Battalions of faithful give Pope a victory

French visit: Vatican policy that strictly respected church-state sensibilities produces successful end to a controversial trip
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The Independent Online
The church-state battles generated by the Pope's visit to France ended yesterday with a victory for the church - in terms of turn-out, at least.

Almost 200,000 people from northern France and neighbouring countries gathered at Rheims airport for an open-air Mass that ended in applause and spontaneous shouts of "Hoorah, long live the Pope".

Two hours later, in Paris, a demonstration supported by more than 70 organisations mustered barely 6,000 people to protest at the use of state funds to subsidise the Pope's visit, and to demand that the constitutional separation of church and state be observed.

Throughout, the Pope looked tired and in pain and moved with difficulty, but he completed the whole of a crowded programme. The Bishop of Tours, Mgr Honore, who accompanied him for the first three days, said the Pope was clearly in "fragile health" but had a good appetite and was able to rest.

He said the Pope spoke "freely and with a smile" about the end of his life. "Each day," he quoted the Pope as saying, "it is I who decide when to go to bed, but it is God who decides whether I get up."

As the Pope flew home last night there were expressions of satisfaction from French bishops. There were also signs that the Vatican had gone out of its way to avoid or defuse the most divisive controversies.

With evident relief, the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, spoke of the "calming" effect of the visit, and a spokesman for the French episcopal council said that the argument about church-state relations that had "soured the mood" before the four-day visit would "not be allowed to poison relations again".

As the Paris demonstration was melting into the back streets of the capital, the Pope was embarking on the single most contested event of his visit: a special Mass in the magnificent mediaeval cathedral of Rheims to commemorate the 1,500th anniversary of the baptism of Clovis, regarded as France's first king.

Arguments about the Clovis celebrations had thundered back and forth in France since the beginning of the year. Was it appropriate to celebrate the anniversary of the baptism of France's first king in a state that is not just a republic, but constitutionally secular?

Other tensions, however, were successfully defused or much played down. The decision by President Jacques Chirac not to attend the Mass in Rheims, despite initial plans to do so, nullified the objections of non-Catholics, who had said his presence would serve to associate the state too closely with the Catholic Church. The only ministers to attend any of the papal events were those known as devout Catholics and with local connections in the places the Pope visited.

If the state kept to state protocol, the Pope remained, in his Clovis utterances, within the realm of the sacred, concentrating on the religious significance of the baptism of Clovis, and stressing baptism as a sacrament for all Christians, rather than the "baptism of France' through the baptism of Clovis. He carefully called Clovis "King of the Franks" rather than of France.