In the recent events of the World Youth Days in Germany, there was a wonderful wave of faith and hope that reminded me of what we all witnessed four months ago, at the passing of John Paul II. Although the circumstances were different, there is a common link between these events and it has to do with the unifying force of the faith. We all saw it back in April in the mesmerizing outburst of love and respect at his death and funeral. Four months later, in August, here is another faith-based moment which united the youth of Europe and the world in one big swoop. Both Popes (Benedict XVI and John Paul II) were there to gather the prayers of the faithful on the visible and the invisible level of this very "Catholic moment". And both of these moments happened in Europe… The one place that so many American religious reports have been treating recently with a rather dismissive tone…I love Europe! I am European by birth and although I now live in California, I consider myself to be bi-cultural. I was in France in June when the European Treaty came to a standstill and I have been thinking about it since, I have been wondering about what the word "Europe" really means….
Europe is more than a tapestry of "nations" and it is more than just a challenging "notion"… This little sentence kept bobbing up and down in my head as I flew back from France to California in mid-June 2005. I had just spent two weeks in a small village in the northern French Alps visiting my aging parents. I got there right after France voted "Non!" to the European constitutional treaty; and soon after, Holland said the same thing and England said "Not now".
In the Geneva airport, I had picked up a very interesting little book by [then] Cardinal Ratzinger: "L'Europe, ses fondements, aujourd'hui et demain" (Europe, its foundings, today and tomorrow; éditions saint-augustin). In it, the future Pope Benedict XVI recounts in a very brief and concise manner the historical and cultural journey of Europe. It was born in a Greco-Roman world, it developed, matured and spread thanks to the lifeline of its Judeo-Christian energy and it has arrived today at a crucial crossroad where the temptations of secularism are obscuring its very identity and paralyzing its vital force. "At the exact moment when it is successful, Europe is interiorly empty"(Page 25). With great perspicacity, Benedict XVI outlines Europe's achievements, its weaknesses and its current challenges.
Europe and the Superpowers If my little sentence of a "nation" vs. a "notion" kept coming up, it was because of my own hesitation in understanding Europe. It certainly is more than a tapestry of nations. But why should they be assembled under the one banner of "Europe"? Is there more to it than just being located on the same continent? Do they even agree on a common history? And the most pressing question of all: Do they have a common future? "…after the two world wars, the search for a common identity and a common goal, which would, without denying nations, unite them"(Page 40). That is where the word "notion" comes in: to me it illustrates a work in progress. The European nations are struggling to define their common vision, against the other superpowers on the outside and against their own inner national and cultural rivalries on the inside.
Treaty Rejection What It Means In late June 2005, the news on either side of the Atlantic went over their own laundry list of reasons why the Treaty was rejected, but I saw it, personally, as a great opportunity. I did not see it as a signal of confusion or despair at all; on the contrary, I have great hope. I am a returning Catholic, who, through the grace of God, came back in full communion with the Church within the last seven years. And this wonderful and amazing change in my own life has happened in San Francisco (of all the places in the world!). I have lived in California for over 30 years and I am happy as a fish in water being French-American and switching from one culture to the other one. I happen to cherish them both. It is partially because of these bi-cultural lenses that I can look at the current European struggle and feel so confident in the outcome. It is essentially because of the great joy of faith that I can see this moment as an opportunity for all of us. Contrary to the voices of doom on the news, I don't see this "No" to the treaty as the end of Europe; I see it more as a kind of "reboot"! As a believer, I wonder what God wants me to do in this particular situation. After reading Pope Benedict VI's book, after reflecting on Europe and the States and on our own very special call, as Christians, a few answers slowly emerged in my heart.
First, this is a great time to witness to our faith. For European Christians, whether we are Catholic or Anglican, Evangelical or Greek Orthodox, this is the best opportunity to state our Christian past, to acknowledge what feeds our hope every day and to stand up with trust in these confused times. "Anyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge them before my heavenly Father…." (Mat 10:32) There is a very interesting silent majority of Christians in Europe which is slowly re-learning how to use its voice. And it will be the voice of faith. As Hillaire Belloc said half a century ago "Europe will return to the Faith or she will perish. The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith".
The Saints Never underestimate the power of prayers! Pray to Saint Benoit (who died in 547, after having designed the Rule of the Benedictine Order, the basis for all Western monasticism and who was such a fascinating mix of zeal and reason); pray to Saint Teresa Benedicta (a brilliant philosopher and a mystic, a convert and an inspirational model for Jewish-Christian reconciliation, who died in Auschwitz in 1942 and whose voice I found so moving); both are Patron Saints of Europe. Ask for John Paul II's intercession, who was himself such an inspiring ecumenical reassembling force. Pray to the wonderful cloud of European witnesses, to all the Saints of Europe.
By the way, one of my favorite teacher, an Eastern (Orthodox) Catholic Priest, here in California, said once that you should judge countries by how many Saints they have produced (rather than their GNP) and that there is not that many American Saints yet…. Isn't that interesting? By this standard, Europe has a wonderful and long line of Saints ready to intercede for us. Pray for the political leaders of Europe, that they will have the courage to stand up and articulate publicly Catholic ethics of social justice and the defense of a culture of life.
To Serve The next thing we can do is to serve. This is always one of the best way to put "love one another" in practice. It is a daily challenge and can be expressed wherever we are, whatever we do. For that matter, there is a very strong tradition of social justice in Europe and that is one of the little European gems. Solidarity is a key word for Europeans, much more than in the States, where individualism is more the norm. Because solidarity is so engrained in Western Europe's consciousness, they have developed many social programs (which are not always successful, but that is another question) I just want to acknowledge that it is their way to apply brotherly love. Europeans also have a deep concern for the environment, which showed in their tradition of thriftiness and recycling, in their effort to respect nature. All of this gave birth to the modern ecological movement, which was European from the start. Another little gem to add to the treasure pile.
In his book on Europe, Pope Benedict XVI speaks eloquently of the successful European effort to forgive in the second part of the 20th century after two horrific world wars, and to build a common space where peaceful co-habitation would be possible. The various European nations have managed to live in peace for the last 60 years. Every network of people within Europe is well aware of the need for peace: from the old to the young, from the right to the left, from the intellectuals in the Universities and in the Medias to the manual workers in the factories and in the fields, they are all very much aware of the need for peace. They love arguing and they might be calling each other names but I don't know of any one group who calls for the "killing" of the opposing groups (except terrorists, of course). It is a pretty amazing feast that so many different European nations have managed to do. There are painful exceptions to this tableau and one of them is in Ireland and the other one in the Balkans. Those were excruciating failures. But nonetheless, overall, Europe has managed to develop an amazing peaceful entente and also to generate a wish for peace in every new generation and that is to its credit. One more gem.
Marxism v. Logos Pope Benedict XVI gives a very interesting analysis of Marxism, its apocalyptic vision (page 60), its rejection of everything else before in History as "bad", as oppression, its drive for a radical reform of the world which reveals a certain hate of the world at the very same time. Very interestingly, he uses similar language a few pages later in an attempt to explain part of terrorism (page 85): the rejection of colonialism as oppression and a readiness to destroy the world in the process… There is a link in their common rejection of Jesus Christ, the revealed face of God. I loved the way he paints the development of the Christian faith in the revealed logos, the logos of love, the logos of relationships, how he shows the efforts of the Church to allow reason to develop alongside faith, to understand the separation of church and state, and how, out of all this, was born the modern notion of Human Rights. It is a typical Western notion; a very European one in origin and it was shaped by the Christian belief in man made in the image of God." Who does not love God with all his heart does not love mankind". (Page 124).
A Turning Point From California, I hear various reports and analysis of the European situation. I am not sure that the US can always grasp in depth what Europe is going through - and that is one of the weaknesses of the American side. Europe is at a turning point and our leaders (I am talking about our *real* leaders, our spiritual leaders!) are constantly reminding us "not to be afraid". These are actually exciting times we live in and every one of us has a mission: every European Christian holds an important piece of the puzzle in its hand, a crucial piece of trust and joy in the future, rather than being paralyzed by self-doubts; every American Christian can participate alongside by sowing trust and support, rather than giving in to the temptations of superiority and casting doubts on its European cousins.
Against the recent reports on how religious "we are" and how "empty their churches are" (which reminded me of a certain well-known Pharisee…), I would rather work and pray and hope together as members of the same team.
Because "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female" (Gal 3:28) for we are all one in Christ. If Europe needs courage (and encouragement) at this crossroad, it also needs to re-discover its own treasures so a sense of gratitude can flow. One of the strengths of the American mind is that they are, in general and overall, old timers or new emigrants alike, more acutely aware of why they should be thankful and even more naively ready to show it. But just as courage is needed from one side, humility is needed from the other side, because we, in the United States, we are at a crossroad too: are we going to know how to show support to our European brothers and sisters? Are we going to be able to validate them by acknowledging that we love them and we need them? Are we going to be open enough to even learn from them?
I had this quirky idea that the US should try to join the European Union, that it would be good for all involved, and when I mentioned it to my friends, I got so much flack (from Americans and from French ones too!) that it reminded me how unprepared we are to choose the "end of the table". Maybe it was a bad idea. But searching for ways to help each other is appropriate. This is where the belief in the revealed face of God in Christ should make a difference for everyone of us: it should give us the common language of faith and the common agenda of the Christian life.
Just as two major moments of faith were European based this year, I am sure that others will follow, whether here or there, and we all need to have a clear vision of our common goal. And how can we do it? In running the only program we truly need: the daily exercise of our faith through the virtues!
To hope and counsel, to witness and teach, to pray and serve and bear with patience. Faith is contagious, hope is validating and charity is what links all of us together. This is why I wrote this commentary. Pope Benedict XVI offered these words to ponder at the end of his book on Europe:
"God is holding up the world but he does it essentially through our freedom to choose Good.
Faith does not create a better world but it strengthens the dikes of ethics against the rising tides of evil." (Page 135).
Copyright ©2005 Michele Szekely
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