Pope wants Europe to look beyond its borders

By Christopher Lamb
Sunday, May 15, 2016

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis was called from the ends of the earth to lead the Catholic Church, as he put it on the night of his election, but the first Latin American pope is now being asked to help with the crisis facing Europe. European political leaders travelled to the Vatican May 6 to award Pope Francis the prestigious Charlemagne Prize for building unity across the continent.

Before receiving the award in the Vatican’s Sala Regina Hall, Francis met with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and de facto leader of the European Union, and other EU leaders including Martin Schulz, Jean- Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk. It was Merkel’s third private meeting with the pope, who she believes has an important role to play on the world stage. Also in attendance were the King of Spain and Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank. This signifies the moral authority that Pope Francis has gained in what is something of a leadership vacuum in the Western world.

Along with European leaders, the pope recently had visits from Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party presidential hopeful. It is perhaps unsurprising that politicians want to spend time with the pope. He has incredibly high approval ratings across the world and has taken bold steps to address global problems such as the migrant crisis and climate change. Of course, he has the luxury of not needing to worry about poll numbers.

Francis has taught politicians aspiring to be statespeople a basic lesson in leadership: rather than obsessing about the daily ups and downs of news cycles, the most important thing to focus on is the big picture. When it comes to Europe, Francis has demonstrated this well, especially when it relates to the migrant crisis. He has repeatedly called for more to be done to welcome migrants, and last month made the dramatic move of bringing back 12 Muslim refugees on the papal plane after a trip to the Greek Island of Lesbos.

The pope has been critical of European leaders’ weak response to the migrant crisis, comparing them to Pontius Pilate for “washing their hands” of the problem. He described the continent as a “grandmother” weary and no longer fertile. He is concerned about Europe’s low birthrates, the lack of jobs for young people and the building of “walls” to block newcomers.

Yet, as Francis explained in his May 6 acceptance speech, he has a “dream” for the continent. The pope called for a new “European Humanism,” which fosters dialogue with and integration of other cultures. In essence, he wants an outward looking Europe, one that sees its soul as “greater than the present borders” of the European Union.

While Francis did not mention the “Christian roots” of Europe, he did describe its identity as “dynamic and multicultural … consolidated down the centuries by the constant need to integrate in new syntheses the most varied and discrete cultures.” It was, he continued, up to the church to irrigate the continent’s Christian heritage, to “bring back the pure water of the Gospel to the roots of Europe.”

The pope has the freedom to take this approach precisely because he is an outsider from Argentina. This is also key to understanding the direction Pope Francis wants to take the church. Francis seems to want the Catholic world to learn from Latin America. This is a church where the needs of people take priority over rules and regulations; where leaders serve at the bottom of an inverted pyramid; where the world is shown the abundance of God’s mercy.

In a letter to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America released last month, Pope Francis expanded on this “bottom up” ecclesiology. Using characteristically forthright language, he called for the laity to take their place in the church and he criticized clericalism for fostering a view of them simply as “messengers.” While the letter was focused on the Latin American church, it carries global significance.

“I remember now the famous expression ‘it’s the time of the laity,’ but it seems that the clock has stopped,” the pope said. “It does us good to remember that the church is not an elite of priests, of consecrated men, of bishops, but that everyone forms the faithful Holy People of God.”

This is all about setting the church on a new course; releasing the great Catholic ocean liner from the harbor of internal debate to set sail on the seas of dialogue, openness and evangelization.

As a Jesuit, the key practice for him is discernment. Rising at 4:30 every morning to pray, Pope Francis makes his decisions while he is in his chapel, rather than his “office,” which is, according to one source, simply a small table. Francis is not a leader who likes to be surrounded by piles of paper, obsessing over policy or power games. Instead he keeps his eye on the big picture: a church where everyone is welcome, a church that reflects the face of God, which is mercy.

Yet while so many Catholics and world leaders respond well to his message, when it comes to reforming the Vatican, the pope still has his work cut out for him. Francis might have been elected by his fellow cardinals to institute a major reform of the central administration in Rome, but this is not without its challenges.

A Vatican audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which had been commissioned to provide a study of Holy See finances, was recently suspended. While this had been approved by the Council of the Economy and prefect of the Secretariat on the Economy Cardinal George Pell, the work was called to a halt by a senior official at the Holy See’s Secretariat of State. The concern appears to be that such an audit erroneously treats the church as a multinational corporation, even though it would bring the Holy See in line with international standards. Still, sources close to Cardinal Pell’s department say the work will soon resume.

Does this mean that reforms are stalling? The truth is that the Roman Curia is a difficult institution to change. Reforms take time. Indeed, the Curia has not undergone any major changes for many years. Three years into his papacy, Francis may recognize that he needs the Vatican, and particularly the Secretariat of State, to help.

In the meantime, the pope keeps up a pace that would exhaust a man half his age, and without a vacation. He is working away, almost like a Jesuit missionary, doing all he can to bring forward a new birth of the Gospel. While he has his critics, those close to him say that Francis is not afraid, and that he sees such criticism as healthy — it shows that what is taking place is meaningful change.


  • pope francis
  • refugees
  • europe
  • curial reform
  • charlemagne prize

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