When he received the Nobel Prize for the European Union (EU), the Christian-democratic politician Van Rompuy admitted that the EU has brought the art of compromise to perfection. ‘Boring politics is the price to pay for peace.’ However, this pragmatism was interrupted by a moment of passion:
“To me, what makes it so special, is reconciliation. In politics as in life, reconciliation is the most difficult thing. It goes beyond forgiving and forgetting, or simply turning the page. To think of what France and Germany had gone through, and then take this step. Signing a Treaty of Friendship [Paris, 1963]. Each time I hear these words – Freundschaft, Amitié –, I am moved. They are private words, not for treaties between nations. But the will to not let history repeat itself, to do something radically new, was so strong that new words had to be found.”
(speech Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, Oslo, 10 December 2012)
New words that connect politics and love, but what kind of love is driving Europe… To me the paradigmatic image to think about the paradox of love and politics is to be found in the old cathedral of the French town Vézelay.
Behind you see a statue of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth century mystic of love who wrote an influential comment upon the Song of Songs. And the one who he gave in Vézelay, 1146, a famous sermon in the presence of the king of France, convincing the political powers of his time to go to Jerusalem for a second crusade. Take up your cross, all united against the infidel enemy.
In front of him a rude piece of wood. The plaque reads as follows:
"1946 - Europe emerged from the Second World War destroyed and ruined. "Christians needed to gather in prayer to overcome the forces of hate which had destroyed the world" in celebrating the anniversary of the preaching of the Second Crusade. The pilgrimage was an event of forgiveness and peace-making. Fourteen wooden crosses were carried along the roads from England, Luxembourg, Belgium Switzerland, Italy and different departments of France converging on the basilica.
Certain German prisoners held in a camp in the vicinity of Vézelay asked to join the procession. Hastily, a fifteenth cross was made from the roof beams of bombed houses. This became a powerful symbol of reconciliation for the world. 30,000 people gathered at Vezelay. During this event, Vezelay became a place of prayer for reconciliation and a peaceful Europe."
A moving story of reunion and sacrifice. I have been told that some of the pilgrims volunteered to stay in the camp, taking the German prisoners’ place during the time of the procession. It is hard to assess how much this Crusade of Peace, beginning of a movement later continued under the name ‘Pax Christi’, contributed to a decisive shift in European history. The contrast between Bernard and the Cross of Reconciliation gives us to think about that strange creature we are, political and called to love.
This post is an excerpt of a paper given at the workshop Politics of Love? Christliche Liebe als politische Herausforderung (org. Anthropos Research Group and Katholische Akademie Berlin), Berlin, 21-23 March 2013.