Pope Francis will use a coming visit to Belgium to proclaim his message to Europe – but he will avoid the EU institutions

For now, the Pope is not expected to visit the European institutions in Brussels. Some have speculated that Pope Francis may pass by Luxembourg before or after the visit to Louvain. (EPA/CHRISTIAN HARTMANN)


Pope Francis has announced that he will travel to Belgium later this year to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the Catholic University of Louvain or Leuven. Like much else in Belgium, the university split in two on linguistic grounds in the 1960s.

The trip has not yet been made official, but it is commonly believed that it will take place this coming September.

For now, the Pope is not expected to visit the European institutions in Brussels. Some have speculated that Pope Francis may pass by Luxembourg before or after the visit to Louvain.

However, the absence of the European institutions from Pope Francis’s programme may be particularly significant.

Pope Francis visited the European institutions in Strasbourg in 2014, giving a speech to the Council of Europe and one to the European Parliament.

He returned on several occasions. He received the Charlemagne Prize in 2016, given to people who have distinguished themselves in the European integration project. He met the heads of state of the European Union on March 24, 2017, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.

Pope Francis’ European concerns

Pope Francis once again turned to the topic of Europe during a private audience granted to Bishop Mariano Crociata, the president of the Commission of the Episcopal Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), in January.

Speaking with SIR, the agency of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Crociata said, “Pope Francis, as always, has shown himself to be sensitive and at times thoughtful about the path of the European Union, especially in this phase. He always starts from the initial inspiration of the Union, as found in the great figures who started it immediately after the tragedy of the Second World War”.

He added that Pope Francis “has the freedom of Europe at heart, understood above all as the breath of peoples”. He underlined that the Pope believes enlargement of the bloc is essential, because “the more the European Union takes on the dimensions of Europe, the more it distances the possibility of wars on our continent.”

Crociata also underlined the need to look at migration in a positive way to counteract the demographic winter, and that what is important now is to better manage migratory flows into the content.

The Pope is also said to be deeply concerned with ongoing wars, in particular the one in Ukraine, a war in the heart of Europe.

Faced with all these massive issues, why could the Pope avoid a meeting in the European institutions?

A political issue

The plan is for Pope Francis to go to Belgium at the end of September, after June’s European elections which are expected to substantially change the face of the European parliament.

If the more right-leaning parties win a majority, we would be faced with the tricky political situation of a Pope who takes very different positions on hot topics such as migration.

Paradoxically, the Pope would find himself in the same position as the conservative parties of Central Europe, particularly Hungary, regarding the war in Ukraine and the search for peace, and at odds with them in terms of migration and social issues.

In September, the new European Commission may still be in flux. To whom, then, would Pope Francis speak? Who should receive his message?

Then there are the questions regarding what issues Pope Francis should actually speak on during his visit.

Pope Francis seemingly sees risks in giving a speech to a Europe that is redefining itself and will probably be different after the coming elections

Some of the possibilities include issues that have characterised the Pope’s pontificate and European magisterium so far: the demographic winter, the defence of life, the need to preach the Gospel in a secularised world, openness towards migrants who should not be considered as numbers but as people, peace and the need for Europe to look to the founding fathers.

However, waiting until after the elections could risk dampening the impact of any statements on these issues amid the chaos of post-election Brussels.

A matter of principle

Furthermore, Pope Francis has already visited European institutions, making it difficult to repeat the trip. During the pontificate, the only location the Pope has visited twice has been Cuba.

The first of these trips lasted four days, with the visit preceding a trip to the United States for the World Meeting of Families. It was September 2015.

Then, he returned to Cuba in transit on February 12, 2016, en route to Mexico. On that occasion, Pope Francis met the Patriarch of Moscow Kirill at José Marti airport, and the two signed a joint declaration.

A similar return to the European institutions seems to be ruled out, however.

Pope Francis also has the option of visiting Luxembourg instead of Brussels before going to the Catholic university.

Luxembourg officials have denied an official papal trip is planned soon. However, a brief visit remains a possibility because Luxembourg is one of the “small nations” that the Pope always makes a point of travelling to.

A theological issue

The theological importance that the Pope would like to give the trip should not be underestimated.

Founded in 1425, The Catholic University of Leuven is 600 years old, although, since 1968, it has been split into French and Dutch-speaking universities.

The University is one of the oldest Catholic universities in the world, but in recent years, it has also been considered the cradle of progressive thought.

Gustavo Gutierrez, the founder of Liberation Theology, or the theology that explained history using Marxist categories, trained in Leuven. Gutierrez then amended and corrected his thoughts with two interventions from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

But the history of “progressive” Leuven dates back to the times of the Second Vatican Council, when Cardinal Leon Suenens, archbishop of Malines-Brussels, was one of the moderators of the assembly, going down in history as the standard-bearer of more progressive positions, inspired by theologians such as the Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx, who also trained in Leuven.

However, Pope Francis could see in Leuven one of the wellsprings of the Second Vatican Council, which he says he wants to evoke.

By paying homage to Leuven, Pope Francis may also be aiming to give a strong signal about the continuing relevance of the Second Vatican Council. Louvain would thus necessarily be the centre point of the papal trip.

It would be easy for the trip to be coloured by political themes. UC Louvain has issued a statement recalling that the two universities (UC Louvain and KU Leuven) were “founded as a single entity in 1425, and in 2025, they will want to celebrate the past, but above all innovation and the future. The coming of Pope Francis will offer a unique opportunity to discuss the priorities of today’s society, particularly the ecological and social transition and migration.”

And therefore, even if he did not give any speech to the European institutions, Pope Francis could take advantage of the university audience to relay his message to Europe.