Francis reprimands European leaders, forcefully asking continent: 'What has happened to you?'

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has forcefully reprimanded European leaders, urging them to reject calls for the re-nationalization of the continent, to remember the devastating history that preceded their unification, and to “build bridges and tear down walls” in the face of the continuing migrant crisis.

In a thunderous speech Friday accepting the prestigious German Charlemagne Prize in the presence of the three European Union presidents, the pontiff strikingly criticized a “resignation and weariness that do not belong to the soul of Europe,” asking the continent three times: “What has happened to you?”

The pope also shared his dream of a Europe focused on building solidarity and generosity across borders, saying that dialogue and integration are the only paths forward for the continent.

“The present situation does not permit anyone to stand by and watch other people’s struggles,” said Francis. “On the contrary, it is a forceful summons to personal and social responsibility.”

Identifying a temptation to “yield to our own selfish interests” by “putting up fences here and there” to stop the flow of migrants into Europe, the pontiff said: “I dream of a Europe where being a migrant is not a crime but a summons to greater commitment on behalf of the dignity of every human being.”

“I dream of a Europe that promotes and protects the rights of everyone, without neglecting its duties towards all,” he continued later. “I dream of a Europe of which it will not be said that its commitment to human rights was its last utopia.”

Francis was speaking Friday after receiving the German prize, which has been given since 1950 by the city of Aachen -- where the famed Christian ruler lived and is buried -- to honor “the most valuable contribution in the services of Western European understanding and work for the community.”

Among those taking part in the ceremony were: Marcel Philipp, Aachen’s mayor; Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament; Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission; and Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council.

Also present for the ceremony were Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The pope’s remarks come as many of the European leaders have spoken openly and persistently about the continent being in a state of crisis amid the rise of neo-nationalist political parties, weak economic growth, and a widely criticized response to the migrant crisis.

Schulz, who was given the Charlemagne Prize last year, said in remarks before Francis’ that Europe stood in danger of “squandering” its cultural and humanitarian heritage.

“Let me be clear,” said the German politician. “Europe is going through a crisis of solidarity; our shared values are under attack. And so I say this: it is now time to fight for Europe. It is now time for all of us to stand up and be counted as Europeans.”

“Pope Francis gives us hope for the future when he says that 'our problems can become powerful forces for unity,’” said Schulz, mentioning how the pontiff brought three refugee families back to the Vatican after a one-day trip to the Greek island of Lesbos.

“He showed all of us --- and in particular those heads of government who are refusing to accept Muslim refugees on the grounds that their country is Christian -- what solidarity means in practice, what it means to be human,” said Schulz.

Francis began his remarks Friday by saying he would offer the award to Europe, warning that “ours is not so much a celebration as a moment to express our shared hope for a new and courageous step forward for this beloved continent.”

“This ‘family of peoples,’ which has commendably expanded in the meantime, seems of late to feel less at home within the walls of the common home,” said the pontiff.

Citing “an impression that Europe is declining,” the pope asked: “What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom?”

“What has happened to you, Europe, the home of poets, philosophers, artists, musicians, and men and women of letters?” he continued.

“What has happened to you, Europe, the mother of peoples and nations, the mother of great men and women who upheld, and even sacrificed their lives for, the dignity of their brothers and sisters?” he asked again.

Quoting Elie Wiesel, the Romanian-born author and Holocaust survivor, the pontiff said that Europeans today might need a “memory transfusion” in order to “take a step back from the present to listen to the voice of our forebears.”

Europe’s founding fathers, said Francis, “dared to change radically the models that had led only to violence and destruction. They dared to seek multilateral solutions to increasingly shared problems.”

The pope then urged the birth of a “new humanism” based on capacities to integrate, dialogue, and generate. He strongly condemned current calls for uniformity, or arguing against integration of new ideas or peoples.

“Forms of reductionism and attempts at uniformity, far from generating value, condemn our peoples to a cruel poverty: the poverty of exclusion,” said Francis. “Far from bestowing grandeur, riches and beauty, exclusion leads to vulgarity, narrowness, and cruelty. Far from bestowing nobility of spirit, it brings meanness.”

“The roots of our peoples, the roots of Europe, were consolidated down the centuries by the constant need to integrate in new syntheses the most varied and discrete cultures,” said the pope. “The identity of Europe is, and always has been, a dynamic and multicultural identity.”

Francis then said there is a word “that we should never tire of repeating” -- dialogue.

“Peace will be lasting in the measure that we arm our children with the weapons of dialogue, that we teach them to fight the good fight of encounter and negotiation,” said the pontiff. “In this way, we will bequeath to them a culture capable of devising strategies of life, not death, and of inclusion, not exclusion.”

“Dialogue, with all that it entails, reminds us that no one can remain a mere onlooker or bystander,” said the pope. “Everyone, from the smallest to the greatest, has an active role to play in the creation of an integrated and reconciled society.”

Francis also lamented the situation for young people across Europe, who he said are not being offered “dignified labor” that helps them integrate into societal structures and grow in intelligence and ability.

“The just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy,” said the pontiff. “It is a moral obligation. If we want to rethink our society, we need to create dignified and well-paying jobs, especially for our young people.”

Citing an address Pope John Paul II gave in Germany in 1990, Francis called for “new, more inclusive and equitable economic models, aimed not at serving the few, but at benefiting ordinary people and society as a whole.”

Ending his remarks with a moving and forceful coda outlining his dreams for Europe, the pontiff said he dreams of a continent “that is young, still capable of being a mother” and one that “cares for children, that offers fraternal help to the poor and those newcomers seeking acceptance because they have lost everything and need shelter.”

Francis is the second pontiff to receive the Charlemagne Prize. John Paul II received the award in 2004 as an “extraordinary prize” in addition to Irish politician Pat Cox.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, said at a Rome event Thursday that the pope saw accepting the prize as “a new occasion to remind Europe of its humanistic vocation, which is the vocation of openness and solidarity towards all."

That openness and solidarity has been tested in recent months, as several European countries have taken steps to close their borders in the face of migrants traveling to the north of the continent, endangering the continuation of the decades’-old Schengen Area allowing free travel through Europe.

In the latest such move, Austria has been building a barrier at its Brenner Pass border crossing with Italy in flagrant violation of EU regulations.

Renzi, the Italian prime minister, sharply criticized Austria’s move in remarks at a Rome event Thursday focused on celebrating the pope’s receiving of the Charlemagne Prize.

"This is not the time of walls,” said Renzi. “This is why today if we think about closing the Brenner Pass, that isn't only acting against our history, it isn't only about reopening a wound that last century lead to death and pain, but it's acting against our future.”

At the same event, Juncker, whose Commission serves as the executive branch of the EU, lamented that “we have full-time Europeans when it comes to taking and part-time Europeans when it comes to giving.”

“In former times we were working together … this has totally gone,” he said.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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