Recently I attended a meeting of the major superiors of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Europe. More than a dozen countries, from both Western and Eastern Europe, were represented. My job was only to listen and there was a lot to hear. Each superior made a presentation on the state of the church in his country. Two things were immediately evident: First, there is no one Europe, culturally or ecclesially. Europe is a place of great diversity, of different ethnic groups, different histories, different standards of living, and different geographies. Each of these shapes a different soul. Second, there is too no simple perspective on the state of the church in Europe. It is a very mixed bag.
What specifically was shared? Again and again, the same things were said: Secularization rules, the churches are greying and emptying, and the church itself is viewed by many as tired, past its time, and akin to an interesting but irrelevant museum. But … Western Europe has just enjoyed fifty years of peace, no small thing; religious tolerance is better than ever before, there has been steady progress in terms of overcoming racism and sexism, some countries have all but eliminated poverty within themselves, the iron curtain has fallen, and most everywhere we find cultures that for the most part defend fairness, justice, decency, and good manners. Europe is hardly a place where the law of the jungle reigns.
Ecclesially though things are difficult in most countries. With a few exceptions (notably Poland and parts of Italy, Spain, and the Czech Republic), most everyone spoke of greying and emptying churches, of few or no vocations to the priesthood and religious life, of more and more people ignoring the church’s theology of sexuality and marriage, and of a “post-ecclesial generation” which no longer even understands the classical language of the church. As the Swedish provincial put it, “most of the people in my country can no longer find in the classical language of scripture and tradition a way to tell their own stories.”
Several of the presenters used the term “post” to prefix more than just the words “modern” and “ecclesial”. They spoke too of being “post-communal”, in that the church, and indeed society as a whole, struggles to create community as it once did. As one man put it: “We do well individually – we have wonderful individuals – but we aren’t very effective in generating much in the way of lasting community.” Several of the former Eastern bloc countries spoke of the reality of living in a “post-communist” world, namely, a world that still contains pockets of very hard atheism as well as a general population that, at this time at least, is too enthraled by what it perceives as the salvific potential within affluence and Western consumer items. For every one of them, there was the memory of a time when the church in their country “worked” better than it does now. Listening to this was like hearing, in echo, a particularly astute comment made by the Canadian bishops at the 1997 Synod on America. They stated that in Canada we know how to be Catholic when we are immigrant, poor, and under-educated, but we struggle when we are main-stream, affluent, and educated.
How are they, the European Oblates, trying to address this? France spoke of creating “communities of proximity”, wherein Christians simply offer their own way of life and hospitality as a means of preaching. The motto here is: “Don’t speak of God unless you are asked, but live in such a way that people might ask, as they asked Jesus, `Where do you live?'” Both Spain and Italy talked of various lay, prayer-movements that were transforming some communities, while England, Ireland, and Germany spoke of the hope they felt in seeing lay people moving more and more into leadership roles in ministry. In every country there were pockets of hope within a greying church.
What’s to be gleaned from all of this? Several things: The church’s situation in Europe, as in Western world in general, is both good and bad. Thus we must not be too quick to either condemn or bless things in an unqualified way. We are not, it seems, so much post-Christian as we are post-ecclesial (not that this is good). Things are very mixed. We are experiencing some real religious and moral gains, along with some losses. Christianity is more like a detached retina (through which we used to see and through which we originally formed our vision of things) than something that is past its time. However, the road ahead cannot be simply “steady as she goes”, something new needs to happen. As one superior put it: “For many in Europe, it’s as if they had never heard the gospel at all (period). We need again a first-evangelization, one that announces the gospel as for the first time.” I suspect that this is true, not just of Europe, but of most of the affluent world.