Pope Benedict XVI and Europe's future: New data about fading faith in Christendom's old heart

Pope Benedict XVI and Europe's future: New data about fading faith in Christendom's old heart

After years of worrying about Europe's future, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany put his hopes and fears on the record during a 2001 interview.

There had been hints. German journalist Peter Seewald noted an old quote in which Ratzinger said the church would be "reduced in its dimensions, it will be necessary to start again." Had the leader of Rome's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith changed his views?

"Statistical data shows irrefutable tendencies," replied Ratzinger. "The mass Church may be something lovely, but it is not necessarily the Church's only way of being.

"The Church of the first three centuries was small, without being, by this fact, a sectarian community. On the contrary, it was not closed in on itself, but felt a great responsibility in regard to the poor, the sick."

Four years later, this bookish cardinal became Pope Benedict XVI, serving until his stunning resignation in 2013 -- the first pope to resign in 600 years. Meanwhile, waves of change have continued to rock Eastern and Western Europe.

Now, the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion in Society, based at St. Mary's University in London, has released a study showing that Christianity is no longer Europe's default religion, especially among the 16- to 29-year-olds who are its future. "Europe's Young Adults and Religion," was produced with the Institut Catholique de Paris, analyzing data from 22 countries, drawn from the 2014-2016 European Social Survey.

In 18 of these countries "fewer than 10 percent of all 16-29 year-olds attend religious services at least weekly. And in 12 of them, over half say that they have 'no religion,' " noted Stephen Bullivant, the report's author and director of the Benedict XVI Centre, in email exchanges with Rod Dreher of The American Conservative.

"These are all countries in Europe, the very heart of Christendom, where Christianity (albeit in several forms) has been reliably passed on from generation-to-generation for the best part of 2000 years. And now, in the space of just a couple of generations, that's largely stopped in many places."

The key, he said is that "nominal" or "cultural" faith doesn't pass from one generation to another.

A mystical spark from Poland?

It was in 1931 that a young Polish nun began seeing visions that would touch the life and death of Pope John Paul II and, perhaps, offer a glimpse of the end of all things. Sister Faustina Kowalska reported seeing a merciful Jesus, with beams of red and white light shining from his heart.

In her diary, the cloistered mystic described a 1935 vision in which she was told the write down this prayer as protection from divine judgment: "Eternal Father, I offer You the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world; for the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world."

Some of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy thought the uneducated nun was unstable and the Vatican shunned her writings. But her visions impressed a young priest in nearby Krakow named Father Karol Wojtyla, who rose through the ranks from professor to bishop, archbishop and cardinal. Finally, he became Pope John Paul II.

The Polish pope was a champion of Faustina's "Divine Mercy" devotions and, during a 1997 pilgrimage to her tomb, he testified: "The message of Divine Mercy has always been near and dear to me." In a sense, he said, it "forms the image of this pontificate." On April 30, 2000, John Paul II canonized her as St. Faustina.

As if these spiritual bonds were not enough, students of St. Faustina's writings found one other possible link between the mysterious nun and the pope.

It was in 1937, a year before she died of tuberculosis, that the 32-year-old nun had another apocalyptic vision of Jesus. She wrote:

"As I was praying for Poland, I heard the words: I bear a special love for Poland, and if she will be obedient to My will, I will exalt her in might and holiness. From her will come forth the spark that will prepare the world for My final coming."

While John Paul II did not speculate publicly about the meaning of these words, his final hours created yet another mystical bridge between his life and St. Faustina. As part of her canonization, the church designated the first Sunday after Easter as the "Feast of Divine Mercy" for the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.

Following ancient Jewish and Christian traditions, believers begin celebrating holy days at sundown on the previous day. Thus, Pope John Paul II died in the first hours of the feast rooted in St. Faustina's devotions. His last words and symbolic acts took place in the context of a Divine Mercy vigil and Mass celebrated at his bedside by Archbishop Stanislao Dziwisz, his personal aide for 40 years, and a dozen other worshippers.

According to a number of statements to the media, John Paul struggled to dictate this short message to his secretary: "I am happy and you should be happy too. Do not weep. Let us pray together with joy."

During the Mass, which began at 8 p.m., the pope looked toward the window of his apartment -- conscious of the throngs praying outside.

Father Jarek Cielecki, director of Vatican Service News, reported that: "A short while before dying, the pope raised his right hand in a clear, although simply hinted at, gesture of blessing, as if he became aware of the crowd of faithful present in St Peter's Square."

After the Divine Mercy liturgy ended, witnesses said John Paul managed to speak a final benediction before he died -- "amen."

Hours later, thousands gathered for the festive Divine Mercy liturgy. The decorations included the vision of Jesus that an artist painted, following the instructions of St. Faustina of Krakow. It framed the final public words of Pope John Paul II, prepared in advance to be read to the faithful if he was not able to attend.

"To humanity, which at times seems to be lost and dominated by the power of evil, egoism and fear, the risen Lord offers as a gift his love that forgives, reconciles and reopens the spirit to hope," he wrote. "It is love that converts hearts and gives peace. How much need the world has to understand and accept Divine Mercy!"