The New Evangelization - Europe


Europe in the Third Millenium

After Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, at the beginning of the last decade, the continent found itself in a situation of new-found unity. And many peoples of Europe began to experience a period of great freedom. At the same time, people urgently needed to see what this new-found freedom actually meant. The Church responded by marking the path of a "new evangelisation," since Jesus Christ alone is the true liberator of humanity; only he can indicate the proper way to follow in Europe's new-found freedom.

Today, a decade after that event, Europe's situation could be described as a unity in peril. After the collapse of the Berlin wall, an invisible wall was discovered in people’s hearts, a wall of intolerance toward people of different origins, color, and convictions, which weakens sensitivity to the dignity of persons and the value of human life. Many people believed that the extraordinary events of 1989 would radically change history and that Europe's dramatic situations and divisions would be a thing of the past. Instead, the years which followed brought similar events to its peoples in various parts of the continent. Now, at the beginning of the Third Millennium, the European continent, despite the great signs of faith and witness and an atmosphere undoubtedly more free and unified, is showing signs of weariness, which historical events–recent and past–have brought about deep within the heart of its peoples. The challenge is to return to the Gospel, in the conviction that Christianity alone can provide a unity of spirit, as it did for centuries in the past.

The "Res Novae" in the Europe of the Last Decade

Despite the fact that little more than a decade has passed since 1989, and some people might think of the events which took place at that time as the distant past, the influence of those events on European life and the local Churches in Europe is still being felt.

Undoubtedly, in the wake of these events, significant changes have taken place in the life of the particular Churches. On the positive side, a new vigour manifested itself early in the decade, in biblical and liturgical renewal, lay participation in parish life, revival of prayer and contemplative life, and voluntary work with the poor. The presence of small communities, new groups and ecclesial movements is also significant. Besides giving rise and favouring a revitalisation of the faith, these provide experiences which foster ecclesial communion, but which have also sometimes been disruptive. Various persons have been guided by charisms of the Spirit towards new forms of missionary commitment, and instilled with a strong desire for holiness.

Particularly in former iron-curtain countries, the gentle winds of freedom and the proclamation of human rights allowed a new-found freedom in activities for the Church who had lived "in captivity" for decades. Despite the tiring work and difficulties involved in reconstructing a world wounded by dictatorship and an erroneous system of life whose effects are seen mostly in the area of interior growth, significant witness was demonstrated by these Churches and the plans undertaken by them appeared full of promise in responding to the great need of "recuperating" at all levels their religious and cultural patrimony, oppressed and neglected for a long time, and of enriching it with the conciliar and post-conciliar magisterium.

At the same time, negative phenomena, primarily in Western Europe–such as materialism, consumerism, hedonism and cultural and religious relativism–have also had an effect on the peoples of Eastern Europe, making the work of local Churches more difficult. Some apprehension also exists in particular Churches in Eastern Europe towards those in the West that they will not be able to carry on a relationship and dialogue "on an equal basis" and that they will lose the influence which they have earned through oftentimes heroic sacrifices. At times, it was not easy for men and women religious from Western Europe, sent to the particular Churches in the East, to understand local situations and to work in collaboration with various Church people working in the territory. The passage from a Christianity lived in oppression to that lived in a climate of freedom exposed weaknesses in certain areas, resulting in negative effects on vocations, especially in countries where they were once plentiful.

Numerous and significant changes have also taken place on the cultural, social and political level. For the last ten years Europe has been experiencing a process which can, in some cases, be likened to the re-founding of States and entire societies, a process which, generally speaking, is a politico-institutional transition still incomplete and unfortunately marked in the past and present by forms of bloody conflict. In many countries, it is a transition which concerns discovering the proper manner of exercising freedom and democracy after years of Communist dominance. In other countries, with the crisis and weakened state of the Communist block, such a transition is marked by changes in the political order. As a result of the ongoing fragmentation of the Catholic world in the wake of various choices by political entities, the particular Churches have been required–and are still being required–to seek new relations and forms of presence. This same process of transition has also brought about new ideas, peoples and nations on the continental and world scene with all that this signifies in the realms of a correct interpretation of the rights of people and entire nations.

Furthermore, the fall of the iron curtain has produced, for the first time in a decade, the possibility of direct contact with countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Immediately thereafter, an influx of migration from Eastern Europe occurred in addition to those from the South and various countries of Africa and Asia. Migration is presently continuing with the influx in the West of people from the East and in the northern hemisphere of those from the south. The poor and the homeless from numerous ex-iron curtain countries as well as those from Africa and Asia immigrate to cities of Western Europe, in many cases in an illegal manner. This influx in populations is creating numerous cultural and social problems in Europe which need to be attentively discerned and faced with responsibility. Each year there results an ever-increasing pluralism in ethnic, cultural, religious and social areas. These situations constitute a challenge for the local Churches who seek to respond, not without difficulty, through renewed initiatives of welcome and solidarity and attempts at interreligious and inter-cultural dialogue.

It is impossible here not to mention the more general phenomenon of globalisation which interests the peoples and governments of Europe because of their involvement in the process. In more recent years, the phenomenon is causing an acceleration in the unification and integration of member-countries into the European Union to the point of establishing a single currency. Participation in this process has allowed many peoples in Europe, perhaps for the first time, to experience in concrete terms on the national level the effects of an increase of institutions particularly European, thus replacing a simply rhetorical and distant vision of Europe as a continent. In this regard, further developments have taken place in relations, dialogue and consultation between European institutions and the Catholic Church (through the Commission of the Episcopates of the European Community) and among the local Catholic Churches on the entire continent (by means of the Council of the Episcopal Conferences of Europe), structures which appear fundamental to the participation of the Church in the construction of a New Europe.

It is not difficult to see how the present historic moment places Europe again at a crossroad where the construction, union and evangelisation of the continent are appearing as fundamental challenges. At the same time, sufficient evidence points to the fact that the present phase of European history–as recalled on many occasions by the Holy Father–though characterised by significant changes and many problems, affords also possibilities in evangelisation as well as in living and working together.

Opportunities and Reasons for Hope

The present phase of European history offers many reasons for hope, even if at times concerns and disappointments seem to appear. Generally speaking, it cannot be overlooked that new social and political conditions permit an increasing number of Europeans accessibility to a better quality of life. They also facilitate the movement of persons, allow greater mutual understanding between the peoples of the East and West, result in cultural exchanges, foster a frequent sharing of religious experiences, especially among the young, and help put into effect shared initiatives towards making Europe one common house.

In the Church, the above situation undoubtedly offers new and ample possibilities for communion, solidarity and sharing among the local Churches in Europe. These possibilities are also displayed at all levels of the Church among those in positions of responsibility, even if communication is not always balanced.

In some particular Churches in the East activities have significantly been resumed in catechetical, liturgical, charitable and cultural areas with new areas being opened for the Church's evangelising presence. At the same time, the possibility of utilising the instruments of social communication in service to mission seems to be on the increase. In some countries, new conditions are providing opportunity for a new evangelisation, primarily in Christian formation and religious and priestly vocations, areas which formerly had been limited and sometimes hampered by the government. As a result of the new-found freedom, those belonging to religious institutes are now able to return to living in community and sharing pastoral activities, thus surmounting–not without suffering and difficulty–the conditions of the past. In some nations, these new conditions have resulted in an increase in vocations, indeed a hopeful sign. In some countries of the East, where liturgical life was impeded, people are now attending Mass with frequency and, generally speaking, are rediscovering and participating in the Church's liturgy in its various aspects. Spiritual movements are also spreading extensively–at times, not without problems–and the young are increasingly seeking a sound spirituality.

In the particular Churches of the West centres of listening and places of encounter are growing in number where persons meet who were formerly ideologically opposed to each other. Locales are also being established to welcome the growing number of immigrants. Major countries in the West are witnessing the development of the catechumenate and a return to the faith of Christians who have long abandoned religious practice. Some Churches, having undergone changes only as outside observers, are now witnessing an increase in "communion" with other particular Churches and are coming to know the life and culture of people who until now were held to be strangers or even enemies. With the fall of barriers, Church academic institutions in Western Europe have seen a rise in the number of seminarians, priests, religious, women religious and laity from ex-Communist countries and have facilitated the loan of teachers and experts to the local Churches of the East as professors and advisors.

Culture and society also display opportunities and signs of hope calling for recognition and appreciation. Underlying and belonging to the ongoing process of politico-institutional transition, certain actions should not be under-estimated, even if they often require an intensive work of purification. These actions indicate not only a deep desire for political freedom, and more basically the possibility of constructing a pluralistic society where the rights of all, including minorities, might be taught, but also a desire for economic freedom, calling for attention and consideration as a possible positive factor in development and responsibility.

The co-existence of diverse peoples, cultures and religions can be an opportunity–indeed almost an obligation, so as not to revert back to forms of permanent conflict and exclusion of the weakest–to work towards cultural unity. In this situation Christians have the unavoidable task of bringing about that "productive co-existence of cultures" which knows how to transform every temptation to opposition not only into an opportunity for mutual acceptance and service but also into a living environment befitting humanity and all citizens, not to mention into a great reality where a multiplicity of smaller nations and cultures can find a home.

The phenomenon of globalisation, despite its ambivalence and challenges, also contains positive elements and opportunities. This world-wide trend is certainly leading to increased efficiency and growth in production. Likewise, it can strengthen the process of inter-dependence and unity among peoples, offering a real service to the entire human family.

Finally, in the construction of Europe, monetary union has taken on an importance and significance which can serve as a major opportunity. Besides requiring individual states to re-think the meaning of national sovereignty and areas of jurisdiction, it can–if approached with a global view of solidarity–give major stability to Europe and its economic development. Furthermore, it can be an important tool in allowing the continent to increase exchanges of various kinds and in assisting a qualitative advance in living together on the continent. Even if concrete advances are modest, such progress–according to the logic that even small steps matter–does at least demonstrate the attainment of some crucial fundamental values.

Disappointments, Risks and Concerns

Interpreting the events which have transformed Europe in the last decade must not lead to forms of naive optimism but must be approached with a realism which does not hide the uncertainty and fragility associated with this phase of European history. Indeed, many new risks of delusion and disappointment exist, as well as serious concerns and dangers. The sum total of these disappointments, apprehensions and risks go to make up the facial features of a Europe which seems to have lost hope.

In this climate of disappointment there is a widespread agreement that, despite the effects and advances over the years, the construction of a common house for Europe based on Gospel values is a more difficult goal to achieve than was first thought by the particular Churches at the beginning of the decade. The plan of re-organising political, economic and military affairs–pursued without reference to Christian values–has revealed its true features only in power struggles, despite the fact that in certain nations consideration has been partially given to the good of populations.

Generally speaking, there is a common awareness that Communism is not the only enemy. Pluralism has taken the place of Marxism in cultural dominance, a pluralism which is undifferentiated and tending towards skepticism and nihilism. This pluralism, touching extensive areas of social life today, is resulting in a strongly reduced anthropology, in many cases without meaning.

In Eastern countries in particular, certain expectations have been illusory. The effects of Communism with its hollow anthropology and its consequent ethical principles was not given due consideration. As a result, some unsuspectingly concluded that with the fall of Communism all would, almost automatically, be changed for the better. Others thought that democracy would spontaneously bring riches and prosperity and that freedom would permit a flow of goods from the West to all consumers, guaranteeing work for everyone and causing economic prosperity. Instead, crisis has thrown thousands of families into poverty. On the political level, the oftentimes return to power of former members of the Communist system and a violent nationalism, which at times has arisen instead of freedom and peace, have contributed to an increase in disillusionment. Many are also disappointed at forms of disinterest and indifference in Western Europe to the dramatic situations in certain countries of the ex-Communist world, as witnessed in their being less willing to respect and defend the diversity and rights of individual peoples as well as of certain minorities who are seeking self-determination.

There are risks in different parts of European society today. On the social level, for example, the phenomenon of globalisation, often guided solely or primarily by the logic of commercialism and geared to the advantage of the powerful, can be the harbinger of greater inequalities, injustices and marginalisation. The situation can lead to an increase in unemployment and pose a threat to society, tending towards inequality not only between industrialised nations but within them as well. It can also have the following effects: raise the question of what can be tolerated in development; cause new forms of social marginalisation, instability and insecurity; place in question the harmony among economy, society and politics; lessen national authority in economic matters, introduce a kind of unrestrained "hyper-competition" and so on.

The introduction of a single European currency can pose risks not only because it can foster financial supremacy and the dominance of economic-commercial interests but also because it can lead to the construction of new barriers in Europe, primarily directed against the East, to protect the stronger economies and defend them against immigration. Undoubtedly, there is an all-too-real danger of a new division of the continent into two parts: one part comprised of countries with a strong currency and another of those with a currency unable to be exchanged, one part comprised of countries with a relatively stable economy and another of those with a weak economy; all this having consequences on society and security.

At the cultural level, the collapse of certain ideologies and the disillusionment from dreams of utopia have been followed in Western countries by a growing indifference and prevalence of a kind of pragmatic materialism. Likewise, consumerism, an effect of secularisation, now seems to have penetrated even the Eastern part of the continent. In fact, some countries of the East are noting the rampant diffusion of capitalism in its strictest forms supported by a mafia-like organisation, seriously threatening public life. Oftentimes, the people of various Eastern countries, when faced with Western opinions and attitudes, accept them without thought or go to the other extreme of refusing them outrightly, running the risk of serious contra-positioning and polarisation within these countries.

There is also the tendency to question everything, even within the Church, insisting that the democratic principle of the majority ought to be applied in Church matters, especially in doctrine and morality.

In this complex situation, European civilisation runs the risk of not only making absolute various values and principles but also unilaterally asserting them to the loss of others. For example, a freedom taken in an absolute sense and isolated from other values–like that of solidarity–can lead to the disintegration of life on the continent; a freedom claimed as absolute runs the risk of destroying the very society it helped to construct.

On the religious and ecclesial level, there is a search, particularly among young people, for religious experience in forms often far removed from the Christian faith, joining sects of various origins. In this regard, some responses refer to the reawakening of an interest in religion–as one of many paradoxical elements–which is seen in people's escape into spiritualism and, above all, into a religious and esoteric syncretism, which explains the appeal of sects and groups formed on the basis of the slightest reference to the sacred. The force of these new ideas is founded not so much in the substantiveness of their teaching in offering a new life but in the adoption of a plan for living which has only self as a reference point. Such a situation masks an exaggerated individualism which goes in search of groups offering refuge and gratification. As a result, there is a great risk of a progressive and radical de-Christianisation and paganisation of the continent. In some countries, the number of those un-baptised is very high. Oftentimes, basic tenets of Christianity are not sufficiently known. Some situations indicate a real breakdown in catechesis and Christian formation. All this puts the cultural identity of Europe in jeopardy, a situation which one person hypothetically described as a kind of "European apostasy".

The great decrease in the number of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life in some countries brings the risk of weakening or diminishing a proper conception of the Church. When people think that the ordained ministry is not relevant and indispensable or when they see it only in terms of function, they see no problem in substituting persons whose only qualifications would be the competence acquired through specific courses.

Finally, many responses highlight the danger that the initiatives undertaken by the particular Churches of Western Europe on behalf of those of the East have a tendency–unintentional but real–to be "westernising them". Instead, inspired by the Gospel, the Western local Churches need to put themselves at the service of the local Churches of the East, seeking to value their cultural and religious richness.

In the religious and moral situation of today's Europe, another basic concern deserves the Synod's attention. The particular Churches in Western countries are recognising that it is less and less possible to base pastoral programs on a presumed acceptance of a "generally shared Christianity" in Europe. Consequently, the necessity has arisen to place an emphasis on the personal nature of faith through pastoral programs which take into account the degree of instability, uncertainty and differentiation of Church practice by many of the baptised and also the decrease in the number of priests. In this situation, some speak of a danger in continuing to devise a pastoral program which, no longer bearing the characteristics typical of a time when Christianity was the dominant religion, is psychologically incapable of accepting a position of reduced esteem and social recognition for the Church. Such people seek to save structures and the Church's influence at all cost, even to the point of compromise, permitting many persons to live a generic kind of belonging to the Church where there is no need to make clear fundamental choices. The opposite seems to be true in the particular Churches of the East. Because of the difficult history experienced over the years, these Churches are more accustomed not to enjoy esteem in society, and therefore, foster a serious concentration on the important values of the faith.

Another area of concern is the Church's relations with the mass media. Many point out that oftentimes the Church does not know how to use well the modern means of social communication. Without being openly hostile to the Church, the media can sometimes convey a poor image of religion and the Church.

Towards a Critical Discernment of Some Special Questions

Generally speaking, certain subjects deserve special attention. First of all, the separation between progress and spiritual values is growing wider. Certain examples of this situation are common to almost all countries in Europe; others are peculiar to Western and Eastern Europe.

The phenomenon is often associated with practical experience more than with any philosophy or ideology. Many people live in such difficult situations that daily concerns take precedence and leave no room for other values to enter. Unemployment, a variety of family problems as well as forms of marginalisation and injustices in society affect people to such an extent as to cause disinterest in spiritual values or indifference to them.

Not every situation, however, is so obvious and clear. In European society, contradictory trends are emerging in various ways. On the one hand, there is a tendency to isolate oneself in a small world and to defend one's privacy as well as one's social and cultural "status"; on the other, there is a desire to be open towards others, particularly towards the poor and those on the periphery of society. On the one hand, free time permits the development of values from sports events, tourism, nature, etc.; on the other, these opportunities turn some people into idols for a noteworthy group of individuals or lead to a kind of collective obsession in which individuality seems to be swallowed up.

In Western countries, the separation between progress and spiritual values is manifested primarily in a mentality to seek the easiest, most practical or most personally gratifying solution to problems. Consequently, a sense of sacrifice and asceticism is lost, history loses its meaning and beauty, truth and goodness are given importance, only if they are immediately achievable.

Furthermore, social progress and cultural advancement have shed new light on values touching various aspects of human living. Women are more conscious of their proper vocation and better prepared to defend women's equal dignity and opportunities in various areas of life. In numerous families good communication exists between parents and children. Among the younger generation a greater understanding of family values seems to be growing.

At first sight, the conclusion might be drawn that the abandonment of spiritual values goes hand and hand with progress. However, since material progress alone does not satisfy the deepest aspirations of the human heart, the search for spiritual values, though oftentimes vague and ill-defined, can be said to be growing as well. But there is no evidence that this growth is taking place extensively. At the same time, it is taking different forms in the West and East.

Today, the value of solidarity often seems to be in crisis in Europe. In fact, the attitudes and conduct of individuals and entire groups, oftentimes inspired and nourished by forms of a self-centred capitalism and consumerism, are clearly visible and present almost everywhere on the continent.

Even though solidarity may be in a weakened state in society, there are many positive trends and initiatives being promoted by men and women who well remember the broken dreams from various ideologies. These programs are aimed at creating a new consciousness of the need of planning and realising projects on behalf of life at the personal, familial and national levels. These projects are based on a dignified austerity meant to bring beneficial effects to populations now living under the poverty level or in need of different kinds of assistance. In this regard, in many local Churches, especially in Western Europe, solidarity towards the local poor, peoples from the East and those in the Southern hemisphere is taking on a greater meaning than might be imagined. Campaigns of solidarity, directed towards specific goals and periodically sponsored by various people in the Church, are having some success. The practice of "Sister Churches" linking Christian communities in Europe with Churches of the so-called "Third World" is becoming more frequent. Not to be overlooked is the work of consecrated persons both in initiatives of solidarity among the people of the local Churches where they exercise their apostolate and in formation work in which they instil in new generations the human and Christian value of a real, realisable solidarity.

The situation is complex regarding religious freedom and tolerance. On the one hand, many parts of the continent enjoy true religious freedom without any obstacles; on the other, certain forms of intolerance exist and endure.

In some places where there is a formal respect of religious freedom, a certain intolerance exists when individual Catholics or groups publicly voice their beliefs and positions on issues. Oftentimes, the Church is "tolerated" so long as she stays in the private sphere.

Some countries have had decades of conflict as a result of a basic intolerance. Such intolerance, however, has for some time been slowly diminishing and yielding to a spirit of mutual acceptance of different traditions and beliefs.

After many years of imposed atheism, there is arising in some particular Churches in the East a climate and attitude of rigidity towards other confessions and different ways of thinking. As a result, some groups of Catholics wish to impose their way of thinking and acting on all society, clearly showing their difficulty in accepting the values of the ecumenical movement, interreligious dialogue and a correct democratic system.

Today, acts of hostility and intolerance towards Catholics, albeit rarer, have not totally disappeared in some predominantly Orthodox territories. Certain signs of anti-Semitism also exist in some parts of Europe. As for relations with Muslims, some observe that they ask for religious tolerance but, at the same time, they do not guarantee that same tolerance in Islamic countries for those who profess Catholicism or other religions.

In almost all Western societies, the general climate of tolerance poses a great challenge for the Church. In a society where tolerance is seen as an essential, dominant and undeniable value, there are those in fact who maintain that monotheism under any form–and therefore, also Christian monotheism–might be the underlying cause of intolerance. Consequently, they state that if this necessary tolerance is to be safeguarded, society ought to return to a sort of indistinct co-existence of religious beliefs and, ultimately, of a variety of possible deities. The question arises, then, how can the Church continue to fulfill her evangelising mission without being a harbinger of intolerance? More precisely, how can and how ought the Church announce the Gospel while acknowledging and accepting all who profess a different faith and avoiding that "tolerance" degenerate into "indifference" or "relativism"?

Finally, in considering the State in relation to intermediate institutions and the Church, it is necessary to bear in mind that in many nations the power of the State has at times grown disproportionately over the years, resulting in a decrease in number of these institutions or their suppression. Many persons and small institutions have thereby become very vulnerable to the will of the State. This is the case especially in the countries of Eastern Europe where decades of Communism have destroyed such institutions and undermined civil and social life. At the same time, however, it must be admitted that decades of capitalism have produced analogous situations in many countries of the West. In these situations, the Church is called upon to support intermediate institutions and to encourage their creation.

In certain nations of Western Europe, the Church has enjoyed, and still enjoys, full religious freedom and possesses multiple cultural, educational and charitable institutions, oftentimes making up for a lack in State programs. In such a situation, the Church increasingly ought to recognise and respect the "secular character" of the State and her own autonomy. At the same time, however, the Church is also required to regain her rights, for example, in such matters as scholastic equality and State financial aid for non-State schools, in the defence of life, in the preferential love for the poor of society and effective religious freedom.

In certain countries of Eastern Europe, especially in those of Orthodox tradition, the association between religion and the State is very strong. In some cases, this situation is the cause of unfavourable administrative attitudes towards the Catholic Church or even a legal discrimination towards other religious confessions. Likewise, there is also in some Eastern European countries those who use religion and the Church for political and nationalistic ends.

Attitudes of the Churches and Seeking Cultural Roots

In an ever-widening pluralism of faith and culture, there are some, formed in a kind of Christian Western mono-culture, who look at the situation with apprehension. Finding themselves unprepared to understand and interpret this pluralism, they are consequently unable to approach it with openness and critical dialogue. Other people in the Church are disposed to accept such pluralism but more at the theoretical level and more in areas outside the Church. This is clearly seen in the difficulties encountered–and frequently resulting incapacity–in creating areas in the particular Churches in Europe where Catholics of other traditions or immigrants of other religions can express their cultural, spiritual and religious values. At the same time, ecclesial communities, centres of consecrated life as well as groups and movements exist which seem to be reacting positively to such pluralism. In this regard, it is sufficient to consider the cultural, charitable, associative and ecumenical initiatives promoted by dioceses or national and regional episcopal conferences.

Faced with various forms of indifferentism, relativism and agnosticism, some people emphasise the importance of doing the following: rediscovering the true face of God revealed by Jesus; decisively affirming the truth; living one's proper identity with conviction; and fostering the growth of Church communion, also in ecumenism. Concerning moral matters–considering that the dignity of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God, is often denied or trampled upon–some insist that there is an urgent need to propose a proper integral anthropological vision of the person, the sole foundation for achieving a society which respects life and the rights of each and every person. Finally, there exist currents of thought which seek to combat moral relativism and foster attitudes and virtuous conduct inspired by values taken from the Gospel and Christian tradition as well as shared by a lay culture which has been purified of the dogmas associated with the tragic events of European history in the twentieth century.

An ample detailed description of the various features of today's Europe is not enough; nor is it sufficient to present various reactions to the state of affairs. Time also needs to be given to the work of a discernment which primarily knows how to go to the root of the matter, seeking to uncover the profound reasons at the source of these very diversified phenomena. This Synod and the particular Churches are asked to make this kind of discernment, if they wish to fulfill their pastoral responsibility.

Concerning the widespread phenomenon of religious indifference, many have pointed to various reasons in the vast fabric of society. The following are among the major aspects cited: emergence of a "philosophy without metaphysics" associated with a weakening or diminishing of the idea of "questioning the ultimate meaning of things"; the ever-expanding "individualistic tendencies" which lead to a society whose purpose is to foster the private interest of its members rather than, as once held, to promote the ideal and the common good; the process of "increasing autonomy" identifiable in a growing desire for self-determination and self- realisation, which is sometimes also connected with an increase of responsibility and personal involvement; the complex phenomenon of "secularisation" and its associated tendencies of social and cultural "differentiation" (permitting the co-existence of many religions and religious beliefs in the same area), the "privatisation" of religion, the "de-sacralisation" of many areas where religion in the past exercised its influence, often in a determining manner, and "rationalisation" meant to control effectively every choice and action.

In addition to the reasons for religious indifference described thus far, a look at the Church reveals general agreement that religious indifference is nurtured by certain problems such as: an improper use of goods and a lack of interest in poverty in its various forms; a certain indifference on the part of the clergy to people's doubts and the tragic events of persons in difficulty; the lack of credibility of various "Churchmen"; the decrease in the number of various places for the proper formation of Catholic men and women; and the lack of organisation, at the national and European level, of the Catholic press and other structures for producing and spreading cultural programs of Christian inspiration.

Underlying and contained in the various phenomena reported and included among the factors coalescing to determine and explain the present situation in Europe, a widening separation between private conscience and public values is easily discernable. It is well to point out that such a separation is the logical consequence of certain attitudes and choices determined by culture. When democracy remains neutral concerning values, every choice necessarily becomes a private one with no social implications. And if value choices are confined only to the private domain, they will have no effect in public life. In this situation, the difference between private values and social life–because of a dangerous democratic neutrality–cannot help but grow, resulting in a society which is always less capable of responding to the diverse calls, coming from many quarters, on the "meaning" of existence.

In this cultural climate, atheism, agnosticism and religious indifference arise and become widespread. The religious option also runs the risk of becoming just another private choice. A consumer approach to religious experience is being propagated. The fundamental moral-religious choice is no longer the reference point for all other choices; it is just "one" of many which contribute to defining the private identity of the individual.

Even more basic in the matter is the mistaken notion of freedom –understood and lived as the self-determination of the individual with no reference point to transcendent and absolute values–which leads to a mentality and attitudes seen in many areas as moral relativism, individualistic subjectivism and nihilistic hedonism. A particularly pressing problem then is the exercise of freedom in relation to truth, personal conscience and civil law. Freedom is based on the dignity of the each human person and on the truth that every person is a child of God. The exercise of freedom implies personal responsibility, and consequently, the question of truth–the foundation of freedom–and the common good–the goal of the exercise of freedom in society.

Finally, at the end of this century, consideration also can be given to the deep fundamental changes accompanying the decline of modernity. The actual outcome of this process, however, is not clear. Tendencies are emerging which are ambivalent and contradictory, requiring attentive and thorough examination. At the same time, the birth of post-modernity is taking place in a complex and uncertain context. If in some cases the mission of the Church in these circumstances appears more difficult and less anchored to traditional guarantees, in other cases the changes now taking place in European countries provide new opportunities for the Church to develop an efficient organic work of evangelization.