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Europe: Our Common Heritage?

Europe: our common heritage?

A speech by Msgr. Piotr Mazurkiewicz at the State of Europe Forum 2019 in Bucharest – The written report will be soon published

What do we have in common between eastern and western Europe?

What we have in common is, I think, that in general, we are talking usually on three piers of European culture. Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem are cities which are symbols of this common heritage. 

Athens will be usually linked with Greek philosophy, antiquity, as well as the whole concept of natural law. Rome is linked with its legal, but also its Republican tradition. Rémi Brague said that what was very specific for the Romans was a concept of inferiority, so that when they conquered Greece, they did not destroy Greek culture because they recognized that this culture was on a much higher level than their own. For this reason, we know until today, the writings and the thoughts coming from Greece. We also have inherited this capacity to learn from the others, which is our own tradition. As Justin Martyr said, the seeds of truth are also outside Christianity. They are Christians but they are discovered by those who were not Christians. And then we can also take these parts to our tradition. And finally, Jerusalem brought monotheism. 

But what really changed this antique culture was the whole concept of human dignity, that is of a person created in the image and likeness of God. This is showing that from the point of view of culture and civilization, we can talk about this Judaeo-Christian tradition because the most revolutionary words are at the beginning of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, they really started to transform European culture only when Christians started to evangelise Europe.

The other question is: What is the west and what is the east and where is the border? 

Nearby in 1956, Milan Kundera, just looking at what was going on in Budapest with the Soviet invasion, referred to the last sentence of a Telex sent from Budapest to the free world: “We shall die for Hungary and for Europe.” So at that time it was clear that the fight against Communism was the fight for European values. 

Today, on one hand we can ask what Russia has in common with the west. Certainly, Russia is in Europe in this larger sense, but there is a difference. We are in a part of Europe which is usually called ‘Central Europe’. It is a very specific part because on one hand, it is between Germany, Russia and Turkey, and on the other, it was always regarded and is still understood as a part of the west. 

I don’t know exactly what the Romanians will say about this, but what strikes me with Romania is the fact that it is an Orthodox country with Latin letters and a language which is a part of the Latin tradition. So Italians are saying that they don’t need to learn Romanian because they can speak Italian in Bucharest. If we take a look at my own country, Poland, there has always been this Eastern Christianity, but at the same time, Polish border was the border of the gothic style. So the border of the west was well-defined. 

Then we can ask ourselves the following question: what the west of today has to do with the west of yesterday? 

Milan Kundera is writing, later on when communism fell down, that people in Central Europe had discovered that Europe had disappeared. So they had fought for Europe and its values but in the meantime Europe had disappeared. And so the question is to know if these different conflicts are between the east and the west or if they are between a tradition which was paradoxically preserved in Central Europe, and a post-Christian west. This is an open question, but some people are saying that Central Europe is the most European part of the world today. 

If we talk about a concrete issue such as migration, there are certainly a lot of reasons for differences. One of them is that the migration process is also regarded as the second wave of decolonisation. When I lived in Belgium, it was the time when Belgians living in their former colony of Congo were moving back to Belgium. The second wave is that people from Congo are coming to Belgium, and not to Poland or to Romania. They are thus using the same path for migration. 

Also, in our part of Europe, the religious argument is regarded as very important. For example, in recent years, Poland was the country which received the biggest number of migrants, much bigger than Germany. But these migrants were coming from Ukraine, Russia, Moldavia, Georgia, and then Korea, and Vietnam. None of them were Muslims. This was a policy, that because of the demographic crisis in Central Europe, politicians understood that they needed migrants. But at the same time, they were trying to preserve their own country from the installation of Islam. 

This is also changing the religious structure of European societies. When we are looking, not only at Central Europe, but at the whole of Europe, we see that Christianity still is the main religion. But there are two other groups competing with Christianity: one is Islam and the second is the unbelievers, which are forming a secular culture very specific for Europe and the USA. This group of unbelievers is growing. 

For example, in the case of the Balkans, Bosnia and Herzegovina has already a Muslim majority. Soon Macedonia will have a Muslim majority. These are different processes and contexts because, for example, the biggest confession of countries such as the Netherlands and France will soon be the unbelievers.

Some are saying that for countries like Romania and Bulgaria, the difficulties with the integration of the Roma people is a very important experience. Also people from Central Europe migrate to the west. Around a third of the population from Bulgaria or from Lithuania, mostly youth, disappear to the West. Ivan Krastev is raising this question: “will anyone read Bulgarian poetry in one hundred years?” That’s a context which is different here than in the west. 

And then, there is the issue of the politics regarding sexuality. With Christianity came the idea that God created man and woman, and by this also monogamic marriage and family. And since Greek times, family was always regarded as the foundation, the original cell of society. Still this approach is very present in Central Europe. The culture in the west is much more secularised. Also with this individual approach, natural groups such as family and nation are disappearing and being replaced by identity groups. So instead of citizenship forming a common platform, there is the identity of some groups competing with each other. This is destroying this sense of community also in western societies. 

Our experience with communism is playing a very important role in the sense that we remember. We know who built this house and why.[1]We know what were, for example, the crimes in Pitesti.[2]This is provoking that, to a certain extent, we are resistant, reluctant to the new Marxist philosophy which is prevailing in western politics. So we can say that the west is defenseless in front of this new Marxism. Our memory is making us much more resistant and this politics regarding sexuality can be regarded also as a part of this new Marxist ideology.

Monsignor Piotr Mazurkiewicz

Former Secretary General of the Commission of Episcopal Conferences of the European Union COMECE in 2008-2012 based in Brussels, and professor at the University of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw.


[1]The Palace of the Romanian Parliament, where the conference was held. This palace was built under Nicolae Ceaușescu as a part of his program of urban systematisation.

[2]The Pitești experiment was an experimentation program of violent ‘re-education’ led in the city’s jail by the communist party between December 1949 and September 1951

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