What is the state of the faith in Europe? That's the question before the Synod of Bishops for Europe, gathering at the Vatican the first three weeks of October. They've got their work cut out for them, as three developments illustrate.
Item. Commentators in the Italian newspapers have been wringing their hands over the specter of a ‘new clericalism’ in Italian politics. The cause? Last spring the Italian bishops vigorously protested a proposed law that would permit unmarried couples access to artificial reproductive technologies. Their protest was successful, but Italian law still permits in vitro procedures for married couples, and remains quite liberal on abortion. So it is not as if the Italian Parliament is marching to orders from the chancery offices, but so marginal does elite opinion consider the Church's role that any attempt it makes to speak on matters of public morality is regarded as effrontery.
Item. Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris, recently visited Denver for the opening of the new seminary there. He related the following data on the dramatic decline of French Catholicism: “Fifty years ago, there were nearly 50,000 diocesan priests in France to minister to 40 or so million French people, not to mention numerous religious priests and nuns. There were 1,000 ordinations of diocesan priests every year. There are now approximately 25,000 priests alive. About 70 percent of them are over 65. The number of ordinations of diocesan priests has been down to 100 a year since the 1960s. In five to 10 years’ time, there are likely to remain only 6,000 diocesan priests to serve a population of over 60 million. As far as the religious orders are concerned, the decline has been just as dramatic if not more so.”
Item. The Book of Kells is one of the finest illuminated manuscripts in existence, testimony to the Gaelic genius that made the so-called Dark Ages not so dark at all. There is afoot an effort to produce a new “Book of Kells” to celebrate Scottish-Irish Gaelic identity. The new book will feature contemporary Gaelic poetry, art and calligraphy. The old book featured the four Gospels in Latin. No more — religion has been dropped from the new version. “We live in a post-Christian Europe,” explains Theo Dorgan, one of the project's managers. “You don't have an orthodoxy in Ireland.”
Is Europe “post-Christian”? The preparatory document for the Synod does not shy away from suggesting that “apostasy” might be the right word for what has happened in recent years across the vast peninsula of the Eurasian landmass.
Before a synod of bishops begins its work, a working document — known by its Latin name Instrumentum laboris — is published, synthesizing the advance submissions made on the synod agenda. The Instrumentum for the European Synod, as per usual for such documents, is terribly prolix, but a strong sense cuts through all the words that Europe's bishops are well aware that a spiritual calamity has struck the continent. What is to be done about it remains another matter.
These regional synods are part of the preparation for the Great Jubilee, and the European Synod is the last to be held, following synods for Africa, America, Asia and Oceania. Indeed, this is the second special synod for Europe, as the Holy Father called one in 1991, soon after the collapse of communism. That Europe would require two synods in less than a decade is one sign of how desperate things have become there.
“Although a Marxism imposed by force has collapsed, practical atheism and materialism are certainly present throughout Europe,” states the Instrumentum. “Though they are no longer imposed by force or explicitly proposed, people still think and behave as if God did not exist.”
This is not to be taken lightly.
“As a result, there is a great risk of a progressive and radical de-Christianization and paganization of the continent,” continues the document. “In some countries, the number of non-baptized is very high. Oftentimes, basic tenets of Christianity are not sufficiently known. All this puts the cultural identity of Europe in jeopardy, a situation which one person hypothetically described as a kind of ‘European apostasy.’”
Such blunt language is not the norm for Vatican documents. But the bishops fear that Europe is facing a crisis of hope, lacking the certainties that its former faith provided, and without any new certainties to replace them. As the Holy Father indicated last year in Fides et Ratio, “Now, at the end of this century, one of our greatest threats is the temptation to despair.”
In this context, the Synod proposes as its theme: Jesus Christ, Alive in His Church, Source of Hope for Europe. The synod intends to proclaim that only Jesus Christ can return hope to Europe and takes the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus as corresponding to the current state of Europe (Luke 24:13-35).
Europe, like those disciples, has witnessed a great tragedy — the collapse of 20th-century optimism under bloody wars. The latest Euro-American misadventure in the Balkans left Kosovo largely ethnically cleansed and the whole region terribly impoverished, only adding to the pessimism. Europe is walking away from its 20th century Calvary, like the disciples, and has lost its hope. The synod suggests that, if Europe meets Jesus Christ anew, he will restore its hope, as he did for the disciples, by explaining once again all those things that concern himself, and opening peoples’ eyes to the true foundation for hope.
The solution suggested by the Instrumentum is that the Church needs to return to the fundamentals of evangelization by preaching a Gospel encounter with Jesus Christ for its own sake. In other words, a “re-evangelization” is required — one that must start with the basics. Individuals and nations need to be re-introduced to Jesus Christ and from this introduction must flow an explanation of the transcendent dimension of the human person, along with the conviction that the person cannot endure for long in a morality deprived of its ontological underpinnings.
“It is not enough,” states the Instrumentum, “to propose Gospel and human values such as justice, peace and freedom; not because they are not essential, but because what is at stake is something more basic and fundamental.”
But who will do this work of re-evangelizing? Who will preach the Gospel, not as merely another humanitarian project, but as a living encounter with the only One who can restore hope to Europe? It is not clear where these new missionaries are, or where they might come from.
“A difficulty peculiar to the Church and communities in Western Europe is the increased age of the clergy, and of the laity actively involved in the life of parishes, all of which offers an image of an aging, lethargic Church and hinders the influx of vocations, thus rendering a creative commitment to evangelization rather difficult,” the document states. Indeed, in many European nations, the sight of a man under 30 at Mass is a rarity. And many of the grandmothers in attendance are not burning with apostolic zeal either, often attending Mass as more of a social or cultural tradition rather than a religious one. But even if the grandmothers were zealous, would they be able to speak to the parts of Europe that are newly free?
“There is common agreement that the new current of freedom which is sweeping across all countries in Europe is certainly a Gospel value,” the bishops acknowledge. “Yet, Christianity, [and] in particular the Church, is often seen as an obstacle and enemy of freedom. Moreover, the attempt is made to persuade persons and the whole of society that God is an obstacle on the path towards freedom.”
The Church in Europe, as in the Americas, needs to persuade society once again that Christ is the “true guarantor” of freedom, who liberates man from sin and for his vocation to love. Such a proposal is difficult at the best of times, and while the Instrumentum offers a long shopping list of practical measures — everything from a renewed commitment to ecumenism to offering more practical assistance to single mothers — they do seem rather prosaic measured against the self-proclaimed mandate of the synod, namely, to preach the “Gospel of Hope” to Europe.
Yet the synod itself hopes to be a moment of grace for the Church in Europe, for the re-evangelization of Europe, like the first evangelization, will be foremost a work of grace. And of course there are some tangible signs of hope. In that same address in Denver, Cardinal Lustiger pointed out seminary reforms that have produced in Paris the youngest clergy in France. Elsewhere in France there are small, but robust, renewals of religious life. And despite false fears of clericalism in Italy, it is true that the Church can on occasion still find a voice to speak authoritatively on moral matters. Also, beyond the decline of religious practice in Western Europe, there are countries to the east, most notably Poland, where the ravages of secularization are not so far advanced.
An old Italian monsignor, speaking to a small group of seminarians this past summer, commented that what is happening in Europe today is what happened in North Africa in the middle of the first millennium: An entire Christian civilization is being lost.
While in North Africa Christianity was chased out by the advances of the Muslim armies, today Europe faces invisible enemies — they reside in men's hearts — that have made Europe a “post-Christian” continent.
The Synod for Europe will proclaim that Jesus Christ is alive in His Church, and this will serve as a source of hope for Europe. Of course that is certainly true, and the synod participants will need to keep that in mind when the evidence so often points to the contrary.
Raymond de Souza, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, writes from Rome.