Compared with his predecessor, who was elected pope at the age of 58, he knows he has a limited time and has been rather direct in advancing his theme. The poles of his papacy might be seen in the subjects of two books by him just being released in the United States. One is about Jesus. The other is titled “Europe Today and Tomorrow.” Benedict is one of the most intellectual men ever to serve as pope — and surely one of the most intellectual of current world leaders — and he has pinpointed the problem of the age, as well as its solution, at the level of philosophy. His argument, elaborated in the years leading up to his election and continuing through his daily speeches and pronouncements, reduces to something like this: Secularism may be one of the great developments in history, but the secularism that holds sway in much of the West — that is, in Western Europe — is flawed; it has a bug in its programming. The mistaken conviction that reason and faith are two distinct realms has weakened Europe and has brought it to the verge of catastrophic collapse. As he said in a speech in 2004: “There exist pathologies in religion that are extremely dangerous and that make it necessary to see the divine light of reason as a ‘controlling organ.’ . . . However . . . there are also pathologies of reason . . . there is a hubris of reason that is no less dangerous.” If you seek a way out of the vast post-9/11 quagmire (Baghdad bomb blasts, Iranian nukes, Danish cartoons, ever-more-bizarre airport security measures and the looming mayhem they are meant to stop), and for that matter if you believe in Europe and “the West” (the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, the whole heritage of 2,500 years of history), then now, Benedict in effect argues, the Catholic Church must be heeded. Because its tradition was filtered through the Enlightenment, the thinking goes, the church can provide a bridge between godless rationality and religious fundamentalism.At first glance Christianity appears to be dead in Europe:
But spirituality is not dead in Europe:
Six nights before Christmas, I wandered into the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in central Rome. The church is one of Catholicism’s great Gothic temples, a soaring, vaulted space in which the tombs of popes and saints line the nave. The building dates to the 13th century, but as its name suggests, its lineage goes much further back. It was erected on the site of an eighth-century church, which in turn was constructed over an ancient shrine to the Roman goddess of wisdom.
As it happened, vespers Mass was just beginning, so I slid into a pew. This being the holy season, the Mass featured a phalanx of seven priests, resplendent in purple raiments. What skewed the picture was the congregation: a total of 11 people, all but lost in the soaring stony grandeur, the only ones clearly under the age of 70 being three African women in head scarves and floral dresses. It may have been incongruous, but it wasn’t unexpected. This is the face of European Catholicism — of Christianity in general in Europe — that we have come to expect in recent years as studies and news reports back up the notion of a continent that has seemingly outgrown its ancient spiritual practices: the splendor and majesty of the Western tradition reduced to a geriatric, art-filled echo chamber.
Piety and community: the Brethren spirit is alive and well in post-Christian Europe.
Or consider that after I attended the nearly empty Christmas season Mass at Sopra Minerva in Rome, I strolled a few hundred yards away, just across the Tiber, to find a radically different spectacle. The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere is just as ancient and just as packed with icons that are featured in art-history texts as Sopra Minerva. Here 300 people filled the pews, as is more or less the case seven nights a week at 8:30 p.m. They were mostly in their 20s to 40s, most seemed to be professionals, a group both well shod and featuring some extreme eyewear. The setting couldn’t have been more Catholic, and yet it wasn’t a Mass that was taking place. No priest officiated; there was no Communion offered, no body and blood of Christ. It was an energetic, soulful lay service, a 30-minute meditation — a well-orchestrated mix of prayer and song on a spot where Christians have celebrated their rites since around 300 A.D., conducted by and for ordinary people. Precisely at 9 o’clock it ended; people gathered into clusters and chatted briefly and then everyone headed into the night.
This is the home church of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay movement that began here in the Trastevere section of Rome in 1968 and now has a presence in 70 countries. The roots of it are these prayer events, which take place every evening in cities around the world. “I would say half of us had left the church or were never in the church,” Leone Gianturco, a 44-year-old economist with the Italian Treasury, told me following the service. “This is personal fellowship. It’s a community that makes sense for us.”
Lay Catholic movements have made little headway in the United States, but they have proliferated in Europe. The secret of the lay movements, Pecklers, the liturgical history professor, says, is that “they have a language that reaches people. Look at the average European parish, where there aren’t many people in church for Mass. They don’t know one another, the priest comes out of the sacristy and begins Mass. There’s no contact between the priest and the people. The homily may be quite abstract. What would attract a young Italian or Spaniard to go to church, except obligation? The individual is not being nourished. That’s why you find people shopping around.”
Each lay group attracts particular kinds of people. Sant’Egidio’s focus on poverty and peace draws activists. Its leaders helped mediate between warring factions in Mozambique, Uganda and Kosovo; several times the group has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The current focus is on a program to make H.I.V. drug therapy more widely available in Africa. (The program also includes distribution of condoms, but quietly, since Sant’Egidio wants to maintain good relations with the Vatican.)
Focolare, another lay movement that began in Italy and has spread worldwide, has a more inward focus and a more conservative bent. The core members live together in small units of three to five people, which are the contact points for the wider community. The organizing principle is “unity.” “We achieve this unity by loving, because when we love one another then Jesus is present, and it grows, so that 2 or 3 becomes 10 or 20,” says Julian Ciabattini, a member of the Focolare board. Focolare claims two million followers worldwide, with the strongest growth in Italy, Germany, Brazil and Argentina.
Most of these lay Catholic movements began in the 1960s and ’70s in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, started by young Catholics who chafed under the top-down system of control operated by elderly celibate males. The groups remained small for years. Since they existed outside the power structure of the church, they weren’t entirely understood by church leaders, many of whom were suspicious. But early in his pontificate John Paul II embraced and encouraged the movements and gave them official standing, so that during his tenure the varieties of lay groups and their membership increased precipitously. When John Paul held the first World Congress of Ecclesial Movements and New Communities in 1998, 400,000 people, representing more than 100 lay Catholic groups, gathered in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. That was one indication, for many church leaders, that something remarkable was afoot.