After his blockbuster trips to the United States and Cuba, there’s a strong case to be made that Pope Francis’ next visit should be closer to home: to France, known as the “eldest daughter of the church,” because of its religious union with Rome since early Christianity.
Yet the pope has yet to make a state visit here, and relations between France and the Vatican these days are tense.
In January 2014, President François Hollande met Francis in the Vatican and told him he would be welcomed in France. Ten months later the pope set foot on French soil, but not to minister to France’s Roman Catholics or to visit the Élysée Palace; it was a four-hour stop in Strasbourg to address the European Parliament. The European Continent, he declared, was a “grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant,” in danger of losing her soul.
The Vatican was particularly displeased by France’s same-sex marriage law, passed in 2013, which alienated a huge conservative section of France’s Catholic population.
There is much that Pope Francis could say and do here. France is still largely Catholic, but church attendance has been pitifully low for decades, and many of France’s churches have closed for lack of priests.
France’s unofficial religion is “laïcité,” the Republican ideal that since 1905 has decreed the separation of church and state. In 2004, the country banned prominent religious symbols from public schools. The move was aimed at preventing Muslim girls from wearing head scarves, but items like large Christian crosses were also prohibited.
Since then, there have been regular reminders that religion is officially taboo in public. Last spring, for example, the Paris metro system ordered the removal of an advertisement for a concert by musician-priests to raise money for “Christians of the East” facing persecution in Iraq and Syria. After three days of outrage, the Metro authorities backed down, but a lot of ill will was left behind.
Francis, who has made outreach to nonbelievers a priority, could also bring a welcome message of reconciliation to the nation’s sizable Muslim and Jewish populations. He condemned last January’s deadly attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and the “deviant forms of religion” he said were behind it. But he added, “You cannot insult the faith of others.”
In addition, France plays a key role in the developing world, where two-thirds of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live. “France is a platform to talk about issues that are important for the pope: the refugee crisis in Europe, the developing world, the need to reject religious extremism, the persecution of Christians,” said John L. Allen Jr., a senior editor at the online Catholic news site Crux.
Finally, there is a more personal reason Francis should come: to visit a small crypt under a defunct chapel off the Rue des Martyrs in Paris, where I am a member of the volunteer association. Called the Martyrium, the crypt is believed to be the site of the beheading of St. Denis, the patron saint of France, in the third century. Before surrendering to death, the legend goes, Denis carried his head several miles north — to what is now the Saint-Denis Basilica.
There is no evidence that Pope Francis has a special devotion to St. Denis. But he is the first Jesuit pope, and the Martyrium is where Ignatius Loyola and six compatriots took vows of poverty and chastity in 1534 before the creation of the Jesuit order.
Pierre Favre, the priest who was part of the group and celebrated Mass that day, is said to be Francis’ favorite Jesuit. In 2013, the pope broke with protocol and made Favre a saint. A candidate for sainthood is supposed to have performed two miracles. As far as anyone knew, Favre had not. So Francis resorted to “equivalent canonization,” a rarely used procedure for a candidate revered as holy who died long ago.
The pope could make the crypt a place of pilgrimage. Over the centuries, it was damaged and stripped of its statues and art objects. Rebuilt in the late 19th century, the crypt today is stark and dimly lit. Most Paris guidebooks ignore it. Only four Masses a year are scheduled.
After consulting with the crypt’s volunteer association, I wrote the pope a letter, suggesting that he visit. “Perhaps, Your Holiness, you will one day walk on the same route walked by Saint Denis and Saint Ignatius,” I wrote.
A journalist friend in Rome delivered the letter to Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest close to Francis. Father Spadaro delivered it to the Vatican guesthouse where the pope lives. I knew the pope had a habit of calling perfect strangers on their cellphones, so I rigged up a speaker system on the dining room table. I readied a recording device. I wrote a script in Italian.
So far, Francis hasn’t called. But I refuse to give up.
“I look forward to the surprise of every day,” Francis once wrote.
Elaine Sciolino is a former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times and the author of The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs.