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VISIT OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS
TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND TO THE COUNCIL OF EUROPE

ADDRESS OF POPE FRANCIS
TO THE COUNCIL OF EUROPE
Strasbourg, France
Tuesday, 25 November 2014
[Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish]
[video]
continued

Tragically, peace continues all too often to be violated. This is the case in so many parts of the world where conflicts of various sorts continue to fester. It is also the case here in Europe, where tensions continue to exist. How great a toll of suffering and death is still being exacted on this continent, which yearns for peace yet so easily falls back into the temptations of the past! That is why the efforts of the Council of Europe to seek a political solution to current crises is so significant and encouraging.

Yet peace is put to the test by other forms of conflict, such as religious and international terrorism, which displays deep disdain for human life and indiscriminately reaps innocent victims. This phenomenon is unfortunately bankrolled by a frequently unchecked traffic in weapons. The Church is convinced that “the arms race is one of the greatest curses on the human race and the harm it inflicts on the poor is more than can be endured”.[5] Peace is also violated by trafficking in human beings, the new slavery of our age, which turns persons into merchandise for trade and deprives its victims of all dignity. Not infrequently we see how interconnected these phenomena are. The Council of Europe, through its Committees and Expert Groups, has an important and significant role to play in combating these forms of inhumanity.

This being said, peace is not merely the absence of war, conflicts and tensions. In the Christian vision, peace is at once a gift of God and the fruit of free and reasonable human acts aimed at pursuing the common good in truth and love. “This rational and moral order is based on a conscientious decision by men and women to seek harmony in their mutual relationships, with respect for justice for everyone”.[6]

How then do we pursue the ambitious goal of peace?

The path chosen by the Council of Europe is above all that of promoting human rights, together with the growth of democracy and the rule of law. This is a particularly valuable undertaking, with significant ethical and social implications, since the development of our societies and their peaceful future coexistence depends on a correct understanding of these terms and constant reflection on them. This reflection is one of the great contributions which Europe has offered, and continues to offer, to the entire world.

In your presence today, then, I feel obliged to stress the importance of Europe’s continuing responsibility to contribute to the cultural development of humanity. I would like to do so by using an image drawn from a twentieth-century Italian poet, Clemente Rebora. In one of his poems,[7] Rebora describes a poplar tree, its branches reaching up to the sky, buffeted by the wind, while its trunk remains firmly planted on deep roots sinking into the earth. In a certain sense, we can consider Europe in the light of this image.

Throughout its history, Europe has always reached for the heights, aiming at new and ambitious goals, driven by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, development, progress, peace and unity. But the advance of thought, culture, and scientific discovery is entirely due to the solidity of the trunk and the depth of the roots which nourish it. Once those roots are lost, the trunk slowly withers from within and the branches – once flourishing and erect – bow to the earth and fall. This is perhaps among the most baffling paradoxes for a narrowly scientific mentality: in order to progress towards the future we need the past, we need profound roots. We also need the courage not to flee from the present and its challenges. We need memory, courage, a sound and humane utopian vision.

Rebora notes, on the one hand, that “the trunk sinks its roots where it is most true”.[8] The roots are nourished by truth, which is the sustenance, the vital lymph, of any society which would be truly free, human and fraternal. On the other hand,  truth appeals to conscience, which cannot be reduced to a form of conditioning. Conscience is capable of recognizing its own dignity and being open to the absolute; it thus gives rise to fundamental decisions guided by the pursuit of the good, for others and for one’s self; it is itself the locus of  responsible freedom.[9]

It also needs to be kept in mind that apart from the pursuit of truth, each individual becomes the criterion for measuring himself and his own actions. The way is thus opened to a subjectivistic assertion of rights, so that the concept of human rights, which has an intrinsically universal import, is replaced by an individualistic conception of rights. This leads to an effective lack of concern for others and favours that globalization of indifference born of selfishness, the result of a conception of man incapable of embracing the truth and living an authentic social dimension.

This kind of individualism leads to human impoverishment and cultural aridity, since it effectively cuts off the nourishing roots on which the tree grows. Indifferent individualism leads to the cult of opulence reflected in the throwaway culture all around us. We have a surfeit of unnecessary things, but we no longer have the capacity to build authentic human relationships marked by truth and mutual respect. And so today we are presented with the image of a Europe which is hurt, not only by its many past ordeals, but also by present-day crises which it no longer seems capable of facing with its former vitality and energy; a Europe which is a bit tired and pessimistic, which feels besieged by events and winds of change coming from other continents.

To Europe we can put the question: “Where is your vigour? Where is that idealism which inspired and ennobled your history? Where is your spirit of curiosity and enterprise? Where is your thirst for truth, a thirst which hitherto you have passionately shared with the world?

The future of the continent will depend on the answer to these questions. Returning to Rebora’s image of the tree, a trunk without roots can continue to have the appearance of life, even as it grows hollow within and eventually dies. Europe should reflect on whether its immense human, artistic, technical, social, political, economic and religious patrimony is simply an artefact of the past, or whether it is still capable of inspiring culture and displaying its treasures to mankind as a whole. In providing an answer to this question, the Council of Europe with its institutions has a role of primary importance.

I think particularly of the role of the European Court of Human Rights, which in some way represents the conscience of Europe with regard to those rights. I express my hope that this conscience will continue to mature, not through a simple consensus between parties, but as the result of efforts to build on those deep roots which are the bases on which the founders of contemporary Europe determined to build.

These roots need to be sought, found and maintained by a daily exercise of memory, for they represent the genetic patrimony of Europe. At the same time there are present challenges facing the continent. These summon us to continual creativity in ensuring that the roots continue to bear fruit today and in the realization of our vision for the future. Allow me to mention only two aspects of this vision: the challenge of multipolarity and the challenge of transversality.

The history of Europe might lead us to think somewhat naïvely of the continent as bipolar, or at most tripolar (as in the ancient conception of Rome-Byzantium-Moscow), and thus to interpret the present and to look to the future on the basis of this schema, which is a simplification born of pretentions to power.

But this is not the case today, and we can legitimately speak of a “multipolar” Europe. Its tensions – whether constructive or divisive – are situated between multiple cultural, religious and political poles. Europe today confronts the challenge of “globalizing”, but in a creative way, this multipolarity. Nor are cultures necessarily identified with individual countries: some countries have a variety of cultures and some cultures are expressed in a variety of countries. The same holds true for political, religious, and social aggregations.

Creatively globalizing multipolarity, and I wish to stress this creativity, calls for striving to create a constructive harmony, one free of those pretensions to power which, while appearing from a pragmatic standpoint to make things easier, end up destroying the cultural and religious distinctiveness of peoples.