Tuesday 19. October 2021

“What have you done to your brother?”

COMECE’s Secretariat has a new General Secretary: interview with Fr Olivier Poquillon, a Dominican, who will take up his post at the beginning of September.

Please give us a few words about your background and career.


I grew up in France in a family of practising Catholics, not only at Mass on Sundays but also in their everyday lives. Children in our family were actively encouraged to live responsibly and to commit themselves to serving the common good. My grandparents came from both sides of the Atlantic, therefore from the day I was born the diversity of cultures formed an integral part of my upbringing.


You first read international law at university and started your career in law. What prompted you to give up this career to become a Dominican?


But I didn’t give up my career as a lawyer! In fact that’s been my main activity even during my religious life. For me, being a “lawyer” is to share an education and a particular outlook on the common organisation of our lives. Living a “religious life”, on the other hand, is a choice with a broader horizon – it’s a lifelong commitment and one that provides opportunities for a whole string of “career jobs”. In the morning you can be negotiating an international agreement and in the evening be surrounded by students as a chaplain. The legal mindset and theology are not ends in themselves, but are complementary tools in the service of the same mission: to put man, who was created in God’s image, back into the heart of public policy.


On the spiritual level, legal expertise can also help to reduce the threatening image of the law, which is all too often presented as an external constraint, a straitjacket that constricts our individual liberties. From a Christian point of view, the law is first of all the common frame of reference, one that works for everybody, rather like the law of gravity. On the other hand, the law is also the means used by humanity to organise its common destiny, rather like a set of game rules drawn up during the dialogue between individuals and nations. In both cases, the law needs to be freedom’s tool.


After being ordained a priest, your career took an unusual turn, taking you as a military chaplain to the Balkans, to Africa and to the Middle East. What influences and experiences from those countries are you bringing with you to Brussels?


It’s not unusual for a Dominican to have a job like a military chaplain or to work for the UN. After all, St Dominic founded the Order during a diplomatic posting. Other brothers have followed the armed forces to the “New World”. After witnessing atrocities against human beings, a few men like Francisco De Vitoria and Bartholemy de Las Casas became pioneers of international law and human rights. They sought to build bridges to ensure that political decisions would always be for the benefit of the people.


Exposure to armed conflict leaves no person unaffected. Having said that, war zones are often excellent places for people to meet, starting with highly physical, often bloody encounters, experiencing the direct and indirect consequences of the decisions taken by people in more protected, violence-free locations.


In the face of unleashed war frenzy, man can reveal the best or the worst in himself. It teaches a huge lesson in humility and fraternity. When blood flows out of an injured person, the colour of the blood is still red, whatever his nationality. From North to South, from East to West, we all have the same blood in our veins, and we all share the same gift of life. To what extent am I responsible for my neighbour? For a Christian, that provides a good opportunity to look for an answer to the question that God asked Cain: “What have you done to your brother?”


Whatever the ethnic, cultural or religious background, the level of education or lifestyles of the actors in a conflict, it is obvious that we all share the same anxieties, the same suffering and the same hopes.


The violence of war forces us to open our eyes to this basic interdependence which goes beyond the short-term interests of individuals and societies. As we have seen in the current migration crisis, we do not live in separate closed compartments – whether we like it or not, we are connected by a community of destiny. The Earth is round and a crisis in one nation ends up, sooner or later, by being a crisis in other nations too. Therefore, the ultimate strategic goal, for military men, for diplomats, for Statesmen, the sole objective that is worth fighting for is peace. Personally I always bear in mind that peace is precisely the objective upon which the construction of Europe is founded.


Living in Iraq also taught me that societies and civilisations are finite. All economic powers, technologies, natural resources are inadequate if the common project, social links and cohesion are lacking. The Roman Empire wore itself out by filling in the breaches in its outer boundaries while at its core it was crumbling in inner strife.


Crisis situations are still good moments for us to ponder some probing questions. What is the vision of society for Europe today? What do we want to do together on this continent? When we are called upon to dig down to our roots to build a common project for Europe, that is the question which I believe the Church today is asking of Europeans.


You have also been the official representative of the Dominican Order at the United Nations. Did this mission also colour your view of Europe?


Of course it did. Both the UN and the EU have their origins in the will to prevent any resurgence of the conflicts that engendered the massacres of two World Wars. Our continent has a unique status, thanks to the fact that these conflicts not only had their origins in Europe, but also that yesterday’s enemies chose to rise above their historical hostilities in order to embark together on a voyage of integration.


The “Europe of 28” would have everything to gain from becoming even more aware of its particular status and extending this form of constructive dialogue to the 165 other member States of the UN. If she really wishes to break her soulless image of being a “moneybags” and “preacher”, she absolutely must provide better explanations of what she is doing and take the risk of forming new partnerships that are fairer to all parties.


As the Church never ceases to prompt them, the EU and the UN share a common challenge: putting human people back at the heart of public policy. This move certainly implies renewing the value of subsidiarity, of participation, of shared responsibility in the service of the common good. In the Rule of St Augustine, who came from the opposite Mediterranean shore, you find the words: “What concerns everybody should be decided by everybody.”


You are starting your term as General Secretary of COMECE at a time full of challenges facing both Europe and the Church. In your opinion, what does Europe expect from the Church? What hopes does the Church have regarding the European Union?


Nowadays for public institutions in general, for in the European institutions in particular, there is a crisis of confidence. The Church is founded on faith, meaning confidence and trust. I think that the recent terror attacks in Europe have shown up her capacity for enabling people to regain trust and to renew their choice to live together.


The nations of Europe are debating two major questions: “What do we have in common?” and above all “What do we want to do together? What are our common projects?” The Church is able to assist public policymakers in their search for the best way of serving their fellow citizens. The credibility of our institutions rests upon their capacity to be regarded as being genuinely at the service of private individuals in their daily lives.


What are your personal hopes and wishes in the new mission entrusted to you?


Fostering dialogue between the European institutions and the Catholic Church in Europe is a real challenge in today’s context. I hope that the crisis we are now going through will provide the spur to tackle the real questions with courage so that dialogue may recover and move forward.


Europe is above all a territorial area, a continent and a grouping of its native populations. It is now a question for the men and women who live there to reflect on and decide what they want to do together.


The Church can definitely make a valuable contribution to the building of the common good in Europe, through recreating social links, through sharing her knowledge of the terrain, through suggesting new directions and through building bridges with people of good will.


 Michael Kuhn and Johanna Touzel



Translated from the original text in French


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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.