ROSARIO, Argentina – With the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops holding a virtual fall assembly, the bishops of Spain are also holding their fall gathering.

On the agenda for the Spanish bishops are Europe’s rising populist currents, and a bill in Spain that threatens religious education.

In his opening speech, the conference president, Cardinal Juan Jose Omella of Barcelona, spoke of the “tensions” that society has today, due to stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The prelate quoted a recent speech by Pope Francis to the leader of the Spanish government, Pedro Sanchez, during his visit to Rome last month: “It’s necessary for all of us to build our nation, where the delete and start over is not permitted.”

Seeing the rising unemployment and recession in Spain but also in most of Europe, Omella said this is “not the moment for divisions, it’s not the moment to allow the irresponsible and ideological populist sprouts to sneak in. This is the moment for cohesion, for cordiality, working together, of looking to the long term, freeing ourselves from the short-termism of elections or the stock market.”

“As the pope said, ‘ideologies sectarianize, ideologies deconstruct the homeland, they do not build, it is necessary to learn from history’,” the cardinal continued. “It’s the moment of unity and good politics, that which ensures respect for the human person and works tirelessly for the common good.”

Omella’s speech was divided in 14 points, and several times he insisted on the “urgency” to build spaces and attitudes of encounter in the political class, society as a whole and also within the Church.

Omella began his remarks by remembering the victims of COVID-19, that’s caused 41,253 deaths in Spain thus far, and calling for solidarity with those who’re suffering its “economic, social and [un]employment consequences.”

The remarks are peppered with references to Francis, including to his historic Urbi et Orbi blessing on March 27.

“The square had never been so empty and perhaps it had never been so full of people following the message from every home,” Omella said. “People of different religions, beliefs and nationalities where more united than ever because of the unusual and hard experience that we are all suffering.”

“The painful experience that we have been suffering for months led the pope to pronounce those unforgettable words as a gloss of his embrace to the world: We realized that we were in the same boat, all fragile and disoriented; but, at the same time, important and necessary, all called to row together, all in need of mutual comfort (…) Faced with suffering, where the true development of our peoples is measured, we discover and experience the priestly prayer of Jesus: ‘May they all be one’,” Omella said, quoting the pontiff.

In this file photo taken on March 27, 2020, Pope Francis delivers the Urbi et Orbi prayer in an empty St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican. If ever there was a defining moment of Pope Francis during the coronavirus pandemic, it came on March 27, the day Italy recorded its single biggest daily jump in fatalities. From the rain-slicked promenade of St. Peter’s Basilica, Francis said the virus had shown that we’re all in this together, that we need each other and need to reassess our priorities. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

Omella also called for public-private cooperation to overcome the ongoing economic crisis, proposed an educational pact against the “Celaa Law,” condemned xenophobia against migrants and rejected euthanasia, another bill currently being debated in Spain.

The Celaa law is highly contested for several reasons. On the one hand, the bishops – and other religious leaders – in Spain warn that it’s a threat to religious freedom and freedom of education, both protected by the country’s Constitution. If the bill passes, parents will no longer have the right to have their children receive religious and moral training that is in accordance with their own convictions.

It will also lead to the closure of thousands of schools run by the Catholic Church that receive subsidies from the State, leaving parents with the choice of sending their children to State-managed schools or more expensive private schools. In addition, educational centers aimed at helping children with severe disabilities will also close, under the argument that these children have the right to go to a “normal” school, where teachers are already overwhelmed by 30 or 40 kids per class.

In the words of an association of parent of children with special needs, their sons and daughters will be “parked as furniture” in conventional schools.

Speaking about the educational reform, Omella said that as bishops, they “deeply regret all the obstacles and challenges that they want to impose on the action of concerted Catholic institutions,” as private schools with partial federal funding are known in Spain.

He also recalled that “the Church’s work in the educational field is relevant. Not only does it serve almost two million families, many of them in the poorest and most populated enclaves of our society, but also promotes research, innovation and development projects for all teachers and centers of the educational system.”

“This is not the time to put obstacles, to confront public and private institutions, but to work together,” Omella said, adding that it’s necessary to “cooperate effectively and efficiently to offer an adequate education to all children, adolescents and young people in our country.”

He also urged the government coalition to respect the constitutional right parents have to freely choose the educational model they want for their children. The teaching of morals and religion should not be removed from schools, Omella added.

“In fact, in a technocratic society in which a small virus has overwhelmed us, the teaching and cultivation of philosophy, theology and spirituality is more than ever necessary,” he said.

During his remarks, Omella also called on politicians to avoid causing further stress to society with matters that are not a priority and which require a “serene and profound debate,” and called on Spaniards to “recover the spirit of concord that made it possible for our elders, after a very hard war between brothers and the long period of the [Francisco] Franco regime, with politics for the common good, to reach agreements that demanded sacrifices, generosity and mutual trust.”

Not one to mince words, the cardinal of Barcelona also called for a better political culture in Spain, saying that for many, politics is “a bad word, and it cannot be hidden that behind this, there are the many errors, corruptions and inefficiencies of some politicians. To this, we must add the strategies that try to debilitate politics, replace it with the economy or dominate it with a certain ideology.”

Speaking about internal church matters, the cardinal said that, faced with “the worst economic recession since World War II, the reaction of the church has been and is to go to the rescue with all the means available, redoubling the efforts and deploying all the available resources.”

However, the closing of churches and the restrictions in Mass attendance have caused Church income to decline. In this sense, and given the serious economic situation that parishes and dioceses are going through, Omella told the bishops that “it’s urgent to rethink how to involve the Catholics and the general public” in the Church’s charitable mission.