Pope John Paul II. Flickr

A Place of Grace

At the second Special Assembly for Europe Pope John Paul II reminds Europe that the Catholic "... invitation to hope is not founded on a utopian ideology ... it is on the contrary, the unfailing message of salvation proclaimed by Christ."
Andrea Tornielli

What took place in the Vatican over the last few weeks was a Synod under the sign of unity. For the second Special Assembly for Europe avoided the forced clashes of the past between the charismatic and institutional souls of the Church, between parishes, associations, movements; between hierarchy and new ecclesial realities. In the same way the clash was avoided, just as forced, between optimists and pessimists; in other words between those who retain that in Europe all are still Christians and those who instead see only the catastrophe of de-christianization and the assault of Islam. Thanks to some interventions it was made evident to all that the time we are living in is certainly a time of great testing for Christians, but precisely for this reason it is also a time in which it emerges more strongly that it is the Lord who is guiding the Church and that her existence and her spreading even in the Old Continent is the fruit of grace and not of pastoral strategies planned around a table. This is a time in which the contribution of everyone and of all sensitivities is necessary.

Opening the work of the Synod, John Paul II pointed out with realism that "the enthusiasms aroused by the fall of the ideological barriers and the peaceful revolutions of 1989 seem unfortunately to be rapidly dulled by the impact with political and economic selfishness." But he invited Europe "of the third millennium not to give in to discouragement," not to resign itself "to the ways of thinking and living that have no future because they are not based on the solid certainty of the Word of God."

"Jesus Christ is living in His Church," said the Pope, "and from generation to generation continues to 'come near' to man and to 'walk' with him. He knows the grave temptations of the generations that are preparing to cross the threshold of the third millennium." Before this situation Wojtyla clarified at once that "the invitation to hope is not founded on a utopian ideology like those that in the last two centuries have ended up trampling underfoot the rights of man, and especially those of the weakest. It is on the contrary the unfailing message of salvation proclaimed by Christ: "The Kingdom of God is amongst you, be converted and believe in the Gospel!" And again "Europe of the third millennium, the Church proposes you Christ, true hope of man and of history. She proposes Him to you not only and not so much with words, but especially with witness."

Two of the interventions in the Hall summarize well the crucial points tackled by the Synod and give us a picture of the reality of the moment we are living. On the morning of October 4th, Cardinal Adrianus Simonis, Archbishop of Utrecht in Holland, began by recalling the phrase of André Malraux, "'There are no more ideals for which we can sacrifice ourselves, because of our incapacity to know the truth….' He describes the present climate of delusion: humanity is living at the present time with many 'truths,' consequences of the claim to dominate reality in an absolute way, but he no longer knows the truth. He has the presumption to be able to decide what is possible and what is not."

"The relationship with the Mystery as the foundation of reality," continues Simonis, "has been broken. As a consequence, since the reality and the nature of man are incomprehensible, the world has become all a game, and the State seems to represent the only-even though suffocating-safeguard of society." "Today the Church is a minority," he continues, "Only few know who Christ is and how to find Him. Even the Church is influenced by the dominant mentality, with the risk of reducing the Gospel to a repetition of words or moral appeals that, in any case, do not give the answers necessary to a world that lives in confusion. The Christian faith consists essentially in an encounter with the living Christ. The Church is invited to encounter Him with the joy experienced at the beginning. His presence realizes the desires of our hearts and our thoughts, and will transform the perception of ourselves and morality."

"I would like to stress the meaning of the new ecclesial movements," Simonis concluded, "In communion with the hierarchy, these movements share the positive experience of Christian love, reaching environments where the knowledge of the faith is absent and giving testimony, thanks to their activity, of a new society in a disoriented society."

A just question
The following day, October 5th, Cardinal Godfried Daneels, Archbishop of Malines-Brussels, spoke in the assembly. "Modern European man is thirsting for happiness: a happiness based on material goods, many and immediate. But this thirst represents a pressing appeal for the Church to 'Sing the Gospel in tune.' The sects have understood this well. If the answer of contemporary man is often false, the question is a just one: the message of Christ is therapeutic and must make people happy."

"For our contemporaries all religions are the same and Christ is only one of the great prophets. Obviously this is not sufficient for expressing His true nature. Never in the course of the history of theology has the question of the uniqueness of Christ been expressed so acutely. It will force us to think and affirm more deeply our faith in the Man-God."

Daneels then hinted at the problem of Islam, without indulging in catastrophism. "Islam is more and more present in Europe. A certain type of Islam, with its monolithic faith, language and culture, its economic and political powers, is a difficult, almost impossible partner to dialogue with, but there is another Islam that teaches us once again the meaning of the transcendence of God, of prayer and of fasting, of the impact of religion on social life." As for de-christianization, the primate of Belgium observed, "In many countries the Church becomes a minority, poor in personnel, in financial resources, in power, and in prestige. Perhaps God is leading us toward a sort of new 'Babylonian exile' in order to teach us to become humbler and to live the doctrine of the omnipotence of grace. Not all is negative in the situation of those who 'sat down on the banks of the rivers of Babylon.' If it is true that perhaps a spiritual night is falling on Europe, let's imitate the wise virgins and set ourselves on the watch: the Bridegroom is coming. But to be on the watch does not mean to be afraid and run away. Let's take up our lamps and our oil. Christ will provide the oil (the Gospel). Let us bless Him. But the lamps (enculturation) are the men of all ages who offer them to us day after day. Let us therefore thank our own age, too: not everything is so negative after all."

At the Synod ecumenism, collegiality, and the valuing of women and of lay-people were also discussed. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini asked explicitly for new forms of co-responsibility among bishops in order to deal with "shortages of ordained ministers, sexuality, marriage discipline, penitential practice, relationships with the sister Churches of Orthodoxy, the relationship between democracy and civil values and moral laws." Many read into his words the idea of a new Council, even though the Archbishop of Milan clarified that that was not exactly his intention.

"Thus says the Lord:
'Stop on the road and look,
ask about the ways of the past,
where the good road is and take it,
so you will find peace for your souls.'"
(Jer. 6:16)