ROME — A major proponent of interreligious dialogue, tolerance and respect, French Cardinal Bernard Panafieu, the retired Archbishop of Marseille, died Nov. 12 at the age of 86.
In a telegram to his successor, Archbishop Georges Pontier, Pope Francis expressed his condolences for the death of “this wise shepherd who demonstrated the goodness and love of God.”
When he led the Archdiocese of Marseille — which had a growing number of Muslim residents and an unemployment rate higher than the national average — the late cardinal was “attentive to the precarious situation and the diversity” of the people there, making an important “contribution to the dialogue between cultures and religions, thus promoting a peaceful coexistence among all,” the pope wrote.
As archbishop, Panafieu spoke out about business policies that increased poverty in southern France, criticizing the practice of companies moving abroad as “reducing man to a merchandise” and provoking “desperate competition” for scarce resources.
“How can we not react against a system which forgets the economy’s human dimension and condemns people to unemployment, forced retirement” or forced relocation, which was having “serious repercussions” for the stability of marriages and families, he had said.
As a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and head of the French bishops’ interfaith committee, Panafieu also worked to build bridges with all religions and promote tolerance despite the existence of religious fanaticism on all sides.
“Spiritual leaders must have the courage to denounce and eradicate these unhealthy tendencies and to develop interreligious dialogue,” he had said.
The presence and activity of a variety of religions are a mark of the freedoms that states must guarantee and should not be feared, he said.
The Catholic Church is not afraid of religious pluralism because it “draws its passion for peaceful coexistence from the heart of Christ whose passion for humanity has no borders,” he once said.
The son of a bank executive, Panafieu was born Jan. 26, 1931, in Chatellerault, a small city in central France, and ordained a priest in 1956. He split his ministry as a high school and university chaplain and parish priest.
He was named auxiliary bishop of the Annecy Diocese in 1974, archbishop of Aix in 1978 and archbishop of Marseille in 1995. St. John Paul II made him a cardinal in 2003 at the age of 72.
With his death, the College of Cardinals has 218 members, 120 of whom are under the age of 80.