Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, had an insightful piece on Saturday in the Italian paper Corriere della Sera about the speech Pope Francis delivered the day before in receiving the prestigious Charlemagne Prize for European integration.
In a nutshell, Riccardi’s argument was that Francis sees the main challenge in Europe not as Pope Benedict XVI did, meaning secularism and its discontents, but rather as renewing a culture of dialogue and integration, promoting a “social economy” rather than a “liquid” one capable of providing jobs and hope, especially for newcomers and the young.
“In a time of ethno-nationalisms,” Riccardi wrote, “Francis proposes ‘coalitions,’ not in the political-military sense, but ‘cultural, educational, philosophical and religious,’ for Europe and for peace: ‘Let’s arm our people with the culture of dialogue and welcome’.”
That, of course, is a message with obvious relevance in a moment in which Europe is struggling with its most dramatic refugee crisis since World War II, and when the basic fault lines run between integration and closure.
Riccardi notes that not so long ago, “dialogue” was not exactly the top note emanating from the Vatican vis-à-vis Europe.
In the late 1990s and 2000s, both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI waged fierce battles to recall Europe to its Christian roots, among other things insisting that a new constitutional document for Europe must contain a so-called “God clause,” or invocatio Dei.
After that push failed, the sense of estrangement was often palpable. In 2007, when Benedict XVI received a delegation of politicians and bishops celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, he pointedly accused Europe of being in “apostasy from itself.”
For those European Catholics most embittered, the phrase du jour became one popularized by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger prior to his election to the papacy, quoting the British historian Arnold Toynbee: “Creative minority.”
In a celebrated 2004 address, Ratzinger said, “Christian believers should look upon themselves as just such a creative minority, and help Europe to reclaim what is best in its heritage and to therefore place itself at the service of all humankind.”
Though this was never what Pope Benedict intended, many European Catholics heard in that phrase a call to head for the bunkers – to see themselves as an embattled subculture, whose task is to preserve self-enclosed pockets of faith within a hostile secular milieu. References to the spirit of contemptus mundi, or the “contempt for the world” of early Christian monastic movements, made the rounds.
Pope Francis, in the eyes of Riccardi, represents a dramatic break with that bunker mentality.
Strikingly, in the pontiff’s almost 3,000-word speech Friday receiving the Charlemagne Prize, the words “secular” and “secularism” never appear. The ghosts of the “God clause” fight, in other words, were conspicuous by their absence.
Instead, Francis sketched a role for the Church in today’s Europe, and more broadly for people of faith, as agents of encounter and integration.
When he spoke of Europe’s “roots,” Francis was not talking about Medieval Christendom, but rather the post-World War II vision of a continent that would be a bastion of peace, human rights and tolerance, overcoming the violent nationalisms that had stoked two devastating world wars.
Of course, Francis is aware that this post-war European project, forged by statesmen he named such as Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer, was based in large part on their Christian heritage and values; Schuman today is a candidate for sainthood.
As Riccardi put it, Francis knows Europe’s roots need to be “irrigated with the Gospel.”
Yet for Francis, faith in action is what counts. Christianity, he seems to believe, is best defended not by fighting battles over symbols and verbiage, but by putting its convictions into practice at moments when the world needs them most.
“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,” Riccardi wrote.
“According to the pope, Europe … today is in decline due to a fear of encountering other people and other religions, hiding behind borders and crystallized identities,” Riccardi said – suggesting that in their bones, today’s European statesmen and women know it too, but can’t fix it by themselves.
To put the point differently, not long ago a broad share of Europe’s political class and its cultural elites saw the papacy, and the Church, as obstacles to the emancipated, pluralistic society they want to build. Today, at least some of them are coming to see the papacy and the Church as resources for that aim, perhaps even its last, best hope.
Time will tell how much success Pope Francis may have as the leader of a new “spiritual coalition” striving to revive Europe’s humanistic ideals. Certainly the political trend lines aren’t encouraging, with far-right parties notching gains and hostility to the European Union very much in the air.
Nevertheless, what Friday’s Charlemagne Prize seemed to symbolize is that Francis has found a role for Christianity on the old continent beyond the bunkers, beyond a semi-permanent status as a subculture, and instead has “re-branded” it as the new standard-bearer of Europe’s best version of itself.
All that, ironically, has been engineered by an Argentine, though admittedly one whose personal roots are in Europe, in the Italian Piedmont.
In light of recent history, this role-reversal may end up ranking as one of the most remarkable outcomes of Francis’ papacy – a papacy in which the “remarkable,” more and more, seems to be the new normal.