top of page


Fr Billy Swan

A few days before the recent European elections in June, I was driving on a main road and noticed a large billboard urging motorists to give their No. 1 vote to a candidate with the slogan: ‘Working for Ireland in Europe’. Now, to represent one’s country in the European Union is certainly important as is the need to represent her interests in economic matters, her values and history. Yet, the slogan doesn’t do justice to what the original spirit of the European Union was about. The European Union is not only a huge bureaucratic institution that benefits her members states economically. The whole European project and spirit is that narrow interests of individual states are transcended to the greater need for global peace, fraternity, security and human solidarity. This point needs to be re-iterated and revised particularly at a time of upheaval in Europe with Brexit, the shift to the right in France and the ongoing war in Europe between Russia and Ukraine.

On 11th July, the Church celebrates the feast of St Benedict who was declared patron protector of Europe by Pope Paul VI in 1964 and as Co-Patron of Europe by Pope St John Paul II in 1980. We might ask what an obscure Italian monk who lived in the fifth century has to do with the European project today? To answer this question, we need to understand the historical context of the time Benedict lived and the subsequent rise of monastic communities around Europe who lived Benedict’s Rule.

The world at the time of Benedict was in crisis, a time known as ‘The Dark Ages’, following the fall of the Roman Empire. In the absence of law and order, individuals, tribes and groups began to compete violently with each other, vying for power and territory, leading to wars and social chaos. Disillusioned by the turmoil around him, a young Benedict fled to the outskirts of Rome, in a place called Subiaco, to live, pray and reflect in a small cave. To cut a long story very short, over the remainder of his life, he was joined by other brothers who began to live in harmony with each other, united by faith in Christ that translated into practical advice and values that kept diverse people together in community. In short order, Benedictine monasteries for both men and women began to flower and became places that modelled how people of diverse national, social and ethnic backgrounds could co-exist in peace. Benedictine monasteries also began to have a stabilising effect outside their walls as they became centres of learning, scholarship and education for local societies. Slowly, from these communities, a light of hope began to shine and the darkness of the age began to fade. Civilization began to take shape. There is little doubt or disagreement, even among non-Christian scholars and historians, that the monastic movement, including the key contributions of Irishmen Columbanus and Columba, was hugely influential on the civilization project in Europe that was to last for centuries afterwards, leading to social cohesion and stability.

Tragically, this civilization movement in Europe was thrown into turmoil again in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War and worse in 1939 with the Second World War. After years of brutal conflict with millions of people dead, Europe was again on its knees. After the Second World War, a group of leaders emerged in Europe who began the painful task to probe the reasons for so much bloodshed. Their work progressed to clarify how such a terrible event could be prevented in the future and to re-establish peace and fraternity among nations. They began with the charter of the Declaration of Human Rights in 1949 that recognised the innate dignity of every human being. Yet, the founding fathers of the European Union went further in their vision for peace that urged every member state to be co-responsible for the peace she seeks to enjoy. And so, in the words of one of those founding fathers, Robert Schuman:

‘World peace cannot be safeguarded without creative efforts commensurate with the dangers that threaten it. The contribution that an organised and living Europe can make to civilisation is essential to the maintenance of peaceful relations’ (9th May 1950).

The following year in 1951, Schuman developed this theme of a social peace that has spiritual foundations, based on justice and truth:

‘Our objective must be to establish a spiritual community between men/women and between nations. Those who are fortunate enough to be able to contribute to this, by their spirit of fraternity founded on a Christian conception of freedom and human dignity, will be among the best architects of a renewed and united Europe’.

This spiritual vision of cohesion and social harmony was precisely what St Benedict and his communities modelled centuries beforehand. It was why Pope St Paul VI called him the ‘father of Europe’ and the ‘herald of peace’. In the words of Pope St John Paul II: ‘A peaceful coexistence, to be sought with all strength, must be based above all on justice, authentic freedom, mutual consent, fraternal help - all of which are in conformity with the teachings of the Gospel’ (11th July 1980).

In the secular Europe of today, any mention of Christian faith and values immediately raises objections from Islamic sources and non-believing sceptics. Such objections are valid only when the fruits of this project become those of division, exclusion and a lack of integration of peoples which is the opposite to what the European project is about. That is why Pope Francis has called for a greater spirit of human fraternity among all including Christians that is based on a shared humanity and a commitment to service: ‘Yes, Europe has Christian roots. Christianity has a duty to water them, but in a spirit of service, as in the washing of the feet’ (Pope Francis, 2016). Building on this theme, the bishops of Europe published a document recently before the European elections, reminding member states that:

‘The project of the founding fathers of the European Union was certainly political and economic, but it was based on a humanist and spiritual spring, that of building peace in a Europe that had drifted away from the values that constituted its roots’ (Euregio Bishops, A New Lease of Life for Europe, 9th June 2024).

Expressing concern that this spiritual unity is now being dismissed and ignored, the bishops point out that ‘the emergence of nationalist and populist reflexes is becoming widespread, with the risk that, as in other times, the other or foreigner will once again be treated as a threat’. Here is a warning that, if unheeded, will create the conditions that may well lead to conflict and division in Europe again.

On this feast of St Benedict, let us not take peace for granted or become complacent regarding the civilization project. In the original vision of Robert Schuman in 1950:

‘Europe will not be built all at once, not in a general construction. It will be built by concrete achievements that first create de facto solidarity’.

May the mustard seed of St Benedict’s life that grew into a large tree in which millions of people benefitted from the shade of civilization and stability, be revived in our own time, beginning here in Ireland. May we respond to the call of Pope Francis to European churches to ‘rediscover their passion and enthusiasm, to rediscover a taste for commitment to fraternity, and to dare to take the risk of loving the weakest’ (23rd Sept. 2023).

The European dream was far more than the economic interests of member nations but to be a committed member serving a grander project of unity and global peace. May we never lose sight of that greater vision and learn from St Benedict on how to live the global solidarity and fraternity so badly needed in our time.


bottom of page