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Celebrating an outdoor mass before 250,000 people on the Esplanade des Invalides in Paris, Pope Benedict XVI conveyed a kindly, benevolent image that contrasted greatly with the austere and conservative personality he had previously projected. The mass was the first he has led in France since his election in 2005.
“We learned that he is very gentle,” said a parishioner, wearing a cross necklace, from Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris. “He has been presented as an intellectual, but he knows how to speak without creating controversy. He knows how to listen and how to make himself understood.”
An indictment of materialism
This sermon was an occasion for Benedict XVI to condemn the materialism of the modern world. Speaking French with a slight German accent, he called the faithful to “flee idols” such as “money, thirst for possessions, power and even knowledge”, capable of “diverting man from his true destiny”.
The pope also reiterated the importance of nourishing faith with reason, and reason with faith, taking up a theme he had evoked the night before in his speech on culture. “God has never asked man to sacrifice reason,” he said. “Reason has never been truly contradictory with faith.”
In an allusion to the problem of an ageing French clergy, whose average age is 70, the pope launched an appeal to the young. Saying he was “confident of their faith and their generosity”, he urged those considering service to the church to “have no fear”.
Marion Vauclin, a Parisian student, said she was particularly impressed by the pope’s message for young people. “He told us that he trusted us to carry the message of Christ,” she said. “We knew that, but it’s something else to hear him tell us: ‘I trust you, go ahead, do it’.”
The unknown pope
Fourteen giant screens allowed a tightly-packed crowd that stretched from the Rond Point des Champs Elysées to the Place Vauban, behind Les Invalides, to follow the mass.
Many of the pilgrims who had arrived at dawn to hear the pope admitted that they didn’t know much about him. At 8 am, some of the entrances to the Esplanade des Invalides already had been closed. At 9:30, a multitude of yellow-and-white flags with the Vatican coat of arms welcomed Benedict XVI, who was driven through the crowd in his armoured popemobile.
Compared to his predecessor, Jean-Paul II, Benedict is less charismatic, “less direct in his communication with people,” said Koudrae, a Polish woman who has lived in Paris for 20 years.
Following Jean-Paul’s 26 years as pope is no sinecure for the former German cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. His Bavarian origin, his former role as the church’s main defender of Catholic doctrine and his initiative to restore the Latin mass, which had been abandoned after Vatican II, all contributed to building his austere image.
According to a CSA-Le Parisien-Ajourd’hui en France poll published on the eve of the papal visit, 65% of French Catholics have a favourable opinion of Benedict XVI, while three quarters of them qualify him as a conservative.
A young Parisian priest, Father Charles Cornudet, however, says that Benedict XVI is a pope who corresponds to his era. He said that this pope is “humble”, quick to put himself into question and one who affirms that it is always possible to deepen one’s faith.
“Jean-Paul II launched a marketing campaign for the church,” said the priest. “Benedict XVII explains what’s behind the campaign.”
Pierre Chevalier, a Parisian student who volunteered to help with the ceremony’s organisation, rejects the idea of comparing the two popes. “These are judgements about human qualities, but the pope is a man of God. He’s there to guide, not to give orders,” he said.
Adds Marion Vauclin, “He’s not there to put on a show, but he wants to bring people to God. That’s what we should remember.”