Europe’s troubling identity crisis

Michael Kelly reflects on Pope Francis words on “elderly and haggard” Europe

I was in Santiago de Compostela this week, the goal of the famous camino pilgrimage where the apostle St James is buried. I walked the last 12 kilometres of the camino and spoke with many pilgrims who had been on the road for weeks.

My limited exposure to the trek was a moving experience. Starting my walk in the middle of the night, I prayed the rosary as I walked along. In front of me and behind me, the beam of tiny flashlights acted like little beacons identifying other pilgrims on the journey. I felt like a bit of a fraud as I met weary long-haul trekkers who greeted me warmly “Buen Camino!”

During my short stint on the walk, I thought of the many tens of thousands of pilgrims of all hues who have embarked on this pilgrimage over the centuries. The tiny flickering flashlights brought to mind a great procession of pilgrims down the ages.

Europe is dotted with shrines that speaks to the deep Christian roots of the continent, places of pilgrimage and worship where Earth meets Heaven. Yet, there is often an amnesia about this Christian heritage, sometimes even an embarrassment.

When I got to the cathedral in Santiago and visited the tomb of St James, I thought of the visit of St John Paul II there in 1982 during which he passionately pleaded for Europeans not to forget their faith.

“I, Bishop of Rome and pastor of the Universal Church, from Santiago, address to you, old Europe, a cry full of love: Return to yourself! Be yourself! Discover your origins. Revive your roots. Experience again those authentic values that made your history glorious and your presence in other continents beneficial”.

It is a plea that, at least on face value, appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Europe is in deep decline. The continent is experiencing a profound crisis of identity and appears to be a vacuum when it comes to many Christian and even humanist values. A new barbarism stalks the continent in the guise of laws that target the weak and the vulnerable for death. There is deep uncertainty about the future: and perhaps the most potent symbol of this trepidation is the low birth rate. While some European leaders fret about immigration, they fail to see that the greatest threat to Europe is from within: demographic suicide.

Last year, Pope Francis ruffled some establishment feathers when he told the European Parliament that the continent is like a barren grandmother, and referred to Europe as “elderly and haggard”.

“We encounter a general impression of weariness and ageing, of a Europe that is now a grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant,” the Pope said.

“The great ideals which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions,” he added.

Quo vadis Europa? (Where are you going Europe?) is the question that springs to mind. The political institutions of the EU have shown themselves hopelessly inadequate at reflecting on the deeper questions. The hubris caused by decades of relative economic certainty was dismantled by the economic crisis. That crisis – ultimately a crisis of values – led many to ask the deeper question about the basis on which modern Europe is built – and, it seems for many, God is definitively left out of the equation.

More than 30 years on from John Paul’s “be yourself” speech, there is little evidence that Europe’s political elite see any value in the continent’s spiritual wellspring. But, a Europe cut off from its underpinnings, is a continent destined to fumble on from one catastrophe to another while the deeper questions go unasked and unanswered.