Actually the title named “The present EU and a new vision of Europe with Christian Perspectives” clearly marks one of the most important topics of our times for us as European citizens, and in fact for the whole world, since it means a lot to the world, weather Europe is in good shape or not, whether Europe is inspired or not, whether Europe is in peace and prosperity or not. What I want to share with you today are some insights in European history, some very personal opinions on our present time in Europe and an outlook on future perspectives. When I mention “personal opinions” I really mean it, and I identify myself as the thing you can call a catholic in my personal spirituality and faith, and as a Christian Liberal in my approach as a citizen and as a public servant.
Christian faith is in my view strongly connected with the understanding of liberty, since I consider freedom as one of the most important gifts from God to us human beings. From an ethical point of view not any authority is permitted to reduce Men’s freedom; all authorities, especially the political ones, have the obligation to defend freedom and liberty of each and every person with his or her individual dignity. I assume the understanding of human dignity is a gift of the Jewish-Christian tradition. It’s cultural achievement of human civilisation – at the latest since Abraham has let Isaak alive…
Isn’t it ironic, that mankind needed the era of enlightenment in order to transfer this understanding from the faithful, the philosophers, the novelists and artists to the powerful, the mighty! Because of this transfer we joyfully know what rule of law means or what democracy means. We should not forget to be grateful for that. We have not created this on our own. It’s a gift. Pope Francis stated last year that “Europe is based on Christian and human values, Respect for the dignity of the human person, a profound sense of justice, freedom, love of family, respect for life, tolerance, the desire for cooperation and peace”.
Please allow me to present you with my ideas in three parts. The first part deals with the question, how and what we Europeans were in history. The second part deals with the question, what we Europeans are about today – this is obviously the most difficult and maybe polarizing part, since the talk is about ourselves and our contemporary societies. The third part deals with the question, what attitudes and what behaviour will make Europeans in the future, as long as it shall be a bright, positive future.
Let’s switch to the first part by quoting Pope Francis, who said last year: “We need to immerse ourselves in the challenges of the past, to face those of today and tomorrow. We cannot understand our own times apart from the past. Without such an awareness, history losses its logical thread, and humanity loses a sense of the meaning of its activity and its progress towards the future.”
I claim three factors that say a lot about Europeans in history are the following: They were faithful and philosophers, they were workers and farmers, they were also warriors and enemies. To figure out where to go it’s not sufficient to know where one is. It also seems to be important to know where one comes from. Since in today’s conference we share the Christian faith and we are greatly hosted by a catholic organization, I thought it would be easier and faster to go into these questions by reflecting the Charismas of some Saints and Blessed persons in history.
By mentioning our history as faithful and philosophers I like to focus on Saint Augustine, who experienced in the first part of his life not only arts and a normal life as a lay person, but also succumbed all the temptations that come along with a – let’s say: hedonistic – approach. In this part of his life he was mainly a consumer, a pretty selfish consumer I’ld say. On the contrary in the second part of his life he was a man of faith, of theology, of philosophy and of wisdom. We don’t know how exactly this transformation was effected. But there is a probability that this story tells us a lot about us as Europeans, who try out everything, who fail, who make terrible mistakes, who sometimes in history became criminals; but also presented the world with great achievements in many different fields.
Historic Europeans were mainly workers and farmers, and a vast number of today’s Europeans are workers and farmers. The Austrian Editor Wolf Lotter who is heading the German economy journal “BrandEins” pointed out in an amazing essay, that Europe was due to its conditions a rather difficult place to life. Climate and soil were not very inviting. That’s why Europeans had to start pretty early with development of new techniques, with trying to compensate lacks in external conditions by working hard.
The Game Changer towards a Europe, that we experience as one of the wealthiest parts of the world, was the era of industrialization, which brought a multiplication of work input. The father not only of monasticism, but of a working attitude which is – prima vista – not very colourful, but based on discipline, formation and confidence – expressed by the motto “ora et labora et lege” – is Saint Benedict. He stands for the clearly European heritage not only of monasteries and their deep spirituality, but also for the European heritage of hard work in many different respects.
Of course we have to face the truth, that Europeans in history were also brutal worriers and malicious enemies. We can easily remain with this expression. Because up to the 20th century all Europeans were always enemies to specific other Europeans, and likewise. They fought each other, they killed each other. There were a lot of conflicts on natural resources, very often religion was abused for war, which hurts very much and must remain a lesson for all of us.
Blessed Franz Jägerstätter was a faithful catholic in my home country Austria. He was meant to become a regular soldier in the “Deutsche Wehrmacht”, the army of the criminal “Third Reich”. He refused “to fight in an “unjust war”, as he said. He was a regular person, a married family father and a small farmer. He was not a theologian, not a philosopher or another kind of academic. When he became prosecuted by the Nazi-Regime some authorities in the catholic church tried to convince him of becoming a “Wehrmacht”-Soldier in order to safe his life and to protect his family. But Jägerstätter stood strong for his faith and his beliefs. He was executed on August 9th, 1943. The priest who accompanied him in his final moments is quoted with the words: “I met the only Saint in my lifetime.” Jägerstätter didn’t mean to criticize each and every kind of military service. He clearly refused to fight an unjust war.
And this tells us a lot about the opportunities the traditions of religion and humanity provides all of us with. Of course Europeans have to be ready to defend themselves, and even more their Liberty, their Freedom, based on humanity and the Jewish-Christian picture of Men. But this also means they shall never, never again attack anybody or fight in wars which are intending to erase European values like the before mentioned ones from a country, a continent or even the planet. If we want to ensure that no European fights in an unjust war, Franz Jägerstätter can count as a great example.
Right after the terrible Second World War and the most fatal crime in history, the Holocaust, visionary statespersons started the European integration process. I guess we are in the right position when we remember that the majority of these visionaries were faithful Christians. Since the first steps of European integration were taken on the western side of the terrible border known as “iron curtain” the always mentioned names of acting statespersons are names of western officials – mainly the ones of Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide De Gasperi. Some forty years later the Eastern European countries had the chance to make the most important steps to a more and more complete European integration, which is not yet entirely fulfilled.
Saint Pope John Paul II expressed his love for the European integration with the following words: It would be “the fruit of a victory over ourselves, over the powers of injustice, selfishness and hatred which can go so far as to disfigure man himself.” Last year Pope Francis stated it this way: “After the dark years and the bloodshed of the Second World War, the leaders of the time had faith in the possibility of a better future.”
What the founding fathers created was an entirely new Europe. Our today’s generations owe them gratefulness, and even more than that we owe the future generations hard work in order to ensure that the beautiful creation by the first generations after the Second Word War today named European Union will be preserved in resilience, and that means in freedom, peace, stability and prosperity.
I always think about a famous quote by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, saying: “What you have inherited from your forefathers, acquire it to make it your own!” – It seems to me that no other famous quote says as much as this one to explain what your duty is today as European decision takers, lawmakers, as citizens in general. So when I know will mention what the current state-of-play is, what can be said about us – the Europeans! – today, it’s tremendously important to underline in advance that I will focus here on the challenges, the deficits, the wounds – and I always mean it in the context of gratefulness and joy about the fact that we have inherited a continent together in the European Union, which is at the same time the best Europe that ever existed! It’s a gift!
Nevertheless I’ld like to mention how Europeans can be described today. What has changed? What have the faithful philosophers, the hard workers and as well the brutal warriors become? Here is what we can consider ourselves: we are sceptical people, too often fearful and sometimes selfish, in to many respects we have become bureaucrats and regulators, compared with others we are sometimes “couch potatoes” and narrow-minded. Although this list sounds pretty challenging – and it’s a personal opinion meant as a starting point for a discussion – there is one very beautiful and positive aspect about it: We are no warriors anymore, and we are not enemies anymore.
But we should take Pope Francis’ words seriously, when he pointed out in 2014: “The great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions.” I would recommend especially to each and every public servant or civil servant to keep that in mind.
Again I want to mention Saints and Blessed who could maybe help us to find our own way in our times. Not only because of the fact that we are gathering in the beautiful capital of a beautiful country today, a country that has sacrificed a lot in European history, a country that’s by the way also in a very fragile political condition at the moment as we all know, the first I’ld like to mention for our generation of Europeans is Saint Pope John Paul II. He loved peace, he behaved peacefully. But this doesn’t mean that he would have been inactive or keeping behind. On the contrary he worked hard to achieve peace, freedom and understanding. He reached out to officials, he prepared. Yes he was also a manager in the best sense. He did exactly what the well-known novelist Stefan Zweig meant when he claimed: “Someone must start the peace as others start the war!” It means peace in this world is not a permanent status if we don’t act. Peace is a permanently running processes. Peace needs organization, preparation and management. Peace needs brave citizens who also take risks to achieve peaceful conditions. John Paul II is a great example for that. Obviously Christian values can be worthy for the attitude peace needs. And it can help us to stand up from our comfortable Couches and to become open-minded for the things or neighbours and our societies need us to do.
Another Saint I want to mention is Saint Elizabeth from Thüringen. She is also one of two patrons of a catholic order I’m a lay member of. I just want to mention one amazing thing about her. She was an aristocratic lady, after her wedding living in a castle together with her husband and all the staff. We can assume that her husband was a dedicated leader. There’s nothing really negative known about him. But he was also a bureaucrat and a regulator. He led the castle and all its endeavours. Elizabeth was the one who realized what really was needed. When her husband was away for a longer period of time she opened the castle for the sick and the hungry people. She took care of them and advised others to do so. When her husband came back he was very unhappy about this. And since he recognized that also in his own bed sick people had been resting, he became really angry. – What Elizabeth did then was to put a cross under the blanket of her husbands’ bed which he found when he went asleep. By this way Elizabeth sent a clear message to him.
Of course a specific volume of bureaucracy is necessary. Of course or societies need rules. Since we humans are a pretty complex species the Ten Commandments are clearly not sufficient. But some of you know the joke about Europe and its behaviour with new things: The joke claims the Americans would invent these news things, the Asians would produce it, and what Europe would regulate it.
We have to overcome this. And it would help to watch the example of Saint Elizabeth in order to remain open for the question what really matters under given circumstances. This would help us on a political level to avoid over-regulation, to respect the principle of subsidiarity, to fight centralism and to do the right things in the right moments. Of course it’s always easy to judge political decisions “post festum”, that means: afterwards. But again we see in this example that a Christian approach can – most probably among others! – can help us to focus on the priorities.
The third and last Saint I want to mention regarding our recent condition as contemporary Europeans is Saint Peter. You may know the situation when he was with Jesus in a crucial moment of time and Peter didn’t really know what to do or to say and he just said: “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Peters’ words can maybe be understood as ridiculous, also since there is no knowledge about a response to this proposal, also because way more important things than building shelters to settle down happened in the next moments. But with this question should maybe rather theologians deal.
What we as todays’ Europeans could see is that when we are feared, or when we are selfish, or when our scepticism overcomes our confidence as a whole, we tend to act like Peter in this situation. That’s why confidence is so important to act bravely and future-oriented. Of course we definitely need scientific scepticism, we rather need more of it in many fields of society, but scepticism in general should not become our main attitude. As a great Christian teacher once said: Christian faith can help us to act, like God would not exist, but to have confidence like only the Good Father would control and decide.
What about the future now? Reflecting our past, gratefully considering what amazing European Union we have inherited from the founding fathers, what attitudes could and even should be typical for Europeans in the future? Here is my assumption: we can become enlightened people with hope & visionaries, we can become even more productive innovators and traders, we can become explorers and friends.
As mentioned before the era of enlightenment realized a lot of the Jewish-Christian picture of Men in daily practice in our societies and its structures. The era of enlightenment overcame a lot of wrong ways the authorities in the various fields had taken. And also enlightenment isn’t stable, it has to be improved and empowered all the time. That’s why it seems crucial to me that the idea of human dignity and individual freedom, the understanding of scientific evidence and the real meaning of democracy and rule of law become more common sense than they became yet. Social Media show us each and every day that these understandings are not yet common sense. And we need hope. Our motivation, our braveness will not be adequate when we don’t trust in a good future, when we’re not confident in our own capacities, when we live with a lack of hope.
A Saint who shows us what this can mean is Mother Terese, born and raised in Prishtina, Europe’s youngest capital, the capital of Kosovo, who confessed in quotes released “posthum”, after she had passed away, that after her younger ages she never again felt the presence of the Lord, in her life the longer period of time was spiritually empty, she said. She is quoted with the following words: “The silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” But nevertheless Saint Mother Terese had energy and power do her amazing work that saved a lot of lives and changed a lot of lives to the better.
What can we learn for our future? We are so happy to live in our times. A regular European never experiences the great poverty and injustice Mother Therese had to experience. So it should be easy for us to hope for a better future, in order to be motivated to work on a better future. We often hear there would be a lack of visions and a lack of visionaries in Europe. I’m convinced that hope would be a good starting point to develop visions. And hope is among faith and love one of the main Christian attitudes.
Sometimes I have the impression we as Europeans consume more and more products which were innovated in America and produced in Asia. This would mean that our main economic strength is based on consumption. This would be far too less for a wealthy future. That’s the reason why we need professional training, great young people in all the fields of production, also in the field of software engineering; we need innovation in technical fields, but also in social questions; and we need real entrepreneurs who are willing and able to take risks, and we should provide them with the freedom they need in order to gain the wealth that’s the precondition for our all economic shape, for our education and health systems, for our infrastructure, our security and many other things. Innovation is a term that’s not only addressing technical development, which is of course very important. Innovation is also needed in social respects, in the structures we live together and we meet the challenges of our time.
Blessed Hildegard Burjan was a lady who broke a lot of anachronistic so-called “rules” when she as a lay wife and mother founded an order of catholic sisters in my home country Austria right in between the two World Wars. Before that she had already become one of the first female parliament members. She made the construction of a church happen which had no tower since her idea was that this House of God should not be larger than the houses of the people. This had to be approved by the Holy See that time, a “nihil obstat” was needed – and the new church was approved – after a long time of negotiations and lobbying. It’s a church in our capital city Vienna with a pretty active and engaged catholic community today. Blessed Hildegard Burjan also arranged that a centre for starving and sick people had exactly the same size as the church in order to document that praising the Lord and helping the people are strongly connected things. Hildegard Burjan was an innovative women on a level that’s actually breath-taking. Are we today in the condition to be as innovative in social life, in political life? Are we as Christians able to read the signals and the signs that show us what our role in the world can be? Hildegard Burjan can provide us with a sense of innovation in its broad meaning.
And what can we do to overcome our “coach-potatoe mentality”? In the 16th century there was a man living in Rome under beautiful circumstances. But what he did was to travel. He travelled far. His journeys took him so far that as well we in our times with aircrafts and WiFi-Connections would count these distances as extremely far. He travelled to China. His name was Matteo Ricci. He was a Jesuit Priest and the very first known Catholic visiting China. He learned the language. He came back for a short period of time and travelled back to China again. He explored the various parts of China and gave people in Europe insights an understanding of the completely different culture in the Chinese empire. What Matteo Ricci actually did was building bridges between people, establishing networks, creating connections, building strong ties between different cultures. He spoke Chinese language, he dressed like the Chinese, he respected the habits of the people he lived together with. There was only one thing he refused to do as a catholic: He bowed his knees only before Christ, never before Chinese authorities. His biography suggests that this was one of the reasons why he was respected. And I assume the main reason why he was respected is because he respected everyone.
Isn’t this a wonderful European example how we should deal with different cultures, how we should treat people with different cultures, religions and habits? Frankly for daily life I can’t imagine any other practicable result of the Jewish-Christian heritage and the Lessons from the era of enlightenment than the one to really respect everybody! Because of examples like the one of Matteo Ricci, also due to our lessons-learned in our bloody in often unjust history, we as Europeans, who were in the past among other things also warriors and enemies, can become explorers of the rest of the world and friends to all people, irrespective of their cultural background. By this way Europe can become a new kind of superpower, a “superpower of peace”.
This is one possible vision for the future of Europe. I totally agree with Pope Francis, who stated already in 2014: “The world has become more complex and ever changing, interconnected and global – less ‘eurocentric’.” At least due to this fact Europe has to find its specific way into the future. But toward this goal a lot of small steps have to be taken which I tried to uncover in this presentation, based on personal experiences and my own personal opinion, meant as said as a starting point for a discussion!
In daily political life one of our main obligations is to address the security issues, border protection, migration and integration. Pope Francis clearly has a centred and bridge-building position saying regarding a “unite response to migration: We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery! Europe has to assert its own cultural identity, enact adequate legislation to protect rights of European citizens and to ensure acceptance of immigrants.”
Another important obligation in our times, which is also party of the agenda of this conference, is to fight populism, so-called “left” populism as well as so-called “right” populism. My experience in European Parliament is that the so-called “lefts” and “rights” among the populists very often present us with very similar positions. And of course there is a connection between spirituality on the one side and remaining immune to populism. Pope Francis said in 2014: “Europe is capable of appreciating its religious roots: immune to the many forms of extremism spreading in the world today”, and even straight: “It is precisely man’s forgetfulness of God, and his failure to give him glory, which gives rise to violence”. Of course when we Christians quote thoughts like that we always have to add the fact that there can be different ways to for example the one goal to fight populism or to avoid violence; in order not to be misunderstood by non-believers.
But how can one win the fight against populism? In many respects I agree with the British Actor and Comedian Tom Walker alias Jonathan Pie, who after the election of the current US-president presented the world with a Youtube Video worth watching. In a harsh language Jonathan Pie criticised same behaviours that became typical for so-called establishment-representatives; like the attitude he calls “don’t tell the truth to the plebs”, and not to offer change. Pie claims: “The key is discussion! – If you’re unwilling to discuss you are creating the conditions in which populists win.” He advises us politicians just to “be a better candidate” and points out: “The only thing the works is engagement. Talk to people who think different to you!”
If we want to remain motivated and to keep our strength in those battles of our times I underline for a last moment that “Hope” seems to be an important pre-condition. Last year, as nearly every year, I participated in the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC, where elected officials and other people from various sectors of society gather each year, where representatives of more than 100 countries meet. The key note speaker last year was Barry Black, whose capacity is to work as the Chaplain of the US Senate. His speech is available on Youtube as well and I recommend to watch it, too. In the end of his speech this Chaplain talks about Jesus and his many names and what they mean. Then he proclaims the following: “And because I kept meeting that man (Jesus) my hope does not rest in the various branches of government, executive, legislative, juridical. My hope does not rest in the alliances we build. My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus.” Usually we Europeans don’t talk like that, especially not in the public. But maybe we can remain open and seek some inspiration in word like these.
If we as European Christians don’t consider ourselves as better people in what respect ever, if we understand the Christian teaching as one that claims all humans have the same dignity and deserve the same respect, if we really appreciate our heritage from the founding fathers of the European Union, if we overcome our mentioned current deficits, if we remain open-minded for the lessons not only Saints and Blessed provide us with, but also many other great men and women, if we remain open for scientific knowledge, we can achieve a lot.
We have inherited the best Europe that ever existed. And when we become more confident and work hard in the mentioned fields we can handover an even better Europe to our children. What we hope and what we pray for should not be less than that.