VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis' trip to the French port city of Marseille Sept. 22-23 is another stop on a decade-long Mediterranean pilgrimage, which began with his maiden voyage as Pope to the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013 followed by a dozen other port cities and coastal countries.
For a Pope who prefers going to the peripheries, this sea is one of them. He has called it the "biggest cemetery in Europe" as it has become a final and forgotten resting place for thousands of migrants who have died crossing its waters.
"There is a problem that worries me, which is the problem of the Mediterranean," he told reporters Aug. 7 on his return flight from Lisbon, Portugal. "The exploitation of migrants is criminal" as is their detention in "the lagers of North Africa."
"I am going to Marseille for this," he said, highlighting a week-long gathering there. "The bishops of the Mediterranean are meeting, with some politicians, too, in order to reflect seriously on this tragedy facing migrants."
Pope Francis will address the meeting's final session Sept. 23.
This year's "Mediterranean Meetings," which began in Bari, Italy, in 2020, will bring together about 70 bishops and 60 young people of all faiths from 30 countries surrounding the Mediterranean to dialogue together, Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline of Marseille told reporters Sept. 13.
They will discuss social-economic issues, ecology, immigration and civil or political conflicts affecting them directly and the region at large, he said during a press briefing in Rome.
The Catholic Church has a role in bringing all sides together to focus on concrete ways to promote the common good, to see and respect the dignity of all human beings and to recognize everyone is part of one human family, he said. Many of the young people sitting down together will be coming from countries historically at odds with each other: like Israel and Palestine, Greece and Turkey, Algeria and Morocco, he added.
The meetings' theme, Mosaic of Hope, is very much in line with Pope Francis' emphasis on encounter and the beauty of diversity pieced harmoniously together. And it is expected the Pope will continue his message of plurality as an opportunity, not a threat, specifically for the countries and communities dotting the Mediterranean, which has been the byway of great civilizations who co-mingled and clashed for millennia.
"Three continents meet in the Mediterranean. These shores are the birthplace of the three great monotheistic religions, and throughout history have witnessed numerous exchanges, as well as serious and recurring conflicts," Cardinal Aveline said in an interview with the Jesuit journal, La Civiltà Cattolica, Aug. 31.
The cardinal himself is a mosaic of the Mediterranean; born in Algeria when it was a French colony, he grew up and was ordained in Marseille, worked extensively in formation, vocations, higher education and interreligious dialogue, founded an institute for the study of the theology of religions and led the Catholic Institute of the Mediterranean.
In fact, as a theologian, Cardinal Aveline has long been involved with pursuing what Pope Francis has called "a theology of the Mediterranean."
The cardinal said it is "a Christian theology developed from the shores of the Mediterranean and adapted to its context" that tackles the same questions in the 2019 Document on Human Fraternity: "How can we care for one another within the one human family? How can we nurture a tolerant and peaceful coexistence … ensure that our communities welcome others" and help religions be "paths of brotherhood instead of walls of separation?"
All these themes are expected to be touched upon by Pope Francis during his two-day trip, which will feature just four main events and be a kind of prelude to the Church's celebration of World Day of Migrants and Refugees Sept. 24.
Arriving in the late afternoon, the Pope will head to the city's historic Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde – a 19th-century landmark set atop the foundations of an ancient fort on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The monumental gilded copper statue of Our Lady holding baby Jesus perched atop the bell tower is affectionately called the "Bonne Mère" ("Good Mother") and is traditionally seen as a protectoress of the city.
The Pope will greet clergy in the basilica after a Marian prayer service there and then will meet with religious leaders from the city. There will be a moment to pray at a monument dedicated to all those lost at sea.
The next day, he will meet privately at the archbishop's residence with about 30 people experiencing economic insecurity and then he will give a major address at the closing session of the "Mediterranean Meetings" at Pharo Palace, a 19th-century complex built by Napoleon III, the first president and last emperor of the French. He will later sit down with French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of that meeting.
The Pope's day will end with an afternoon Mass celebrated at the city's Vélodrome Stadium, which holds 60,000 people, and then he returns to Rome.
Cardinal Aveline told La Civilità Cattolica that the region has a deep heritage and "happy memory of Mediterranean conviviality, the memory of peaceful and fruitful coexistence."
"Many would like to erase this happy memory and replace it with fear, to better impose their domination and ideology," he said. "But we bear witness to the fact that, while the threats are real, good is also at work, through a mosaic of people and action."