Pope Francis on Friday invited a "weary" Europe to renew itself by opening up to migrants and granting greater economic opportunities to young generations, as he received Germany's prestigious Charlemagne Prize.
The award is given yearly to public figures who promote European unity. Organizers said in December that Francis, a vocal campaigner on migration, climate change and other social justice causes, deserved it for acting as Europe's "voice of conscience."
In an acceptance speech, the pope said Europe needed to "respect the foreigner, the immigrant and people from different cultures as worthy of being listened to" and to adopt a new economic system with "dignified and well-paying jobs, especially for our young people."
Evoking the founding fathers of the European Union, such as France's Robert Schuman, Italy's Alcide De Gasperi, and Germany's Konrad Adenauer, Francis said: "Today, more than ever, their vision inspires us to build bridges and tear down walls."
He said he dreamed of "a Europe where being a migrant is not a crime," that was attentive to children, the poor, the sick and the elderly, and where "getting married and having children is a responsibility and a great joy, not a problem due to the lack of sufficiently stable employment."
The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, who hails from Argentina, considered a developing country, has often criticized capitalist excess.
"The just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labour is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation," he said Friday.
Recalling a previous landmark speech on Europe from 2014, when he described the continent as a "grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant," the pope said he dreamed of a "mother" Europe who "respects life and offers hope for life."
His speech did not include direct references to hot-button issues such as abortion, divorce and homosexuality, which are highly sensitive in secular Europe. He was also silent on the need to stress Europe's Christian roots, in the past a key Vatican priority.
"The identity of Europe is, and has always been, a dynamic and multicultural identity," and its "true face is seen not in confrontation, but in the richness of its various cultures and the beauty of its commitment to openness."
In a break from tradition, the prize was awarded in the Vatican, rather than in the German city of Aachen. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, King Felipe VI of Spain and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi were among the invited dignitaries.
"Some could view with sarcasm the fact that things in the European Union are going so badly that we need help from the pope," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who also attended the ceremony, wrote in a joint op-ed on the La Repubblica daily.
Delivering a speech before Francis, Juncker announced the appointment of an EU special envoy for freedom of religion. The post was given to former Jan Figel, a former EU commissioner and Christian Democrat from Slovakia.
Merkel, a Protestant, earlier Friday attended Mass in St Peter's Basilica celebrated by German Cardinal Walter Kasper and met privately with Francis. She said they discussed peace efforts for Syria.
Commenting on the papal speech, the chancellor said she read in it "very clear messages," such as the need for Europe to keep united in the face of economic and migration crises, and to show humanity in resolving them.
"This is a mandate for us to handle, to keep Europe together, whether it is about the [European] currency, whether it is about the protection of our external borders, and in particular the humanity and the humanitarian duty of Europe not to forget," she said.
Francis, the first non-European pontiff in 13 centuries, was not the first Charlemagne Prize laureate among popes. In 2004, John Paul II was awarded the Extraordinary Charlemagne Prize, the only one of its kind to date.