I had mixed feelings when Archbishop Charles Scicluna asked me to form part of a national delegation that would be taking part in the (Re)Thinking Europe dialogue organised at the Vatican by the Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the EU (COMECE) and the Holy See to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome which established the European Economic Community.
I am glad to have overcome my initial reluctance. Intended as a Christian contribution to the future of the European project, around 350 high-level participants from the Church, politics, academia and civil society came together between October 27 and 29 to engage in a frank and open dialogue, aimed at contributing to a constructive reflection on the fundamental challenges facing the future of the EU.
Despite the fact that in March of this year the European Commission published a White Paper outlining five possible different scenarios for the future of the EU once the UK leaves the Union in 2019, there doesn’t seem to be much of a debate actually going on. Indeed, we seem to be more concerned about following national and local elections in other member states and analysing how the results of these elections will impact the future of the EU than taking some sort of ownership.
The participants at the Vatican dialogue represented various sectors of European society. Clearly, the majority were Roman Catholic. However, there was more than mere token representation from the other Christian churches. One of the participants from the other Christian churches was the Rev. Karin Burstrand from the Church of Sweden who is also vice-president of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) – a kind of Protestant and Orthodox counterpart of COMECE.
I can recount an incident concerning the Rev. Burstrand which clearly shows how uncomfortable most men at the Vatican are with women wearing Roman collars. During a session moderated by Archbishop Paul Gallagher, who is effectively the Pope’s foreign minister, the Rev. Burstrand indicated that she wished to intervene. Mgr Gallagher appeared unsure as to how to address her, eventually referring to her as ‘the lady with the microphone’ to which she replied that she is indeed a lady but that she is also the Dean of the Cathedral of Gothenburg.
Rather than emphasising how male-dominated the Catholic Church hierarchy still is and how contradictory Christian disunity appears to be especially in the face of calls for greater European unity, I could, on the other hand, see a genuine attempt by many of the Catholic bishops present to be more open and listen to individuals who would not be normal frequenters of the corridors of the palaces and buildings of the Vatican.
Apart from a clear Catholic predominance there was also too much of an overwhelming presence of ‘Christian democrat’ politicians. So much so that politicians from other political families actually had to make it clear that they were not Christian democrats but still equally committed Catholics.
One of these was European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans who hails from the Labour Party in the Netherlands and who is also responsible for dialogue with churches, religious associations or communities and philosophical and non-confessional organisations established by Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
Timmermans delivered one of the best speeches at the event. He referred to “an existential crisis of value” as the biggest threat he sees for Europe today. He lamented the excessive pragmatism adopted in communication over the past years and which has led, in his view, to a loss of the support of many people for the European project.
I could see a genuine attempt by many of the Catholic bishops present to be more open and listen to individuals who would not be normal frequenters of the corridors of the palaces and buildings of the Vatican
“The caricatures we’ve seen over the last 10 years – in the north about the south, in the south about the north, in the east about the west and vice-versa – are undermining the very idea of European solidarity. We need to fix that,” he emphasised, adding that as Christians, one cannot fix that situations by creating exclusivity.
“My Christian heritage does not mean anything to me, if it leads to excluding others who don’t have the same heritage. That’s not Christian in my book. I was brought up, I was educated, and you might have heard this now, by Jesuits and Franciscans, both.
“That’s probably why I’m a socialist today. And you have at least one in the room now. Yes, and I speak like you, I look like you. Not dangerous at all.”
Timmermans spoke of the importance of openness towards people with different views, the willingness to learn from others and the willingness to check your own beliefs against those of others rather than refuting them.
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the dialogue was the address by Pope Francis who, after his speech, greeted all participants individually. It was my first-ever close personal encounter with him. I have also had the privilege to meet both his immediate predecessors, however, on a personal note, this was the most meaningful since it is thanks to Pope Francis that I can still somehow identify with the Catholic Church.
At a moment in time when I felt I was drifting away because of what I was perceiving as an increasing irrelevance of the Church, this Pope has shown that there is a different way of being Church – one that is inclusive rather than exclusive (and here very much in line with the words spoken by Timmermans).
In his speech, the Pope underlined the importance of person and community: “The first and perhaps the greatest contribution that Christians can make to today’s Europe is to remind her that she is not a mass of statistics or institutions, but is made up of people...
“The second contribution that Christians can make to the future of Europe, then, is to help recover the sense of belonging to a community.” Referring to person and community as the foundations of Europe that Christians can contribute to building, he then went on to describe dialogue, inclusion, solidarity, development and peace as the bricks of this structure.
He concluded by stating that “Christians are called to revitalise Europe and to revive its conscience, not by occupying spaces – this would be proselytising – but by generating processes capable of awakening new energies in society.”
Concluding as I began, on a personal note, I was very happy to have been able to share this experience with our two bishops as well as with our other compatriots who were part of the delegation or of the proceedings. As Europe reflects on its future, events such as these are of vital importance in seeking to re-evaluate a project founded on values that define us as Europeans.
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