The Charlemagne Prize was conferred upon Pope Francis in a simple, straightforward, and sober ceremony, according to his wishes. In fact, the speeches given in his honor – especially that of the Lord Mayor of Aachen – acknowledged frankly the crisis Europe is now facing. Above all, the Pope, in his acceptance speech, clearly expressed a desire to dedicate the award to “this beloved continent”. At a time when Europe’s sense of disorientation is more and more evident, Francis rhetorically asked three times, “Europe, what has happened to you?”, as he went through a list of the Old World’s many accomplishments.
It’s not without significance that the award, embodying so much symbolism for Europe and inaugurated just a few years after Second World War, was first given to a religious leader in 1989. In that year, shortly before the fall of the Berlin wall, the recipient was Roger Schutz, founder and prior of the Taizé community, which for more than thirty years has been weaving an ecumenical tapestry of reconciliation and peace, even silently helping to bring down the Iron Curtain.
In 2004, the prize was given in the form of a “special edition” to Pope John Paul II toward the end of his long pontificate, honoring not only his work but, implicitly, that of his predecessors in fostering the process of Europe’s integration. The dynamism of this contribution was highlighted the following year when a German was elevated to the Chair of Peter, thus sealing the reconciliation between Poland and Germany that had been predicted by members of the respective episcopates at the time of the Council.
The pope’s acceptance speech today was a continuation of what he said in Strasbourg in 2014. He made explicit reference to the three “founding fathers” of the European unification process. Out of the ruble cluttering the face of the continent after the war, these three – Robert Schuman, Alcide De Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer – “dared to seek multilateral solutions to problems that had become common to all”.
Seventy years following the “new beginning” launched after a terrifying world-wide conflict, as war and suffering continue to rage in Syria, the Middle East, and Africa, giving rise to unprecedented waves of immigration, while useless walls are being built and cries of intolerance are raised on all sides, the Pope says that we need to aggiornare, or “update”, the idea of the European continent in order to “integrate”, “dialogue”, and “generate”. In this way, Pope Francis contrasts the “old, tired Europe” who wants to entrench herself out of fear with a continent that wants to return to being a “fertile mother” generating a series of new and positive “processes” of integration.
Indeed, our first American pope reminds us that Europe’s identity has always been dynamic, as she has assimilated the “traits of different cultures” over the years. Referring to his Italian roots, Borgolio spoke “as a son who rediscovered his roots of life and faith in Europe, his mother”; a son who dreams today of a “new European humanism” for the rebirth of a continent that cannot forsake her roots and her history. Indeed the Church “can and must contribute” to this process: that is, men and women must witness to the Gospel and use its “pure water” to irrigate “the roots of Europe”.
St. Peter’s Square
April 20, 2019
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