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Reconciliation: the on-going work of Europe – Tom Keighley TSSF

Reconciliation: the on-going work of Europe

Tom Keighley TSSF

The problem with the word reconciliation is that it suggests a time when people were conciliated. In the history of Europe, the land mass which spreads from the Urals to the coast of Galway and from northern Scandinavia to the southern Mediterranean, this has never been the case. Europe has always been a place where people competed for space, resources and power. Living together has been one of Europe’s greatest challenges. After the Second World War politicians began to see this as the task that needed to be addressed above all others: there had to be ways found to prevent future catastrophic conflicts.

The history of the evolution of first the European Economic Community and ultimately the European Union (EU) is well known. At the top of its list of purposes is the maintenance of peace and avoidance of conflict. To achieve this structures have evolved which it is believed minimise the likelihood of conflict; these include mechanisms for trading together, the development of transport, education and health care in countries joining and neighbouring on to the EU, and a process known as recognition, which enables the professions of each other’s countries to undertake their work beyond their original national boundaries.

Underlying the problems of Europe in modern times has been distrust and envy: distrust of different countries’ intentions and envy of other countries’ resources. Providing the processes for Churchill’s famous ‘jaw jaw’ to prevent war has been a significant part of the work. By talking together about a range of national concerns, it becomes possible to demystify the stranger and to identify shared concerns, and especially shared humanity. The practical end of this has been the redistribution of resources. Many of the founders of the modern EU had Christian concerns. It was natural therefore to see the need for the rich to help the poor and if taxation and legislation could be drafted to achieve that, so much the better because it would make it comparatively transparent.

In many ways, the EU has been a success. Much conflict has been avoided and the fall of the Berlin Wall was managed peacefully in large part because there were mechanisms like the EU to address the needs of those peoples and nations. How well it has worked is illuminated by what has happened when things have gone wrong. My work has taken me from the Baltic to the Balkans, helping to reform education for health care professionals, especially nurses and midwives. Working in the Balkans reveals the extent of suffering one human being is prepared to impose on another. Two examples will give a slight insight into it.

I have worked in Romania quite frequently. The EU, as part of the reconciliation work, agreed to the scanning of the police record index so that all Romanians could access what was written about them. Being in Romania when it became apparent that priests had acted as agents for the police and reported what had been shared in the confessional was challenging indeed. As a known Anglican priest, often asked to lead work outside my own field because of my clerical status and therefore supposed capacity to resist corruption, I had many difficult questions to answer. Was it different in my church, in my country, what happened to make sure it didn’t happen? It was a dreadful example of how even the highest goals and principles could be corrupted by communist practices.

The reredos in the Church of St Anthony of Padua, Sarajevo: the Last Supper, symbolising Christ's open and inclusive welcome.

The reredos in the Church of St Anthony of Padua, Sarajevo: the Last Supper, symbolising Christ’s open and inclusive welcome.

Elsewhere in Bosnia Herzegovina, the EU continues to fund the identification through DNA tracing of those killed and buried in mass graves. Acting to console some of the Muslim mourners, I was often reminded of how the anger and grief was managed by a focus on what they had now – schools, hospitals, roads – in ways they never had before. The women folk in particular wanted to ensure their children did not go through the same experiences. The Franciscan sisters and friars at the Church and Monastery of St Anthony of Padua, in Sarajevo, played a big part in reconciling the communities. Under Sarajevo ran a tunnel which by chance linked the two warring communities in the 1990s. It was the Franciscan sisters and friars who had travelled between these two communities, sharing what could be shared during the siege and in particular helping to care for the children and pregnant mothers. Sitting in the hills above Sarajevo in the early hours of the morning having the sites identified where the snipers shot from, while drinking unwise amounts of locally distilled rakia was quite literally an insight into both heaven and hell.

Today, the EU work continues in the former Yugoslavia. Progress can be slow. Slovenia and Croatia are now part of the EU. Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia have become accession countries and are now actively working to achieve compliance with EU requirements supported throughout by significant amounts of development monies and people like myself to enable the changes. The financial rewards barely cover costs for those involved and many are involved in active faith journeys. What makes it possible is the knowledge that as Franciscans we are praying for each other and therefore sustaining each other in the Lord.

One night a couple of years ago, after chairing the first midwifery conference in Bosnia since the conflict, I returned to my hotel room and opened my office book. I had spent three days listening to stories of gang rapes, of babies loved but with no idea of who the father was, and who were supposed to be conceived as a punishment. I had been interviewed by radio and television and through an interpreter had tried to explain how modern midwifery worked without getting caught in the divisions between nations. A nurse arrived with an invitation to meet the local bishop – it was another night of too much rakia and too many stories of inhumanity. It ended in the chapel of John Paul II, with the Bishop’s thanks for simply coming and listening. Coming and listening, the first two steps of reconciliation. f

page 3 Tom KeighleyTom Keighley is a worker priest and a Franciscan tertiary.