European Catholics adapt to New World pope

When Pope Francis was elected March 13, the enthusiasm was echoed by Church leaders in the old Catholic countries of Europe. But some Catholics think the advent of the new pontiff, an Argentine, will pose challenges in a continent accustomed to seeing itself as the Church’s heartland. 

“Our role as the traditional center has long been an anomaly, given the Church’s steady decline in Europe,” John Wilkins, a veteran British commentator told Our Sunday Visitor. “Benedict XVI was a Eurocentric pope, deeply concerned about the Church’s diminishing status here. But the priorities will be different in the future, so many things look set to change.”

Psychological adjustment

The surprise choice of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires highlighted the fallibility of media predictions and was a reminder that, in papal elections at least, the field truly is open. 

Although an Italian, Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, was tipped as a front-runner, other Europeans were prominent among the candidates, including Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Austria and Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary, who heads the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences. 

The advent of a pope from Latin America, the first non-European for a millennium, showed the Church was looking outward and stood ready to “leave its Eurocentrism behind,” as Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Doctrine of Faith, told a Catholic radio station in his native Germany. It also suggested some psychological adjustment would be needed among Europe’s ancient Catholic establishments. 

But Erich Leitenberger, a prominent Austrian Catholic, says most German-speaking Catholics had welcomed Pope Francis’s call to be joyful in their faith and open to charity as “custodians of creation.” 

“Europe’s removal from the center of gravity may well be accompanied by structural changes to reflect the Church’s universal character,” Leitenberger, a spokesman for the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Austria, told OSV. 

 “But Latin America has been an outstanding member of the Catholic family for centuries, and we should rejoice that this is now being acknowledged. There are few obvious cultural differences anyway between, say, Italy and Spain, and Argentina. Although Buenos Aires may not be as wealthy, it’s a European city in its way, just like Paris or Berlin.”  

Malgorzata Glabisz, a Catholic presenter with Polish Radio, agreed. 

She told OSV that the election also was welcomed in Poland and that the implications shouldn’t be exaggerated. Although situated at the other end of the earth, Argentina is home to a large Polish minority, Glabisz pointed out, as well as substantial communities of quintessentially European Protestant, Orthodox and Greek Catholic Christians. 

The warm public response to the new pope suggests many Europeans, however fractious and despondent, yearn for a “true evangelical Church which identifies with the marginalized and forgotten.” 

“Few countries in the world are as religious as Poland, and those which come closest are in Latin America, where people share our Marian devotions and other traditions,” Glabisz told OSV. “Thanks to these affinities, I think Europe will remain at the center of Church life. The pope will always be in Rome, and his predecessors, including our own Polish John Paul II, will still be present in the experiences of the faithful.”

Demographic shifts

Although Europeans made up half the 115 cardinals who elected Pope Francis, 28 of whom were Italian, the demographic balance in the Church has shifted overwhelmingly against the continent. Catholics, now 1.2 billion, account for one-sixth of the world’s population and have quadrupled during the past century, according to new data from the U.S.-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. 

But whereas two-thirds lived in Europe in 1910, fewer than one-quarter do today. Manila, Philippines, however, is home to more baptized Catholics than the whole of the traditionally Catholic Netherlands. Whereas France and Germany each boasted twice as many Catholics as Brazil, the latter — with 126 million — now has four times as many, and Mexico, with 96 million, three times as many.  

Despite falling vocations and Mass attendance, Europe still boasts strong Catholic bastions like Slovakia and Poland, which provide a third of all European ordinations and a clergy presence throughout the continent. The Church is growing in Scandinavia and attracting converts in the former Soviet Union, while it also contains theological powerhouses like Germany and important multi-ethnic and multicultural centers such as France and Belgium.

Priestly authenticity

But Wilkins thinks the European Church, for all its regional variations, has been dealt a mortal blow by recent sex abuse scandals, backed by the steady onslaught of aggressive secularism and militant atheism. 

He counts on Pope Francis to bring real changes. “At 76, he’s clearly a caretaker pope — but he’s signaled a new atmosphere and a lot of hopes are riding on him,” Wilkins told OSV. 

“At a time when the Church’s credibility has been shot through, he has the kind of priestly authenticity we badly need. I think Europeans will see the gifts a pope from outside has to offer, just as they did under John Paul II.” 

Some Europeans think the Church’s new direction could go even further. 

The new pope is likely to take a tough stand on issues from abortion to same-sex marriage, while liberal changes long demanded by some Europeans, such as voluntary celibacy and remarriage for the divorced, could be pushed into the background by a new global focus on social justice. 

But the pope’s description of himself as a “bishop who presides in charity” has encouraged Catholic publications such as Britain’s The Tablet and France’s La Croix to predict a focus of collegiality and decentralization. 

In Germany, the dissenting Wir sind Kirche (We are Church) movement has called for a truth and reconciliation commission on sex abuse, and is collecting 1 million signatures for a reform petition to Pope Francis. 

In neighboring Poland, priests from the Gdansk archdiocese have asked the pope to dismiss Archbishop Slawoj Glódz, citing “cruelty and bullying,” in what the country’s Gazeta Wyborcza daily predicted would be the first of many requests to “bring order to the Church.”

European affluence

The new pope’s summons to the Franciscan ideals of poverty and simplicity, stressed in his inaugural homily, could also pose a test in Europe, especially for comparatively rich Catholic parishes and dioceses in Germany, Poland and elsewhere.  

Wilkins thinks the image of “a pope of austerity for an age of austerity” will alter the “terms of discourse.”  

“The pope clearly speaks with absolute conviction when he shows how a Christian bishop should live and work,” Wilkins told OSV. “In the region he’s from, the age of austerity has been permanent, and this emphasis on putting the poor first could echo right through the Church, forcing people to think again about their priorities as Christians.” 

Leitenberger said he doubted the pope’s vision will easily translate into reality. Although his own Church isn’t wealthy by the standards of others, it reflects the “affluence of society” and will have trouble implementing norms and values that rely on “conviction rather than compulsion.” 

Glabisz agreed. The changes, if they come, won’t happen quickly. Nor will the older generation of clergy in countries like his willingly forfeit their powers and privileges. 

But younger priests and lay Catholics may well be attracted to the new ideals, just as they were after the 1978 election of Blessed Pope John Paul II, another pope “from a far country.” 

“We ourselves know what it means to be valued and find a voice after being treated as weak and marginalized, and I think many people warm to a more direct way of proclaiming the Faith, which reaches people by being authentic,” Glabisz told OSV. “The pope can’t be expected to unleash a revolution in old countries like ours. But if he preaches and teaches by example, people will soon get the message.” 

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Warsaw.