Merkel and Pope talk about a 'strong' Europe
By: Kirsten Grieshaber
VATICAN CITY (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel, mindful of the importance of Christian voters in September elections, met with Pope Francis on Saturday during a quick trip to Rome that focused on helping victims of Europe's economic crisis and emphasizing the continent's Christian roots.
Merkel spoke privately for 45 minutes with the pope at the Apostolic Palace, after exchanging cordial greetings in German. Her Christian Democrat party depends heavily on support from Protestant and Catholic voters, and the chat and photo opportunity could be a welcome campaign boost for a leader largely identified by Europe's economically suffering citizens as a champion of debt reduction, including painful austerity across much of the continent.
For its part, the Vatican is eager for allies in its campaign to win over more Catholics. Francis was leading a sort of pep rally for the faith in St. Peter's Square Saturday evening, attended by about 150,000 people.
Most were from Europe but many came from the pope's native South America. They sang and prayed during an hours-long gathering ahead of the pope's appearance. On Thursday, Francis blasted what he called a "cult of money" in a global financial system that ends up tyrannizing, not helping, the world's poor.
Asked whether they had also talked about the pope's recent criticism, Merkel said they spoke about the regulation of the financial markets. "The regulation of the financial markets is our central problem, our central task," Merkel told reporters on the Vatican grounds. "We are moving ahead, but we are not yet where we want to be, where we could say that a derailment of the guard rails of social market won't happen again."
Merkel added: "It ought to be like this: the economy is there to serve the people. In the last few years, this hasn't been the case at all everywhere." Italy, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and especially Greece have seen governments concentrate on debt reduction while slashing state spending. With growth stymied, unemployment, especially among young people, has soared. Businesses, many of them family-run in southern Europe, have failed as bank lending dried up.
The chancellor said the pope had stressed the world needs a strong and just Europe, and she described the overall conversation has encouraging. Merkel is currently campaigning for re-election in September's general elections. Half of Germany's population is Catholic. In Bavaria especially there is a strong conservative and Catholic tradition.
According to a Vatican statement, Francis and Merkel discussed the socio-political, economic and religious situation in Europe and in the world, including "safeguarding human rights, the persecutions faced by Christians" and religious freedom.
Francis, who is Argentine, has picked up on campaigns by the two previous popes, the Polish John Paul II and German Benedict XVI, to reinvigorate what the Catholic church sees as flagging religious enthusiasm on a continent with Christian roots, including dwindling number of churchgoers in much of Western Europe.
"I see continuity in the missionary aspect, in becoming aware of the importance of Christianity for our Christian roots," said Merkel, adding that the "simple and touching words" of Francis, who was elected pontiff two months ago, are already reaching people.
The Vatican also uses papal visits with major leaders to seek allies in lobbying on behalf of Christians who face discrimination and in some cases physical violence in parts of the world. Merkel said she has reflected on how she and Francis both had spent part of their lives in countries once under dictatorships — her native East Germany under Soviet-influenced communist rule, and the pope's Argentine homeland, once ruled by a bloody military dictatorship.