Cardinal-Elect on Re-Evangelizing Europe: ‘We Must Be Apostles of Hope’

Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg makes a point at a news conference at the Vatican Press Office on Oct. 10, 2018. (Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

 |  Sep. 3, 2019

Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, the president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, discusses the different issues and challenges Europe currently faces in a wide-ranging interview.

ROME — More than 5,000 members of the International Union of Guides and Scouts of Europe flocked to Rome Aug. 2 for the final destination of the 2019 Euromoot. There, after a week of hiking through central Italy, the participants met Pope Francis during an audience in the Vatican Aug. 3. Accompanying them was Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, the president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE).

Less than a month later, on Sept. 1, Pope Francis announced that the Luxembourg archbishop will be one of 10 new cardinal-electors who will receive a red hat at a consistory on Oct. 5.

Archbishop Hollerich, 61, who is also a former missionary in Japan, one of the founders of the Catholic Scouts of Europe in Luxembourg, and the president of the Youth Commission of the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE), shared his experiences as a scout and provided guidance to the Euromoot participants during a special gathering the day before their meeting with the Holy Father.

In this interview last month with the Register, Archbishop Hollerich discusses the new measures taken against the scourge of sexual abuses within the Church, the migrant crisis, the future of Europe in light of Brexit and the missionary challenges to re-evangelize the  continent.

You are in Rome for a few days, on the occasion of 2019 Euromoot. What does it mean to be a Catholic scout nowadays? And as a president of the Youth Commission of CCEE, what is, according to you, the importance of Catholic education in today’s world?

I think that, today, young people need a clear identity. Very often, at school, they feel alone as Christians, especially in public schools. So a big support is needed. They need support from friends especially, so that they can continue to live their faith. I saw that scouting, especially Scouts of Europe, do work to respond to those needs. And then scouting, through closeness to nature and creation, friendship, respect between men and women, teaches something very important to young people.

More generally, Catholic education is very important, as it helps young Catholics live their faith. We are no longer a majority in Europe, we are a minority now, and, as such, we must act through different means, especially through education. And, clearly, relativism and ultraprogressive Catholicism is no longer enough. It destroys the Church. So we must strengthen the Church through a sound education.

I am happy that the scouts can meet the Pope here in Rome, as he is a “radical” of the Gospel. I think that if we could use the current elements of a renewal within the Church, the new movements as well as the Scouts of Europe, and make it converge with Pope Francis’ engagement for the poor, it would be a chance for the Church’s renewal.

You were the moderator of one of the two Francophone groups to the Vatican sexual-abuse summit at the end of February 2019, and you made strong statements in the press on this occasion. How are the European bishops concretely acting at the diocesan level? And what are the strategies that should be put in place?

I think that, now, all the bishops are aware that there is a real and deep issue here. And our main issue is not that the press is overreacting against the Church, but the very fact that we are facing a real problem within the Church. Our credibility is at stake here, and we must focus on the victims because they have suffered and continue to suffer immensely.

It is extremely important that the Church shows she is on the victims’ side and not on the perpetrators’ side. In my own Diocese of Luxembourg, we have established good measures for seminarians, for all those that will be ordained. All of them must go through sessions of psychological tests, eight sessions in total, in order to determine whether the person has pedophile tendencies or not.

Obviously, we don’t want to know anything apart from this, as these sessions are confidential, but we must have knowledge of this specific fact if it exists. And if it turns out that there is a pedophile tendency, the person will never be ordained, for sure. If no crime has been committed, we will not punish people, but we will make sure they will never be put in contact with young people.

Is this measure already applied elsewhere?

From what I know, it is not a widely spread practice yet, but I think that bishops will learn from that. When I was appointed bishop, I met a lot of victims. And I cried with them. These stories are so sad. And I saw that these crimes, which so often go way back, completely destroyed the victims’ lives. They are unable to have a normal life as a couple. The past always haunts them, and we can see that these abuses destroyed their personality.

So another thing I want to do is to make myself and other bishops accountable, for it is a common criticism raised against the Church that bishops are not accountable for anything. I think these criticisms are legitimate. It is not a duty incumbent on bishops as such, but it is something we should do by ourselves.

The leaders must be accountable for abuses within the Church. And in my diocese, for instance, it is envisioned that there will be a group made of Christians, laypeople and people outside the Church, a group to whom I will render an account on the basis of what happened over the year. If there were abuses and victims, I shall tell him how we will react to those acts. I think we must act in full transparency.

Do you feel that there is a greater awareness in the Church in European countries after the recent scandals?

Definitely. Some societies, like Germany, were more touched, and since a lot of time. I think that, in France, for instance, there is a growing awareness, and the dioceses are reacting positively. In Poland, as well, after the shocking documentary [Tell No One] was released, the bishops strongly reacted there. I think that the Church is on the right track. And I would be glad if the Church could show the world that it is possible to address this issue and that we must not be afraid to do so for the sake of children and people in general. Because there are also big similar issues within the sports world, in the music business, academies, education … and so on. Therefore, we could pave the way for others and be an example.

On May 24, you called for the opening of humanitarian corridors in Europe, which is a controversial topic, even among the Catholic faithful. This issue is creating a severe disagreement between the faithful and the Church’s authorities on the continent. Cardinal Pietro Parolin recently said that it has become necessary to dialogue with the so-called European populists (such as Matteo Salvini, who heads La Lega party in Italy), who are attracting more and more Catholics willing to stop mass immigration. What is your own view on this matter?

First of all, I am totally on the same line as Pope Francis. It is not a political question. We cannot let people die. It goes against all of the Gospel’s teachings. So we must react and save people. We must make sacrifices to save human lives. I find terrible that, even today, an African life is not as valuable as a European or an American life. It is incompatible with the Gospel. But at the same time, Christ has always dialogued with everyone. And the Church must be in dialogue with everyone, while following the Gospel’s line.

Some nationalist Christians are against mass immigration, as they see it as a threat to their countries’ stability, especially because the vast majority of new immigrants are Muslim, and they want to protect the Christian identity of Europe, which is already deeply weakened in many countries. Are they to be considered bad Catholics?

I just think these people are exaggerating. I don’t think that our children’s lives are put in danger by immigration. At the Pope’s request, together with Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, I’ve been to Lesbos for the third anniversary of the Holy Father’s visit to this Greek island. I saw such extreme poverty. I’ve been told about suicides of children. I thought that we must do something and help them.

The situation is very difficult for local inhabitants, as well, as they don’t even have the means to welcome all of these migrants. And they are suffering doubly, as they also have to face the negative economic consequences of such a migration crisis.

You’re right. I think we made a mistake in letting the governments organize migration. And I think it would be better if civil society could take care of it from now on. Because if civil society was responsible for migration, then integration would be made far easier. The states’ structures are better than nothing, but they sometimes lack a soul. The help they provide can be mechanical even if many good people work in these structures.

I see, for instance, the success of the Sant’Egidio Community’s humanitarian corridors. As long as people are welcomed by communities, integration is possible, and it also improves language learning. There is a big linguistic school in the district of Trastevere in Rome, also run by the community of Sant’Egidio. I’ve visited the school, and I could see the dedication of migrants in learning Italian. There is a real fraternal dimension between Christians and Muslims, as these two religions are practiced by the refugees. I noticed a great respect, and those who lack this respect must learn it.

I am not in favor of a migration based on naivete, which would let everything happen, with the conviction that all those who are coming to Europe are angels. But I think that we cannot let people drown, even bad people.   

How do you see the future of Europe in the aftermath of the European elections, which revealed another division between pro-European Union and anti-EU Catholics? More specifically, what do you think about Boris Johnson’s recent election as prime minister of England and his commitment to accomplish Brexit by the end of October?

First of all, I think that the Catholic Church must respect democratic institutions. If England chooses Brexit through a referendum, through its democratic structures, we must respect that. Because we shouldn’t forget that Europe is a project for peace. And because I love young people so much, I wouldn’t like to see them die for some nationalist stupidities.

Let’s take the example of the political issues in Libya and the rebellion against its government: Italy and France are at odds on this matter because their national interests diverge, notably regarding sources of oil controlled by the two countries.

If the EU didn’t exist, the situation between France and Italy would be critical. There would be a political confrontation at every level. The EU is not a 100% ideal solution, and it cannot intervene in Libya since there is no unity among its authorities on this matter. But at least the discrepancies between Italy and France don’t generate direct confrontations between the two countries. And this is a lot. So we must do anything we can to protect peace, in a more and more globalized world. The existence of the EU should be maintained, and it should be a strength of peace in the world.

There are currently very alarming signals. For instance, more and more European countries sell weapons to countries in armed conflicts. I think that 20 years ago it wouldn’t have happened. Moral consciousness seems to be weakening within European governments. And as the president of COMECE, I cannot but urge people not to sell weapons in war zones.

Most of the critics of the EU claim that this entity is no longer the peace project originally designed by Alcide De Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman — the founding fathers of the EU — at the end of World War II. According to such a view, the EU has become nothing more than a Brussels-centered bureaucratic institution, which has less and less regard for national democracies and sovereignties. Could there be some truth in it?

I think we can definitely improve the EU, clearly. It would be good if we could create new things like new European media, in order to have a European public. In order to ensure that a democracy lives, there must be discussions and debates between the different populations on political matters. In Europe, everything is compartmentalized according to countries or languages. So there is no European public. And the members of the European Parliament are thus often far away from their constituency and the people they represent. But they are often replaced by new representatives, and the recent elections in May provoked a real renewal of European representatives, whereas European bureaucrats remained in place.

In any case, the frequency of elections can make democracy even stronger than in national states. We must be aware of that. Political legitimacy is made possible by regular elections. People must feel that they are represented by their parliamentarians.

So we must be attentive to that and speak a simple language. The European language is very technical. It is good for experts, but the various policies should be explained so that every citizen can understand and express one’s opinion. There is still a lot to be done.

Speaking of European issues, what could be, in your opinion, some possible ways of re-evangelization — or New Evangelization — in a widely de-Christianized Europe?

I think evangelization is a pressing need. Actually, I am happy that you’re asking me this because, usually, journalists just ask me about political and social issues. I feel like a missionary. I’ve been a missionary in Japan for 23 years. And it is now necessary to be a missionary in Europe. It is necessary to live one’s faith in Christ without any fear, without hiding, and to bear witness to Christ.

And I think that if we can connect all of the renewal movements within the Church (and there are a lot of movements) with the Pope’s line of radical service for the poor and people on the margins, through prayers and spiritual renewal, then there could be a new spring for the Church in Europe. And we must be apostles of hope, for there are too much apostles of different pessimisms nowadays. We must radiate hope, as hope only can bring people together.

I am happy because the next CCEE meeting [of the Council of Conferences of European Bishops] in October 2019, which will take place in Santiago de Compostela [Spain], will be precisely on hope. And at the end of August, there will be the International Congress of European theologians, for which I have been asked to introduce the sessions with a talk on hope. So we can feel that, everywhere, this topic is becoming more and more important.

As Christians, in the current climate of desperation, we must be men and women of hope, as we believe in the Risen Savior, Jesus Christ. This is why we cannot isolate Christian hope in a metaphysical concept. Such hope must be concrete and be brought in people’s life. 

Solène Tadié is the Registers Rome-based Europe correspondent.


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