ROME — Not that Pope Francis probably needs additional accolades, but on Friday he’s set to receive a big one anyway: The prestigious Charlemagne Prize, awarded each year to individuals or institutions for their service to European unification.
Technically, he’ll become the first pontiff to receive the award since it was created in 1950. In 2004 Pope John Paul II received an “extraordinary” edition of the prize, the only one given so far, but the actual award that year went to Irish politician Patrick Cox.
St. John Paul, and now Francis, are the only religious leaders to have received the recognition, even though its origins include a Christian element.
According to the award’s webpage, back in 1949, the founder of the Charlemagne Prize Society, Kurt Pfeiffer, “cleverly took advantage of the symbolism of the approaching Christmas season, and the jubilee year that had been announced by the pope” to suggest an “annually awarded prize for the most valuable contribution to West European understanding.”
(The reference is to a jubilee year called by Pope Pius XII in 1950, during which he formally defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven.)
Francis, an Argentine, is also the first leader from the global south to receive the Charlemagne Prize, and only the fourth non-European, with the other three being from the United States: George C. Marshall (1959), Henry Kissinger (1987), and Bill Clinton (2000).
Many observers expect Francis to deliver a hard-hitting speech when he accepts the prize, especially given that he’s made the European refugee crisis his top social and political priority for 2016.
When, where, and who’ll be there
The award is traditionally presented in the German city of Aachen, the first major city in West Germany to be liberated by Allied Forces back in 1944.
Yet when Francis decided to accept the honor, he said he’d do so in Rome. On the website of the Charlemagne Prize, there’s no record of this exception being made for any other winner.
The ceremony will take place on Friday at noon Rome time, and among those in attendance will be German Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself a recipient of the honor in 2008. It will be held in the Sala Regia, a state hall in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.
Preceding Francis’ acceptance speech, European Parliament President Martin Schulz, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and European Council President Donald Tusk will all give their own remarks.
Why is Francis receiving the award?
When confirming the pope’s decision to accept the prize, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, told reporters that Francis decided to do so as an encouragement to all those working for peace around the globe.
According to the announcement made by the committee last December, Francis is receiving it because of his message of “peace and understanding,” as well as “compassion, tolerance, solidarity and the integrity of creation throughout his pontificate.”
“In these times, in which many citizens in Europe seek orientation, His Holiness Pope Francis sends a message of love and encouragement,” the statement said.
Citing the pope’s address to the European Parliament in 2014, the committee said: “In a time when the European Union is facing the greatest challenge of the 21st century, it is the pope ‘from the end of the world’ who orients millions of Europeans to what the European Union brings together at its core: a valid system of values, respect for human dignity and civil liberties, the uniqueness of human beings whatever their ethnic, religious or cultural background and respect for our natural resources.”
On that occasion, the first pope from outside the West travelled to the heart of secular Europe and delivered a sharp wake-up call, warning European leaders that the continent risks irrelevance if it doesn’t recover its founding values, drawing in part on its Christian legacy.
Before roughly 750 members of the European parliament, Francis bluntly said the world is becoming “less and less Eurocentric,” that Europe often comes off as “elderly and haggard,” that it’s less and less a “protagonist” in global affairs, and that the rest of the planet sometimes sees it “with mistrust and even suspicion.”
Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdő of Budapest, President of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, called that address from Francis “illuminating,” adding that he hopes the pontiff uses his words during the award ceremony to encourage Europe towards a reconciliation and friendship that can foster common projects.
Speaking to Crux on Wednesday during a break in a conference organized in Rome, Erdő also said that “Europe without values cannot exist … without accepting its own identity, its Christian roots, it’s lost.”
“It’s necessary to revive this consciousness of the founders of the European project to reinvigorate it, to give new optimism to all these efforts [to integrate Europe],” he said.
Who else has received the honor?
According to its website, the Charlemagne Prize, named after the first Holy Roman Emperor, honors “exceptional work performed in the service of European unity.”
Since 1950 it’s been given to public figures or bodies “distinguished by their outstanding work toward European unity or cooperation between its states,” be it in areas of literature, science, economics or politics.
Among other recipients of the award have been Italian Prime Minister Alcide de Gasperi in 1952 and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1954, former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill in 1956, King Juan Carlos I of Spain in 1982, and the Euro currency in 2002.
It wasn’t until 1981 that a woman received it for the first time, with 20 men and one institution, the Commission of the European Communities, receiving it before Simone Veil. Only a handful of women have received it since.
This means that there have been more occasions when the award wasn’t presented for lack of a qualified candidate (10) than women winning it (5).
Pope Francis and awards
Although he’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, so far Francis has never won.
Francis is on record saying he doesn’t have much use for awards or honors, something Lombardi highlighted when saying the pope would receive it as “a sign of encouragement for peace in Europe and the world.”
He has however, presented several awards to others.
This March, through a video message, he presented Palestinian Hanan al-Hroub, who works with children who have grown up exposed to violence, as the second recipient of the annual Global Teacher prize.
“I would like to congratulate the teacher Hanan al-Hroub for winning this prestigious prize, due to the importance that she gave to the ‘playing’ part in the education of the children,” he said.