The first non-European Pope in more than 1,200 years arrived in Strasbourg today to address the European Parliament and the Council of Europe.
Pope Francis’ plane landed at 10:00 am and he was greeted by several dignitaries and prelates upon his arrival. Although his visit was not an apostolic trip, in that plans included no stops other than the European institutions, hundreds of faithful gathered outside, singing and cheering as his motorcade left the airport.
Upon his arrival to the European Parliament, the Pope was greeted by its president, Martin Schulz. After greeting several representatives, the Holy Father met a special person from his past: Helma Schmidt, an elderly woman whose family he stayed with when he was a young man studying German. The Holy Father beamed with joy as he spoke for several minutes with Schmidt, who is now in her 90s.
The Pope began his address, saying that he came as a pastor “to offer a message of hope and encouragement to all the citizens of Europe.”
“It is a message of hope, based on the confidence that our problems can become powerful forces for unity in working to overcome all those fears which Europe – together with the entire world – is presently experiencing,” he said. “It is a message of hope in the Lord, who turns evil into good and death into life.”
Stressing the bond between dignity and transcendence, Pope Francis told the members of Parliament that the promotion of human rights is central to the mission of the European Union in advancing the dignity of the person. However, he said, that dignity is compromised when freedom to express one’s religious faith is not tolerated, when tyranny prevails over the rule of law, when men and women are subject to discrimination, and when people lack food and work.
When ‘opulence’ trumps dignity
Pope Francis urged the European Parliament to develop a culture that links the individual person with the common good. To do so means regarding human beings “not as absolutes, but as beings in relation.”
Among the “diseases” that exist in Europe today, he said, is loneliness, particularly that of the elderly who are “abandoned to their fate,” the youth who lack opportunities for the future, the poor as well as immigrants.
The 77-year-old Pontiff said that the current economic crisis has made this loneliness become more acute, resulting in “tragic consequences” for society, including a growing mistrust towards institutions that “are considered to be aloof.”
“We encounter certain rather selfish lifestyles, marked by an opulence which is no longer sustainable and frequently indifferent to the world around us, and especially to the poorest of the poor,” the Pope said.
“Men and women risk being reduced to mere cogs in a machine that treats them as items of consumption to be exploited, with the result that – as is so tragically apparent – whenever a human life no longer proves useful for that machine, it is discarded with few qualms, as in the case of the terminally ill, the elderly who are abandoned and uncared for, and children who are killed in the womb,” he continued, to which the EU delegates responded with applause.
The confusion between ends and means, he went on to say, is the result of allowing technology to take over, paving the way for a “throwaway culture” and “uncontrolled consumerism.”
Forgetfulness of God leads to violence
Pope Francis rounded out his address by calling on the institutions of the European Union to remember their religious roots. The Pope’s words were again welcomed with applause when he noted that “man’s forgetfulness of God, and his failure to give him glory, […] gives rise to violence.”
In this vein, he also denounced the injustice and persecution of Christians and religious minorities around the world. “Communities and individuals today,” he said, “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.”
The Holy Father also urged the importance of unity, which he said is not synonymous with political, economic or cultural uniformity. Placing mankind’s individuality and creativity at the forefront, he noted, affirms the centrality of the human person.
“It is no secret that a conception of unity seen as uniformity strikes at the vitality of the democratic system, weakening the rich, fruitful and constructive interplay of organizations and political parties,” he said.
“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. This is one of the challenges which history sets before you today.”
To assure this centrality, Pope Francis highlighted the importance of three specific areas, the first being the family as “the fundamental cell and most precious element of any society.”
The second area he underlined was employment. The Pope said that the time has come “to promote policies which create employment, but above all there is a need to restore dignity to labour by ensuring proper working conditions.”
Another important area the Pope stressed was the question of immigration. The EU Parliament members once again applauded the Holy Father, who exclaimed: “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery!” He called on them to confront the problems of immigration “only if it is capable of clearly asserting its own cultural identity and enacting adequate legislation to protect the rights of European citizens and to ensure the acceptance of immigrants.” He also stressed the need to adopt policies that assist the countries of origins, where conflicts often cause people to migrate.
“We need to take action against the causes and not only the effects,” he said.
Concluding his address, Pope Francis urged the members of the European Parliament to work together in building a Europe that is centered around the human person and not around the economy.
“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,” he said.
The EU delegates gave the Holy Father a standing ovation for a minute and a half after his address, before he departed for the Council of Europe.
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