PARIS — French Catholics marked the Assumption holiday on Wednesday with prayers focused on the family and children that were designed to underline the Church's opposition to gay marriage.
A prayer read out in churches across France expressed the wish that children "cease to be the objects of the desires and conflicts of adults in order to fully benefit from the love of a father and mother".
The text was produced by the Bishops of France, who are leading opposition to President Francois Hollande's commitment to allow homosexual couples to marry and adopt children.
Michael Bouvar, one of the leaders of gay rights group SOS Homophobie, attacked the church's move. "The message sent out by the church is a mask for discrimination and homophobia," he told AFPTV.
And leading gay rights group Act-Up released a parody of the message in a camp video with a young man reading it out in front of a cross with sub-titles that deviated from the text.
The prayer was read first at midnight mass at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, attended by nearly 5,000 worshippers ahead of the traditional candle-lit Assumption procession on the Seine river.
It was also read out to some 20,000 pilgrims at Lourdes in southwestern France and to thousands of motorcyclists gathered at Porcaro, a tiny village in Britanny where a statue of the Madonna was crowned on the authority of Pope Benedict XVI.
Porcaro, where the local priest, Jean-Francois Audrain, rides a 1000cc Kawasaki, has become a place of pilgrimage for motorcyclists from all over France.
Raymond Centene, the Bishop of Vannes, said the church would never accept same-sex weddings.
"Marriage is above all an institution," he said. "One does not get married because one is in love, above all we get married in the desire to continue life and to create a family."
Bernard Housset, the Bishop of La Rochelle who presided over the 139th national pilgrimage to Lourdes, echoed his comments.
"You cannot confuse the marriage of a man and a woman with the union of two homosexuals," he said.
Opinion polls suggest the church's stance is out of sync with the views of most French people, two thirds of whom back gay marriage.
A narrower majority (53 percent) is in favour of same-sex couples having the right to adopt, according to a poll published on Wednesday by digital magazine La Lettre de l'Opinion.
The vast majority of the French are of Catholic heritage although only around five percent of the population attend church regularly.