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The Europe of thousands of cities. The Gospel in the streets and in peripheries

The phenomenon of urbanism tends to grow stronger throughout the western world, while cities appear as the crossroads of all Third Millennium challenges. Pope Francis is particularly sensitive to “urban cultures”. And the Church is facing the need to identify the languages and tools for state-of-the-art mission

Un'immagine-simbolo delle città europee: Atene con l'Acropoli (foto SIR/CE)

“God is living in our cities. We need to seek Him and stop in the those places where He is operating”. Pope Francis has always given much attention to the pastoral care of large cities, since Jorge Mario Bergoglio was archbishop of Buenos Aires. On several occasions, after his papal election, he described himself as “the Bishop of Rome”. He highlighted the need to walk through “existential peripheries”, using a parameter that can be referred to the urban context. Addressing participants in the “International Congress on the pastoral care of large cities”, at the end of 2014, he delivered an intense speech, offering a set of guidelines for the presence of the Church in the realms of modernity, marked by weighty transformations in culture and customs, by major social unbalances, by evident – since physically linked – inequalities between the poor and the rich living in the same cities.

Keeping the same pace. Pope Francis has devoted special significance to the cities, addressing their peculiarities, related to the evangelizing mission, in a lengthy paragraph of “Evangelii gaudium”, not incidentally titled “Challenges of today’s world”. Indeed, the Church’s pastoral attention to cities keeps pace with demographic, geographic, economic and social phenomena worldwide, including Europe. Urbanism, present throughout the history of humanity, does not cease: population grows in middle, large or very large cities alike. The urban area of Paris counts 10 million inhabitants, London has over 8 million, followed by capitals like Berlin, Madrid, Rome, Amsterdam, Napels, Munich… Cities are crossroads of historical transformations. Urban skylines are starred with architectonic and construction hallmarks, underdeveloped areas, run-down peripheries, poorly served or abandoned neighbourhoods at a close distance from residential neighbourhoods.

Collective imagination sees cities as home to the most degrading incidents:

Migrants pour into cities, posing a challenge to integration; the terror attacks that have blemished Europe in recent years bear the names of major cities (Madrid, London, Paris, Brussels, Copenaghen…).

EU projects. More than in other places cities bring out population identities, but dimmed and lost identities emerge at the same time. Cities host the headquarters of political institutions, symbols of democracy. But city streets are also crossed by rallies and protests of those demanding different forms of urban administration. In these ancient or modern areas of human coexistence are experienced the challenges of the Third Millennium: ranging from welfare crises to new professions, from migration to traffic, to environmental deterioration, from the loneliness of senior citizens to the homeless looking for a bench to sleep during the night.

For all of these reasons, several European countries and the EU as a whole ever more often put cities at the centre of political and financial intervention.

For the EU could be mentioned the “Urban Europe” project aimed at the amelioration of urban areas and the “Covenant of Mayors” for environmental protection and sustainable energy.

The day before yesterday, yesterday and today. Cities are again at the centre of attention as it was at the times of ancient Persians and Egyptians, of ancient Greece and Rome, and later on, the Communes in the Middle Ages, followed by the Renaissance (Florence) or the industrial revolution (Manchester, Liverpool). That’s why the Church seizes the need for new proposals and languages to evangelize “inside” the city. Let is suffice to consider the “European meetings of young people” promoted at the end of each year by the Taizé community, in the heart of a city, (Valencia, Spain, in 2016, and previously it was Prague, Strasbourg, Rome, Berlin, Rotterdam…). Also the World Youth Days focus on a city: in 2016 it will be the turn of Krakow in Poland. Indeed, the same Holy Doors that were opened in the past weeks on the occasion of the Jubilee of Mercy, bear the name of a city – from Bangui to Rome to the rest of world – home to cathedrals and shrines, as well as prisons, Caritas centres, centres for the disabled and old-age homes.

“The fullness of humanity”. Thus, cities. Ancient and contemporary crossroads of a thriving humanity, that come together and run up against each other, that work, love, study, hope… Giorgio la Pira, mayor of Florence for many years, in 1995, exactly 60 years ago, said:

“Cities have a life of their own: they have their own mysterious and profound self. They have their own faces, they have, it could be said, their own soul and their own destiny. They are not sporadic heaps of stones. They are the mysterious dwellings of men and women, and, in a certain way, the mysterious dwellings of God”.

La Pira’s statement is not very different from the one written by Pope Bergoglio in Evangelii Gaudium, when he said, almost as if to indicate to the Church an explicit, demanding form of pastoral attention: “The new Jerusalem, the holy city (cf. Rev. 21:2-4), is the goal toward which all of humanity is moving. It is curious that God’s revelation tells us that the fullness of humanity and of history is realized in a city”.

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