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from issue no. 06/07 - 2004

BISHOPS. The meeting of the secretary generals of the European Episcopal Conferences

When it seems that religion has become fashionable

Topics treated at the Belgrade meeting: the relationship between Christianity and secularism. Politicians leading inter-religious dialogue. The new Constitution that does not acknowledge the Christian roots of the Old continent. The galaxy of so-called “wild religion”

by Gianni Valente

Strasbourg, 3 May 2004. The flags of the ten new member countries of the European Union being hoisted during a ceremony in front of the European parliament.

Strasbourg, 3 May 2004. The flags of the ten new member countries of the European Union being hoisted during a ceremony in front of the European parliament.

During the days in which the inhabitants of the 25 countries of the European Union were called to the polls for the election of the members of parliament, from 10 to 13 June the secretary generals of the European Episcopal Conferences were gathered in Belgrade for the annual meeting to which they are summoned at the initiative of the Council of the European Episcopal Conferences (CCEE). The 29 representatives of the 34 European episcopal bodies, members of the Council, (among those absent, for health reasons, was the secretary of the Italian bishops Giuseppe Betori) discussed for three days the “Role of Christianity and of the Churches in the Europe of today”. A topic more demanding than ever, given that the European continent is going through a phase of transition in an uncertain and troubled international context.
The discussion followed the guidelines set out by Don Aldo Giordano, secretary general of the CCEE. Starting point: the renewed sociological interest in the «religious factor», which has become dominant again even at the level of geopolitical analysis after 11 September. «It almost seems», Giordano noted in one of these memoranda, «that religion has become fashionable. Paradoxically one can say that terrorism has recalled the attention of the world to religions and their role in the construction (or the destruction!) of peace. In the Church this subject has been faced for decades but the novelty is that, now, it is having to be dealt with also by politics, by governments, by civil society… Politicians seem to have become the leaders in inter-religious dialogue!» Precisely in virtue of the public relevance of the religious factor, in the final communiqué issued the perplexities and the dissatisfactions of the representatives of the Eastern European episcopates were given space. For them «the crucial questions are: under Communism Christians were emarginated and humiliated; will it also be like that in the European Union? Is the faith forced to remain a private matter even in the new Europe? The founding fathers of Europe were Christians. And now what is happening?»
With approval of the ratification of the European Constitutional Treaty imminent – which took place only five days after the ending of the meeting in Belgrade – the secretaries of the European episcopates also touched on the thorny question of the Christian roots of Europe, not mentioned in the constitutional preamble despite papal pressure. The mood in which the topic was dealt with in the work sessions of Belgrade was reflective and exacerbation was avoided on all sides. So, as the final communiqué makes clear, «Monsignor Noel Treanor, secretary of COMECE [Commission of the episcopates of the European Community, the body composed of bishop delegates of the episcopates of the member States of the European Union, ed], presented the positive experience of dialogue and cooperation between the ecclesial and political world existing in Brussels and also in other countries. It is necessary to overcome the prejudice that the institutions are against the Church. A particularly significant example is article 51 of the constitutional Treaty, which guarantees such fundamental matters as the religious freedom of the Churches and communities and acknowledges their role and specific contribution». There was warm discussion also of the relationship between Christianity and secularism. And on that point the final communiqué reported the required distinctions made again by the secretaries of the European episcopates: «One thing is a secularism that refuses the role of religion, another is the authentic secularism which is a mode of relation between State and Church». In particular, the emblematic experience of France was presented by the secretary of the French bishops Stanislas Lalanne «where the clear separation between State and Church had not meant indifference between the two bodies», even if «the issue of the legislation about the chador had also shown the limits and weakness of this model».

European melting-pot
Broadening the outlook, the discussion in Belgrade also took into consideration the remarkable religious profile of Europe. According to the data proposed for discussion by Monsignor Giordano, there are about 32 million Muslims living on the Old continent, with an exponential growth due to the migratory phenomena of the last fifteen years (in 1991 they were 12 million). The Buddhists also, who in 1991 were 270,000, are now more than two and a half million. While, beyond statistically definable parameters, the galaxy of so called “wild religion” increases: «The so called return of the religious and the sacred, in their esoteric expressions, gnostic, archaic, vitalistic, pagan, pantheistic, mythical, is another – ambiguous – force in our culture and history. Forms of neo-paganism and philosophical movements which organize almost as religious communities and claim their own rights». A religious pluralism which cohabits with the «secularized and relativist drift», while «the commitment to that new quality evangelization of which we have been speaking for years» goes on. A multiform picture which renders problematic any attribution of the label Christian civilization to Western societies today, as recognized in one of the work documents that made clear that «Christianity never coincides with any historico-cultural situation and therefore not even with Europe or the West, even while acknowledging the “special vocation” and the historical role of the West in the history of Christianity».

Ecumenism’s accounts in debit
In a country where buildings of the cities are still gutted by bombings, the secretaries of the Catholic episcopates gathered in Belgrade also had important encounters with senior representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church, being received both by Patriarch Pavle and Bishop Irinej of Novi Sad.
And precisely during the three days in Belgrade the project for a third European Ecumenical Assembly – after that of Basle (1989) and Graz (1997) was announced – to be held in Bucharest in 2007. An initiative still in its early stages, sponsored by the CCEE along with the Ecumenical Council of Churches (CEC), which might run into difficulties of a financial sort. Monsignor Giordano warned that «an even more difficult time for the Churches from the financial point of view» is approaching, «and that over the next two years many budgets will be reduced, for ecumenical work also ». A situation which demands clear-headedness and a program of drastic cutting of projects. But without exaggerating the cuts. Because the organization of a «substantial and attractive event is a condition for drawing financing both from the Churches and from public funds».

The Council of the Episcopal Conferences of Europe

The Council of the Episcopal Conferences of Europe (CCEE) is a body for liaison and pastoral collaboration in the service of collegiality among the Catholic episcopates of the European nations. Set up in 1971, after an “incubation” phase begun at the end of Vatican Council II, it now numbers 34 members, including the episcopates of Turkey, Belarus and the Russian Federation.
The actual president of the CCEE is the bishop of Chur, Amédée Grab. The vice-presidents are Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, and Cardinal Josip Bozanic, Archbishop of Zagreb.

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