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Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah look at European Catholicism and do the math

Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah look at European Catholicism and do the math

(COMMENTARY) When it comes to Catholicism's future in Europe, it appears that Pope Francis has started to do the math.

In a recent speech to Italy's bishops, Francis offered a sobering sound bite: "How many seminaries, churches, monasteries and convents will be closed in the next few years? God only knows."

Europe is "hemorrhaging" priests and nuns, he added, because of a "crisis in vocations" in which few Catholics are willing to take vows and serve the church. Once, Europe was the heart of Christendom and sent waves of missionaries around the world. Now Europe is suffering from "vocational sterility," in part because of a "dictatorship of money" that is seducing the young, said the pope, in his May 21 remarks.

The demographic trends behind this anguish are familiar. In the most recent set of statistics, the number of Catholic priests continued to fall, while the worldwide Catholic population went up. Among priests, the rate of decline was greatest in Europe – while in Africa and Asia, the number of priests is rising.

Demographic realities are clearly part of the problem, said Francis. Like what? A recent report from the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies noted that – with a birth rate of 1.88 and falling, below the 2.1 replacement rate – France is the European Union's most fertile nation, with Ireland in second place. Irish voters just voted to repeal their nation's constitutional ban on abortion.

The day after Pope Francis faced the Italian bishops, a crucial African voice in Vatican debates – Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea – addressed the current state of Catholic faith in Europe.

Like the pope, Cardinal Sarah was blunt, as he addressed pilgrims gathered at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres.

"Pilgrims of France, look upon this cathedral! Your ancestors built it to proclaim their faith. Everything, in its architecture, its sculpture, its windows, proclaims the joy of being saved and loved by God," said Sarah, leader of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

"Your ancestors were not perfect, they were not without sins. But they wanted to let the light of faith illuminate their darkness! Today, you too, People of France, wake up! Choose the light! Renounce the darkness!"

Apologizing for his blunt words, the African prelate went on, claiming that the Western world has "become like a drunken boat in the night. She does not have enough love to take in children, to protect them beginning from their mother's womb, to protect them from the aggression of pornography. Deprived of the light of God, Western society no longer knows how to respect its elderly, accompany unto death its sick, make room for the poorest and the weakest."

During a cultural crisis of this kind, he added, it would be easy for priests to be "constantly in motion," while facing the temptation to "regard ourselves as social workers." It would be easy for them to assume that the church needs to try new, flashy innovations in worship in an attempt to attract the young and the lost.

"Do not look for show or success," said the cardinal. Instead, priests should carry on "with a noble simplicity, without useless additions, without factitious and theatrical aesthetic, but with the sense of the sacred."

As for concerns about young Catholics, Sarah urged them – echoing a Pope Francis theme – to "dare to go against the grain," while fighting "any law against nature that would be imposed upon on you, oppose any law against life, against the family."

In particular, he asked young Catholics to defend the faith's sacrificial approach to "love," urging them to "save human love from the tragic drift into which it has fallen: love, which is no longer the gift of oneself, but only the possession of the other – a possession often violently tyrannical."

Praising a new French hero, the devout Catholic officer killed by an ISIS gunman when he offered himself as a substitute for a female hostage, Cardinal Sarah said: "To really love is to die for the other. Like the young gendarme, Colonel Arnaud Beltrame! …

"When God calls, he is radical. … He goes all the way to the root. Dear friends, we are not called to be mediocre Christians!"

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