MARSEILLE – Pope Francis closed his brief overnight visit to Marseille urging local Catholics not to be discouraged amid a growth in secularism and an increased indifference to religion, saying they must seek to maintain the joy of following Christ.
In addition to reiterating his support for migrant rights, the pontiff also challenged widespread acceptance of abortion and euthanasia in many European societies.
Human life is discarded not only in the “rejection of many immigrants,” but also in “countless unborn children and abandoned elderly people,” he said.
Speaking during his Sept. 23 Mass at Marseille’s Vélodrome Stadium, the pope focused on the scene of the Visitation in scripture, in which Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, both of whom are pregnant in miraculous ways, as Mary was a virgin and Elizabeth had been barren.
The episode shows that God “makes possible even what seems impossible, he generates life even amidst sterility,” Francis said, and challenged local Catholics on whether they truly believe God is working in their lives.
“Do we believe that the Lord, in hidden and often unpredictable ways, acts in history, performs wonders, and is working even in our societies that are marked by worldly secularism and a certain religious indifference?” he asked.
Pope Francis traveled to Marseille from Sept. 22-23 to attend the closing session of the third edition of the Rencontres Méditerranéennes, or Mediterranean Meetings, which drew together some 60 religious leaders and 60 young people from throughout the region to discuss current regional challenges related to the environment, migration, and violent conflict.
After his arrival Friday, he prayed together with diocesan clergy and religious and presided over an interfaith memorial for sailors and migrants who have died at sea.
Prior to Saturday’s Mass, he gave a lengthy speech at the closing session of the Rencontres Méditerranéennes, which was attended by Church leaders from France as well as several government leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron; Vice President of the European Commission Margarítis Schinás; Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank; and Renaud Muselier, president of the local region.
Pope Francis and Macron had a private audience following Saturday’s closing session.
In a subtle jab at the concept of laïcité, meaning strict Church/state separation in most western states, Bishop Arjan Dodaj of Tiranë-Durrës in Albania at the closing session of the Mediterranean Meetings earlier Saturday morning spoke of his experience growing up in an atheistic country under communist rule.
“Churches were destroyed, yes, God was cancelled in all of his visible signs,” Dodaj said, saying he grew up without any religious references, apart from seeing his grandparents praying in secret. He said his uncle was arrested for expressing his faith and there was constant fear, but he finally discovered faith, as well as his priestly vocation, after immigrating to Italy after the fall of communism.
In his homily, the pope focused on how John the Baptist, the infant Elizabeth was carrying, “leapt for joy” after hearing Mary’s voice, saying that to leap out of joy means one’s heart is moved.
“This is the opposite of a flat, cold heart, accustomed to the quiet life, which is encased in indifference and becomes impermeable,” he said, saying a heart such as this “becomes hardened and insensitive to everything and everyone, even to the tragic discarding of human life.”
“A cold, flat heart drags life along mechanically, without passion, without impetus, without desire. In our European society, a person can become ill from all this and suffer cynicism, disenchantment, resignation, uncertainty, and an overall sadness,” Francis said.
Those with faith, he said, are instead capable of recognizing God’s presence and are able, even in the midst of trials and suffering, to feel God’s presence and maintain a “spring in their step,” as well as a desire to make a positive contribution to the world around them.
“Besides enabling us to leap in the face of life, the experience of faith also compels us to leap toward our neighbor,” he said, saying the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth illustrates that God’s presence is not felt in extraordinary events, but “in the simplicity of an encounter.”
He urged the Church to remember that God is above all relational and often makes himself known through human encounter.
“When we know how to be open to others, when there is a ‘stirring’ within us in favor of those who pass us every day, and when our hearts do not remain impassive and insensitive before the wounds of the fragile,” this is where God is present, he said.
Pope Francis said that major European cities and countries such as France, characterized by a diversity of cultures and religions, “are a strong force against the excesses of individualism, selfishness and rejection that generate loneliness and suffering.”
“Let us learn from Jesus how to stir ourselves to help those who live nearby,” he said, stressing the need to be compassionate toward those who are weary and exhausted, leaping with mercy “before the wounded flesh” of others.
He pointed to France’s history of art, culture and thought, saying, “Today, too, our life and the life of the Church, France and Europe need this: the grace of a leap forward, a new leap in faith, charity and hope.”
“We need to rekindle our passion and enthusiasm, to reawaken our desire to commit ourselves to fraternity. We need to once again risk loving our families and dare to love the weakest, and to rediscover in the Gospel the transforming grace that makes life beautiful,” he said.
Francis urged Christians to spend time in prayer and to care for others with love, always seeking to receive “the fire of the Holy Spirit and then allow ourselves to be set afire by the questions of our day, by the challenges of the Mediterranean, by the cry of the poor – and by the ‘holy utopias’ of fraternity and peace that wait to be realized.”
He closed his homily praying that the local Marian devotion, Notre Dame de la Garde, would watch over the local church and “guard France and all of Europe.”
In a final greeting after Mass, the pope thanked all those who worked to organize the visit and noted that the Archdiocese of Marseille was the first in the world to be consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, during an outbreak of the plague in 1720.
“It is therefore in your hearts to be signs of God’s tender love, also in the midst of today’s epidemic of indifference,” he said, and greeted a group of survivors of the 2016 terrorist attack in Nice, offering a prayer for those who died in acts of terrorism in France and throughout the world.
He also repeated his appeal for an end to the Russia-Ukraine war, saying, “Let us not tire of praying for peace in war-torn regions, and especially for the war-torn people of Ukraine.”