France falls out of love with the Pope

A nation divided: Pontiff's visit sparks arguments which head of French church calls 'hateful'
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The Independent Online
Pope John Paul II began a four-day visit to France yesterday, confounding predictions that ill-health would keep him at the Vatican.

He completed the day's programme, which included a formal meeting with President Jacques Chirac, a ride in his "popemobile" through the streets of Tours, and vespers at the shrine of Saint-Laurent-sur-Sevre in the western region of the Vendee, but the many controversies that have dogged this, the Polish Pope's fourth visit to mainland France - the French count it as five visits, including the one to the island of Reunion - were never far away.

The need for delicacy, on both sides, was immediately apparent from Mr Chirac's welcome, in which he addressed the Pope "in the name of the republic and laity of France" - in other words in his capacity as head of a secular state, not as head of a Catholic state. The Pope, similarly, restricted himself to mainly "state" topics with Mr Chirac, calling for France's traditional "solidarity and fraternity" to be extended to victims of the economic recession, and expressing the hope that France's Catholics would be open to "dialogue" with other religious groups.

Although a vast majority of French people are baptised and describe themselves as Catholics, the idea that the state is secular and that there is a strict separation between church and state is upheld as one of the achievements of the French Revolution. Plans by Mr Chirac to attend the papal mass at Rheims cathedral on Sunday, which commemorates the baptism of Clovis, the first, barbarian, king of France, were called off at a late stage after a public outcry about the dangers of the state authorities associating themselves too closely with the Catholic Church. Mr Chirac's wife, Bernadette, is expected to attend the mass alone.

The arguments about church-state relations in the weeks before the Pope's visit set this one apart from the previous four. Though he was greeted with rapture on his first visit in 1983 the subsequent ones were marked by a gradual lessening of interest. However, there was nothing like the open criticism and even hostility that this visit has generated.

Headlines in yesterday's national press in France ranged from "The awkward guest" in the left-of-centre Liberation to the popular Aujourdhui's "The French and John-Paul II - in love no more". Some church and many secular groups plan to join a demonstration in Paris on Sunday "to call for strict observance of church-state separation", to run concurrently with the Clovis celebrations in Rheims. Smaller protests are planned for almost every stop on the Pope's tour.

Several times in recent weeks, the mild-mannered Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, has felt driven to speak out against the condemnations of the visit. Yesterday, he described the tone of argument as "hateful".

Opinion polls and statistics suggest that the attitudes of the French towards the Catholic Church have undergone a significant change over the decade. The celebrated description of France as the "eldest daughter of the church" is disavowed by almost three-quarters of the population. The Vatican's policies on birth control, Aids, homosexuality and divorce have alienated many of those who might before have accepted church teaching without question, including some in the church hierarchy. One report yesterday said many bishops opposed the visit, regarding it as "ill-timed" and likely only to underline the unpopularity of the Vatican in France.

Another subject of prime concern yesterday was the Pope's health. French commentators put the best gloss possible on it, with one presenter on the state television's second channel saying that he looked "in very good health". In fact, for much of the arrival ceremony at Tours airport, the Pope looked weary and appeared to be under heavy medication. During the playing of the national anthems, a camera caught expressions of extreme pain, before it panned away.

Today, the Pope is to say mass at the cathedral of Auray in southern Brittany, which is dedicated to St Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, and tomorrow he will say mass in Tours cathedral. But the climax of his visit will be an open-air mass near Rheims, followed by the contentious commemoration at the city's mighty cathedral of the 1,500th anniversary of the baptism of Clovis.

The state of Catholicism in France

45 million French people, or 75%, are baptised.

Only 25% of these say they are convinced believers; another 25% say they are faithful 'by tradition'.

There are 28,000 priests, compared with 40,000 10 years ago. There were only 96 ordinations in 1995.

There are 13,400 monks (18,000 in 1980) and 55,000 nuns.

Today, 58% of children are baptised today compared with 62% in the Eighties.

In 1993, 51 per cent of weddings were in church, compared with 65% in 1980.

According to a poll in Le Point magazine, although majority of those asked had good or very good opinion of the church and the Pope, 67% regarded him as taking the church backwards, and only 26% considered him modern; 87% disagreed with his views on condoms, and 59% said they could not understand why, even given his role as head of the church, he could not defend their use.