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Will the Son of man find faith in Europe?

on Friday, 01 August 2003. Posted in Apostolical letters

Apostolic Exhortation of John Paul II on the Church in Europe

On June 28, 2003, following the second Synod of the Bishops of Europe, Pope John Paul II wrote the Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in Europa” (the Church in Europe). His comments also apply to countries like Canada and the United States, where many people live “as if God did not exist”. Here are excerpts from this document:

A time of bewilderment

John Paul II praying the rosaryIn proclaiming to Europe the Gospel of hope, I will take as a guide the Book of Revelation, a “prophetic revelation” which discloses to the community of believers the deep and hidden meaning of what is taking place (cf. Rev 1:1) (...) The Book of Revelation contains a word of encouragement addressed to believers: beyond all appearances, and even if its effects are not yet seen, the victory of Christ has already taken place and is final. This in turn causes us to approach human situations and events with an attitude of fundamental trust, born of faith in the Risen One, present and at work in history.

The age we are living in, with its own particular challenges, can seem to be a time of bewilderment. Many men and women seem disoriented, uncertain, without hope, and not a few Christians share these feelings.

Among the aspects of this situation, so many of which were frequently mentioned during the Synod, I would like to mention in a particular way the loss of Europe's Christian memory and heritage, accompanied by a kind of practical agnosticism and religious indifference whereby many Europeans give the impression of living without spiritual roots and somewhat like heirs who have squandered a patrimony entrusted to them by history.

Certainly Europe is not lacking in prestigious symbols of the Christian presence, yet with the slow and steady advance of secularism, these symbols risk becoming a mere vestige of the past. Many people are no longer able to integrate the Gospel message into their daily experience; living one's faith in Jesus becomes increasingly difficult in a social and cultural setting in which that faith is constantly challenged and threatened. In many social settings it is easier to be identified as an agnostic than a believer. The impression is given that unbelief is self- explanatory, whereas belief needs a sort of social legitimization which is neither obvious nor taken for granted.

At the root of this loss of hope is an attempt to promote a vision of man apart from God and apart from Christ. This sort of thinking has led to man being considered as “the absolute centre of reality, a view 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. (...) 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.

Church of Europe, awake!

The entire Church in Europe ought to feel that the Lord's command and call is addressed to her: examine yourself, be converted, “awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death” (Rev 3:2). The need to do so is also born of a consideration of the present time: “The serious situation of indifference towards religion on the part of so many Europeans, the presence of many people even on our continent who do not yet know Jesus Christ and his Church, and who are not baptized, the secularism which poisons a wide spectrum of Christians who habitually think, make decisions and live, 'as if Christ did not exist', far from extinguishing our hope, make this hope more humble and more able to trust in God alone. It is from his mercy that we receive the grace and call to conversion.”

Although at times, as in the Gospel episode of the calming of the tempest (cf. Mk 4:35-41; Lk 8:22-25), it can appear that Christ is asleep and leaves his barque to be tossed by the tumultuous waves, the Church in Europe is called to grow in the certainty that the Lord, through the gift of his Spirit, is ever present and at work in her midst and in all human history. He prolongs his mission throughout time, and makes the Church a stream of new life coursing through the life of humanity as a sign of hope for all.

Priestly celibacy: a precious good

In this context priestly celibacy also stands out as the sign of hope put totally in the Lord. Celibacy is not merely an ecclesiastical discipline imposed by authority; rather it is first and foremost a grace, a priceless gift of God for his Church, a prophetic value for the contemporary world, a source of intense spiritual life and pastoral fruitfulness, a witness to the eschatological Kingdom, a sign of God's love for this world, as well as a sign of the priest's undivided love for God and for his people. Lived in response to God's gift and as a mastery of the temptations of a hedonistic society, it not only leads to the human fulfilment of those who are called to embrace it, but proves to be a source of growth for others as well.

Celibacy is esteemed in the whole Church as fitting for the priesthood, obligatory in the Latin Church, and deeply respected by the Eastern Churches. In the present cultural context, it stands out as an eloquent sign which needs to be cherished as a precious good for the Church. A revision of the present discipline in this regard would not help to resolve the crisis of vocations to the priesthood being felt in many parts of Europe. A commitment to the service of the Gospel of hope also demands that the Church make every effort to propose celibacy in its full biblical, theological, and spiritual richness.

Re-evangelize those already baptized

In various parts of Europe, a first proclamation of the Gospel is needed: the number of the unbaptized is growing, both because of the significant presence of immigrants of other religions, and because children born into families of Christian tradition have not received Baptism, either as a result of the Communist domination or the spread of religious indifference. Indeed, Europe is now one of those traditionally Christian places which, in addition to a new evangelization, require in some cases a first evangelization.

Everywhere, then, a renewed proclamation is needed even for those already baptized. Many Europeans today think they know what Christianity is, yet they do not really know it at all. Often they are lacking in knowledge of the most basic elements and notions of the faith. Many of the baptized live as if Christ did not exist: the gestures and signs of faith are repeated, especially in devotional practices, but they fail to correspond to a real acceptance of the content of the faith and fidelity to the person of Jesus. The great certainties of the faith are being undermined in many people by a vague religiosity lacking real commitment; various forms of agnosticism and practical atheism are spreading and serve to widen the division between faith and life; some people have been affected by the spirit of an immanentist humanism, which has weakened the faith and often, tragically, led to its complete abandonment; one encounters a sort of secularist interpretation of Christian faith which is corrosive and accompanied by a deep crisis of conscience and of Christian moral practice. The great values which amply inspired European culture have been separated from the Gospel, thus losing their very soul, and paving the way for any number of aberrations.

“When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8). Will he find faith in our countries, in this Europe of ancient Christian tradition? This is an open question which clearly reveals the depth and the drama of one of the most serious challenges which our Churches are called to face. It can be said as the Synod emphasized that this challenge frequently consists not so much in baptizing new converts as in enabling those already baptized to be converted to Christ and his Gospel: in our communities we need to be seriously concerned about bringing the Gospel of hope to all those who are far from the faith or who have abandoned the practice of Christianity.

Christians are therefore “called to have a faith capable of critically confronting contemporary culture and resisting its enticements; of having an real effect on the world of culture, finance, society and politics; of demonstrating that the fellowship between Catholics and other Christians is more powerful than any ethnic bond; of joyfully passing on the faith to new generations; and of building a Christian culture ready to evangelize the larger culture in which we live.”

The Sacrament of Reconciliation

The Sacrament of Reconciliation needs to be revitalized in the Church in Europe. It must be reaffirmed, however, that the form of the sacrament is the personal confession of sins followed by individual absolution. This encounter between the penitent and the priest should be encouraged in any of the forms provided for in the rite of the sacrament. Faced with the widespread loss of the sense of sin and the growth of a mentality marked by relativism and subjectivism in morality, every ecclesial community needs to provide for the serious formation of consciences. The Synod Fathers have insisted on the recognition of the reality of personal sin and the necessity of personal forgiveness by God through the ministry of the priest. Collective absolutions are not an alternative way of administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Marriage and the family

The Church in Europe at every level must faithfully proclaim anew the truth about marriage and the family. (...) Many cultural, social and political factors are in fact conspiring to create an increasingly evident crisis of the family. In varying ways they jeopardize the truth and dignity of the human person, and call into question, often misrepresenting it, the notion of the family itself. The value of marital indissolubility is increasingly denied; demands are made for the legal recognition of de facto relationships as if they were comparable to legitimate marriages; and attempts are made to accept a definition of the couple in which difference of sex is not considered essential.

In this context the Church is called to proclaim with renewed vigour what the Gospel teaches about marriage and the family, in order to grasp their meaning and value in God's saving plan. In particular, it is necessary to reaffirm that these institutions are realities grounded in the will of God. There is a need to rediscover the truth about the family as an intimate communion of life and love open to the procreation of new persons, as well as its dignity as a “domestic Church” and its share in the mission of the Church and in the life of society.

Inspired by these certainties of faith, let us strive to build a city worthy of man. Though it is impossible to create within history a perfect social order, we know that God blesses every sincere effort to build a better world, and that every seed of justice and love planted in the present will bear fruit for eternity.

John Paul II