An alteration of course?
My sense of things, when Pope Benedict resigned, is my sense now: that we have rounded the cape, that we are in a new ocean. There is a new man at the helm of our barque: the first to have become a priest after Vatican II, the first Jesuit, the first from the New World, &c. That his “style” is a radical break from the last is already apparent. His choice of the name “Francis,” unused by popes over all these centuries, was our first indication. It is as if the polarities were reversed at Rome, & the strange dishevelled saint of Assisi, who was absolutely loyal to the resplendent papacy, now receives the fealty of the robes. I am convinced there is a Hand on the hand of our tiller.
There will, perhaps, be other popes from Europe, but Benedict XVI may still come to be remembered as the “last European pope,” & his resignation to be pregnant with that spiritual message. Here I am not using the term “Europe” geographically; nor would I dream of dismissing the popes who came before, now a heritage to all ages. It is to Europe as the Christian culture I am referring. It began destroying itself in the Reformation of the 16th century; in the time since 1914 it has completed this task, with greater & greater urgency. I am at one with Hilaire Belloc, & Pat Buchanan, & many others in taking this view.
But it does not make me giddy with excitement. I will myself live & die a “European,” for I was formed in that shape; & even though so much of my own earlier life was lived in farther Asia, from my parentage I could not have become anything but a man of the West. It will be the same for most of my readers: we are what we are.
It is a bit like being an old Jew in the early Church, in this New World full of Gentiles. The European, the American sense of being the “chosen people,” the specially enlightened, adheres to us still. But the old Temple is gone; has crumbed, & will be buried in an archaeological stratum. Europe has gone, & in its going scattered the seed of Christianity to the ends of the Earth. Many peculiar customs of Europe will persist, but transformed in new soils & new climates; & we will not live to glimpse some dear familiar folds in the faces of the children of our children’s children.
Here is a son of Piedmont: removed somehow to Buenos Aires, “to the ends of the Earth.” Tied to Italy by one last thread, he still speaks some words in the old Occitan. The thread is inseverable; but a time will come when we can no longer trace it along its full length.
“Religion” & “culture” are two different, though closely & mutually related things. Christianity could not account for all the differences between Spaniards & Englishmen, Germans & Italians, Frenchmen & Poles, Europeans & Americans, even within the Catholic Church. Religion unifies, culture diversifies. The “highest” culture will always be religious, because religion, revelation, God, penetrate most deeply the soul of man qua man. Religion is the music; culture is our song. The culture fashions the religion into a new song. But religion raises & inspires & is its principle of life. A culture freed of religion dies; falls into silence, as if the music were taken out of the song, the soul out of the body. Europe, in freeing itself “progressively” from its Christian heritage, has performed its suicide, for centuries in slow motion, ever quicker towards its end. Over the last several decades it has fully embraced what an old pope called “the culture of death,” & the next called “the dictatorship of relativism”: the culture of glibness; of pure self-adornment; the nihilism that whispers, “one thing is as good as another,” then howls its last out of empty despair.
The seed is now planted abroad; Christ has moved on from where He is not wanted. Yet, too, He remains in our midst, wherever He is wanted. The Europe within Europe is not entirely dead, as we are reminded by the gatherings in St Peter’s Square, by the “youth days,” & by the life that continues in the churches where the Mass is still sung with reverence — even before tiny congregations. There is still some spark of life in the old girl; she is still refusing to be euthanized. But she is surrounded by her hollow children, determined to kill her & take her goods.
There are moments when, even as an old European, I think we should blow up the cathedrals, rather than let them fall into enemy hands; just as our ancestors blew up their forts, rather than surrender them to enemy uses. But no, let future generations see their beauty, even in their ruin. Let them know that Europe was not always a dance of death in the pigsty of consumerism; that we once put our wealth & all our art at the feet of our Saviour.
A great majority of Catholics now live outside Europe, & the Rome of the Vatican is once more being transformed into the capital of a different kind of “empire.” The faces of the cardinals streaming out of the conclave were still in their majority white, but this may only be the case for another generation. The churches within Europe, & in Britain, Canada, the States, have been filling with new faces. The “white man’s world” is passing into history, faster within the churches than on the streets. More & more, the Christianity of Europe & America is being imported.
These are things that go beyond the election of Pope Francis, but to which his election now points. He is an old man, with sciatica, on one lung; we cannot expect to have him with us for long. We can, however, believe that God has entrusted him with a mission, upon which he is acting with the energy of a youth. We can expect that some of it will be incomprehensible to us, in a way perhaps as Francis of Assisi was incomprehensible at first to so many of his contemporaries, who saw in him very worrying departures from conventional religious custom, & did not yet see that he was heroically loyal to the Church; that he honoured the Magisterium, & had come not to destroy but to renew.
Christ, I believe, is bored with Europe, bored with our wealth, bored with our sleaziness, bored with our narcissism, sick through the nostrils with our Paris perfume. He will never, however, be bored with our hunger for the Bread of Life. We must rise & be on our way: Europe has died, & Christ liveth.