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Being Christian in a Secularised Europe


Given as a talk in June 2004 to the lay volunteers who staff the Millennium Chapel, an outreach project of the Maltese Augustinians bringing religion to the young people who frequent the nightspots of Paceville, Malta.

Europe today presents a particular challenge for the Church. For so long it was identified with Christianity, and from it missionaries took the Gospel to most parts of the world. In fact, the Augustinians were at the forefront of the great period of missionary expansion in the 16th century. They were the first missionaries in the Philippines, got into China before the Jesuits, and played a major role in establishing the Church in Central and South America. But now Europe has become perhaps the most secularised part of the world, where religious belief, though not as marginalised as anticipated some years ago, has been edged out of the mainstream of political and social concerns.

The Church is now looking tired in Europe. The numbers going to church have dropped dramatically, and vocations, with a few exceptions like Poland, are down to a trickle. Like many religious orders, the Augustinians are looking very hard at their diminishing resources and the shift of the Order’s vitality away from Europe to Africa, Latin America and Asia. In September of last year, we had our first gathering of the European provinces to look at our future. To get as broad a perspective as possible, we invited two sociologists and a psychologist of religion to give us some input. What they said surprised us, and I would like to share some of what they said with you.

The two sociologists, one of whom is a well-known Jesuit, Jan Kerkhofs SJ, pointed out that in spite of the decline in numbers going to church, there are many positive signs as well. The number who still believe in God is quite high, a majority of the European population, in fact; and the number of atheists, those who are definite about their unbelief, is small and not increasing. In Britain, for instance, over 70% of the population declares itself Christian – though fewer than 7% goes to church on Sunday. Also, the sociologists pointed out that in spite of the so-called permissiveness of secular society, people still by and large try to live by, or aspire to, values that we would recognise as Christian. This is found in the awareness of others’ needs, a desire for social justice and world peace, and a concern for both the human and natural environments. These values are particularly strong in young people. The area of sexual morality remains controversial, however, with many in disagreement with much of the Church’s teaching.

The psychologist of religion made the observation that whereas before the 1970s psychology was generally biased against religion, as was Freud, a new trend is now emerging. Recent studies have shown that religion can be positive for one’s health. These studies have found, for instance, that people with religious faith generally recover more quickly from serious illness and have fewer mental health problems. In other words, religion can be good for you! And this from empirical studies. So the religious picture in secularised Europe is more varied, and hopeful, than is perhaps assumed by many.

About thirty years ago, commentators on the religious scene in Europe were confidently predicting that secularisation and the march of modernity would render religion obsolete for all but a few. This has not happened. Admittedly, people are not flocking back to church, but neither are they abandoning God completely. Some now claim that the state of religion for the majority can best be described as ‘believing without belonging’ – a phrase first used by a British sociologist to describe the state of religion in Britain (see Grace Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945, Oxford, 1994). People are still searching for God, which is a very Augustinian state! One could say that our current postmodern period is one that Augustine would have recognised and relished in. Indeed, Pope John Paul II, at the Order’s General Chapter in 2001, had this to say to the friars: ‘The experience of St Augustine is similar to that of many of our contemporaries and for that reason you, dear Augustinians, through modern forms of pastoral services can help them to discover the transcendent meaning of life.’

It seems to me that this is precisely what is happening with the wonderful Millennium Chapel. This is a ‘modern form of pastoral service’ if ever there was one! Those of you who work in the Chapel as volunteers will be only too aware of young people’s spiritual needs in these challenging times of ours. And I am sure that young Maltese are not too different from young people elsewhere in Europe and America, even if your country has the reputation for having the highest church attendance in Europe. But even holy Malta has not remained uninfluenced by trends elsewhere.

Let me give you some statistics. According to surveys done here in Malta, the number of regular mass attenders in the period of 1967 to 1995 has dropped from 82% to 62% of the total population – still high relative to the rest of Europe, but a 20% drop nevertheless. Those least inclined to go to Mass are aged between 25 and 39. If these current trends continue, Mass attendance is expected to decline by 44% by 2010 (see UK Christian Handbook, Religious Trends, 4 2003/4, Christianity in Malta, 1.6). So even here there is no need to be complacent. Clearly, the Church has work to do. The Millennium Chapel, however, is a fine example of how to respond to the challenge of preaching the Gospel in a new way.

To go back to what I said earlier about ‘believing without belonging’ as a description of where many in Europe are at, it is significant that what marks out the Church from some new forms of religiosity that have become popular, is that being a Catholic Christian is a collective and not just an individual thing. The emphasis on personal self-fulfilment that is so characteristic of the individualistic age we live in, and which appears to be the engine that is driving the ‘pick-and-mix’ attitude towards spirituality, is really quite contrary to what we believe. One cannot be a true Christian on one’s own.

It seems to me that what many young people are looking for is not just personal meaning or individual self-fulfilment but a sense of belonging to a community of believers. People are often adrift, unconnected and alone. And this is not good for human beings created by God to be with others. We have an in-built need to relate: ‘No man (or woman) is an island’, said the poet. We are made in God’s image, and God himself is a community of persons in relation with each other, the Holy Trinity. What we should emphasise, therefore – and this is very Augustinian – is the importance of community, of believing together, of believing and belonging.

Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, and a wonderful apologist for religion in secular society, points out that the fashionable distinction between ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’ can mask a dangerous fallacy. Maybe this is not the case here in Malta, but in Britain and North America many claim to be ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’. That is, they have their own personal notion of God or faith, often made up of elements from different religions and beliefs, but they contest that they are not religious in the sense of going to church. For them, ‘religion’ is equated with one of the institutional churches. Sacks challenges this and says that unless spirituality leads to religion, to commitment to others, and to being challenged by others, it remains self-indulgent and self-seeking. The word ‘religion’ is said to be derived from the Latin ligare, to bind. We are bound to each other; and belonging to a community of believers, to a church, is the glue that keeps us together. This is perhaps missed by many of our spiritual seekers in contemporary society.

However, the search for God, for ‘spirituality’, is a sign of God’s grace at work in the world, and there are many signs of it around, even in secularised societies. Ultimately, that search needs to be translated into the discovery of our unity in God. It is a paradox of the Christian life that the journey within in our search for meaning and for God is also a journey outwards, as we discover the face of Christ in the other. On the discovery of God in others, Augustine put it well when he said: ‘I confess it, I give myself easily to the love of friends, and I rest in it without cares, especially when I am tired of the vexations of this world. For I feel that God is there, and in safety I give myself up to him and safely I rest… The ideas and thoughts that I entrust to a faithful friend who is filled with Christian caritas, I entrust no longer to a person but to God, because the person remains in God and is faithful through him’ (Letter 73).

Also, it is not so much what we say about what we believe as Christians, but what we do that counts. It is the quality of our love for one another that will convince, not the clarity of our thought, though that is of value, too. Augustine may have written over five million words, so we are told, but as a bishop he still had time to deal with people’s problems. He longed to live a life of solitude with a few like-minded friends so that he could study the word of God more deeply, but he knew at the same time he was being called by God to help others. In the City of God (XIX. 19) he talks about maintaining a balance between a life of contemplation and a life of service to others.

Trying to live a balanced life of contemplation and action is not easy. There will be times when we will feel drawn to one more than the other. Augustine, we know, had no intention of being a priest. He wanted to be a lay person living the Christian life in community. By popular acclaim, however, he was put forward for the priesthood, and he wept: he knew his life would no longer be his own from then on (some claim, unfairly, that he wept because he was not made a bishop straight away!). You could say that Augustine made the move that Rabbi Sacks described earlier, from spirituality to religion, from a worthy but rather inward-looking quest, which can be very attractive, to that which binds us to others. And this is the test of true religion: the extent to which we reach out to others in love and self-sacrifice. To paraphrase the Gospel, and Augustine, we will not be judged on the amount of time spent on our knees, but on the extent to which we have responded to the face of Christ in those in need. That was why Augustine quoted Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 25, the description of God’s judgement, more than any other text: ‘I was naked and you clothed me…’ But to see the face of Christ in others, we need to have a prayerful relationship with God.

The week after Easter this year I visited Poland for the first time, with three other Augustinians. One day, when the others visited Cracow, I went up into the Tatra mountains nearby, much favoured by Pope John Paul when he was a younger man. I was not sure of my way and decided to follow some students I met who, conveniently, had a map. Fortunately, they also spoke a little English. We eventually reached the summit, in the deep snow, which had not been my intention that day. The views of Slovakia on one side and Poland on the other were more than worth the effort. I had struggled to the top, with that morning’s breakfast swimming before my eyes between each laboured step.

On the way down, which was also a struggle, the students made a detour from the marked path and into the woods, where there was a small wooden hut and a chapel. They explained that it was the hermitage of St Albert, a Polish saint canonised by Pope John Paul II. At that point I declared that I was a Catholic priest, which for some reason surprised the girls. Then to my astonishment, the two young men announced that they were seminarians – and here was I trying to figure which of the girls was attached to which of the young men! They led me into the chapel and after a few moments of quiet prayer, one of the young men suggested we pray the ‘Hail Mary’ – in English, which they all knew by heart. I was amazed, and deeply moved, by their unselfconscious faith. The next day I would come across the same faith in the many young people I saw at the Marian shrine in Czestochowa.

Religious faith does not have to be incompatible with modernity. And it is the hope of many that the strongly Catholic countries like Poland and Malta will enable the expanded European Union to remember its roots in Christianity. However, the fear is that as young people become detached from the practice of the faith and from the tradition of the Church – and it is happening – they will lose the memory of what it means to be a Christian. Cardinal Danneels of Brussels has vividly described this situation in Europe as the ‘deforestation of Christian memory’, echoing the work of the French sociologist, Danièle Hervieu-Léger, who describes religion as a ‘chain of memory’, which, if broken, is very difficult to re-link. That is why Europe needs the faith of the Maltese and the Polish to enable the rest of us, who live in more secularised societies, to maintain the chain of Christian memory. My experience here this week, as well as in the Tatra Mountains of Poland and in Czestochowa, gives me hope.

Augustine lived in a time of crisis, too. As he lay dying, the Vandals had invaded Italy and were threatening North Africa, where he lived. The Roman Empire, which had seemed so solid, was beginning to disintegrate, and many thought that Christianity was to blame. Augustine’s response in his last great work, the City of God, was to give a sober assessment of the state of religion and society, neither triumphalistic nor pessimistic. His faith in the ultimate resolution of all things in Christ enabled him to cast a cool eye on what was happening around him. We need that same perspective today.

A Catholic theologian writing about Christianity in Britain has this to say, which I think sums up the applicability of Augustine’s perspective for contemporary Europe and all secularised societies:

We are faced… with an Augustinian predicament. When the Vandals are at the gates, there are three possible responses. One is simply to despair of the Kingdom, of any ultimate meaning in the world or in human history; the second is to withdraw into a private sacral sphere, a closed community, monastic or charismatic, abandoning the struggle for the secular state as irredeemably corrupt; the third is to imitate Augustine himself, take the sombre view, but also the very long one, and retain in hope, but without much evidence, a Christian concern for the redeemability of the totality of things. By the 1980s, a great many Christians were succumbing to the first choice, and a great many to the second, but rather a few were making ready for the long haul of the genuine Augustinian (Adrian Hastings, A History of English Christianity, London 1986, p.660).

Anyone who works for God’s Kingdom is in it for the ‘long haul’. There are no easy solutions and no easy answers. The crisis of faith in Europe and in all countries where secularism exists is real, and it is deep. As Pope John Paul II said in his Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Europa: ‘There are many troubling signs which at the beginning of the Third Millennium are clouding the horizon of the European continent’ (I.7). Yet we live in hope, because we know that Christ promised to be with us. So whatever pastoral initiatives we become involved in are in the Lord’s hands. His is the harvest, not ours. So we go about our work calmly and serenely, in the knowledge that whatever happens in the meantime, all in the end ‘will be well’, to use the famous words of the English mystic, Juliana of Norwich – who, incidentally, lived across the street from the church of the Augustinian friars in Norwich and was influenced by their preaching.

At the conclusion of the City of God, Augustine describes that ‘Sabbath rest’ which is the goal of all of us, and which puts the whole of reality into its proper perspective. He says, and let me finish with this: ‘There we shall be still and see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what will be, in the end, without end! For what is our end but to reach that kingdom which has no end’ (XXII.30).

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