ROME – Though usually styled as a pope of the peripheries, Francis has never made a speech directly sketching a social and political future for, say, Asia or Africa. Yet when it comes to Europe, he’s laid out such a vision five separate times – suggesting there’s a special place for the cradle of Western civilization in the heart of a pontiff from the edge of the world.
Today, Europeans finish voting for the new composition of the European Parliament, which in turn will choose a new chief executive, the closest thing the continent has to a commander-in-chief. Although Francis is keenly aware of what’s at stake, he’s largely allowed his actions to speak louder than his words, entrusting explicit engagement to his Vatican team and Europe’s Catholic bishops.
As new fractures emerge at the seams of the European Union, the pope and his bishops seem keenly aware of the current battle for the soul of Europe, which, in light of populist gains, risks creating a new ideological iron curtain.
“There could be a new division between Eastern and Western Europe, this time without military or cement walls, but with a wall we created with our votes, through the democratic process,” said Liviu – Petru Zăpîrţan, Romanian Ambassador to the Holy See, in a May 24 interview with Crux.
A quick look at Francis’s agenda in the past few months shows a heightened sensitivity to the European Union in this delicate stage, and it sends a clear message that the Church stands on the side of the poor, immigrants and the marginalized.
The pope’s informal EU campaign doesn’t stop at photo-ops with immigrants, but it reflects a two-pronged approach. The first sees high-profile clerics and bishops’ conferences push the agenda through interviews, publications and voter’s guides, while the second can be read through the lens of countries Francis has visited and will soon visit.
“There are those who want a divided Europe, fragmented, litigious. Instead, a strong Europe is necessary in the international scene,” said Jesuit Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, president of the Commission of Episcopal Conferences in the European Union (Comece), in a May 19 interview with the newspaper of the Italian bishops.
The archbishop, who was recently in Greece to advocate for immigrants, criticized the “priests of populism,” such as Steve Bannon and Aleksandr Dugin, who in his opinion deny the true message of the Gospel and promote nationalist political parties that are the “anteroom of totalitarianism.”
“A weak and internally divided Europe could soon rekindle tensions and conflicts,” Hollerich said, “and we have a historic responsibility to avert this grave danger.”
Francis’s trip to Macedonia and Bulgaria in early May showed the pope is aware of these dynamics. Bulgaria is currently led by a populist and nationalist coalition, whereas the more pluralistic and mediating Macedonia is on the waiting list to become a member of the EU.
As Poland, Hungary and Slovakia elect populist and anti-immigrant governments, Francis’s message of welcoming and integration to the Bulgarian people gained a new significance in light of EU elections. Putting Macedonia on the map through a papal visit could be read as a nudge to Europe that its Eastern front could benefit from a new, more tolerant, player on the local scene.
Originally, Francis’s trip to Romania was supposed to take place at the same time as his visit to Bulgaria and Macedonia, Zăpîrţan explained, but the visit was rescheduled for May 31-2 well after the EU elections.
“Ninety percent of Romanians are also pro-European,” he said. “Compared to other countries, for example Hungary and Poland, we don’t have these waves of populism, nationalism and forms of the extreme right.”
Romania is unique among the countries of the post-Soviet bloc because it does not have a strong populist and anti-European stance and could provide a placating effect on its more nationalist neighbors.
“Some await to learn the position of the Romanian electorate for the European elections, believing that if Romania falls under the wave of populism a new division will be born, this time over the vote between Eastern and Western Europe,” Zăpîrţan said.
From this point of view, Francis’s visit to the country following the divisive elections has a new meaning because it becomes an opportunity to bring strength, support and – the main trade of papal visits – visibility, to the one country on the Eastern front of the EU that hasn’t joined the populist choir.
The fact that Romania also holds the presidency of the EU Council until the end of June while being “the most religious country in Europe,” offers Francis a unique opportunity to make his message on welcoming and the importance of Judeo-Christian roots truly resonate.
While Saint Pope John Paul II had to address a post-war Europe, born under the Soviet’s shadow and in fear of nuclear annihilation, the divisions threating the EU today come from within, Zăpîrţan said. Francis today, he added, is not trying to revolutionize two opposing camps but minds, hearts and lifestyles.
“Permit me to outline a rapid sketch of my own vision of a united Europe,” John Paul II said while accepting the prestigious Charlemagne Prize in 2004. “I am thinking of a Europe that is free of selfish brands of nationalism, in which nations are seen as living centers of a cultural wealth that deserves to be protected and promoted for the benefit of all.”
Twelve years later, while being awarded the same prize, Francis lamented a Europe that was unable to enact John Paul’s vision, now “tempted to yield to our own selfish interests and to consider putting up fences here and there.”
“The roots of our peoples, the roots of Europe, were consolidated down the centuries by the constant need to integrate in new syntheses the most varied and discrete cultures,” Francis said, bringing home what has been his message all along.
“The identity of Europe is, and always has been, a dynamic and multicultural identity,” he said.
Follow Claire Giangrave on Twitter: @ClaireGiangrave
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