Do not be afraid to spread the faith – Pope Benedict
Sunday, September 14, 2008
PARIS (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI told a crowd of tens of thousands of young Roman Catholics that they shouldn’t fear spreading their faith. These days in France, with secularism entrenched and Islam growing, that’s easier said than done.
"Don’t be afraid,’’ the pontiff, clad in white under a spotlight with his arms outstretched, said to roaring applause on a packed square in front of Notre Dame cathedral on Friday night, on the first day of four in France. "Have the audacity to proclaim it.’’
The message wasn’t lost: Many listening said they know the fears of ridicule, the timidity about talking about faith at school or among friends, and the hesitation that they might come across as Bible-thumping proselytizers.
Fear, frustration and misunderstanding over religion – not just Catholic – run deep in French society. Three Jewish boys in skullcaps were treated for fractures and bruises after a suspected anti-Semitic brawl that started with one getting hit by a tossed walnut last week.
France is home to Western Europe’s largest populations of Muslims and Jews. While most French are Catholic at least by tradition – if not in practice – the old yarn is that most go to church three times in their lifetimes: At their baptism, wedding and funeral.
France also has another religion, "laicite,’’ a fervent belief that faith and the state should be kept strictly separate. That guiding philosophy, born out of the French revolution, is enshrined in a 103-year-old law that keeps church and public administration apart.
Its defenders watch closely for any sign, hint or suggestion that religion is encroaching on affairs of state. So they were eagle-eyed Friday when French President Nicolas Sarkozy paid the pope the honor of greeting him at a Paris airport and welcomed him to the presidential Elysee Palace.
Secularism is so firmly entrenched here that one prominent politician, centrist Francois Bayrou, questioned Sarkozy’s decision to invite the pope to the Elysee – even though Bayrou himself is Catholic.
Catholics gathered at Notre Dame said they sense the secular scrutiny as surely as the stare of the scorning stone gargoyles that look down from the cathedral’s towers.
"The problem is the secular majority,’’ said Antoine Elyn, a 19-year-old medical student at a Jesuit school, clutching a handout prayer book. "There is now a secular extremism that rejects all form of religion.’’
Secularism is a supposed safety valve: The idea that the state doesn’t play favorites among religions was originally aimed to help keep intolerance at bay.
"It’s the right principle, it’s just been pushed too far,’’ said Italian Salvatore Gatto, a 25-year-old engineer. "This visit is the chance for Catholics in France to get out of their houses and hoist up their faith.’’
A Socialist senator, Jean-Luc Melenchon, painted the pope’s visit as a deliberate effort to weaken France’s secular foundations. He wagged a finger at Sarkozy for getting too cozy.
The French leader has tested the secular taboos here by stressing the role of religion and, before he was elected, suggesting that the French state should fund the construction of mosques.
"For the first time in the history of republican France, a pope and a president of the Republic are demonstrating a shared policy,’’ Melenchon said. "In this sense, the secularism of our Republic is already in danger.’’
Amid such vehemence, religious faith in France can’t be worn on sleeves like in some other countries.
Priscille Choquet said many fellow teens bristle when her religion comes up. "People mock you, saying, ‘Don’t think that’ll go over here,’’’ she said.
And the faith is dwindling. Despite its Catholic roots, fewer than 5 percent of the nation’s 62 million people attend Mass every week, according to a 2006 Ifop poll, and some of its centuries-old churches are crumbling in towns that lack money or the motivation to fix them
The pope clearly injected enthusiasm for some downtrodden Catholics on Friday.
From a 2nd floor balcony, he greeted several hundred people who waited outside the building where he spent the night Friday. He thanked them for coming and invited them to an open-air mass Saturday.