(Vatican Radio) Right from the start it had been presented as the briefest apostolic journey in history; as a journey with such a strong focus on Europe’s top two institutional bodies there seemed to be no space for interpretation or imagination. And yet one of the words most frequently used by Pope Francis on Tuesday 25th November was: “creativity”.
As I crossed the Alps on board the papal Alitalia flight twice within just a couple of hours, the reason and the need for a journey such as this one to Strasbourg, became clearer and clearer in my mind.
The image of a continent, increasingly haggard and weary, crippled by the disease of loneliness, devoid of hope and in risk of losing its identity and even its soul, was conjured up by the Pope in more than one passage in his two discourses that pointed in one direction: Europeans must join forces now!
The Pope’s urgent call to remember the European Union’s motto: “United in Diversity” welled up in what I perceived as an anguished and urgent call to us Europeans to get our act together in order to survive.
Leading up to the trip there had been much corridor talk about why Strasbourg and not Brussels? Why not take the time to visit Strasbourg Cathedral which is celebrating its 1000th anniversary this year? Why not lunch with the bishops instead of racing back to the airport in time for an airplane lunch on a plastic tray?
I think I have the answer to those questions, and it’s very simple! The speed with which everything gave way to the content, to the message contained in the Pope’s dense speeches, left no space for distraction from the vital concerns at hand. The powerful wake-up call to a seemingly dying – or at least rudderless – continent is so important and so urgent it deserves to sound out strongly on its own.
And as I walked into the amazing hemicycle of the European Parliament that seats the second largest Parliamentary Assembly in the world (after India), and saw everyone nailed to their seats by what the Pope was saying, it became increasingly clear that here was the place to deliver the message and this was the time to do so.
Welcoming Pope Francis, President Schulz pointed out that Pope Francis’s words have tremendous significance, not only because he is a religious leader, but because they speak to all of us, of themes that concern all of us: “they are universal – he said – and provide a guide at a time of lack of leadership, reminding us we have a common task and that we are stronger united than taken separately”
And in the two discourses in which the most recurrent words and concepts were “democracy”, “human rights” and “rule of law”, Pope Francis also spoke of the Church as being – in Pope Paul VI’s words – an expert in humanity; he spoke of the legacy of Christianity in the social and cultural formation of the continent and of the contribution it desires to offer today and in the future; he reminded members of the Council of Europe that European bishops have an essential contribution to make. But above all he spoke of the shared responsibility all Europeans have to renew confidence in the Institutions and in Europe’s underlying project of friendship and peace.
You could have heard a pin drop in that enormous arena as the Pope’s words echoed loud and clear, jolting consciences and calling on the extra responsibility of those who have been elected to positions of power to work hard in search of creative and lasting solutions for the many ills that are crippling the weary old continent and its people.
So much for lack of fantasy or imagination. It will take much creativity – he pointed out again and again - as well as a constant exercise of memory to make sure that the roots of Europe continue to bear fruit today.
As we were whisked out of the building and across the river through a glass-enclosed passageway to the Council of Europe, the happy faces of the two Institutions’ employees, straining to catch a glimpse of the man with the message of hope, lined the long corridors.
And before we even had time for a coffee or a visit to the “ladies” we were back on the bus, racing towards the airport, excited to have been such privileged witnesses of an incredible day; coming away feeling that though he may come “from the ends of the earth” he really does care, and that our concerns are his concerns. Feeling also an extra responsibility on our shoulders as European citizens, and as carriers of his message – journalists – who have the possibility of giving a voice to the voiceless and to the marginalized: something Francis himself does, in every occasion.