Pope Francis sought to inject new life into the old continent by delivering “a message of hope and encouragement to all the citizens of Europe” when he spoke to the European Parliament and to the Council of Europe, in Strasbourg, France, on November 25.
Speaking “as a pastor,” he delivered two talks in Italian, each around 30 minutes, to separate sessions of these main European institutions, and touched on a broad range of issues that are central to the life of the continent today.
He recalled the roots of Europe’s culture and values, and talked about peace, human rights, democracy, migration, unemployment, the gap between rich and poor, “the loneliness” of the many who are not connected, Europeans growing mistrust in their bureaucratized institutions. He spoke too about the urgent need for Europe to recover its youthful spirit and again make a new and important contribution to the world, and suggested ways how Europe might move ahead and face the future with renewed confidence
Francis is the first non-European pope for 1,300 years, and the first to visit these institutions since the fall of the Berlin Wall. He arrived in Strasbourg at 10.00 a.m. and devoted the entire time there—around four hours—to the European Parliament, whose 751 elected members represent the 28 states of the European Union and more than 500 million people, and to the Council of Europe that represents 47 member states and some 800 million European citizens.
Unlike John Paul II who came here in 1988, Pope Francis looks at the old continent with non-European eyes. His incisive analysis of Europe made people sit up as he zoned in on divisive and problem areas, without using euphemisms. At the same time, he balanced that analysis with a rich offering of hope and encouragement and pointed a way ahead.
Addressing the parliament of a European Union (EU) that traces its origins back to the 1950s and the post-World War II drive to European integration, he recalled that since the Union came into existence “the world has become more complex and ever changing; increasingly interconnected and global” and less "Eurocentric." Despite an expanded Union, he said Europe today “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 mentioned the growing mistrust of EU citizens towards the EU institutions which they consider “aloof, engaged in laying down rules perceived as insensitive to individual peoples, if not downright harmful.” There is “a general impression of weariness and aging, of a Europe which is now a "grandmother", no longer fertile and vibrant”, and no longer attractive because its great ideas are replaced “by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions,” he said.
He pointed to “rather selfish lifestyles, marked by opulence” that show indifference to the surrounding world, and especially to the poor, and said people are dismayed at seeing “technical and economic questions dominating political debate, to the detriment of genuine concern for human beings.”
Notwithstanding the problems, Pope Francis encouraged Europeans not to lose confidence and 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 the peoples of this continent.”
He recalled that at the heart of “the ambitious political project” of the EU there was “confidence” in men and women, “not so much as citizens or economic agents,” but “as persons endowed with transcendent dignity.”
Pope Francis zoned in on those two last words—'dignity’ and 'transcendent,' in his talk to the European Parliament. But, later, in his talk to the Council of Europe he focused on two very different words, “multipolarity” and “transversality,” explaining that it was important to recognize that Europe “is multipolar in its relationships and in its intentions today" and it’s necessary to engage in a transversal dialogue between the different sectors—political, cultural, religious—of European society, and not just dialogue with the groups to which one belongs. These four words served as the axis of his two talks.
He reminded the Parliament that ‘dignity’ was “the pivotal concept” in the process of rebuilding Europe after World War II, and recalled how human rights came to be recognized then as of utmost importance. He commended the EU for making the promotion of human rights “central” to its commitment “to advance the dignity of the human person, both within the Union and in its relations with other countries.”
He praised the Council of Europe for its work in this field too, and especially the European Court of Human Rights which in some way “represents the conscience of Europe with regard to these rights.” He commended the Council also for contributing to peace in Europe “through the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.” He encouraged it to continue this “work of humanization,” by “educating for peace and banishing a culture of conflict aimed at fear of others, marginalizing those who think or live differently than ourselves.”
In a much applauded speech, Francis told the European Parliament that “it is vital to develop a culture of human rights which wisely links the individual, or better, the personal aspect, to that of the common good, of the ‘all of us’ made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society” because, he said, “unless the rights of each individual are harmoniously ordered to the greater good, those rights will end up being considered limitless and consequently will become a source of conflicts and violence.”
Turning to the concept of “transcendent” in reference to human dignity, he said this means “regarding human beings not as absolutes, but as beings in relation.” In this context, he said he is of the opinion that “one of the most common diseases in Europe today is the loneliness typical of those who have no connection with others.” He mentioned the elderly “often abandoned,” the young “who lack clear points of reference and opportunities for the future,” “the many poor” in our cities, and “the disorientation of immigrants who came here seeking a better future.” This loneliness “has become more acute as a result of the economic crisis,” he added.
He told the members of parliament that they have “a great mission”: “to tend to the needs of individuals and peoples” and to take responsibility for “the situations of utter marginalization and anguish.” He urged them to be open to “the transcendent dimension of life,” and to recover the ideals that shaped Europe from the beginning such as, “peace, subsidiarity, reciprocal solidarity, and a humanism centered on respect for the dignity of the human person.”
He said he was convinced that “a Europe which is capable of appreciating its religious roots and of grasping their fruitfulness and potential, will be all the more immune to the many forms of extremism spreading in the world today, not least as a result of the great vacuum of ideals which we are currently witnessing in the West, since ‘it is precisely man’s forgetfulness of God, and his failure to give him glory, which gives rise to violence."
The Jesuit pope drew strong applause when he denounced “the many instances of injustice and persecution which daily afflict religious minorities, and Christians in particular, in various parts of our world” and recalled that “communities and individuals today find themselves subjected to barbaric acts of violence: they are evicted from their homes and native lands, sold as slaves, killed, beheaded, crucified or burned alive, under the shameful and complicit silence of so many.”
He urged the European Union to live up to its motto—“United in Diversity”—and warned against trying to impose uniformity in that union. “Keeping democracies alive is a challenge in the present historic moment,” he stated. He drew more applause when he told them, “The true strength of our democracies—understood as expressions of the political will of the people—must not be allowed to collapse under the pressure of multinational interests which are not universal, which weaken them and turn them into uniform systems of economic power at the service of unseen empires.”
He encouraged the EU to invest in education, and called on Europe to continue to be “in the vanguard of efforts to promote ecology.” He drew applause again when he said, “It is intolerable that millions of people around the world are dying of hunger while tons of food are discarded each day from our table.”
He called for the promotion of “policies which create employment” and “restore dignity to labor by ensuring proper working conditions.”
Calling the high rate of youth unemployment “a veritable mortgage on the future,” he told the Council of Europe it was his “profound hope” that “the foundations will be laid for a new social and economic cooperation, free of ideological pressures, capable of confronting a globalized world while at the same time encouraging that sense of solidarity and mutual charity which has been a distinctive feature of Europe, thanks to the generous efforts of hundreds of men and women—some of whom the Catholic Church considers saints—who over the centuries have worked to develop the continent, both by entrepreneurial activity and by works of education, welfare, and human promotion.”
Francis, the son of Italian immigrants, spoke passionately about the problem of migration to both the Council and the Parliament. He appealed to the latter for “a united response to the question of migration,” and drew strong applause when he said, “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery! The boats landing daily on the shores of Europe are filled with men and women who need acceptance and assistance” as they flee from poverty and conflicts. He urged Europe “to take action against the causes and not only the effects of migration.”
He told the Parliament that “the absence of mutual support within the European Union runs the risk of encouraging particularistic solutions to the problem, solutions which fail to take into account the human dignity of immigrants, and thus contribute to slave labor and continuing social tensions.”
Perhaps mindful of his recent visit to Albania, Francis appealed to the European Union to open its doors to the Balkan states.
Pope Francis recalled that Europe and Christianity have been linked together for two-thousand years. “It is a history not free of conflicts, errors and sins, but one constantly driven by the desire to work for the good of all. We see this in the beauty of our cities, and even more in the beauty of the many works of charity and constructive cooperation throughout this continent. This history, in large part, must still be written. It is our present and our future. It is our identity. Europe urgently needs to recover its true features in order to grow, as its founders intended, in peace and harmony, since it is not yet free of conflicts.”
He told the Parliament that “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.”
He concluded with inspiring words, telling them: “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 cares for, defends and protects every man and woman. A Europe which bestrides the earth surely and securely” and is “a precious point of reference for all humanity!”
Both the Parliament and the Council of Europe gave the pope standing ovations when he finished speaking to them. He responded with a smile, and then took the plane back to Rome to prepare for his next foreign trip on Friday, November 28, to Turkey.