Which pastoral perspectives for the evangelization of culture in Europe?

Rev. Mons. Peter Fleetwood

A few months ago, my life changed dramatically. After twelve years I returned to my home diocese and my native land to become a parish priest again. I am very happy to be back exercising priestly ministry where I grew up. On the surface, the biggest change is that I speak English nearly all the time, whereas here in the Pontifical Council and at the office of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences in Switzerland, I had to work in five languages every day. Anyone who does an international job in Europe more or less has to be linguistically flexible. But this is a peculiarly European thing, especially in the Catholic Church. The Latin American bishops conduct business in Spanish; it would be different if Brazilian bishops insisted on Portuguese. Likewise in Africa, the use of two languages simplifies things enormously. In Asia and Oceania English tends to be the lingua franca, if I may put it that way. But here in Europe one of the biggest budget items is the cost of translation. Why do I mention this? I simply want to stress that there is no such thing as “European culture”. Luckily, whoever gave me the title for my talk did not fall into that trap. This is about “the evangelisation of culture in Europe”. But, culturally speaking, this is a complex continent!

One thing that concerns me and many others is how to help people, especially younger people, even children, discover or develop a sense of the presence of God. To achieve this, the Church needs to discover multiple strategies rather than one simple recipe to suit everyone. The first thing that strikes me is that we cannot rely purely on the power of words, even the most eloquent words, or a primarily intellectual approach. We need to focus on religious experience.

If we want to understand how people experience God we need to concentrate on the realm of the senses. For example, what do children see when they enter our churches? What we see at an early age tends to set a subconscious standard in the way we later judge how “holy” a church is, as each of us can surely testify. Post-Reformation and post-Enlightenment Europe has been blighted by an iconoclastic Puritan streak, above all in the North and North West of the continent. This has inevitably had an effect on all forms of art, including ecclesiastical architecture. Socialist-inspired utilitarian trends in art and architecture for decades also left a ghastly mark on cities in the old Soviet Empire, but the Eastern Churches, both Orthodox and Catholic, seem successfully to have stood their ground, with an amazing talent for beautifying the insides of unutterably drab buildings. I like much modern architecture, but the challenge of finding architects who can make a building speak of God tells us what one of the strategies for evangelising or re-evangelising Europe has to be. I suspect it has never been more important, and so an idea once put forward in this Dicastery’s document Towards a Pastoral Approach to Cultureremains particularly relevant – the idea that the Church could encourage or, if necessary, found associations of artists and architects (Pontifical Council for Culture, Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture, Vatican City, 23rd May 1999, no. 36). It also means finding money to patronise the arts.

Another dimension of experience is sound. I have spent most of my life in cities, where I often feel bombarded by a cacophony of noise. But this is often only an outward sign of an inward disturbance which, over years, can threaten people’s serenity and sense of stability. One of the most valuable initiatives in the centre of some of Europe’s cities in recent years has been the establishment of contemplative centres where communities of lay people or religious, or a mixture of both, work to create a peaceful, tranquil space to meet God. But I suspect contemplative silence and stillness needs to be a feature of every liturgical celebration, so the formation of priests and other ministers in liturgical style is extremely important. What do Catholic schools do to foster contemplative and creative silence? Are children aware that there is anything special in a church building? Making this happen ought to be an integral goal of all Catholic education programmes. My own experience as a parish priest has already been quite revealing. I have two church buildings: in the older, more traditional, one there is an atmosphere of calm – except when groups from the local Catholic school arrive. In the other building, it is almost a lost cause even with the adults. There I think we need remedial measures because, unless I specifically ask for quiet, people treat the building as they would a restaurant or market. We have tried with quiet music to create a calm atmosphere, but it is extremely difficult to bring practising Catholics who are much older than I am to realise they are in a sacred place, in the presence of God. It will probably be a slow process, but we must achieve an atmosphere of calm and quiet to help people open their hearts and minds to the God whose presence can be so elusive in our daily routine.

On the broader religious scene in Europe, Buddhism has gained ground amazingly quickly. In Great Britain the number of Buddhist centres and groups grew from 74 in 1979 to 400 in the year 2000. In the Federal Republic of Germany, in the same period, the number rose from 38 to 520. Similar rises have been recorded in other Western European countries, but since 1989 “numerous Buddhist groups have come into existence in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and the western states of the Russian Federation. Both visits from European and North American teachers of Buddhism... and the search for alternatives to the perceived state of inertia in what the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches had to offer awakened a continuing interest in Buddhism in Eastern Europe” (Martin Baumann, Geschichte und Implikationen östlicher Religionen in Europa, a talk given at the CCEE conference “Alternative Religions and Human Rights“, held at Baar (Switzerland) in March 2004). Buddhism is the fastest-growing religion in Europe, not in terms of official conversions, but in a broad acceptance of its spiritual practices, which Europeans often adopt not for religious reasons but as part of what has become known in the German-speaking world as “wellness”. The fact that many Catholics are among those turning to oriental spiritual practices suggests that they feel the Church is not responding to their needs. Yoga and Tai Chi are just two examples that show how much people want to have a spiritual experience which also affects them physically, offering them calm and stability. Today’s Europeans feel free to blend elements of different religious traditions, because a superficial understanding of tolerance and pluralism has dulled their grasp of conceptual differences. The fact that they may be buying into another religion does not matter to them. In this context, “the most urgent measure to be taken, which might also be the most effective, would be to make the most of the riches of the Christian spiritual heritage. The great religious orders have strong traditions of meditation and spirituality, which could be made more available through courses or periods in which their houses might welcome genuine seekers.... Helping people in their spiritual search by offering them proven techniques and experiences of real prayer could open a dialogue with them which would reveal the riches of Christian tradition”( Pontifical Council for Culture and Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, Jesus Christ The Bearer of the Water of Life. A Christian reflection on the “New Age”, Vatican City 2003, section 6.2).

Finally, I want to mention a really imaginative European approach to evangelisation. It comes from Bishop Adriaan van Luyn of Rotterdam, in whose place I am speaking today, and was inspired by the Gospel account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Cardinal Poupard said this about it some years ago:

“Jesus did not correct the two distraught, confused disciples... or bombard them with information, but established a rapport of trust by asking them why they were so downcast as they walked along the road.... What Bishop van Luyn points out is that Jesus went along the road with these two men who were actually going in the wrong direction. He did not abandon them, but kept them company. They turned back of their own accord. It may often appear easier to tell people where they are going wrong, but this wise psychology of Christ is probably far more effective in the long run. It is an example of dialogue that is patient and yet bold enough to tell the truth at the appropriate moment. I have no doubt that a Church known for patience and wisdom in equal doses would have great success in establishing occasions for dialogue” (Cf. Cardinal Paul Poupard’s Opening Address at the ICFC Weekend Symposium, 22-23 June 2001, available on the website of the Irish Bishops’ Conference:  www.catholiccommunications.ie/pressrel/22-june-2001.html)