Jean-Paul II: the other architect of European unity
It has been a long wait for the first of the Fathers of Europe to be consecrated. Many people thought this would be Robert Schuman, but God decided that John-Paul II would go to the head of the queue. While we are unaccustomed to calling him the ‘Father of Europe’, there is absolutely no doubt that it is largely due to him that the European Union assumed its current form. You only have to remember what Europe was like at the beginning of his papacy to understand the immensity of the changes that have occurred since then. His beatification was also an occasion to recall the circumstances of the attempt on John-Paul’s life, which provided clear evidence that the supporters of the Iron Curtain were perfectly aware of the great threat they faced from a Polish Pope.
In 1978, at the time when Karol Wojtyla became Pope, the world was divided into two hostile blocs. The dividing line went straight through the heart of Europe. As a young student, I felt that this dichotomy was both artificial and unjust. Even though in my heart of hearts I believed that one day a system as unjust as communism would eventually fall, I never dreamed that I would live to see this happen before my own eyes. But, right from the start of his papacy, John-Paul II was absolutely sure that the Soviet Union was on its last legs and that its end was near, even though this needed a bit of a nudge. He had ‘only’ to convince western politicians of this, as well as the diplomats in the Vatican.
Whenever he described the geographical frontiers of continental Europe, the Pope liked to quote General de Gaulle, who used to speak of Europe as extending “from the Atlantic to the Urals”. One year after his election, he started his speech to the European Parliament with the words “In the part of Europe which you represent.” At the then EEC Headquarters in 1985, he declared that “Europeans cannot sit back and accept the division of their continent. The countries which, for different reasons, are not members of your institutions cannot be kept back from a fundamental desire for unity; their particular contribution to European heritage cannot be ignored.”
Whether the Union were to contain a dozen or fifteen countries – this was still only a fraction of the whole Europe, not only in geographical and political terms but also, and above all, in cultural terms. The Europe the size of “a little room in Maastricht” was a Europe mutilated and often ignorant of the cultural impoverishment resulting from this amputation of all the cultural heritage of Central and Eastern Europe.
For John-Paul II, Europe was above all a ‘continent of culture’ formed by two major traditions: Greco-Roman antiquity and the Judeo-Christian faith and sensitivity to human dignity. Without an understanding of the Christian heritage of this continent – as John-Paul II stressed in Prague – its people would become strangers in their own native lands, whatever their personal attitude towards religion.
Christianity is not simply part of the treasure of European history – it is still the dominant religion in Europe. And as well as the millions of the faithful, there are European citizens who, although no longer Christian believers, are nevertheless deeply influenced by the heritage of universal values that came to fruition with the assistance of Christianity; values such as the dignity of the human person, a deep attachment to justice and to freedom, the work ethic, a spirit of initiative, family love, respect for life, tolerance, desire for cooperation and peace.
When thinking about the history of Europe, we should still be aware of its ambiguity and that it does have a darker side. Alongside all that is great and good, the continent also saw the rise of totalitarian, criminal and atheist ideologies during the 20th century. To avoid any risk of seeing a reappearance of the worst excesses of the past – as the blessed John Paul says – modern-day Europe must go back to its Christian roots and discover again the feeling of what it is to be European. It cannot remain just a continental economic entity, but really must evolve into a cultural and spiritual community.
Many personalities, having distinguished themselves in the process of European integration, have been honoured in either Strasbourg or Brussels. Today there are places and buildings that bear their names. It would be only right and fair to pay homage in the same way to the other architect of European unity: John-Paul II.
Translated from the original French