Shortly after my episcopal ordination in 1996 I was in Brussels to familiarise myself with the work of COMECE. Another special milestone for me was in April 2004, when I took part in the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela organised by COMECE on the occasion of the enlargement of the European Union by ten central and eastern European states. We followed this ancient pilgrimage route happy and grateful that East and West had finally been united.
His Holiness John Paul II spoke of two lungs that Europe needed to breathe,
an image that made it clear how dependent East and West are on one another, and how they come together as one. Back in 2004, many people spoke not of an eastward expansion of the European Union, but of a reunification of Europe. When we look today at relations within Europe, in particular the relations between East and West, we see that substantial disillusionment has set in. Societies and politicians in the various regions of Europe regard one another critically. Many western Europeans criticise what they perceive as the loss of rule of law and democracy in important central and eastern European states. Many western Europeans criticise what they perceive as the loss of rule of law and democracy in important central and eastern European states. Many eastern Europeans accuse the West of surrendering their identity and of a lack of rootedness in Christian values, sometimes even viewing the European Union as a new kind of foreign rule. In this situation of political tension and lack of mutual social understanding, the Church has an important part to play – as the builder of bridges between East and West, between peoples and their opinions. The bishops in particular are called upon to build such bridges again and again, to seek out the things we have in common and to keep dialogues open. Because however strong our bonds to our own countries and cultures, we as the universal Church must bear joint witness and refuse to think only in terms of national categories, following the spirit in which the Post-synodal Exhortation of Pope John Paul II of 2004 bears the title “Ecclesia in Europa”, not “Ecclesiae in Europa”. This is an obligation for all of us in the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe.
COMECE is guarantor for the fact that, at a political level, we remain the Church in Europe, not Churches in Europe.
COMECE also provides the platform on which the dialogue between the bishops’ conferences is held. Maybe in future we will have to strengthen this position considerably. The work of COMECE is more important than ever if we as the Church wish to take a stance on the important social issues that we face. This obligation was also placed on us by Pope Francis in his 2014 Address to the European Parliament, in which he reiterated “the readiness of the Holy See and the Catholic Church, through the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (COMECE), to engage in meaningful, open and transparent dialogue with the institutions of the European Union”. Over the years I have been very pleased to be involved in this dialogue, and will continue to do so.
But to this end, the Church in Europe must also have sufficient European political competence. On the one hand, this means full familiarity with the content that is so essential, when dealing with European questions, to both the administrative office of COMECE in Brussels and the commitment of the individual bishops’ conferences. On the other hand, it also applies to the structures: the bishops’ conferences in Europe must ask themselves how the dual structure of the two European organisations, COMECE and CCEE, can work together to even better and more fruitful effect. This applies in particular in the context of the eastward enlargement of the EU from 2004 onwards and the further future enlargements.
In any case, let us as the Church in Europe not move apart, but bear witness together, especially in political, social and ethical matters – the Catholic Church has a clear European orientation.
(*)archbishop of Munich-Freising, President of COMECE