EU founding father Robert Schuman on the rocky road to sainthood

In a profession in which men are more likely to sell their souls, Schuman seems the exception

Robert Schuman served in many governments, as finance minister, justice minister and twice as prime minister. File photograph: Getty

Robert Schuman served in many governments, as finance minister, justice minister and twice as prime minister. File photograph: Getty

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Robert Schuman was born German, died French and in between became a father of Europe. Three days ago, he embarked on the path to sainthood.

Before he reconciled France and Germany, Schuman’s life was determined by the wars between them. His father, Jean-Pierre, was born French but became German when Alsace-Lorraine changed hands in the Franco-Prussian war. His mother, Eugénie, a Luxemburger, had to take her husband’s nationality. Luxembourg was occupied by Germany when Robert was born there in 1886. He chose French nationality when Lorraine reverted to French rule in 1919.

Schuman died near Metz in 1963. Twenty-seven years later, the diocese of Metz, where Schuman spent most of his life, initiated the procedure for canonisation. In 2004, Schuman’s voluminous dossier was forwarded to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. It took the Vatican another 17 years to conclude he had lived a life of “heroic virtue” and confer the title of “the venerable” upon him on June 19th.

Miracle of ‘lasting peace’

For Schuman to move on to the next stage, beatification, the Catholic Church must verify that he has interceded with the Almighty to obtain a miracle. He would then have to achieve a second miracle before canonisation. This can take a very long time, for example, 400 years in the case of Joan of Arc.

Some say that reconciling France and Germany, which Schuman did by proposing the European Coal and Steel Community, the embryo of the European Union, in 1950, was already a miracle. May 9th, the day of Schuman’s speech in the Salon de l’Horloge at the French foreign ministry, is celebrated throughout the Union as Europe Day.

“It is without contest a miracle to have brought lasting peace to Europe,” says Jean-Dominique Giuliani, chairman of the board of the Robert Schuman Foundation, a secular, political think tank that works for the advancement of the European project. “That is what Pope John Paul II thought when he accepted the petition . . . John Paul II wanted to recognise the European and spiritual actions of the father of Europe.”

The canonisation of politicians is almost unheard of. Catholic newspaper La Croix could name only two precedents: Thomas More, who was beheaded by Henry VIII in 1532 for opposing Henry’s scission from Rome, and the 13th-century crusader King Louis IX.

By all accounts, Schuman was an exceptionally pious French politician. He considered priesthood in his youth. “He was a very committed, practising Christian,” says Giuliani. “When he was a parliamentary deputy [for most of the period from 1919-1962] or cabinet minister, he began every day by attending Mass. He prayed a lot.”

In a profession in which men are perhaps more likely to sell their souls, Schuman’s was a rare show of devotion. But does it equate to sainthood? Giuliani, himself a believer, says he recognises “signs” of sainthood in Schuman. “He was exemplary in his private life. He gave his money to the poor, welcomed the unfortunate and took refuge in prayer. When he was on the run from the Gestapo during the war, he hid in convents.”

Today, a bronze statue of Schuman stands in the Jubelpark in Brussels, facing the Robert Schuman roundabout, the heart of the European quarter. There’s a Robert Schuman room in the European Commission headquarters, and countless streets and squares named after him across Europe.

The tiniest whiff of scandal attaches to Schuman having voted, with the majority of French parliamentarians, to accord full powers to the second World War collaborationist leader Marshal Philippe Pétain. Schuman’s mandate as undersecretary for refugees was renewed by Pétain, but Schuman resigned before taking office.

EU’s Christian origins

The deputies who voted for Pétain were declared unworthy of public office. Gen Charles de Gaulle cleared Schuman’s name and made him a post-war cabinet minister. He served in many governments, as finance minister, justice minister and twice as prime minister. It was as foreign minister, from 1948-1952, that Schuman left his mark, by co-founding the ECSC.

Schuman’s candidacy for beatitude and sainthood could reassure the euro-sceptical fringe of the French right and far right, who reproach the EU for failing to recognise its Christian origins, says Giuliani. But it could also reignite controversy over the union’s Christian – or not – origins. Some Europeans are already complaining about the similarity between the EU’s flag of gold stars on a blue field and the crown of the Virgin Mary in religious paintings. Secular leftists and Turkey, whose application for EU membership sputtered and stalled, accuse the EU of being a Christian club.

It is a Christian club, says Giuliani. “That has always been the position of the church . . . The inspiration of the church is very present in European treaties. The concept of human rights, of respect for the human person, is inherited from the Catholic Church. The Turks may not like it, but we don’t care.”

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