by Brother Enzo Biemmi
«Today we are not living an epoch of change so much as an epochal change.»
The charism of Magdalene of Canossa sprang up in a precise geographical area (Europe) and in a cultural context that was clearly defined (a society that still recognized itself as belonging to the Christian religion, even if there were already the first signs of estrangement). The combination of these two characteristics can be summarized as follows: it is a charism that sprang up in Christian Europe. The idea of a mission, proper to the original charism, was naturally characterized by this geographical and cultural context.
If we would like to question ourselves about the mission of your charism today, we have to consider two changes:
- a) a geographical change, which not only goes beyond Europe, but risks disappearing within Europe, where it sprang up;
- b) a cultural change that marks an abysmal distance from its origins.
Fidelity to the charism is not a simple repetition. The simple repetition of the historical forms of a charism leads to its extinction when cultural and geographical situations change. Fidelity to your missionary charism requires memory, discernment, creativity and courage in decision-making.
During these days that I am with you, I will try to accompany you in this difficult discernment. We do not claim finding definitive solutions, but we want to understand better the challenges that have been entrusted to us by the Lord and the Church, especially by Pope Francis.
As you can see from the programme, we will go through four stages:
- We will talk about the change of pastoral paradigm, starting from the situation in Europe;
- We will listen to the vision of mission that Pope Francis entrusts to the Church in his fundamental text, Evangelii gaudium;
- We will question ourselves on the model of faith that we have lived and which we unknowingly pass on in our mission, so as to become aware that perhaps the time has come for our profound conversion;
- We will give ourselves simple spiritual grammar rules for mission.
At each step, there will be moments of reflection and dialogue among yourselves and with me.
To understand better the situation we are experiencing in Europe, where our charism sprang up, we can use a common term in catechetical reflection: change of paradigm of evangelization and more generally of pastoral paradigm. To help us understand better, let us look more closely at the current European situation.
The change of pastoral paradigm
As I said to you before, if we want to be faithful to the mission, we must now consider the profound difference that has taken place between the origin of your charism and the present cultural context. A sentence by Pope Francis appears illuminating:
One could say that today we are not living an epoch of change so much as an epochal change. The situations that we are living in today therefore pose new challenges, which, at times, are also difficult for us to understand. Our time requires us to live problems as challenges and not as obstacles: the Lord is active and at work in our world. Thus, go out into the streets and go out to the crossroads: call all those whom you find, excluding no one (cf. Mt 22:9). Accompany especially those who are on the roadside, “the lame, the maimed, the blind, the dumb” (Mt 15:30). Wherever you may be, build neither walls nor borders but village squares and field hospitals.
(Meeting with the participants in the Fifth Convention of the Italian Church, Florence, 10 November 2015)
Let us first look at how this change affects Europe, the geographical place of origin of your charism. In the light of this European vision, I will then invite you to reflect on the situation of the geographical and cultural context in which you find yourself.
I propose to carry out an exercise of “disenchantment”. Let us look at what Christianity was like in Europe before 1960 (beginning of Vatican II), as it will be after 2060 and as it is now in 2018. To do this you do not need to be a prophet: just open your eyes.
A. How were we before 1960?
– We were in a context of Christianity and faith that we can define as “sociological“. We were Christians simply because we were Europeans. We became Christians as children, by osmosis in our family and social environment. Family, school and village were our three generative environments: we were born to life and to faith, without division. We assimilated the faith with mother’s milk. It was a form of “sociological catechumenate”, according to the original expression of Joseph Colomb.
– The parish and its pastoral care were “conservation“: the parish of the “cura animarum“. The pastoral proposal was to nurture and sustain the faith of people who were already sociologically believers.
– At the centre of the pastoral care of this type of parish, we find what we now call ‘Christian initiation’. This form of initiation, compared to the catechumenal model of the first centuries, was over simplified. It aimed at children and its purpose was not so much to initiate them to Christian life (the family and the cultural context were taking care of this) but to prepare them to receive well the sacraments that they lacked: First Confession, First Communion and Confirmation. This task was delegated to the insiders: the catechists, or rather, in the majority of cases, the women catechist. It appears evident that this device of Christian initiation was doubly simplified compared to the ancient catechumenate: addressed to children and no longer to adults; aimed at preparing them to receive the sacraments and not to make them become Christians through the sacraments.
– In this model of simplified initiation, catechesis was a very simple activity: the “catechism“. An hour once a week like school, with a teacher, a book, a class, a method (question and answer) and the obligation of attendance: the catechism of Christian doctrine. In many regions of Europe, the expression “going to doctrine” meant going to catechism.
We cannot fail to be feel admiration before this picture: it was a model of presence in the world that the Church had elaborated with simplicity and effectiveness and this model has allowed many generations of men and women in our Western countries to live their faith.
B. How will we be after 2060?
This exercise is also quite easy.
– We will have a Christianity by choice; consequently, we will have a Christianity of the minority. Faith will be reached through conversion and conviction. In fact, at the centre of current Western culture there is no longer faith, but religious freedom. We will therefore return to living a situation similar to that of the Christians of the first centuries. Tertullian said, “We are not born Christians, we become Christians”. From the fifth century onwards, with the Christianization of the Roman Empire (Constantine, Theodosius) the situation has been reversed: “We are born Christians and we cannot but be so”. We are now in a different situation: “We are no longer born Christians, we can become so, but it is no longer felt as being necessary to live our lives well.” Faith is now a possibility among many others in facing our human, personal and social adventure.
– What will our Christian communities be like? They will be small communities, based more on relationships than on structures and organization. Pastoral care will be a proposal, not a means of conservation. In the French-speaking world, one speaks of “engendrement” (generativity) and no more of “encadrement” (organisation).
– In these communities, a process of Christian initiation will be carried out, for those who ask for it, a process of Christian initiation for adults and for the whole family (children with their parents). This process will take the form of training: an immersion in community life, marked by the sacramental stages, accompanied by guides as in the early centuries. This accompaniment cannot be delegated to the single person of the catechist. The community will be the generative womb of faith.
– And how will catechesis be in this process of initiation into Christian life? It will be a catechesis with the characteristics of the first proclamation and of mystagogy. It will be the proclamation of the kerygma and the progressive deepening the gift of faith to which a person has adhered. We will return to this specific point of catechesis shortly.
C. How are we now, in 2018?
– We are in a situation of Christianity and faith that we can define as “mixed”. There will still be some people who follow religious habits and in need of Christian gestures and rites (baptisms, first communions, confirmations). Church marriages are already greatly diminishing. In the Diocese of Verona, where your charism sprang up, cohabitation and civil marriages are now more than 50% and the “irregular” couples according to the Church (cohabitation, civil marriages and second marriages after divorce) are now 75% (3 couples out of 4 are “irregular”). In this situation of being in the middle, we can find two groups: many / few. There is still a relatively high number of people who claim to be catholic and carry out certain religious acts (60% in Italy), others (few) have moved or are moving to a more personal and conscious faith.
It is a Christianity with one foot in the first column of the scheme and with the other foot in the third column.
– The parish and its pastoral care consequently experience a situation of “transition”. You can also use the Italian word “smaltimento”, a strong word, but which expresses well what is happening. All the pastoral commitment that we are putting into action is precisely that of taking by the hand people who come from the first column and accompanying them towards the third: from a faith of convention to a faith of conviction. Pastoral proposals, homilies, parish initiatives all have this purpose. In this process, inevitable losses take place: the progressive ‘smaltimento’ of those who are Catholic only takes place by signing them on the registrar. However, there are still Bishops, parish priests and catechists who multiply their pastoral efforts trying to make things return as they were before 1960. In this case, this means a misdirected pastoral generosity that can only lead to disappointment and frustration. The world that is behind us will never be there again.
– What kind of Christian initiation are we carrying out? In the Italian Church, for about 20 years, in some Diocese there has been a real renewal of the traditional process of Christian Initiation, based on following the inspiration of the catechumenate. All we can do is to propose a religious socialization of young people by involving some of their parents (few), those parents who accept freely to re-start their own journey. I believe that this is already an important step forward. We are moving from Christian Initiation, understood as a simple preparation for the Sacraments, to Initiation that allows young people to encounter the Christian community (it introduces them to the life of the Church) and brings together some parents, many of whom had lost contact with the Church for long time.
– And catechesis?
Catechesis is becoming, in most cases, a “second proclamation”: that is, a proclamation for those who are already Christians, helping them rediscover the faith as a matter concerning their life (their Christian life) and thus resounds in them as a second proclamation. We will come back later to explain the meaning of the expressions “first” and “second” proclamation.
It is important to consider the sequence of the scheme regarding catechesis: from doctrine to a catechesis for a Christian life, to the first proclamation.
To complete this scheme, at the top of the three columns we have added the words that connote the three different cultural contexts: the first form of Christianity is placed within a monoculture context, the third in a context of cultural biodiversity, the second in a context of a cultural reshuffle. By ‘cultural reshuffle‘ (as when making bread dough or a cake) we mean a period of imbalance of the previous context, of mixing cultures, of laborious search for a new balance.
We are right in the middle of a ford. To use a term of childbirth experience we can say that “the waters have broken.” The choice of this expression (‘the waters have broken’) is already an evaluation: it interprets the present imbalance as a process that does not lead to death but towards a new life. It is not the end of the world, therefore, but of a certain world; it is not the end of Christianity but of a certain form of Christianity; it is not the end of faith but of a certain expression of faith. It is not the end of catechesis, but certainly the end of the “catechism” model.
Within this way of interpreting the change of epoch in progress, the form of Christianity that lies before us does not appear worse than that behind us. How can you regret a Christianity of obligation and habit and not rejoice for a Christianity of grace and freedom?
The exercise of “disenchantment” just made does not lead to pessimism and even less to depression. Instead, it becomes a stimulus to “a new enchantment” and pastoral passion.
In this regard, a word from Evangelii Gaudium is invaluable:
«The Roman empire was not conducive to the Gospel message, nor the struggle for justice, nor the defense of human dignity […]. Let us not say, then, that things are harder today; they are simply different. Rather, let us learn from the saints who have gone before us, who confronted the difficulties of their own day.» (EG 263)
Today it is not more difficult, it is simply different.
2.The European geography of faith
To complete our vision we can now look more closely at what is happening in Europe, once Christian, regarding faith. We can catch a glimpse of four geographical areas of Christianity in Europe, which delineate a diversified map in regard to faith and therefore require different attention regarding evangelization
1. The area of “extra-culturation” or breakdown
The first area is that interested in a real “extra-culturation of faith” (“exculturation de la foi”), according to the well-known expression of the French sociologist Danielle Hervieu-Léger. This area most visibly affects France, Belgium and the Netherlands, countries in which Catholicism seems no longer to be part of the cultural scene. This is how the French sociologist expresses herself: “At the present moment, in France, the Church has stopped being the implicit point of reference and the matrix of our global landscape. (…) In this era of post-modernity, society that has “exited out of religion”, even eliminates the traces it has left in culture. For this part of Europe, this is a real break in the transmission of faith: a rupture, which is consumed between resistance and amnesia. Once there was open hostility against the Church, but now the elimination of every trace of Christianity has taken its place.
2. The permanence of the Christian tradition or of partial sociological continuity
There is, however, a second area, which should not be underestimated: it concerns a cultural situation that still preserves strong traces of Christian tradition, even if already marked by an important secularization process. Italy represents in some way this European area, which touches, above all, the south of Europe and, in particular, in addition to Italy, countries like Spain and Portugal, some Eastern countries close to Italy. Poland has a similar configuration.
This area is characterized by a process of secularization of mentalities, but not such as to supplant traces of Christian reference. This permanence of the Christian memory and its manifestations seems to resist any attempt at reduction. It certainly constitutes a resource for the proclamation of the Gospel, but it poses various problems for evangelization. How can one evangelize a religiosity dictated by tradition?
3. The hiddenness of faith or of individual and ritual continuity
We can identify a third area regarding faith. It concerns the East European countries that have undergone the domination of the old Soviet Union. Luiza Ciupa, speaking of Ukraine, states: «Ukraine lived between the Second World War and the fall of the USSR (1946-1989) a very special historical phase. This “long” time was marked by the cruelty of persecutions, by the ruthless destruction of Christian moral values, by the spectre of double personality, by the affirmed and lived denial of the existence of God. All this was planned down to the smallest details. The heroic defender of the Christian faith in Ukraine was the older generation: grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers and fathers, who in the most difficult situations of the years of persecution transmitted a living faith to their children and grandchildren, and they educated them to love their Church and their people.”
The Christian faith has been preserved in these countries of Soviet domination, in a climate of hiddenness. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Republic (1989) marked the public return of the Christian faith in East European countries. However, the long period of hiddenness causes people to continue living a rather private faith, fundamentally cultural, with little impact on public life. In particular, it should be noted that, in these countries, catechesis has practically had no development after 1990, as pointed out by the manuals used, the same, mainly, of the previous period.
4. The “peaceful areligiousness” or “positive” absence of any faith
Finally, the condition of East Germany is a significant exception among Eastern European countries. It presents a unique specificity in Europe regarding people’s relationship with faith. Officially, in this country, only 4% are Catholics and 21% are Protestants. The rest of the population (about 75%) is simply and serenely areligious. It is a non-religious sentiment that is seen as normal and that does not surprise anyone: a peaceful areligiousness. Guido Erbrich states, “If someone in East Germany asks the question:” Do you believe in God?” you will get the answer, «No, I am completely normal.»
The philosopher and priest Heberhard Tiefensee, of Erfurt, speaks of a stable areligious context, which is exceptionally resistant to any missionary effort. He invites us to be careful not to insinuate that the “homo areligiosus” of Eastern Germany is for this reason less attentive and sensitive to the human values of the “homo religiosus” of Bavaria or Poland or the rest of Europe. Regarding this aspect, the situation in East Germany is the same, and in some ways better than that of West Germany, still strongly structured by Christianity. “Both in the field of values and in matters relating to the meaning of life, East Germany has proved surprisingly constant and resistant to crises and at the same time steady in its areligiousness.»
We are facing a “third confession of individuals without religious confession”. We find a similar situation also in Sweden and in the Czech Republic.
– To summarize the four situations listed above we can speak of “breaking” with Christianity in the first case; of partial sociological continuity in the second; individual and ritual continuity in the third; of serene indifference in the fourth. Each of these situations, of course, poses different challenges to the mission. Several times, I have proposed to Italian catechists the following exercise: “Which one of these areas is present in the territory of your parish?” They always gave me this answer: all four areas. They added: “These four areas are also present in my family.” Someone also added, “I have to recognize that these four areas are also in me, like four layers of myself.” We are all now in a global culture, all a bit angry with the church, a bit connoted by a traditional religiosity, a bit characterized by a private and ritual faith, and also a little “serenely non-religious” because we all live many aspects of our lives without reference to the Gospel. Europe is in each of us.
I then added this question to the catechists: “In your opinion, which of these areas is the most favourable for welcoming the proclamation of the Gospel?”
Try to guess what their answer.
What is the conclusion of our analysis?
We can now understand how necessary it is to revise the concept of mission differently considering the past from which we come.
The statement “Europe is a country of mission” is not a theory; it is reality. Once a missionary Europe is today a mission land. Even religious congregations sprang up exclusively for the “ad extra” mission (the Comboni Missionaries, for example) have understood this.
Our second step will consist in listening to what Pope Francis tells us, after telling us that we are not in an age of change, but in a change of era.
What does Pope Francis say about the Church’s mission today?