European political leadership is desperately in need of new energy and vision. Within Europe’s ongoing deep malaise an unexpected element has appeared: the new pontiff, Pope Francis.

The thoughts that follow are inspired by the surprising popular enthusiasm his initial public appearances seem to generate as well as the much-commented interview published in the September 30 issue of America: the National Catholic Review. This is admittedly not much to go on but Europe’s well-wishers have to work with what we have, hoping that we’re not just grasping at straws.

It’s not implausible to think that a contemporary pope might have a significant effect on European affairs writ large, beyond overseeing the Vatican hierarchy, the Catholic theological message and the pastoral affairs of the Church.

The previous two popes are examples that lead in different directions.
John Paul II’s election in October 1978 was immediately perceived as inaugurating a new era for the Church. Everyone knew that he would also be a man to reckon with in the evolution of cold war European political and cultural life.

He was Polish. He had grown up in a totalitarian Communist regime and as the Archbishop of Krakow embodied a Catholic Church that had long been in effect Poland’s civil society, the greatest Resistance movement to Stalinism and to Soviet influence in that martyred country. He was young for a pope, intelligent and subtle, personally attractive, a linguist and obviously determined to be a mobilizing, charismatic personality.

The 1980s were the decade of Communism’s decline and collapse. John Paul played a significant role in pushing forward that result. He was a godfather of Eastern Europe’s liberation, therein of the unification of Europe. Almost all the former Soviet satellite countries were safely inside the European Union within fifteen years.

His anti-Communism and tenacious dealings with Moscow and Warsaw made him a kind of geopolitical force in himself. His electrifying “be not afraid” speech October 22 to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square put the Church on the right side of history, a place it had not always occupied in Europe’s bloody half-century, 1914-1945.

His successor, Benedict XVI, seemed the opposite of John Paul. His introverted personality made him a distant leader, anything but charismatic. His doctrinal rigidity, more interested in theology than in pastoral affairs and reaching out to the Catholic masses, left a surprisingly meager heritage.

His goal was a smaller, purer Church. Likely as not he succeeded only in the first. Benedict had little influence on the evolution of European affairs. His 2004 book, Europe: Today and Tomorrow, published shortly before his election, had little impact and is hardly remembered.
On his election to the papacy last March, Francis — Jorge Mario Bergolio of Argentina, son of Italian immigrants — hardly seemed a fount of dynamism. He didn’t look charismatic and behaved with a beguiling simplicity. As contrasted with John Paul’s memorable “be not afraid,” Pope Francis ended his first appearance on the Vatican balcony by wishing the crowd a good evening.

Nevertheless, his humble, man-in-the-street aspect — living in a small Vatican apartment rather than the papal apartment, using a modest car instead of the pope-mobile, an easy-going, informal manner, his emphasis on the poor rather than on theology — is turning out to be remarkably appealing. The “Catholic Review” interview demonstrates that this informality shouldn’t be misread as superficiality. The new pope seems to be a man of deep reflection, wide culture and sophisticated but practical wisdom.

One passage in the interview stands out here because it is a reflection on collective identity. “Belonging to a people,” he said, “has a strong theological value. In the history of salvation, God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people.”

If a nation or people is an “imagined community,” in the famous phrase of political scientist Benedict Anderson, then so is the Church — and so must be a united Europe if it is ever to be. A united Europe must be more than transnational institutions and meetings of European Union leaders. If Europe is to save its soul, Europeans must ultimately imagine themselves to be “European,” rooted in nationalities but also a distinct people destined to a common fate in a globalized, competitive world. The historic “idea of Europe” needs to be given new life.

Francis has called for an ecumenical Catholic outreach to “our Orthodox brethren,” the Russian, Greek and other eastern churches. He ought to make haste to reach out as well to Jews and Muslims.

In doing so he could have some indirect effect on Europe’s sense of itself by working to remake the religious tapestry of the Old Continent. Even non-believers understand that religion is a powerful source of national unity. In the twenty-first century, religious reconciliation could be a resource of European identity.