We were able to visit Catholic, Protestant (predominantly Lutheran) and Orthodox Churches. We were experiencing some of the similarities and differences of these three great branches of Christianity. The churches were beautiful, ranging from the exceptionally ornate, such as the Cathedral of the Spilt Blood in St. Petersburg, where every square inch is covered in elaborate mosaics, to buildings plain to the point of being severe, such as the main Lutheran church of Helsinki and the Rock Church of Helsinki.
All of this was quite interesting, and especially as a Paulist committed to the ministry of ecumenism, i.e., of healing the wounds in the body of Christ that keep us as separate churches, I was very much interested in it all. However, what impressed me most is that taken all together, the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant active membership adds up to only a small percentage of the total population. Most of the people in all of the countries we visited did not actively practice any faith. Many were nominally Christian, but as the tour guide in Finland told us, they only go to church for Baptism, Christmas, Easter, their Marriage and their funeral. And the same is true in all the other countries. Christianity is by and large a cultural veneer for most. It is not a living faith.
You may be aware that Pope Benedict has called for a “New Evangelization.” This evangelization, or missionary activity to spread the Good News of the Gospel, is not like the “old” evangelization which carried the message of Jesus to people who had never heard it, people who lived all over the globe, often in places that were remote and difficult to get to. That work of bringing the Gospel to all the world is largely done. The New Evangelization is new in that it involves bringing the power and liberation of the Gospel to people who have – at least superficially – heard it, but don’t find it compelling or worthwhile accepting. They have not felt a need for the salvation that the Gospel promises.
Their lives are reasonably comfortable. Medical science can treat many of their diseases. Science answers their questions about creation and reality. Family and culture fill their lives, and they have no pressing need to commit themselves to a life of faith. Except of course that they do. No created reality can ultimately satisfy us. We were created for God, and there is in us an infinite openness that only the infinite love and truth and beauty of God can fill. Helping people to recognize their need for God, and the fabulous offer of union with God made to us by Jesus Christ, is the challenge of the New Evangelization.
We face the exact same situation here in the United States, except that the challenge is more pronounced, more sharply etched and stated in Northern Europe. Seeing and experiencing this has made me more aware of the challenge and the work of Evangelization here in our own State and City.