If one believes the opinions of American alarmists, Christianity in Europe is already dead, or very close to it. The main reasons for this prediction lie in the indeed worrying demographic trends, as well as the fact that Catholicism in particular has thoroughly fallen out of favor with the intellectual class. But as a European who has lived and worked in several countries on both sides of the Atlantic, and who tries to “think with the Church” (sentire cum Ecclesia), I have preserved my skepticism regarding sweeping ideological declarations.
Allow me to explain. Since my boyhood days, and since the childhood days of my parents, my family has spent our vacations — often four or six weeks of traditional Sommerfrische — in the farming village of Zeutschach (population 234), which is nestled at an altitude of 3,500 feet in the mountains of Upper Styria, in one of the gentler regions of the Austrian Alps. The area affords little excitement for those who need external stimulation but plenty for us who enjoy hiking, eating berries in the forests, discovering Roman monuments or Romanesque churches in the vicinity, swimming in the village pond, hunting for chanterelles, attending performances at one of the numerous festivals around, or drinking the homebrewed beer of Gasthaus Seidl.
After a hiatus of some decades in which I lived in big cities, my American wife and I have made a habit of returning to Zeutschach about every year. For us, paradise must be somehow similar to this little village, where happy cows on truly green pastures outnumber people, and everyone greets everyone else with Grüß Gott (“God may greet you”). The place where I received my first and lasting enculturation in Catholicism may be a good case study for the true state of the Faith in Europe.
Zeutschach, too, has been affected by globalization and structural change. Farmsteads with only a few acres of land that had for centuries afforded the same family a modest living were bought up by neighbors, or farmers sought part-time employment in a nearby town. The tiny village church, built in 1186 by the nearby Benedictine monastery of St. Lambrecht (which is more than a century older), no longer offers Mass every Sunday. The village priest now has to serve several adjacent parishes, and Mass is held on alternate Sundays in Zeutschach and another village some ten driving minutes away. In Austria, too, the dearth of priestly vocations means that the Church must ration, and the abbey, which for eight centuries has supplied the ministers, has shrunk to 15 conventuals.
Yet during the summer months, nearly every day, Masses are said at the pilgrimage church of Maria Schönanger, located at an altitude of 4,600 feet between Zeutschach and St. Lambrecht, for pilgrims who come from throughout the region — often after hours on steep mountain trails, with their priests leading the procession bearing the crucifix. Among the Benedictines of St. Lambrecht, there is a lay oblate who spends some 200 days every year as a hermit in a 400-year-old hermitage built into the rocks above Saalfelden. When we visited St. Lambrecht two years ago, a meeting of brass bands from several provinces in Austria and Slovenia started with Mass, though the festival was a secular event. In some villages, horses are blessed on St. Stephen’s Day during Mass, after which a ride brings a change to their monotonous equine life during the winter.
And the village of St. Georgen, three miles outside the medieval town of Murau, has since 1998, after an interruption of six decades, revived the tradition of staging a passion play. It is impressive when 200 people of all ages and walks of life — nearly the entire village — reenact the most important event of history in a beautiful setting on a slope outside a Romanesque church, in German words much colored by the local dialect. They do it for themselves and their close surroundings, supported by local businesses and institutions. My wife and I, who attended the premiere of this year’s series, were among the very few visitors in an otherwise full outdoor arena. The Bishop of Graz-Seckau, Dr. Egon Kapellari, opened the performance and showed himself a true leader of his flock by enduring nearly four hours in the blazing sun.
This, then, is the state of religion, at least in those European countries that have traditionally been Catholic. Catholicism is being sustained by a culture that is deeply rooted in the Faith and its traditions. Even the secularists who dominate politics and the media have not succeeded in divorcing culture from its Christian foundation. Shops continue to be closed on Sundays, although not everywhere in Europe is the law of the Sabbath still kept. There is a crucifix in every classroom in public schools, even though in the large cities the majority of students may now hail from Turkey, Bosnia, Morocco, Sri Lanka, or elsewhere. Religious instruction in public schools is voluntary, with all denominations (having a minimum number of students proclaiming their faith) being able to offer classes as part of the regular curriculum. Homes and shops all over — though certainly more in the countriside than in the large cities — feature a “20+C+M+B+10” sign in chalk over doorposts and entrances, written by the “three kings” during Epiphany to bless the house.
There is, of course, no guarantee that over time secularists who want none of this will not succeed. They advocate the American solution — a “wall of separation” between church and state, and its extension to a divorce between culture and Catholicism. But there is also a countermovement in parts of Europe. It argues that, though much of true faith has been lost, at least the culture must be preserved that still transmits the meaning of Christianity, for by God’s grace new faith may one day spring from it. Overall, the separation between church and state is less obsessive than it is in the United States, for a common culture serves as a buffer at worst and mediator at best. Of course, the Church receives public subsidies for the upkeep of its enormous cultural treasures, and in turn it keeps the doors of its cathedrals and churches open for faithful and tourists alike. Only the most ideological radicals question the Concordats between European states and the Vatican.
The situation of Catholicism in Europe — or at least in its traditionally Catholic areas — is thus ambiguous. Its vitality has undoubtedly been curtailed. Church attendance has dwindled, particularly in the cities. Nobody is loyal for social acceptance, which Catholicism no longer affords. This is the Church of the “creative minorities,” which then-Cardinal Ratzinger had predicted long before he ascended to the throne of St. Peter. The chaff and the lukewarm of biblical renown have been spewn out.
And yet the Church has a large public presence and is a formidable force on the political stage. Zeutschach and its surroundings is not all of Europe, but there are many such communities between the Vendée and Małopolska, and between Sicily and the Rhineland. All of the new (or relatively new) ecclesial movements, both lay societies and priestly institutes, that have established a worldwide reach are of European origin — from Opus Dei to Focolare, from the Emmanuel Community to the Institute of Christ the King, from Communion and Liberation to Sant’Egidio, from the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter to L’Arche. Maybe this is so because, as numbers dwindled, an emphasis on creativity and quality was the only viable strategy? However this may be, it also shows that the nucleus has not yet melted.
The situation is thus very different from the American one, where Catholicism has never much succeeded in influencing a largely Calvinist culture and has therefore, at least culturally, remained marginalized. No less a leader than Francis Cardinal George has repeatedly emphasized this. In my adopted country, well-meaning and often passionate Catholics are seeking to dissociate themselves from the crassness and secularism of the prevailing culture by building their own “little platoons.” The homeschooling movement, the rediscovery of Latin (and of the Tridentine Mass), and the unabated strength of the pro-life movement are examples. Here the faith tries to influence culture. In my native land, Catholics are seeking to retain their culture (also against American influences) with the hope of preserving or regaining their faith.
We can be faithful Catholics wherever we may find ourselves. European Catholics will continue to regard the American model of separating churches and state with no intermediating Catholic culture with suspicion — as too close to French laïcité for comfort. American Catholics will continue to regard European rituals, practices, and state support for religion as empty vessels. But it would be beneficial for us as members of a worldwide Church if we could appreciate these differences by learning from and inspiring each other. At a time of bad news about religion in Europe, the good news is that Catholicism in parts of the continent is clearly undead.