ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Role of the Church in a New Eastern Europe

A condensed excerpt from a paper delivered in May to members of the Catholic Press Association at its convention in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“Once upon a time” there were two global superpowers. Each power had consumed one half of the European continent: the western portion was referred to as the developed world and her eastern counterpart was designated as the second.

These worlds were divided by a dynamic political and economic force, a force with expansionist ideas in the underdeveloped third world – communism.

This period, however, was not one of fairy tales, but an era of harsh reality. And no one could foresee the collapse of this setup without a major armed confrontation between the two superpowers.

This second world was arbitrarily created shortly after World War II. Hungary, my native country, lost two-thirds of its territory and a third of its population. My generation had to accept the brutal fact that the world was divided and that our homelands in Central and Eastern Europe were donated to the dominant communist power, the Soviet Union, to be suppressed, colonized and exploited.

Dramatic events such as the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968 showed clearly that the division was definite – we lost hope in the West when these quests for freedom were brutally suppressed without any help from the “free world.”

However the unexpected did take place. In just a few years the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving both hope and despair. This collapse provided the tremendous opportunity for more than 20 nations, encompassing millions of people, to generate and nurture freedom and democracy.

It has now been more than three years since the fall of the Berlin wall, the symbol of our world’s division. And the role of the church, which has also changed following the revolutions of 1989-90, remains clouded in uncertainty. What is certain is the birth of three illusions:

The illusion of freedom. In 1990 the people of Central and Eastern Europe basked in the euphoria of freedom. Full of joy and hope they cherished the illusion that freedom is happiness. Political freedom, independence, free markets and private enterprise were supposed to bring prosperity automatically.

Now most realize that such an idealized abstract freedom does not exist. Without moral responsibility, social justice and a solid value system, freedom leads to anarchy. Chaos endangers public and private security and eventually imperils the survival of culture and, ultimately, humankind.

The illusion of atheism. Atheism was the official ideology of communism. Other forms of atheistic thinking were irrelevant or ignored in the cultural horizon of these Soviet-dominated societies. The phenomenon of secularization was known only by the learned.

Although communism has collapsed, atheism is still proclaimed by the same ideologues, but in a different manner – it is propagated by the media as a form of liberalism.

We have to acknowledge that Christians are a minority in an overwhelmingly secular world and the task of evangelization is a complex and enormous challenge. The church has to start a consistent, but patient, dialogue with all people, with all prevailing ideologies and religions, without any complexes and arrogance.

The illusion of the institutional church. As a sign of solidarity and dissent many groups oppressed by the government embraced the church, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant.

However the church is now free to carry out its activities in public: to reclaim property, evangelize through modern means of communication and petition for state subsidies, especially for its educational and social welfare endeavors.

These efforts have been perceived by some, many of whom once sympathized with the church, as a power play – to fill the vacuum left by the communist collapse and achieve dominance in public life and influence in political life.

The media criticizes the church, and indeed, many religious communities have lost their credibility.

Our Christian traditions appear everywhere: streets and institutions are renamed, statues and memorials removed and the originals re-erected. On the surface these countries seem to have been reborn overnight, but these changes are superficial. In reality the hearts of the citizens are unchanged; they are in need of a real conversion, even if this change is slower and harder to achieve than social and economic developments.

Many thought that the birth pangs of the newborn countries of Eastern Europe would fade away quickly. However we are victims of the same illusion as the Jews liberated from the slavery of Egypt. Instead of becoming happy and rich overnight they had to reach their promised land after a long and tiresome journey through the desert.

One of the most painful experiences now devastating our homelands is the revival of nationalism. Today ethnic groups that have never been independent are striving to achieve sovereignty. These efforts often lead to the oppression of even smaller minorities within that same area. Extreme nationalism has evil consequences. Often supported by factions within the church, extreme nationalism can lead to internal conflicts that ultimately lead to civil war [as in Yugoslavia] or in divorce [like Czechoslovakia].

Although the economic crisis threatens all of the second world, the most complex crisis is moral and human corruption. The second world is sick and a symptom of this sickness, namely complacency, has infected the church.

Although the church was imprisoned in the ghetto of the sacristy, there existed a level of comfort and security.

Pastoral activities were reduced to celebrating the liturgy. The church was allowed to be represented only by its hierarchy. Current pastoral activities, the involvement of the laity and even catechesis were strictly forbidden.

The Catholic churches of Central and Eastern Europe could not really take part in the great conversion process of Vatican II, nor cooperate in fulfilling the expectations generated by the council fathers. In some countries the texts of the council were published, but the contents were only partially understood and accepted. Many texts remain unknown.

This theological underdevelopment has found a natural alliance with conservative elements in the church. The persistence of yesterday’s heroic and faithful martyrs may develop into an anxious fear of what comes next.

A reaction to ritualized Christianity was the formation of underground churches. Most of these small communities, however, seceded from the universal dimension of the church. Some even severed their links with the parent church. This underground church was one of courageous but lonely partisans.

Today Christians are welcome to take an active part in public and political life. Both the faithful and the whole of society request guidance and orientation from the church in the difficult social, human, moral and even political issues of the day. The local church, however, is not sufficiently prepared to assume this prophetic role in a pluralistic society. It is uncertain and irresolute in making decisions.

For the church to play a positive role in the lives of Central and Eastern Europeans, a genuine dialogue must be established. The transformation of the current monologue to a meaningful dialogue can only be achieved if all parties are ready to speak and listen, if they are well informed and disciplined, stable but humble and open to the views of others.

The church in these lands was cornered by a hostile state-controlled press empowered by a mighty ideology. The church had no opportunity to defend itself. No wonder the spirit of dialogue is dead and contemporary culture is considered an enemy.

This defensive attitude is reinforced by the hostile tone of the new press, a press that claims to be liberal and democratic. These journalists are in fact the same as the communist-inspired journalists of yesterday; they fire against Christian ideas with the same fervor.

The new press of the free market system wants to boost circulation and profits; therefore it may compromise its journalistic integrity.

With the introduction of private enterprise and a free market economy social discrepancies are growing rapidly. A small segment of society is earning wealth while the masses live under miserable conditions and with growing bitterness.

Moral and spiritual corruption and the lack of stable laws are even greater problems than the economic crises. The craving to answer the final questions of life, “Why do we live?” and “What is the meaning of our lives?” and the yearning for a better education could steer them to the one institution that stands with the poor –the church.

How can the church answer these challenges without dialogue? How can the church find its place in society without listening to its critics, perhaps harsh or rude, without inviting all persons of goodwill to help the development of its people?

The church as a countercultural community can show the model of real communion. The church can teach true love, without which no freedom exists. She can embrace all people of goodwill, involve them in the great dialogue of love, develop and nurture public opinion, educate and preach the Gospel.

The challenge is immense and the possibilities and expectations for the church of Central and Eastern Europe, unique.

Father Lukacs is the communications director for the Hungarian Bishops’ Conference.

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