Pope Francis recently spoke at a conference on (Re)Thinking Europe: a Christian Contribution to the Future of the European Project. Here are some excerpts.
To speak of a Christian contribution to the future of the continent means, before all else, to consider our task, as Christians today, in these lands which have been so richly shaped by the faith down the centuries. What is our responsibility at a time when the face of Europe is increasingly distinguished by a plurality of cultures and religions, while for many people Christianity is regarded as a thing of the past, both alien and irrelevant?
In the twilight of the ancient world, as the glories of Rome fell into the ruins that still amaze us, and new peoples flooded across the borders of the Empire, one young man echoed anew the words of the Psalmist: “Who is the man that longs for life and desires to see good days?”
By asking this question in the Prologue of his Rule, Saint Benedict pointed the people of his time, and ours as well, to a view of man radically different from that of classical Greco-Roman culture, and even more from the violent outlook typical of the invading barbarians. Man is no longer simply a civis, a citizen endowed with privileges to be enjoyed at leisure; no longer a miles, a soldier serving the powers of the time; and above all, no longer a servus, a commodity bereft of freedom and destined solely for hard labour.
Saint Benedict was not concerned about social status, riches or power. He appealed to the nature common to every human being, who, whatever his or her condition, longs for life and desires to see good days. For Benedict, the important thing was not functions but persons. This was one of the foundational values brought by Christianity: the sense of the person created in the image of God. …
A Europe of persons, not statistics
The first and perhaps the greatest contribution that Christians can make to today’s Europe is to remind her that she is not a mass of statistics or institutions, but is made up of people. Sadly, we see how frequently issues get reduced to discussions about numbers. There are no citizens, only votes. There are no migrants, only quotas. There are no workers, only economic markers. There are no poor, only thresholds of poverty.
The concrete reality of the human person is thus reduced to an abstract – and thus more comfortable and reassuring – principle. The reason for this is clear: people have faces; they force us to assume a responsibility that is real, personal and effective. Statistics, however useful and important, are about arguments; they are soulless. They offer an alibi for not getting involved, because they never touch us in the flesh.
To acknowledge that others are persons means to value what unites us to them. To be a person connects us with others; it makes us a community.
Recovering a sense of community
The second contribution that Christians can make to the future of Europe, then, is to help recover the sense of belonging to a community. It is not by chance that the founders of the European project chose that very word to identify the new political subject coming into being.
Community is the greatest antidote to the forms of individualism typical of our times, to that widespread tendency in the West to see oneself and one’s life in isolation from others. The concept of freedom is misunderstood and seen as if it were a right to be left alone, free from all bonds. As a result, a deracinated society has grown up, lacking a sense of belonging and of its own past.
Christians recognize that their identity is primarily relational. They are joined to one another as members of one body, the Church and each, with his or her unique identity and gifts, freely shares in the common work of building up that body. Analogously, this relationship is also found in the areas of interpersonal relationships and civil society. By interacting with others, each one discovers his or her own qualities and defects, strengths and weaknesses. In other words, they come to know who they are, their specific identity.
The family, as the primordial community, remains the most fundamental place for this process of discovery. There, diversity is valued and at the same time brought into unity. The family is the harmonious union of the differences between man and woman, which becomes stronger and more authentic to the extent that it is fruitful, capable of opening itself to life and to others …
Person and community are thus the foundations of the Europe that we, as Christians, want and can contribute to building. The bricks of this structure are dialogue, inclusion, solidarity, development and peace.
A place of dialogue
Today the whole of Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, from the North Pole to the Mediterranean, cannot miss the chance to be first and foremost a place of candid and constructive dialogue, in which all participants share equal dignity.
We are called to build a Europe in which we can meet and engage at every level, much as in the ancient agorá, the main square of the polis. The latter was not just a marketplace but also the nerve centre of political life, where laws were passed for the common good. The presence of a temple dominating the square was a reminder that the horizontal dimension of daily life ought never to overlook the transcendent, which invites us to see beyond the ephemeral, the transitory and the provisional.
This leads us to reflect on the positive and constructive role that religion in general plays in the building up of society. I think, for example, of the contribution made by interreligious dialogue to greater mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims in Europe.
Regrettably, a certain secularist prejudice, still in vogue, is incapable of seeing the positive value of religion’s public and objective role in society, preferring to relegate it to the realm of the merely private and sentimental. The result is the predominance of a certain groupthink, quite apparent in international meetings, which sees the affirmation of religious identity as a threat to itself and its dominance, and ends up promoting an ersatz conflict between the right to religious freedom and other fundamental rights.
Favouring dialogue, in any form whatsoever, is a fundamental responsibility of politics. Sadly, all too often we see how politics is becoming instead a forum for clashes between opposing forces. The voice of dialogue is replaced by shouted claims and demands. One often has the feeling that the primary goal is no longer the common good, and this perception is shared by more and more citizens. Extremist and populist groups are finding fertile ground in many countries; they make protest the heart of their political message, without offering the alternative of a constructive political project …
An inclusive milieu
Leaders together share responsibility for promoting a Europe that is an inclusive community, free of one fundamental misunderstanding: namely that inclusion does not mean downplaying differences. On the contrary, a community is truly inclusive when differences are valued and viewed as a shared source of enrichment. Seen in this way, migrants are more a resource than a burden. Christians are called to meditate seriously on Jesus’ words: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”.
Especially when faced with the tragedy of displaced persons and refugees, we must not forget that we are dealing with persons, who cannot be welcomed or rejected at our own pleasure, or in accordance with political, economic or even religious ideas …
We cannot regard the phenomenon of migration as an indiscriminate and unregulated process, but neither can we erect walls of indifference and fear. For their part, migrants must not neglect their own grave responsibility to learn, respect and assimilate the culture and traditions of the nations that welcome them.
Room for solidarity
Striving for an inclusive community means making room for solidarity. To be a community in fact entails supporting one another; bearing burdens and making sure extraordinary sacrifices do not fall to some few, while the rest remain entrenched in defence of their privileged positions. A European Union that, in facing its crises, fails to recover a sense of being a single community that sustains and assists its members – and not just a collection of small interest groups – would miss out not only on one of the greatest challenges of its history, but also on one of the greatest opportunities for its own future.
Solidarity, which from a Christian perspective finds its raison d’être in the precept of love, has to be the lifeblood of a mature community. Together with the other cardinal principle of subsidiarity, it is not limited to relations between the states and regions of Europe. To be a community of solidarity means to be concerned for the most vulnerable of society, the poor and those discarded by social and economic systems, beginning with the elderly and the unemployed. At the same time, solidarity calls for a recovery of cooperation and mutual support between the generations.
An unprecedented generational conflict has been taking place since the 1960s. In passing on to new generations the ideals that made Europe great, one could say, with a touch of hyperbole, that betrayal was preferred to tradition.
The rejection of what had been passed down from earlier generations was followed by a period of dramatic sterility. Not only because Europe has fewer children, and all too many were denied the right to be born, but also because there has been a failure to pass on the material and cultural tools that young people need to face the future. Europe has a kind of memory deficit. To become once more a community of solidarity means rediscovering the value of our own past, in order to enrich the present and to pass on a future of hope to future generations.
Instead, many young people are lost, without roots or prospects, “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine”. At times they are even “held captive” by possessive adults who struggle to carry out their own responsibilities. It is a grave responsibility to provide an education, not only by offering technical and scientific knowledge, but above all by working “to promote the complete perfection of the human person, the good of earthly society and the building of a world that is more human”. This demands the involvement of society as a whole …
A promise of peace
Finally, the commitment of Christians in Europe must represent a promise of peace. This was the central concern that inspired the signatories of the Treaties of Rome. After two World Wars and atrocious acts of violence perpetrated by peoples against peoples, the time had come to affirm the right to peace. Yet today we continue to see how fragile is that peace, and how particular and national agendas risk thwarting the courageous dreams of the founders of Europe.
Being peacemakers, however, does not mean simply striving to avoid internal tensions, working to end the bloodshed and conflicts throughout our world, or relieving those who suffer. To be workers for peace entails promoting a culture of peace. This requires love for the truth, without which authentic human relationships cannot exist; it also requires the pursuit of justice, without which oppression becomes the rule in any community …
A hundred years ago, in these very days, the battle of Caporetto was fought, one of the most dramatic of the First World War. It was the culmination of that war of attrition, which set a sinister record in reaping countless casualties for the sake of risible gains. From that event we learn that entrenchment in one’s own positions only leads to failure. Now is not the time, then, to dig trenches, but instead to work courageously to realize the founding fathers’ dream of a united and harmonious Europe, a community of peoples desirous of sharing a future of development and peace.
The full text of Pope Francis’s speech can be found here.