In mid-May, Pope Benedict XVI made an apostolic pilgrimage to Portugal; half a million people attended the outdoor papal Mass at Fatima.
When the Pope returned to Rome, two hundred thousand pilgrims jammed St. Peter’s Square for Benedict’s recitation of the Sunday “Regina Coeli,” demonstrating their support for a pontiff beset for months by criticism over abusive clergy and irresponsible bishops.
A week later, a 44-day exposition of the Shroud of Turin in the cathedral of that northern Italian city concluded. Over the course of six weeks, some two million people braved long lines to spend a few brief moments before what many believe to be the burial clothes of Christ.
To vary Mark Twain: Have reports of Christianity’s death in Europe been greatly exaggerated?
It’s a fair question, and as one who has been ringing the alarm bells about a European crisis of civilizational morale since the publication of The Cube and the Cathedral in 2005, I’m obliged to try to answer it.
The answer is: It’s too early to tell.
The vast flock of pilgrims at Fatima, the enthusiasm for the Pope manifest on a sunny Roman spring day, the extraordinary numbers who came to see the Shroud — these are all encouraging signs. So is the intense piety that continues to be evident in Poland, most recently in the wake of the tragic deaths of so many national leaders in an April plane crash, while they were en route to the killing grounds of the Katyn forest. So, in an odd way, are the virulent attacks on the Church and the Pope these past several months. No one expends energy berating an institution deemed moribund and an 83-year old man considered an irrelevance; the attacks themselves are evidence that Christian faith — and the Catholic Church — remain factors in European culture and European public life.
Moreover, if World Youth Day 2011, to be held in Madrid next August 16-21, turns out a million or more young pilgrims, which seems possible, a challenge will have been laid down to the hyper-secularist Zapatero government in Spain and to Europe’s aging children of the Sixties, who may tolerate Christianity as a personal lifestyle choice (if considering it an exceedingly odd one) but who also insist that 21st century European public life must be stripped of religiously-informed moral argument.
The game-changer in all this, however, will be when these mass public displays of Christian conviction and piety become culture-transforming, and thus capable of getting traction in the public square. And it’s not easy to see that happening in Europe anytime soon. European Catholicism has little of the infrastructure for cultural combat that has been built in the United States over the past few decades. For example: there is simply nothing in Europe like First Things and its stable of writers, whose essays and articles demand attention from public officials, academics, the general media, and other opinion merchants. That’s not my idiosyncratic view as a longtime First Things contributor and now the chairman of its board; that’s what my European friends and colleagues tell me.
Getting that kind of cultural traction requires hard work and resources. Above all, however, it requires a critical mass of radically converted Christian disciples, who have been through moments like Father Robert Barron of Chicago lived in Turin:
“I have to admit that it was one of the most extraordinary religious experiences of my life. The marks on the Shroud — including the blood stains — are clearly visible, which means that the brutal reality of the Passion is clearly visible. Staring at the Shroud, I was brought vividly back to that squalid little hill outside the city walls of Jerusalem in the year 30 where a young man was tortured to death. But then the face of the figure comes into focus: that strange, haunting, noble, peaceful face, which discloses, at the same time, the depth of human misery and the fullness of divine mercy. In the face of the crucified God, the full drama and poetry of Christian faith is on display, the Answer which is anything but an easy answer, the Word which surpasses the word of any philosopher…”
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.