The German city of Aachen on Wednesday bestowed its ultimate honor -- the Charlemagne Peace Prize -- on Pope John Paul II.
The Pope is a messenger of world peace and European unity.
The stewards of the Charlemagne Peace Prize, one of Europe's top annual honors, have named the Pope as the recipient of a special medal for his contributions to Western European understanding, humanity and world peace.
"The Pope made an important contribution to the fall of the iron curtain by his stance, including the political message he conveyed, and thus helped to encourage the process of enlargement and integration for the whole of Europe," the city wrote in a statement.
The jury also described Pope John Paul II as a model for European integration. "The basic values that he embodies enable the people of the European Community to identify themselves as Europeans on this common foundation. In his 'program of life for the whole of Europe,' he draws our attention to the fact that the European Union can be an effective unity only if it promotes not only the economic and political values, but above all the spiritual and cultural values," the statement read.
Logo Stiftung Internationaler Karlspreis zu Aachen
Aachen officials spent years negotiating with the Vatican before they could give the award to the Pope, who traditionally eschews worldly honors. Observers believe the Pope accepted this year due to his old age and the fact he is nearing the end of his papal career. Usually the award is presented in Aachen, but city mayor Jürgen Linden along with a delegation of 150, traveled to the Vatican this week to present the Pope with the medal due to his failing health.
First created in 1949, the award is named after the former ruler Charlemagne, who is viewed today as the grandfather of Western Europe. For the first time this year, Aachen is presenting the award to two people -- the Pope and Pat Cox, the Irish president of the European Parliament.
Fighting Communism through religion
As a religious leader from Poland who ascended from a country strangled by Communism to the pontiff, Pope John Paul II helped pave the way for the workers' movement that led to the toppling of the Polish Communist Party. That journey began when Karol Wojtyla, the then charismatic cardinal of Krakow, was selected as Pope in 1978. At the time, he was not only the first non-Italian to sit in the Chair of Peter in 455 years, but also the first Slav and the first religious leader from a communist country to lead the Catholic church.
In a deeply Catholic country, even under Communist rule, the Pope exercised vast influence. He never criticized Poland's communist leaders directly, but his comments certainly made them uncomfortable.
Though his criticism didn't shake the entire Eastern Bloc, it did irritate communist leaders. That power grew once he became Pope. His influence on the fall of the communist system in Eastern Europe from 1978 to the mid-'80s cannot be overstated.
"You can hardly underestimate the roll Karol Wojtila played after 1978 in the founding of Poland's Solidarity movement and then also with the mounting of a Catholic worker's movement (which resisted the Communist government)," said Siegfried Weichlein, a historian at Berlin's Humboldt University.
On his first trip as Pope to his home country in 1979, Wojtila's appeal for freedom was embraced by the masses. "The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man," the Pope said in a message not lost on the millions who gathered to see him in Warsaw. One year later, the workers at the Lenin shipyard went on strike and many pinned up posters of the Pope, who would become a symbol of the Solidarity movement. Throughout, the Pope propagated a message that Catholic social teachings were an alternative to both communism and capitalism.
"With the support of the Pope, the church built a network for the anti-Communist workers' movement in Poland," explained Weichlein. The fact that the Pope came from Poland also helped build the self-confidence of the country's Catholics.
A part of history
Vatican circles like to credit John Paul II as one of the main initiators of the collapse of communism. But the Pope has never glorified that role himself. The "historically correct" version holds that the Pope made a seminal contribution to overcoming Communism and also helped pave the way for a peaceful reunification of Europe.
Indeed, the Pope was a prophet of Europe's eastward expansion. As the first Slav to sit in the Chair of Peter, the Pope embodied in his own self-conception the spiritual unity of a Christian Europe that is molded by two traditions: those of the West and the East. Europe, as Wojtila has fondly said, consists of "two lungs" and it breathes with both.
But the European union Wojtila has ultimately sought still eludes him -- the split between Rome and the Orthodox churches is still considerable. There have been other disappointments for the Pope, too. He has remained unflagging in his insistence after the fall of Communism that Eastern Europe should remember its Christian roots. That hasn't happened. Neither has the Pope succeeded in his desire to have the word "God" entered into the draft of the European Union's first constitution.
But the stewards of the Charlemagne Prize in Aachen tend to see the forest through the trees. And on Wednesday, they lauded the Pope as someone who has helped bring Europe together through some difficult and uncertain times.