Toward the Marseille ‘Mediterranean Meeting’

By Antonio Spadaro, SJ


With Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline, we breathe deeply the air of “Mare Nostrum,” the Mediterranean Sea, where the scents of North and South, East and West, mingle. When he was in charge of education in his diocese of Marseille, theology was for him an instrument of dialogue with the diverse human and religious experiences of which the “Phocaean city” is a cosmopolitan exemplar.

Originally from Sidi-Bel-Abbès, in Algeria, on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, which was French at the time, he became a priest and theologian in Marseille and founded an Institute for Study of Theology of Religions, part of the “Institut Catholique de la Méditerranée,” before being appointed archbishop in 2019 and cardinal in 2022. Through his ministry and thought, he embodies the “Theology of the Mediterranean,” outlined by Pope Francis. With the profound simplicity of a pastor and the warmth of a son of the South, he answers some questions.

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You invited Pope Francis to Marseille on September 23 to conclude the “Mediterranean Encounters” program (September 18-24, 2023). This is their third gathering. What is it all about?

It is a process of communion among the bishops of dioceses bordering the Mediterranean. This process, initiated by the Italian Bishops’ Conference, enabled some 40 bishops to meet in Bari in February 2020 and then again in Florence in February 2022. But more broadly, this process is in keeping with the spirit of Pope Francis’ Mediterranean journeys, which have taken him from Lampedusa (2013) to Marseille (2023), and have included Tirana, Sarajevo, Lesbos, Cairo, Jerusalem, Cyprus, Rabat, Naples and Malta. The pope is committed to making this sea embody a message of hope for all. In Bari, he said something we must continue to reflect on: “The Mediterranean has a particular vocation in this sense: it is the sea of mestizaje, ‘culturally always open to encounter, dialogue and reciprocal inculturation’.”

The meetings that have already taken place and the one to be held in Marseille all share the same goal: to enable Mediterranean bishops to come together, to move forward together, meditating on God’s word, listening to one another talk about the challenges their Churches face, but also about the resources they can draw on, in an effort to discern what the Spirit is calling them to do in service to the peoples entrusted to their ministry.


What will be the special features of the Marseille Encounter?

First, while in Florence the mayors of some 60 Mediterranean cities were invited in tribute to Giorgio La Pira, in Marseille we have chosen to invite students and young professionals from all over the Mediterranean, of all nationalities and religions, who agreed to work together as a group and with their bishops. We will welcome young Israelis and Palestinians, young Greeks and Turks, young Algerians and Moroccans, and so on. There will also be some young migrants who will participate. These 70 or so young people will stay in Marseille for a week, from Sunday, September 17 to Sunday, September 24, and experience an apt educational program. From Wednesday evening they will welcome the bishops — about 70 — who come from almost all the Mediterranean countries.



So young people and bishops will come from all parts of the Mediterranean?

Yes, this is another special feature. They will come from the five shores of the Mediterranean: North Africa, the Near East, the Aegean and the Black Seas, the Balkan Peninsula and Southern Europe. We will adopt a synodal method: meditating on God’s word, listening to each other, discerning together and developing lines of action, particularly by gathering the reflections of the students and young professionals present with us. By sharing our best practices, we will also seek to equip ourselves for a process of reflection and action for the years to come.

Finally, the third original feature of the Rencontres Méditerranéennes de Marseille is that it will be accompanied by a festival to bring the event to a wider audience, with a wide range of concerts, theatrical performances, interreligious meetings, debates, prayer vigils, including a Shabbat open to all in Marseille’s main synagogue, as well as a large solidarity banquet in the cathedral for people in precarious situations and migrants.


How will the pope’s presence fit in?

On September 23, Pope Francis will conclude the Assembly of Bishops and Youth Meeting with a working session at the Palais du Pharo. Before that, he will travel to the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde Basilica to entrust the entire process to Our Lady’s intercession. He will also participate in a moment of meditation in front of a monument dedicated to sailors and migrants lost at sea, in the presence of representatives of other denominations and religions. On Saturday afternoon, he will celebrate a Mass open to all at the Orange Vélodrome stadium. On the Sunday, “World Migrants and Refugees Day,” Cardinal Czerny, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, will preside at the closing Mass in the cathedral.


You said you are proceeding synodically. In what sense?

I really want God’s people to be involved in this event. First, through prayer. On September 8, I will launch a prayer novena that will end just before the opening of the Assemblies. This novena, supported by the Hozana app among others, will enable many people to participate in the event through prayer. We will try to let the Holy Spirit into our hearts so that they will be at the service of what God wants to give to his Church and the world through what we will be able to experience during this week.

Then, for Thursday evening, we have organized about 20 meetings between the parishes of the diocese and the Mediterranean participants, young people and bishops, so that everyone can feel directly involved in what the people and the Churches of the Mediterranean are experiencing, sometimes in very painfully. Synodality is learned above all through encounters, not ideas!

Finally, the celebration of a Mass with Pope Francis at the Orange Vélodrome stadium will undoubtedly be a great moment of meditation and joy, of communion and peace. Nearly two thousand volunteers are already at work to ensure that everything takes place as smoothly as possible.


Does your method deal with local problems and challenges that nevertheless have universal impact, as in the case of the Amazon?

Yes. Three Continents meet in the Mediterranean. These shores are the birthplace of the three great monotheistic religions, and throughout history they have witnessed many exchanges, but also serious and recurrent conflicts. Today, Mediterranean countries are facing socio-political-religious problems whose shadow extends far beyond the geographical area of the Mediterranean. I am thinking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sunni-Shiite clashes, tensions between Armenia and Turkey, Morocco and Algeria. How can we fail to mention the dramatic situation of migrants, the economic and social difficulties faced by the populations of many of the countries bordering the Mediterranean, the threats posed to the entire area by the current climate change, with all the environmental problems that this brings with it, especially access to water, and the weakening of relations between believers of different religions?

All of these situations are experienced in the Mediterranean, but they affect all of humanity.


What are the common concerns of the countries around the Mediterranean to which Christians can contribute, as salt of the earth, in the service of a community that stands in solidarity with the most vulnerable?

The concerns are the ones we just talked about, although perhaps more will be added during the week. As for the contribution of Christians, it seems to me that it should be above all one of hope. While we are aware of the painful moments, of the wounds suffered by peoples and religions that have marked both the history and the present of the Mediterranean area, we do not want them to be the only prism through which to read the past and face the future. The Mediterranean, in many ways, is still today a place of exchange, dialogue and encounter. This area, in fact, is imbued with an immense anthropological and philosophical heritage, with a wisdom and understanding of the human being derived from the great civilizations and spiritual traditions that were born and developed on its shores. There is a 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 ideologies But we are witnesses that while threats are real, good is also at work, through a mosaic of people and actions.


What can Christians contribute in the face of fear?

In the face of the temptation to be fearful, the contribution of Christians consists above all in witnessing to the hope they receive from their faith in Jesus Christ: a hope that is not naive but practical and attentive; a hope that is not evasive but present and often resisting those seeking to destroy it; a hope that is not utopian, for it carries with it faith and charity. According to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, hope is like a sea anchor (cf. Heb 6:19) that faith in Christ’s resurrection invites us to cast into the future, so that, firmly attached to it in these last days, we may bear witness to God’s love for the world and embrace the boldness and freedom that come from this love. Hope is what I build today by projecting myself into a better future. Hope, theologically, is something else. It is learning to look at my present and adjust my actions to correct what needs to be corrected. This, then, is the mission of the Christian: to go into the world “as if seeing the unseen” (Heb 11:27) and to draw along, through prayer and the witness of our hope, all those whom the Lord has given as companions on the journey.


You met with the successor of Peter to prepare for the next stage of his long Mediterranean pilgrimage. How did the exchange between the Bishop of Rome and the Bishop of Marseille go?

During my conversations with Pope Francis, I was able to explain to him the originality of Marseille, its riches and its poverty, and discuss with him the pastoral challenges we are facing and the way in which we are humbly trying to move forward. He realized that Marseille is located in one of the peripheries so dear to him, between Europe and the Mediterranean, gateway to the East and gateway to the West, marked by great poverty and great hope. For his part, the former president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Bassetti, who initiated the meetings in Bari and Florence, told me that he wanted the process to continue outside Italy. So together with his successor, Cardinal Zuppi, we thought of hosting these meetings in Marseille, and the pope assured me of his support and availability.

But the pope does not come to Marseille to be looked at: he comes so that, with him, we can look at the Mediterranean, its challenges, its resources and the mission incumbent on Christ’s disciples in this part of the world.


In Naples (June 2019) and Bari (February 2020), Pope Francis proposed a “Theology of the Mediterranean.” How does Marseille fit into this context?

In the Naples address to which you refer, the pope posed the questions that must confront a Christian theology developed on the shores of the Mediterranean and adapted to its context: “How can we care for one another within the one human family? How do we cultivate a tolerant and peaceful coexistence that results in authentic fraternity? How can we make it a priority in our communities to welcome others and those who are different from us because they belong to a religious and cultural tradition different from our own? How can religions be avenues of fraternity instead of walls of separation?” These questions, which are also the basis of the document on human fraternity that the pope signed together with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, also concern Christians in a city like Marseille. All the work of the Institut de sciences et théologie des religions, which I founded in 1992 at the request of Cardinal Coffy, is guided by these questions.[1]


This theology “in the Mediterranean context” is above all a theology of welcoming, listening and mercy. Far from abstract reflection, does it give space to popular piety?

In a letter to the Rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, Pope Francis, drawing inspiration from the parable of the Good Samaritan, explained that “good theologians, like good shepherds, smell of the people and the street and, by their reflection, pour oil and wine on the wounded.” This observation is especially true for those who minister as theologians on the shores of the Mediterranean. The sea is common to all of us, but the situations are often very different. This sea of crossroads is also a sea of great violence, all the more dangerous as identity divisions become more deadly. This is why theological work in the Mediterranean is also work forged in compassion, that is, work that is not done “in the office,” but in real life, in close engagement with the oppressed, the new slaves of our time, the many victims of social injustice. Good Christian theology, as the pope often reminds us, must be done “on one’s knees,” not only praying but also washing feet. God’s people instinctively know this. I have often noticed that young people today have realized, as if by instinct, that it is by passing through the door of service to the poor that they have the best chance of finding the path of their lives and perhaps the path to follow Christ. This is the intuition and faith of the people, expressed in popular piety.

In Marseille, a venerable and ancient tradition makes those whom the Gospel indicates as Jesus’ “friends” – St. Lazarus and St. Mary Magdalene – the founders of the first Christian community in our city. Even today, every morning of February 2, for the feast of Candlemas, we dramatize the arrival of the Gospel in Marseille by sea. People know that this tradition obliges us to remember that not only do we always receive the Gospel from others, from elsewhere, but also that, especially in Marseille, we must witness that friendship, the friendship Jesus shared with his hosts and other guests in Bethany, is the best vehicle for proclaiming the Gospel, because it opens the door to dialogue and compassion.


In August 2012, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio titled one of his speeches “Jesus is in the City.” Is his desire to involve the people of Marseille in these meetings also a way of witnessing that “God is alive in the city, intimately involved with everyone and everything,” as he wrote at the time?

This conviction was shared by men and women with prophetic insights, such as Madeleine Delbrêl, of course, but also Jacques Loew, a confrere from Marseille whom she used to visit at La Cabucelle. Even Karol Wojtyła, when he was a student in Rome, wanted to meet him because of his contribution to the renewal of the mission of the Church in France. But I would especially like to remember Jean Arnaud, whom I met when he was pastor at Belle-de-Mai and who had a great impact on me.[2] According to this priest from Marseille, every pastor is called to be a “neighborhood theologian,” a “witness at the crossroads,” in the streets and squares, as long as he is willing to position his pastoral experience in the long theological and spiritual tradition of the Church. Jean Arnaud helped many priests to reread their ministry in the light of the Church Fathers. Fundamentally, pastoral ministry is everything that has no other purpose than to work in the Lord’s vineyard, according to the ecclesial mission we have received, and in the small space in which it is called to take place, in communion with all other workers, even those “who are not of the same fold,” or those of the “last hour,” because “the Spirit is manifested in a particular way in the Church and its members; nevertheless, his presence and action are universal, without limits either of space or time,” wrote St. John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio (no. 28).

Our mission as Christians, not only in the heartland but everywhere, is to cooperate with this Holy Spirit, rather than exhaust ourselves trying to breathe in his stead, as we are too often tempted to do. That is why, as part of the Mediterranean Encounters, we wanted to bring together people from other Christian denominations and other religions, as well as those in the economic and cultural worlds, all those who are committed, each in his or her own way, to the service of fraternity and peace in Marseille and the Mediterranean. The Church is the initiator of this event, but it cannot plan and effect its mission in isolation.


At the heart of this dialogue initiated by the Church, is there the conviction that the Spirit is already at work in all Mediterranean countries?

Around the Mediterranean and elsewhere every woman and every man is a sister, a brother, for whom Christ died and in whom the Spirit of that same Christ is at work. I quote again from Redemptoris Missio: “The presence and activity of the Spirit touch not only individuals, but society and history, peoples, cultures, religions.” That is why the Church must learn to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. He is primarily responsible for the mission. This in no way diminishes the missionary mandate Christ gives us; the Holy Spirit needs a Church of witnesses. Having had to provide theological support for the Church’s engagement in interreligious dialogue, I have come to appreciate the importance of this Church of witnesses. For if dialogue, misunderstood, were just a smokescreen for rejecting the proclamation of the Gospel under the pretext of relativizing all religions, we should distance ourselves from it. But if evangelization, misunderstood, became the banner of a will to conquer, to impose “Christian values” while neglecting the presence and action of the Spirit, we should equally distance ourselves from it! Evangelization is not a marketing method! It is an encounter in the truth, in the depth of life. To evangelize is to entrust the Gospel to someone, as one entrusts a treasure, as one entrusts one’s heart. It is not done with slogans, but through the long learning of friendship.


…and that the Church is at the service of the love with which God loves the world?

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” we read in John’s Gospel. For me this is decisive, because it indicates that the mission of the Church is to be at the service of the love with which God loves the world. The evangelist does not say “God so loved the Church,” but “the world.” This calls the Church to a ceaseless work of decentralization, which is the place of its conversion. For if the Church is at the service of the relationship between God and the world, this means that its center of gravity is not in itself, or even in the privileged relationship it may have with God. Its center of gravity is in God’s relationship with the world, and that puts her off-center. That is why it is, as the Council says, “the universal sacrament of salvation,” a salvation that goes beyond – it is the sign – but that also requires – it is the means, according to the definition of sacrament: both sign and means of God’s grace.

Moreover, whenever the Church in its history has been too self-centered, too concerned with its own survival, too concerned with the persistence of its structures, it has exhausted itself and failed in its mission. When I see priests or laity chasing models of “what works well,” looking at the growth curves of attendance at their Sunday Masses as King David had looked with pride at the glory of the statistics of a census, when I see religious communities making their apparent numerical success the criterion of a supposed evangelical fidelity, I advise them not to forget this work of decentralization, which is essential for the health of the Church and its ongoing work of conversion. An embraced poverty is far more fruitful than a proud prosperity! This is the unsurpassed message of the Paschal Mystery.


I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it to be kindled! (John 12:49): “Dear brother cardinals, in the light and strength of this fire walks the holy and faithful people, from whom we have been drawn, from that people of God, and to whom we have been sent as ministers of Christ the Lord. What does this dual fire of Jesus, the blazing fire and the mild fire, say to me and to you?” How do you live this question of life posed by Pope Francis in the consistory of August 27, 2022?

This homily touched me deeply, not only because it was delivered at an important time in my life, but also because in many ways it was similar to the way in which the Lord, slowly and without ever growing weary of my weaknesses and sins, clothed my heart for this great day of my life. The pope makes a distinction between the powerful fire, the bright flame that comes from God like a violent gust of wind, purifying, regenerating and transfiguring everything, and the weak fire issuing from embers that Jesus himself prepares, like the end of a bonfire, to create for his disciples the familiar and intimate environment of a friendly relationship. In my own life I have often experienced that we need these two fires in order to live in the atmosphere of the Gospel and pass it on to others: the fireworks, which draw the eye, like a visible and beautiful “first announcement,” which exposes itself and invites, “Come and see” (John 1:39); and the roaring fire, which warms hearts, accompanies long silences, gathers confidences and consolidates friendship, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Luke 18:41). What must be rejected, because it disturbs the Church, is the straw fire, the fire of seduction, which never produces what it seems to promise and therefore is nothing but pride and deception, the source of so many abuses!

I also noticed, reading John’s Gospel, that the word anthrakia, with which the evangelist designates the fire on coals that Jesus lights by the lake (cf. John 21:9), is also used to designate the fire with which Peter was warmed when, three times, he denied Christ (cf. John 18:18). As if Christ was uniting the sinner and forgiveness in the same gaze of love. As if to say that there can be no ardent apostolic zeal without the remembrance of the warm sweetness of God’s forgiveness. Or, in the words of St. John of the Cross, there is no “living flame” that is not “of love”!

Thanks to La Civiltà Cattolica.


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