In a 2016 interview with La Croix, Pope Francis said he received an invitation from then-President François Hollande and the Bishops’ Conference itself to visit France. That was where he expressed a desire to travel to Marseille, “which represents an open door to the world.”
At 2:30 p.m. on Friday, September 22, 2023, a papal flight carrying the pope, members of his retinue and accredited journalists took off for Marseille International Airport. They landed at 4:15 p.m. and were greeted by Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne and four children wearing traditional dress offering flowers.
‘Intersection of Gazes’
After a brief meeting, the pope and the prime minister went to the Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, known as Bonne Mère because it is a symbol of hope and protection for sailors, fishermen and the people of Marseille. Located south of the Old Port on a 162-meter-high limestone peak, it is one of Marseille’s most impressive buildings. The church features a sumptuous bell tower, 41 m high, on top of which is the imposing 11.20 m gilded copper statue of the Madonna and Child. Inside it is decorated with more than 1,200 sq m of Byzantine-style mosaics, beautiful polychrome marble – white Carrara and red Brignoles – and about 380 sq m of Roman mosaics in geometric patterns on the floors. The interior walls are covered with about 2,500 votive offerings to the Virgin, mostly dedicated by sailors, featuring miniature boats, paintings and plaques.
At the Basilica’s entrance Cardinal-Archbishop Jean-Marc Aveline of Marseille welcomed the pope. Francis paused in silent prayer before the statue of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde and lit a candle. He then addressed the city’s priests. After recalling the origin of the shrine, he pointed to the Bonne Mère as “bringing a very tender ‘intersection of gazes’: the first is that of Jesus, to whom Mary always directs our attention and whose love is reflected in her eyes,” and “on the other, those of so many men and women of every age and condition, whom she gathers and brings to God.” At the “crossroads of peoples that is Marseille,” the pope chose to reflect on this intersection of gazes. He said that priests are “called to make people feel the gaze of Jesus and, at the same time, to bring to Jesus the gaze of their brothers and sisters.”