All statistics on religiosity in Europe are clear: The people of Europe are turning their backs on their 2,000 years of Christian history. But when it comes to volunteering, religious motivations are still key, says a recent survey on Catholic volunteering in Europe. In the 28 countries of the European Union, more than 100 million people, or about 23 percent of the population over the age of 15, are engaged in some voluntary activity.
These numbers make European bishops say that “the experience of faith and the service of charity must be closely connected for the good of all and for creation.” Solidarity is not only the essential characteristic for “meeting many brothers and sisters in need,” but is also a way of “regenerating our pastoral activity.”
The spirit of solidarity in Europe today was the theme of the Plenary Assembly of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE) held in Poznan, Poland, Sept. 13-16. The CCEE is made up of 39 members, representing the Catholic Church in 45 countries of the European continent.
Evangelizing new forms of poverty, the European bishops acknowledged, is necessary, including “the lack of respect for life, the breakdown of the families, the imposition of gender culture, the limitation of our freedom, including religious freedom, and the plight of migrants and refugees.”
Regarding reception of migrants and refugees, the bishops in their final message speak of “solidarity” as an “unavoidable path,” which includes “openness and integration.”
“Individualistic culture, which seems to be prevailing as a pensée unique,” they warned, “leads to a purely economic view of things where solidarity has no place, weaker individuals are considered burdens, and immigrants are viewed as foreigners.”
Primacy of solidarity
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, archbishop of Genoa, Italy, and CCEE president, said it is necessary to give new strength to the idea of solidarity in Europe. And solidarity is above all “an attitude of the soul,” said Bagnasco at the final press conference of the assembly. Since the Church “lives in the world but is not of the world,” it is not “a geopolitical expert.” We bishops, he explained, “are pastors with the task of announcing first of all Jesus Christ, who is the fullness of truth, the source of true humanism.”
While underscoring the need to “keep our consciences awakened,” the Archbishop of Genoa said what is always most important is “fidelity to Christ, to the Gospel.”
“We have highlighted the need for a continuous formation of a spiritual, moral and ascetic nature, so that the spirit of solidarity that is in us,” Cardinal Bagnasco said, “does not diminish and is not lost. Forgetting solidarity, common feeling, means denying our humanity.”
Archbishop of Poznan, Stanisław Gądecki, who is president of the Polish Bishops’ Conference and vice-president of the CCEE, said: “Solidarity should be united to faith, including through ecumenical initiatives. Volunteering should be perceived as evangelization. Because evangelization is not just a transmission of words. It is rather the transmission of a living and true experience. This is why training is required, because Christian volunteering is something more.”
The Archdiocese of Poznan hosted the CCEE assembly to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the election of the Polish Pope St. John Paul II, the 100th anniversary of the recovery of Poland’s independence and the 1050th anniversary of the creation of the country’s first diocese, Poznan.
During the encounter’s closing Mass on Sept. 16, the bishops recited a special prayer for Europe, calling “to be able to respond with vigor and with the generosity from its Christian roots to this historical moment that the world is living.”
The “necessity” of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue was reiterated in the message, namely because of this “delicate” moment for the continent given growing tensions, along with “finding further ways of collaboration between the Churches in the field of solidarity.”
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, also a vice-president of the CCEE, explained: “Solidarity does not mean there needs to be a single universal solution, but solutions need to have a certain harmony between them. If you take the starkest example, of the movement of desperate people across Europe, solutions for those on the edges or frontiers, if you will, are different than those in the heartland of Europe.
“But,” he explained, “there needs to be some harmony between them. It is not that you can have a single European policy, but we do need a sense of solidarity where we are trying to act together for the benefit not of aliens, but of people who are brothers and sisters …”
Forty-four-year old Slovak Father Martin Michaliček, the new general aecretary of the CCEE, observed: “The hoped-for and long-awaited unity — 14 years now — since some Central European countries — including mine, Slovakia — have entered the European Union, seems to be increasingly fragile.”
Remembering the persecution of the Faith in the country during the Communist era, he added: “This is the contribution we can bring to Europe: having courage, living one’s faith with purity and heartfelt sincerity, even against the mainstream of politics and with respect to the mentality and culture of selfishness and well-being.”
Holy Father’s voice
From Rome, the message of Pope Francis to the CCEE assembly arrived in Poznan, who encouraged them “always to find new ways to achieve a generous and responsible solidarity, identifying paths of fraternal pastoral collaboration, in the wake of spiritual values, which have shaped the thought, art and culture of Europe.” The hope is therefore to give “a further impulse to the mission of the Church, especially in favor of the young, helping them to rediscover the fundamental contribution of the faith to the unity of the European continent.”
The European bishops, in the first point of their closing message, expressed their closeness to the Holy Father, prayers for him, and gratitude for his having called together the presidents of the world’s bishops conferences, Feb. 21-24, 2019, for the summit on protection of minors and vulnerable adults in the Vatican. They note that they welcome the Pope’s call for them to strengthen the bonds of communication and communion among European Churches, with a special focus on younger generations.
The plenary next year will be held in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.
Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.