By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
On November 25 Pope Francis for the first time since 25 years – since the address given by Pope John Paul II in 1988 – gave a remarkable speech in front of the European Parliament. His speech made banner headlines in the European newspapers and what was said in many commentaries was that it was striking that Pope Francis, who is by origin Argentinian, was identifying the main aspects of Europe’s present weaknesses, bringing to the fore the bad conscience which is haunting many people on the continent.
His speech was hailed by many as a wake- up call to the representatives of the 28 EU states and its 500 Million citizens. What the Pope essentially demanded from the European politicians was to overcome the present “paralysis” and respond to the challenges of the future, by taking his message of hope and encouragement to their hearts, and begin building a Europe that puts the “dignity of man” in the center of its attention.
The Pope characterized the present situation in Europe as a continent which “seems to give the impression of being somewhat elderly and haggard, feeling less and less a protagonist in a world which frequently regards it with aloofness, mistrust and even at times, suspicion.”
He talked about the need to “return to the firm conviction of the founders of the European Union, who envisioned a future based on the capacity to work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all people of this continent. At the heart of this ambitious political project was confidence in man (…) in men and women as persons endowed with transcendent dignity.”
“Man from the end of the world”
The Pope qualified the concept of “Dignity” as a “pivotal concept” in the process of rebuilding Europe after the devastations which the Second World War had left behind on the European continent. He spoke about the founders of Europe – an allusion to those outstanding European politicians like German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, a devout catholic like French President General de Gaulle, who together with Antonio de Gasperi from Italy and French foreign minister Schuman developed after the Second World War the concept of forming a new Europe. The core idea which inspired the constitutional debates in the various nations in the post war period was the emphasis on the key concept of the “Dignity of man”. The awareness of the unique value of the individual human person which was shaped in the post war period, as the Pope reminded, “was not only grounded in historical events, but above all in European thought characterized, as it is by an enriching encounter whose ‘distant springs are many, coming from Greece and Rome, from Celtic, Germanic and Slavic sources and from Christianity which profoundly shaped them, thus forging the very concept of the ‘person’.”
Pope Francis emphasized that “promoting the dignity of the person means recognizing that he or she possesses inalienable rights which no one may take away arbitrarily, much less for the sake of economic interests.” (…) “Unless the rights of each individual are harmoniously ordered to a greater Good, those rights will end up being considered limitless and consequently will become a source of conflicts and violence.” Human dignity, according to Pope Francis, has a “transcendent quality” which corresponds to man’s innate capacity to distinguish between good and evil, which is “a ‘compass’ deep within our hearts which God has impressed upon all creations.”
The Pope identified the causes of Europe’s present diseases, the most common of which “today is the loneliness, typical of those who have no connection with others.” This was true for the elderly who are abandoned to the fate and the young who lack reference and opportunities for the future. It finds also expression in “the many poor who dwell in our cities and in the disorientation of immigrants who came here seeking a better future.”
The Argentinian Pope Francis (after having been elected as Pontiff in his first speech made the ominous remark that the conclave had chosen a man “from the end of the world”) characterized today’s Europe as a “grandmother no longer fertile and vibrant. As a result, the great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions.” Society, as he noted, is characterized by increasing “selfishness” and egoistic lifestyle, an indifference against the poor, while at the same time society has become a “throw away culture” indulging in an “uncontrolled consumerism.” He called upon the members of Parliament to “care for individuals and peoples in need”, and take responsibility “for the present with its situation of utter marginalization, and anguish and being capable of bestowing dignity upon it.”
Raphael’s School of Athens
The Pope confronted the parliamentarians by posing the question: “How should Europe respond d to the challenge which it is confronted with? How can the hope in the future be restored”, so that, beginning with the younger generation, there can be a rediscovery of that confidence needed to pursue the great ideal of a united and peaceful Europe, a Europe which is creative and resourceful, respectful of rights and conscious of its duties?”
Pope Francis used a metaphor in order to illustrate the challenge which Europe is confronted with today. He referred to the famous Fresco of the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael the “School of Athens”. In Raphael’s fresco Plato and Aristotle are in the center. Following the Pope’s interpretation of the painting “Plato’s finger is pointing upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky, to heaven as we might say. Aristotle hold his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world. Concrete reality.” As the Pope underlined, the fresco strikes him “as a very apt image of Europe and her history, made up of the constant interplay between heaven and earth, where the sky suggests that openness to the transcendent- to God- which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe, while the Earth represents Europe’s practical and concrete ability to confront situations and problems.”
He underlined that the future of Europe “depends on the recovery of the vital connection between these two elements. A Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life is a Europe which risks slowly losing its own soul and that ‘humanistic spirit’ which is still loves and defends.”
Aside the need to defend the Christian heritage as constituent part of Europe’s history and conscience the Pope reminded the audience that the motto of the European Union is “United in diversity”. He emphasized that Europe is “a family of peoples” and that the European Union must wisely combine the desired ideal of unity with the diversity proper to each people, cherishing the particular traditions as well as acknowledging its past history.
Defend the dignity of labor!
Giving Europe renewed hope, means to acknowledge the centrality of the human person and implies nurturing the gifts of each man and woman. This has, as the Pope illustrated in his address, implication for the education of the young, for the promotion of the creative potential of Europe in the various fields of scientific research and for a strong defense of the family as the nucleus of society. The Pope in addition for a much stronger attention given to the actual unemployment in Europe, in particular the youth unemployment and hence called upon the politicians to do more in order to defend “Labor”.
He spoke about the need “to promote policies which create employment”, but above all the need “to restore dignity to labor by ensuring proper working conditions: Similarly he demanded a “united response” to the question of migration: “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery! The boats daily landing on the shores of Europe are filled with men and women who need acceptance and assistance”, the Pope said. He called upon the parliamentarians to take actions against the causes of migration and not only the effects.
Pope Francis ended his remarkable speech with a strong call on the parliament and Europe’s peoples to rebuild Europe in a new way, founding the reconstruction of Europe on its rich cultural tradition: “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. A Europe which cares for, defends and protects man, every man and woman. A Europe which bestrides the earth surely and securely, a precious point of reference for all humanity!”