The church in the West is in decline—and nationalism won’t save it
I was 17 years old when I heard the Lord’s Prayer spoken in public for the first time. It was in November 1989 during the Velvet Revolution, which brought freedom to Communist Czechoslovakia. The crowd of almost 500,000 people chanted and cheered while the dissidents spoke. But when the Rev. Václav Malý started praying the Our Father, it grew quiet.
After two generations of religious suppression and intense Communist indoctrination, few people could recite the prayer by heart. Many had never heard of it. But everyone understood it was a solemn moment.
Father Malý, a Czech priest who had been previously imprisoned and persecuted, led peaceful meetings in Prague with Václav Havel and other prominent dissidents of the underground anti-Communist movement. The police could have arrested the priest at any moment for public preaching, but he remained calm.
After two generations of religious suppression and intense Communist indoctrination, few people could recite the prayer by heart.
That cold and snowy day marked for many their first encounter with public worship, spirituality and prayer. The Catholic Church that Father Malý represented was very different from the church that I knew. I knew of the church from textbooks that passed through the government censorship and presented a very biased interpretation of history.
Father Malý’s church also felt different from the artistic and architectural wonders of silent, empty buildings that I somehow knew I belonged to, but whose mystery was far beyond my reach. As if coming out of the shadows of its cathedrals, the Catholic Church came alive in the humanity and vulnerability of Father Malý. He encouraged and comforted everyone, baptized or not. He was there for us whether or not we had found the courage to defy 40 years of official atheistic teaching and openly contemplated the possibility of God’s existence.
The fall of Communism ushered the world into a new era of unprecedented technological progress, interconnectedness and acceleration of political developments. The church finds itself now in a similar place. It can be a transformative force—politically, economically and spiritually—by standing with the powerless and vulnerable today as it did during the fall of Communism. The church has also demonstrated it can be an amazing force of change in Africa and China. But its alignment with government establishment or nationalism is problematic in Hungary and other countries, where religious leaders, appealing to a Christian national heritage, struggle to pass laws that would bring their secularizing societies back to their Christian roots. This top-down approach is not effective or sustainable in our current globalized world, and it overlooks the tremendous opportunities for revival and transformation from the ground up.
St. John Paul II’s Groundwork
Throughout history, Christianity was frequently spread by the ruling elites, who introduced it and maintained it among their subjects. The conversion of Emperor Constantine in A.D. 312 was a pivotal point for the Christianization of Europe; and from then on, Christianity usually spread through the conversion or arrival of rulers, who built churches, invited missionaries and established laws favorable to Christianity. The system of political elites sustaining the religious values and order in their countries was definitively reaffirmed and codified in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia treaties, which ended 30 years of religious conflicts in Europe, established the modern international system of nation-states and made a clear distinction between domestic and international politics.
But this distinction has become blurred in recent decades, when information and ideas travel freely across borders. As most Western countries gradually embraced liberal democracy, freedom of religion and free access to information, religious control and influence of governments over their domestic populations has steadily diminished, and the Westphalian principle of “cuius regio, eius religio” has lost its significance.
St. John Paul II understood the opportunity to reach out particularly to those outside of government authority.
Gradually, younger generations have grown accustomed to question societal norms and values and to put emphasis on personal spiritual experience rather than to reflectively adopt the religious values of political or parental authority. Thus, the transmission of faith from generation to generation is no longer automatic; and our current era has been marked by a significant decline in established forms of Christianity, particularly in countries with a historically strong alliance between Christianity and governmental authority.
St. John Paul II understood the opportunity to reach out particularly to those outside of government authority. His famous words, “Do not be afraid!” addressed to all the oppressed peoples in Communist regimes somehow penetrated even the most stringent authoritarian censorships and reached the hearts of the powerless all over Eastern Europe. The impact of this saint on the liberation of the entire continent is recognized and well documented by prominent non-Catholic scholars of the Cold War, like the British historian Timothy Garton Ash and the American Cold War expert John Lewis Gaddis, who wrote: “When John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw Airport on June 2, 1979, he began the process by which communism in Poland—and ultimately everywhere—would come to an end.”
The pope’s kiss was not merely a symbolic gesture; he literally worked to dismantle Poland’s authoritarian regime from the ground up. By celebrating Mass in the public square in Warsaw and in a shipyard in the port city of Gdansk, he was able to engage directly with the common people, who suffered the most.
The late pope also contributed to the unusually peaceful character of most of the democratic transitions in Europe by promoting the ideology of peaceful resistance and by befriending and encouraging the notorious dissident peacemakers Lech Walesa and Václav Havel.
The Church’s Fight Against Authoritarianism
But St. John Paul II did not limit his influence and support for anti-authoritarian grassroots movements to his native country or continent. He was also critical of Latin American right-wing authoritarian regimes. His visits to Chile, Paraguay and Haiti, and his particular attention and encouragement of the oppressed dissidents are often cited as catalysts to the eventual demise of the regimes of Pinochet, Stroessner and Duvalier. A particularly moving incident revealed to the Chilean people that the pope was unequivocally on their side: when he publicly kissed and embraced a young student protester, Carmen Gloria Quintana, who was scarred as a result of brutal beatings and an incineration attempt by dictator Pinochet’s soldiers.
Different from the church in Europe, the African church is not so deeply entwined with the power of historically established political structures
St. John Paul II demonstrated the potential for the Catholic Church to be a transformative force for dismantling authoritarian regimes when it engaged with the grassroots movements of the oppressed. The recent spread of Christianity in many countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East shows that the connection with the poor and marginalized is still crucial.
These vibrant churches, in countries where Christianity has not been a part of the political establishment and especially in places where believers have to overcome tremendous hurdles and persecution, prove that Christianity does not need favorable political conditions to flourish. The rapid growth of both Catholic and Protestant churches in sub-Saharan Africa has been widely reported. Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya have ranked as having record numbers of Christian conversions.
Different from the church in Europe, the African church is not so deeply entwined with the power of historically established political structures. Many may first see the work of the church alive in the dedicated effort of numerous missionaries and organizations like Unbound, Cross-Catholic Outreach and Catholic Relief Services, which work side by side with local people in construction, agricultural advancements, vaccinations, basic medical care and education. Direct evangelization work by other charities has also borne much fruit.
Because of increased economic partnership between China and Africa, Chinese workers encounter hospitable and vibrant Christian communities, which often leads to their conversion, as Christopher Rhodes of Boston University reported last year for UnHerd. The American management consulting firm McKinsey & Company reported in 2017 that there were more than 10,000 Chinese-owned operating firms in Africa and approximately one million Chinese workers living mostly in Algeria, Angola, Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia.
When they return to China, they not only bring their newly found faith with them but also continue practicing it and spreading it through underground networks, despite a persistent and intensified government persecution.The estimated number of active Christians there, which most research institutes put between 40 million and 70 million, has already exceeded the number of practicing Christians in France and Great Britain, and it is predicted that by 2030 China will be the largest Christian country in the world, surpassing Brazil and the United States.
A Church Free From Nationalism
In order to be a truly vibrant and transformative force in our globalized world, Christianity needs to detach itself not only from dominating power establishments but also from nationalism and ethnic sentiments, presenting itself foremost as a religion of conversion rather than an attribute of an inborn ethnic or racial identity. Connecting Christianity to nationalism leads to the rise of extremism and reduces one’s capacity to see the potential for conversion among people of different ethnic or national affiliation. The recent trend of conversion among immigrants is well documented in Darren Carlson’s 2020 book Christianity and Conversion Among Migrants, for example, and their potential for future growth and renewal of Christianity in Western societies has been underestimated among politicians in the United States as well as in Europe, where the question of accepting refugees from non-Christian countries has been particularly pertinent and where many politicians pursue anti-immigration policies, arguing for the preservation of Christian culture.
Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, himself a Calvinist convert from atheism, wrote in 2015 that the acceptance of Muslim refugees should be limited because “Europe and European culture have Christian roots.” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland likewise argued in a 2017 interview for accepting only Christian refugees to “reshape Europe and re-Christianize it.”
Evidence shows that Muslim immigrants are converting to Christianity at much higher rates than native Europeans.
Matteo Salvini, the former minister of the interior and deputy prime minister of Italy, used Catholic symbols as campaign props. But he is known for denying asylum to hundreds of refugees and for turning away the rescue ship Aquarius from Libya, with 600 people. He justifies his actions in the name of protecting Europe’s Christian heritage.
These arguments are based on the erroneous assumption that a secularized European is closer to converting to an active Christian faith than a Muslim immigrant. The opposite is true, and evidence shows that Muslim immigrants are converting to Christianity at much higher rates than native Europeans. They have revitalized declining churches in several European countries.
Both Protestant and Catholic charities throughout Europe have reached out to impoverished and homeless migrants from conflict zones in the Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq. Having experienced an extremist and distorted version of Islam, some of them were already inclined toward Christianity but could not pursue the faith in their home country because of the risk of death, mutilation, imprisonment or social ostracism. Bishop George Saliba of Beirut, Lebanon, recently reported to Public Radio International that he personally baptized more than 100 such refugees since the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011. Other immigrants encountered Christianity for the first time when they found protection in churches temporarily converted into makeshift refugee homeless shelters. Pope Francis’ directive for every Catholic parish in Europe to host at least one refugee family enabled many impoverished immigrants to find hospitable homes in a Christian environment.
Some Muslim immigrants and refugees voluntarily convert to Christianity when seeking asylum, even though there are no advantages in most European countries for doing so. They convert despite facing a tremendous risk if their asylum application is denied. According to The Guardian, the archbishop of Vienna received over 300 requests for adult baptism in the year 2016, three quarters of whom were Muslim refugees. Protestant churches in Hamburg and Berlin had so many former Muslims seeking baptism that they reserved municipal swimming pools to celebrate the sacrament.
Pastor Gottfried Martens testified that in his church alone, Trinity Church in Berlin, the congregation has grown from 150 to almost 700 because of converts from Islam. The curate of Liverpool Cathedral, Mohammad Eghtedarian, who is a convert from Islam and a refugee from Iran, conducts weekly services in Farsi to accommodate the growing number of newly converted Christians from Iran and Afghanistan.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, a strong advocate for greater acceptance of Muslim refugees in Germany, said that Europe’s problem is not too many Muslims but too few Christians. Europe needs a Christianity that is capable of sharing the political space with moderate Islam and other minority faiths and still continuing to be a transformative force that remains close to the poor and marginalized. Europe desperately needs a church that equally embraces all people regardless of their previous affiliation, their social status, the color of their skin or whether their ancestors built the cathedrals.
These trends unequivocally show that Christianity is more likely to penetrate secular Western societies when it is aligned with immigrants and the powerless than when Christian values are promoted and legislated from a position of power. Fortunately, Pope Francis is already leading the way in this direction by reaching out to the poor and marginalized, by his relentless advocacy for immigrants and refugees and by his astounding peacemaking efforts, especially with the Muslim world.
Francis and a Church of the Poor
Following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, who penetrated enemy lines during the fifth crusade to engage in a three-day dialogue with the Sultan Al-Kamil, the pope likewise reaches out to the Muslim world. In February 2019, he celebrated the first papal Mass on the Arabian Peninsula. However, his most remarkable acts of Christian leadership are his engagement with the powerless, such as his efforts to ameliorate the situation of the impoverished and often forgotten tribes of the Amazon and his relentless advocacy for the refugees who end up on the European shores.
The church needs to recognize that the greatest potential for the future of Christianity may be among those who practice their faith despite oppression.
He is known to wash and kiss the feet of Muslim immigrants and to welcome and offer a new home to non-Christian refugee families within the Vatican residence. He is not afraid to openly criticize cruel and inhumane decisions of powerful politicians, such as the mistreatment of refugees, the building of border walls, family separations, the death penalty and policies that foster further economic inequality, but he manages to stay away from specific political endorsements as he declines to tell his American flock which candidate they should vote for in presidential elections.
The globalized world needs to encounter a Catholic Church that is not entangled with power politics and nationalism and that will follow the leadership of Pope Francis. The church needs the examples of leaders like St. John Paul II, who kissed the ground of Communist countries and the scarred faces of victims of oppression, and Father Malý, who risked arrest to pray with an overwhelmingly atheist crowd. To be a truly relevant and transformative force, the Catholic Church of the 21st century needs to be willing to relinquish political power and meet the suffering and marginalized in their humble and vulnerable position.
Embracing those with a strong Christian upbringing as well as those who have not yet heard the Gospel, the church needs to recognize that the greatest potential for the future of Christianity may be among those who practice their faith despite oppression. In Western societies, there is hope that revival may come from the least powerful, especially the immigrants and refugees, who often end up on our shores untouched by the waters of baptism. The newly found faith of those who convert and their powerful testimonies may inspire those who have taken their religion for granted.
The Catholic Church of my childhood in Prague was stripped of all its former worldly power and glory. The contradiction between the dazzling beauty of Catholic art and architecture on every corner of Prague, and a widespread lack of knowledge of even the most basic tenets of Christianity during Communist times was an absurdity that only Franz Kafka would have been able to describe adequately. Tall gothic spires and baroque domes form the skyline of the city and witness to the former political, ideological and cultural influence that the church enjoyed throughout centuries of Czech history. Yet the role of the Catholic clergy was often reduced to the upkeep of the church building and limited service to the elderly and foreign tourists.
Lured by the serene beauty of the interior, sublime organ music and perhaps the spiritual effects of my infant baptism I did not yet know about, I was occasionally able to witness Masses celebrated in languages that I could not understand and to walk around beautifully ornate fonts filled with holy water, which I was not permitted to touch. Silent priests, who could face severe repercussions for engaging with the young, never acknowledged my presence as I tried to piece together the basic tenets of the Gospel story, partially preserved in ancient paintings, Latin inscriptions and Christmas carols, which could not be sung outside our homes.
The public prayer by Father Václav Malý in front of half a million people in November 1989 was thus a stunning event and a sure sign of change. Although the spirit of freedom was already in the air, there were still lingering fears of military suppression, as older generations recalled their vivid memories of the brutal invasion by troops of the Warsaw Pact that snuffed out the 1968 Prague Spring freedom movement 21 years before.
Despite these well-founded fears of possible repression and despite the fact that most dissidents and the majority of the public were not believers, many Catholic priests as well as other Christian leaders embraced all the risks and vulnerability and joined the humble and spiritually impoverished crowd in the public square. Under the cold grey skies of those pivotal days, their prayers and encouragement helped change the course of history and opened the gates of freedom for millions of people, whose lives would never be the same.
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