As he prepared to leave France on Monday Benedict XVI came up with a typically apt and artistic image to describe his four-day visit. It was, he said, like a diptych, a painting composed of two parts.
The first part of the diptych was Paris, where the Pope undertook a sensitive diplomatic mission in the very cradle of secularism. Benedict XVI hoped to persuade the French political class that secularism (he prefers the less loaded term "secularity") is unhealthy when it seeks to exclude religiously inspired convictions from public life; it is healthy when it draws from the spiritual well that has sustained French civilisation since the baptism of Clovis in 496. His words were warmly received by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has challenged tired republican thinking with his call for a "laidte positive" (positive secularity). But it remains to be seen whether Sarkozy's rhetoric will be translated into concrete acts that give the Church greater breathing space in French society.
Vatican officials had told reporters that the Pope's address to French intellectuals, on the anniversary of the Regensburg Lecture. would be the highlight of the Paris visit. Journalists were evidently disappointed when Benedict XVI then gave what one French newspaper described as a "theology lesson" about monasticism. Although the lecture was not as explosive as Regensburg it did contain a robust challenge to those who "wish to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm".
Reporters found the second part of the diptych, the Pope's visit to Lourdes, even harder to convert into startling headlines. Benedict XVI visited the shrine as a humble pilgrim wishing to honour Our Lady on the I50th anniversary of her appearances to Bernadette Soubirous.
But he also brought a two-fold message to his fellow pilgrims gathered at Mary's feet. The first was that, despite appearances to the contrary, Christ has triumphed over sickness and death. The second was that Jesus and Our Lady are a sure comfort in our agonies. The Pope's message wasn't "newsworthy" in the conventional sense, but it mattered to millions of people struggling with all kinds of tribulations.
Seamus Heaney once praised another poet for "seeing the horizon beyond the horizon". The same could be said of Pope Benedict. He could have spent his visit fretting about the knotty sociological problems facing the French Church. Instead, he told his French listeners that God is love and that He awaits them, when their suffering is over, in eternity.