Last Saturday Pope Francis completed a trilogy of speeches on Europe in which he appeared, in turn, as a prophet, dreamer and contemplative. Taken together, they are comparable to Benedict XVI’s own great trio of addresses on European democracy, at the Collège des Bernardins in 2008, Westminster Hall in 2010 and the Bundestag in 2011.
Francis was speaking a day after Catalonia declared independence from Spain and more than a year after Britain voted to leave the European Union. For the Pope, these two events starkly illustrate the crisis of European unity which he has tackled, from different angles, in all three speeches.
His first address was memorably savage. In 2014, the European Parliament invited him to Strasbourg, hoping perhaps for a gentle pat on the back. What he delivered instead was a sharp clip around the ear. Europe seemed “elderly and haggard”, he said. The world was becoming “less and less Eurocentric” and viewed the old continent “with mistrust and even suspicion”. “Where is your vigour?” he asked a stunned, silent chamber.
His second oration, as he accepted the Charlemagne Prize at the Vatican in 2016, was much milder. Instead of dwelling on the image of Europe as a wizened grandmother, he shared his dream of a continent “that is young, still capable of being a mother: a mother who has life because she respects life and offers hope for life”.
In his third reflection, at the Vatican’s New Synod Hall last weekend, the Pope was neither an acidulous critic nor a soaring visionary. Instead he was an almost wistful figure, looking forward across the decades (if not centuries) towards a European spiritual revival. He recalled the figure of St Benedict, who “from a tiny cave in Subiaco … gave birth to an exciting and irresistible movement that changed the face of Europe”. But Christians must do more than sit around, awaiting what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre famously called “another – doubtless very different – St Benedict”. Francis said that we are called even now “to revitalise Europe and to revive its conscience, not by occupying spaces, but by generating processes”.
“Generating processes, rather than occupying spaces” is one of Pope Francis’s guiding maxims. He explained what he means by it in his interview with Fr Antonio Spadaro in 2013. “We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised,” he said, “but rather on starting long-run historical processes … God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history. This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics. And it requires patience, waiting.” To use a biblical metaphor, we are called to sow the seeds, not reap the harvest.
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