Weekly General Audience, Sept. 17, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI offered these reflections on his recent apostolic trip to France during his general audience on Sept. 17.

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today’s gathering provides me with a welcome opportunity to review the various moments of my recent pastoral visit to France, a visit that culminated, as you know, with a pilgrimage to Lourdes on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady to St. Bernadette.

As I give fervent thanks to the Lord for granting me such a providential opportunity, I would also like to express once again my sincere gratitude to the archbishop of Paris and the bishop of Tarbes-Lourdes — and to their respective co-workers — as well as to all those who worked together in various ways for the successful outcome of my pilgrimage.

I would also like to extend my heartfelt thanks to the president of France and to the many other officials who welcomed me so courteously.

France’s Role in History

My visit began in Paris, where, in a somewhat symbolic way, I met with all the people of France, thereby honoring that beloved nation where the Church, as early as the second century A.D., played a fundamental role in its development.

It is important that it is precisely within this context that the need developed for a healthy distinction between the political and religious spheres, in keeping with Jesus’ famous saying: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17).

Just as Caesar’s image was stamped on Roman coins in order to indicate that they were to be given back to him, the image of the Creator — the only Lord in our life — is stamped on the heart of man. Any genuine secularism, therefore, must not dispense with the spiritual dimension, but should recognize that it is precisely this spiritual dimension that is, in a very fundamental way, the guarantee of our freedom and of the autonomy of the realities of this earth, thanks to the dictates of creative wisdom that the human conscience is able to grasp and put into action.

With this perspective in mind, I developed a wide-ranging reflection on “The Origins of Western Theology and the Roots of European Culture” for my meeting with the world of culture, in a place that was chosen for its symbolic value.

It took place at the Collège des Bernardins — a 12th century edifice constructed by Cistercian monks where young people studied — which the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger had envisioned as a center for cultural dialogue.

It was the very presence of this monastic theology that was at the origin of our Western culture.

The Quest for God

My address started with a reflection on monasticism, whose purpose was to seek God — quaerere Deum.

During a period of a deep crisis in ancient civilization, monks, guided by the light of faith, chose the via maestra — the path of listening to the Word of God. They were the great custodians of sacred Scripture, and their monasteries became schools of wisdom as well as schools that were, as St. Benedict said, “in the service of the Lord” (dominici servitii).

Thus, this quest for God, by its very nature, led these monks to a culture of the word. This quest for God — quaerere Deum — led them to his Word and to seek to know his Word in an ever more profound way. They had to penetrate the secrets of language and understand it within its structure.

In this quest for God, who revealed himself to us in sacred Scripture, the secular sciences took on a new importance — a way to grasp the secrets of languages. Consequently, what developed in monasteries was an eruditio (instruction) that facilitated the formation of a culture.

It is precisely for this reason that quaerere Deum — seeking God, being on a journey toward God — is today, as it was yesterday, the via maestra (primary path) and the foundation of every true culture.

Architecture is an artistic expression of this search for God, and the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris constitutes, without a doubt, an example that has universal value. Within that magnificent temple, where I had the joy of presiding at the celebration of vespers for the Blessed Virgin Mary, I called upon the priests, deacons, religious men and women, and seminarians who had come from every part of France, to give priority to listening spiritually to the Word of God, looking to the Virgin Mary as their sublime model.

Afterwards, in front of Notre Dame, I greeted the crowd of enthusiastic young people who had gathered there.

Since they were about to begin a long prayer vigil, I entrusted to their care two treasures of our Christian faith: the Holy Spirit and the cross.

The Spirit opens man’s intellect to horizons that are larger than itself in order to understand the beauty and truth of God’s love revealed on the cross. It is a love from which nothing can ever separate us and which we can experience by offering up our own life according to Christ’s example.

I then stopped briefly at the Institut de France, seat of France’s five national academies. Since I am a member of one of the academies, it was with great joy that I visited with my colleagues.

My visit to Paris culminated with a celebration of the Eucharist on the Esplanade des Invalides. Echoing the words of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, I invited the faithful of Paris and all of France to search anew for the living God, who revealed his true face to us in Jesus, who is present in the Eucharist, urging us to love our brothers and sisters just as he loved us.

I then went to Lourdes, where I was able to join thousands of faithful on the “Jubilee Way” that connects the sites associated with St. Bernadette’s life: the parish church with the baptismal font where she was baptized, the cachot (jail) where, as a girl, she lived in great poverty, and the grotto of Massabielle, where the Virgin appeared to her 18 times.

In the evening, I took part in the traditional torchlight procession — aux flambeaux — a stunning manifestation of faith in God and devotion to his Mother and our Mother.

Lourdes is truly a place of light, prayer, hope and conversion, whose foundation is the rock of God’s love, which had its culminating revelation in the glorious cross of Christ.

The Role of the Cross

By a fortunate coincidence, last Sunday’s liturgy commemorated the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the sign of hope par excellence, since it is the ultimate witness to love.

In Lourdes, in the school of Mary, the first and the most perfect disciple of the crucified Christ, pilgrims learn to consider the crosses in their own lives in light of Christ’s glorious cross. Appearing to Bernadette in the grotto of Massabielle, Mary’s first act was to make the sign of the cross — in silence and without words.

Bernadette then imitated her, making the sign of the cross herself, but with a trembling hand. In this way, the Blessed Virgin Mary provided a first initiation to the essence of Christianity: The Sign of the Cross is the summary of our faith, and in making it with attentive heart, we enter into the full mystery of our salvation.

The entire message of Lourdes is found in Mary’s gesture! God loved us so much that he gave himself for us. This is the message of the cross, “the mystery of death and of glory.”

The cross reminds us that there is no true love without suffering, and that there is no gift of life without pain. Many learn this truth at Lourdes, which is a school of faith and hope, because it is also a school of charity and of service to our brothers and sisters.

Within this context of faith and prayer, I had an important meeting with the French bishops. It was a time of intense spiritual communion, during which we entrusted to the Virgin Mary our shared hopes and pastoral concerns.

Fellowship With the Sick

The next event was the Eucharistic procession with thousands of faithful, including, as usual, many sick people.

Before the Blessed Sacrament, our spiritual communion with Mary became even deeper and more intense because she gives us eyes and hearts capable of contemplating her divine son in the holy Eucharist.

The silence of those thousands of people before the Lord was very moving; it was not an empty silence, but a silence filled with prayer and an awareness of the presence of the Lord, who loved us to the extreme of being lifted up on the cross for our sake.

Monday, Sept. 15, the liturgical feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, was dedicated in a special way to the sick. After a brief visit to the chapel of the hospital where Bernadette received her first Communion, I presided at the celebration of holy Mass in front of the Basilica of the Rosary, during which I administered the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.

Along with the sick, and with all those who were taking care of them, it was my desire to meditate on the tears that Mary shed under the cross and on her smile that illuminated Easter morning.

Let us give thanks to the Lord together, dear brothers and sisters, for this apostolic trip that was rich in so many spiritual gifts. In particular, let us give praise to him because Mary, by appearing to St. Bernadette, opened up in the world a privileged place for encountering God’s love that heals and saves.

At Lourdes, the Blessed Virgin invites us all to consider the earth as the place of our pilgrimage towards our final home, which is heaven. In reality, we are all pilgrims, and we need a Mother to guide us. At Lourdes, her smile invites us to go forward with great confidence in the knowledge that God is good — and that God is love.

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