Pope Francis awarded Europe’s prestigious Charlemagne Prize for peace work

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has been awarded the European Charlemagne Prize for 2016 in recognition of his efforts at global peace and cross-cultural understanding, making him only the second pontiff to receive the prestigious annual honor given by the German city of Aachen.

Awarding of the prize was announced at mid-day Wednesday in Germany and confirmed at the Vatican by spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, who told reporters that Francis had decided to accept the honor as an encouragement to those working for peace around the globe.

In their lengthy citation for choosing the pope as this year’s honoree -- available online in German -- the prize committee quotes from the pontiff’s address to the European parliament during his one-day visit to their headquarters in Strasbourg, France in November 2014.

They cite the final section of the address, in which Francis calls on the parliamentarians 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.”

That address, the prize committee states, shows the pope’s appreciation and work for the ideals of Europe’s founders and for the great potential of the continent.

The Charlemagne Prize has been given since 1950 by 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 other recipients of the award have been former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill in 1956; King Juan Carlos I of Spain in 1982; and Americans George Marshall, Henry Kissinger, and Bill Clinton in 1959, 1987, and 2000, respectively.

Pope John Paul II received the award in 2004 as an “extraordinary prize” in addition to Irish politician Pat Cox.

Lombardi said Francis would not be traveling to Germany to accept the award, but that the prize committee would be sending someone to Rome to formally present the honor. The spokesman said the pope’s acceptance of the award is unusual, as he prefers not to accept awards but wanted to in this instance as a symbolic sign of encouragement for peace efforts.

The spokesman also noted that it was significant that the pontiff accepts the award as a European leader who comes from outside the continent, being a native of Argentina.

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

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