Last May, Wexford TD Mick Wallace was elected to the European parliament. By his own admission, it will be a daunting challenge but one that will be different than the role he occupied as a TD and a representative of the people of Wexford. For as every TD represents the people of his or her constituency in the Dail, the exact same model of representation does not translate to the European Union. While the European Union is made up of many countries, it is not like a United States of Europe whose central governance replaces or undermines the sovereign governance of individual countries. This issue has been central to the Brexit debate and has been seized upon by Brexit politicians who lobbied for their country to leave the EU in order to gain back the independence that they argue had been lost by being part of the EU.
It is helpful here to clarify that the European Union did not come about for the betterment of economic interests of member states. Rather the idea began with Winston Churchill in 1943 who proposed the idea of a ‘Council of Europe’ to avoid the horrors of war being repeated in the future. The basic idea of unity therefore was moral and not economic. On 5th May 1949, the Council of Europe was founded by 10 member states – the UK, France, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg and the Republic of Ireland. In 2019, the membership has expanded to 47 member states.
In 1950, the European Council adopted the Convention on Human Rights just a year after the 1949 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN. And for the past 70 years, a shared vision of human rights has been the glue that has united member states and maintained peace.
But in the last few decades, all does not appear well in Europe. The number of Euro-sceptics have grown as we saw with Brexit but also in other countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary whose Prime Minister recently said that the EU is ‘no longer able to protect people’s dignity, provide freedom, guarantee physical security or maintain Christian culture’.
In the midst of this controversy over the soul of Europe, we turn to the help of St Benedict whose feast we celebrate on 11th July - the saint that Pope Paul VI declared to be the ‘Patron of Europe’ in October 1964. Born in the central Italian mountain town of Norcia (Nursia) around AD 480, St. Benedict became one of the most important catalysts for the creation of a new European culture after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West (traditionally dated to AD 476). The system of monastic life he developed and nourished spread centres of prayer and hospitality throughout the continent. Benedictine monasteries were not only spiritual, educational and cultural centres, but also a source of sustenance and relief for pilgrims and the poor. In so doing, St Benedict inspired a new spiritual and cultural unity that was to form the basis for the reality we now call ‘Europe’.
Benedict composed his Rule around AD 530 and it remains the Rule that is followed by the thousands of members of the Benedictine family across the world. Written in a familiar style, Benedict throughout the prologue and 73 chapters of the Rule exhorts his monks to reach out with “the ear of the heart” and to “never despair of the mercy of God”. For St Benedict, idleness ‘is an enemy of the soul’. Prayer and work are not in opposition, but establish a symbiotic relationship. Without prayer, it is not possible to encounter God. Work is an extension of prayer but cannot be identified with it. That is why the Benedictine motto of ‘Ora et Labora…pray and work’ must not be confused with ‘Orare est Laborare…To work is to pray’ as sometimes happens.
So what can St Benedict contribute to the current crisis in Europe’s identity and soul? That in order to create new and lasting unity, political and economic means are important. But if true unity among nations is to be achieved ‘it is also necessary to awaken an ethical and spiritual renewal which draws on the Christian roots of the Continent, otherwise a new Europe cannot be built. Without this vital sap, man is exposed to the danger of succumbing to the ancient temptation of seeking to redeem himself by himself - a utopia which in different ways, in 20th-century Europe, as Pope John Paul II pointed out, has caused "a regression without precedent in the tormented history of humanity" (Address to the Pontifical Council for Culture, 12 January 1990). Today, in seeking true progress, let us also listen to the Rule of St Benedict as a guiding light on our journey. The great monk is still a true master at whose school we can learn to become proficient in true humanism’ (Pope Benedict XVI, 9th April 2008).
Key to this unity among member states is the concept of human rights. So while the European Council continues to carry out great work in the area for example of human trafficking, it is lamentable that Europe has increasingly aligned itself with a deeply secularist interpretation of how human rights can be understood. In his address to the European Council in Strasbourg on 25th November 2014, Pope Francis warned against ‘a concept of human rights which has universal import…being replaced by an individualistic conception of rights’. He went to the show how this development undermines the work of unity of the European Council and Union as a whole.
To conclude, as we listen to the Brexit debates in the coming months as Britain prepares to leave the EU with or without a deal, it is good for us to pause on the feast day of St Benedict the Patron of Europe, and consider the main issues at stake are. What is it that unites us as human beings? ‘To this end, it should be remembered that St Benedict taught humanity the primacy of divine worship through the “opus Dei”, i.e. through liturgical and ritual prayer. Thus it was that he cemented that spiritual unity in Europe, whereby peoples divided on the level of language, ethnicity and culture felt they constituted the one people of God’ (St Paul VI, 24th Oct. 1964).
St Benedict, pray for the unity of Europe and all her citizens. Amen.