Not for many generations has the Church amassed as much prestige as it has under John Paul II and his successors. They underline (or have so far) the formidable quality of church leadership. Since John Paul II’s elevation in 1978, no nation on earth has been led better. That prestige ought to be used in an important cause, and one where it will matter. There is a desperate cause right under the pope’s nose. What is he doing in the Philippines and South America at a moment when, throughout Europe, Christianity is dying?
And once the fire is dead in Europe, the rest of the world will grow cold too, gradually but inevitably.
The pope must go to his own backyard and preach: to Berlin and Paris and London; must walk out into the center of Trafalgar Square, or some such place, and preach for his life and the life of Europe and Christianity and, ultimately, mankind. I understand that popes are not roving preachers; are not Franciscans, evangelicals, or preening curates in Trollope novels. But they are bishops, shepherds of the whole Christian flock; and a shepherd who sees this sort of catastrophe approach must do something. Worrying about the nuances of doctrine on homosexuality while Europe’s churches are converted one by one into restaurants and health-clubs and (who knows?) discount tire shops is a mistake.
The Wall Street Journal ran a much-noticed piece on this trend a few weeks ago, but it’s an old story. Churches in Germany have been turned into “Laughter Kirchen,” where expert teachers, having failed to teach Germans how to pray, are teaching them how to laugh instead. (Alarming research studies have found that Germans spend fewer minutes laughing per diem then typical Italians or French or British. This is a problem the Germans regard as serious.) Of course, what have the Germans got to laugh about? At the very heart of France, the Sainte Chapelle, second most beautiful building known to man (second only by a hair to King’s College Chapel in Cambridge), hasn’t been a church for years. Today it is a recital hall with unusually tall, colorful windows apparently telling quaint storiesalthough no one can remember what about.
Of course the crisis has been growing for a long time, and not even John Paul II travelled to Trafalgar Square to tell the English why to become Christian again. But he had other problems to struggle with, and he looked them squarely in the eye. When the Bible says that Moses knew God face-to-face, it doesn’t mean that he saw God’s face; the point is that he never changed the subject or postponed his appointment; he never flinched. He argued and struggled with God like the Lord’s best friendto struggle with God, to wrestle with Him, is the Jewish practice and the Hebrew Bible’s ideal. That there was no face to meet Moses only underlines the man’s bravery, and his resolve to approach the cosmos, catastrophe and death itself with head held high. Let the Pope go to Trafalgar Square.
And then what? How about a pilgrimage to Wells in the southwest, preaching the whole way? He is more likely to see a glimmer of success in England than anywhere else in western Europe. Voltaire said (or is said to have said) that England was the nation with five thousand religions and one saucewhich does England proud to this day. (As if Voltaire foresaw with pleasure the West’s current tendency to treat the artful presentation of raw fish and peculiar kinds of beer as more important than topics like God and churches.) England used to be a religiously serious nation.
The Pope might go to the town of Wells because he will find that, in re-Christianizing Europe, he will need to understand beauty as science does. Science doesn’t have much to teach religion, but this is one thing it does have. In nature, beauty is a guide to truth, a sign that you are in the right neighborhooda Geiger counter. There are deep truths about Christianity in the air at the most beautiful Christian places. The Cathedral of Wells is one of them, where the presence of God is most palpable within the beauty. He would go to Wells not to officiate (obviously it is not a Catholic Church) but just as a Christian, to pray.
The “east end” of St. Peter’s in the Vatican faces west, and the churches of France and Italy generally point in whatever direction was convenient at the time of their building. But the English were precise about aligning their great churches. As he walks down the noble nave of Wells through the crossing and approaches the high altar, with his face lit (if it is dawn) by the magnificent Jesse window overhead, and the lady chapel glowing mysteriously as if from a world beyond, he will be walking east in a miniature re-enactment of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And if he then tells the congregation that he will be back to Wells (a town with 10,500 people and two magnificent gothic churchestwo more fancy restaurants coming up!with space for the kitchens in a chapter house or a transept), and that he will keep coming back until he has made ten converts in the town, he will have done his job. He will have saved the city from spiritual destruction. Maybe he will have begun to turn the tide in Europe. Because the tide can be turned! If he succeeds, he will always be remembered for it. If he fails, no one will remember anything anyway.
David Gelernter is the author of Judaism, A Way of Being (2009) and The Tides of Mind, forthcoming this year.