I remember well the moment that Pope Benedict XVI emerged on the balcony of the Loggia della Benedizione in the center of St. Peter’s facade … the cardinals who began to appear first, the murmur of the crowd, the suspense in the air.
At the moment Benedict’s name was announced I was speaking with a reporter for Associated Press television, and, when the interview was over, she asked me if I had any further thoughts. The first thing that came to my mind was that, in choosing the name Benedict – the name of the saint who, when much of Europe was pagan, laid one of the key cornerstones for the Christian civilization of Europe – the former Cardinal Ratzinger was sending a message of hope for Europe: despite what many say, despite the appearances, the spirit of Benedict is still alive and relevant today. That was what I took to be the point behind the name.
Naturally, these recollections are provoked by today’s feast – the feast of St. Benedict, patron of Europe – and they have a special resonance for me today because I am recalling them in Sweden, a country that is, in some ways, a poster child for the secularization that has transformed the Old World. Not that there isn’t competition. The Church of England seems to be – the expression was never more apt – dead set on its own demise. The less-well-known Church of Sweden has followed a similar trajectory: a tight alliance with the monarchy and an abject acquiescence in the steady erosion of faith.
Here in Sweden I have visited the birthplace of St. Bridget, near the Baltic coast a bit to the north west of Stockholm. As fate would have it, my office in Rome is essentially across the street for the room where she died in 1373. To think that this woman, in that century (the century of the Black Death), raised a family, traveled to Santiago de Compostela (Spain) on pilgrimage with her husband, returned to Sweden, was widowed, became a saint, mystic and foundress, and then died in Rome… it is to enter into a shared European civilization, a Christian culture that stretched, over national boundaries and linguistic divisions, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. She too is, like Benedict, a patron of Europe.
Next to the Old Town of Stockholm (Gamla Stan), there is a tiny island called Riddarholm (the Knight’s Island). It was the site of a Franciscan monastery until the time of the Protestant Reformation. The church built by the Franciscans is the oldest building in Stockholm. Gustav Vasa, the reforming monarch of Sweden, destroyed the monastery and gave the island to his noble friends (hence the modern name). The great Lutheran warrior king of the 30 Years War, Gustavus Adolphus, is now buried in the Franciscan’s church.
On the back of the apse of the main church in Gamla Stan there is a plaque that talks in glowing terms about the eradication of “papist superstitions” – the beliefs, that is, of the ancestors who had brought Christianity to Sweden and built these churches. In hindsight, it is easy enough to see that it was naive for the reformers to think they could do such violence to their own tradition without the fatal consequences that are obvious today. True, the modern Swedes tend not to believe in papist superstitions, but they also tend not to believe in Christianity either.
And yet, that is not the end of the story. Gustavus Adolphus’s daughter already had second thoughts about the reformation. She abdicated and became a Catholic. And over the centuries, many of the best and brightest – scholars, ministers, artists, ordinary folk – of the Protestant tradition have had similar second thoughts. We hear these days in the news that a fresh batch of Anglican ministers are talking about entering into Communion with Rome.
Here in Stockholm, there is a church – a state-controlled Lutheran church, of course – which is regularly used for large religious services. But those services are not attended by Lutheran Swedes. The “service,” celebrated in the Lutheran Church of St. John not far from where I am writing, is a Catholic Mass in Polish. I am told that Poles are filling churches in London as well. Call it the effect of John Paul II and the fall of The Wall. Sweden has one of the largest populations of Orthodox Christians (from Syria and Turkey) in Europe.
Who knows what the face of Christianity will look like in Europe in another generation? The secular Europeans have fewer children than the Poles. The Orthodox from the Middle East are all too familiar with the importance of demographics. They have large families too.
Clearly, Benedict XVI believes passionately in the Christian future of Europe, and he is certainly not focused on the past. Next week he will be traveling to Australia for the World Youth Day. As it turns out, he will be spending the first few days there, after the long flight, in a center run by Opus Dei. The prelate of Opus Dei is already on his way east, on a pastoral visit that will take him, via various countris, to Australia in time for the World Youth Day.
On this feast of St. Benedict, it only makes sense that our thoughts and prayers should go both to the Old World and to the Benedict of our own day and the young people he will soon be meeting on the other side of the world.
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