Can Pope John Paul II, suffering from multiple illnesses, live long and actively enough to save Europe a second time? Having already helped to save Europe from the brutal threat of Communist totalitarianism, will he be able to overcome the far more subtle enemy of post-religious materialism that is now poised to become the philosophical and political orthodoxy of a united Europe?
At first glance this task would seem unduly burdensome for a vigorous man in his middle years, let alone for a sick man in his eighties. But worldly considerations do not always apply to Pope John Paul II.
It is rare for secular-minded people to sense the hand of Providence in history or at least to admit doing so but even quite dedicated atheists saw his election as pope in 1978 as a world-changing event.
One such, Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, warned that a Polish pope would likely destabilize the Soviet Union by giving hope to the nations held captive within it. Eleven years later the evil empire crumbled and the captive nations emerged blinking into the light of freedom.
Others played vital roles in that liberation Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, the heroic dissidents behind the Iron Curtain but the pope had provided its spiritual impulse.
Within months of his 1979 papal visit to Poland, during which he called upon Poles to “recognize evil”, there were riots by Polish workers, the rise of Solidarity and the spread of anti-communist dissidence throughout eastern Europe.
In the words of British historian Neal Ascherson, the pope’s visit was a “lance head” that “went straight into the bowels of the whole Soviet empire, and gave it a wound from which it simply didn’t recover”.
His continuing influence, moreover, ensured that the democratic revolutions of the 1980s were peaceful as well as successful. If the pope had achieved nothing more in his lifetime than to be the religious spark of liberty in Europe, he would be a historical figure of the first rank in the world.
In fact he has been a world-changing figure in many other ways too. He has finally interred the restless ghost of Christian anti-Semitism, declaring it to be a serious sin and famously referring to Jews as “our elder brothers”.
Anti-Semitism still persists and may even be growing in Western Europe, alas, but it no longer has even a faint justification in Christian teaching or a single supporter in the Catholic clergy.
He has sought close and fraternal relations with the leaders of other religions on a basis of mutual love and respect without either surrendering or seeking the surrender of fundamental beliefs.
He has not fully succeeded with the leaders of Orthodox Christianity and he is believed to be privately distressed that Muslim leaders have been often frightened by their own extremists into remaining silent about attacks on Christians and Christianity.
Still, the seeds of better Christian-Muslim relations have been planted for later generations to harvest. He has given strength and hope to traditional Christian believers of all denominations in their battle with secularism and theological liberalism.
American Catholics and evangelical Protestants were still mildly hostile strangers when he entered the papacy; today they cooperate on a host of issues from abortion to welfare reform.
He developed a more sophisticated Catholic understanding of capitalism in his encyclicals continuing to condemn a purely materialistic account of life and social purpose but declaring that private enterprise and entrepreneurship were praiseworthy expressions of man’s creativity that required economic freedom to flourish.
He thus moved away from older Catholic ideas of “corporatism” that had privileged existing businesses, stifled the aspirations of new entrepreneurs and retarded economic development in southern Europe and Latin America.
Above all, he took seriously the universalism of the Catholic Church and made regular pilgrimages to the whole world, in particular to the poor countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The pope’s pilgrimages to the third world have, maybe not coincidentally, coincided with the extraordinary rise of traditional Christianity of all denominations in those countries.
Indeed, there has been a reverse missionary movement in recent years of young priests from Africa, Asia, and Latin America to Europe and the United States where liberal Christianity has led both to empty cradles and to empty pulpits.
For the Christian churches that survived the oppression of communism seem to be succumbing to the euthanasia of post-Christian consumer materialism under liberty.
Or to change the metaphor, if Communist hostility to religion was rape; liberal antagonism is seduction it sets out to deny and destroy the soul by painting man as an entirely materialist creature rightly devoted to pleasure and inspired at best to bureaucratic compassion.
In this atmosphere religious belief and attendance are both declining across the continent even in such outposts of belief as Ireland.
And though these trends could be reversed by a vigorous Christian response, the liberal Christian leadership of European churches lacks the moral self-confidence to preach those Christian doctrines that seriously challenge the beliefs and practices of liberal secularism. That is not true in reverse.
Post-Christian materialism has now taken official form in the proposed European Union constitution which omits all mention of Christianity from its account of Europe’s history and civilizational identity.
That omission is deliberate and reflects an increasing hostility to Christianity and religious belief in the secular elites that govern Europe.
Pope John Paul II, who has strongly supported European unity throughout his papacy as the modern expression of Christendom, now finds that it has become instead the expression of secular fundamentalism.
It surely grieves him. But is there perhaps in the pope’s pilgrimages to the third world and in the “reverse missionaries” from there to Europe the hand of providence a second time?
Thousands of pilgrims from all over the world came to St Peter’s Square last Sunday to see the silent pope and hear his appeal for their prayers read by another.
Will the millions of new Christians they represent in Asia and Africa be the vehicles of the saving grace that will rejuvenate the tired churches of Europe? And will the pope himself live to lead this renaissance as he led the last? Or will he merely glimpse from afar, like Moses, the promised land he is not permitted to enter?
Not to be in the least flippant but: God only knows.