View into the plenum of the 27th International Renovabis Congress
View into the plenum of the 27th International Renovabis Congress
Source: Renovabis
04.10.2023 – Summary

Congress 2023: Speeches, keynote speeches, panel discussion

Did you miss the 27th International Congress or would you like to review the most important points? Here you will find concise summaries of the contributions that characterised the discussions.

Information in German

Review of the 27th International Renovabis Congress

Topic of the congress: „Freedom as I understand it ... Europe in the Realm between a New Awakening, Disillusionment and Threat“

The social and ecclesiastical developments in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe over the past three decades - that was the focus of this year's International Congress Renovabis . As Renovabis is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2023, it made sense to focus on the topic of freedom and the hopes and expectations associated with it at the beginning of the 1990s. In doing so, an arc was drawn from the initial spirit of optimism through increasing disillusionment and scepticism towards Western models to the threat to freedom in Europe posed by authoritarian tendencies and the war against Ukraine. The congress took stock of what has been achieved so far. It also looked at the challenges and tasks facing society, politics and churches today and in the coming years, also in view of the changed geopolitical situation in Europe. In addition to presentations and panel discussions, there was a dialogue forum that gave all congress participants the opportunity to actively contribute their ideas, suggestions and questions.

Celebratory Speech by former President of the Federal Republic of Germany Joachim Gauck (in German only)

„Learning from mistakes – Germany and its relations with the Eastern European countries“

During his speech at the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Catholic Eastern European aid organisation Renovabis in Munich, former German President Joachim Gauck made a passionate appeal for freedom and solidarity to the guests. Gauck emphasised that the West should focus more on Eastern Europe and embrace the spirit of confidence and love for freedom that he sees in the Baltic states, Poland and the Republic of Moldova.
Joachim Gauck reflected on developments in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe before and after the fall of communism, emphasising the lasting impact of the societies that emerged from totalitarian regimes. These countries are still in the process of change today. He warned of a creeping loss of a sense of reality and the rise of populist movements. The former Federal President criticised Germany's policy towards the East and Russia in recent years, which was characterised by unrealistic wishful thinking and failed to adequately recognise the actual potential threat. He warned of the dangerous effects of neo-imperialism and nationalism in Russia under Putin and emphasised that these threats had not been sufficiently taken into account. With the words „We must combine our love for peace with our unconditional love for freedom“, he appealed for support for freedom in the face of the Russian attack on Ukraine and called for considerable financial sacrifices to be made to support those fighting for or defending their freedom. Joachim Gauck's speech emphasised the need to learn from history, while at the same time making a fiery plea for solidarity, freedom and more intensive cooperation between Western and Eastern Europe in order to defend and strengthen the values of democracy and freedom.

Keynote speech by Prof Andreas Heinemann-Grüder (in German only)

Prof. Andreas Heinemann-Grüder is a political scientist at the Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies (BICC)

In his lecture, Prof Heinemann-Grüder emphasised that we have seen a worldwide decline in democracy since 2005 - and that democracy values have also deteriorated in Central and Eastern Europe. He pointed out that the assumption that democracies were consolidated was a fallacy. The causes of the disillusionment in Eastern Europe were due to the legacy of socialism, the painful experiences with „predatory capitalism“ and the emergence of oligarchic elites. This has led to an „anti-social market economy“. Trust in the authorities had declined and the welfare state was perceived as paternalistic. In Eastern Europe, there is a connection between the evaluation of government action and the assessment of one's own cultural superiority. These regions often have a corrupt state and at the same time a strong sense of cultural and national pride, which favours ethno-nationalism. Heinemann-Grüder sees a connection between socio-economics and low democratic values, particularly due to the extreme differences in income between rich and poor. There are populist counter-reactions, including material populism and national socialist Darwinism.
Professor Heinemann-Grüder concluded with clear recommendations: He emphasised that democracy must be social, meritocratic and resilient. The democratic deficit in the EU must be addressed, he said, and the EU should be expanded to prevent the influence of other countries. Innovation - particularly in the areas of artificial intelligence and climate change - should be seen as a common European challenge. Finally, Europe must act as a community of solidarity in order to effectively combat protectionism and nationalism. Professor Heinemann-Grüder emphasised the importance of socio-economic factors for democracy and the need to address these challenges in order to strengthen democracy in Eastern Europe and beyond.

Keynote speech by Prof. Marek A. Cichocki (in German only)

Marek A. Cichocki is a professor at the private university "Collegium Civitas" in Warsaw and programme director of the European Centre Natolin (CEN)

Professor Marek Cichocki from Poland looked at the last 30 years after the end of the Cold War and emphasised that we were in the age of chaos. Following the global awakening after the fall of communism, we are now seeing some of the negative consequences of this opening up. He paid tribute to Pope John Paul II, who had conducted difficult discussions with Polish society in the 1990s. Freedom was often understood in Poland as an unrestricted right to consume and act, but Pope John Paul II emphasised that freedom always goes hand in hand with responsibility. After Cichocki's opinion we must return to our own concrete and fundamental experiences. In Poland, these fundamental experiences in relation to freedom and democracy are the civilisation of society, self-determination and the preservation of autonomous sources of norms. He also emphasised the need for social equality due to growing material inequalities both within and between societies. Cichocki criticised the reluctance to speak positively about Western civilisation and its values. Despite its social challenges, capitalism has also enabled individual and collective fulfilment. Today, Ukraine is once again showing that Western civilisation is a valuable one that is worth fighting for.

Keynote speech by Sr. Prof. Helen Alford OP (English and German)

Sr Prof Helen Alford OP is President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences at the Vatican
* in English:

  • in Deutsch:

Professor Alford's keynote speech was entitled „Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor 3:17) - church developments in Central and Eastern Europe“. She emphasised the importance of the spiritual dimension in social activities, including the work of Renovabis. She called for a rethink of the tendency in the West to downplay religious inspiration in social activities, as this contributes to the loss of institutional structures. Sr Alford presented two different views on dialogue: One from Brother Dominique Pire, a Belgian Dominican, who stressed that dialogue requires understanding and appreciating the other person's thoughts without giving up one's own beliefs. The other view came from Pope John Paul II, who emphasised the importance of respect for others, dialogue and self-questioning. Another point was the „culture of life“ in Central and Eastern Europe, which was characterised by Pope John Paul II. Alford argued that a balanced emphasis on both the "culture of life" and the „culture of encounter“ was necessary and pointed out that despite different ideas between East and West, both halves of Europe faced similar ecclesial and social challenges. The diversity and differences between East and West were a strength for tackling common challenges. Diversity should be perceived as an opportunity and not as a threat.

Keynote speech by Prof. Klara-Antonia Csiszar (in German only)

Klara-Antonia Csiszar is Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Catholic Private University of Linz

In her keynote speech on the development of the church in Central and Eastern Europe since 1989 and its prospects in Europe, Prof Klara-Antonia Csiszar identified four phases: During the phase of euphoria and disorientation (1989 to the mid-1990s), the Church regained freedom, but was often unprepared for the new challenges. In the phase of the diocesan synods and the new pastoral orientation (mid-1990s to mid-2000s), the church was looking for new paths and orientation. There were different views on how the church should act in a liberal democracy. The involvement of the laity in the renewal process also led to tensions. During the consolidation phase (mid-2000s to 2015), church structures stabilised, the laity receded into the background and there was a decline in the number of theology students and candidates for the priesthood. The church has focussed more on its own affairs instead of acting ad extra. In the phase of self-defence against Western „liberalism“ (since 2015), the refugee crisis and discussions on topics such as sexual morality, women's ordination and LGBTQIA+ have led to irritation between the churches in Central and Eastern Europe and those of the older democracies: For example, the church in Poland had expressed concerns about possible „doctrinal changes“.
Professor Csiszar proposed a series of measures to promote better coexistence in Europe. Among other things, she called for the idea of solidarity to be expanded, for more resonance spaces to be created for mutual concerns and for people to be better networked – for example by Renovabis and other players creating a forum for people who think critically. She also suggested creating hotspots for church development in order to tackle issues such as abuse, women's ordination, same-sex partnerships and other challenges with experts. She encouraged people to engage in synodality, respectful listening and transformation and to set aside rigid convictions in order to enable the symphony of love and hope in Europe.

Summary of the panel discussion on 14.09.23

On the final day of the Renovabis Congress, a panel discussion entitled „Threatened freedom in Europe? Challenges for society, politics and churches“ took place. It was attended by Knut Abraham, member of the Bundestag for the CDU, Bishop Dr Petar Palić (diocese Mostar-Duvno in Bosnia and Herzegovina), Dr Yauheniya Danilovich, an Orthodox theologian at the University of Münster from Grodno in Belarus, and Sofia Todorović, Programme Director of the Youth Initiative of Human Rights of the Belgrade office (Serbia). In the discussion questions, the participants repeatedly referred to their home countries and contributed their personal experiences and perspectives to the debate.
The discussion began with opening statements from the participants on the concept of positive freedom. Bishop Palić emphasised the complex situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where formal freedoms exist but the high representative can influence the laws. He also referred to Bosnia as a state of many different ethnicities and religions. Sofia Todorović emphasised the responsibility that comes with freedom, especially in multicultural societies such as in the Balkans. Dr Danilovich reported on the repressive measures in Belarus, where the pursuit of freedom is criminalised and the space to shape freedom is becoming ever smaller, while Knut Abraham pointed out the different perspectives in Germany, especially in the context of the Ukraine crisis.
In the discussion, it was emphasised that freedom does not only mean the absence of oppression, but also the opportunity to raise one's voice and actively participate in social life. The challenges that exist in multicultural societies were pointed out and the importance of dialogue and understanding was emphasised. The role of churches in promoting freedom and solidarity was also emphasised.

Discussion on the relationship between social security and individual freedom

Bishop Dr Petar Palić emphasised the challenges in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country with a complex administrative structure and financial difficulties. He emphasised the need to create good conditions to make freedom accessible to all citizens. Sofia Todorović pointed out that although the link between social protection and freedom exists, people should not be deprived of their responsibility for change. She believes in people's ability to maintain dreams and hopes even under difficult conditions. Dr Yauheniya Danilovich emphasised that freedom is not a good that you have to afford. She is convinced that freedom unites all levels of society and that this could also be seen in the protests in Belarus. Knut Abraham pointed out that material security is not always enough to overcome the feeling of political neglect and lack of respect from the political class. He emphasised the importance of perception, dignity and respect as well as the struggle for identity instead of pure social class struggles.
Overall, the discussion question made it clear that social security and individual freedom are linked. It was emphasised that the creation of equal opportunities and respect for the dignity of each individual are crucial to creating a truly free society.

Discussion on the role of the European Union (EU) in relation to freedom and the different expectations in the individual European countries

Knut Abraham reported on the difficult situation of the churches in Brandenburg, where they are only recognised by a small minority. Dr Yauheniya Danilovich expressly noted that a differentiated view is important. The churches in Belarus have to perform a balancing act: They are under great pressure and reprisals within the country, but also have an important role as places of awakening and resistance outside the country, where the diaspora is used to spread their message. Sofia Todorović emphasised the strong trust of young people in the military and the church in Serbia. She also criticised the connection between the Serbian Orthodox Church and political interests as well as misogyny in the church. She emphasised the need to address such problems in order to bring about change. Bishop Dr Petar Palić spoke about the experiences of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and emphasised that the role of the Catholic Church is to preach the Gospel and spread the messages of tolerance, respect and solidarity. The Church should also work for social justice and promote interreligious dialogue.
Overall, it became clear that churches can play an important role in promoting freedom, tolerance and social cohesion. Their messages can include moral and ethical principles and help to reduce social inequalities and promote peace. It was emphasised that it is important to address critical issues in order to bring about positive change.

Discussion on the role of the European Union (EU) in relation to freedom and the different expectations in the individual European countries

Knut Abraham spoke about the challenges that the EU is facing, but also emphasised the positive aspects such as the rapid response to the Ukraine crisis. He encouraged people to see the EU as an important player for freedom and to respect its institutions in order to develop the EU positively. He suggested thinking more creatively about membership models to improve the EU's enlargement policy. Dr Yauheniya Danilovich shared the hope of the people of Belarus for EU membership, but emphasised the uncertainty and concrete challenges that in particular Belarusian nationals who are living abroad are facing. She called for faster and more efficient support for these people. Sofia Todorović emphasised the tensions between countries such as Croatia and Serbia and spoke out in favour of preventive measures to understand the roots of hatred. She emphasised the importance of projects that promote exchange and cooperation between young people in order to strengthen peace and cooperation between countries. Bishop Dr Petar Palić expressed his hope that the EU and its measures will not remain a cheap consolation and criticised the slow and hesitant approach of the EU towards countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, both in the past and today. He drew attention to the pressing social and economic problems in his region and emphasised that people are not only longing for security, but also for stable jobs and social security.
Overall, the panellists highlighted different perspectives on the EU and its role in terms of freedom and social development. The discussion showed that expectations of the EU vary from country to country and that the EU faces major challenges in order to fulfil the different needs and expectations of its member states.


The final discussion of the Renovabis Congress 2023 impressively highlighted the multi-layered challenges, hopes and perspectives regarding threatened freedom in Europe. The different points of view of the participants, who reported from their home countries, illustrated the complexity of the topic. Despite differing views on the role of the EU, which is a perspective for countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Belarus from the perspective of the panellists, the need to fight together for freedom, social cohesion and peace was emphasised. The discussion showed that dialogue and understanding between nations and cultures are essential in order to shape a freer and fairer future for Europe.

Praktikum bei Renovabis

Diese Zusammenfassung wurde von Carola Prinz erstellt, die uns als Praktikantin bei der Vorberitung, Durchführung und Nachbereitung des Internationalen Kongress Renovabis unterstützt hat. Haben Sie Interesse daran, ebenfalls ein Praktikum bei Renovabis zu machen und wie unsere Autorin Carola Prinz Teil des Teams zu sein und an der Gestaltung des Renovabis-Kongresses oder an der Vorbereitung der Pfingstaktion mitzuwirken? Sie wollen den „ganz normalen Alltag" in unserem Hilfswerk erleben? Dann bewerben Sie sich um eine Stelle als Praktikant oder Praktikantin - wir freuen uns auf Sie!

Content created: 04.10.2023, last modified: 12.12.2023

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