In the grand surroundings of the Vatican's Sala Regia, a room just adjacent to the Sistine Chapel, an Argentinian man on Friday became the first South American to receive Europe's prestigious Charlemagne Prize.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the son of Italian immigrants who was appointed pope three years ago, received the award which honours those who have made an exceptional contribution to European unity and co-operation.
As European Parliament president Martin Schulz put it, sometimes it takes an outsider to give a proper perspective on Europe.
The ceremony typically takes place in the German city of Aachen, the first west German town to be liberated by the Allies in 1944 and the burial place of Charlemagne, regarded as one of the first true unifiers of western Europe.
Instead the ceremony took place in the Vatican at an event attended by German chancellor Angela Merkel and the heads of the European Parliament, Council and Commission among others. Indeed EU officials were surprised at the pope's acceptance of the prize – Pope John Paul II was awarded an "extraordinary edition of the prize", but not the award itself in 2004.
The decision to award Pope Francis the Charlemagne Prize stemmed from his speech at the European Parliament in November 2014 in which he memorably warned that the Mediterranean risked becoming a "graveyard", a metaphor that proved to be tragically prescient as the migration crisis unfolded.
Indeed, outlining its decision to award the prize to Pope Francis, the board cited the pope’s early visit to the island of Lampedusa in 2013 following a boat tragedy in the Mediterranean. Long before others had grasped the magnitude of the refugee crisis, Pope Francis asked: “Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat? For the young others carrying their babies? For these men who were looking for a means of supporting their families? We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion.”
The pope revisited these themes in his address on Friday.
Recalling the vision of the founders of the European Union, he said that their "new and exciting desire to create unity seems to be fading". Instead, Europe is considering putting up fences, he said, adding: "I dream of a Europe where being a migrant is not a crime but a summons to greater commitment on behalf of the dignity of every human being."
As he described a Europe that is becoming increasingly “entrenched”, rather than open to new social processes that would engage all individuals, he asked: “What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom? What has happened to you, Europe, the home of poets, philosophers, artists, musicians, and men and women of letters? What has happened to you, Europe, the mother of peoples and nations, the mother of great men and women who upheld, and even sacrificed their lives for, the dignity of their brothers and sisters?”
His criticism of Europe also extended into the economic realm, as he spoke of Europe’s “moral obligation” to justly distribute the fruits of human labour. “If we want to rethink our society, we need to create dignified and well-paying jobs, especially for our young people.”
His staunchly left-wing economic perspective and empathy with the poor came through as he called for “new, more inclusive and equitable economic models, aimed not at serving the few, but at benefiting ordinary people and society as a whole”.
Youth unemployment was also a huge challenge for Europe, he said. “I ask myself: How we can involve our young people in this building project if we fail to offer them employment, dignified labour that lets them grow and develop through their handiwork, their intelligence and their abilities? How can we tell them that they are protagonists, when the levels of employment and underemployment of millions of young Europeans are continually rising?”
For those uncomfortable with the idea of the leader of an organised church receiving an award for what is supposed to be a multifaceted and inclusive an idea of European identity, Schulz pre-empted any criticism. He contrasted the attitude of east European leaders who are refusing to accept Muslim refugees on the grounds of their countries’ Christian heritage with the actions of Pope Francis, who returned from Lesbos last month with three Syrian refugee families.
Through this gesture, Pope Francis “showed all of us what solidarity means in practice, what it means to be human” said Schulz, as he called on Europe to return to its founding values of justice, solidarity and respect for human dignity.