Dear brothers in Christ,
In the last few weeks, images of dramatic scenes have been piped into our homes with perturbing regularity. The upheaval in Ukraine has not only dominated the headlines and monopolised the attention of the people of Europe; it has also moved us deeply. It started with week-‐long protests and a dramatic struggle for sovereignty in Kiev and then in other parts of the country, and culminated with Russia’s illegal invasion of Crimea, and efforts to separate Crimea from Ukraine and integrate it within the Russian Federation. For a number of reasons, all of this cannot leave us cold.
In the first place, the events in Crimea have plunged Europe into the most difficult foreign policy situation it has faced for a long time. Who could have believed we would refer so rapidly to Cold War logic? Or reanimate the spectre of territorial annexation in Europe?
The politicians in Ukraine face a daunting task: they must try to hold their country together, while not allowing themselves to be drawn into a military conflict with Russia. The politicians in the European Union and on the world stage are working feverishly for a solution to the conflict, and we should accompany all concerned with our prayers. But, above all, this also applies to the people of Ukraine – who, in addition to the political upheaval in their country and enormous economic and financial problems, now also find themselves confronted with an external threat.
The second reason why the developments in Ukraine cannot leave us cold is because they also hold up a disquieting mirror to ourselves. The upheaval there was directed not only against a government, a class and a system that have perverted the course of justice and exploited the country in order to enrich themselves; the upheaval was also a commitment to a European orientation for the country. That should give us food for thought – we who for the last few years have been going round in circles, letting everything revolve around the challenges in the financial and economic field. The sovereign debt crisis was also a severe crisis, of course, but the existential questions of Ukraine have an additional dimension.
The pro-European commitment in Ukraine and the desire to belong to a political Europe challenge those of us who are already members of the European Union. What sort of commitment to Europe do we have ourselves? In May this year, the elections to the European Parliament will be held, and once again we have to expect weak participation by voters across the EU Member States. This raises the question whether we have not become too tired and lazy to care about the political affairs of Europe – our own political interests! The democratic movement in Ukraine clearly demonstrates to us – once again – that the achievements of our free and democratic Europe cannot be taken for granted, but require the continued support of its citizens and peoples. A few years ago, the Evangelical Church in Germany and the Catholic Church published a joint text entitled “DemokratiebrauchtTugenden” (democracy needs virtues) which calls upon citizens to support the community. European democracy, too, needs virtues. We should remind ourselves of this in the context of the forthcoming European elections.
Dear brothers in Christ, at our last Plenary Assembly we discussed an election appeal for these European Parliamentary elections. This was revised in the light of the discussions we had at that time, and it was finalised by the Permanent Council in January. I am pleased that we will be able to present the election appeal at a public press conference tomorrow.
However, this document from the Bishops of COMECE is not only a call to go out and vote; it is also about substantive priorities which are close to our heart from the perspective of Catholic social teaching. We emphasise the need for solidarity in Europe, especially in the times of economic crisis which many of our countries are currently going through. We already set this kind of economic socio-‐political focus in our January 2012 Statement “A European Community of Solidarity and Responsibility”, in which we emphasised the need for a social market economy at European level. Our previous call to strengthen both responsibility and solidarity in Europe is now re-‐echoed in our election appeal.
But we need also solidarity beyond the borders of Europe. This applies above all with an eye to the issue of migration and asylum, which we dealt with more intensively in the last Plenary Assembly and which has found such great resonance in the wake of the Lampedusa boat tragedy last summer. Given the fast pace of the media and the short attention-‐span of their audience, it is our duty to persist with this important topic, even when it falls below the radar of the news networks. A lack of media exposure will not in any way diminish the magnitude of the underlying humanitarian task. Therefore, we urgently call for humane treatment of the weakest in society.
This task of going to the margins of society – and in our case also to the brink of Europe – is in great agreement with the impulses which Pope Francis is introducing in our Church. Shortly after our last Plenary Assembly in November 2013, in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangeliigaudium, he set an important focus, directed inwardly within our Church, but which also reinforces our mission outward into the world. In this sense we can see his remarks in Evangeliigaudiumas an affirmation of our work, but also as a prompt and a constant challenge to do yet more to contribute to a just shaping of Europe and the participation of the European Union in a world order of solidarity.
The Pope writes: “Thedignityofeachhumanpersonandthepursuitofthecommongoodareconcernswhichoughttoshapealleconomicpolicies.Attimes,however,theyseemtobea mere addendum imported from without in order to fill out a political discourse lacking in perspectives or plans for true and integral development.” (No. 203). It is therefore our duty to urge an ethical foundation of politics in Europe and bring our contribution as the Church to politics.
There is dialogue between the Church and the European Union for this purpose. The Pope also emphasises the importance of this dialogue: “IaskGodtogiveusmorepoliticians capableofsincereandeffectivedialogueaimedathealingthedeepestroots– and not simply the appearances – of the evils in our world! Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.” (No. 205). As the Church, we want always to bring the common good to mind in the sphere of politics. Therefore, dear brothers in Christ, it is important that, on the eve of the European elections, we seek contact with the elected representatives and candidates. I ask you to reach out already in your home countries, to those who are seeking a seat in the European Parliament. It is important that we do not only contact Members of the European Parliament once they are in Brussels, but that the universal Church is active at the various different levels.
Precisely because the Church is universal, we think not only in terms of Europe as a unit, but beyond that. It is for this reason that, as the substantive focus of this Plenary Assembly, we have decided to put the spotlight on how Europe is perceived from the outside. We expect this will result in various questions concerning our self-‐perception and Europe’s conduct and in several inquiries as to our self and to European action in the world. We hope this focus will bring about even greater clarity with regard to the role of Europe in the world and thus the role the Church can play. Therefore, we wish want to address during our meeting with important political projects such as the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. As the Church, we must keep in mind that complex projects such as these always entail connected even justice issues – both for us in Europe and as well as for other countries, especially for the poor! And last but not least, with the present situation unfolding, we have also set the situation in Ukraine on the agenda of current events. This evening, we will be welcoming Bishop Borys Gudziak, the Ukrainian Bishop of the Cathedral of Saint Vladimir-‐Le-‐Grand in Paris, to update us about the situation in his homeland.
You have probably noticed that I was elected Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference on 12 March 2014. Many have asked if I will be able to properly take care of all the tasks in Rome, Brussels, Bonn, Berlin and Munich. I will be rearranging my workload over the next few weeks. However, it is important to me to emphasise that I would like – very much! – to continue in the role of COMECE President at least until the end of my term of office. This European project is close to my heart, and I would like to continue to be involved.
Now I am now looking forward to our exchanges over the next few days. I hope we will have fruitful discussions on the large issues, but also on the essential specific issues that are on the agenda for the European Union. Already at this stage, I would like to take the opportunity to thank the General Secretary and the Secretariat and its staff for taking care of the preparations for our meeting.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, President, COMECE