Exactly one week after the May 6 speech Pope Francis gave in accepting the prestigious Charlemagne Prize (awarded for work done in the service of European unity), another in a series of planning meetings for this summer’s World Youth Day in Krakow was held. The choice of Krakow as the venue is a tribute to John Paul II, who held the World Youth Day of 1991 in Czestochowa. That was just a few months before the Bishops’ Synod Special Assembly for Europe, eastern nations of which had only recently liberated themselves from communism. The future of Europe looked somewhat brighter then than it does today. The future of European Catholicism also looked different, as did the papal teaching on Europe.
Francis has reinterpreted and updated the positions on Europe of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, putting the accent on the relationship between Catholicism and Europe and emphasizing the pluralistic roots of the continent. This was clear in his May 6 speech; he did not mention the “Christian roots” (or “Jewish-Christian roots”) to which the European Union should return, which was something of a mantra for his predecessors. Instead, he referenced Erich Przywara, one of his favorite theologians, in advancing his main point: “The roots of our peoples, the roots of Europe, were consolidated down the centuries by the constant need to integrate in new syntheses the most varied and discrete cultures. The identity of Europe is, and always has been, a dynamic and multicultural identity.” The church has a part to play in the revitalization of Europe, according to Francis, but it is not the role of guardian in modern Europe’s cultural conformity to a hypostatized Catholic tradition. Rather, it is the role of witness to the Gospel: “Only a church rich in witnesses will be able to bring back the pure water of the Gospel to the roots of Europe. In this enterprise, the path of Christians towards full unity is a great sign of the times and a response to the Lord’s prayer ‘that they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21).”
While Francis’s position on Europe is not quite that of his predecessors, I believe the difference is more marked between Francis and Benedict than it is between Francis and John Paul II. Francis, it should be pointed out, is also one of the few Catholic bishops in Europe who has the courage to repeat John Paul II’s teachings on social issues like capital and labor, human rights, and migrants and refugees. It is noteworthy that those Catholics who cite John Paul II in opposing any possible change in the church (especially on marriage and family) seem forgetful of his words on these other issues.
At the moment, the witness to the Gospel of Christian politicians now facing the most serious humanitarian emergency since World War II looks more like a counter-witness. Especially in Eastern Europe, Christians in positions of power are adopting policies that are the opposite of what John Paul II said during his pontificate about migrants and refugees (Andrea Tornielli has compiled a list of his statements in the Italian-language edition of Vatican Insider). This is particularly evident in Poland and in Hungary. But it is a virus that has spread to the heart of Catholic Europe: from the Poland of John Paul II and Solidarność to the territories of the former Habsburg Empire, especially Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, and northern Italy.
Many Catholic bishops in these countries have quietly supported the anti-refugee policies put in place by their governments. Other bishops have made a point in distancing themselves from the unambiguous words of Francis (in his now famous answer to the question about Donald Trump) on the need to build bridges of dialogue, not walls. Most of these bishops are not enthusiasts of Francis to begin with, to put it mildly. The position of the Polish and Hungarian bishops during the synodal process of 2014 and 2015—as well as questionnaire phase preceding it—is instructive in this regard.
By comparison, the position of the U.S. bishops on immigration makes them more credible followers of John Paul II. With the presidential campaign in full swing, many of the elite in the GOP are apparently trying to find a way to rally around Donald Trump. One can only hope that the U.S. bishops will say soon—both individually and collegially as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops—something that honors the tradition of the American episcopate’s engagement on the immigration issue.