Europe's Past Is Today's Hope
When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, much successor speculation focused on the global South, where the Roman Catholic Church continues to grow. By elevating a cardinal from Africa or South America, Rome could have highlighted a success story. Instead, the church reached into the heart of secular Europe for Pope Benedict XVI from Germany. His selection sent a clear message: Rome will not give up on Europe without a fight.
The magnitude of the challenge can be found in the Czech Republic. During the 1990s, church affiliation in the country of 10 million dropped from 4.5 million to 3.3 million. Following decades of communist indoctrination, only half of Czech citizens even believe in God. So Pope Benedict XVI faced a skeptical audience when he visited the Czech Republic in late September. Yet that may have been just the audience he was looking for to deliver his message of Christian hope: Nothing and no one but Jesus Christ can fulfill the deepest human longings.
According to church organizers, 120,000 people heard the pope's homily on September 27, which Benedict delivered in an open field near the Brno airport. Like his other addresses on the challenges of modernity and secularization, Benedict spoke on behalf of the broad Christian tradition, indicating that the dire situation demands a unified Christian apologetic. He referenced Isaiah 61:1-3a, when the prophet explains his Spirit-anointed mission to proclaim liberty to captives and console the afflicted and poor. Jesus, of course, fulfilled this promise (Luke 4:16-21). Indeed, Jesus accomplished this mission counter-intuitively, through his death and resurrection. Those who believe in him are freed from slavery to selfishness and evil, sin and death.
This message never changes, but Benedict admitted that the cultural circumstances in Europe have altered dramatically. Faith has been limited to the private, supernatural realm. Scientific, economic, and social progress claim to fill the void. Yet Benedict reminded the audience that history holds little promise that a society built on anything but God can long sustain human freedom and promote the values of goodness, justice, and fraternity.
"Technical developments and the improvement of social structures are important and certainly necessary, but they are not enough to guarantee the moral welfare of society," Benedict said. "Man needs to be liberated from material oppressions, but more profoundly, he must be saved from the evils that afflict the spirit. And who can save him if not God, who is Love and has revealed his face as almighty and merciful Father in Jesus Christ? Our firm hope is therefore Christ: in him, God has loved us to the utmost and has given us life in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10), the life that every person, even if unknowingly, longs to possess."
If this sounds like evangelism, it is. It might have seemed odd just a few decades ago to hear the Roman pontiff evangelizing Europe. But evangelism is the great need of the day on the continent, where mostly empty cathedrals still testify to a largely forsaken past when life revolved around the church. Today, popular voices seek to discredit Christianity by arguing that it is harmful to humanity. Speaking later that same day, Benedict reflected on what the gospel says to pluralistic Europe. For one thing, the gospel motivates believers to serve others. More importantly, the gospel offers salvation to all who trust in Jesus Christ.
"The term [salvation] is replete with connotations, yet it expresses something fundamental and universal about the human yearning for well-being and wholeness," Benedict said. "It alludes to the ardent desire for reconciliation and communion that wells up spontaneously in the depths of the human spirit. It is the central truth of the Gospel and the goal to which every effort of evangelization and pastoral care is directed. And it is the criterion to which Christians constantly redirect their focus as they endeavor to heal the wounds of past divisions."