By Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Dropping references to Christmas in favor of “winter holidays” in official European Union communications was an idea that was not meant to offend but did and could even push some Christians toward right-wing populist political parties, said Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg.

The cardinal, president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, told reporters at the Vatican Dec. 10 that the best way to make Europe more inclusive for members of all religions “is not to put religion in the sphere of the private, but to give all religions access to the public space.”

In late October, Helena Dalli, the EU equality commissioner, distributed a 30-page internal handbook for making official EU communications more inclusive. An Italian newspaper published excerpts in late November, setting off a firestorm of criticism, particularly over Dalli’s reminder that not all Europeans celebrate Christmas and that even those who do don’t all celebrate on the same day since some who follow the Julian calendar celebrate in January.

Dalli withdrew the handbook in late November, promising to revise it.

Still, Pope Francis was asked about it Dec. 6 during his news conference with reporters on his flight back to Rome from Greece.

The idea of not talking about Christmas, he responded, is “an anachronism” reminiscent of the dictatorships of days gone by, including the communists.

Joining Cardinal Hollerich at a Vatican news conference to present plans for the European Catholic Social Days in March, Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said the suggestion to refer to “holidays” rather than Christmas is a sign of a mistaken idea that to promote dialogue and tolerance, people must hide their identity.

But a real dialogue will never occur between people who have “shed” their identity, he said. It’s more about sharing one’s values and learning about the values and experiences of others.

Cardinal Hollerich said unthinking moves by the EU to sideline the faith of many Europeans could easily backfire because it can push Christians to align themselves with “populist politicians who use the name of Christian” but, in effect, are “nearly anti-Christian in their practical attitudes,” especially when it comes to helping migrants and refugees.