The 86-year-old pontiff begins a two-day visit to Marseille on Friday. Pope Francis must notably hold a high mass on Saturday at the Vélodrome stadium. French President Emmanuel Macron plans to attend.
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Pope Francis is expected in Marseille on Friday September 22 for a two-day visit devoted to the Mediterranean and the migratory challenge. A visit organized in a context of growing hostility towards candidates for exile within a Europe tempted by withdrawal.
The 86-year-old Argentine Jesuit warned: he is not coming on a state visit to France, but to Marseille, a cosmopolitan city in the south where a wide range of communities and religions coexist, to denounce the drama of migrant shipwrecks and plead for cause of the exiles.
A theme dear to Pope Francis, who has continued since his election in 2013 to denounce speeches of rejection and policies of closure.
His stay comes a few days after the arrival on the Italian island of Lampedusa of thousands of people, which pushed the European Union to adopt an emergency plan to help Rome manage migratory flows from North Africa .
Read alsoMigration crisis: despite the limits of the firmness policy, Europe toughens its tone a little more
This route is considered the most dangerous in the world: more than 28,000 people who attempted to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe have gone missing since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). “The largest cemetery in the world,” the Pope regularly laments.
In France, Jorge Bergoglio’s visit was received differently by the right, including its Catholic and conservative representatives, who criticize his political interference and accuse him of doing too much regarding migrants.
First visit of a pope to Marseille in 500 years
The sovereign pontiff will be welcomed at 4:15 p.m. (2:15 p.m. GMT) by Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne at Marignane airport. He will immediately return to the Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica, on the heights of France’s second city.
There, after a prayer with the clergy, he will pay his respects, with representatives of other faiths, in front of the memorial dedicated to sailors and migrants missing at sea, erected at the foot of the “Good Mother”.
Nearly 500 years after the last visit of a pope to Marseille, this trip is also the first by a pope to France since his predecessor Benedict XVI in 2008. Pope Francis certainly visited Strasbourg in 2014, but it was at the European Parliament for a brief visit.
In a country governed since 1905 by the principle of secularism, the left-wing opposition accused President Emmanuel Macron of “trampling” on the religious neutrality of the State by announcing his participation in the high mass that the Pope will preside over on Saturday September 23 at Vélodrome stadium.
Despite the decline of Catholicism in France, accelerated by the crisis of sexual violence in the Church, this visit arouses great enthusiasm, with tens of thousands of faithful expected.
The Pope is closing the third edition of the Mediterranean Meetings (September 18 to 24), after Bari in 2020 and Florence in 2022. This meeting between bishops and young people will address, among other things, economic inequalities, inter-religious dialogue and the global warming.
So many recurring themes for the Argentine pontiff, who has a deep interest in the Mediterranean basin. Joseph Achji, a 25-year-old Syrian from Aleppo, is “really excited about seeing the Pope”: “It’s the chance of a lifetime. It’s important to meet other people, not just to listen to the stories. (…) We have a lot in common with others but without us knowing it,” this young Christian participating in these meetings told AFP.
Giant mass at the Vélodrome on Saturday
Francky Domingo, Beninese and president of the collective of Marseille paper seekers, hopes that this visit will “restore a little hope” and “ease the tension at the political level”, in a “cosmopolitan, multicultural, multireligious” city but “faced with enormous difficulties, drug trafficking which causes loss of human life every day, the housing problem”.
Placed under high security, this visit will end on Saturday with a giant mass, in front of 57,000 people at the Vélodrome stadium, the den of Marseille football, after a ride back in a “papamobile” from Avenue du Prado, so that the crowd can greet him. The Pope must also meet with Emmanuel Macron, whom he has already received three times at the Vatican.
Throughout his visit, he will have at his side the Archbishop of Marseille, Jean-Marc Aveline, the main architect of this visit, whom he had created cardinal in 2022.
This is 44e trip abroad by the pope, who now uses a wheelchair and admitted in early September that traveling was “no longer as easy as at the beginning.”