Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed: Fighting for the soul of Europe

The following guest Op-Ed was penned for us by a newly ordained diocesan priest, writing under the name Monsieur l'Abbé:

A Conversion

In 2008 I was in my last year of college. My spring break happened to coincide with Holy Week that year providing me with the perfect opportunity to spend my vacation in Rome. At that point, I had been seriously considering and discerning a vocation to the priesthood for three years, and it was my hope that this visit to Rome would serve to deepen my conviction that God was calling me to serve Him as a priest.

I had the good fortune that week to attend all of the liturgies of the Sacred Triduum and I was in Saint Peter’s Basilica on the evening of the Easter Vigil when Pope Benedict XVI baptized Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born Italian journalist. Allam was raised a Muslim but from an early age was educated in Catholic schools. At the age of twenty he moved to Italy and became increasingly critical of Islam.

The baptism of Allam was a reminder of the expectations that Europe should have for those who are privileged to call Europe their home. Living in Europe means an acceptance and respect for her Christian origins and history. Living in Europe means throwing off the backward cultural thinking of a religious sect forged in a seventh-century desert. To be European is to accept that which is ever ancient and ever new. All of these considerations were implicit that Easter when Allam publically rejected his former beliefs and recognized Christ and His Church as the true and only vehicle for salvation.

The New Mandatum

Contrast the Triduum in 2008 with the one that took place just last week. This year, the Holy Thursday foot washing ceremony (known also as the Mandatum) consisted of Pope Francis washing the feet of a group of Catholic and non-Catholic refugees. In fact, with impeccable timing, the pope washed the feet of three Muslim refugees only two days after more than thirty people were killed and three hundred were injured in suicide bombings in Brussels, a municipal region whose most popular name for newborn boys is Mohammed.[1]

Before Lent this year, the pope issued a decree changing the Holy Thursday practice which had previously only admitted men for the Mandatum. Now, the decree explained that pastors may “choose a small group of persons who are representative of the entire people of God.”[2] Since ascending to the Chair of Peter in 2013 the pope each year has washed the feet of men and women, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This is a direct contradiction of the practice at the Last Supper. The Mandatum is a reminder of Christ’s washing the feet of those twelve men who were closet to Our Lord and who followed and believed in Him. Even Judas, his betrayer, had his feet washed since he was still at this time nominally counted as one of the Twelve. 

While this new decree concerning the Mandatum allows the pope, in good conscience, to continue washing the feet of women, he still manages to disobey his own decree by washing the feet of those who do not even believe in Christ. In fact, while using the most liberal of terms (“People of God”) to describe those who are eligible for the Mandatum, even the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium 9) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly explain that Muslims cannot claim this appellation: “One becomes a member of this people not by a physical birth, but by being ‘born anew,’ a birth ‘of water and the Spirit,’ that is, by faith in Christ, and Baptism.”[3]

For Francis however, these considerations are no more than semantics. “All of us together: Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Copts, Evangelical. But [we are] brothers, children of the same God” he said on Holy Thursday.[4] There were reports that “[a] number of the migrants whose feet were washed by the pope had tears streaming down their faces.”[5] One wonders if such an emotional moment has led any of the non-Catholics who have had their feet washed in the past three years to convert. Probably not. Even if it had, based on past statements by the pope, one wonders if this is something that he would even have approved of.[6]

A Radical Juxtaposition

At the heart of the juxtaposition of the Easter Vigil of 2008 and this year’s Holy Thursday is the radical difference between the two possible approaches to the problem of Islam in Europe. In 2008, Benedict XVI personified a Church that was confident in her identity. For him, the Church is the only force that can offer transcendence to a secular Europe: “[The Church] must first do decisively what is her very own, she must fulfill the task in which her identity is based: to make God known and to proclaim his Kingdom.”[7] She is also the only force strong and confident enough to enlighten the irrationality of Islam: “Islam needs to clarify two questions in regard to public dialogue, that is, the questions concerning its relation to violence and its relation to reason.”[8] Unfortunately, it seems that Francis does not possess the same intellectual acumen or perspicacity when it comes to understanding the challenges facing the Church’s relationship with Europe and Islam. 

Even before his election to the Papacy, Joseph Ratzinger had an exceptional understanding of Europe and its relationship to Islam. Experiencing the extremism of National Socialism and Communism in Europe during his lifetime, Ratzinger knew what was at stake in the fight for Europe’s heart. The invasion of Islamism is the next battle that Europe is fighting, and Ratzinger has offered a unique perspective as to how the battle could be won.

In order for her to survive, Ratzinger has argued, Europe must acknowledge and appreciate her Christian origins. It is only in Christ and His Church that Europe can find her identity, and if this identity is lost, Europe remains vulnerable to the onslaught of any number of extremist ideologies. Europe can only be Europe when she embraces the history of her art, history, music, and culture: “The banishment of Christian roots does not reveal itself as the expression of a higher tolerance . . . but rather as the absolutizing of a pattern of thought and of life that are radically opposed, among other things, to the other historical cultures of humanity.”[9] Europe can only be herself when she returns to the traditional worship and religion that raised her from the ruins of the Roman Empire and nurtured her throughout the centuries. This is one of the reasons why, as pope, he did so much to foster and promote the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass: “It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.”[10]

In contrast to Ratzinger’s immersion in European culture, Jorge Borgoglio grew up in Peronist Argentina in a milieu that saw itself as independent of European interests and more civilized than the rest of Latin America. Since his election in 2013, the pope’s preference for ministry to the “peripheries” and the marginalized has left Europe as an undefended afterthought. If we were to examine the first three years of their respective papacies we would even notice a difference in the tone of their pastoral visits. In his first three years as pope, Benedict XVI made five visits to European countries outside of Italy (two visits to Germany and one visit each to Poland, Spain, and Austria). In the same amount of time, Francis has visited Strasbourg (for four hours) and made separate day trips to Albania and Bosnia (neither of which are members of the European Union).

Each time that Francis ventures out to the peripheries he leaves the door to the Western world open and vulnerable to attack. While this makes him no different from the other leaders and ruling classes of the European Union, the pope should know better and should call Europe’s apparatchiks to task for leading their people like lambs to the slaughter in the name of political correctness and multiculturalism. Even in 2016, the pope’s words and actions have great symbolic and actual value throughout the world. A well-strung series of platitudes released each time the Eiffel Tower is illuminated in a different tricolor will not temper the enthusiasm with which Francis has echoed Europe’s policy of placation, accommodation, and capitulation toward Muslim migrants.  

Less than a week after the Inauguration of Pope Francis on March 19, 2013, Magdi Allam announced that he was leaving the Church in order “to protest its soft stance against Islam.”[11] It was not by chance that this act coincided with the election of Francis. “The ‘papolatry’ that has inflamed the euphoria for Francis I and has quickly archived Benedict XVI was the last straw in an overall framework of uncertainty and doubts about the Church,” he wrote.[12] It is always sad to see someone, especially a convert, abandon the Church, but the fragility of his newly-found faith is understandable, especially with the shocking election of a pope who has sown nothing but chaos, confusion, and disorder in his three years as pope. 

Walking Home          

By the time the Easter Vigil had ended on that Holy Saturday in 2008, the Roman metro had closed. This didn’t bother me, and I was happy to walk along the Via Aurelia back to my hotel on that cool March evening. It gave me plenty of time to reflect on all that I had experienced during that Holy Week, culminating with the Easter Vigil and the conversion of a Muslim-born journalist to the faith of Christ. Six months later I would be in the seminary, enthusiastic and encouraged by the Papacy of Benedict XVI, confident that it was still possible for the Church to revivify a weary and insipid Western world.

Eight years after that Holy Week and, now, three years after my ordination, I wonder if it would have been as easy for me to recognize my vocation to the priesthood had Francis been pope during the salad days of my discernment. Fortunately, this is never something that I need to dwell on for too long. I am convinced that God gave us Pope Benedict XVI for this reason and for so many more: he not only shed a light of truth, clarity, and certainty for many young men, including myself, to follow during our time of discernment, but he also shed this light on a society which has become anemic and stagnant. 

In His goodness, God gave us seven years of abundance so that we could fortify and strengthen ourselves in preparation for the years of famine that have followed. We do not know how long these years of famine will last, but we have been given strength for the journey. That strength exists in the patrimony that Europe and the Church have bequeathed to us throughout the centuries. That strength exists in the Masses that Mozart wrote and Dante’s poetry. It exists in Shakespeare’s plays and Bruegel’s paintings. It is found from Santiago de Compostela in the west to the Basilica of San Marco in the east. But most of all, it is found everywhere, each time the Traditional Mass is offered. It is this Mass that unites us with all those who have faced many of the same challenges and obstacles that we face today. It is this Mass that will save and sanctify a dying world; and each time the Words of Institution are whispered and the Sacred Host is elevated, as the sanctuary bells are rung and we gaze upon it with the wonder of countless generations, let us pray and make these ancient words our very own: In hoc signo vinces (In this sign you will conquer).

[6] ;
[7] Ratzinger, Joseph. A Turning Point for Europe?: The Church in the Modern World: Assessment and Forecast. (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2010), 178.
[8] Benedict XVI. Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the times. Comp. Peter Seewald. Trans. Michael J. Miller and Adrian J. Walker. (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2010), 98.
[12] Ibid.