A few weeks ago, the well-known and much respected US based Pew Research Centre published a report titled “Being Christian In Western Europe.” The report was based on a detailed survey of the present state of Christianity in fifteen West European countries. Although the findings are about the situation in Europe, I find that they have topical relevance to our Church here as well. Having been somewhat familiar with the European situation, I was not shocked by the report because the fundamental attitudinal changes among young people had begun to manifest themselves by the middle of the last century. The Woodstock Festival held in New York State in 1969 was only the harbinger of this oncoming revolution. The Pew Report has only confirmed that trend.
Without going into the details of the report, a few of its major findings can be mentioned here. First and foremost is the fact that despite being called Christian Europe, a huge majority of those who claim to be Christians are indeed non practicing Christians While an average of 71% claim to be baptized only about 20% are Church going Christians. Interestingly, most non practicing Christians claim to believe in God but not a Biblical God.
It is not only in religious observances that non practicing Christians have lost interest but also in the numerous Church structures within the Church. They do not give much credibility to those who are supposed to represent the teaching authority of the Church. I am reminded of what young Europeans used to us in the early fifties—“I believe in Jesus Christ but not in the Church.”
When we come to what are usually called Christian values, there is a twist. Even the non-practicing Christians believe that the Churches and religious organizations can play a part, especially in the matter of helping the poor and the needy. For them, science and scientific analysis make religion unnecessary. All of them consider European culture to be superior to all other cultures forgetting the fact that the so called European culture is a progeny of Christian values and traditions. There are other issues also raised in the Pew report but suffice to say that what I have listed above are sufficient to show the chasm that has developed between the old faithful and the Church.
In July 1971 I was the International President of Pax Romana, International Movement of Catholic Students, its golden jubilee year. As part of a submission to Pope Paul VI during an audience given to us at Castel Gondolfo, I made the following appeal to the Holy Father. “While the façade of faith till lingers on, the substance of faith is losing ground. What it means to be a Christian is no more a question raised from the Sunday pulpit, but what countless Catholic students are asking themselves in anguish and doubt. If yesterday they believed and obeyed, today they doubt and question and one surmises that tomorrow will bring only rejection and ridicule.” This is what is happening in Western Europe today. It has come full circle from doubting and questioning to outright rejection.
The Pew Report raises two important issues before us. The first is what the new trends in Western Europe portends for the Church and the second whether these new trends have any relevance to the Christian community in Kerala, especially the Catholics. In so far as its relevance to Western Europe is concerned, the Pew Report is suggestive of a decaying, if not dying, face of Christianity. I know the Church will never die but may be the European Church must read the signs of the times. Let us not forget that there is also an important positive factor that must be kept in mind. The Europeans do not deny the pre–eminence of Jesus but only reject many of the structures in the Church. Many of these structures are man-made and may have to be modified according to the needs of the time by the successors of those who have made them. That is a challenge.
It I also a warning to the powers that be in the Church that it is high time for them listen to their people and to reflect upon the realities on the ground and bring about changes in the way the Church has taught and organized itself so far and try to become, as close as possible, to what its Lord and Master, as the Founder of the Church, would have wanted it to be. Yes, listen, observe and study must become its modus operandi.
In this context, let me quote a word of advice about the need to listen to the people given by one of the most conservative Popes of recent times, Pope Pius XII. Addressing the Delegates to the International Catholic Press Congress in 1950, the venerable Pope had this to say.” Only people who know little or nothing about the Catholic Church will be surprised to hear this. For she too is a living body and there would be something missing from her life if there were no public opinion within her, a defect for which pastors, as well as the faithful, would be responsible.” In this way, the Church of today can become a living messenger of its Master and at the same time take into account the civilizational changes that are now taking place or have already taken place.
However, there is a piquant situation developing in the Catholic Church in Western Europe. That is the divergence of views on certain important matters between a few European bishops and Pope Francis. While the Pope’s views and actions are said to reflect his understanding of the social, cultural and technological transformation within Europe, a few bishops feel that the Pope is going too far and too fast. Be that as it may, the Church will have to overcome these internal challenges to become more truthful to its Founder and acceptable to the people.
The second issue is the relevance of the Pew Report to the Church in Kerala even though the report itself does not deal with the Church in Kerala or any traditional church. I strongly believe that the Church can learn a lot from the report provided it has the humility to read the signs of the times. Outside visitors who come to Kerala are surprised to see packed Churches on Sundays as against the nearly empty ones in Europe with full of older people. Retreat Centres are always full. Our seminaries and convents still attract as sizable number of young men and women. Our institutions are the envy of non-Christian groups. Therefore, for a casual observer, the Church is a flourishing Church.
Unfortunately there is no detailed research study available about the health and wealth of the Church due to which even a serious observer has to depend upon secondary data. The display of its importance and the magnificence of its palatial buildings tend to hide the erosion of faith among an increasing number of Catholics, especially among young Catholics. In my view, the overflowing attendance for Sunday Mass is not due to the depth of faith of the lay people, but due to societal and parental pressures. For generations Catholic families have grown used to going to Church in their Sunday best. Anyone ignoring these traditions is treated with suspicion. Therefore, even today any Catholic lay man or lay woman will think twice before deciding to forego Sunday mass. The moment these young people go to colleges, their zeal for Sunday Mass diminishes until they are readying to get married.
The Retreat Centres do attract huge numbers of people who genuinely believe that they can strengthen their spiritual and temporal life by attending these Retreats. Many go seeking spiritual healing and internal peace and tranquillity while many others go for relief from all kinds of physical and mental ailments. There is nothing wrong about it. Enthused by their experience many prayer groups are formed, without the involvement of the parish priests. Yet, as far as I have heard, they do not get involved in strengthening parish life. They are happy that their souls have been liberated, a good thing by itself, but of little help to the parish which is the basic formal structure of the Church.
Priestly holiness is a sublime quality which lay people look for in their priests. The logic for this is that one can meet many erudite Catholics in all walks of life, but it is quite difficult to meet many holy priests whom lay people can meet and respect. I am not suggesting that there are no holy priests among our priests but not too many with whom lay people can identify with. There may be many legitimate reasons for this situation but it is one which must be looked into, if the Church has to retain the loyalty of its flock. Let us not forget that historically it is the priestly class that has sustained religions by demonstrating their priestly qualities. Similarly, our sisters must be given more opportunities to live their vocations according to the vows they have taken and also made to feel that they too are significant partners in the all-important evangelization mission of the Church.
When it comes to our bishops, there are similarities between priests and bishops although the bishops form a class by themselves. In the past when there were only few bishops, people looked upon them with great respect. There has been an erosion in this respect. There are still many bishops who are men of holiness, simplicity, piety and so on whom people admire and praise. Unfortunately today, especially after Vatican II and with the emergence of the print and electronic media, bishops are daily exposed to scrutiny as never before. It is then that people find many of their bishops wanting.
In conclusion let me say this. Our leaders, especially our bishops, together with their priests and the laity, must recognize the gravity of the emerging situation before it becomes too late as happened in Europe. Our structures must be reformed sooner than later. We need good bishops and priests. The bishops must introspect as to how the present Church structures are doing and what more changes are needed.There should be more genuine collaborative efforts between bishops and priests. Until a few years ago, there was an oft repeated phrase “co-responsibility in the Church,” implying that all sections of the Church, including the laity, shared the responsibility for the well-being of the Church. Let this be our motto for the future of the Church in Kerala.