ROME – Pope Francis is expected Wednesday to meet Greta Thunberg, one of the world’s leading student activists who shares the pope’s ecological agenda and who, at 16, is one of the most outspoken advocates for action on climate change.
Born in Sweden in 2003, Thunberg rose to fame in August 2018 for initiating the “school strike for climate” movement, with her protest outside of the Swedish parliament in Stockholm gaining widespread media attention.
Thunberg’s movement exploded and has since grown into an international initiative in which students skip classes to participate in demonstrations demanding action on stopping global warming and climate change.
On March 15, some 1.4 million students were estimated to have participated in demonstrations throughout the world. The next major global strike is set for May 24.
According to a TED Talk she gave in November 2018, Thunberg has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and selective mutism, though none of it has slowed her down.
She has continued to be a leading voice on the climate issue and has spoken at several international venues, including the COP24 U.N. climate conference in December 2018, as well as a conference of the European Economic and Social Committee and to European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker in February 2019, demanding that the EU reduce CO2 emissions by at least 80 percent if they are to meet their climate goals by 2030.
On March 13, three members of the Norwegian parliament put Thunberg’s name forward as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, which will be awarded later this year.
Thunberg arrives in Rome Wednesday and has baciamano tickets to Pope Francis’s general audience, meaning she’ll be in the front row and will get to briefly shake the pope’s hand after his catechesis. (Baciamano literally means “kiss the hand.”)
Her visit is part of a wider European tour which has already taken her to the European Parliament and which will also take her to the Italian senate, where she will meet its president, Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati. She will later participate in a demonstration with local climate youth activists before leaving Rome.
In an April 14 tweet, Thunberg said, “I know it’s a holiday, but since the climate crisis doesn’t go on vacation, nor will we.”
Though Francis has not directly referenced her movement, his own eco-agenda has been a hallmark of his papacy since the 2015 publication of his encyclical on the protection of the environment, Laudato Si.
He’s met with countless individuals committed to acting on climate change, including a private audience with American actor Leonardo Dicaprio in 2016, and he has become one of the most outspoken leaders on the climate issue, encouraging efforts such as the COP21 U.N. conference on climate, which resulted in an agreement by members to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half of what’s needed to prevent the earth’s temperature from rising two degrees Celsius by 2030.
In addition, there are a few other reasons that his meeting with Thunberg stands out, including her youth and the fact that she comes from arguably one of the most secular countries in Europe.
Francis has long sought to engage young people, saying at one point in an interview that he intentionally saves his meetings with them for last during his international trips, because he wants to end on a note of hope.
On each of his international trips, especially the past year in the lead-up to his October 3-28 Synod of Bishops on youth, Francis has aimed to rouse young people to action, encouraging them not simply to be bystanders but protagonists for change.
He has often warned young people not to become “pensioners” before their time, and in his recent post-synodal apostolic exhortation on youth, Christus Vivit, he called for a new “popular youth ministry” carried out with “a different style, schedule, pace and method” and which “goes out to those places where real young people are active, and foster the natural leadership qualities.”
In this sense, Thunberg likely fits the profile of what Francis has in mind when he urges young people to put down the phone, get off the couch and get involved. She’s also an example of how the pope continues to prioritize building bridges with influencers who aren’t necessarily a part of the Church.
Statistically speaking, Sweden is among the most secular nations in Europe. An officially Lutheran country with a tiny Catholic population, the nation has just one Catholic diocese, which is overseen by Cardinal Anders Arborelius, bishop of Stockholm, who was given a red hat in 2017.
It’s been a defining characteristic of Francis’s papacy not only to elevate cardinals in areas where there is a small or minority Catholic population, but also his insistence on the need to “build bridges” with other faith communities and even non-believers.
By meeting with Thunberg, even for a brief, simple handshake, Francis is again reaching out, this time to a young person who has chosen to get up off the sidelines and enter the global stage to discuss one of the most burning and debated issues of our time.
Yet despite being in the global spotlight, Thunberg has insisted that for her it’s not about the attention, but the message, saying in a recent interview with Sky TG24 that, “Many people are concentrated on me as a person and not on climate change.”
“This distracts attention from the topic, but if people talk about me, then, as a consequence, they have to also talk about the problem of climate change,” she said, adding, “there is not much else that I can do but continue on this path.”