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Photograph: EPA/TELENEWS

This year's Charlemagne Prize, which is offered for services to promoting unity in Europe, is being given to the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina

Upon his election in March 2013, Pope Francis joked that he had come "almost from the end of the world," and in office, he has been less eurocentric than his predecessors, focusing more on extending the global reach of the Catholic Church.

Yet he has still sent several powerful messages to European audiences, starting with the decision to take his maiden trip from the Vatican to Lampedusa, a remote Italian island at the centre of Europe's migration crisis.

Only four of Francis' 13 trips outside Italy have been to European destinations, most recently to a migrant centre on the Greek island of Lesbos on April 16, returning with 12 Syrian refugees to whom the Vatican offered shelter.

A critic of what he calls "the globalization of indifference," the pope has been a vocal champion of social justice, defending the rights of refugees, prisoners, the unemployed, and religious and ethnic minorities.

In a 2014 interview with the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, he denounced inhumane economic policies that have led to the "atrocity" of youth unemployment rates at more than 50 per cent in southern Europe. "We are discarding an entire generation," he said.

In remarks that resonated in secular Europe, Francis has also stated that the Catholic Church should not "obsess" about reiterating its opposition to divorce and abortion, and said of homosexuals: "If a person is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge?"

Addressing the European Parliament in 2014, he compared Europe to a "grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant," governed by "aloof" European Union institutions "engaged in laying down rules perceived as insensitive to individual peoples, if not downright harmful."

He urged politicians to recover the spirit of the EU's founding fathers, "who envisioned a future based on the capacity to work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all the peoples of this continent."

Citing that speech, the Charlemagne Prize committee applauded Francis for acting as Europe's "voice of conscience," defending "compassion, tolerance, solidarity and the integrity of creation throughout his pontificate."

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