Pope Francis set for Marseille visit 500 years in the making

Papal trip to France comes as Europe faces turbulent political and religious times

Leading prayers at the Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica will be the centrepiece of Pope Francis's visit to Marseille. AFP
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Pope Francis will fly to France’s second city on Friday about 500 years since the last papal visit to Marseille, on a mission of hope for countries on the Mediterranean afflicted by natural or man-made disasters.

From the drownings of migrants trying to cross in overcrowded, ramshackle boats, to deadly conflict and the unimaginable horrors of the Moroccan earthquake and Libyan floods, the region has been scarred by human tragedy.

Pope Francis has made facing up to challenges the defining preoccupation of his pontificate. The Mediterranean, with more than 20 countries extending to 46,000km of coastline, is a deeply troubled region.

Even Marseille’s malaise, as a city in the grip of drug-related killings police appear powerless to prevent, fades into insignificance as death and suffering occur at sea and on land around the basin.

The Pope will lead prayers at the imposing Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica perched high above Marseille and during the highlight of his visit, an open-air Mass at the Velodrome, home to Olympique de Marseille, a football club with a proudly multicultural history.

If ever a religious figure’s healing powers were needed, now is the time

Up to 300,000 people, including pilgrims from every corner of France and far beyond, are expected in the city to greet the pontiff.

The 67,000-seat stadium will be full and many more will gather outside during his Popemobile tour, alongside the vast beaches and green spaces of the Prado.

The visit, marking the end of a week-long series of debates in Marseille on key issues affecting the region, immediately follows the presence in France of the British monarch King Charles III and coincides with the Rugby World Cup currently being held in the country.

France are to play Namibia at the Velodrome on the eve of the Pope’s arrival.

With three major events clashing, French security services are stretched. The papal visit alone will be policed by 5,000 officers and 1,000 security personnel, and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told fellow ministers to avoid non-essential travel.

The Notre-Dame de la Garde, first on the itinerary of Pope Francis’s two-day visit, offers a stunning spectacle to anyone arriving in Marseille by air, sea, road or rail.

The basilica’s statue of the Virgin Mary stands as a symbol of protection for all on land or at sea. Nearby is a commemoration of the lost lives of sailors and migrants.

Amid warfare, disaster and seafaring tragedy, the global head of the Catholic church may well reflect on the limits of the protection the statue actually bestows upon the city itself and the wider region.

If ever a religious figure’s healing powers were needed, now is the time.

Rencontres Mediterraneennes (Mediterranean Meetings), as the conference is called, has brought together Catholic clerics and young, multifaith delegates from around the Mediterranean.

It covers economic inequality and climate change as well as migration, and the Pope will address the closing stages.

He will also meet President Emmanuel Macron. A wide-ranging discussion is expected, although the alarming escalation of the migration crisis – thousands of African immigrants streamed ashore on the Italian island of Lampedusa in just 48 hours – may well dominate their exchanges. The Elysee says the pair will also discuss the war in Ukraine, turmoil in the Sahel, climate change and poverty.

Papal visits to France have been rare in recent years. Pope Francis has travelled to the country only once.

On an away-day trip to Strasbourg, in north-eastern France, in 2014, he addressed the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, where he urged Europe to shake off a “somewhat elderly and haggard” image and forge a united response to prevent the Mediterranean becoming a “vast cemetery” for migrants.

Then as now, he characterised his visit as one to the city in question, not France. And he and Mr Macron will be less than wholeheartedly in agreement on migration, given the President’s inclination to pursue policies that appease populist sentiment.

The plight of migrants is close to the Pope’s heart. Within months of taking office in 2013, he made Lampedusa the destination of his first pastoral visit.

The region is scarred by human tragedy

The President’s entourage accepts that the Pope’s emphasis is on a “duty of protection, assistance, reception”, but insists this should not produce “permanent opposition”.

A senior presidential aide cited the pope’s “strong interest for the answers to be constructed at a European level” and his belief that the solutions should be those that avoided mass exodus from the migrants’ own countries.

The momentous challenge of migration lends great importance to the Pope’s stay in Marseille and the conference preceding it, a significance comparable to that of the last papal visit there.

In 1533, Pope Clement VII, an enthusiastic strategic matchmaker, shrugged off illness to travel from Rome to officiate at the lavish wedding of Catherine de Medici and the future King Henry II of France at the Eglise Saint-Ferreol les Augustins.

The bride and groom were only 14 years old but Catherine would become, in the view of some historians, Europe’s most important woman of the 16th century.

It is tempting to wonder what 21st-century social media and opportunist politicians would have made of that event and its relevance to a continent in turbulent political and religious times.

Mr Macron’s decision to attend the Velodrome Mass has provoked predictable controversy in France.

The far-left France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, never slow to rise to indignation, according to the commentator Denis Carreaux, accuses the President of gatecrashing the visit in flagrant defiance of France’s secular status, established by its 1905 law separating church and state.

Communists share Mr Melenchon’s view but Mr Macron, by no means the first French president to attend a religious service, brushes the polemic aside. “I think it's my place to be there,” he said.

“I won't be there as a Catholic, I'll be there as President of the republic, which is indeed secular. I will not carry out any religious practice during the Mass.”

There are, inevitably, people in Marseille who resent the cost, fuss and inconvenience of a papal visit.

“It's going to be unmanageable, the equivalent of three Marseille v Paris Saint-Germain football games all over the Prado,” one disgruntled resident told French media.

For the Catholic church, however, it is an uplifting, socially inclusive occasion.

“When the Pope celebrates Mass at the Velodrome, a place that brings together Marseille in all its diversity, it will be as if he were visiting every Marseillais,” Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline, Archbishop of Marseille, told the official Vatican news service.

“He comes to Marseille to draw our attention to the Mediterranean, the challenges it has to face.”

For the Marseille tourist office, the visit is a “fantastic opportunity” for a city that personifies the spirit of vivre ensemble (different cultures in harmony).

To the archbishop, it is another step in a pilgrimage that began in Lampedusa and has taken Pope Francis to 43 countries, including South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Palestine.

It has been a punishing schedule for a man now 86.

In 2019, he visited Abu Dhabi where he jointly signed, with the Egyptian Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb, the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.

There are political as well as religious dimensions to Pope Francis’s trip to a beautiful and vibrant city that is currently ill at ease with itself, a gesture Cardinal Aveline sees as a reminder that faced with the drama and human misery of the Mediterranean, France “cannot just look away”.

Updated: September 20, 2023, 5:58 PM