John Paul II and the European Ideal
There are no doubts on St John Paul II’s credentials to be considered co-Patron of Europe. He was one of Europe’s most outstanding figures; one of the few in the twentieth century who understood that one could be a great patriot and European – writes Andre P. DeBATTISTA
.Born in 1920 – the year of the Miracle on the Vistula – Karol Wojtyła’s life seems to run parallel with the harrowing experiences of the twentieth century. In his last book, “Memory and Identity,” the Pontiff reflected on this. He viewed this century as one theatre where “historical and ideological processes” led to a “great eruption of evil.” Yet, he also recognised that it was also the century which “provided the setting for their defeat.”
Wojtyła’s experienced ‘evil’ first hand as a seminarian during the Nazi occupation of Poland. He would later write: “We were totally swallowed up in a great eruption of evil and only gradually did we begin to realise its true nature.” After 1946, as priest, Bishop and Archbishop, he had to combat a different kind of evil – the Communist regime.
These two periods were punctuated by the Yalta agreement in 1945. Communism violated this agreement in various ways: “above all through their ideological invasion and political propaganda both in Europe and elsewhere in the world.” These same violations – these privations of freedom and eruptions of evil – were experienced in varying degrees throughout the European continent. They left Europe as a divided relic of its former self. His personal experiences make him the ideal person to give guidance on the current conditions in Europe and on its way forward.
He rejects the artificial divisions between East and West Europe. These “served political and military purposes” and “did not take account of the history of the peoples concerned.” This does not preclude him from appreciating the contribution that both East and West bring to the fore.
Early in his pontificate, he named Cyril and Methodius as co-patrons of Europe. These two brothers embodied a zeal for the Gospel, a missionary spirit and a cultural sensitivity which led them to change the lands where they evangelised. Despite the differences they encountered, the two brothers resisted the temptation to adopt coercion and uniformity.
Indeed, through their mission, they rooted Europe in the values of the Gospel. He discusses the significance of this in the encyclical Slavorum Apostoli: “Their work is an outstanding contribution to the formation of the common Christian roots of Europe, roots which by their strength and vitality are one of the most solid points of reference, which no serious attempt to reconstruct in a new and relevant way the unity of the Continent can ignore.”
Though he argued that the continent must come together, he strenuously resisted the drive towards uniformity. In a speech delivered before the European Parliament in 1988, he urged Europeans to unite the continent’s best aspects while respecting each country’s character. He himself never disowned his patriotism.
He rejected the narrow definitions of Europe as a political or a geographical concept; he advocates for a rediscovery of Europe as a cultural and historical phenomenon shaped by common Christian roots. In the Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa he speaks prophetically:
“There can be no doubt that the Christian faith belongs, in a radical and decisive way, to the foundations of European culture. Christianity, in fact, has shaped Europe, impressing upon it certain basic values. Modern Europe itself, which has given the democratic ideal and human rights to the world, draws its values from its Christian heritage.”
This survived notwithstanding the influence of the Enlightenment. On the one hand, he believes the Enlightenment “bore positive fruits, such as the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.” These are values rooted in the Gospel. On the other hand, it violated many of these rights since “the Enlightenment was opposed to what Europe had become as a result of evangelisation.”
He believes that this is one of the challenges Europe faces: “In rejecting Christ, or at least in marginalising his place in human history and culture, this development in European thought signalled a revolution. Man was cut off from the ‘vine’; he was no longer grafted onto that Vine which guarantees him the possibility of attaining to the fullness of his humanity.” Rediscovering Europe’s roots is a challenge which still needs to be undertaken with full intellectual honesty and freedom.
Values play a crucial role in his understanding of Europe. The principles of subsidiarity and solidarity are critical. In terms of solidarity, this must be extended beyond Europe and implies a purification of international systems through the values of equity, justice and freedom. Regarding subsidiarity, it manifests itself in the respect for institutions to respect the autonomy of nations, regions and individuals.
He thus urges people to re-think the concept of freedom; it is not merely a matter of choice in all things but a calling to bring about “a genuine good in personal and family life, in the economic and political sphere, in national and international arenas.” By doing so, “man brings about his freedom in the truth. This allows him to escape possible deviations recorded by history.”
He believes that peace is fragile. His experience of dictatorship, violence and bloodshed confirm this. Thus he urges everyone to develop an “active commitment” to open up “new prospects of exchange, forgiveness and reconciliation between individuals, peoples and nations.”
As the EU and Europe contemplate their future, the words of this great Pope ring true. He writes about Europe from personal experience rather than theoretical knowledge. He knows the high price of division; and yet he is realistic, nuanced and fair. We do well to rediscover what he had to say and how he can help us forge our future.
Andre P. deBattista