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.
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.
"Today more than ever, their vision inspires us to build bridges and tear down walls. That vision urges us not to be content with cosmetic retouches or convoluted compromises aimed at correcting this or that treaty, but courageously to lay new and solid foundations."
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Francis pointed to the ability to integrate, dialogue and generate, which he said are key capacities that will assist in the "update" of the European continent.
He stressed the need to combine various levels of diversity in order for a "healthy coexistence," explaining that "forms of reductionism and attempts at uniformity, far from generating value, condemn our peoples to a cruel poverty: the poverty of exclusion."
"Far from bestowing grandeur, riches and beauty, exclusion leads to vulgarity, narrowness, and cruelty. Far from bestowing nobility of spirit, it brings meanness," he said, and stressed the need for an integral solidarity based on Europe's "dynamic and multicultural identity."
The Pope also stressed the importance of cultural integration, rather than merely resettling foreigners geographically, allowing European peoples to overcome "the temptation of falling back on unilateral paradigms and opting for forms of ideological colonization."
Francis advocated for a culture of dialogue involving "a discipline that enables us to view others as valid dialogue partners, to respect the foreigner, the immigrant and people from different cultures as worthy of being listened to."
"Today we urgently need to build coalitions that are not only military and economic, but cultural, educational, philosophical and religious," he said, and encouraged the leaders to arm their people "with the culture of dialogue and encounter."