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Don Barrios Prieto new COMECE Secretary General: “In Brussels for a young, inclusive Europe”

The Spanish priest, who studied philosophy and theology in Rome and psychology in his home country, an expert in ecumenism, is the new Secretary General of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union. SIR met him in the Brussels’ office where he spoke of his upcoming commitments, highlighting a set of major challenges facing the EU and its member countries that range from employment to migration, to climate change. "As Pope Francis says, new opportunities can emerge from crises".

“The Church has accompanied the journey of a united Europe since its very inception. A Europe faithful to human and Christian values that the founding fathers fought for. Today the Church continues to be present and supportive of this path, as Pope Francis has repeatedly reaffirmed”: Don Manuel Barrios Prieto is the new Secretary General of COMECE, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union. As of September 1st he succeeded Father Olivier Poquillon; his mandate will last four years. On Monday 16 September he presented himself to the international press in Brussels alongside Monsignor Jean-Claude Hollerich, President of COMECE, to be created cardinal by Pope Francis in the consistory of 5 October.
Msgr. Hollerich said he was “surprised at the news” which, he added, “will be beneficial also to COMECE.”.
Don Manuel Barrios Prieto was born in Madrid in 1962. He studied philosophy and theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and graduated in psychology from a Spanish state university. In 2011 he was appointed Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference, and headed the parish of Santa Catalina de Alejandría in Madrid for twenty years. Don Barrios Preto takes office at the COMECE Secretariat, in Square de Meeûs in Brussels, at a “challenging” time for the EU, amidst the renewal of its main institutions, pressurized by populists and nationalists, with Brexit looming on the horizon.

You arrived in Brussels two weeks ago: is your agenda already full?
It actually is. There are scheduled meetings, interviews, visits. From 3 to 6 October I will be in Santiago de Compostela to participate in the CCEE plenary assembly: COMECE and the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe enjoy close ties.
I will then meet with the representatives of EU institutions, MEPs, NGOs, associations and delegates of other Christian denominations.We need to be present and active in order to make the voice of the Church heard in the European arena.

Could your formation and your previous pastoral experiences be helpful to the COMECE secretary?
I believe so, although this new role needs to be approached with caution. I am Spanish; I studied and lived in various European countries, I have been working extensively in the field of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, and I believe that this will be of help to me. Of course it will be necessary to gain an understanding of the particular dynamics of dialogue with the political institutions represented here.

In your opinion, which challenges lie ahead for Europe, its member States and EU institutions?
There are countless challenges. Many people are speaking of a “crisis” : Pope Francis reminded us that crises can turn into opportunities for change, for growth and improvement. Indeed, we are faced with the migratory problem, with so many people seeking a dignified life and a future in Europe, which, it is worth remembering, has solidarity among its founding values.
The economic issue, notably the recent recession that hit several countries causing poverty and unemployment, is being overcome with difficulty and at different paces from one country to another.We are also aware of the importance of environmental issues and climate change. Apropos the institutional crisis, the European Union is often perceived as distant from its citizens. In this respect, I think it is important to note that May’s elections for the renewal of the European Parliament saw a higher voter turnout, as if, as has been observed, citizens wanted to give a new chance to this Europe

One last question on youths: they are often referred to as the “future of Europe”, but again and again we see them on the margins of political, economic and cultural processes. Do you agree?
Many young people experience Europe through travel, studies, and also through the European Erasmus programme. Getting to know other countries, cultures and languages, meeting other people, helps to develop a European consciousness, to feel European. However, there are problems that affect our young people – starting with unemployment – which require serious and urgent responses. The young are also proving to be environmentally conscious and active. Here too, the credibility of the Europe of today and tomorrow is at stake.

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