He expressed his desire for a Europe “where being a migrant is not a crime but a summons to greater commitment on behalf of the dignity of every human being,” and where youth can “breathe the pure air of honesty” in a culture that is “undefiled by the insatiable needs of consumerism.”
The Pope said he also longed for a culture in which “getting married and having children is a responsibility and a great joy, not a problem due to the lack of stable employment. I dream of a Europe of families, with truly effective policies concentrated on faces rather than numbers, on birth rates more than rates of consumption.”
“I dream of a Europe that promotes and protects the rights of everyone, without neglecting its duties towards all,” he said, and voiced his hope for a Europe “of which it will not be said that its commitment to human rights was its last utopia.”
Pope Francis received the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen inside the Vatican’s Sala Regia as an award for his for efforts toward the unification of Europe – an event which drew leaders from across Europe to discuss the state of the European Union.
Founded in 1950 by Dr. Kurt Pfeiffer, the Charlemagne Prize is “the oldest and best-known prize awarded for work done in the service of European unification,” according to the organization’s website.
The announcement of Pope Francis’ selection for the 2016 prize was initially made in December 2015.
He is the second religious leader to receive the prize, the first being St. John Paul II, who in 2004 was awarded an “extraordinary” version of the prize, while the ordinary version that year was given to Irish politician Patrick Cox.
While the ceremony for awarding the prize is typically held in Aachen on the Feast of the Ascension, an exception was made for Pope Francis, who requested to hold festivities in the Vatican. The same was done for St. John Paul II when he received an extraordinary version of the prize.
Present at Pope Francis’ reception of the Charlemagne Prize were Marcel Philipp, mayor of Aachen; Martin Schulz, president of European Parliament; Jean Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, and Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, who had a private audience with the Pope before the conferral ceremony began.
Schulz, Juncker and Tusk met with Pope Francis in a private audience before the ceremony began. They each offered brief remarks at the beginning of the event before the Pope himself spoke.
Other guests present included past winners of the prize such as Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant’Egidio community; King Felipe of Spain; Dalia Grybauskaite, president of Lithuania; and Patrick Cox, former president of European Parliament and German chancellor Angela Merkel, who was awarded the prize in 2008, and who also met with the Pope in a private audience before the celebration.
In his lengthy, wide-spread speech, Pope Francis echoed ideas similar to those he expressed during his Nov. 25, 2014 visit to Strasbourg where he spoke to both the European Parliament and Council, urging a “grandmother Europe” go back to her foundational values.
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He told the various political leaders and heads of state present that “creativity, genius and a capacity for rebirth and renewal are part of the soul of Europe,” but that the energetic efforts for unity that arose after World War Two and the Cold War have since deflated.
“There is an impression that Europe is declining, that it has lost its ability to be innovative and creative, and that it is more concerned with preserving and dominating spaces than with generating processes of inclusion and change,” he said.
Rather than being open to new social projects capable of engaging all individuals and groups, the continent is becoming increasingly “entrenched,” he said, and echoed the words of writer Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, who said that we need a major “memory transfusion.”
He stressed the need to go back and listen to the voice of Europe’s forefathers, “were prepared to pursue alternative and innovative paths in a world scarred by war.”
Pointing to French statesman Robert Schuman, the Pope echoed his insistence at the birth of the first European Community that the continent couldn’t be built all at once, but “through concrete achievements which first create a ‘de facto solidarity.’”
“Today, in our own world, marked by so much conflict and suffering, there is a need to return to the same ‘de facto solidarity’ and concrete generosity that followed the Second World War,” he said.