Inés San Martín
ROME – Pope Francis on Saturday added his five cents to the ongoing discussion on the future of Europe, among other things issuing a public challenge to those who say that Christianity is a thing of the past on the Old Continent, both “alien and irrelevant.”
The pontiff also said that seeing the challenges facing the European Union, now is not the time to “dig trenches,” saying what’s need instead is “a united and harmonious Europe.”
Recalling the European Union was formed in the fallout of the two world wars to guarantee peace on the continent, Francis said that seeing how fragile said peace is today, “creativity” is needed to sustain it.
Citing the battle of Caporetto, one of the most dramatic of WWI, the pope said it was the “the culmination of a war of attrition, which set a sinister record in reaping countless casualties for the sake of risible gains.” It taught humanity, he said, that “entrenchment in one’s own positions only leads to failure,” and now is not the time to “dig trenches,” but instead “to work courageously to realize the founding fathers’ dream of a united and harmonious Europe.”
Francis also said that Christians are called to follow Europe’s patron St. Benedict, and revitalize the continent and revive its conscience, “not by occupying spaces, this would be proselytism, but by generating processes capable of awakening new energies in society.”
This, the pope continued, is what the founder of modern-day Christian monasticism did.
“He was not concerned to occupy spaces in a wayward and confused world,” he said. “Sustained by faith, Benedict looked ahead, and from a tiny cave in Subiaco he gave birth to an exciting and irresistible movement that changed the face of Europe.”
The fifth and sixth century saint, venerated not only by Roman Catholics but also by Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Communion, is the author of the Rule of St. Benedict, adopted by most monasteries in the West since then.
The pope’s words came as he was addressing the 350 participants of the “Dialogue (Re) Thinking Europe, – a Christian Contribution to the Future of the European Project,” which took place in the Vatican this weekend, organized by COMECE, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community.
Speaking about the contributions Christianity can give to the future of the continent, Francis began by saying it can remind Europe of the importance of the human person, saying that “she is not a mass of statistics or institutions, but is made up of people.”
Regrettably, the pope said, “there are no citizens, only votes. There are no migrants, only quotas. There are no workers, only economic markers. There are no poor, only thresholds of poverty.”
Thus, the reality of the human person is reduced to a “more comfortable and reassuring” abstract principle, because “people have faces; they force us to assume a responsibility that is real, personal and effective. Statistics, however useful and important, are about arguments; they are soulless. They offer an alibi for not getting involved, because they never touch us in the flesh.”
To be a person, Francis said, “connects us with others; it makes us a community.”
Francis also stressed the importance of the family to the future of Europe. “The family, as the primordial community, remains the most fundamental place for this process of discovery. There, diversity is valued and at the same time brought into unity. The family is the harmonious union of the differences between man and woman, which becomes stronger and more authentic to the extent that it is fruitful, capable of opening itself to life and to others.”
Helping Europe recover a sense of belonging to a community is the second contribution Christianity can make to the future of the continent, saying that it’s the best antidote to “the forms of individualism typical of our times, to that widespread tendency in the West to see oneself and one’s life in isolation from others.”
Freedom, the pope argued, is “misunderstood,” and seen as a right to “be left alone, free from all bonds.” Hence the European society today lacks a sense of belonging.
The other contributions from Christianity to the future of Europe, according to Francis, are dialogue, inclusivity, and a sense of solidarity. In addition, Christians are to be a source of development and peacemakers.
On the first item, the pope highlighted the contribution made by interreligious dialogue to improve the understanding between Christians and Muslims in Europe.
Regrettably, he said, there’s a “secularist prejudice, still in vogue,” that is “incapable of seeing the positive value of religion’s public and objective role in society, preferring to relegate it to the realm of the merely private and sentimental.”
This, Francis said, results in a certain “groupthink,” evidenced in international meetings, which sees religious identity as a threat, to be fend off by “promoting an ersatz conflict between the right to religious freedom and other fundamental rights.”
Dialogue, the pope added, is a key element of politics. However, nowadays it’s replaced by “shouted claims and demands,” made by “extremist and populist groups” that find fertile ground in many countries.
Hence, dialogue is replaced by a “futile antagonism” or by the domination of a single political power.
“In the one, bridges are burned; in the other, walls are erected,” he said.
Inclusivity, Francis said, doesn’t mean downplaying differences, but rather valuing them as a source of enrichment. “Seen in this way, migrants are more a resource than a burden,” the pope said.
Facing the ongoing “tragedy of displaced persons and refugees,” he continued, it’s important to remember that they’re people, who cannot be welcomed or rejected in accordance to any given agenda, whether it be political, economic or religious.
However, addressing the crisis mustn’t oppose the duty governments have to do so with prudence, the pope noted, as he’s done repeatedly in recent opportunities.
Solidarity, the pope said, has to be “the lifeblood of a mature community.”
To be a solidary community “means to be concerned for the most vulnerable of society, the poor and those discarded by social and economic systems, beginning with the elderly and the unemployed.”
Europe has lost this sense of solidarity, the pope said, becoming “infertile,” not only due to low birth rates and because “all too many [children] were denied the right to be born,” but also because older generations have been incapable of passing on to the young ones the tools needed to face the future.
“To become once more a solidary community means rediscovering the value of our own past, in order to enrich the present and to pass on a future of hope to future generations,” he said.
A Europe that rediscovers itself, Francis then said, will be a “source of development,” for “each man and of the whole man.”
Lastly, the pope said Christians are called to be peacemakers. However, this doesn’t mean solely to avoid tensions and ending the bloodshed throughout the world, but also to promote a culture of peace.
“This requires love for the truth, without which authentic human relationships cannot exist; it also requires the pursuit of justice, without which oppression becomes the rule in any community,” he said.