"The cultural and religious changes in Europe prompt us to formulate a pastoral response. As never before the future of Europe seems charged with opportunities," stated Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops, in his address. He stressed the key was "fidelity to Christ and to his Gospel."
In his opening address Bishop Amédée Grab, president of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences (CCEE), spoke about the Catholic identity in Europe. He observed that for many people today the Catholic Church is "just one of many spiritual choices or 'possibilities,' in a world where the 'right to choose' is seen as vitally important." Moreover, many Europeans have only a superficial knowledge of the Church, and even where Catholic traditions are still observed, their roots have been forgotten.
Regarding relations between the Church and society, Bishop Grab observed that democracy is now prevalent throughout Europe. In theory this should guarantee everyone the same rights. "But we often hear influential people say how they would like to prevent the Catholic Church playing a part in political and democratic life."
"Tolerance is what is preached, but some find it hard to tolerate the Church speaking publicly," the 74-year-old Swiss prelate added. "The tendency to confine religion to the private sphere is as much part of life in the West of Europe as it is in the East. It is a product as much of the communist vision as of a certain kind of liberalism."
Citing John Paul II, Bishop Grab recommended that the Church develop pastoral initiatives that both take contemporary culture into consideration, and are centered in Christ. "If we look to Christ crucified, we have a different key for interpreting reality, where success has hardly anything to do with the concepts of success normally used in Europe today," he said.
The meeting's host was Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. The 72-year-old archbishop of Westminster agreed that support for the Church in society is weak. "But the search for faith is strong," he added. He noted that the Church's action in helping the poor and disadvantaged continues to be very strong.
"We come together at a crucial time in the pilgrim journey of the Catholic Church," stated Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor in his homily during a Mass celebrated last Sunday at St. Anne's Cathedral, Leeds.
At the start of the third millennium, "we bishops have the task of preaching and teaching the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of our time," he said. This, he explained, involves two main challenges.
"The first is this. St. Paul says in today's reading, 'Keep as your pattern the sound teaching you have heard from me in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. You have been entrusted to look after something precious. Guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.'"
Many in Europe, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor explained, are looking for values "that will give meaning to their lives and purpose to their activities." Filling this void with God is a responsibility for bishops and all those who work with them, both priests and lay people. This is not a burden, but a privilege, he added.
The cardinal recommended avoiding two extremes: a rigidity that prevents others from hearing the message to be preached; and an excessive conformity to the ways and values of the world that distorts the truth of the Gospel.
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor once more cited St. Paul in outlining the second challenge. "St. Paul says in his letter to Timothy, 'I am reminding you to fan into a flame the gift that God gave you when I laid my hands on you. God's gift was not a spirit of timidity but the spirit of power, and love, and self-control.'"
"Do not think, my dear people, that it is easy to be a Christian, a Catholic, in today's society, in the latter-day culture of Europe, to which we all belong," the cardinal said. An example of how to strengthen the faith in Europe can be found in St. Francis of Assisi, he added.
The following day was the feast of the patron of Europe, and Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor observed: "I think St. Francis teaches us that there is no way we will be missionaries in Europe without striving to be holy, without striving to imitate Christ."
The meeting also addressed a variety of other themes, among them ecumenism. The Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was present and emphasized the importance of "spiritual ecumenism" based in the recognition of belonging to the Body of Christ. He admitted that there are uncertainties about what form of institution the churches may achieve. But he reaffirmed the need to continue efforts based on prayer, common witness, meetings, dialogue and authentic friendships.
The presidents of the Catholic bishops' conferences from countries where the Orthodox Church is the majority spoke of a mixture of "light and dark." Divisions still exist, they noted, but progress has been made.
Another matter dealt with was the new Constitution of the European Union. Archbishop Sean Brady of Armagh, primate of all Ireland, described the document as a "complex matter" and said that the absence of reference to God in the preamble was "particularly disappointing."
Commenting on the growing unity in Europe, Archbishop Brady, 65, said: "European integration is built on the principle of solidarity and interdependence, in the service of peace. In the end, this is an essentially Christian ideal. In concept at least, and I believe to a significant degree in reality, the EU offers a model of nations with distinct identities working collectively for the common good, drawing on each others' strengths and addressing each others; weaknesses collectively. It has certainly had a tremendous impact on the Irish economy and the also on the Northern Ireland peace process."
The meeting also looked at the anthropological importance of the bioethical issues arising in numerous areas of European policy.
Other themes discussed by the meeting included catechesis and pastoral care in schools and universities. On the matter of vocations and the work of the European Vocations Service (EVS), Salzburg Archbishop Alois Kothgasser, 67, said that the EVS had paid particular attention to the formation of an integral vocations ministry, with the aim of spreading the message that "the real adventure of life is in Christ."
Migration was another concern of the bishops, with many of them concerned about the need to provide adequate pastoral care. Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool stressed that, particularly for migrants, the Church is their true home.
Archbishop Kelly, 65, also presented a report on the bishops' efforts to demonstrate solidarity with the Christians of the Holy Land. "Europe is needed by the Holy Land, and we need the Holy Land," he said.
One of the conclusions reached at the end of the meeting was the need to strengthen cooperation among the European bishops' conferences. One of the areas where this will be applied is related to evangelization and dialogue with other denominations, Churches and cultures. The CCEE will establish a commission on "evangelization and dialogue."
In a message to the meeting, John Paul II said: "Your commitment to a new evangelization is an act of faith in the perennial value of the Gospel, which in the history of the peoples of Europe has produced abundant fruits of holiness, education, culture and civilization." More than ever Europe needs the Gospel message.