Pope Francis Has A Dream

Pope Francis waves as he leads the Angelus prayer in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican May 8, 2016. REUTERS/Stefano Relland
Pope Francis waves as he leads the Angelus prayer in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican May 8, 2016. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

Francis's Vatican is seeing a continual procession of European political leaders and aspiring leaders such as Bernie Sanders (who the Italians have learned they must keep at arm's length). This is a clear statement on the moral authority of the Argentine Jesuit Pope in the political vacuum that characterizes the Western world today. Last week it was Chancellor Merkel's turn, along with other institutional leaders of the European Union including Schulz, Juncker, Tusk and Draghi. A real audience of kings is taking place in the Vatican's Sala Regia, where royals -- including the King of Spain -- are paying their respects to the Pope, who has received the award of clear political significance.

The Pope has been awarded the 2016 Charlemagne Prize. Francis is the first leader from the "global South" and only the fourth non-European to be awarded the prestigious prize. The previous three non-European recipients have little in common with the Jesuit's radical politics: George C. Marshall (1959, author of the plan to save Europe from starvation after World War II), Henry Kissinger (1987, Secretary of State to President Nixon), and Bill Clinton (2000, U.S. President).

The prize was awarded to Pope Francis following several months of international ecumenical events of political importance: A trip to Central Africa, and the development of a relationship with the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow (who first met with the Pope in Cuba last February), and with Bartholomew the Patriarch of Constantinople (who accompanied the Pope to Lesbos last month to visit the refugees on the island). And in October, the Pope will travel to Sweden for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. His travels, particularly to places on the "outskirts of Europe" such as Lampedusa, Sarajevo and Albania that have been marred by violence in recent history reflect both political and spiritual missions.

Francis's dream is of "a new European humanism" in which the church plays its role in the religious community, but also promotes dialogue among Christians and people of different faiths.

In his acceptance speech for the 2016 Charlemagne Prize, Pope Francis referenced the speech he addressed to the European Parliament in November 2014, when he spoke about a Europe that was no longer fertile, that was incapable of inclusion and transformation, and that was becoming enclosed on itself. Francis emphasized and expanded upon his vision for the European continent in his recent speech. He spoke about the temptation of selfishness and the temptation to build certain fences. He quoted Elie Wiesel on the necessity of a "memory transfusion," as well as the founding fathers of Europe on the necessity of a "de facto solidarity," and the link between solidarity and peace. He urged Europeans to start building the future of the continent.

In his speech, the pope's main focus was to update the identity of Europe, based on three principles, namely: The ability to integrate (quoting the German-Polish theologian Erich Przywara, who was one of the most important influences on Francis's vision), the ability to have open discussions, and the ability to produce. Francis defended the idea that continental Europe plays a particularly important role, while at the same time exhibited a rejection of colonial ideals. His vision is that of a Europe based on new ideas and discussions, a political and social model engaging all of the players on the global stage. Francis called for a "just distribution of the wealth of the earth," as well as "more inclusive and equal economic models" and the transition "from a liquid economy to a social economy" in which the priority will be access to employment, rather than a speculative economy. His Europe is one that is sympathetic and open to youth, migrants and refugees.

Francis spoke of a "Europe that is worn out, but still full of energy." The theological foundation of his speech is clear: "God desires to live amongst men" and he is able to do so in a world that has been prepared by his gospels.

In a Europe that is incapable of managing humanitarian crises and that is seeing the resurgence of nationalism, the Vatican continues to play an important role on the global scene.

The last part of his speech was the papal equivalent of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech: Francis's dream is of "a new European humanism" in which the church plays its role in the religious community, but also promotes dialogue among Christians and people of different faiths. We are a long way from the now seemingly distant beginnings of the 21st century, which featured Marcello Pera's "Christianity that is Europe" and Giuliano Ferrara's particular flavor of Christianity.

During the most serious crises of the past 60 years, Europe, at times, almost seemed to have renewed its faith in the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne and the Pope in Rome. History is juxtaposed with the speed of the electoral and news cycles. It is easy to imagine a return to German geopolitical dominance in the Vatican, despite the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. But there is more to the story than that. The European project was born out of the ashes of World War II, created by Catholic European leaders who thought and spoke in German: Adenauer, De Gasperi, Schuman. This fact did not go unnoticed by a fair amount of protestants who looked at the European project with suspicion, and regarded it as the illegitimate child of a marriage of interests made necessary by the desire of Pope Pius XII's Vatican and the United States to fight communism during the Cold War. It was only a little over 10 years ago (although it seems much longer) that Catholic politicians such as Romano Prodi (among many others) were pushing to expand the European Union to include 27 countries.

The assembly of politicians gathered in the Vatican before Francis bore great resemblance to both a profession of faith and a confession of sins.

It could be said that today, the European Union is re-learning John Paul II's lesson on the "Christian roots" of the continent. But it is also true that Francis embodies these roots in a completely new way. The ideological diversity of the European leaders coming to see Francis (including Matteo Renzi, in a rare trip to the Vatican), is proof of the profound restructuring of political identities, as well as the recognition of a profound moral base shared by the entire continent.

In a Europe that is incapable of managing humanitarian crises and that is seeing the resurgence of nationalism, the Vatican continues to play an important role on the global scene.

The Charlemagne Prize being awarded to Pope Francis calls to mind the Balzan Prize for peace that Pope John XXIII was awarded in 1963; but the world and the church are very different now than they were in the '60s. The Vatican's importance has not diminished, despite the absence of a European Pope (for the moment, at least), and the absence of Catholicism in European politics (with the important exception of Germany).

The Catholic Church has a geopolitical, spiritual and symbolic importance that no other religious center has today, not even Jerusalem. Secularization -- in the sense of loss of faith -- is just as dangerous for politics as it is for the Church. Europe is not just a common market and land -- it is an article of faith above all else.

The assembly of politicians gathered in the Vatican last week before Pope Francis bore great resemblance to both a profession of faith and a confession of sins.

This post first appeared on HuffPost Italy. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.