ROME – When Pope Francis visits Belgium and Luxembourg later this year, the trip will not only constitute a favor to a key ally, but it will also mark an opportunity for Pope Francis to reinforce several priorities of his pontificate.

The Vatican officially announced the pope’s Sept. 26-29 visit to Belgium and Luxembourg May 20, saying in a statement that he would make a stopover in Luxembourg Sept. 26 while on his way to Belgium, where he will stay from Sept. 26-29, visiting the cities of Brussels, Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve.

Brussels is where the headquarters of the European Union is located, meaning Francis will presumably address the EU during his visit to the city, and he is expected to make visits to the Catholic Universities of Louvain and Louvain-la-Neuve.

Hints of a papal trip to Belgium this year were first made by Pope Francis himself in a December 2023 interview with veteran Vatican watcher and Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki.

At the time, the Belgian bishops said the visit would mark the 600th anniversary of the founding of the Universities of Leuven and Louvain, even though the anniversary does not formally occur until 2025, during a Jubilee year that is expected to be heavy with papal commitments.

In an official statement welcoming the announcement of the pope’s visit, Archbishop Luc Terlinden of Brussels, who is a former student at both universities, referred to the papal trip as a surprise, and a joy for the local church.

“One must bear in mind that the pope does not frequently visit European countries, especially Western European countries. For that reason, we weren’t really expecting the visit to take place,” he said, but voiced his belief that Francis has “wanted to come to Belgium for a long time.”

The trip, he said, marks “a very special occasion, since the Pope will also meet the intellectual and scientific communities of our country and, by extension, various actors in Belgian society as a whole.”

The universities date back to 1425, when founded originally as one institution by Pope Martin V. However, they split in the 1960s, resulting in the establishment of two separate universities: the Dutch-speaking KU Leuven and the French-speaking Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL).

Pope Francis, who has repeatedly been outspoken with his vision for a renewed, united and fortified Europe that draws on its Christian roots and is welcoming to newcomers, will undoubtedly use his stop in Brussels to deliver another strong message on his vision for Europe following parliamentary elections this summer, and for the international community as it navigates major conflicts such as the wars in Ukraine and in Gaza.

However, apart from whatever political message he sends in Brussels, his visit to Belgium will also likely be a reinforcement of his commitment to implementing the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, as there is a historic connection between the Catholic University of Louvain and the council.

Even before the council began in 1962, the Catholic University of Louvain was seen as a forerunner of the kind of theological thought and action that the council itself eventually adopted.

For example, the Council documents placed great emphasis on an increased and empowered role for the laity, stressing that by virtue of their baptism, laypeople and clergy had an equal call to participation in the life of the church and in taking initiative, albeit in different ways. At the time, the Catholic University of Louvain had already begun educating laypeople as theologians even before the council began.

In 1970, the university established the Centre for the Study of the Second Vatican Council, which still operates today with the aim of collecting materials documenting the history of the Council and advancing and support ongoing research of it.

The last pope to visit Belgium was Saint John Paul II in 1995, when he beatified Father Damien of Molokai, a Belgian missionary with the order of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who spent his life serving a leper colony in Hawaii before finally succumbing to the disease himself in 1889.

A decade prior, John Paul II in 1985 had conducted a more extensive tour of Belgium, making stops in Leuven, Namur, Beauraing, Antwerp, Banneux, Liège, and Mechelen.

In addition to whatever message Francis might deliver about Vatican II and the state of Europe, he will also likely reference Belgium’s clerical abuse crisis, as his visit will come amid a parliamentary inquiry into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, which began last fall, and which has called for a special commissioner for sexual abuse and violence towards minors and vulnerable persons.

Whatever the pope says and does in Belgium, it will happen under the shadow of the abuse inquiry and whatever results might come out, meaning he will have to navigate the fallout as he attempts to make his message land.

Pope Francis’s brief stopover in Luxembourg is seen as mostly being a favor to Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, a fellow Jesuit who has served as Archbishop of Luxembourg since 2011 and is a member of the pope’s Council of Cardinals.

Hollerich previously served as president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) and is currently relator general of the pope’s ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality, a multi-year global consultative process set to close with a second Rome-based gathering this October.

Seen as a close papal ally who shares much of Pope Francis’s pastoral agenda and strategy, Hollerich also has a personal tie to the pope through a shared affinity for Asia.

Pope Francis shortly after his election to the papacy said in an interview that as a young Jesuit, he had wanted to travel to Japan as a missionary, given the history of Jesuit missions in the country and the period of persecution they endured, which served as the premise for Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film, “Silence.”

Hollerich visited Japan for the first time in 1985, spending four years there immersing himself in the local culture and learning the Japanese language, which he still speaks fluently to this day.

He completed his theological studies at Sophia University in Tokyo and obtained a licentiate degree at the at Saint Georgen University of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt from 1989-1990, before returning to Japan, where he remained until his appointment to Luxembourg in 2011.

Prior to his stint as president of COMECE from 2018-2023, Hollerich was seen as an advocate of migrants and as empowering lay leadership in his diocese. He was tapped as a participant in Pope Francis’s 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family, and in the pope’s 2018 synod on youth.

He was created a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2019 and has continued to distinguish himself as a key friend and ally of Pope Francis. Given his role in the current Synod on Synodality and as a member of the pope’s Council of Cardinals, he is responsible for advising Francis on important matters of Church governance and reform and is responsible for implementing those reforms in the global Church.

Pope John Paul II traveled to Luxembourg for a day trip in 1985, meaning it has been nearly 40 years since the country has had a papal visit. Pope Francis’s stop, then, is seen in part as an overdue return visit of the Catholic Church’s shepherd, but also as a favor to one of his closest friends and allies.

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