Can Benedict Save Europe?

Ten years ago, on my first visit to Europe, there were obvious signs that the Church was in trouble.

I was staying with a friend outside of Delmenhorst, Germany. On Sunday morning, we asked our German host to take us to church. He kindly walked us to an impressive and imposing 900-year-old structure.

The doors were locked.

“I guess they aren't having services today,” he told us.

The irony of seeing this beautiful old church empty on a Sunday morning reminded me of the Latin phrase, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” (how one worships shows what one believes). A Europe that does not worship is a Europe that does not believe.

Germany didn't have time for God, even on Sunday morning.

My second visit to Germany, for World Youth Day, was utterly different. Yes, the signs all still suggest that Christianity is on the wane in Europe.

But it wasn't that week.

The usually-empty churches were completely packed with young Catholics from around the world. They were there to spend a week celebrating Christ with the Pope. I was one among nearly 8,000 journalists covering Pope Benedict XVI's first visit outside of Italy since his election.

We got used to Pope John Paul II's World Youth Days — he has held them annually for the past 20 years, with big, international gatherings every two or three years. About 12 million young people have seen him there, in some of the largest crowds in the history of the planet.

The good Lord helped bring out the crowds to this one — how poignant that the Pope's first foreign trip should be to the place of his birth! But all the same, Pope Benedict was a massive public draw — showing a spark of hope amid the old locked churches of his homeland.

It's a nation that needs that hope.

That modern Europe is suffering from a grave illness, there can be no doubt. One in every five Germans believed that the United States was responsible for the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Prostitution is legal throughout Germany. Pornography is rampant.

According to George Weigel's book The Cube and the Cathedral (2005, Basic Books), Germany has a per-capita gross domestic product equivalent to Arkansas, and Europe is committing demographic suicide. No western European country has a replacement-level birthrate. Germany alone will lose the equivalent of the population of the former East Germany in the first half of the 21st century.

The modern German despair has roots in the fresh wounds of history. Germany was the Christian nation that was most directly tarnished by the atrocities of World War II. When the battles ceased, they left behind the disillusioned, declawed Germany of today.

Like a physician, Pope Benedict — the leader of the largest Christian Church in the world — has traveled to a place that he sees as suffering from a profound illness. It is an illness that has metastasized far beyond Germany. The vast majority of Europeans believe that they have no need for God.

His visit to a Jewish synagogue in Cologne during World Youth Day was historic. It was only the second time a pope visited a synagogue since the days of St. Peter.

Pope Benedict described the atrocities of the Nazis as an “insane, racist ideology born of paganism” that happened “because the holiness of God and the sacredness of life was not recognized.”

“I bow my head before all those who experienced this manifestation of man's inhumanity to man,” said the Holy Father.

It was one of those events at Cologne that I found difficult from a journalist's perspective. Only one reporter — from Time magazine — was allowed to witness it. But here's what he said about it:

“There was something happening that went beyond words. It was in the way the Pope listened so intently to his hosts. It was the warm, two-hand embrace he shared with the young rabbi. It was in the somber cadence of his voice as he recounted Nazi atrocities, and the utter silence in the synagogue to hear his every breath. It was, in other words, in the German Pope's very presence, which was his own initiative as soon as his trip was scheduled to come to Cologne for the Catholic World Youth Day. The synagogue's standing ovation for Benedict was confirmation that German Jews appreciated the gesture.”

The next day, a German newspaper called him “The Pope of Hope.” Pope Benedict's visit to Germany was not only providential, but it was filled with hope. Many remarked at how happy Pope Benedict appeared on this trip. He was all smiles.

Pope Benedict's antidote is to call Europe back to its Christian roots. In Cologne, the new Benedict called Europe to those things that it seems to have forgotten. He called them to attend Sunday Mass. He called them to adoration of Christ. He called them to believe in the Eucharist. He called them to holiness.

By hosting World Youth Day in Germany, he has also shown Europe what it might look like with the energy, enthusiasm and joy of faithful young people. The hope of Europe — and indeed the world — resides in the young.

Weigel recalled how when World Youth Day was held in Paris in 1997, a broadcast journalist posed a question to Paris Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger.

“Why, in the middle of summer holidays, had so many young people come to Paris to pray?”

In his response, Cardinal Lustiger said that it was “generational.” He told the journalist not to read the young's experience through his own. Having grown up empty, the young had found Christ and his Church, and they did not see belief as incompatible with intellect.

John Paul II and Benedict XVI both came from the generation of Europeans who turned away from God. They both experienced the ravages of totalitarianism and war. But they share something with this new generation, too.

John Paul came from the East, battled communism, and helped tear down the Berlin Wall. Benedict comes from the West. His job is battle secularism and atheistic humanism and tear down a stronger wall — the one Europeans have erected against the faith.

Like Jesus Christ, whom he represents, he addressed the crowds on the shore of the Rhine from a boat. It was as if he were speaking to all of Germany when he said:

“Some of you might perhaps describe your adolescence in the words with which Edith Stein, who later lived in the Carmel in Cologne, described her own: ‘I consciously and deliberately lost the habit of praying.’ … To all of you I appeal: Open wide your hearts to God! Let yourselves be surprised by Christ. Let him have ‘the right of free speech’ during these days. Open the doors of your freedom to his merciful love.”

Will Germany listen to its native son's invitation? Will Europe?

My 11 days in Cologne taught me that anything is possible. A 32-year-old woman told me Benedict's words were “drawing me closer to the Church.” One after another, irreligious Germans told me that they had been moved by their encounters with pilgrims and the Pope.

Pilgrims at this World Youth Day stayed with local families. They told me stories of how their host families, originally not fans of the Pope, sat awake late at night until the pilgrims returned, then listened to their stories, basking in the excitement. The stories turned the hearts of many of these families. Hearing them reminded me of how Christianity first spread — through faithful conversations over the dinner tables in Jerusalem and Greece — and Rome.

Here in Cologne, more than 1.1 million pilgrims from more than 200 nations flocked to that singular table to share in the Church's Eucharistic feast. That can't help but have a lasting impact on Germany and Europe as a whole.

Will Pope Benedict sow the seeds of Europe's new springtime? Europe's very future depends upon it.

Tim Drake's blog is YoungandCatholic.com