16 August 2016, The Tablet

French President visits Pope Francis as Paris-Vatican tension eases

Meeting to end extended period of tension between Paris and Rome after legalisation of same-sex marriage in France

French President François Hollande has visited Pope Francis at the Vatican, ending an extended period of tension between Paris and Rome that began with the legalisation of same-sex marriage in France in 2013 and began to ease with the appointment of a new French ambassador to the Holy See in May.

It was the murder of Fr Jacques Hamel in his church last month that sealed the rapprochement. Hollande promptly contacted the Pope to express his sadness and was touched by the fact the pontiff mentioned the president himself had grown up in Rouen.

Hollande, an atheist, attended a memorial service for Fr Hamel and later told Catholic journalists he was impressed by the way religious leaders were able to address the evil they see and promote unity at such a tense time.

The worst tensions of recent years came over France’s nomination in January 2015 of a gay diplomat as its next Vatican ambassador. The news was leaked in Paris, as if to pressure the Holy See into accepting Laurent Stefanini, and the Vatican did not accept him. The standoff lasted until Paris proposed another candidate in May of this year.

Shortly after arriving in Rome yesterday (17 August), President Hollande went directly to the French national church, St Louis, to visit a chapel set up as a place of prayer for the victims of terrorism, reported the Catholic News Service.

The chapel honours the memory of the 130 people who died during the November attacks in Paris, the 84 who died in Nice on 14 July and Father Jacques Hamel. Father Hamel's killers claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group.

In the private meeting that took place yesterday at the Santa Marta residence at the Vatican, Hollande and the Pope reportedly spent roughly 40 minutes talking. The president also met with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state.

In a statement issued after the meeting, the Vatican provided no details of the discussion. However, it did say that as a gift, Pope Francis gave Hollande a bronze medallion inscribed with the words, "The desert will become a garden," referencing the prophet Isaiah.

While French-Vatican relations looked up, a new opinion poll showed that French Catholics are growing increasingly wary of Muslims and Islam under the influence of continued Islamist terrorist attacks culminating in Fr Hamel’s murder.

The IFOP poll said that 45 per cent of practicing Catholics, a group that long showed more understanding toward Muslims than the overall public, now thought Islam posed a threat to France. That was a significant jump from the 33 percent who said this in an IFOP poll last year, and the same number that now holds that view in the general public.

The survey also showed increasing opposition to the building of mosques (55 per cent of practicing Catholics compared to 40 percent in a 2012 pol) and the possibility of wearing hijabs in state schools (67 per cent against 54 per cent in 2012).

"This stiffening attitude toward Islam is more pronounced among practicing Catholics than the full population," said IFOP. The poll appeared just before the feast of the Assumption, when the annual Marian pilgrimage to Lourdes was held under heavier security than the shrine put on for recent papal visits. About 500 soldiers and police patrolled the sanctuary, where only three of the 12 entry gates were open so all visitors could be checked.

"Nobody can avoid it,” Lourdes Bishop Nicolas Brouwet said. “Even bishops and the ill are searched."

Rouen Archbishop Dominique Lebrun has said he plans to work for Fr Hamel to be recognised by the Vatican as a martyr. "The death of Fr Jacques Hamel is the ultimate witness to his faith in Jesus, which he affirmed to the end," he told AFP.

A cause can only be opened five years after a candidate's death and Lebrun said the archdiocese was already collecting testimonies.

  Loading ...
Get Instant Access
Subscribe to The Tablet for just £7.99

Subscribe today to take advantage of our introductory offers and enjoy 30 days' access for just £7.99