A month after the asassination at Sarajevo, on 29 July 1914 Tsar Nicholas II sent an urgent but friendly personal telegram to Kaiser Wilhelm, suggesting that the ‘Austro-Serbian conflict’ be settled peacefully at the International Tribunal in the Hague. The Kaiser, set on war, did not even trouble himself to reply. The scene was set for the outbreak of the Great War, and all the events that were to flow from it, from the Second World War to the Cold War.
Today, exactly ninety years on, Europe is no longer physically at war, but spiritually it is war-weary, utterly enfeebled. After two World Wars, in fact two European Wars spread worldwide, and a whole century without repentance, Western Europe drifts. Whatever the land, whatever the language, whatever the culture, Western Europe has all but lost its God, and therefore its spiritual meaning, and therefore its moral purpose. Like a rudderless ship, Western Europe continues to cruise aimlessly through the oceans of spiritual and moral ambivalence into a Dark Age of its own making.
The Dechristianization of Western Europe is obvious from its contemporary way of life. It is obvious from reading any newspaper or watching any television programme in Western Europe. It is obvious from the sight of thousands of former Protestant and Catholic churches all over Western Europe, already converted to secular uses, or else newly up for sale. Little wonder that the political leaders of the ‘European Union’ refused to mention the Christian roots of Western Europe in their recently-written Constitution for that Union, for most of them seem not even to have known that these roots exist.
In practical terms, the loss of these roots has meant not only that churches and monasteries have emptied, but also therefore that criminal behaviour, overpopulated prisons, immorality and depravity have become commonplace. For example, in 2003 in ‘Protestant’ England and Wales, there were 180,000 abortions, in ‘Catholic’ France, with a population 7,000,000 higher, there were over 220,000 victims of the abortion laws. The rest of Western Europe is little different. From Ibiza to Cyprus, from Edinburgh to Hamburg, from Naples to Nottingham, from Lisbon to Lyons, from Cork to Copenhagen, from Pisa to Prague, from Athens to Amsterdam, from Malmo to Madrid, young Europeans are left to drunkenness and depravity in their night-clubs, knowing no other values. Judge not their spiritual futility: their elders gave them no other values, for the word ‘sin’ is not politically correct. Amid the idolization of empty ‘celebrities’, the moral aimlessness, hedonism and trivia of modern Western European societies, who can wonder that the fastest-growing religion by far in Western Europe is Islam?
In fact we are witnessing a historic turning-point, we are witnessing the death of the Second Millennium, the deaths, or rather suicides, of the historic forms of both Catholicism and Protestantism. A thousand years of Western European history is melting away before us, because Western Europe has lost its Faith and so its moral authority and significance. The problem is that Faith is being replaced with the spiritual emptiness of neo-pagan secular values. As one French writer put it many years ago: ‘It is not that when Europe stops believing in Something, it will believe in Nothing, it will believe in Anything’.
Having desacralized Sunday by allowing Saturday evening masses and communion virtually without confession and fasting, Roman Catholicism is now dying out for lack of priests. Besieged by pedophile and sodomite scandals, it is also going financially bankrupt. As its frail and sick Pope dies, it is clear that if it is to survive at all in Western Europe, it will have to agree to radical changes. And the dead end of forty years of protestantizing changes that it has imposed on itself since the 1960s will not suffice. The changes will have to be more radical than that. They will have to have spiritual depth, going back beyond the recent past to the Orthodox practices of the First Millennium. Repentance and humility for a thousand years of pride and error will have to lead the way.
On the other hand, Protestant Europe has no reason to rejoice. It pride and error have been of the same stamp. Having dropped life-destroying puritanism and proclaimed the death of God, adopting secular humanism as its basic belief in the 1960s, it too is dying out. For example, the latest scheme for the survival of the Anglican Church is that it should go into voluntary schism, dividing itself into one part which opposes women-priests and practising homosexual clergy, and another which accepts them. In this way the outward semblance of all-important illusion of unity will continue. As regards Lutheranism and Calvinism, Baptism and Methodism, all these groups have contracted faster than any other. Puritanism is dead; secular humanism does not need a church to attend.
However, there is another Europe. Indeed, in recent decades some Western Europeans have looked with hope to that other Europe - Orthodox Eastern Europe.
For fifteen years since the miracle of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe have been attempting to restore that which Communism destroyed. Their first task was to restore their populations to nominal Orthodoxy, with tens of millions of baptisms. Then they had to proceed to the restoration of thousands of church buildings. Immense progress has been made in all these areas. However, although the heritage of Communism is steadily being outwardly transformed, it will take generations to overcome its bitter heritage.
Thus their second task is to provide churches for the huge numbers of Eastern European immigrants to foreign countries, especially in Western Europe. This task has also meant regularizing relations with their own anti-Communist refugee diasporas of 1917 and 1945. This in particular has been the task of the Russian Church, for millions of young Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians have fled to the West to escape the starvation and misery of the post-Communist economy, many young women ending up as prostitutes in the hellholes of Western Europe.
The Paris-based Patriarchal Archbishop in charge of negotiations with the old Diaspora, is Innocent of Korsun, who is responsible for Western Europe. Although he only speaks Russian, he has told his parishioners and clergy in Western Europe, not to expect to see him this year. This is honest, for he is obliged to spend most of his time in Moscow. The same is true of the Russian Church of the Diaspora, known as the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, whose Russian clergy and parishioners are much preoccupied with matters of reunification.
The Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe are also confronted with a third task, the far more difficult task of converting vast nominal Orthodox populations into practising Orthodox. Many are baptized, but few are taught. Thanks to the imposition of ‘Communist morality’, the simple morality of the Ten Commandments appears to be little known and little practised among these populations. Organized crime, abortion, adultery, prostitution, theft, bribery, corruption, superstition and black magic appear to be ‘normal’ in countries fallen victim to the post-Communist spiritual void.
It is estimated that the number of practising Orthodox in these countries may be as low as only 1% of the total nominal population. For example, of a Moscow population of ten million, only 100,000 were present in the relatively few churches there at Easter 2004. One can imagine how few of these people had actually had confession and then taken communion. Orthodox may have a sacramental life, but for most Orthodox the sacraments remain theoretical, they still do not have recourse to confession and communion.
In the Balkans, the situation is no better. In Bulgaria, where there are said to be over 6,000,000 Orthodox, only 600 Orthodox churches are open – one church for every ten thousand. Moreover, these churches are in schism with each other and the government-supported side has recently invaded the 250 churches of the other side with police, assaulting clergy and people alike.
Though led by a saintly Patriarch, the Serbian Church has hardly begun recovering from fifty years of Communist persecution and the disastrous atheist Balkan Wars of the last decade. Its great recent saints, Justin of Chelije and Nicholas of Ochrid, were exiled. It is said that in the large cities of Serbia, only 5% of the population is actually baptized – the blinded victims of Communist anti-Christian ideology. Even among the baptized it is rare to take communion more than twice a year.
In Romania, the foreign visitor is met at the frontier with the notice: ‘Do not bribe the customs officials’. Yes, Romanian Orthodox do go on pilgrimages. At a recent pilgrimage of 50,000, one small chalice was quite adequate for the tiny number of communicants. The sole desire of the majority of young Romanians is to emigrate in order to escape mass unemployment, grinding poverty and the corruption of their ‘Democratic’ ‘ex’-Communist political masters.
Finally, in Non-Sovietized but heavily Westernized Greece, where churches are also little attended, the main interest at present is the launch of the Neo-Pagan Games, which will undoubtedly be spiritually injurious to the Church. The cult of the body is not the cult of the spirit. And here too there are internal divisions and disputes, especially between Athens and Constantinople.
It is clear that the Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe are not only inward-looking at present, but indeed have to be inward-looking and all our sympathy is with them. This introversion is necessary so that these nations can heal themselves from the Communist epidemic, from which they are still deeply suffering. Moreover, this introversion is shared by other Orthodox in the Middle East, who are much preoccupied with the effects of militant Judaism, supported by Western ‘Crusaders’, Islamic fanaticism and Arab nationalism in that part of the world. But where does this leave Western Orthodox, the native Orthodox of Western Europe, who in effect have been told: ‘We have no time or means for you now – save yourselves!’
Now is the time when Western European Orthodox seem largely to have been left to their own devices: ‘Here is a priest who speaks your language. I have given him an antimension. I have no service-books, no vestments, no church, and no money to give you. I have done what I can for you. I have nothing more to give you. Do not contact me. Now go and organize yourselves’. For some, the results of this seeming abandonment are negative.
Firstly, there are the renovationists who, falling victim to the temptation from the left, greet the distraction of the Mother-Churches as a release from the Cross of their Faith. They take the view that they are now free to give up the struggle for authentic Orthodoxy. They say: ‘Let us merge with the vast but often empty Non-Orthodox structures which survive in Western Europe. We can water down our Faith, forsake the Orthodox calendar, take down the icon-screens, give up all services apart from Sunday liturgies, abandon confession, fasting and all other Orthodox practices, relying on the goodwill of Non-Orthodox’. In effect they are becoming Uniatized. Many appear to be falling into this temptation with this year’s series of Congresses and Conferences in Western Europe, but they are falling into apostasy. Catholicization and Protestantization are not solutions.
Secondly, there are those who, falling victim to the temptation from the right, greet the establishment of new ethnic Orthodox parishes as a release from the Cross of their Mission. They take the view that they are now free to give up the struggle for native-language Orthodoxy. They say: ‘Let us merge with the existing ethnic Orthodox structures which already exist and which are now expanding in Western Europe. We will abandon the hundred-year struggle to translate all the Orthodox services into the languages of Western Europe, from English to Italian, from Portuguese to German, from Spanish to Swedish, from Norwegian to Welsh, from Dutch to Danish, from French to Breton. We will pretend to be Russian or Greek’. But it was not God’s Will that we be born Russian or Greek. Russification and Hellenization are not solutions.
There is of course a third way, the royal way. Falling away neither to the left or right, we can suffer together with our spiritual compatriots in Eastern Europe, continuing the struggle to be faithful to overworked bishops and authentic Orthodoxy and, at the same time, revive the ancient Orthodoxy of the West. This is the way which we choose.
‘Save yourselves’. But salvation is impossible without God, with Whom all things are possible. And salvation is impossible without the help of the Saints of God. Therefore, if we are determined to save ourselves, then we must first follow in the footsteps of the models God has given us in our own lands. We Western Orthodox are called to follow in the footsteps of the Saints of the West, of the Holy Apostles Peter and St Paul, of St Irenaeus and St Justin, of St Sophia and St Tatiana, of St Felicity and St Agnes, of St Pancras and St Januarius, of St Agatha and St Lucy, of St Denis and St Julian, of St Cyprian and St Monica, of St Ursula and St Afra, of St Alexis and St Ambrose, of St Alban and St Genevieve, of St Hilary and St Remi, of St Martin and St Benedict, of St John Cassian and St Vincent of Lerins, of St Clotilde and St Odile, of St Patrick and St Columban, of St Maurice and St Gall, of St Leo the Great and St Gregory the Great, of St Vincent of Spain and St Ildefonsus, of St Theodore of Tarsus and St Cuthbert, of St Martin of Rome and St Rupert of Salzburg, of St Clement and St Boniface, of St Bede and St Zacharias, of St Oswald and St Anschar, of St Edmund and St Edward, of St Hallvard and St Olaf, and now of the martyred St Elizabeth and St John the Wonderworker.
The path of the Western Saints is the true wealth of the West. It is the path from spiritual poverty to spiritual riches. It is the path of humility, and the only path of reparation for all that has happened in the last thousand years of spiritual loss. When the Saints of Western Europe are known in life and venerated in love, then, and only then, will the West be able to say that it has Christian roots and that it lives by those roots.
Only in uncovering its past, can Western Europe recover its present, and then discover its future. Then, and only then, will the voice of the native Orthodox of Western Europe be heard in the worldwide choir of Orthodoxy and there find its rightful place. But for this to happen, those who follow Orthodox Tradition in Western Europe should first begin to work together, veering neither to left nor to right. Since it was St John the Wonderworker who came from Russia and first moved forward the veneration of the Saints of Western Europe in their Orthodox context, it is our suggestion that Orthodox of all nationalities and backgrounds who are interested in working together in such a way, should do so within an Association of St John the Wonderworker.
May the Lord, through the prayers of all the Saints of the West, inspire us to work together in faithfulness to Orthodox Tradition according to His Will.
Fr Andrew Phillips,
Completed in the Church of
Notre Dame de Pritz, c.710,
St Apollinarius, Bishop of Ravenna,
23 July/5 August 2004