Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Eldest Daughter is Not Dead Yet

I had what I believe to be an interesting thought a few years ago, and one that has stuck with me. It came while looking at a map of Europe color-coded to show the pro-life voting record of each country's members of the European Parliament (MEP). What did not surprise me was that the low countries and former communist countries, except for Poland, were solid red - represented almost entirely by pro-abortion MEPs. What did surprise me was that France, Germany, and England had mixtures, and seemed to field MEPs that were about 1/3 pro-abortion, 1/3 pro-life, and 1/3 trying to draw some sort of compromise. I was stunned. I got to thinking, "By all accounts, Western Europe is entirely secularized and dechristianized. What's this?" Then it occurred to me, the pre-interesting-thought thought. Most of the world gets a warped view of America because what they see is what Hollywood and CNN show: violence out of control in every neighborhood, rich people who never work, relentless displacement of traditional values, etc. Needless to say, that is not the America most of us know, even if there are a number of very serious threats facing us these days. Where do we get our information about Europe? From Hollywood and what CNN, or Europe's equivalents, choose to show us.

Maybe we've got Europe all wrong, or at least partly wrong, oversimplified. My first trip to Europe took me from Rome to Lourdes and back, with a side trip to Assisi. I was happy to note that in Lourdes, there were many French pilgrims. On a subsequent trip, for World Youth Day in Germany, we went to Paris and Lourdes again, because hey, we were all the way over there, so why not? A woman who identified herself to me as a Parisian protestant was very glad to see our group there. "Things are bad for religion," she said, "But are getting better. Groups like yours are a good witness to Jesus."

On his first visit to France as pontiff, the late Holy Father John Paul II famously called to France's conscience, "France, eldest daughter of the Church, what have you done with your baptismal promises?" The question must have made a mark on the French psyche, because even though the number of people identifying themselves as Catholics fell over the next 20 years decline, two interesting trends speak of something different. In a 2001 report by the bishops of France, over 8000 adult baptisms were recorded that year. A decade earlier, this was unthinkable because everyone was leaving the Church; four decades earlier, it was doubly unthinkable because everybody was Catholic. In name, at least. An Irish seminarian I know, studying for the Archdiocese of Boston (where else?) told me that he found his faith in France. I joked that he must be the only one, and he replied with a fascinating description of a cluster of villages in the west of France where the faith has been resurgent, so much so that many young Catholics move there for specifically for that reason. And the bishops' report bears out the trend: 3/4 of the converts were under 40 - hardly age-representative of the French population. They tend also to favor solemn worship and even the tradition Latin Mass. There is also lots of anecdotal evidence of a quiet, unorganized, grass-roots shift toward religiosity, if not exactly toward religion, among the French populace. The French president has been eager to work with the Church, and the episcopacy and the Holy Father have gladly reciprocated, as the November 7 issue of Commonweal magazine reports. Perhaps more importantly, the same article notes that the typical practicing French Catholic is "pluckier" and "more confident" than virtually anyone in France, where pessimism and malaise have become ways of life in recent decades.

The second trend is the number of revival movements growing in France, and the success of lay movements like Opus Dei and the Neocatechumenal Way in France. A Spaniard I met during that second trip to Europe for World Youth Day told me something related. He said to me, "In Europe, if you still go to Mass, you belong to a movement," like Opus Dei or Communion and Liberation. Maybe France, the Eldest Daughter of the Church, is not dead yet.

If we humbly access ourselves, we can see that we are perhaps further along than we think: while most Americans go to church, America still produces untold quantities of violence, porn, abortion and divorce, relentless commerce even on the Lord's day, and all other manner of social ills. The faith of many Americans is clearly a shallow, Sundays-when-I-feel-like-it commitment. Perhaps we are further along in dechristianization than we like to admit. So we in America should be heartened by the thought of faith, like a mustard seed, beginning to sprout again in France. If, as many conservative Americans fear, we are about to go the way of Europe, France's example shows us that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel for us, too. At the very least, as brethren in Christ when we pray for our own nation, rather than mocking them to make ourselves feel better, we should pray for theirs as well.

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