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A Christian Renaissance for Europe

Fr Peter Bristow

FROM APOSTOLIC TIMES, when it was first evangelized as a result of St Paul's preaching in Macedonia, Europe has been of particular importance for the Church, and the Church for Europe. The continent owes its very existence to the conversion of the barbarian tribes, such that by 814 Charlemagne's Christian Empire extended to the Elbe and the evangelization of the Slays in the next two centuries pushed its frontiers to the Ural mountains. "The history of the formation of the European nations runs parallel with their evangelization, to the point that the European frontiers coincided with those of the inroads of the Gospel." [1] From that time, Christianity has given to Europe its cathedrals and universities, its culture and its unity; in a word, its civilization.

In contrast, when we contemplate the divided state of secularized Europe today, together with its permissive morality, its terrorism and the nuclear threat hanging over it, it is clear that it has much to learn from its Christian past. Furthermore, much of the rest of the world has been evangelized from the old continent, which continues to have an impact around the globe. What Europe and America (as an extension of Europe) do today, many other countries do tomorrow. For this reason, the present Pope proposes the re-evangelization of Europe as the key to the decadence of Western civilization and as intimately linked to the Church's worldwide apostolate. He writes: "
Today, after twenty centuries, the Church senses the urgency and the duty to carry on with renewed efficacy the work of evangelizing the world and re-evangelizing Europe. It is a pastoral choice, reproposed in view of the third millennium, that flows from the mission to save the whole man and all men in the truth of Christ. Today more than ever, the evangelization of the world is tied to the re-evangelization of Europe."[2]

The division of Europe and the self-destructive wars of this century convinced statesmen and thinkers alike in 1945 of the necessity of refounding the continent along the secure lines of unity and cooperation. Many of today's well-known European institutions are the fruits of such endeavours. But the continued Iron Curtain division of the continent is both an insult to its traditional boundaries and a symptom of the crisis of European civilization. However, what nobody has recognised publicly until the present Pope is the deep historical and spiritual implications of this problem.

Spiritual and Historical Background

The Holy Father comes from a country that is "Slav to the Latins and Latin to the Slays" and from the city of Krakow which is exactly midway between the Atlantic and the Urals. All Central and Eastern Europeans are still painfully aware of what for them are the evils of Yalta and, therefore, to them, the division of Europe is a live and not a dead issue.

But the Pope is further aware that the crisis underlying this disunity is a crisis in men's hearts and souls. Unless a unity can be achieved based on justice and the guarantee of all the basic human rights, starting with the right to life itself, then no lasting peace will be possible, a fact with implications for the whole world. Men are divided not just by frontiers but disagree over a universal moral law and Lawgiver, making a common justice impossible. The task is urgent because "a house divided against itself cannot stand." Only, therefore, by a reassertion of spiritual values and the leaven of the Gospel can Europe be raised up again to a unity which can guarantee future peace. This is the challenge for the Church, which serves the world by serving God and, thereby, must be "the Good Samaritan of modern man." [3] Secularists may say this is a backward-looking solution, but they are forgetting Christianity's perennial newness and the vigour and relevance of its teaching in every age; as St Paul put it: "Jesus Christ yesterday, today and forever."

The historical roots are also relevant. Two traditions, Western and Eastern, Latin and Greek, went into the making of what we know as Christendom. The separation of Constantinople from Rome already in 1054 was a first blight on the landscape. It was, however, the beginning of the end for Constantinople as far as its influence was concerned. The demise was hastened by the sacking in 1204 at the hands of the Crusaders and the establishment of the Latin Kingdom there, and finally sealed with its defeat by the Turks in 1453. After this a significant shift occurred. Moscow began to assume the role of Constantinople in Orthodox Christianity and with it the imperialist dreams of the Tsars were nourished, which, allowing for the changes in régime, have survived until this day. From this time it is truly said "A 'Third Rome' was arising to confront the Rome of the Popes." [4]

In the West, during the period of the so-called Holy Roman Empire, the ultimate justification and sanction of human activity were men's rights and duties with respect to God. It was, for all its shortcomings, an age of Faith and this gave cohesive force and unity to the continent. Indeed, not a few of the Emperors were guilty of making Christianity a means to pursue their imperial policy and thus seeking domination over the Church, rather than an end in itself. For the last two hundred years, the age of Faith has been progressively cast aside in favour of the aptly named age of Reason.

The Predicament of Modern Europe

The materialism of the present day is the fruit of generations of secular ideologies and well-known historical events. This has ushered in the permissive legislation which is now enshrined in the legal systems of most European countries, so that only Ireland and Belgium have resisted legalizing abortion, and Ireland stands alone against divorce, having recently defeated proposed legislation. All this has usually been done in the name of freedom. "Let us rather ask ourselves if it is not the triumph of the principle of material well-being and egotism over the most sacred value, that of human life."[5] It has been said the Church was defeated, but is it not, rather, man himself who was defeated, is it not doctors "who have renounced the noblest oath and claim of medicine, that of defending and saving human life," is it not the secularized state that has been defeated by refusing to protect this fundamental right? [6]

If the present trend continues, the European population, which in 1960 stood at 25% of the world's population, would drop to a level of 5% by the middle of the next century. These figures have led some to speak of the "demographic suicide of Europe."

All this has occurred despite the fact that from a Christian point of view, no legislation against the law of God can have any force of law. Too many Christians have a weak and inadequate grasp of their own faith. Underlying this, also, there is a practical atheism and agnosticism which has even led some writers to speak of "the death of God." But, since man is a creation of God in his origin, vocation and destiny, and from this he derives his dignity and rights, "the death of God" brings with it sooner or later the death of man.

Towards a Renewal

The Roman Empire itself collapsed not because of Christianity, as some said, but, as St Augustine argued, because the Christian virtues and values were not lived up to. Equally, tile successive collapses of Christian civilization have had the same cause. "It is not that Christianity has been tried and been found wanting, but it has been found too difficult and not tried," as Chesterton noted. The seeds of decay, nevertheless, point the way back. The solution is to return to the roots and re-discover the spiritual energy of the Gospel.

In fact, there are striking parallels between the Roman Empire which Christianity encountered at its outset and today's world. When St Paul went to Athens "
his heart was moved within him to find the city so much given over to idolatry ... He encountered philosophers, Stoics and Epicureans ..." He attempted to reason with them, but had limited success initially. On coming into contact with the Empire as a whole, Christianity found legalized abortion, sterilization, contraception and infanticide. Yet within two and a half centuries the Empire was Christian, recognizing the one true God and nobody was admitted to the Church without renouncing the immoral laws and practices. For many centuries hence the spiritual authority of God and the Church and the universality and objectivity of the moral law were held to be self-evident.

Renaissance and renewal are the special feature of Christianity. Its doctrine of the Cross and conversion enables men and civilizations to rise like "the phoenix from the ashes." It happened at the time of St Augustine's conversion of England. of St Willibrod in Frisia and St Boniface in Germany. as well as at the time of the Slavic conversion by SS Cyril and Methodius. We have now come full circle and there is a need to start afresh and re-evangelize in the same spirit. The great evangelizers have been the saints and for today's task we need new saints. The Pope has written: "
There is a need for heralds of the Gospel who are experts in humanity, who have a profound knowledge of the heart of present-day man, participating in his joys and hopes, anguish and sadness, and who are at the same time contemplatives in love with God." [8]

The Vatican Council is the adequate instrument to bring the message of the Gospel to bear on the issues of the modern world.

"We might well say that it represents the foundation and initiation of a gigantic work of evangelization of this modern world which has reached a turning point in the history of mankind, in which tasks of an immense gravity and breadth await the Church. According to its original inspiration the Council proposed as its aim essentially 'to bring the world into contact with the life-giving energies of the Gospel' (Apostolic Constitution Humanae Salutis)." [9]

It is a bold and prophetic vision recalling Belloc's view expressed in the early 1930s that Europe would be Christian or it would not exist at all. If there is a renaissance of the Faith in Europe and the old continent rediscovers its identity, its Christian roots and spiritual values, it can contribute to the flowering of a new age of civilization and peace all over the world.


1. Pope John Paul II. Declaration to Europe, 9-9-82, Cf. Sceptre Bulletin, 1986. p.71;

2. Pope John Paul II to the European Convention of the Missionaries to Migrants, 27-6-86;

3. Pope John Paul II to the European Council of Bishops' Conferences, 11-10-85;

4. H. Daniel-Rops, History of the Church of Christ. Vol. 4, p.103. J.M.Dent & Sons, London 1961;

5. Pope John Paul II to the European Council of Bishops' Conferences. 11-10-85;

6. ibid.;

7. ibid.;

8. ibid.;

9. ibid.

Copyright ©; Fr Peter Bristow 2000

This version: 26th December 2004

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