The Agony of Christianity?

by card. Gualtiero Bassetti

Immediately after WWII a French philosopher, Emmanuel Mounier, drawing upon an old idea of Miguel de Unamuno, wrote a book with a challenging title: L’agonie du christianisme [“The Agony of Christianity”]. Believers – the philosopher said in 1946 – “rest on a delusion of their own strength,” but the current world does not “meet” Christianity any more, and the Word of God has actually become “dead letter.” Christianity nowadays, he added, “is not threatened by heresy,” it is rather “threatened by a sort of silent apostasy, caused by the indifference that surrounds it, as well as by its own lack of attention.”

That book is among the ones I read as a young man in the early 1960s, when, as a seminarist, I followed the progress of the Second Vatican Council with great expectations. The book combined with the stimuli and the passions then coming from the very lively Catholic environment in my own town, Florence.

I have often been thinking about those words during the years. Both because of my experience as a Cardinal, that let me realize the universalism of the Church even more in depth. And, because in these past decades, in all sorts of ways, people kept speaking of – not only the agony of Christianity, but the eclipse of the Sacred, secularization, and the crisis of Western civilization. To quote Mounier once more, “now the world as a whole shapes itself without” or even “against” the Christians.

More recently, however, the refined speculations of philosophers have been replaced, partly or completely, by the news from the media that deal with the divisions between Catholics [conservative vs. progressive, about immigration, pro life policies, etc.] or the Church’s crisis. Scandals in fact make better hot news than charity.

At the same time, the current “liquid society” seems to have deleted the old world marked by strong institutions and permanent values.

All of this will not pass unobserved by Church leaders. In the Western world, we are now undergoing the effects of a faith crisis that had been foretold more than seven decades ago, and that created the background to a specific feature of current society: cultural relativism. Such relativism has seeped into every interstice of society, and first of all hits the very concept of person. “What is man that you are mindful of him?” the Psalmist said. On this question the pillars of our civilization are built. First, the defense of life in its every stage of existence: life about to be born in a mother’s womb, the lives of children and women, the lives of workers and old people, the lives of desperate refugees who face the Mediterranean Sea in tubs.

Secondly, the foundation of society: the family made of a man and a woman, and open to new life. “Never hush a little baby who cries in a church,” Pope Francis told a mother feeding her child, because they “will attract God’s tenderness.” In the public discourse, on the contrary, there is an obvious lack of truth when dealing with these traditional pillars of our civilization. A number of different moral languages inhabit our towns, nor do they seem capable of talking to one another any more.

Never as much as in this period – again quoting from Mounier – a Christian is “a stranger in the world,” who “speaks without being understood.” I have often noticed the bewilderment of the faithful in a society in which, apparently, everything collapses. Apparently. But it is not so. Right this is the time for Prophecy and Grace. To a Christian – Giorgio La Pira taught – “geopolitics is the same as the geography of Grace.” We do need a reawakening of faith, but this “resurrection” implies the action of God first, who speaks through the mouths of prophets.

Today is their day, so we need to learn how to listen to them, and recognize them even in the most unknown places. The history of Blessed Carlo Acutis, for example, provides an amazing demonstration of such a reawakening of faith. It is the story of a boy who went beyond all others in wisdom because he simply listened, every day, to the Word of God; and succeeded in bearing his witness before the whole world by putting Jesus at the center of his own life with great strength, and humbleness.

Therefore, Christianity in our contemporary world is not only marked by scandals and divisions, but is witnessed upon by these radiant life experiences, as well as our everyday fight. The whole history of Christianity, in fact, is the history of a fight, a battle, and an “agony” that should not scare us.

This concerns especially those who wonder about the future of the Church. Because – as Mounier again wrote – “in the eyes of a Christian, there is only one reformer of the Church: the very same Spirit who inspires it.”

(translation by Dario Rivarossa)