The Church of Marseilles, a pioneer in Mediterranean pastoral care

The diocese of the oldest city in France set up a service for Mediterranean relations a year ago. The first of its kind on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, it intends to encourage awareness of the issues of peace, dialogue and fraternity in this region, the Abrahamic cradle. Meeting with Father Alexis Leproux, episcopal vicar in charge of Mediterranean relations for the diocese of Marseille.

Interview conducted by Delphine Allaire – Marseille, France

With thirty years of academic knowledge acquired through the Institute of Science and Theology of Religions, integrated into the Catholic Institute of the Mediterranean twenty years ago, the Marseilles Church has created a pastoral counterpart to this heritage of research. A small team of young people reflect each month on the political, social and spiritual issues that cross the Mare Nostrum, from Gibraltar to Odessa via Alexandria and Palermo. A model that could be duplicated in the dioceses of the Mediterranean, according to the path traced by Pope Francis since his first trip to Lampedusa in 2013.

Father Alexis Leproux, episcopal vicar in charge of Mediterranean relations in Marseille

What is your assessment of the first year of existence of the diocesan service for Mediterranean relations?

It is first of all a great joy that Cardinal Aveline had the intuition to open it, a great gratitude towards him for having entrusted it to me. The team is made up of a dozen people from Marseille, mainly young professionals, who exchange views once a month on a Mediterranean theme: the Algerian or Lebanese question, that of interreligious dialogue or migrants. The aim is to strengthen a Mediterranean awareness demonstrating that these problems are not only local, but that they concern the whole of the Mediterranean. We will only be able to approach them wisely and effectively through the unity of Mediterranean cities.

What is the genesis of this Mediterranean pastoral? Is such a diocesan service unprecedented?

This pastoral is due to the thirty years of experience of Cardinal Aveline. He created the ISTR, an Institute of Science and Theology of Religions, integrated into the Catholic Institute of the Mediterranean twenty years ago. He traveled the Mediterranean for thirty years, and wished as archbishop of Marseilles, that this work be encouraged by taking on a pastoral dimension. The goal is to transmit it to the Christian communities of the city, varied in terms of Eastern Christianity, -Melkite, Maronite-, as well as in an interreligious spirit.

Having participated in the meeting in Florence in February 2022, I believe that this diocesan service corresponds to a rather original and unique intuition. I am currently working to try to arouse in the confreres of Mgr Aveline this same desire to create services to have interlocutors in Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt.

What is the nature of your exchanges about this pastoral care with the local Churches of the four shores?

This service must be constituted by friendly and fraternal meetings. We build relationships before ideas. Then, the common elements arise from this ecclesial communion and from this Mediterranean synodality. This communion may be dormant in the Mediterranean because of our vision of the world segmented into continents: Western Europe, North Africa, Balkans, Turkey-Ukraine, Middle East. These are religious and cultural spaces rather separated from each other, which suppose, for the Churches, to enter into a concrete dialogue, so that synodality does not remain in the state of idea or desire. First steps took me to Morocco, Sicily, Florence, Lebanon, Bosnia. Algeria and Tunisia will follow, and next summer, Egypt and Israel-Palestine. The most difficult or remote region today is in the Greco-Turkish and Ukrainian zone; the conflicts there are complex and Orthodoxy being very involved, the Catholic Church is less present there than in Lebanon or the Maghreb.

What do thirty years of academic experience, via the ISTR and the Catholic Institute of the Mediterranean, bring to pastoral care and theology for the Mediterranean as it is lived today in Marseille?

First of all, an immense heritage of research – there are thirty or forty issues of the journal “Dialog paths“. Each of them is filled with exciting pages from Cardinal Etchegaray, Cardinal Aveline, Christian Salenson, a large number of researchers and intellectuals, who, having worked on these questions theologically, offer a basis on which to unfold pastorally. Namely, to understand how the Church is present in the world not through a visible sociology of figures, but through a relational quality of presence. As was the case, for example, with the monks of Tibhirine, with Bishop Claverie, and a certain number of actors, who, in the style of Charles de Foucauld, although few in number, had a powerful presence of dialogue and of peace. These are very strong ecclesial experiences, unfamiliar to Western Churches, which often look at their loss of figures, and are sometimes less sensitive to the relevance of their presence.

“The challenge is to understand how the Church is not present in the world through a visible sociology of figures, but through a relational quality of presence”

What changes the cardinalate of Mgr Aveline for this Mediterranean momentum?

By choosing Bishop Aveline, the Pope wished, I believe, to highlight that a city like Marseille, which may have been forgotten, where poverty is high, outside the networks of the major European capitals, can be a message for the Mediterranean and for the world. Collecting the theological, spiritual and human heritage of Marseilles, this message makes it possible to hear that what the Pope says in Fratelli tutti is not a dream, but is already generating small laboratories. I believe in this humble calling.

“Fratelli tutti is not a dream, but has already spawned small laboratories”

What would be prophetic in the Mediterranean space? What hope does this sea reflect?

This great corridor of humanity that is the Mediterranean continues to be crossed by crises and tensions, like all the crossroads which are always also places of mutual enrichment. There are two levels in the reading of history: that of the conflicts, and that, less visible, of the substantive work of the actors of peace. However, we must constantly build peace, even in secret, even when wars are at our doorstep. The first hope of the Mediterranean is that it is the cradle of the birth of Christ, of the Jewish and Muslim faith. These great monotheisms deliver a message about what it means to belong to the family of Abraham. By digging into this Abrahamic family unit, one can approach the unity of the human family. The great Florentine, Giorgio La Pira, looked to the Mediterranean basin as the tent of Abraham, where this holy and plural descent was called to build the unity of a family. On the shores of the Mediterranean shines the deep memory of the encounter between man and God.

The Church of Marseilles, a pioneer in Mediterranean pastoral care – Vatican News