ROME—Pope Francis is meeting the leaders of 22 European Union nations and the heads of three major EU institutions on Friday, who’ll be gathering in Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome that led to the creation of the bloc.
Francis is expected to deliver hard-hitting speech to the group, the first of its kind in the post-Brexit era.
The meeting will take place at the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace on Friday, ahead of the actual celebration to be held on Saturday. That day the pope will head to the northern Italian city of Milan, the country’s financial capital, where he’ll say Mass for hundreds of thousands, visit a prison, and even take a brief nap in the prison chaplain’s room.
Theresa May is one leader who won’t be there, as she’s currently negotiating her country’s exit from the EU as a result of the Brexit referendum last June.
Despite being the first non-European pope in 1300 years, Francis has addressed the Old Continent on several opportunities, and has rarely sugar-coated his opinions.
Based on what he’s said in the last four years in interviews, speeches, and press conferences, the Argentine pope believes Europe has lost its foundational values, and also has become “indifferent” to the thousands of migrants arriving on its shores fleeing war, persecution and poverty.
Europe has become old, wary and “infertile,” the pontiff has charged, incapable of finding creative ways out of its current economic, cultural, political and moral crisis.
In May, he addressed EU leaders when he accepted an award for promoting European unity. In his acceptance speech at the Vatican, the pope warned against the temptation to put up fences to ward off newcomers, saying he dreams of a Europe where migrants are welcome.
In that speech, he called for the continent to undergo a “memory transfusion” to avoid the mistakes of the past and to pursue a future based on economic justice, openness to newcomers, respect for life in all its stages, and dialogue with everyone.
“I dream of a Europe that is young, still capable of being a mother: a mother who has life because she respects life and offers hope for life,” Francis said on May 6, as he was accepting the prestigious Charlemagne Prize, given yearly to personalities or institutions for their efforts towards European unity.
Invoking the memory of the founders of the European Union and their pursuit of integration after the end of World War II, Francis praised the way in which they readily pursued alternative and innovative paths.
“Not only did they boldly conceive the idea of Europe, but they dared to change radically the models that had led only to violence and destruction,” Francis said. “They dared to seek multilateral solutions to increasingly shared problems.”
On Nov. 25, 2014, history’s first pope from the global south traveled to the heart of secular Europe to deliver a sharp wake-up call, warning European leaders that the continent risks irrelevance if it doesn’t recover its founding values, drawing in part on its Christian legacy.
During his four-hour visit to Strasbourg, Francis bluntly said today’s world is becoming “less and less Eurocentric,” that Europe often comes off as “elderly and haggard,” that it’s less and less a “protagonist” in global affairs, and that the rest of the planet sometimes sees it “with mistrust and even suspicion.”
“Where is your vigor?” Francis asked the Council of Europe, deliberately speaking through it to the entire continent. “Where is that idealism that inspired and ennobled your history?”
The pontiff has returned to several of the same themes recently.
For instance, on Wednesday, speaking about the European migrant crisis, the pontiff called it “the greatest tragedy since World War II.”
In January, talking to Spanish newspaper El Pais, when asked if he was worried about the rise of populism in Europe and the United States, the pope said: “Crises provoke fear, alarm. In my opinion, the most obvious example of European populism is Germany in 1933.
“Germany was broken, looking to get itself going, looking for its identity, a leader, someone capable of restoring its character, and there was a young man named Adolf Hitler who said: ‘I can, I can.’
“And all of Germany votes for Hitler. Hitler didn’t steal power, he was elected by the people, and then he destroyed his own people. This is the danger.”
The president of the European Parliament, Italian Antonio Tajani, and the host of Saturday’s gathering, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentilioni, are scheduled to deliver their own remarks at the Vatican.
The meeting with Francis will take place in a room known as the Sala Regia, where most VIP events are held at the Vatican, and where once upon a time the pope would welcome royalty. After it’s over, the group will transfer to the Sistine Chapel, where conclaves to elect a new pope are held, for a group photo.