On Tuesday, Pope Francis visited the European Parliament, some 26 years after the only other Pope, John Paul II, visited the same chamber. John Paul II visited a year before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, and this marked the beginning of a new Europe which was no longer divided into a democratic West and communist East. There was a great sense of anticipation and expectation of something new in 1999 when the Wall fell. In Francis’ analysis this has all but dried up. In his address he referred to Europe as “somewhat elderly and haggard”, which is regarded by the rest of the world with “aloofness, mistrust and even, at times, suspicion.” A few Parliamentarians were not happy with the Pope’s visit and felt that it violated the separation between Church and State. What did the Pope have to say and why would the European Parliament be interested in him anyway? By RUSSELL POLLITT.
President of the European Parliament who invited Francis to address them, Martin Schulz, told the Pope his words “carry enormous weight not only because you are the spiritual leader of more than one billion believers. Your words carry enormous weight because they speak to everyone” and because “the issues you raise concern everyone…Your words provide counsel and direction in times of confusion.”
Francis, suggesting that Europe had lost its vigour, boldly asked the assembled Parliamentarians, “Where is your vigour? Where is that idealism which inspired and ennobled your history? Where is your spirit of curiosity and enterprise? Where is your thirst for truth, a thirst which hitherto you have passionately shared with the world?”
It is interesting that Pope Francis chose to travel to the European Parliament and back to Rome speedily; he was in Strasbourg for less than four hours and did not visit a single Church. There was no popemobile and no public audience; a few groups waited on street corners with their smartphones, hoping for a picture, but other than that he was in and out. Instead of making a pastoral visit he went to the heart of the governance of the European Union (EU) – an organisation of 28 countries formed to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law on the continent. Francis’ visit to Strasbourg had a different feel to it; he did not wow the crowds and was certainly not there to simply admire and praise Europe. There was an energy and force to his words as he rebuked members for current attitudes and practices in Europe. On Wednesday, France’s left-leaning daily Le Monde commented that “The semi-circle of the European Parliament had rarely been so full – and so well-behaved.” (Maybe Pope Francis should be invited to Cape Town!?)
Francis, right from the beginning, made it clear that he wanted the human person to be put back at the centre of the EU’s concerns. Economics, he said, were not the answer to problems. He reminded them of Europe’s Christian roots and commended the Christian vision, with its dual emphasis on faith and reason, religion and society, as a corrective to both “religious fundamentalism” and “a reductive rationality that does not honour man.” “The time has come to work together in building a Europe which revolves not around the economy, but around the sacredness of the human person, around inalienable values,” the Pope said.
Francis told the Parliamentarians that European legislators had the duty to protect and nurture Europe’s identity by looking after the needs of individuals and peoples against a “throwaway culture and an uncontrolled consumerism.” He said that this meant standing up for family life, education, human ecology and the rights of labour. He also encouraged them to speak out for migrants because the Mediterranean Sea risked becoming a “vast cemetery” of boat people from Africa and the Middle East, and not allowing democracy to be eroded by “multinational interests” and “systems of economic power at the service of unseen empires.”
Pope Francis said, “The time has come for us to abandon the idea of a Europe which is fearful and self-absorbed, in order to revive and encourage a Europe of leadership, a repository of science, art, music, human values and faith as well – a Europe which contemplates the heavens and pursues lofty ideals.”
Francis remarked on the motto of the EU: Unity in Diversity. He said that unity did not mean uniformity of political, social and cultural life or ways of thinking. He said that authentic unity draws from rich diversity and compared this to a family “which is all the more united when each of its members is free to be fully himself or herself.” He said that he considered Europe to be a family in which particular traditions are cherished and history and roots are acknowledged. “Affirming the centrality of the human person means, above all, allowing all to express freely their individuality and their creativity, both as individuals and peoples.”
Pope Francis concluded his address by telling the legislators “[I]t is incumbent [upon you] to protect and nurture Europe’s identity, so that its citizens can experience renewed confidence in the institutions of the Union and in its underlying project of peace and friendship. Knowing that the more the power of men and women increases, the greater is individual and collective responsibility, I encourage you to work to make Europe rediscover the best of itself.”
Francis took the opportunity to denounce “the many instances of injustice and persecution which daily afflict religious minorities, and Christians in particular, in various parts of our world.” He urged attention to the plight of those facing “barbaric acts of violence” because of their faith. “They are evicted from their homes and native lands, sold as slaves, killed, beheaded, crucified or burned alive under the shameful ad complicit silence of so many.”
In reaction, Gianni Pittella, who heads the Social-Democrat group holding second place in the 751-seat Parliament, said that the “tough and severe message” will remind Europe to put “human dignity and fundamental rights” first and fight harder against “discrimination, unemployment, fundamentalism and extremism.” Manfred Weber, a member of the largely conservative European People’s Party, which holds 219 seats, said in reaction to the Pontiff’s address in a statement that he believed it could “take Europe to a new beginning, based not only on money and the economy, but first and foremost on ideas and values.” He said, “Pope Francis reminded us that European values are rooted in Christianity, it’s our global responsibility to keep these values alive and make sure they’re respected.”
“In these difficult times, when tensions are rising within and outside our continent, Europeans should not give in to fear of others and mistrust, but stand for peace, respect for human dignity, solidarity and the fight against poverty.”
Not everyone was happy about the Pontiff’s visit to the EU. Some protest groups oppose any religious presence in the EU’s institutions. On Monday, the day before Francis’ visit, a topless member of the feminist group Femen leapt on the altar of Strasbourg’s historic cathedral in protest. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France’s Left Party, defended his own country’s “strict separation of the religious and political” and told French TV the European Parliament was “not a place for preaching.” On Wednesday the UK based The Guardian said that the Pope’s address was “an insult to grandmothers and slur on the church” because grandmothers are important and in many cases are certainly not inactive with nothing much to contribute despite the fact that they might be past their child bearing years.
There are, however, a few significant things to notice.
First: Francis was invited to the EU by the president of the EU Parliament. Many commentators suggest that Francis’ analysis was not simply pious platitudes but a true reflection of the complexity and difficulties the EU faces. The chair, Martin Schulz, admits that Europe is “confused” and needing “counsel and direction”. This visit could indicate that EU legislators recognise that they need to begin to listen more broadly to alternative voices, including the Church, if Europe is going to recover from its current slump. The Church in Europe, as on many continents, is responsible for much infrastructure in different sectors – for example health, education and social development. Christianity, Francis said, not only helped forge the Europe of history, but it continues to offer values and services, particularly in education, that can provide a firm foundation for a renewed future. To engage the Church in some crucial areas, like the Mediterranean migration problem and education, might help move Europe forward.
Second: Linked to this is the question of the separation between Church and State. Some protesters raised alarm bells – history teaches us just how dangerous it is when Church and State are one and the same. Francis did not set about to tell the EU what they must do. If one analyses his speech he did not propose any solutions to the multi-faceted problems that Europe faces. Church and State can longer think and act together on that level. What Francis did do was try to set out the deeper principles, values and parameters which might help Europe face its problems. He suggested, strongly, in whatever course of action is followed, that the dignity of the human person should take centre stage. Parties and politicians can choose to use his analysis or not.
Third: It’s interesting to note that the message of the Pope “ad intra” and “ad extra” the Church is consistent. He places the human person and dignity on centre stage at the EU; in the Church he has done this too by emphasising the person over doctrine on numerous occasions. There is also a thread in his attitude to diversity. He told the Europeans that diversity does not mean uniformity and that the richness of diversity leads to authentic unity. Francis has encouraged diverse voices to speak on matters in the Church. This has led to some friction in the Church but he is quite clearly willing to hear alternative voices despite the friction.
Fourth: Francis does not address narrow issues many have come to expect a Pontiff would in such a forum given the current position of the Catholic Church. He, once, hints at euthanasia and abortion (referring to discarding the terminally ill and killing life in the womb) but is mute on same-sex unions and contraception. He repeats his desire that human dignity and life is respected and upheld but what is significant is the context in which he addresses these. They are no longer personal moral problems alone but framed in broader societal issues. He speaks about “certain selfish lifestyles, marked by an opulence no longer sustainable and frequently indifferent to the world around us, and especially to the poorest of the poor. To our dismay we see technical economic questions dominating political debate, to the detriment of genuine concern for human beings.” The Pope shifts what have become neuralgic personal moral issues into a broader systemic context. He says that “Men and women risk being reduced to mere cogs in a machine that treats them as items of consumption to be exploited, with the result that – as is so tragically apparent – whenever a human life no longer proves useful for that machine, its is discarded with a few qualms…” Francis thinks big, it’s the system he suggests we question, a system forces people to think and act in ways that could end in tragedy.
Fifth: Francis reaffirmed his own vision of the Church. He does not see the Church as “an island of goodness in a big bad world.” Francis very much wants the Church to contribute to, not control, the complex problems that beset society today. He believes that the Church has something to offer and therefore should be engaged with people from different backgrounds and all walks of life in trying to forge a future for all, not just some. Just as he is trying to get the Church to think creatively about itself so too he wants societies to re-think complex issues in a new and creative way. He believes that the Church can and should be making a contribution – not dictating a solution.
The European Parliament has, for the most part, shunned issues of faith in recent years seeing them as divisive and disruptive to the goal of unity. Yet, on Tuesday, Pope Francis faced no such opposition and instead stirred repeated rounds of applause from members of Parliament. Might this be a sign that both politics and the Church are maturing? Is there a new willingness to listen and recognise that, respecting their separation, the Church and State can help each other in self-renewal and, by re-defining their roles and competencies, bring about the same great anticipation and expectation the filled the air in 1999? Time will tell. DM
Photo: Pope Francis (L) speaks with European Parliament President Martin Schulz (R) at the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, France, 25 November 2014. People perceive Europe as having lost its vibrancy and influence in the world, Pope Francis warned during a speech to the European Parliament, calling for policies focused more on people than ‘technicalities.’ Strasbourg is Francis’ fifth international trip and the shortest-ever papal visit abroad, clocking in at 3 hours and 50 minutes. EPA/CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/POOL