Spending a year doing pastoral work in England, along with a book and an EWTN series, has afforded me the opportunity to re-examine, and in some cases revisit, parts of Europe — Britain, France, Spain and Italy — where I visited or spent considerable time while studying 25 years ago. Things have changed radically, and not for the better.

Europe is gradually becoming what it has not been since its origin: a small, perhaps insignificant continent with a severely shrinking population that has lost its Christian roots and consciousness and may find its dominant religion and population Islamic — Eurabia, as it is being named by some pundits.

The almost thousand-year war that began in 711 with the Muslim invasion of Spain appeared conclusively won in 1683 with the turning back of the Turkish invasion at Vienna. Now, it appears not to have been “won” after all. The European community soon may open its door to Turkey, which upon its entry would become its most populous member. What Islam could not achieve through centuries of war, it is now achieving through immigration — by taking on the low-paying jobs that the affluent and increasingly childless Europeans can't fill.

A far-below-replacement birthrate is pandemic throughout Europe. Two of the nominally most Catholic countries, Spain and Italy, hover above the rate of one child per couple. London's St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey, two ancient monuments of British Christianity, now serve principally as large museums and mausoleums where crowds of tourists visit the tombs of Wellington or Nelson and the Poet's Corner.

Fewer than 2% of members of the Anglican Church go to church on Sunday, making Roman Catholicism the de facto Christian religion of the country — without benefit of government sponsorship. So much for the English Reformation.

Even more telling is a visit to the St. Denis Basilica in Paris, the site of a Gallo-Roman cemetery where the saint was buried. From the year 250, it has been the burial home of 42 kings, 32 queens and 63 princes and princesses of France. One of the architectural jewels of Europe, it survived the ravages of the French Revolution. But now, the Christian shrine lies surrounded by a populous, high-crime area of non-assimilated Muslims. Living in the same godless culture as Christians, they seem to have grown just as non-observant in their own religious practice.

From what I have seen, like the United States, although to a greater extent, present-day Europe above all worships at the altar of sport. Athletes are the celebrities whose wax effigies are popular at Madame Tussaud's Museum just down the road from where I write.

With the influx of Islamic workers and the low rates of fertility (with little sign or possibility of reversal), within a few decades, Europe will be radically changed both in its religious and racial makeup.

John Paul II summed it up:

“At the root of this loss of hope is an attempt to promote a vision of man apartfrom God and apart from Christ. This sort of thinking has led to man being considered as ‘the absolute center of reality which makes him occupy — falsely — the place of God and which forgets that it is not man who creates God, but rather God who creates man. Forgetfulness of God led to the abandonment of man.’ It is therefore no wonder that in this context a vast field has opened for the unrestrained development of nihilism in philosophy, of relativism in values and morality, and of pragmatism — and even cynical hedonism — in daily life. European culture gives the impression of ‘silent apostasy’ on the part of people who have all that they need and who live as if God does not exist.”

If present-day Europe has been eviscerated, blame its lack of faith. What went wrong? The currents of the Reformation, with the principle of private judgment, and of the Enlightenment, with its over-reliance on agnostic reason, added to the historical crisis in the Church caused in part by the badly interpreted applications of the Second Vatican Council. The result is that Europe may soon become a largely Islamic continent — Eurabia — or an intolerant, consumerist, welfare state.

So, what's next for Christianity?

The European community's recent treatment of Italian Catholic statesman and philosopher Rocco Buttiglione may give us a clue. He simply espoused traditional Christian moral views on homosexuality. That was sufficient to have him removed as a candidate for an important European post.

The spiritual illness of Europe may be terminal — but death is not the end. This would not be the first time a great swath of Christendom came to ruin. After all, the Middle East, Asia Minor and Northern Africa were once flourishing centers of Christianity. Indeed, with the increasing hemorrhage of Christians from an intolerant and war-stricken Middle East, soon there may be virtually no Christians at all in the Holy Land where Christianity was founded.

In his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Philip Jenkins reminds us: “The story of Christianity has been inextricably bound up with that of Europe and European-derived civilizations overseas, above all in North America.

“It seems that the growing secularization of the West can only mean that Christianity is in its dying days. Globally, the faith of the future must be Islam. Over the past century, however, the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia and Latin America.”

Christianity is far from dead in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Jenkins points to the “hundreds of millions” of Pentecostal and independent churches there — churches, he says, that “preach deep personal faith and communal orthodoxy, mysticism and Puritanism,” all founded on “clear Scriptural authority.” In fact, Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere, whether Protestant or Catholic, is, above all, traditional.

Jenkins believes Christianity, both in its Catholic and Protestant forms, will continue to be the largest world religion for decades to come.

Yes, Europe has changed — and we too in America are undergoing equally dramatic and similar changes. As Americans, we must ask ourselves where we will be in 50 years. Will we be in a highly secularized consumer society with an ever-lower birth rate (we are already at the lowest in our history, barely above replacement level — 2.1%), dependent on immigration for survival like Europe, or a vibrant, growing, religion-based society that cherishes life and freedom and the dignity of the human person?

The current societal, cultural and political conflicts that we are engaged in will tell the tale. It is our choice to make with God's grace and in his providence.

All Christians need to possess the virtue of hope in order to enter heaven.

Through the centuries, the Church has been in what appears to be similar perilous situations. It is not dependent on geographical location to survive or even thrive. Its continued growth through procreation and evangelization give much hope for hope and even a realistic optimism.

If indeed, it is darkest before dawn, God may be preparing us and our descendants for what John Paul II has referred to as a “new springtime for the Church.” In speaking to Europe, he also speaks to us in America: “Be confident! In the Gospelwhich is Jesus, you will find the sure and lasting hope to which you aspire. This hope is grounded in the victory of Christ over sin and death. He wishes this victory to be your own, for your salvation and your joy.

“Be certain! The Gospel of hope does not disappoint!Throughout the vicissitudes of your history, yesterday and today, it is the light which illumines and directs your way; it is the strength which sustains you in trials; it is the prophecy of a new world; it is the sign of a new beginning; it is the invitation to everyone to blaze new trails in order to make the continent a true common home filled with the joy of life.”

Father C. J. McCloskey III is a priest of Opus Dei and a research fellow at the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.