Churches on Wane in Europe ; Bishops, Gathered in Rome, Want to Stem a Secular Tide. but Faith Itself Holds Strong

Article excerpt

Could it be, as Christians around the globe prepare to celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus' birth, that in Europe, the hearth of Christian civilization, the embers are dying?

Europe's Roman Catholic bishops wrapped up a three-week synod in Rome on Saturday proclaiming their hope of warding off such a prospect. But they pointed to "the serious indifference to religion of so many Europeans ... the secularism which poisons a large section of Christians" as a dangerous sign. "There is a great risk of de-Christianization and paganization of the Continent" that "puts the cultural identity of Europe in jeopardy," warned the synod's working paper.

But while major Christian churches may be on the decline, few theologians or religious observers share the fear that Europe's millennial cultural values are seriously threatened.

"Cultural memories and patterns of living are so deeply embedded, it will be a long time before we find ourselves in a post-Christian Europe," says Grace Davie, a sociologist of religion at Exeter University in England.

"Institutional religiosity is on the decline, but personal religiosity is not in danger," adds Loek Halman, a Dutch scholar who runs Europe-wide studies of personal values. "People who leave their churches still go on searching for meaning. They may not be willing to accept traditional Christian beliefs, but that does not make them unbelievers."

Certainly the signs are not encouraging for the major Christian churches in Europe, which have seen their congregations and their priestly ranks shrink over the past half century.

Church attendance is still high in traditional Catholic countries such as Ireland and Italy, where nearly half the adult population goes to church at least once a month. But in countries like France, Belgium, and Germany, less than 10 percent of young people attend church regularly, and there is not a major city in northwestern Europe where even half the newborns are baptized. That prompted the bishops to end their meeting with a call "to undertake with great zeal and urgency the task of the new evangelization" - missionary work on the Continent from which missionaries once spread worldwide.

Tolerance for other views

But in a multicultural Europe, where "it is less and less possible to base pastoral programs on a presumed acceptance of a generally shared Christianity," as the bishops acknowledged, where Islam is on the rise, having outstripped Judaism as the second- largest European religion, and where tolerance of other people's views is a prime modern value, missionary work is not easy. "The real issue is how you evangelize a secularized Europe in pluralistic societies while still showing respect for other people's opinions," says the Rev. Jan Kerkhoss, a Jesuit priest and emeritus professor at the University of Leuven in Belgium. …

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