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21 Maggio 2009

Andrea Riccardi: A visionary with clear views - Feature

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Aachen, Germany - The Charlemagne Prize was different this time around - one which did not play second-fiddle to the diplomatic niceties of European politics. This year's award went to Andrea Riccardi, an Italian Catholic visionary with heart and mind. At Thursday's presentation ceremony in the German city of Aachen the founder of the Sant'Egidio Community had some unusual words for his audience.

"The fate of Europe has to become poetry that will inspire the future," he said in the city's coronation chamber, now part of Aachen town hall.

The Charlemagne award for services to European unity and values usually comes with a message. In previous years the mantra was: approve the European reform treaty and drag the continent out of its state of crisis. All to no avail.

In a process where political solutions appear as far away as ever Riccardi has created a new beginning. The 59-year-old native of Rome embodies grass-roots Europe and the European values of solidarity and humanity.

He is authentic because he lives by these values as does the lay group he established with friends in Rome's Trastevere district in 1968 ago to help the poor by providing them with food and clothing.

"You discovered that war is the mother of all poverty," said former International Monetary Fund director Michel Camdessus in a speech at the ceremony.

This was the start of a quiet and successful peaceful diplomacy by Riccardi and his organization based at the parish church of Sant'Egidio, whose membership has swelled to 50,000 worldwide.

Riccardi and those who help him are selfless, said Camdessus. "They never seek the limelight or look for influence or power. They know they are there to serve."

They confront poverty with respect and attention but are not patronizing, he said.

Given this background, Riccardi's acceptance speech might appear somewhat audacious. Rarely has a Charlemagne prizewinner in recent years spoken so openly about about the dangers facing Europe.

"Even if it does not appear to be the case, we are facing a a decision of enormous consequences that will shape the progress of Europe in this century," he said.

If the nations of Europe do not act together, they will disappear into insignificance in the era of globalization. "In this way our values and identity will dissolve in the currents of globalization."

All that will remain of Europe will be the memory of powers that were once great, "of fantastic or terrible (times), but of bygone days."

Such a gloomy picture of the future of Europe had never been painted before at a ceremony designed to highlight the continent's success.

Europe needs durable visions in order to to write history, said the man who has lived his personal vision for decades. Instead, the nations of Europe are prisoners of their own debates and generate soon-to-be-forgotten headlines.

"Is Europe still making history, or is it concentrating on the headlines?" he asked.

The civic prize honoured Riccardi for demonstrating Europe's humane convictions and spirit of solidarity as well as his promotion of world peace.

The 5,000-euro (6,300-dollar) prize is named after Emperor Charlemagne (768-814). It is managed by the city of Aachen, once the capital of Charlemagne's European medieval empire.

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