ROME – As Europe continues to see a decline in Mass attendance and a rise in populist leaders with harsh anti-migrant policies, including in some majority Catholic countries, Church leaders have said they face an uphill battle, especially when it comes to Pope Francis’s push to welcome and assist migrants and refugees.

“We are no longer the majority in Europe as Christians and Catholics. Not cultural Catholics, but truly those who believe in the Gospel,” Jesuit Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg and president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, told journalists May 27.

Speaking at the presentation of Francis’s message for the Sept. 29 World Day for Migrants and Refugees, Hollerich said the Church in Europe is “not in a good situation” since many young people especially are drifting farther from the pews, making reception of the pope’s message more difficult as European leaders increasingly sing a different tune.

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Though a “detailed analysis” on this weekend’s elections for European Parliament has yet to be done, Hollerich noted that many traditionally Catholic nations voted for candidates who promote policies opposed to those of Francis, such as Poland, Hungary and Italy.

Yet despite the difficulty, he said the pope’s appeal for migrants and refugees has not fallen on deaf ears, but was taken up by the many bishops and clergy leading communities on the ground, and that without the pope’s message, “the results would be worse.”

“One thing to have clear is that we don’t do politics, we don’t have an opportunist attitude, but we as bishops must proclaim the Gospel of Christ. And, in this Gospel, this welcome of the poor, migrants, vulnerable, marginalized, is a central part of the Gospel,” he said, noting that while populist candidates gained significant votes in some nations, they lost votes in countries where they previously had the lead.

“So, the people saw that one thing is word, another is action,” Hollerich said, adding that on the situation of Christianity in Europe as a whole, he sees himself as “a realist,” but “I am also always optimistic.”

Similarly, Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees section of the Vatican department for Integral Human Development, referenced the discrepancy in seeing Catholic countries vote against the policies Francis is promoting, saying the number of Christians who actually live out the Gospel has always been a minority.

“That’s probably the way it has been and will always be,” he said, but noted that there are also a great number of people, both Christians non-Christians, who have responded positively to the pope’s message, and have even welcomed migrants into their homes.

“It might not translate into overwhelming votes, but it does translate into real action and real welcome,” Czerny said, adding that the pope’s message is aimed at “the whole person, not just the part of the person that reacts to media or political messaging.”

“It’s cheap and easy to whistle, but it means much more when someone opens their homes and their hearts to the stranger,” he said, voicing his belief that there is a need to focus more on what is being done, rather than “just on the exchange of slogans.”

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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