Pope Francis in Strasbourg: Modern Popes in Dialogue with the World
When Pope Francis came to Strasbourg to address the European Parliament and the Council of Europe last week, a new chapter in the Church’s engagement with European society opened.
When Pope John XXIII published the encyclical letter Pacem in terris on 11 April 1963 he broke with well-established precedent and, rather than addressing it to the clergy and faithful of the Catholic Church, he spoke directly to “all men and women of good will.” Peace and the avoidance of war was, after all, the concern of everyone. With the new spirit of engagement with the world signalled by Vatican II’s pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes, Pope John’s successors too have looked above the parapet of their natural Catholic constituency to speak to a wider audience, particularly when they set themselves to address issues of social or ethical concern.
Over the half-century since the Second Vatican Council encyclical letters, post-synodal apostolic exhortations and motu proprios have been published by the four popes who have occupied the chair of Peter, but all have been written – regardless of how wide the potential catchment public intended – from the Apostolic Palace. And yet, with the visit of Pope Paul VI to the UN in 1965 a new tradition of public engagement and dialogue was established. Rather than write from his eagle’s nest on the top floor of the Apostolic Palace, the Bishop of Rome came to meet his audience, to speak directly to them, usually at their behest and invitation, on their own territory. And that is the tradition which Pope Francis continued by visiting the European Parliament on 25 November.
When Paul VI addressed the UN in September 1965, rather than casting himself as some medieval monarch reading the riot act to his subordinates, he deliberately set himself to draw on the Church’s expertise in “humanity” and on its long record of creative community building and assisting authentic human progress. The pope’s speech in New York will be remembered for its passionate plea for peace: “Jamais plus la guerre.” And indeed, it is primarily as heralds of peace that his successors have ventured into the public arena. The EU as a “peace project” makes it appealing to the Holy See.
Pope John Paul II visited the European Commission in May 1985 and spoke to the plenary assembly of the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 1988, and both these visits demonstrated a papal recognition of what the European project represented and a support for the broad political objectives of the Union. Yet it was the apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Europa (2003) that the Polish pontiff articulated his vision of a Europe in touch with its Christian roots and in which the Church had a vital role to play.
Pope Benedict XVI too rose to the challenge of addressing parliamentarians on their home turf, speaking to the UK’s politicians and leaders of civil society in Westminster Hall on 17 September 2010 and, a year later on 22 September 2011, speaking to the public representatives of his native Germany in the Bundestag in Berlin. It was the voice of the philosopher-pope, of the wise and experienced elder churchman, who drew on his learning and on the Christian gospel, to set a framework within which those with the power to decide might address the great ethical and social issues of the age.
When Pope Francis came to Strasbourg to address the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, a new chapter in the Church’s engagement with European society opened. There can be no doubt but that the pope who has raised two of his predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II, to the altars of the Church and beatified Paul VI at the closing Mass of the Extraordinary Synod, will continue to promote peace and give wise counsel as to how best a society, which aspires to be open, humane and generous to the poor and the afflicted, can achieve that end. There is every reason also to believe that the Strasbourg addresses are part of a wider new dialogue with the world.
Patrick H. Daly