ROME – European bishops this weekend had a meeting with Pope Francis in the wake of the recent EU elections, with the pontiff voicing concern over the weakening of the European Union as well as social issues such as abortion.

Speaking to Crux, Father Manuel Barrios Prieto, secretary general of the Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), described Saturday’s meeting with the pontiff as “very cordial” and open.

Pope Francis, he said, stressed the need for a “mystique of dialogue” within the EU, “to maintain a strong dialogue with the European institutions.”

The pontiff, he said, was “very aware” of the status of the European Union, given the rise of far-right Euro-skeptical parties, and voiced concern over the current “fragility” of the EU, as well as the war in Ukraine and in Gaza.

“He insisted very much on the importance of dialogue with the European institutions. He insisted very much on the war, and he also brought up the issue of abortion as an important concern for the Church, obviously, so that was also brought up in the discussion,” Prieto said.

Debate over abortion has flared up in recent months following France’s vote in March to enshrine abortion as a fundamental right in its constitution – a decision that sparked widespread debate, and which the French bishops and the Vatican’s Academy for Life publicly opposed.

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Pope Francis, Prieto said, “was concerned about a certain ‘culture of death’ that is present, and is also in Europe, and he called us to do something about this, to fight for life and the dignity of life.”

Asked whether the pontiff was concerned about France’s recent decision to push the abortion rights issue, Prieto said, “He didn’t go into concrete issues, but it was an important message that came out of the meeting we had. This is also an important issue for COMECE, to work for the sanctity of life.”

In terms of the EU elections, which took place June 6-9 and resulted in a pro-European majority being maintained despite a rise in far-right, nationalist parties, Prieto said the message was clear.

“Still people believe in the European project, and they want to support it, but we also understand that this Europe is not a perfect Europe, so we want to improve it. That’s an important message of the elections,” he said, and lamented the low voter turnout, falling at around 51 percent.

In this regard, work must be done “to engage the citizens a bit more with the European Union, to feel a bit more the European project as something that is theirs, that they have ownership of,” he said.

Prieto, referring to the “notable increase” in rightwing, nationalistic and Euro-skeptical parties within the European Parliament, noted that there are also a portion of Catholic votes that went to these parties, voicing his belief that “it’s a vote of protest also that says that Europe hasn’t done things totally well, it’s delivered but hasn’t delivered well,” especially on issues such as climate, migration, and rising inflation rates.

Pope Francis “very much” has the situation of Europe in mind, he said, saying the pontiff during his recent participation in the G7 meeting in Bari got “a good grasp of the influence of Europe in the world.”

“He brought us this message of a stronger Europe, a Europe that fulfills its mission,” he said.

Francis, he said, also made a plea for the bishops to do everything in their power to bring the ongoing war in Ukraine to an end.

Though the pope did not outline any specific strategy, Prieto said that COMECE, which primarily engages with European institutions, must “have a dialogue with them.”

“I think the main message we should try to get through is that we have to work with the logic of peace, not the logic of war. We have to really go towards a situation of peace, the European project was created as such, it was a project of peace,” he said.

He said the wars in Ukraine and in Gaza are top concerns the pope raises in all of his meetings, and that the pontiff recently had a meeting with the Russian Ambassador to the Holy See to discuss the war, and potential peace efforts.

In terms of Pope Francis’s repeated advocacy for a stronger, more unified Europe that is welcoming to foreigners and capable of overcoming nationalist interests in order to preserve the common good, Prieto said European institutions generally take this message seriously.

“I think that what he says to Europe, his dreams for Europe, a Europe that is a unity in diversity, that respects diversity, that is an important message,” and is something COMECE is also committed to.

“We have to keep in mind that there are different ideological opinions in Europe and the European Union, but I think yes, his messages are at least heard,” Prieto said, saying Pope Francis “has an important moral authority, and (he is) also an important leader of a Church that is very present in Europe, in the history of Europe, and in Europe now, a lot of citizens are Catholic, so obviously what he says is taken into account.”

Referring to the pope’s upcoming trip to Belgium in September, during which he is scheduled to visit Brussels, home to the headquarters of the European Parliament, Prieto said there are currently no plans for Francis to meet with European institutions, especially since many officials will not yet have been appointed following the elections earlier this month.

“There might be a meeting with some of the institutions or the leaders of the institutions if they have already been elected, but the main goal of the visit to Belgium is to see Belgium, the city and the university of Louvain, and visiting Luxembourg,” he said.

The University of Louvain, he said, has a “very important message” to offer “about culture, and that is also a very important university for theology, so I think it’s quite a good guess that that will be one of the main issues of his trip.”

Prieto said another strong message the pope sent to European bishops was the “concept of hope and a lack of hope in European society,” especially in view of the upcoming 2025 Jubilee of Hope.

“I think this is also an important message for Europe today. I would say that maybe the Holy Year that is coming could be a good occasion to think, to reflect together on what it means to have hope. In what are we having hope, and what is the foundation of our hope,” he said.

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