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Ahead of Pope’s visit, Marseille blends identity and otherness

As the third edition of the Mediterranean Meetings begins in Marseilles, young people and bishops are working together to produce a final document, which they will present to Pope Francis on Saturday.

By Delphine Allaire – Marseilles

A reflection on how to turn this fragmented and wounded sea into a “mosaic of hope”, a space of peace, reconciliation, and charity.

That’s the contribution Marseilles hopes to offer the Mediterranean process underway in the Church, at a time when migration is hitting the headlines, from Briançon to Lampedusa.

For this set of meetings, young people will join bishops from Palermo, Tunis, Aleppo, Athens, Cyprus, Odessa, Tangiers and Algiers, among others, to demonstrate the Mediterranean face of the Church.

The 70 students and young professionals, aged between 25 and 35, are hosted by families in Marseilles. They come from 25 countries bordering the Mediterranean, including France, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Italy, Spain, Syria, Lebanon, Algeria and Ukraine. 

Incidentally, Eastern Europe, which encompasses the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, is sometimes forgotten in the vast Mediterranean ensemble. However, as Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline, host of the 3rd Mediteranean Meetings, often recalls, “a drop that comes from the Dnieper will one day end up in Gibraltar.”

The first edition was of these meetings was inaugurated by Pope Francis in Bari in February 2020, and the next event was held in Florence in February 2022, though the Pope did not attend.

Pope’s roadmap for Mediterranean

“The Pope is not coming to Marseilles to be observed, but rather so that, together with him, we might look at the Mediterranean, its challenges, its resources, its potential.”

That’s according to Cardinal Aveline, the Archbishop of Marseille, who invited youth at the opening Mass on Sunday evening, “to take the measure of the complexity of the contexts.”

This is a major challenge for France, which has a responsibility in the Mediterranean, according to the Cardinal, as he underlines the significant role played by France in Mediterranean history, “sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.”

Marseille, with its multicultural population of some 100 nationalities and the largest number of French consulates, has a role to play as a “message city”.

“Beyond different religious convictions,” he said, “Marseille’s message is that every identity always contains an element of otherness. Marseille knows this more than any other.”

“Identities that never want to see otherness become murderous identities,” added Cardinal Aveline, quoting the Franco-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, author of the remarkable 1998 essay “Les Identités meurtrières“.

Reflecting and bearing witness to one’s story

Divided into one French-speaking team and nine English-speaking teams, the 70 young people are exploring their identity and otherness over three days of meetings.

Sharing their personal stories, as well as that of Marseille and the Mediterranean, the aim is for them to learn about three subjects: their own history, dialogue in all dimensions of community life, and ecological and migratory issues, “to listen to the cry of distress raised by the earth”.

Starting on Thursday, 21 September, the 70 young people will work in pairs with the bishops on a final document, which will be presented to the Pope on Saturday morning, in front of an audience of officials at the Pharo Palace – the French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as ecclesiastical, political, diplomatic, economic and civil authorities.

In a spirit of “openness to surprise”, these mixed teams of young people and bishops are discussing a range of issues – ecological, economic, conflict-related, religious freedom and freedom of conscience.

Faces on different shores

Priscille Riondel, a 26-year-old from Marseilles who hopes to study in Italy, has high hopes of forging links and friendships this week.

She is looking forward “to be able to put faces to other shores of the Mediterranean and dialogue with these young people we would never have met in any other setting. I’ll be able to discover more about my faith and my history thanks to this. The density of the program will quickly weld us together like a family,” she hopes, expressing her eagerness to carry out projects with her new acquaintances.

The young woman, who is also the French representative of the Youth Council for the Mediterranean, founded this summer by the Italian episcopate, explained that she became interested in migration after her meeting with a 16-year-old migrant in Marseille this year. This foundational experience, which touched her heart, led her to believe “that the Lord is waiting for her there”.

Mediterranean communion

A first illustration of Mediterranean otherness was witnessed in the torchlight procession to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde on Saturday evening, in which young people from Marseilles’ northern suburbs took part.

The next day, the opening Mass of the youth session was held a packed Carthusian monastery church, one of the city’s oldest, built under Louis XIV.

Marian hymns and the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic, prayers of the faithful in Italian, psalms in Hebrew and English resounded before the Apotheosis of Saint Mary Magdalen by Marseille Baroque painter Michel Serre (1658 -1733).

The Archbishop of Marseille expressed his conviction that the event can help heal the wounds of conflict. “This happy memory of a possible conviviality can heal memories wounded by today’s conflicts.”

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