ATHENS – Pope Francis arrived in Greece Saturday issuing a searing critique of the state of Europe, where he said democracy is waning in favor of a nationalist agenda that has forgotten the pursuit of solidarity and common good that he insisted are characteristic of the Old Continent’s roots.

After a private meeting with Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the pope met with the country’s civil authorities and diplomatic corps, making reference in his Dec. 4 speech to Greece’s ancient historic roots and its broad influence on Western law and thought.

“Here man first became conscious of being ‘a political animal’ and, as members of the community, began to see others not subjects but as fellow citizens, with whom to work together in organizing the polis. Here democracy was born,” he said.

“That cradle, thousands of years later, was to become a house, a great house of democratic peoples,” he said, adding, “I am speaking of the European Union and the dream of peace and fraternity that it represents for so many peoples.”

Referring to modern Europe and the broader global landscape, Francis said that across the board “we are witnessing a retreat from democracy” due to both a lack of participation from citizens, and a growing lack of trust in institutions.

“Democracy requires participation and involvement on the part of all; consequently, it demands hard work and patience. It is complex, whereas authoritarianism is peremptory, and populism’s easy answers appear attractive,” he said.

While some societies have become overly concerned about security and “dulled by consumerism,” leading to an increasing skepticism about democracy, the pope insisted that universal participation “is something essential; not simply to attain shared goals, but also because it corresponds to what we are: social beings, at once unique and interdependent.”

This skepticism of democracy, he said, is also fueled by “the distance of institutions, by fear of a loss of identity, by bureaucracy.”

Pope Francis said the remedy for this cannot be found in “an obsessive quest for popularity, in a thirst for visibility, in a flurry of unrealistic promises or in adherence to forms of ideological colonization, but in good politics.”

Politics, he said, both is and ought to be “the supreme responsibility of citizens and as the art of the common good,” and with particular attention to the weaker and more vulnerable sectors of society.

“Here, a change of direction is needed, even as fears and theories, amplified by virtual communication, are daily spread to create division,” he said, and asked that a shift be made “From partisanship to participation…(from) committing ourselves to supporting our party alone to engaging ourselves actively for the promotion of all.”

This participation ought to extend to all areas of society, the pope said, pointing specifically to climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, the global market, and poverty.

“These are challenges that call for concrete and active cooperation,” he said, insisting that the international community “needs this, in order to open up paths of peace through a multilateralism that will not end up being stifled by excessive nationalistic demands.”

Politics needs to adopt this approach “in order to put common needs ahead of private interests,” he said, noting that while this might seem like a hopeless utopian vision, “travelling over stormy seas is often our only choice.”

Pope Francis also pushed for greater climate action, voicing hope that commitments made in the fight against climate change would be “more fully shared and seriously implemented, rather than remaining a mere façade.”

“May words be followed by deeds, lest children once more have to pay for the hypocrisy of their fathers,” he said.

He also touched on the migration crisis, which for years has been a burden that Greece has borne the brunt of, noting that on some of the Greek islands that are main points of arrival of asylum seekers, there are now more migrants than native inhabitants.

When it comes to this issue, “Europe also continues to temporize,” he said, saying, “the European Community, prey to forms of nationalistic self-interest, rather than being an engine of solidarity, appears at times blocked and uncoordinated.”

“In the past, ideological conflicts prevented the building of bridges between Eastern and Western Europe; today the issue of migration has led to breaches between South and North as well,” he said, asking that a global, “communitarian vision” be adopted.

To this end, he asked that that attention be paid “to those in greatest need, so that, in proportion to each country’s means, they will be welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated, in full respect for their human rights and dignity.”

Migration will be a main feature of Pope Francis’s visit to Greece, which follows a two-day visit to Cyprus, where the migration issue was also front and center.

During his time in Greece, the pope will make a half-day stop on the island of Lesbos, which hosts the bulk of incoming migrants and refugees awaiting a ruling on their asylum requests.

Francis visited Lesbos in 2016, famously bringing a dozen Syrian refugees with him on the papal flight back to Rome. The Vatican is assisting the transfer of some 50 migrants from Cyprus to Italy, and officials have said the possibility of bringing some from Lesbos this year is also being explored.

Speaking to Greek authorities, Pope Francis also pointed to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on an already struggling Greek economy.

He also alluded to Greece’s poor social welfare system and the fact that migrants and refugees with no official status often fall through the cracks, insisting that as Greece continues attempts to manage the crisis and the COVID recovery process, “The right of all to care and treatment must always be respected, so that those most vulnerable, particularly the elderly, may never be discarded,” he said.

“Life is a right, not death. Death is to be accepted, not administered,” he said.

He also referred to abortion, saying the ancient Hippocratic Oath still sworn by doctors today seems “written for our own time, such as the commitment to ‘follow that regimen I judge best for the benefit of the sick’ and ‘to abstain from whatever is harmful and offensive’ to others, to safeguarding life at every moment, particularly in the mother’s womb.”

Abortion has been fully legalized in Greece since 1986 and can be performed upon request in hospitals through up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

In his speech, Pope Francis said freedom is God’s “greatest gift” to humanity, and that “what most pleases him is that, in freedom, we love him and our neighbor.”

“Laws exist to help make this possible, but also training in responsibility and the growth of a culture of respect,” he said, and thanked Greece for its public recognition of its small Catholic community, which makes up just three percent of the country’s overall population of 11 million, the majority of whom are Orthodox.

Speaking of the Catholic Church, which in the past has faced social and economic difficulty in Greece, Francis offered his assurances “of its desire to promote the common good of Greek society, directing to that end its innate universality, in the hope that in practice the conditions needed to carry out its service effectively will always be guaranteed.”

“From this city, from this cradle of civilization, may there ever continue to resound a message that lifts our gaze both on high and towards others; that democracy may be the response to the siren songs of authoritarianism; and that individualism and indifference may be overcome by concern for others, for the poor and for creation,” he said.

These, Pope Francis said, “are essential foundations for the renewed humanity which our time, and our Europe, has need.”

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