Pope Francis received in private audience Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, on Oct. 11.
The Holy Father and the Catholic-educated but self-declared atheist German politician spent 30 minutes in private talks, during which Schulz invited the Pope to give an address to the Parliament, which is the legislative body of the European Union.
Unusual for such an audience, the Vatican did not release a statement, but according to Schulz, issues relating to poverty, youth unemployment and immigration were discussed. Particular reference was made to the Oct. 3 tragedy off the Italian island of Lampedusa in which more than 300 refugees, mostly from Eritrea, drowned in a shipwreck.
Oct. 11 was the exact day 25 years ago that Blessed Pope John Paul II addressed the Parliament at its headquarters in Strasbourg, France — a point Schulz noted in an editorial he penned for L’Osservatore Romano on Oct. 11. Schulz wrote that he was concerned about Europe’s "slow but inexorable decline," saying the continent "must again be animated by a renewed sense of dedication to clear objectives."
Lampedusa, he wrote, represented "indelible scars for Europe," and he called for changes to how Europe engages with refugees’ countries of origin and the implementation of an improved rescue system. Referring to high levels of youth unemployment, he said Europe is betraying its young citizens.
Despite the Pope’s tendency to make spontaneous gestures, Francis did not accept Schulz’s invitation to address the Parliament immediately, but sources say they would not be surprised if he did. Benedict XVI was similarly invited to Strasbourg, although he never went.
But what is most interesting about this visit, though it is hard to gauge without a Vatican communiqué, is the change of mood and the fact that an atheist head of the European Parliament was so willing to visit the Pope. One informed source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Register there has so far been "absolutely no backlash" against Schulz for the meeting.
This is in contrast to his Christian predecessors, such as the socially and fiscally conservative German Hans-Gert Pöttering and the Polish Jerzy Buzek, who both received fierce criticism from militant anti-clerical secularists in the socialist and politically liberal groups within the European Parliament after meeting Benedict XVI.
The source also observed that "gone are the days when popes used to raise with European leaders issues such as ensuring a mention of God appeared in the European Constitution or the contribution of Europe’s Christian heritage." Time has healed those disputes, he said, and the issues have "moved on."
Others, however, are not so sure and fear that political correctness and an unwillingness among Christians to be humiliated again have taken over.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Benjamin Harnwell, founder of the Rome-based Dignitatis Humanae Institute, said: "The only reason that these days are gone is because Christians haven’t recovered yet from the humiliation of the last rejection and don’t want to leap straight back into another drubbing from the militant secularists."
Harnwell, who is also a former researcher in the European Parliament, further noted that, in 2006, Schulz was so offended at German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s desire for a reference to Christianity in the EU Constitutional Treaty that he led the successful revolt against it.
There is also a strong sense among observers that Christians now lack either the courage or the confidence to promote, and to have fully recognized, Christianity’s historic contribution to European culture at the international treaty level. This has further led to an unwillingness to even broach the most difficult and grave concerns of the day, whether they be abortion, same-sex "marriage" or euthanasia — all on the increase throughout Europe.
Some Vatican watchers contend this was seen in the papal meeting and say it was little more than a superficial attempt to show unity, a presumption of dialogue, but one that cannot refer — even implicitly — to those subjects where there is a significant lack of agreement.
Harnwell believes the EU Parliament chief has his eye on the European elections, which will take place next June. "The socialists don’t expect to do too well," he said, adding that photographs of Schulz hosting the Pope in Strasbourg "might go down well with an otherwise hostile voter base."
But on a personal level, Schulz clearly respects Pope Francis, and, as an additional sign of his openness to dialogue with the Church, he brought the local parish priest with him as part of his delegation.