Pope Francis, the first non-European pontiff in over a millennia, gave two speeches in Strasbourg on Tuesday during his first major European visit, addressing the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, respectively. The visit was short – less than four hours long – but E.U. officials are hoping it will suffice to give a boost to the bloc’s flagging reputation. Prior to the pope’s arrival, the president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz noted that Pope Francis is “a point of reference not only for Catholics but for many other people as well.” (Schulz was part of the team that traveled to the Vatican in late October to meet the pope and presumably urge him to take a positive tone during his visit).
That Brussels is looking to the Church for support is curious – religion is flagging in Europe, where only 24% of its residents are Catholic, even as nationalist ardor is on the rise. The European Union is facing growing Europhobia, voter fatigue and renegade states; only one member state (Germany) is on track to reach the E.U.’s budgetary targets in 2015. Unemployment hovers around 10%, and youth unemployment exceeds 40% in some countries. Meaning Europe can use all the help it can get. And waning religiosity notwithstanding, there is a historical precedent for papal involvement in Europe’s evolution. Pope Francis’ two immediate predecessors, Jean Paul II and Benoît XVI, were both first hand witnesses to the upheavals faced by Europe in the 20th century and strong advocates against the continent’s secularization.
But Tuesday saw Pope Francis more concerned with Europe’s failings than with proselytizing. He described the continent as grandmotherly, before criticizing the state of worker rights and the clumsy handling of the influx of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. He added:
We encounter a general impression of weariness and ageing, of a Europe that is no longer fertile and vibrant. The great ideas that once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions.
His comments stand in stark contrast to the last speech made by a pope in Strasbourg in 1988, when Pope John Paul II called Europe “a beacon of civilization” during an address to the European Parliament.
Though, the Catholic leader also emphasized the importance of a united continent – albeit without delving much into specifics like continuing tensions in Ukraine or the rise of nationalist political parties. In sum, the pope’s discourse offered a light tap on the wrist and vague encouragement. Add to that flagging faith in both religion and a united Europe, and it’s difficult to imagine the pope’s words resonating far beyond his four-hour visit – one of the shortest in papal history.