IN MY RECENT TALK ABOUT CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING (available here) I mentioned that in a recent newspaper article the journalist Andrew Rawnsley had referred to some of the achievements of the United Kingdom within Europe between joining the EEC in 1973 and the end of last month. One of these was the determination to welcome into common European institutions the countries of eastern Europe which had been part of the Warsaw Pact and COMECON Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, together with Romania and Slovenia. This ensured very quickly (together with other states joining such as Malta) that the European Union rapidly became an entity for the whole continent, not simply western Europe.

St John Paul II had a similar aim at the end of 1980, early on in his pontificate and some years before the fall of the Berlin wall, when he decided that St Benedict, founder of western monasticism in the sixth century, should not be the only patron saint of Europe. He added two more, to ensure that Europe should breathe with two lungs, east and west: the brothers Cyril and Methodius, whose feast day we celebrated on Friday. These ninth century saints, known as the Apostles of the Slavs, were responsible for evangelising particularly the Czech lands and Bulgaria further south east. Both were monks and Methodius became a bishop. Cyril was responsible for inventing an alphabet to help translate the gospels and the liturgy into local languages, still called the Cyrillic script and used in Russia and much of eastern Europe.

Both brothers are buried in the beautiful basilica of San Clemente in Rome. When Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said this to the Bulgarian ambassador to the Holy See in a speech: ‘Still today the example of the two brothers, Cyril and Methodius, the first evangelisers of your country, is a model of dialogue between cultures. It was thanks to their apostolic zeal that the good news of Christ reached the inhabitants of central and eastern Europe in their own language…..they have shown us the paths of dialogue and unity to be built ceaselessly, and they therefore also became the patron saints of Europe..’

This was why the Catholic Church at all levels celebrated and welcomed the expansion of the EU in 2004 and 2007. The importance of Cyril and Methodius, and the message of Pope Benedict, remain as valid and important in 2020. The countries of eastern Europe, the lands transformed by the patron saints who we honoured on Friday, have contributed an enormous amount to the whole of the European Union; in particular in this country we have benefitted from migration here from those countries. Many Catholic parishes have been transformed and given new life by new people coming to this country especially from Poland and Hungary, and whatever happens this is something we should celebrate.

But the words of the pope about ‘paths of dialogue and unity’ have if anything a greater urgency now than when he said them amidst much optimism. For the countries of eastern Europe have not had an easy time; nor have their leaders been true to the Holy Father’s vision. Nationalist politicians who are very powerful in Poland and Hungary, like their counterparts in western Europe and this country, have pursued a narrow xenophobic political agenda at odds with Catholic teaching (while professing a paraded loyalty to allegedly Christian values), particularly in relation to the Christian obligation to support and welcome refugees and migrants. Some of them like to put up statues of St John Paul II, while ignoring a lot of what he taught about care for migrants and European unity; and many of them are hostile to Pope Francis (like their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, for example in Italy).

This is what Friday’s feast is all about – deeply political, deeply rooted in Catholic Social Teaching, and deeply threatening for many, even of our own people. No wonder the often sentimental cult of St Valentine is more popular and congenial! But our responsibility is to be faithful to the mind of the Church at this time, when Europe, with or without the United Kingdom, faces challenges because a lot of people didn’t heed the pope’s words thirteen years ago.

It’s symbolic that the two brothers are buried in one of the loveliest churches in Rome, associated with the Irish Dominicans in Rome – their memory and importance really can bring the peoples of Europe together. We should ask for their prayers this weekend.

Catch up with Fr Ashley’s Talk: CLICK HERE