[Editor’s Note: Andrea Riccardi is an Italian Church historian, a former minister in the Italian government, and the founder of the Community of San’t Egidio. This piece appeared in the May 7 edition of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, and is published here in a Crux translation courtesy of the Community of Sant’Egidio.]
In the solemn setting of the Sala Regia in the Vatican, where frescoes recall times of religious violence such as the massacre of the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day, Pope Francis on Friday received the prestigious Charlemagne Prize.
The pope doesn’t love awards, but he took the opportunity to speak of Europe and to “express hope for a new and courageous leap forward together.” Together with whom? The galaxy of European leaders on hand was vast, beyond just German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
In the pope’s speech, which was longer than usual, two points were clear: Starting anew, and doing it together.
The ceremony demonstrated a larger and deeper “alliance” for Europe. The dynamic German ambassador to the Holy See, Annette Schavan, a friend of the chancellor, and the authoritative German Cardinal Walter Kasper, worked to put together an event without precedent: The relaunch of Europe by an Argentine pope, who himself spoke of Europe.
In a time of ethno-nationalisms, Francis proposed “coalitions,” not in the political-military sense, but “cultural, educational, philosophical and religious,” for Europe and peace: “Let’s arm our people with the culture of dialogue and welcome,” he said.
Merkel, at the German embassy, welcomed the proposal, indicating the limits of politics. Germany does not want to be alone, she said, and needs “coalitions” with churches and society. The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz, denounced European fragmentation: “The centrifugal forces of the crises we face tend to divide us …”
For Donald Tusk, President of the Council of Europe (and a dissident from the current government in Warsaw), the church of Francis, “which we all need,” offers a response to the crisis. The pope was attentive and serious in a ceremony which, even in its details, did not exalt him but the community.
It’s a new function of the Vatican: A place of encounter, and of spiritual coalition.
Francis had already spoken of Europe as a “grandmother,” now incapable of generating and attracting, and for this reason a builder of walls and trenches. This Argentine, himself the son of Italian immigrants, used the informal “tu” in speaking to the continent: “What’s happened to you, humanistic Europe, champion of the rights of man, of democracy and liberty?”
Politicians have found in the pope a spiritual leader who believes in the European Union, as long as it’s able to expand and to integrate. With him, there isn’t the preoccupation of Benedict XVI with secularism. According to this pope, Europe, “born from the encounter of civilizations and peoples,” today is in decline due to a fear of encountering other people and other religions, hiding behind borders and crystallized identities.
Those who recall the Church’s lost battle over a reference to “Christian roots” in the European Constitution can see that Francis has a different idea: Europe’s roots (which are to be irrigated with the Gospel, according to him), always have been a synthesis among cultures, including heterogeneous ones.
To support the value of a “dynamic and multicultural identity” for the continent, the pope evoked the founding fathers of Europe: Alcide de Gasperi (who was buried with the Charlemagne Prize), Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, recalling also the Jesuit theologian Eric Pryzwara, who defended the trans-nationality of Christianity in the face of Nazism.
In order to realize a constant integration, the method is dialogue, capable of “reconstructing the social fabric.” Dialogue is both the content and the method for building the Europe of the future: “Let’s arm our young with the weapon of dialogue,” the pope said, “teaching them the good fight of encounter and negotiation” – directing that, perhaps, also at “ethnic” Christians fearful of invasion.
The pope thereby distanced himself from the babbling of various bishops’ conferences in Europe and other churches on refugees, in order to speak about integration. Umberto Eco saw the integration of migrants as a process of continual negotiation.
Francis spoke of the young, and of the future. He asked for a social economy that invests in the young and in work, not a liquid economy.
He affirmed with conviction that God wants to live in Europe, but needs “witnesses” and “great evangelizers.” This is the great problem of the weak European Christianity.
At the end, with poetry, he sketched a European dream, his own version of “I Have a Dream!”.
“I dream of a Europe that cares for children, capable of still being a mother … that takes care of children, that offers help to the poor and newcomers seeking acceptance because they have lost everything and need shelter. I dream of a Europe that is attentive to, and concerned for, the infirm and the elderly, lest they be simply set aside as useless … where young people breathe the pure air of honesty … undefiled by the insatiable needs of consumerism … where getting married and having children is a responsibility and a great joy …”
Bergoglio believes that the Europeans, especially the young, must not be prisoners of their nightmares, but must begin again to dream. It’s a Europe of the founding fathers, yes, but also of its children.