ROME – Luxemburg Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich is, by his own definition, “no one special.” However, Pope Francis disagrees, making him a cardinal in 2019. His brother bishops from Europe also hold him in high regard, appointing him as head of the commission of bishops conference of the European Union (COMECE) in 2018.
Reflecting on Europe’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said that it was “very bad at the beginning and very good at the end,” and expressed his disappointment at the “complete absence” of continental solidarity.
“At first, there was a complete absence of help in the continent,” Hollerich told Crux Thursday. “For instance, Germany closed its borders to Luxemburg on the [anniversary] of the invasion of the German army. This was not very sensitive. And all of the sudden, you saw the ghost of the past, a ghost which we definitely though had vanished.”
“It gives us some humility, but also shows the necessity of the European integration process, because without that process, we would be back in 1914 and 1939,” he said. The risk of going back to a world war period, the prelate argued, is “very real,” naming the rise of nationalist parties across the continent as an example.
“Europe is still fragile, and therefore, we have to do everything to support Europe,” Hollerich said. “And I’m very happy that the American administration will now be supporting Europe.”
He’s in Rome this week for a series of meetings with Vatican officials, including Pope Francis and the Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
He spoke with Crux on Thursday afternoon. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
You’ve been in Rome for several days now. How have the meetings you’ve had been thus far?
They’ve been going very well. They’re very informative. Today we met with the council for culture, that of interreligious dialogue, council for ecumenism, and they are all related to the work of COMECE. It helps us to have better contact with these contacts [and] put expertise together. I found all of them very positive.
Why did you come?
It’s an annual meeting of the presidency of COMECE, with the four vice-presidents, some of the staff and we come every year to Rome. This year, we’re also meeting with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and tomorrow [Friday] with the pope.
Is there anything specific you’re hoping to address with Parolin and with Pope Francis?
We’re going to be addressing the big topics, such as the green deal in the European Union, also about migration policies, and all the urgent topics of the politics of the European Union, because that is our Church and that’s our mission, to be in dialogue with institutions of the Union.
And meeting with Francis is very refreshing because he has a view of Europe from outside, and I believe this is very good. I’m sure that no European pope could have done so much for Europe as Pope Francis, the man from Argentina, Latin America, has done.
Some believe that Europe, in many ways, created the modern civilization, but afterwards, basically sat down in its laurels and remained on the outskirts. Do you agree?
In a certain way, yes. I think the European civilization as we know it is a fruit of globalization, but globalization today is not only European merits, but all the societies have had globalization and Europe tends to be a little bit backwards, so we have to take up.
There has been a lot of talk in recent years in the Church about synodality, and it’s obviously a priority for Pope Francis. Do you think the bishops of Europe work in a synodal way?
It would be a challenge for the Church in Europe, because we are divided into national churches more or less, and sometimes, they are very different, not only between East and West: The German Church and the French one are very, very different, they don’t have the same problems. Sexual abuse of minors, yes, is all over Europe, but for the rest, I think that the churches are headed in a different directions.
Regardless, I think that this would actually be a good moment for us to put our heads and hearts together to see where the Spirit is calling us. And then try to get common answers and go in that way towards which God is calling us.
But you’re still working together. What would you say brings you together?
The faith in Christ!
I know it seems like an obvious question, but some would have answered in a different way…
No, what brings us together is our faith in Christ and we have to live that faith, even if we live it culturally in different ways. But this is the basis over which we have to meet.
You released a statement recently with Archbishop Jose Gomez, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. How did it come to be?
It’s the work of our secretariats, then corrections are made, and so on. But it’s a very positive statement that shows that two bishops conferences really care for people. They care for freedom, for democracy: In the United States you’d use freedom, we would use democracy.
It was a big intellectual discussion, on whether there is something as the “Western world.” I think there is. Of course, there are different sensibilities, why should we stress the differences when we have so much in common, and compared to other countries and cultures, we really have a lot in common.
I was just a few weeks ago on the military cemetery in Luxemburg. There are 5,000 soldiers buried there. When I remember that 5,000 young men gave their lives for freedom in Europe, I feel touched and thankful to the United States.
How would you describe the European response to the COVID crisis?
Very bad at the beginning and very good at the end. I do not share the criticism about vaccines, because it was too difficult to know that there would be a profit for those who produced them.
At first, there was a complete absence of help in the continent. For instance, Germany closed its borders to Luxemburg on the day of the invasion of the German army. This was not very sensitive. And all of the sudden, you saw the ghost of the past, a ghost which we definitely though had vanished. It gives us some humility, but also shows the necessity of the European integration process, because without that process, we would be back in 1914 and 1939.
Pope Francis has warned against the danger of going back. Do you think it’s an actual danger?
Yes. Because you know, we have a raise of the nationalist parties in Europe. Now the big challenge will be the presidential elections in France. Europe is still fragile, and therefore, we have to do everything to support Europe. And I’m very happy that the American administration will now be supporting Europe.
A lot of those who would vote for the nationalist parties, would argue that the identity of Europe is at risk because of migration. Would you agree with that?
I do not think so, because if you look at the number of migrants, the percentage they make and our numbers, then we must be very weak and they very strong if they are a threat to our identity.
The pandemic has been very hard for a lot of people. On the one hand, for the elderly, yes, but also for the youth. How do you think the youth could work to come out stronger of this crisis?
I think they could become stronger if they acknowledge the frailty of their own heart. Before, we lived as if there’s no problem in the world. But now we’ve learned that this is not true. We need some sense in our lives, we need one another. We have always learned in school that people are social beings, but now we have understood what it means. Other people are relevant to us. If you accept the fraility and fragility, we can grow. And I have full confidence on young people to grow.
And can the Church help them in this growth?
Yes. I think we missed the point a little bit during the pandemic. We worked on how to have Masses online, and this is very good and important, especially for old people. But we didn’t do enough for announcing the central, fundamental message of our faith: Christ has died and risen.
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