Far be it for a Prince of the Church to be so venal, right? But still — the week-long wake of John Paul II produced an outpouring of piety and love that only a fool would dismiss or ignore.
Over the last three decades or so, the Christians of Italy and the rest of Western Europe — including, recently, Ireland — have been drifting away from their religious heritage. The fastest-growing religion in the European Union is, of course, Islam. The Muslims of Europe still pray. The Christians of Europe — many if not most of them — do not.
According to all the statistics and trends, John Paul II’s funeral ought to have been a private affair. With the churches empty and the people more concerned about the state of their finances than their state of grace, you’d have thought that few would have cared about the death of a Pope, even one who loomed as large as John Paul did.
But that wasn’t the case. In a moment few would have predicted, and surely one loaded with significance, John Paul’s wake and funeral seemed to inspire a religious reawakening on the streets of Rome. True, many of those Catholics who lined up for hours to view the pope’s body probably didn’t agree with him on every issue.
But maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe what really matters is whether John Paul, in death, can bring Europe’s millions back to church.
You’d never know it listening to American coverage of the pope’s funeral, but surely one of the conclave’s pressing concerns is the re-evangelization of Europe. The American media, covering both the funeral and the conclave, have focused on American concerns. Perhaps that’s not surprising. But it’s also a distortion of the many issues facing the Catholic church, post-John Paul II.
The church in America actually is doing pretty darn well compared to Europe. Mass attendance isn’t what it used to be, but at between 25 to 30 percent — the figure seems to vary — that’s a lot better than the single-digit percentages of many European countries.
And while there’s no denying the lack of vocations and all that problems that flow from that problem, it’s also true that Catholicism has withstood the age’s secularism better than mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. and in Europe.
Indeed, were it not for the influx of Korean evangelical Protestants, many mainline Episcopalian, Presbyterian and Methodist churches in the U.S. would be in a very hard place indeed.
Obviously, the Catholic Church in the U.S. also has benefited from immigration — in the pews, at least, if not in the seminaries. Still, though, for all the church’s problems in the U.S., Sunday attendance overall is not nearly as dire as it is in Europe, or as it is for other, mainline Christian denominations.
And that brings us back to Europe: How to explain the deep and real emotions on display during the Papal funeral?
I don’t have the answers, but I certainly believe the church seems to have an opportunity to tap into something Europe thought it had banished from its collective identity. And taking advantage of that opportunity ought to be among the highest priorities of the new pope.
It may sound like heresy, and for all I know it is heresy, but it certainly seems to me that Europe’s Catholics and Christians could learn something from the continent’s Muslims, who treasure their faith and its rituals.
Obviously, I’m not talking about the would-be murderers in Europe’s terrorist cells, those who would use Islam as a weapon of mass destruction. Nor am I talking about Muslims who would seek to impose by force the dictates of their faith on others. In the end, they are not practicing religion at all. They are practicing politics, and war.
Beyond the militant minority, however, there are millions of Muslims who go about their everyday business while still managing to find time to pray five times a day, who attend services in their mosque every week, and who adhere to the guidelines and rules of their faith. An Egyptian acquaintance of mine fasts all day during the month-long celebration of Ramadan even though he is a diabetic, and once passed out because his blood-sugar level was too low. And I thought it was tough getting through Lent without ice cream.
The next pope certainly will have to do something about Europe, something to reinvigorate the Catholic church — and perhaps even all of Christianity — on that continent. Until John Paul II died, most people might have said that such a mission was doomed to failure. But the scenes that accompanied the pope’s last days and his wake suggest otherwise.
Maybe the church can learn something from Islam, which means so much to millions of its adherents (and means too little to some that they would kill in its name). Maybe the church can tap into the zeal it has inspired in the Third World, and use that enthusiasm to rekindle excitement in the empty pews of Italy, France and Germany.
It’s hard to know exactly which course to follow. But surely there can be no denying that even in his death, John Paul was offering a lesson for his church. It remains to be seen if his successor noticed.