By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
On the Catholic calendar, today is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and during a Mass in Lourdes this morning Pope Benedict XVI delivered a powerful meditation on the Christian understanding of suffering.
The pope also continued his reflection on Mary, marking the 150th anniversary of what believers regard as the 18 appearances of Mary to St. Bernadette Soubirous in the grotto of Lourdes in 1858.
Benedict expressed hope that this Jubilee year at Lourdes will offer “new vigor” and “a breath of new life” to the church, a message with special relevance in France – where Catholicism suffers from low Mass attendance rates, a deepening priest shortage, and the impact of an ultra-secular ethos.
Speaking to a crowd estimated at over 100,000, Benedict noted that Bernadette had said “the Lady” whom she saw began her appearances with the sign of the Cross. The pope called this simple gesture, repeated daily by Catholics all over the world, “a kind of synthesis of our faith.”
“The power of love is stronger than the evil which threatens us,” he said. “It is this mystery of the universality of God’s love for men that Mary came to reveal here, in Lourdes.”
Benedict said that Jesus on the Cross took upon himself the suffering of all human beings, across time and space.
“He bore the humiliation and the discrimination, the torture suffered in many parts of the world by so many of our brothers and sisters for the love of Christ,” the pope said. He called for compassion and solidarity for “the sick, the poor and all who suffer.”
The universal saving message of the Cross, Benedict said, should impel the church to renew its “missionary spirit.”
With regard to Mary, the pope argued that the Mother of God offers a model for authentic human living. By offering herself completely to God, he said, she discovered her true freedom and her true dignity.
“To give oneself fully to God is to find the path of true freedom,” the pope said. “For by turning towards God, man becomes himself. He rediscovers his original vocation as a person created in his image and likeness.”
This is a classic theme of Benedict XVI, which is worked out at length in Pope John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, to which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a principal contributor. The core idea is that real freedom does not mean the absence of restraint, the freedom to do anything one chooses; real freedom instead means the freedom to become the kind of woman or man God wishes one to be.
Benedict said that the Virgin Mary “invites us to live like her in invincible hope, refusing to believe those who claim that we are trapped in the fatal power of destiny.” He recommended praying the rosary, a classic form of Marian devotion.
Finally, the pope addressed himself specifically to young people, calling them to take seriously the vocation either to marriage, or to the priesthood and religious life.
“Do not be afraid to say yes to the Lord’s summons when he invites you to walk in his footsteps,” Benedict said.
Pilgrims began streaming through Lourdes well before dawn this morning, moving to the Mass site on a large field near the Gave river. Reflecting Lourdes’ character as a global pilgrimage destination, readings and prayers during the Mass were offered in a variety of languages: Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, English, Tamil, Arabic, and Moré (a language used principally in Burkina Faso, but also in Benin, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Mali and Tongo.)
Prior to the Mass, a group of chaplains at Lourdes led the assembly through a “virtual Jubilee,” offering reflections in five different languages on the four stops on the Lourdes Jubilee itinerary: the baptismal font in Bernadette’s local parish church; the small stone dwelling, a former prison, in which she and her family lived; the grotto where Mary appeared to her; and the chapel where she received her first communion.
Later this afternoon, Benedict is scheduled to deliver what amounts to the major programmatic speech on the trip in a session with all the French bishops. This evening, he will also offer a prayerful meditation at the conclusion of a Eucharistic procession in Lourdes.
John Allen is filing stories throughout the pope's visit to France and Lourdes. Read all the stories in his daily news column: John L Allen Jr Daily Column. Stories he has already filed include:
• No reference to Muslims, but pope makes a call to resist 'disaster for humanity'
• Benedict makes a case for 'healthy secularism'
• Pope in France: Averting a secular Iron Curtain
• Pope in France: Latin Mass an 'act of tolerance'
• Extracts from Sarkozy on church/state relations in France
• Cardinal Tauran on the pope's trip to France
• The Marian Papacy of Benedict XVI
• Benedict hopes to tap the 'creative minority' of French Catholics
(Editor's Note: Some stories are double posted, on NCRonline.org and on NCRcafe.org.)