Maybe I'm getting soft. Or maybe I'm just easily satisfied these days when an article shows any depth. But I'm really impressed with the blend of range, focus and perceptiveness of the New York Times in its coverage of Pope Francis' recent address to the European Parliament.
Francis was gentle but unsparing, as the article reports:
Europe, he declared, has lost its way, its energies sapped by economic crisis and a remote, technocratic bureaucracy. It is increasingly a bystander in a world that has become “less and less Eurocentric,” and that frequently looks at the Continent “with aloofness, mistrust and even, at times, suspicion.”
Gently delivered, it was nevertheless a failing grade.
“In many quarters we encounter a general impression of weariness and aging, of a Europe which is now a ‘grandmother,’ no longer fertile and vibrant,” the pope, an Argentine, told the Parliament, where speeches usually trade in platitudes or mind-numbing technicalities.
How far has Europe fallen in the Vatican's eyes? Pretty far, as Times writer Andrew Higgins says. By comparison, he says, the last pope to address the European Parliament, John Paul II, rejoiced in the "special moment" in 1988 as Western Europe was triumphing over communism. And in an unusual technique, the Times puts that background in the lede, forming something like a verbal cliff to illustrate Europe's fall.
He also specifies a few ways Francis believes the continent has veered from its heritage. One, he said, is neglect of decent wages and "proper working conditions." Another is a withering of charity, leaving many to beg for food in the streets. Still another is lack of respect and compassion for migrants, noting that many Africans have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe.
More generally, as the Times says, Francis said the European Parliament is producing the opposite of the unity for which it was created:
Public discontent with the European Union’s bureaucracy, widely seen as wasteful, elitist and self-serving, helped propel France’s far-right National Front party and several other once-fringe nationalist groups to strong gains in May elections for the European Parliament. In France, the National Front came ahead of all other parties.
The European Parliament, which maintains huge premises and staffs in both this French city near the German border and the Belgian capital, Brussels, has itself become an emblem of the waste and detachment from ordinary people’s concerns that have drained support from a half-century push for greater integration and aided the rise of anti-European nationalists.
The Times is sharp as well with the difference in reception between the two popes. John Paul II, it says, decried Europe's "steady drift from its Christian roots," drawing strong criticism from secularists. Francis, by contrast, "stirred repeated rounds of applause" for saying much the same. The difference, suggests the article, may be that Francis "focused instead on issues like poverty, immigration and joblessness."
The article might have included that John Paul himself spoke often on economic issues. His 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens spelled out the virtue of work and the rights of workers. Nor was that message a fluke: It was issued on the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, an encyclical by Pope Leo XIII on a similar theme.
A nitpick: The Times says Pope Francis also addressed the Council of Europe, but the newspaper doesn't say how the council is different from the parliament. The council is an advisory human rights organization of 47 states, including the 28 of the European Union.
But I was wholly won over by the last paragraph:
All the same, Europe remains suffused with Christianity, its landscape dotted with ancient — now mostly empty — churches, and the anthems of many countries paying homage to God.
Even the European Union’s flag — a circle of 12 yellow stars on a blue background — has a coded Christian message. Arsène Heitz, a French Catholic who designed the flag in 1955, originally for the Council of Europe, drew inspiration from Christian iconography of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown with 12 stars. But official accounts of the flag today make no reference to this.
I loved the closing not only for its mere inclusion, but for its non-cynical cast. Many mainstream media would have taken the opportunity to cast the continent's Christian heritage in a bad light. The New York Times, at least this time, takes the high road.