It’s the chocolate time of the French children this morning, thanks to les cloches volantes – flying bells. Legend has it that in France the church bells are silent between good Friday and Easter Sunday, why fly to Rome to receive the blessing of the pope and then come back with a load of chocolate goodies. The children will be hunting in the grass for them as the sound of the bells ringing out the news of the resurrection of Christ. For a country that has always seemed secular, thanks to its sharp divide between church and state, France remains remarkably Catholic in its traditions.
But it is not the catholics or other Christian denominations who have dominated the political debate on religion in France, in the last few years. It is Islam that has filled the headlines of the newspapers, because, in the first place, the concern of a mass emigration from the Middle East and France, the former colonies in Africa, and, more recently, with the Islamic fundamentalism in Paris and Nice. There was also the murder of Father Jacques Hamel in July, killed as he prepared to celebrate Mass. The nation, the suffering, the killing of the priest before his altar, and strengthened identification with the church and moved to the Catholic opinion more to the right.
Even today, two-thirds of French people identify themselves as Catholics. The politicians have noticed this, as well as the right drift of the votes. Within a week, the French will vote in the first round of their presidential elections. The mood is angry . One in 10 of the workforce is unemployed. Poverty is on the rise. Just like the people in the USA and the UK rejected the status quo by voting for Trump and Brexit, the concern is growing that France would vote for the National Front of Marine Le Pen.
Le Pen, a divorced Catholic living with a new partner, describes herself as a catholique de parvis (a Catholic maintained just outside the city walls), cleverly trying to appeal to his co-religionists. But his brand of Catholicism includes the aversion to Islam, a review of the anti-semitism with the denial, the last week in Paris, the wartime roundup of Jews and a refusal of the EU project.
Elsewhere in Europe, there are similar stories of anti-establishment anger, populist politics, and, for the occasion, the claim of a version of Christianity in order to demonstrate a political. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who grew up as an atheist when Hungary belonged to the Soviet block, now insists on the fact that Christianity is, Hungary is the backbone and that this structure, which must be reinforced in order to preserve the nation, cultural identity, and counter the Muslim threat. Hungary revised the constitution “the role of Christianity in the preservation of a nation” and stated that he must protect his country, especially of Muslim migrants, to “maintain the Christian Europe”.
In Germany, where Angela Merkel’s popularity has dropped in a game-to its generous immigration policy, the right, openly anti-Muslim AfD party gains significant against Merkel, of the Christian democrats in local elections last year. It was the Christian democrats’ worst result and will be watching nervously to see if there is a repetition in the regional elections in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia.
The hostility expressed by the voters to opt for the far-right, populist parties is in conflict with the Gospel values shared by Europe for so long, of the rejection of the EU shows contempt for its basic principles, which have been influenced by Christian theology-the concepts of friendship and solidarity.
Europe seems to be an upside down world, where the people fear the alien in their midst
This hostility is something new. A lot of Europeans who long ago abandoned the teaching of the church on personal morality, the rejection of what is taught about abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage. But it was a departure from the institution thinking about what has gone on in the bedroom. The values of the gospel – the teachings of Jesus on love of neighbour, and the welcome that should be given to the alien remained strong in Europe. Even the most heinous episodes in the history of Europe, when these values are challenged by Nazism and fascism, seeing that they continue to be embraced by all the rest. Now, Europe seems a world turned upside down, where the people fear the stranger in their midst.
The origins of the fear is understandable, given that the atrocities at Westminster, Paris, Stockholm and elsewhere. Then there are concerns about a steady supply of migrants to perpetuate low pay. But this discomfort is played on by populist opportunists riding a wave of discontent and putting the blame on the new arrivals, rather than entrepreneurs and the cut of the wages.
A voice that continues to rise above the fray, urging Europeans not to make scapegoats of others, is that of Pope Francis. Since it was elected in 2013, pope, whose family were Italian immigrants who have made new lives for themselves in Argentina, has often spoken of the need to welcome people who are fleeing the terrorism, tyranny, and despair. “Migrants are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity,” he said, urging more efforts to eradicate poverty, which leads to the movement of people.
His words were matched with public gestures, the journey to the Italian island of Lampedusa to commemorate the thousands of lives lost in the Mediterranean on the part of people fleeing Africa in leaky boats for the recruitment of several Muslim families in home with him last year for a new life in Rome.
These were gestures of solidarity, one of the original principles of the postwar European project, which was adopted by the Catholic founders, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, in Catholic theology, its roots in the Christian idea of community. When EU leaders gathered in Rome last month to commemorate the founding of the union, are united in the Vatican by Francis, who has warned of “the temptation to reduce the founding ideals of the union, to productive, economic and financial”. There is a sense already that reductionism, expressed in the referendum of the United Kingdom, notably absent from those of Rome celebrations. The drawbridge was pulled up. Other European countries are showing disgruntlement too; solidarity today, it only goes so far.
That narrower view is evident in Theresa May’s interpretation of Christianity. In his Easter message, the prime minister underlines his credentials as the daughter of a priest, suggesting the British should join in this moment of Brexit because of their shared values. It is obvious when you write to those values expressed by Christians that she mentions visiting the sick and the afflicted. This is “the sense of the duty we have to one another”. But the ancient Christian tradition of hospitality to the stranger is missing from its Easter, I think.
In his Holy Thursday Mass in St. Peter’s basilica, the pope spoke of the Samaritan woman at the well, who has used his jug to give a thirst for Christ water. The samaritans and the Jews usually had no dealings with one another, but the woman stopped to help this stranger.
On Friday, the churches mark the crucifixion of Christ will not hear in the readings the story of Simon of Cyrene, another stranger, that has bloodied beaten Christ to carry his cross. This has been in the service of others, Jesus had in mind when he urged his followers to help the stranger: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, because you did it to me”.
In 1980, Margaret Thatcher gave a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who helps a Jew who has been attacked when all the other leaves to the street. According to the then prime minister, the reason the Samaritan helped because he could; he had the money to do it. Well, up to a certain point. There are moments in which Christ says that you have to help, whatever the case. He had refugee children in mind. Instead of focusing on the gospel values of Easter, Europe seems a continent prey to compassion fatigue.