“We are experiencing a very serious demographic winter in Europe”, the Pope has warned.

Driving the news

Francis was speaking Tuesday in a press conference on a flight from Madagascan capital Antananarivo to Rome, at the conclusion of his visit this week to southern Africa.

The Pope compared Africa – a “young continent”, with “young life” – to the demographic decline in Europe.

“I will repeat what I said in Strasburg”, Francis said, referring to a 2014 speech in which lamented the “weariness and aging” of the Old Continent.

“Mother Europe has almost become ‘grandmother Europe’. She has grown old”.


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The big picture

Explaining how he sees Europe’s decline, the Pope pointed to a statistic from a country he admitted he could not recall that revealed that by 2050 “there will be more pensioners than working people”.

“This is tragic”, Francis lamented. “What is the origin of this ageing of Europe?”

Giving his “personal opinion”, the Pope said “well-being is at the root” of the problem of the population drop-off.

“Being attached to wellbeing – ‘We are comfortable, I am not having children because I need to buy a villa, I want to go on holiday, I’m fine like this, a child is a risk, you never know…’. But this wellbeing and tranquility is something that will age you”, Francis warned.

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Go deeper

The drop in natality was not the Pope’s only reference to Europe in the in-flight presser.

He also repeated his August warning against populism and xenophobia, and said “sometimes in some places I hear speeches being given that sound similar to those made by Hitler in ’34”.

“It’s as if they wanted to return to the past in Europe”, Francis decried.

On the plane, the Pope also spoke of his desire that the European Union “might become stronger, not in the sense of domination, but in the sense of justice, of fraternity, of unity for all”.

That was in the context of the legacy of the decolonialisation, or the withdrawal of European powers, from their former territories in Africa.

The Pope also promised he would go to Spain at some point in the future, “if I am alive”.

“But my priority regarding my journeys in Europe is for the smaller countries, then the larger ones”, he added.

One final papal reference to Europe came when Francis denounced the “exploitation” of Africa and its natural resources.

“We would never think: Europe can be exploited”, the Pope insisted, adding that “we must free humanity” from the “collective unconsciousness” that says the environment is there to be plundered.

“When someone takes on social or political responsibility for personal gain, values, nature, people are exploited”, Francis warned.

“Africa can be exploited…. But do we think of the many laborers who are exploited in our societies; we have people who recruit and benefit from cheap labor in Europe; the Africans did not invent it.

“The maid who is paid a third of what she is due was not invented by the Africans. Women deceived and exploited for prostitution in the centers of our cities was not invented by the Africans.

“Here too there is this type of exploitation, not only environmental, but also human. And this is corrupt. And when corruption is within the heart, get ready, because anything is possible”, the Pope decried.

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For the record

One final headline from the Madagascar-Vatican papal flight came when the Pope addressed his being under constant attack from ultraconservative sectors in the Church, mostly in the United States but in other places too.

“In the Church there is always the option for schism, always”, he acknowledged.

“But it is an option that the Lord leaves to human freedom.

“I am not afraid of schisms, I pray that there will be none, because what is at stake is people’s spiritual health.

“Let there be dialogue, let there be correction if there is an error, but the schismatic path is not Christian”, he warned.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.