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Not just Catholic, but also catholic

Rome could learn from evangelization outside Europe

  • Fr William Grimm, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • July 18, 2012
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Just a century ago, Christianity could legitimately be viewed as a European religion, since only about one-third of the world’s Christians lived outside that continent. Now, according to the latest study by the Pew Forum, the percentage of the world’s Christian population that is European (26 percent) is merely double that of Christians in Asia and the Pacific.

One reason is a steep decline in the percentage of Europeans who are Christians, from 95 percent in 1910 to 76 percent in 2010. This has been accompanied by a sharp rise in our numbers elsewhere. Over that century, the Christian population of the Asia-Pacific region grew from three percent to seven percent. The increase in Christians has been even more dramatic in sub-Sahara Africa. A century ago, nine percent of people in that region were Christians; today, 63 percent are.

That phenomenon of shrinkage and growth is happening in all the forms that Christianity takes, including Catholicism. The Catholic Church, by far the largest Christian community, is shrinking in Europe while growing in Africa, the Americas and Asia-Pacific.

However, one would not know that from looking at the central administration of that Church. Vatican administrators and staff are almost all European. The language the Church’s central bureaucracy uses in dealing with the rest of the Church is Italian rather than any of the major world languages like Chinese, English or Spanish. Apart from now having electric lighting, the Vatican looks (and often acts) like a Renaissance Italian court, complete with elaborate costumes.

Even more than faces, tongues and wardrobes, however, it is the concerns of the Church’s formal leadership that show how out of touch it is with what has happened in the past century. Simply put, regardless of how things look through a Roman window, Catholicism is not a European religion and it has no center. It is not only Catholic, but also catholic, spread all over.

Pope Benedict has called for a synod of bishops next October to deal with "The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith." The presupposition of the synod and the "Year of Faith" it will inaugurate is that the Church’s mission is faltering. It is indeed faltering if one’s point of reference is Europe. However, the Church is growing and in large measure thriving outside that continent.

So, bishops from all over the world will gather in Rome and make believe that the Vatican’s concern for the European decline of the Church is their problem as well. If the exercise goes as these things usually do, it will make no difference in the lives of Catholics because it will not be based upon our experience or responsive to the needs and aspirations of the majority of us.

It is equally likely that there will be no display of humility on the part of the "head office" that would have it turn to the growing Churches in Africa, the Americas and Asia-Pacific to ask for advice, direction and help.

Instead, there will probably be an attempt to restore old forms of liturgy, piety, theology and philosophy that were incapable of sustaining European Catholicism in the face of that continent’s history and development. There may even be attempts to impose those forms outside Europe.

And yet, a humble acknowledgment that the Church in the rest of the world might be doing something right and worth imitating could actually achieve what the pope hopes for, a renewal of the Church and faith in Europe.

Failing that, eventually the Vatican and along with it European Catholicism will become like many of the old churches of Europe — a quaint destination for Asian and other tourists who will be living their Christianity with as little reference to the Vatican as it gives to them.

Fr William Grimm MM, based in Tokyo, is the publisher of ucanews.com
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