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Patsy McGarry: Pope Francis and Merkel show their mettle in refugee crisis

This pope called on every Catholic parish and religious community in Europe to take in a migrant family each

‘Pope Francis’s first visit outside Rome was to the island of Lampedusa, which has long been a European arrival point for African migrants, 20,000 of whom have drowned trying to get there this past 20 years.’ Photograph: Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

It was Sunday, April 24th, 2005, in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Among the huge crowds were many Germans, there for the investiture of their very own Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. The crowds were jubilant, the Germans were not. They were pleased, but in a shy sort of way. Included were contingents from the new pope’s Bavaria, where he had been Archbishop of Munich.

I asked Stefan Rieger, a 37-year-old fireman from near Regensburg in Bavaria, if he was proud to be German on the day. He replied: “It is difficult to say ‘proud’, especially with our history.” But he was “happy that this man is pope”.

Further up the square, Fr Christopher Eichkorn was carrying a large European Union flag with a small German one above it. He was from Freiberg diocese near the German-Swiss border and was accompanied by his sisters Cornelia and Dominica.

“We are very glad to have a pope from Bavaria – the first German one for 500 years. From the country which started the Reformation, and which started two world wars. We now have a special chance to start a new time in our country,” he said.

The election of Pope Benedict had been “good for the German people”, he said, but he was “shocked” when it happened. “I couldn’t believe a pope would come from Germany. ”

All three were “very unhappy with English tabloid headlines”, they said. So too was Christina Weinzier from Rohrdorf, near Munich. “They should give him a chance first,” she said.

 

God’s Rottweiler

The Sun had greeted Pope Benedict’s election with: “From Hitler Youth to Papa Ratzi. ” The Daily Express let it be known the new pope was known as “God’s Rottweiler,” and the “Panzer Cardinal”.

 

That was how Germans knew they were viewed 10 years ago – and it made them reticent and watchful, awaiting the put-down. Maybe not so much any more.

In recent weeks Germany has proved itself to be the warm, beating heart of Europe in its dealings with the migrant tragedy. No other EU country has come close in addressing this human catastrophe or in living up to the ideals on which the union was founded.

Germany has become the new Promised Land for these huddled masses trying to get away from horror, people for whom the Reformation and the two world wars have little relevance. This year alone Germany is prepared to take in 800,000 migrants, which is equivalent to 40,000 in Irish terms.

It is all so different from Britain, whose prime minister described migrants at Calais as a “swarm”, or Hungary, whose prime minister said they would accept only Christians while putting migrants through a latter-day purgatory in Budapest before forcing them to march on.

 

Ageing country

The more cynical say an ageing Germany needs young people to help pay its pensions. Germany is not the only ageing country in Europe but no other one has held out its arms in such welcome to the fleeing thousands.

The Germany of chancellor Angela Merkel is leading by example, both in how it has put its financial house in order and in living up to the ideals of the EU. That this has been turned against her by prime minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary says a lot about him.

At the European Parliament in 2012, Orbán told us media “the values of family, church, personal responsibility” were “very dear to us. They are part and parcel of European culture. We would like to see Europe become more Christian and we should have the right to say so.”

After last week’s scenes in Budapest, you have to wonder about Orbán’s idea of a Europe which was “more Christian”. (By background he is Protestant, while his wife is Catholic).

You would also wonder how he feels about Pope Francis? This pope, whose first visit outside Rome was to the island of Lampedusa, which has long been a European arrival point for African migrants, 20,000 of whom have drowned trying to get there this past 20 years.

This pope who last Sunday called on every Catholic parish and religious community in Europe to take in a migrant family each. (There are 1,087 such parishes on the island of Ireland). It is a Christianity Orbán may have difficulty in recognising.

This migrant crisis has thrown up two leaders of outstanding moral stature in Europe, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Pope Francis.

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent