Pope Benedict XVI condemned unbridled “pagan” passion for power, possessions and money as a modern-day plague Saturday as he led more than a quarter of a million Catholics in an outdoor Mass in Paris.
Benedict was making his first visit as pontiff to the French capital, renowned for its luxury goods, fashion sense and cultural riches.
“Has not our modern world created its own idols?” Benedict said in his homily, and wondered aloud whether people have “imitated, perhaps inadvertently, the pagans of antiquity?”
“This is a question that all people, if they are honest with themselves, cannot help but ask,” the pontiff said.
The 260,000 or so people who gathered on the lawns of the Esplanade des Invalides displayed a joyful outpouring of faith for this traditionally Roman Catholic country, which has witnessed a sharp decline in churchgoing in recent years.
Continuing John Paul's campaign
Benedict has continued with a campaign started by his predecessor, John Paul II, who worried that the affluent West was turning consumerism into a kind of religion and ignoring its Christian roots of spiritual values.
Paraphrasing from the New Testament, Benedict decried “insatiable greed” and said “the love of money is the root of all evil.”
“Have not money, the thirst for possessions, for power and even knowledge, diverted man from his true destiny?” the pope asked.
Benedict blasted modern society’s thirst for these new “pagan” idols as a “scandal, a real plague.”
The pope urged the faithful to “shun the worship of idols. Do not tire of doing good!”’
Faithful welcome words
Listeners welcomed his words.
“It was a vivid call to order about what is essential in life,” said Herve Tarcier, a 49-year-old engineer who volunteered at the Mass. “This was exactly the message our society needs.”
Jacqueline Dudek, a 76-year-old great-grandmother from Paris, said she was glad much of France’s political elite was there to hear the anti-materialism homily.
“They have plenty of things to learn,” she said.
The late-morning Mass ended peacefully, with followers pressing for a chance to touch the pontiff’s robes or clutch his hand as he left the field. Security officers surrounded the pope, and about a dozen sharpshooters watched over the crowd from the roof of a stately 19th century building overlooking the Esplanade.
It was Benedict’s only public appearance Saturday before he flies to Lourdes on a pilgrimage to the shrine there, which draws millions of pilgrims each year, many of them hoping for miracle cures of physical or psychic ills.
Tens of thousands of faithful, many of them young people, had camped overnight on the Parisian field after hearing greetings from the pope Friday night as he left a prayer service in Notre Dame.
On Friday, Benedict told young people they shouldn’t fear spreading their faith in a society where secularism is entrenched and Islam is growing.
While most French are Catholic at least by tradition — if not in practice — the old yarn is that most go to church three times in their life: at their baptism, wedding and funeral.
France also has a fervent belief that faith and the state should be kept strictly separate.
Benedict and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who held talks on Friday, spoke publicly of the contribution religion can make to forging an ethical society.
“They say that Catholics in France are fewer and fewer, and less devoted. But you can see here that is not true,” said Robert Pavilla, a 58-year-old school groundskeeper, gesturing toward the throngs of people Saturday on the Paris esplanade.
Later in the day, France’s rail authority said a train carrying 350 pilgrims to see the pope at Lourdes hit a truck at a railroad crossing near Toulouse, lightly injuring the truck driver. No other injuries were reported.