vatican insider

The peripheries of Europe and the Pope’s unheeded prophesy

The peripheries, a key theme in Francis’ magisterium, have once again become topical over the past year and a half, since a series of bloody and tragic terrorist attacks left two European capitals – Paris and Brussels – devastated and the investigations conducted by the police led them to seek out the perpetrators of the massacres in the peripheries of the cities in question. In Brussels we came to know the Molenbeek neighbourhood, while in France, the Saint Denis area on the suburbs of Paris has frequently been in the news. Saint Denis has been the scene of a number of protests and clashes in recent years. Both areas, as with many others in various European countries, are experiencing a strong concentration of new or old generation immigrants, where growing social unrest resulting from unemployment, environmental and social degradation and an absence of integration policies is adding to other endogenous factors such as cultural resistance, fundamentalism, rejection of the concept of citizenship and the increasing violation of the law. 

Many observers and scholars concur that in contexts such as these that sectarian Islam has grown. Sectarian Islam is more of a totalising political ideology that a religious belief and resembles a kind of criminal and violent anti-system outburst more than a traditionalist reading of the Koran. On his part, Francis has been speaking about the urban and social peripheries, the discarded and the existential peripheries since the start of his pontificate. He sent out an timely warning to our world, reminding it that the peripheries of the world are not just to be found in African or Asian countries but much closer to us, all we need to do in fact is look at the outskirts of our cities. But perhaps the world failed to heed this warning. 

There is one passage in the “Evangelii Gaudium” that is worth re-reading because of its shocking foresight and relevance to today’s context. It is one of the passages that is hardest for a European reader to digest. In it, Francis outlines the agenda of his pontificate just a few months before he was elected Pope. Addressing the issue of violence in relation to questions such as urbanisation and integration he says: “When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.” 

“Just as goodness tends to spread,” he adds, “the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear. If every action has its consequences, an evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death.” It is hard not to notice the precision of this analysis, which may have seemed excessively tough but today we realise that it is a pretty accurate reflection of reality. In is no coincidence therefore that from Scampia to Naples, Manila, Ciudad Juarez and Castelnuovo di Porto, Francis has been meeting people and distinguishing between terrorists from victims, choosing to humanise not criminalise territories and their inhabitants. 

The way in which the periphery subject was dealt with in the “Laudato Si’” is equally important from the point of view of the relationship between human condition and surrounding environment, between quality of life, behaviour models and shared values. “The extreme poverty experienced in areas lacking harmony, open spaces or potential for integration, can lead to incidents of brutality and to exploitation by criminal organizations. In the unstable neighbourhoods of mega-cities, the daily experience of overcrowding and social anonymity can create a sense of uprootedness which spawns antisocial behaviour and violence.” “Nonetheless,” he adds, “I wish to insist that love always proves more powerful. Many people in these conditions are able to weave bonds of belonging and togetherness, which convert overcrowding into an experience of community in which the walls of the ego are torn down and the barriers of selfishness overcome. This experience of a communitarian salvation often generates creative ideas for the improvement of a building or a neighbourhood.” 

Essentially, a virtuous community is the way forward in building ties of solidarity, not a closed one. This is partly why the Pope pointed to the peripheries as the Church’s focus, urging it to embrace others and the world, even though, he added, this must not be done fortuitously. At the same time, Francis added, the periphery is at the heart of the Christian experience: “The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor. Salvation came to us from the “yes” uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire,” Francis says in another passage of the “Evangelii Gaudium”