|May 10, 2005||Vol. 3, No. 2|
Gemma Tulud Cruz is a doctoral student in feminist theology at the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Europe: The prodigal continent
By Gemma Tulud Cruz
NIJMEGEN, The Netherlands -- Christianity is post-Western, Europe is post-Christian. Those who keep themselves abreast of contemporary literature on religious trends and movements or listen to religious pundits' comments would have heard of these claims. In the book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, for instance, Philip Jenkins points at how, within a few decades, European and Euro-American Christians will become the minority and the global South the majority in world Christianity. He also suggests that by the time this scenario unfolds Christianity in Europe and North America will largely be composed of Southern-derived immigrant communities.
Once the bastion of the Christian religion, Europe, it seems to me, is sliding farther in this direction. I have been living in the Netherlands for close to three years and have traveled to a number of other European countries and even made return trips to one-time Christianity havens like France and Germany. The signs are discernible: in the continuous drop in religious vocations, church attendance and participation … in dwindling church contributions … in the aging religious and clergy who comprise the majority in most religious communities … in religious houses being closed, sold, or donated to the public or private sector for lack of "residents"… and, most of all, in the sight of closed churches, churches turned into museums and, in one or two cases, former churches turned into business establishments.
One can see this as well in the increase in migrant churches and how these are significantly becoming Europe's more-attended and more dynamic faith communities. Europe has become the recipient of what I consider reverse mission --- a phenomenon whereby missionaries from countries that were once mission fields for countless Europeans like Brazil, Uganda, South Africa, and Korea, come to Europe "to shore up the foundations of Christianity" in, what many of these missionized missionaries consider, the "prodigal continent." Lastly, among religious congregations, many of which are Europe-born and Europe-based, members from the global South are increasingly taking on administrative positions in the higher echelons of their respective congregations.
Within the continent what many regard as disturbing signs reach as far as the political leadership. The controversy over the preamble of the Constitution of the European Union --- an association of 25 European countries with a population of 455 million --- points to this contention. The debate centered on whether God in general and Christianity in particular should be mentioned in the preamble as among the sources of the "values" that produced a common culture and heritage for Europe. To the disappointment of those who were fighting for it, e.g. delegates from Germany, Italy and the Vatican, secularist groups led by delegates from France got the upper hand. In the EU Constitution signed last October 29, 2004 ironically in Rome --- Catholicism's heartland --- the section of the preamble that deals with Europe's sources of values now merely mentions "the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe."
Even Europe's religious leaders feel the jitters. Prior to the expansion of the European Union into a group of 25 countries, the Council of the Bishops' Conferences of Europe or CCEE sponsored a pilgrimage for religious and political leaders to Santiago de Compostela, the "spiritual capital of Europe," to drive home the "spiritual roots" of Europe and "highlight the responsibility of [European] Christians in the building of a united Europe, faithful to the values of its faith." More significantly, towards the end of last year, Catholic bishops from the 34 episcopal conferences met in England with "the significance and role of Christianity in Europe" as their main agenda. The four-day assembly, the biggest gathering of senior Catholic bishops since the Synod of Whitby more than 1,300 years ago, also tackled ecumenism, the churches and the European Constitution, and CCEE projects, particularly in the area of evangelization and pastoral strategy, among others.
The three practical engagements that were drafted in the assembly reflect this extra challenge that the church in Europe has to face. As reported in the December 2004 issue of World Mission, these engagements include strengthening the dialogue with contemporary culture; closer dialogue with the Islamic communities; and campaigning for the defense of Sunday as a day dedicated to God.
Will these efforts, particularly the attempts towards the "re-Europeanization of Europe", work? Isn't the de-Christianization of Europe irreversible and its Islamization inevitable?
Europe is the one continent that has been marked by Christianity more than any other. Its influence extends not just to impressive abbeys and monasteries and grand cathedrals, churches, and museums filled with beautiful religious art. It is especially there in how Christian humanism has significantly shaped its esteemed civilization and gave it its enduring cultural identity.
Is Christianity merely a part of Europe's past? Is there no end or relief in sight for its slow descent into oblivion, if not extinction?
The election and installation of another European as pope of the Catholic church turned the spotlight again to Christianity's role in on Europe. The European Christians, especially Catholics, have not been immune or indifferent to these recent events. Unfortunately, not a few of them think Christianity's future is all the more uncertain for in Europe with the election of former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict VXI. A few have expressed fear and worry over the choice of Benedict. I had a somber conversation with a Dutch religious on the subject. At the heart of this uneasiness, he said, is the possibility that the new pope's not-so-secret conservatism will marginalize liberal Catholics who seek critical reforms, alienate nominal Catholics who are looking for dynamism, and turn away even more atheists and/or secularists.
On the other hand, the election of Benedict XVI could be a source of hope for the future of Christianity, particularly Catholicism in Europe. He is a European; surely he knows the religious needs and challenges, he does not have much choice but respond to, in Europe. If we are to go by his pronouncements and gestures after his election it seems to me that all is not lost. In his first general audience as pope April 27, for instance, he underlined Europe's "inalienable" Christian roots. He even shared with the crowd that he chose the name Benedict partly because St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order, is one of the patron saints of Europe, thereby "constituting a fundamental point of reference for the unity of Europe, and a strong call to the inalienable Christian roots of its culture and civilization." With these words, I guess it is not too much to hope that Christianity, particularly Catholicism, will be a part of Europe's future.
© 2005 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115
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