On Ecclesia in Europa

Author: Archbishop Vincent Nichols


Archbishop Vincent Nichols, Birmingham, England


Pope's document stresses 'hope' for a new Europe

I am pleased to make this presentation in conjunction with the promulgation, this evening, of the post-synodal document, Ecclesia in Europa.

It bears all the hallmarks of its origins. It is thoroughly faithful to the discussions and findings of the Synod in 1999, and it is marked throughout by the style and clear convictions of Pope John Paul II, whose document it is.

Its significance for the Catholic communities of Western Europe can be presented under three headings:

A. The clear statement of a vision and expectations for our European venture, and the part the Christian faith plays in it.

B. The call to conversion and renewal, in communion and mission, for the Catholic Church.

C. The relationship it envisages between the shared public and political life of Europe and the faith — or faiths — of its people.

I shall return to elaborate on each of these themes in a moment.

The key to this document is the theme of hope. In this, the choice of the book of Revelation is crucial.

Revelation is a text of genuine, eschatological hope, presenting to us our destiny. But it is also a hope which is to guide our way now.

Revelation is also a text of realistic assessment, even dishearteningly so, when it says: "Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death" (Rv 3:2; Ecclesia in Europa, n. 23).

The Church in Western Europe must be realistic about its own life if it is to play its part in the revitalisation of the soul of Europe.

A. The clear statement of a vision and expectations for our European venture, which is at such a critical moment

The Europe project stands at a critical juncture with new members about to join and the elaboration of a constitution now well advanced. Repeatedly, this document calls for honesty about the reality of Europe in the way it is described and envisaged in that draft constitution.

No presentation of Europe can be honest if it fails to recognise the part already played, and still played, by Christianity in the shaping of Europe. To omit such matters is an act of ideology, and is unworthy of the framers of so historic a document.

As the Pope's document says: "More than a geographical area, Europe can be described as 'a primarily cultural and historical concept, which denotes a reality born as a continent thanks also to the unifying force of Christianity, which has been capable of integrating peoples and cultures among themselves, and which is intimately linked to the whole of European culture'" (n. 108).

In the project of building the European "house", Europe needs to recognise and accept this religious dimension. In fact, the part to be played by religious truth and conviction is strongly presented in this document.

The model of the Church can help European society to understand and tackle the issues of unity and diversity (cf. n. 109). Europe needs to construct what this document calls "a solidarity that is global" rather than become a block that is closed and unwelcoming. In this project the motivations and vision of faith are essential (cf. nn. 110-111).

In today's world, Europe must be a tireless worker for peace.

In these and similar aspects of the European project, experience affirms the truth of the assertion of this Exhortation: "'Not only can Christians join with all people of goodwill in working to build this great project, but they are also called to be in some way its heart, revealing the true meaning of the organization of the earthly city’" (n. 116).

"For her part in keeping with a healthy cooperation between the ecclesial community and political society, the Catholic Church is convinced that she can make a unique contribution to the prospect of unification by offering the European institutions, in continuity with her tradition and in fidelity to the principles of her social teaching, the engagement of believing communities committed to bringing about the humanization of society on the basis of the Gospel, lived under the sign of hope" (n. 117).

I am convinced that the project of building a multi-cultural, multi-racial Europe cannot be achieved in secular terms.

What this post-synodal Exhortation calls for is recognition of the fact that religious faith is crucial for the majority of people in Europe. Faith expresses their deepest convictions and must be seen to have its part in the building of a new Europe if the project is to win the cooperation and enthusiasm of its people.

The building of a new Europe will not be achieved by marginalizing that faith.

Our experience in Western Europe also illustrates some of the difficulties being encountered in the present venture:

One of the concrete expressions of the contribution made by the Church to the common good is through the development of Catholic schools and universities.

"An important part of any programme for the evangelization of culture is the service rendered by Catholic schools. There is a need to ensure the recognition of a genuine freedom of education and equal juridical standing between state schools and other schools. Catholic schools are sometimes the sole means by which the Christian tradition can be presented to those who are distant from it. I encourage the faithful involved in the field of primaryand secondary education topersevere in their mission and to bring the light of Christ the Saviour to bear upon their specific educational, scientific and academic activities. In particular, greater recognition is due to the contribution made by Christians who conduct research and teach in universities: in their 'service to thought' they hand down to the next generation the values of an intellectual tradition enriched by two thousand years of humanistic and Christian experience. Convinced of the importance of academic institutions, I also ask the various local Churches to promote an adequate pastoral care of the university community, favouring whatever corresponds to present cultural needs" (n. 59).

At a recent COMECE meeting of Bishops responsible for Catholic education (schools) across Europe, great emphasis was placed on the obstacles placed in the pathway of Catholic schools, at times by European court judgments, directives and subsequent legislation.

Recent EU Directives on discrimination in employment, for example, make it more difficult for Catholic institutions to maintain and develop their distinctiveness, and thus make their valuable contribution to the common good.

The Catholic Church across Western Europe will welcome the strength of the call of this document that far more attention is to be given to faith, and Christian faith in particular, in the construction of Europe.

B. The call to conversion and renewal, in communion and mission, for the Catholic Church

There is no doubt that if the European institutions are to pay more attention to the role of faith in the life of Europe, then that faith must become more vigorous, more distinctive, more focussed on the proclamation of the Gospel as the truth about the human person and a healthy society.

The call for conversion within the Church is, therefore, entirely appropriate. This call has all the more urgency when one considers the fact that Europe, and Western Europe in particular, is the only continent in the world in which secularisation has taken place to such an extent. The challenge to the Church in Western Europe is, to this extent, quite unique.

The life of faith has, for many, a certain weariness about it. It is a part of the "ancient" characteristics of the continent. As the document says:

"One sees how our ecclesial communities arestruggling with weaknesses, weariness and divisions. They too need to hear anew the voice of the Bridegroom, who invites them to conversion, spurs them on to bold new undertakings and calls forth their commitment to the great task of the 'new evangelization’" (n. 23).

So, a repeated call to a renewed hope is entirely appropriate.

At the heart of this call is the summons to holiness, a holiness which is only found in being close to Christ. Hence the importance for the renewal which is called for of the celebration of every aspect of the liturgy of the Church,

The document highlights, in the context of Europe, the need to recover again, at the heart of all liturgy and prayer, a sense of the transcendent mystery of God.

"In the context of today's society, often closed to transcendence, oppressed by consumeristic behaviour, easily falling prey to old and new forms of idolatry yet at the same time thirsting for something which goes beyond the immediate, the task that awaitsthe Church in Europe isboth demanding and exciting. It consists in rediscovering the sense of 'mystery'; in renewing liturgical celebrations so that they can be more eloquent signs of the presence of Christ the Lord; in ensuring greater silence in prayer and in contemplation; in returning to the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Penance, as wellsprings of freedom and new hope.

"For this reason, I urgently invite you, the Church living in Europe: be a Church thatprays, praisesGod, recognising his absolute primacy, magnifying him with joyful faith. Rediscover the sense of mystery: live it with humble gratitude; testify to it with conviction and contagious joy. Celebratethe salvation which comes from Christ: welcome it as a gift which makes of you its sacrament: make your life a true spiritual worship pleasing to God (cf. Rom 12:1)" (n. 69).

This represents a particular and challenging task. So often our liturgy has given first place to the experience of community. This, of course, is a very valid aim. A sense of belonging is deeply desired by people today. Indeed, the Church should be experienced in this way.

But what we have often lost sight of is the fact that God alone is the source and giver of the community to which we belong. Our identity as Catholics, as a particular parish or community, is not based on class, agreement in a particular perspective or approach to life or extended family ties.

Rather, our new identity springs from Christ himself, as a gift of the Father, given in the power of the Holy Spirit. This, and this only, must be the first focus of every liturgical celebration. Then that celebration will give rise to the newness of community which alone will satisfy our longings and which alone will withstand the inevitable impulses towards conflict and division.

I also welcome the call for prayer in the home — "domestic liturgy":

"Families should be encouraged to make time to pray together, and thus to interpret the whole of marriage and family life in the light of the Gospel. Inthis way, starting in the family and in hearing the word of God, a domestic liturgy will gradually emerge, which will then mark every event in the life of the family" (n. 78).

A further challenge offered by this text to the Church in Western Europe is to find ways of renewing the Sacrament of Penance.


"Along with the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Reconciliation must also exercise a fundamental role in the recovery of hope: 'a personal experience of the forgiveness of God for each one of us is, in fact, the essential foundation of every hope for our future'. One of the roots of the hopelessness that assails many people today is found in their inability to see themselves as sinners and to allow themselves to be forgiven, an inability often resulting from the isolation of those who, by living as if God did not exist, have no one from whom they can seek forgiveness. Those who, on the other hand, acknowledge that they are sinners, and entrust themselves to the mercy of the Heavenly Father, experience the joy of an authentic liberation and can continue life without being trapped in their own misery. In this way they receive the grace of a new beginning, and again find reasons for hope.

"For this reason the Sacrament of Reconcilation needs to be revitalized in the Church in Europe. It must be reaffirmed, however, that the form of the sacrament is the personal confession of sins followed by individual absolution. This encounter between the penitent and the priest should be encouraged in any of the forms provided for in the rite of thesacrament. Facedwith the widespread loss of the sense of sin and the growth of a mentality marked by relativism and subjectivism in morality, every ecclesial community needs to provide for the serious formation of consciences. The Synod Fathers have insisted on the recognition of the reality of personal sin and the necessity of personal forgiveness by God through the ministry of the priest. Collective absolutions are not an alternative way of administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation" (n. 76).

These are inescapable sources of vitality for the Church and, as so many people recognise, they are in need of renewal. Such renewal will bear fruit, and be galvanised, by proclamation and service.

How important, then, the statement in the document that love and service "must extend beyond the confines of ecclesial communities and reach out to every person, so that love foreveryone can become a stimulus to authentic solidarity in every part of society. When the Church is at the service of love, she also facilitates the growth of a 'culture of solidarity' and thus helps to restore life to the universal values of human coexistence" (n. 85).

There is always the need to proclaim and support the truth about marriage and family life (cf. paragraphs 90 and 91):

The truth about marriage and family

"The Church in Europe at every level must faithfully proclaim anew the truth about marriageand the family. She sees this as a burning need, for she knows that this task is integral to the mission of evangelization entrusted to her by her Bridegroom and Lord, and imposes itself today with unusual force. Many cultural, social and political factors are in fact conspiring to create an increasingly evident crisis of the family.

In varying ways they jeopardize the truth and dignity of the human person and call into question, often misrepresenting it, the notion of the family itself. The value of marital indissolubility is increasingly denied: demands are made for the legal recognitionof de facto relationships as if they were comparable to legitimate marriages: and attempts are made to accept a definition of the couple in which difference of sex is not considered essential.

"In this context the Church is called to proclaim with renewed vigour what the Gospel teaches about marriage and the family, in order to grasp their meaning and value in God's saving plan. In particular it is necessary to reaffirm that these institutions are realities grounded in the will of God. There is a need to rediscover the truth about the family as an intimate communion of life and love open to the procreation of new persons, as well as its dignity as a 'domestic Church' and its share in the mission of the Church and in the life of society" (n. 90).

For the people of Western Europe there is a call to take a generous and just approach to the pressing needs of refugees and asylum seekers:

Towards a culture of acceptance

"The challenges presently facing our service of the Gospel of hope includes the growing phenomenon of immigration, which calls on the Church's ability to welcome each person regardless of the people or nation to which he or she belongs. This phenomenon is also prompting European society and its institutions as a whole to seek a just order and forms of coexistence capable of respecting everyone, as well as the demands of legality, within a feasible process of integration" (n. 100).

"The phenomenon of migration challenges Europe's ability to provide for forms of intelligent acceptance and hospitality. A 'universal' vision of the common good demands this: we need to broaden our gaze to embrace the needs of the entire human family. The phenomenon of globalization itself calls for openness and sharing, if it is not to be a source of exclusion and marginalization, but rather a basis for solidarity and the sharing of all in the production and exchange of goods.

"Everyone must work for the growth of a maturecultureof acceptance which, in taking into account the equal dignity of each person and the need for solidarity with the less fortunate, calls for the recognition of the fundamental rights of each immigrant.Public authorities have the responsibility of controlling waves of migration with a view to the requirements of the common good. The acceptance of immigrants must always respect the norms of law and must therefore be combined, when necessary, with a firm suppressionof abuses" (n. 101).

"There is also a need for commitment in identifying possible forms of genuine integration onthe part of immigrantswho have been legitimately received into the social and cultural fabric of the different European nations" (n. 102).

"On her part, the Church is called 'to continue her activity in creating and continually improving her services ofwelcome and her pastoralattention for immigrants and refugees, in order to ensure respect for their dignity and freedom and to promote their integration....

"The service of the Gospel also requires the Church, in defending the cause of the oppressed and excluded, to call on the political authorities of the different States and the leaders of European institutions to grant refugee status to those who have left their country of origin because of threats to their life, to help them return to their countries, and to create conditions favouring respect for the dignity of all immigrants and the defence of their fundamental rights" (n. 103).

The Holy Father emphasises the task of evangelization and proclamation: "Let the proclamation of Jesus, which is the Gospel of hope, be your boast and your whole life"(n. 45).

This task, and this challenge, is most relevant in societies in which tolerance is regarded as the supreme virtue, without clear recognition that it is, in fact, a fruit of the virtue of love. Without strong roots it withers quickly, as we so often see.

The inter-faith task is addressed in a way which is most relevant: the need to understand the specifics of each faith, and where differences lie. Especially addressed is the important relationship with Islam:

"...growing in knowledge of other religions, in order to establish a fraternal conversation with their members who live in today's Europe. A proper relationship with Islam is particularly important. As has often become evident in recent years to the Bishops of Europe, this 'needs to be conducted prudently, with clear ideas about possibilities and limits, and with confidence in God's saving plan for all his children'. It is also necessary to take into account the notable gap between European culture, with its profound Christian roots, and Muslim thought.

"In this regard, Christians living in daily contact with Muslims should be properly trained in an objective knowledge of Islam and enabled to draw comparisons with their own faith. Such training should be provided particularly to seminarians, priests and all pastoral workers. It is on the other hand understandable that the Church, even as she asks the European institutions to ensure the promotion of religious freedom in Europe, should feel the need to insist that reciprocity in guaranteeing religious freedom also be observed in countries of different religious traditions, where Christians are a minority" (n. 57).

Reciprocal respect is rightly called for, as a condition and a fruit of this dialogue.

I am sure that a clear response will be found to the appeal of this document. There are, in countries, dioceses and parishes across Western Europe, efforts being made to renew and strengthen faith. Many realise that, even if it were so in the past, the handing on of faith is no longer part of the process of socialization. It has to be tackled with conviction, care and enthusiasm. And many are already doing so.

I welcome warmly the encouragement that is given in this document, especially for parishes and for the clergy.

Importance ofparishes

"In today's Europe too, both in the post-Communist countries and in the West, the parish, while in need of constant renewal, continues to maintain and to carry out its particular mission, which is indispensable and of great relevance for pastoral care and the life of the Church. The parish is still a setting where the faithful are offered opportunities for genuine Christian living and a place for authentic human interaction and socialization, whether in the situations of dispersion and anonymity typical of large modern cities or in areas which are rural and sparsely populated" (n. 15).

Role ofpriests

"In a special way priests are called by virtue of their ministry to celebrate, teach and serve the Gospel of hope. Through the Sacrament of Orders which configures them to Christ the Head and Shepherd, Bishops and priests must conform their whole life and all their activity to Jesus. By the preaching of the word, the celebration of the sacraments and their leadership of the Christian community, they make present the mystery of Christ, and in the exercise of their ministry, 'they are called to prolong the presence of Christ, the One High Priest, embodying his way of life and making him visible in the midst of the flock entrusted to their care'.

"As men who are 'in' the world yet not 'of' the world (cf. Jn 17:15-16), priests are called in Europe's present cultural and spiritual situation to be a sign of contradiction and of hope for a society suffering from 'horizontalism' and in need of openness to the Transcendent" (nn. 34ff.).

There are many fine examples of Christian living within parish communities and by ordained ministers of the Church which are welcomed by young people, who instinctively have a great sense of hope in their hearts.

C. The relationship it envisages between the shared public and political life of Europe and the faith — or faiths of its people

From a Western European perspective, I welcome the way in which this document opens up the crucial discussion on how the public institutions of life in Europe should relate to the realities of faith.

1) It recognises "the distinction between political life and religion" (n. 109).

2) It rejects a return to the confessional state (cf, n. 117).

3) It rejects the privatization of religion, which is nothing more than the ideology of secularism. In the end, this is destructive of sound and lasting participation (cf. n. 114).

The Exhortation calls for a working relationship between the Church and other faith communities, on the one hand, and the political life of the Union, on the other. This relationship is, at present, expressed and explored in quite different ways in the different countries of Western Europe, and the Exhortation calls for a recognition of this diversity, rather than an imposition of an ideological uniformity.

In Britain, for example, the Churches and faith communities enjoy a pragmatic working relationship with Governments, in which their distinctiveness and contribution is recognised in a variety of ways.

In France and the Low Countries the Church is faced with the thorough progress of secularism.

In Germany, the situation is shaped, to a large extent, by the strength of the Catholic presence.

In Italy and Spain, one thinks of the fact that, to a considerable extent, their Catholic heritage still forms public culture.

An emerging European Union is still being tested in these matters.

I believe that the three demands made in this Papal Exhortation will be widely welcomed by the Catholic communities in Western Europe. These demands are found in paragraph 114:

"While fully respecting the secular nature of the institutions, I consider it desirable especially that three complementary elements should be recognised: the right of Churches and religious communities to organise themselves freely in conformity with their statutes and proper convictions; respect for the specific identity of the different religious confessions and provision for a structured dialogue between the European Union and those confessions; and respect for the juridical status already enjoyed by Churches and religious institutions by virtue of the legislation of the member states of the Union".

These, I believe, are crucial issues for the future of our European project and their outcome is far from certain.

At its heart, this document proclaims a real and clear hope for the peoples of Europe. It states with confidence that this hope is real, for its source is not some private conviction but the very truth about ourselves. Christ is the full expression of that truth. We welcome this Exhortation: "Jesus Christ, alive in his Church, the source of hope for Europe".  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
9 July 2003, page 8

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