When Emmanuel Macron met the Pope in the Vatican earlier today, the two had plenty to talk about, starting with the current migration crisis which is casting deep divisions among European countries.

But this 57 minute tête-à-tête, the longest between Francis and a head of state, was also the occasion for the French president to take up his title as an honorary proto-canon of the Lateran Basilica in Rome, historically tied to the French monarchs.

This may come as a surprise for most people as France is known as a secular country with a strict separation between church and state, but this tradition actually dates back to 1604 when King Henry IV, having renounced Protestantism, donated the Benedictine Abbey in Clairac along with its income, to the pope’s basilica. At the time, and as a token of its gratitude, the Lateran cathedral, the pontiff’s church as the Bishop of Rome, decided to create the canonical title to be bestowed upon the leader of France and each December 13 to commemorate the birth of Henry IV’s birthday a mass is still being celebrated at the basilica for the “happiness and prosperity of France.”

If for centuries the Catholic Church has held a special place for the country, which has been dubbed “the church’s eldest daughter”, several of Macron’s predecessors have declined the title, including the Socialists François Mitterrand and François Hollande, a self-described atheist, to avoid associating themselves with religious imagery.

Upon his election, President Macron did not hesitate one second and immediately accepted the honour. Maybe because despite being raised in a non-religious family, he was baptized as a Roman Catholic at his own behest when he was 12 years old, and was educated at a Jesuit school, where his future wife, Brigitte, was a teacher!

another grey line

Lead image Basilica and Palace of St John Lateran, Rome, Italy by Peter Clarke (own work) on Wikimedia Commons, licenced under CC-BY-SA-3.0; edited (cropped)

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