In his latest Apostolic Exhortation, Pope John Paul II issues the following challenge: "Europe, as you stand at the beginning of the third millennium, open the doors to Christ! Be yourself. Rediscover your origins. Relive your roots."
Of all the continents to which the Pope has addressed such documents, none has elicited from him such a sense of urgency as did Europe - given the continuing marginalisation of its Christian heritage amid growing materialism and secularism.
During Vespers on 28 June in St Peter's Basilica, the Holy Father signed and promulgated the Post-Synodal document Ecclesia in Europa, noting that it was the result of what had emerged during the October 1999 Synod for Europe, with its theme "Jesus Christ, Living in His Church, Source of Hope for Europe".
The theme of hope lies at the heart of the new document. As John Paul II observes in his introduction: "The Synod Fathers saw that possibly the most urgent matter Europe faces, in both East and West, is a growing need for hope, a hope which will enable us to give meaning to life and history and to continue on our way together."
This need is underlined by the fact that Europe - despite its deep Christian roots - has fast become the world's most secularised continent. This development, while also evident in Australia and North America, is most pronounced in Western Europe with, as the Pope put it, the "loss" of its "Christian memory and heritage, accompanied by a kind of practical agnosticism and religious indifference whereby many Europeans give the impression of living without spiritual roots and somewhat like heirs who have squandered a patrimony entrusted to them by history."
This rootlessness is evident in "the diminishing number of births, the decline in the number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and the difficulty, if not the outright refusal, to make lifelong commitments, including marriage."
In place of religion has come "the unrestrained development of nihilism in philosophy, of relativism in values and morality, and of pragmatism and even a cynical hedonism in daily life."
By contrast, the Church offers "faith in Jesus Christ, the source of the hope that does not disappoint", along with "recognition of the value of the human person and his inalienable dignity, the sacredness of human life and the centrality of the family, the importance of education and freedom of thought, speech and religion, the legal protection of individuals and groups, the promotion of solidarity and the common good, and the recognition of the dignity of labour".
Hence, a vigorous re-evangelisation is imperative: "Many Europeans today think they know what Christianity is, yet they do not really know it at all ... The great certainties of the faith are being undermined in many people by a vague religiosity lacking real commitment; various forms of agnosticism and practical atheism are spreading ... Some people have been affected by the spirit of an immanentist humanism, which has weakened the faith and often, tragically, led to its complete abandonment."
Credible, properly trained evangelisers - true "witnesses" to the faith - are urgently needed to address this spiritual crisis.
The rapid growth of the Muslim population in Europe is also noted, along with the need for "a profound and perceptive interreligious dialogue". The Pope identifies "the notable gap between European culture, with its profound Christian roots, and Muslim thought", adding, pointedly, that the Church "should feel the need to insist that reciprocity in guaranteeing religious freedom also be observed in countries of different religious traditions, where Christians are a minority."
There has clearly been a double standard whereby some predominantly Muslim countries have denied the free exercise of their faith to Christian minorities, while expecting Muslim minorities in predominantly Christian countries to be treated with generous tolerance.
Turning to the Mass and sacraments, the Holy Father calls for revival of an "authentic sense of the liturgy" and the proper formation of consciences: "The Synod Fathers have insisted on the recognition of the reality of personal sin and the necessity of personal forgiveness by God through the ministry of the priest. Collective absolutions are not an alternative way of administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation."
Gospel of life
Marriage and family are likewise of central concern: "The value of marital indissolubility is increasingly denied; demands are made for the legal recognition of de facto relationships as if they were comparable to legitimate marriages; and attempts are made to accept a definition of the couple in which difference of sex is not considered essential."
In addition, the Church has to confront the growing acceptance of such evils as abortion, "forms of intervention on human embryos", and euthanasia. "Given this state of affairs", he said, "it is necessary to serve the Gospel of life through a general mobilisation of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life."
Concluding Ecclesia in Europa, John Paul II underlines the fact that "modern Europe itself, which has given the democratic ideal and human rights to the world, draws its values from its Christian heritage." Above all, therefore, he challenges Europe "to rediscover its true identity."
In this regard, he appeals "to those drawing up the future European constitutional treaty" that they "include a reference to the religious and in particular the Christian heritage of Europe." Further: "For Europe to be built on solid foundations, there is a need to call upon authentic values grounded in the universal moral law written on the heart of every man and woman."