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Some Unexpected Signs of Christian Vitality in Post-Christian Europe
by Matthew W. Maguire
The faithful surround the altar—students, parents, the elderly, and children fill the chairs in the nave, the transept, and the apse. The priest has just welcomed a new catechumen. Now, in his homily, he urges the congregation to remember that in baptism, God is at work: “Baptism is not simply something we choose . . . it is God who calls us. We must be ready to listen to his call and serve him!” The congregation listens intently, and sings its hymns enthusiastically.
At the end of Mass, several people continue to pray, as others move to light candles beneath shrines and statues. In a nation where Evangelical Protestantism is increasingly popular, this Catholic church is educating its parishioners with vigor: There are education classes for children and adults, pilgrimages to holy places, colorful placards in the vestibule clarifying church teachings with quotations from the Catechism (this month it is a triptych on “Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory”), photos of World Youth Day, and notices of lectures at local churches and seminaries.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Evangelicals in this country numbered only 40,000; now there are 400,000. Their thriving mega-churches in the suburbs, though criticized by other Protestants and Catholics who object to what they describe as their superficiality, emotional excesses, and consumerist ethos, are the subject of media commentary.
At the same time, more established Protestant and Catholic churches, surrounded by a broad secular consensus and prodded by new religious possibilities, are proposing the fullness of their faith with renewed energy.
Minarets & Spires
The nation is, of course, France. (The church I described, Saint-Médard, is in the heart of the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank of Paris.)
How can this be? To hear many American Christians talk of Europe, the minarets are all but fitted onto the spires of Chartres and Notre Dame, and Europe is spiritually exhausted and doomed to oblivion, a fate for which its low birthrates and alienated minorities are harbingers. These predictions are occasionally applied with unseemly haste to the land of Thérèse de Lisieux, Vincent de Paul, and Henri de Lubac, alleged home of dyspeptic obstructionists or, to put the objection in the least fair and flattering argot, surrender monkeys.
Europe is without doubt decidedly more secular than America, and there are crises of vocations and church closings in many European countries. In European Catholicism, the abuse crisis has exacted its usual share of terrible suffering and generally deserved criticism of many seminaries and bishops.
It is also true that in Europe, Christianity still suffers in many quarters for being considered the bulwark of traditional hierarchies opposed to democracy, though that sometimes accurate, sometimes erroneous association is slowly fading. Drawing upon a complex history in distorted and bizarre ways, less than judicious Europeans use Christianity as a scapegoat for every crime in European history since Constantine.
My observations here are not intended to provide matter for Panglossian complacency about Europe’s spiritual and cultural vitality, implying that all is well from Dublin to Moscow. But all is most certainly not lost, even in those places considered most secular.
If American Christians think that European Christianity has all but completely disappeared, or that there is no energy left in European churches, they have gravely misunderstood the situation of their brethren in another part of the world. There are signs that European Christians are heeding the call of Pope Benedict to become a “creative minority.”
One can see this in all sorts of small ways, even in a city like Paris—the ville natale of secular Enlightenment and a cultural epicenter for so many of its progeny. Last fall, I lived in Paris after some eight years away, and I was surprised and heartened by what I saw.
The homilies in various Catholic churches I attended were rigorous and unabashedly theological (here, if not always in politics, the longstanding French taste for speculative thinking is a blessing). Several Catholic parishes in the center of Paris are able to attract about 25 to 30 people for each of their respective lunchtime and evening Masses, and hundreds of people for Sunday Mass. Religious instruction is much better publicized and offered more widely to diverse ages and educational levels than it was when I last lived in the city in the mid to late 1990s.
The Catholic radio station, Radio Notre Dame ( www.radionotredame.com) broadcasts music, religious conversation, and theological debate from the center of Paris 24 hours a day, now mixing its format more broadly to appeal to different age groups and aesthetic sensibilities. It has created a broader network that offers Christian content for religious radio stations throughout France and the francophone world.
Though the archdiocese of Paris reports that enrollments in religious education classes for the young have not yet seen increases in numbers, those numbers are finally holding firm after many years of decline, even as Evangelical churches continue to increase their membership. Most striking is the number of students and young people interested in the faith, and with them, the increasing presence of serious religious conversation in French culture.
While popular public intellectuals like Michel Onfray articulate an “atheology” that aspires to extirpate Christian assumptions from the future of the West, their books are quickly met by serious, book-length critiques by Christians. Nor can anti-Christian intellectuals like Onfray assume that the public debate will take place on their terms. After the death of Jacques Derrida, perhaps the most famous living French thinker in the world now is René Girard, whose explicitly Christian body of writing is widely and respectfully discussed among educated French people, a status confirmed by his election to the Academie Francaise in December 2005.
Last year, the secular national newspaper Le Monde (the French equivalent of The New York Times) acknowledged that the death of Pope John Paul II revealed a more religious France than many expected, most visible among certain segments of a younger generation of students and professionals who are at least interested in and often very sympathetic to John Paul’s life and thought.
Furthermore, though historically French Catholicism has often been entangled with anti-Semitism, most observers acknowledge that today’s French Catholics have little truck with the old demons of politicized religiosity in France: Cardinal Lustiger, the popular archbishop of Paris until his retirement last year, was a convert from Judaism who regularly affirmed his deep attachment to and respect for his previous faith as well as his ethnic and cultural heritage.
Research on the French electorate shows that even as the popularity of the radical-right National Front and its racist, anti-Semitic leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, underwent dramatic growth over the last two decades of the twentieth century, practicing Catholics were increasingly less likely to support Le Pen and his movement.
As the errors and political associations of the past recede, there are several small but significant manifestations of renewal visible on the streets of Paris. The religious books section at mainstream French bookstores like Gibert Joseph has grown dramatically in size over the last decade, and much of what has been added is serious theology (Gibert Joseph now has a separate bookcase for “Patristics” in its Left Bank store).
Expecting All Saints’ Day to be a national holiday drained of spiritual significance in France, I was surprised to see a religious procession marching down a bustling street that afternoon, with about 80 to 100 people carrying the banners of beloved saints. And for all the talk about the end of patriotic sentiment in Europe, this band of Franco-Europeans displayed an encouraging, though happily not exclusive, predilection for French saints.
Why should these indications of Christian vitality and persistence matter to Americans? First, we must not flee from a clear obligation. If, when two or three are gathered in his name, there Christ is, they are so gathered not only in Paris, but in churches throughout Europe. It is a failure of charity and hope to assume the eventual disappearance of European Christians when they are living their faith at the very moment we are tempted to despair of them.
There is another reason that American Christians should reconsider their predictions of spiritual catastrophe and degeneration for Europe. Europe and America are not the same, but we are inextricably bound together, our memories and aspirations entwined with one another’s, in dread and deep respect, in envy and enthusiastic admiration alike. What we think about Europe makes a real contribution to what we think about ourselves.
Since the end of the Cold War, American Christians have increasingly been finding in Europe intimations of a possible future they dread, a kind of cautionary tale of our own future: the prospect of a pervasive, technocratic decadence that would have for its anthropological corollary a human person prone to shoulder-shrugging nihilism, enjoying cynical, stupefying entertainment and advertising, roused to action only by grievance and indignation at the failure of the state, his culture, his family, and of nature itself to conform to his own velleities, accompanied by ugly collective fantasies that are implicitly or explicitly self-destructive.
In response to this possible future, it is too easy to become an angry and embattled rearguard, or a band of mandarins serenely indifferent to the gathering chaos around them. American Christians, frightened or disheartened by the European example, might very easily surrender the present to those least interested in the spiritual vocation of humankind.
In returning to one of the great capitals of an allegedly post-Christian Europe, I came to understand that for all its grievously haunted politics, profound cultural uncertainties, and well-founded anxiety about the future, there is a desire in human beings that the contingencies of history and culture are powerless to stifle, in Europe and elsewhere. Even in a radically secular order, there are deeper powers at work: There will always be human beings who will never rest content with a prospective future of administered decline and banal nihilism.
The Christian Power
In the end, “history” (or historicism) does not have the last word. The desire for the infinite, and with it, the need to raise the question of God, will not go away. The Christian revelation’s answer to that question has in itself a power that will always move and transform lives.
European Christianity’s prospective or imminent demise has been predicted for centuries; yet while its “inevitable” modern successors—from enlightened deist universalism to Jacobinism to Marxism—inevitably descend into strangely quaint anachronism (and there is nothing more quaint than the certitudes of bygone utopian fantasies), Christianity constantly renews itself from sources beyond the vicissitudes of history. Even amid the manifest sins and failings of its faithful, Christian faith proclaims the living words of which modern ideologies are so often parodies.
Amid Europe’s real problems, the persistence of the question of God in Europe, and with it Christianity’s answer, is worth our thanks and our reflection. For American Christians, contemporary Europe should be more than the harbinger of a dreaded future; it is the present sign of an invincible hope.
Matthew W. Maguire is Assistant Professor of History and Humanities at Kenyon College. His book The Conversion of Imagination has just been published by Harvard University Press.