VATICAN CITY (RNS) Two days after sending out a hopeful message to young pilgrims headed to Poland for World Youth Day, Pope Francis took solemn note of the violence and fear gripping much of Europe these days.
“Let’s recognize it. The world is in a state of war in bits and pieces,” Pope Francis, who arrived in Krakow on Wednesday (July 27), told reporters in response to the killing of a Catholic priest in Rouen, France, the day before.
While he said the attack attributed to Islamist militants could be seen as another world war, the pope clarified that it was not a religious war.
“We should not be afraid to speak this truth. The world is at war because it has lost peace,” Francis said in remarks aboard the papal plane.
Days earlier, before leaving for Poland, the pope had tweeted: “Let us offer the world a mosaic of many races, cultures and peoples united in the name of Jesus.”
Francis may have intended that earlier message to his Polish hosts, who appear less than enthusiastic about his arrival for the event established 30 years ago by his predecessor St. Pope John Paul II, who remains an icon in his country a decade after his death.
During Francis’ five-day visit that began in Krakow on Wednesday, he will meet Polish clergy, stop at several Catholic shrines and make a solemn visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The visit will conclude with Mass on Sunday to mark World Youth Day.
But in this overwhelmingly Catholic country, the local reaction has been cool.
“The experience of this pontificate teaches us that whenever we are expecting a revolution — what comes is a disappointment,” wrote Dominika Kozlowska, editor-in-chief of Znak, a Polish Catholic monthly.
Poland’s largest circulation newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, described the pope as an “inconvenient guest” in one of its headlines, while Polish bishops circulated a letter to promote World Youth Day in which Pope Francis was never mentioned but the late Polish pope was praised several times.
The pope has significantly scrapped a speech he was going to give to the bishops and decided to meet them behind closed doors for “dialogue” instead. “He wants a climate of total familiarity,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican press office. “He wants to make sure people are at ease.”
Francis’ concern about the poor and the homeless sits in stark contrast to the Polish church’s conservative approach and alignment with the ruling Law and Justice Party government, which takes a hard line on abortion and other issues.
The government also defends the Catholic identity of a homogeneous Poland at a time when European countries are under pressure to accept more refugees fleeing war and poverty.
And indeed, on his arrival, the pope took on Poland’s conservative government, implicitly criticizing its anti-immigration stance.
“The phenomenon of immigration is new and strange for the average Pole,” said the Rev. Pawel Rytel-Andrianik, a Polish theologian at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.
“There is a lot of fear. Unfortunately these fears are fed by certain political parties and inappropriate statements by politicians.”
According to Rytel-Andrianik, a spokesman for the Polish Bishops’ Conference, that fear is focused on Muslims. He says even though the Catholic Church helps a small number of migrants there is no attempt by the government to educate Poles about racial, cultural or religious diversity.
Francis will be promoting mercy against a backdrop of recent attacks in Europe and growing fears that Islamist militants are trying to wage a holy war on the continent, particularly after the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the murder of Hamel as he was saying Mass in a church in northern France on Tuesday.
“Francis knows perfectly what is happening and at this time he is perhaps the only world leader to have a strategy to marginalize the ‘piecemeal World War III’ underway,” said Gian Guido Vecchi, who covers the Vatican for Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
“Spreading panic and bringing a ‘religious war’ to the heart of Europe is exactly what the centers of Islamist terrorism and their followers are proposing,” he wrote in a column published after the killing of the French priest.
Up to 2 million young people were expected to attend World Youth Day and were eagerly awaiting Francis’ arrival amid tight security. More than 30,000 American pilgrims have registered for the event.
Paul Jarzembowski, the World Youth Day USA national coordinator, told Vatican Radio more U.S. pilgrims were going to this World Youth Day than to any other held outside North America particularly because they related to Francis’ compassion.
“When Pope Francis speaks about reaching out to those on the periphery of society, many of them feel they are at the periphery so they feel he’s speaking to them,” Jarzembowski said.
“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from young people. They feel they have a connection personally to the Holy Father.”
There are nearly 40 million people in Poland and more than 90 percent consider themselves Catholic. They idolize Pope John Paul II, who was born Karol Jozef Wojtyla and canonized in 2014, as one of their own.
For a socially progressive Argentine Jesuit, it’s a tough act to follow.
(Reuters contributed to this report)