PARIS (Reuters) - Pope Benedict began a four-day visit to France on Friday with a plea to the French to keep God in their lives and let religion help create a better world.
Meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace in central Paris, the German-born pontiff praised France both for the deep Christian roots of its culture and the “serene and positive dialogue” between faith and power.
Sarkozy, who has broken a political taboo by speaking openly and positively about the role of religion in society, said it would be “a folly” for France to ignore its long history of Christian thought about God, man and nature.
Church bells rang out across Paris to greet the pope as he arrived at the Palace after his arrival from Rome for his first trip to France as pontiff.
“It is fundamental, on the one hand, to insist on the distinction between the political realm and that of religion,” Benedict said in fluent French.
It was also necessary, he added, “to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences (and) the creation of a basic ethical consensus within society”.
Roman Catholic France maintains a strict separation of church and state that has long limited faith to the private sphere. The French Church struggles with a shortage of priests and Sunday Mass attendance is below 10 percent.
But religion has re-emerged as a factor in public life in recent years, especially because of the growth of Islam, and French Catholics have increasingly spoken out on social issues.
Benedict was due to expand on his message later on Friday in a major speech on faith and culture to a select audience of 700 intellectuals and artists at a Catholic cultural centre just opened in a freshly renovated medieval college on the Left Bank.
The speech comes two years to the day after his lecture in Regensburg, Germany, which triggered riots in Muslim countries because he seemed to say Islam was violent and irrational.
The twice-divorced Sarkozy, who considers himself a “cultural Catholic” but does not attend Mass regularly, broke with protocol to greet Benedict at Orly airport.
His wife Carla Bruni, the Italian-born singer and former supermodel, was also present at the airport and the palace. She wore a simple but elegant grey skirt-suit.
Benedict reminded his audience that France had a bishop as early as the second century after Christ, and of the “thousands of chapels, churches, abbeys and cathedrals that grace the heart of your towns or the tranquility of your countryside”.
Benedict said the Church can guide youths to responsible lives and help the poor, and said he was very worried about the state of the planet.
“It seems to me that the time has come for more constructive proposals so as to guarantee the good of future generations,” Benedict said of the environment.
Noting France’s current presidency of the European Union, he said the EU prized human rights, and that Europeans would support it actively if they see those rights — including the right to life “from conception to natural death” — respected.
Sarkozy said all religions helped “respond to man’s need for hope ... the search for spirituality is not a danger for democracy, not a danger for secularism”.
Among the officials gathered at the Elysee Palace for the speeches were Catholics, believers of other faiths, agnostics and atheists, he pointed out, adding: “In the secular republic that is France, all welcome you with respect.”
After an open-air Mass in central Paris on Saturday morning, the pope will fly to the popular Catholic pilgrimage site of Lourdes in southwest France to mark the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary there.