From his meeting with the European Parliament and the Council of Europe at Strasbourg, to his visit to Turkey, the end of November is looking quite busy for Pope Francis. The tireless Pontiff is planning a double international trip, which will be his fifth and sixth since the beginning of his pontificate.
The first will be to Strasbourg on November 25th, where, at the invitation of the President, Martin Schulz, the Pontiff will take part in an assembly of the European Parliament and will visit the Council of Europe. The second, from November 28-30, will be to Ankara and Istanbul in Turkey, on the occasion of the celebration of the feast of Saint Andrew, Patron of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
The importance of those dates determined the “unusual closeness” of the two trips, as the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, observed in yesterday’s briefing at the Holy See Press Office. He also noted that the Pope’s trip to Strasbourg will set a record in the history of the papacy. Staying for a total of 3 hours and 50 minutes on land, Fr. Lombardi said that it will be the “the shortest trip ever made by a Pontiff.”
Fr. Lombardi then clarified the nature of the Pope’s trip to the French city. “It is a trip that does not have any pastoral, religious, or liturgical event, but solely to honor the invitation made by the two European institutions. The Pope had other wishes, but he preferred to ‘contain’ the trip in Europe and not in France,” he said; So much so that he even declined the invitation of the Archbishop of Strasbourg to visit the historic Cathedral, which this year celebrates its millennial anniversary.
The protocol will also respect the Holy Father’s wishes. For instance, French President François Hollande will not receive the Pope, but rather the Minister of State for European Affairs, Harlem Désir.
Mr. Désir will accompany the Holy Father from the airport to the European chamber in an armoured car rather than the Popemobile since the Holy Father will not be making any public stops.
“Despite the brevity, however, the trip will be an occasion of very great importance,” affirmed Father Lombardi, through which “the Pope will speak to the whole of Europe.”
Both, Fr. Lombardi specified, are very different institutions: the first organism, which is elective, is part of the European Union and has 751 elected deputies from 28 Member States, which represent 508 million citizens. The second, born much earlier, is made up, instead, by national parliamentarians representing 47 Member States, also form the East, such as Ukraine and Russia. In fact, to have the possibility to visit the Council of Europe, the Pope preferred to go to Strasbourg and not to Brussels.
Describing the program, the Vatican spokesman explained that, after an introductory address by President Schulz of the European Chamber, Pope Francis will meet with the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, rotating President of the EU Council; Jean Claude Junker, new President of the EU Commission, and Herman Van Rompuy, outgoing President of the European Council.
Then he will go to the Council of Europe, where he will be welcomed by Thorbjorn Jagland, the Secretary General, and the Swiss President of the Parliamentary Assembly, Anne Brasseur, before giving the second address of the second extraordinary session. Present, in addition to the Nuncios to the two institutions, will be Cardinal Peter Erdo, President of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE), and Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Monaco of Bavaria and President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE). Arriving at the Strasbourg airport at 10:00 am, the Pope will leave for Rome at 1:50 pm.
The Vatican spokesman addressed a journalist’s question regarding protests by some parliamentarians over the Pontiff’s presence at the European institutions. Fr. Lombardi said that “as we all well know, the Pope is not a political Head of State with military and economic powers and particular interests.” His presence in the world of international organizations is seeing as “that of a known personality at the international and global level, as a great authority of religious and moral character.
“The States and institutions themselves,” he added, “wish to have relations with this authority, to have representatives to this authority – think of the Ambassadors to the Holy See. And the political authorities of the world also recognize what the Pope does and says for the values of humanity.”
Fr. Lombardi noted that other religious leaders also share those sentiments. In particular, Patriarch Bartholomew, who, he noted, has had a “profound and true friendship” with the Holy Father since the first Mass at the beginning of his Petrine ministry. The Patriarch himself, together with the President of the Republic, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the President of the Episcopal Conference, invited the Pope to Turkey, to also keep alive the tradition of trips of Peter’s Successor.
The Director of the Holy See Press Office then confirmed the intense program of the stops in Ankara and Istanbul, which was released on October 21.
Addressing the controversy surrounding President Erdogan’s palace where Pope Francis will be received, Fr. Lombardi said that “it is a problem that does not concern the Holy See or the Pope.”
“Although he is an authority, the Pope is a person who is invited and he goes, as every polite person would, where the President receives him.”
Regarding the Pope’s visit to the Blue Mosque, Fr. Lombardi said that he will not hold a “formal or public prayer,” but, rather, a moment of “personal recollection.”
The Pope, he said, “without expressing exteriorly specific attitudes or words of Christianity, will place himself before God in an attitude of respect, also for such an important place for another religion.”