Oxford, England — When Pope Francis arrives at the European Parliament, the legislative branch of the European Union, in Strasbourg, France, on Tuesday, he'll be entering a place where the hopes and fears, passions and prejudices of a whole continent are routinely played out.
In May's elections, nationalist and populist formations such as France's National Front and Britain's UK Independence Party made strong advances. And while two-thirds of the assembly is still made up of the mainstream center-right and center-left, Francis must offer a message that resonates with an audience ranging from devout Christians to militant atheists.
"The pope will be warmly welcomed -- both as a religious leader and as a moral authority," said Jan Bernas, spokesman for the Socialist-Democrat group, which holds the second-most seats in the 751-seat Parliament.
"As a secular political organization, we embrace various orientations and don't follow any religious doctrine," Bernas told NCR. "But we believe charity and the common good should be at the heart of politics, and we'll be eager to hear his words of encouragement."
When the papal visit was announced in September by the Parliament's German president, Martin Schulz, also a Socialist-Democrat, the news was welcomed in Europe's Catholic church.
Francis will also be visiting the nearby Council of Europe, the wider advisory organization of European states, whose 47 members include Russia and Ukraine. German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who heads the Commission of European Union Bishops Conferences (COMECE) said he hopes Francis will plead against the war now setting Russia and Ukraine against each other.
But he said he's confident Francis will also address the poverty and exclusion that have worsened during the financial crisis and reiterate Catholic support for the "noble ideals of European integration."
"Pope Francis is acknowledging the unique significance of the European institutions in the life of our continent and saluting the achievements of the European project," Marx, archbishop of Munich-Freising, said in a mid-September statement.
"We hope he'll encourage European parliamentarians in their work and show how the foundational values of the Union, largely inspired by the Christian faith, may shape the Europe of tomorrow," Marx said.
Not everyone has been so positive.
There have been calls for a boycott of the visit by politicians favoring the French model of strict church-state separation, as well as from a coterie of secularist and anti-clerical organizations.
Members of the feminist group Femen protested the pope's intended "attack on secularization" in a naked St. Peter's Square protest in mid-November, while The Alliance for a Secular Europe rejected Schulz's invitation, citing the Catholic church's alleged compounding of the Ebola pandemic in West Africa.
"The religious movement represented by the Pope continues to actively combat human rights, such as the European Union defends, seeking to impose on the rest of society a dogmatic moral vision, in defiance of the principles of freedom of conscience and equality," The Alliance for a Secular Europe wrote in an Oct. 31 open letter.
"The Catholic Church's doctrinal positions on start and end of life and sexual matters, including women's reproductive rights, the very issues on which they campaign most forcefully, are the very ones on which they are at most variance from their followers, especially in Europe," the letter continued.
Schulz has sought to reassure the critics.
"We'll be welcoming someone who, at this historical moment, is a point of reference not only for Catholics but for many other people as well," Schulz said at a mid-October Strasbourg press conference.
"At a time when many are disorientated and the world is moving at a dizzying speed, often in very risky directions, the pope is the only person giving people hope through his noble rectitude," he said.
It remains to be seen, however, how Francis will be received.
"The Holy Father's presence is symbolic -- but he'll be speaking in front of European representatives who are responsible for democracy, freedom of religion and human rights, and he'll clearly be viewed differently than his predecessors," Marion Jeanne, a French spokesman for the conservative European People's Party, told NCR.
"Although his visit will strongly signal recognition for the EU as a peace project, however, I'm not only expecting words of peace. I also imagine he'll want to wake Europe up to its Christian roots and our global responsibility to keep them alive."
The visit, which will last barely four hours, will be the pope's first to the territory of the European Union outside Italy and the first to the European Parliament by a pontiff since that of Pope John Paul II in 1988.
John Paul's address to the Parliament was disrupted by the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of Northern Ireland's Protestants, who was bundled from the chamber after waving posters branding the pontiff the "anti-Christ."
But the pope was otherwise well-received for his speech, defending the "aspirations of Slavic peoples" then under Communist rule, and for championing a united "sovereign Europe, shaped by the Christian faith."
Much has changed since in Europe's political and cultural map. The 1989 collapse of Communist rule brought old nations back into the European family. Meanwhile, the EU has expanded from 12 to 28 member-states with a combined population of 507 million and wields far greater power and influence as the world's largest economic bloc.
Although the Vatican appointed its own permanent representative to the European institutions in 1990 and has consistently argued for an integrated Europe, it's often been unhappy with the course of events.
Church membership and participation plummeted, and EU officials have been accused of ignoring the role of religious communities in their treaties and directives.
Prominent Catholics, meanwhile, have accused the European Parliament itself of an anti-Catholic agenda on issues like same-sex unions and embryo research. Others, however, have cautioned against overreacting.
Although the EU's landmark 2009 Lisbon Treaty declined to acknowledge Europe's Christian roots directly, it recognized the "identity and specific contribution" of churches under the national law of member-states and committed EU officials, under Article 17, to maintain "an open, transparent and regular dialogue" with them.
During the same year, church leaders expressed concern when MEPs, members of the European Parliament, voted to strip away national exemptions from the Anti-Discrimination Directive, raising fears that faith schools would be forced to admit non-believers and gay couples would be able to sue if refused church marriages.
In 2011, however, they welcomed a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights validating the public presence of crosses after a previous judgment barring them from state schools had prompted calls for a Europe-wide ban.
In 2013, church leaders accused the Parliament of trespassing beyond its competence after a draft resolution called for abortion -- which is tightly restricted in Poland, Malta, and other countries -- to be recognized as a "fundamental right" throughout the EU.
In June 2013, however, they lauded the Parliament's backing for new EU plans to make financial help for countries around the world conditional on their protection of religious rights.
Such topics may well appear in the pope's Strasbourg address.
Although Francis has said little so far about Europe, he'll most likely be aware, as an experienced Jesuit pastor, of the challenges of secularization and the need for change in how his church proclaims the Gospel in an area deeply affected by hardship and social injustice and showing signs of tiredness and disillusionment.
Speaking in Sardinia, Italy, in September 2013, Francis talked of an economic system that had fueled a crisis both cultural and economic and the need to place mankind at its center again in place of the "would-be pagan god of money."
It may be a message the pontiff brings to talks with new European officials such as Poland's Donald Tusk, who takes over Dec. 1 as president of the European Council, or the EU's head of state, and Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, who took over on Nov. 1 as 12th president of the EU's 28-member governing commission.
As his largest encounter with politicians to date, the Strasbourg visit will bring Francis into contact with all the political and ideological tendencies of a continent marked through history by wars and crises.
But Fr. Patrick Daly, secretary-general of COMECE, is hopeful.
Francis cannot assume a "familiarity with Christian social teaching" on the part of his audience, Daly said, but he can be expected to cope well with "his first test in the political arena."
"President Schulz and the MEPs have a right to assume the pope will display sensitivity to the long-term aspirations of the European project, and to the competences and policy fields specific to the Union," Daly said in an October statement.
"But the Holy Father will be speaking to a Parliament that still has the freshness and energy of any parliament at the beginning of its term, knowing that 58 percent of MEPs are there for the first time, and are impressionable," he said.
[Jonathan Luxmoore is a freelance writer covering European church news from Warsaw, Poland and Oxford, England. His latest two-volume book, The God of the Gulag, will be published in 2015.]