The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity reminds me of a meeting on a train many years ago. At that time I was still a young priest, and I wanted to take advantage of the trip to prepare a sermon, pray and read. I had found a quiet seat across from a serious-looking gentleman and, after a brief greeting, I was immediately engrossed in my reading. But when the conductor arrived, the person in front of me took advantage of the interruption to address me, "Are you a Catholic priest?" he asked me, and, at my affirmative answer, he said, "I am a Protestant pastor." He wanted to know where I worked, and I answered that I was a priest of Opus Dei, and when he asked again I tried to explain Opus Dei to him in a few words, as an institution of the Catholic Church to which mainly lay people belong who strive to follow Christ in the midst of the world. His reaction surprised me. He said, "That sounds Protestant to me." Christians living in the world had been Luther's great concern, he told me.
We got to talking. He told me about his work. He said it was hard work, because only a few of them really lived their faith. That their bishop regularly reminded them to keep God's commandments. Without that, praying doesn't do much good, to which I replied, "That sounds Catholic to me." We understood each other well. We then went on to talk about the religious situation in Austria and agreed that in our time a resolute Christianity was necessary. Anything else could not be sustained in the long run.
Many years have passed since then. In Central Europe - as in other prosperous Christian countries around the world - difficult processes are taking place for the Church: a decline in vocations, a crisis in the family, stagnation in youth ministry, allegations of abuse and a growing number of people leaving the Church. Everyone is affected. It is particularly noticeable in the large ecclesiastical institutions, in the Protestant communities and also in the Catholic Church. The process, which was already recognizable 40 years ago, has advanced dramatically and accelerated. It is related to the rapid change in living conditions, but not only to that cause.
People are often absorbed by work, and also by the various influences, goals and ways of life of a largely secularized world. Many lose sight of God, and with Him, for the most part, also of something that belongs to the foundation of the Christian attitude towards life and the Christian way of shaping it. It is not only the number of participants in liturgical celebrations that is decreasing. In many, the practice of the faith is fading, and the integration of children into the life of the Church is no longer achieved, even though they are generally still baptized, receive religious instruction and are preparing for First Communion and Confirmation. The number of believers is decreasing, as is the number of Christian families, the teaching of religion is becoming more and more difficult, if it still takes place at all. Public life is changing, and so is legislation and many other things, including education. Thus, the process of secularization is affecting more and more people. At first it was mostly noticeable in urban areas, but now rural areas are almost equally affected. Even the loneliest farmhouse can receive news and influences from all over the world.
Do we have to stand idly by and simply accept these developments? For decades now, even within the Catholic Church, there have been different approaches to solutions, debates and even tensions, even to the point of running the risk of division. In this context, references to other Christian denominations cannot be overlooked.
Some reform attempts in recent decades are similar to those of liberal Protestantism. Adaptations to today's ideas are required. Some questions of doctrine and ethics, especially sexual morality, are being considered. The priestly ministry should be opened to married people and women, it is said, when its necessity is not questioned. The hierarchical ministry is considered to be in need of reform. The goal is, so to speak, a modern Christianity. The abuse crisis serves as justification and as a means of pressure. Pope Francis has taken a clear position with regard to the synodal process in Germany, where these positions find massive support, and has encouraged the launching of an authentic new evangelization.
But there are other approaches as well. Some churches are filling up again. There are also convents with vocations, and communities that are growing. The importance of prayer is being rediscovered, and especially Eucharistic adoration has spread again in recent years. The reception of the sacrament of Penance, which in recent decades had almost completely disappeared in some places and regions, is being cared for in some churches and monasteries, and is considered a great help. New ways of communicating the faith are being sought. It is increasingly realized that in the preparation for First Communion and Confirmation the parents are as important as the children, or almost more important than they are.
In all this panorama, it is interesting to note that quite a few initiatives and impulses come from other confessions. Alpha courses, born in the Anglican Church, find their place in the Catholic Church with certain adaptations. The same is true of the effort to promote discipleship, which is particularly pronounced among evangelical Christians. The "prayer of the heart," from the Orthodox tradition, is a valuable encouragement for many. In the formation of Christian families as "house churches", evangelical practices serve as an incentive. Not to be forgotten are the impulses that have come from the Pentecostal movement, initially predominantly Protestant, or from the Taizé youth festivals. Mention should also be made of the pro-life and pro-family movements or the fight against pornography in the United States.
When one looks at these contexts, the plea for Christian unity takes on special notes, and at the same time connects it with Pope Francis, who calls to act "on the way out". This has been his great concern from the beginning. It is already found in his first encyclical Evangelii Gaudium. They were the themes he addressed in his pre-conclave speeches. And this is possibly also the hope that has led him to invite the world to a synodal process, despite all the risks that this may entail. At bottom, it is probably a matter of pursuing the central goal of Vatican II: that all the baptized and confirmed should have the desire to carry Christ in their hearts, and to bring him to others. Prayer for one another, and dialogue with one another, are of great urgency and signify great hope!
Bishop emeritus of Sankt Pölten, Austria.