Pope's meeting with French President restores 'deep' relations between Paris and Vatican

Pope Francis and French President Francois Hollande at their 2014 meeting.Reuters

The meeting yesterday between Pope Francis and French President Francois Hollande in the wake of Fr Jacques Hamel's murder last month marked a rapprochement between the Vatican and Paris after apparently strained diplomatic relations in recent years.

Although the two men have met once before, in January 2014, The Tablet said that the appointment of a gay French Ambassador to the Holy See in January 2015 was the low point of relations which had already suffered after the introduction by the socialist Hollande of same-sex marriage in 2013.

The Vatican did not formally accept the gay diplomat Laurent Stefanini and a stand-off ensued until Paris finally appointed a new ambassador, Philippe Zeller, in May this year.

The issue was a footnote in the wider dispute between the Vatican and France: the latter's rampant secularism, of the sort that has in recent weeks seen several French beach resorts ban the burkini. France has many Catholics - around 64 per cent of the population is nominally Catholic - but its political sphere is strictly irreligious and secular.

But Francis Campbell, Britain's former ambassador to the Holy See, told Christian Today that more substantial policy areas unite the Vatican with France than the trivial issues which may have divided them.

"The diplomatic relationship between the Holy See and the French Republic is a deep one and that is reflected in the calibre of representatives sent by the French Republic to the Holy See, but also there is a very pragmatic level of cooperation on a number of foreign policy interests of importance to the Holy See, perhaps most notably in this era the plight of Christians in the Middle East," said Campbell, who is now the Vice Chancellor of St Mary's University, Twickenham.

"France has been amongst the most vocal proponents of policies aimed at ensuring a continuing vibrant religious pluralism in the Middle East. No doubt it will also have been an occasion when the Holy See and France exchanged views on the current situation in Lebanon, again an area of importance for the Holy See's foreign policy and also that of the French Republic."

Certainly, any diplomatic tensions appeared to be forgotten yesterday as the Pope and Hollande gave each other gifts (a piece of Sèvres porcelain with the emblem of France and a bronze sculpture by artist Daniela Fusco, which represents the prophecy of Isaiah: "the desert will become a garden," respectively) and talked for some 40 minutes.

The meeting came about after warm words were exchanged between the two leaders in the wake of the killing by Islamists of Hamel, a Catholic priest, at his church in Rouen on 26 July.

Following the murder, President Hollande telephoned Pope Francis to express his closeness and told him that "when a priest is attacked all of France is wounded." Speaking on his flight to Poland, the Pope thanked the French President "in a special way" for having contacted him like "a brother."

Hollande was accompanied on his visit to the Vatican by the French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and Zeller.

Hollande, who is an atheist, attended a memorial service for Fr Hamel and later told Catholic journalists he was impressed by the way religious leaders were able to address the evil they see and promote unity at such a tense time, The Tablet said.

During his visit yesterday, Hollande also visited the French church in Rome where the Caravaggio masterpiece The Calling of Saint Matthew hangs. At a recent general audience, Pope Francis mentioned how impressed he was by the painting.

The meeting came after the Rouen Archbishop Dominique Lebrun said he plans to work for Fr Hamel to be recognised by the Vatican as a martyr, and therefore, eventually a saint. "The death of Fr Jacques Hamel is the ultimate witness to his faith in Jesus, which he affirmed to the end," Lebrun told AFP.