Pope causes some surprise by invoking 16th-century massacre of Protestants

 

The French bishops on the podium at the Longchamps racetrack were beaming. Confounding their own predictions, they had won their gamble. Pope John Paul II the Superstar proved again he can bring out more people than any rock concert. They were three-quarters of a million at the Saturday night vigil and more than a million yesterday for the Papal Mass - twice as many as had been expected.

The Pope surprised some worshippers at the vigil by evoking the 1572 St Bartholomew's Day massacre of more than 4,000 French Protestants by Catholics.

Pastor Jean Tartier, the President of the French Protestant Federation, had sent the Pope a letter on Saturday, noting that the choice of the anniversary of the massacre for the pontifical Mass "aroused . . . some comment and interpretation."

Without using the words "Catholic" and "Protestant", the pontiff said the massacre was "an event of very obscure causes" during which "Christians did things which the Gospel condemns." The difference of religious traditions "must not constitute today a source of opposition and tension", he added.

The Pope was seen off at the airport last night by the French Prime Minister, Mr Lionel Jospin, who is a Protestant. Two days earlier, Mr Jospin's Socialist Party had condemned the Pope's visit to the grave of a controversial anti-abortion campaigner, but the men were exuded cordiality at the airport.

There was only a hint of the left's concern at abuses of French secularism during the Papal visit.

When Mr Jospin noted that Paris had become "for several days a capital for young Catholics from the entire world", the emphasis was on the words "for several days". He nonetheless praised the Pope's devotion to peace and commitment to the poor, saying that "beyond the Catholic community, you are recognised as one of the great witnesses of our time".

The Pope called his four-day visit "unforgettable". The event which most impressed participants was the baptism on Saturday night of 10 adult converts to Catholicism from five continents. As the 10 walked up the steps three times, first to receive the kiss of peace from the Pope, then to be doused with holy water from a baptismal font and finally to be anointed with oil, three-quarters of a million candles were lit by worshippers assembled in the racetrack below.

Church leaders were ecstatic about the turnout. "With emotion and genuine happiness, I can say we have just lived through an event I had not dared expect," Mons Louis-Marie Bille, the president of the French Conference of Bishops said.

"Something new is happening in the church. I need time to understand it," he added.

But despite the big presence at yesterday's Mass, France does not appear to be on the brink of a Catholic revival. In a country of 58 million, the bishops' conference says only six million attend church. In a poll published by the Catholic newspaper, La Croix, during the Papal visit, two-thirds of French people between the ages of 18 to 30 said religion had little or no role in their lives.

Interviews with dozens of pilgrims suggested most had travelled to Paris mainly because the World Youth Days were fun.

Pilgrims from Ireland, the US and Canada accepted the Pope's strict rules about birth control, sex and abortion, whereas those from France, Germany, the South Pacific and Africa took an a la carte approach to Catholicism, typified by Sunita Dogra (17), from Germany. "We want to have our freedom," she said. "We think the Pope does good things, but the distance between us is so great that when we leave here, everything will be as it was before."