In the 1930s and 1940s a number of concerned French clergy attempted to respond to the diminished status of the church in France by inaugurating grassroots movements such as L’Action Francaise, the Sons of Charity and the Young Catholic Workers.
Prominent churchmen from the last century, such as Abbe Michonneau who wrote “Revolution in a City Parish,” Abbe Godin who authored “France: Mission Territory?” and Cardinal Suhard who published “The Church: Growth or Decline?” recognized clearly that France was largely de-Christianized. France has had unsettled relations with the church since the time of the revolution. Certainly France could still generate great saints like John Vianney and Therese of Lisieux. But nonetheless anti-clericalism, indifference and secularism have grown at such a pace that less than five percent of the French nation is found in church on Sunday. Sadly, the same is true for the rest of Western Europe – both Catholic and Protestant.
Church attendance and general church participation in the United States is considerably higher (25 percent participation on both coasts and 35 percent participation in the middle states). New England was recently designated the least churched area of the nation. The local Catholic Church is a long way from the days when the Woonsocket Call published a reminder on its front page that the next day was a holy day of obligation.
Pope Benedict XVI has responded to this lamentable state of the church in the Western world by issuing a new document entitled “Everywhere and Always,” summoning the church to a new evangelization in nations that were previously strongly Catholic. Certainly the pope has Western Europe and the Americas in mind. His Holiness frankly states, “In our own time, the mission of the church has been particularly challenged by an abandonment of the faith — a phenomenon progressively more manifest in societies and cultures which for centuries seemed to be permeated by the Gospel.” The pope notes that advances in technology, personal freedom, economics and migration have contributed to a changing world scene. Along with the obvious benefits the modern world enjoys from these changes, there has been “a troubling loss of the sense of the sacred, which has even called into question foundations once deemed unshakeable such as faith in a provident creator God, the revelation of Jesus Christ as the one Savior, and a common understanding of basic human experiences, i.e., birth, death, life in a family and reference to a natural moral law.” Some might cheer the loss of these truths as a liberation of man from stagnant teachings. Rather, the pontiff insists, loss of these ancient foundational truths leaves man in “an interior desert.” A man who is the sole architect of his destiny is a man without direction.
His Holiness admits a nuanced Christian environment. In certain territories (probably his native Bavaria) Christian practice still thrives and shows itself deeply rooted in the soul of entire populations. In other regions, there is a distancing of society from the faith in every respect, together with a weaker ecclesial fabric, but still there are some elements of spiritual liveliness. And alas, some areas have almost completely abandoned the Christian religion. Yet, even in these faithless places where the major population seems particularly resistant to the Christian message, the light of faith is still entrusted to small, witnessing communities shining like monasteries during the Dark Ages.
Not surprisingly, the Holy Father sees personal renewal as the key to world renewal. “The first task will always be to make ourselves docile to the freely given action of the Spirit,” he reminds all believers. “To proclaim fruitfully the Word of the Gospel one is first asked to have a profound experience of God.” As he stated in his encyclical “Deus Caritas Est”: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea.” Authentic Christianity results from a faith commitment, “an encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Evangelization does not rest on mere human plans for expansion. Rather, evangelization starts with a desire to share the personal gift of God’s own life with all fellow human beings.