Tens of thousands of faithful were drawn on Saturday to a soccer stadium in the south of France, not for a match, but for a Mass presided over by Pope Francis, who was on the second day of a whirlwind trip to the port city of Marseille.
As he was driven to the stadium, Marseille’s famed Vélodrome, Francis waved from the popemobile to the crowds thronging a sunny avenue. French church authorities estimated the crowds in the stadium at 57,000 people. And when he arrived onstage, he greeted those in attendance: “Bonjour, Marseille! Bonjour, la France!” he said to loud cheers before leading a prayer in French.
“It gives us a great feeling of joy,” Jean-Fernand Leyouka mi Bambiri, 47, a hospital security guard in Marseille, said of the pope’s visit.
At a meeting earlier Saturday, the pope, who focused much of his two-day trip on the plight of migrants looking for better lives in Europe by crossing the Mediterranean, condemned the world’s indifference to the deaths of many of those who try to make that treacherous journey. Over 2,300 migrants trying to cross the sea from North and sub-Saharan Africa to reach Europe have been recorded as dead or missing so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency.
The Mediterranean, Francis said, is being transformed from “the cradle of civilization” into a “graveyard of dignity.”
Mr. Leyouka mi Bambiri, who attended the Mass with his wife and teenage son, said the pope’s urgent speeches on migration, in Marseille and elsewhere, resonated. “Many don’t want to talk about those issues,” he said near the stadium afterward as the crowd spilled out. “But it’s important for us as Christians — you have to help others.”
While the pope’s trip was not an official state visit, Francis did meet with President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday at the Palais du Pharo, a 19th-century palace overlooking Marseille’s old port. There, the two leaders attended the closing session of the Mediterranean Meetings, a weeklong gathering of bishops and other representatives, and then met privately for half an hour — their fourth one-on-one meeting since Mr. Macron was first elected in 2017.
The Rev. Vito Impellizzeri, a professor at the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Sicily, who also attended the gathering, said the pope wanted to shift perceptions of the Mediterranean.
“It should not simply be the tomb and clash of civilizations,” he said, but also “a space of reciprocity and encounters.”
Francis also met on Saturday with members of SOS Méditérannée, an aid group that rescues shipwrecked migrants, who offered him a life vest used to rescue babies.
“The unfathomable death toll in the Mediterranean this year could have been prevented if the political will was there,” Sophie Beau, a founder of the group, said at a news conference this past week.
“Those who risk their lives at sea do not invade, they look for welcome,” Francis said on Saturday, calling migration “a reality of our times” that European governments needed to handle with greater cooperation, more legal routes to entry, and better integration.
“Here, also, the Mediterranean mirrors the world, with the South turning to the North,” he said, adding that many developing countries plagued by instability, conflict and desertification were “looking to those that are well-off, in a globalized world in which we are all connected, but one in which the disparities have never been so wide.”
At the Vélodrome, hundreds of faithful hoisted giant banners representing the pope and Notre-Dame de la Garde, the basilica that overlooks the city. Devotion to the local soccer team is a faith of its own in Marseille, and Mr. Macron, while not from the city, is also a supporter.
“By coming here, it is as though you had gone into the home of each Marseillais,” Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline, the archbishop of Marseille, told the pope at the end of the Mass, as the stadium roared in approval.
Francis has long preferred traveling to the world’s fringes rather than its power centers. Cardinal Aveline said in an interview this past week with the daily Le Parisien that Francis had told him, “If I go to Paris, I will see protocol; in Marseille, I will see the people.” And in Marseille, he met privately early Saturday with people “in a situation of economic hardship” at a charity house, according to the Vatican.
Marseille, a gritty, sprawling city of about 870,000, is France’s second largest. It is plagued by pockets of extreme poverty, strained social services and deadly drug-related violence. But it is also one of France’s oldest and most cosmopolitan cities, a predominantly working-class patchwork of ethnic and religious communities that has been shaped by waves of immigration from Europe and Africa.
Mr. Macron’s office said the president and Francis had a free-ranging discussion, mostly on international issues like the environment, the war in Ukraine and the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
His government has hardened its stance on the issue of migrants as it seeks support from the right on an upcoming immigration bill, and it is expected to unveil legislation on assisted dying this fall — a policy that the Roman Catholic Church rejects. In his speech, Francis criticized “the false pretenses of a supposedly dignified and ‘sweet’ death.’”
The last papal visit to Marseille was in 1533, when Pope Clement VII married his niece Catherine de Medici to the future King Henry II of France.
Roman Catholicism has dwindled significantly in power and influence in France since then, even though it is still the main religion in the country, representing about 29 percent of the population.
Today, half of French adults 18 to 59 say they have no religion at all, according to official statistics, and the concept of laïcité — a nondiscriminatory society where the state upholds strict religious neutrality — is widely approved.
That led some, especially on the left, to criticize Mr. Macron’s decision to attend the Mass in Marseille, even though he stressed that he was there only “out of courtesy and respect,” not to participate.
But in Marseille, Francis, not Mr. Macron, was the main attraction.
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome.