!
Francis clearly wanted his struggle for social justice and the defense of the lives of the weakest, especially immigrants, to be entrusted to the intercession of the Virgin Mary. But the Pope acknowledged, without being naïve, that this work "is difficult", aware of the challenges that await all those who dedicate themselves to it. Francis is decidedly one of those who want to reconcile antagonistic positions, and before leaving for Rome, he asked the people of Marseille for their prayers, insisting: "This work is not easy!