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."
Touching on past divisions, Benedict spoke kindly of the Bohemian hero, Jan Hus, who was condemned and executed by the Council of Constance in 1415. The reformer honored still today in the Czech Republic inspired later Protestants such as Martin Luther who broke decisively with Roman Catholic teaching. Benedict's appreciation for Hus preceded an ode to the shared Christian legacy of Europe. "As Europe listens to the story of Christianity, she hears her own," Benedict said. "Her notions of justice, freedom, and social responsibility, together with the cultural and legal institutions established to preserve these ideas and hand them on to future generations, are shaped by her Christian inheritance."
Benedict rightfully reminds Europe that it was built on a Christian foundation. But does anyone else today care? It is one thing to recall these religious roots. The greater challenge is to show that Christianity still addresses contemporary needs. According to Benedict, Europe's Christian roots "continue—in subtle but nonetheless fruitful ways—to supply the continent with the spiritual and moral sustenance that allows her to enter into meaningful dialogue with people from other cultures and religions."
Here, Benedict seeks to mend an open wound in Europe politicians have not been able to heal. Secularism offers European nations no basis for relating to or confronting the highly religious immigrant populations now settling in their cities. Skeptics may rightly wonder whether church history offers a better way of coping with pluralism, given Europe's experience with interdenominational warfare. But Benedict deserves credit for steering the church back to basic Christianity in hopes of reminding Europe that the gospel of Jesus Christ once turned a barbarous continent into the cradle of Western civilization.
"Precisely because the Gospel is not an ideology, it does not presume to lock evolving socio-political realities into rigid schemas," Benedict said. "Rather, it transcends the vicissitudes of this world and casts new light on the dignity of the human person in every age. Dear friends, let us ask the Lord to implant within us a spirit of courage to share the timeless saving truths which have shaped, and will continue to shape, the social and cultural progress of this continent."
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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Why You Can't Just 'Love Your Neighbor' | According to Benedict XVI's new encyclical, trying to love people without knowing the truth about them leads to mere sentiment and will do them harm. (July 10, 2009)
Pope Benedict Goes to Washington | Pope's U.S. visit is expected to strengthen evangelical-Catholic relationship. (April 16, 2008)
The Promise of Benedict XVI | Evangelicals can be glad that the new pope is not likely to be a mere caretaker. (May 26, 2005)
Previous articles about Christianity in Europe include:
A Lost Generation | Mainline churches in East Germany rediscover a sense of mission. (October 1, 2009)
The French Reconnection | Europe's most secular country rediscovers its Christian roots. (February 25, 2005)
Under Reconstruction | How Eastern Europe's evangelicals are restoring the church's vitality. (October 13, 2005)
Previous Theology in the News columns are available on our site.