Europe, Evangelization, and Civilizational Suicide

An interview with Bishop Nuno Brás da Silva Martins of Lisbon

Last month, the See of Lisbon reached the halfway point of its two-year-long Synod on a theme taken from Pope Francis’ Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. Centuries ago, ships departed from that port city in order to carry the Gospel to all the points of the globe. In recognition of the evangelizing efforts of the Portuguese people, Pope Clement XI elevated the Diocese of Lisbon to the rank of Patriarchate in 1716. The Synod that concludes on November 7, 2016 will officially mark three hundred years of the Patriarchy of Lisbon.

Bishop Nuno Brás da Silva Martins, an auxiliary bishop of Lisbon (Wikipedia/Jfrodrigues)

Today, the Portuguese face challenges in the field of evangelization far different from those of the evangelizers of three hundred years ago. Many of these problems derive from the cultural upheavels of the late 1960s. Bishop Nuno Brás da Silva Martins, one of the Auxiliary Bishops of Lisbon, recently spoke to CWR about that history, evangelization in Europe, atheism, and “civilizational suicide”.

CWR: Let’s start with some history. You were only five years old when the ‘May of 1968’ happened in France. Do you have any memory of those times and the environment experienced in Portugal and Europe just after the revolution? Do you recall a time of optimism or pessimism?

Bp. Nuno Brás da Silva Martins: The ‘May of 1968’ was not just in the month of May. It was the entire environment that was going around it. Of course, being five years old, I did not have the correct perception of what was happening. I heard that there were student protests in Lisbon and little more. For the times that followed, I remember the optimism with which we lived: there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Looking back now, I realize the illusions that were those times, full of hope settled in men.

CWR: Knowing that the revolution had Enlightenment yeast as its base, in the years that followed was it possible to predict the social situation that Europe is going through right now?

Bp. Nuno Brás da Silva Martins: I do not know if we can say that the May of 1968 was a revolution – at least one actual revolution… it was more of a great social and political movement initiated by students, guided by some existentialist thinkers (and initiators of postmodernity). Nor do I even believe that it was based on “enlightened reason.” On the contrary, I believe it was an explosion of “the feeling” and “the irrational.” It was an attempt to tear down a society that was thought to be based in social prejudices and artificially fabricated rules, but which today we cannot fail to recognize that they were indeed less prejudiced and less artificial than what appeared… at the same time, the May of 68 brought with it so many prejudices and much more artificial rules. It is nonetheless significant that the motto of May of 68 was a “dogma” pronounced by their makers, but considered unassailable, “It is forbidden to forbid”.

CWR: Can the European Christians in today’s society communicate the Gospel and confront the “militant indifference” or the “religious individualism” with which they are confronted?

Bp. Nuno Brás da Silva Martins: God gave us the grace to live in our time. It means that He trusts us and gives us – as He gave to Christians of other times – the strength, courage and grace, needed today, to proclaim the Gospel. Perhaps the indifference has always existed (we just need to read some pastoral writings of St. Augustine and so many other saints and thinkers of ancient times). But, socially, the inhabitants of Europe (with some exceptions) were all baptized and practiced outside acts of piety. The surrounding culture was clearly marked by faith. I do not think we should look at the past as a “perfect time.” It is up to us the task of evangelizing our world, and for that – I have no doubt – God gives us all His aid.

CWR: Cardinal Sarah stated, in the presentation of his book God or Nothing, that African missionaries will find in Europe a new reality that did not exist when European missionaries arrived in Africa: atheism.

Bp. Nuno Brás da Silva Martins: It is true. Not that there were not always atheists (see Ps. 13). But they did not exist as an “organized life system.” This is unfortunately a hallmark of today’s Europe. However, more worrying than atheism as an organized system of thought, it is the indifference: to live as if God did not exist, even if then we practice one or another religious act.

CWR: The first evangelization was made by people always considered “developed.” The second evangelization will be by people considered “underdeveloped.” Why this reversal?

Bp. Nuno Brás da Silva Martins: The question is the criteria of what we consider to be “developed.” The early Christians (particularly the Twelve) were not exactly part of the “civilized world,” the elitist and “cultured” back then. I do not think we can use this reading frame. Nor it is said that the contemporary European world is “developed”—it is to the level of technical and scientific knowledge, but leaves much lacking as humanity! The second evangelization will be done by those who live the faith with all the enthusiasm and seriousness, and let themselves be converted by Jesus.

CWR: Generally speaking, scientific progress has made us proud. Are we ready to welcome the missionaries’ kerygma of these “underdeveloped” countries?

Bp. Nuno Brás da Silva Martins: The pride of our civilization (marked by science, and especially by the technique) is very similar to the pride of the Romans in the 1st century, as to the superiority of their world. Furthermore, there are many similarities between these two universes (our Western world and the decadent Roman world of the first centuries of Christianity). The boldness of the kerygma remains that which has its source in God. He is the one who wants to save the world through the madness of the kerygma, as St. Paul says.

CWR: Will they effectively communicate the Gospel?

Bp. Nuno Brás da Silva Martins: The Gospel is, first of all, confirmed by the witness of life, the testimony of those who let themselves daily convert by the Lord. More than technics, it is the announcement of the infinite love of God’s mercy by concrete people. It is God, present in the person who announces and in the heart of the one who listens to the announcement, and that is where the Gospel draws its effectiveness.

CWR: A few days ago you wrote for your article in the Voice of Truth newspaper that there is an “implosion” taking place in Europe. How would you define this “implosion”?

Bp. Nuno Brás da Silva Martins: It is a kind of “civilizational suicide”. We realize that the road we have traveled does not lead to any place other than death, the disappearance of the European way of life as we know it today; and yet, we persisted stubbornly in following it. We will eventually disappear. But I do not see this disappearance in a dramatic way. When a world ends, it succeeds another one: St. Augustine’s lesson is still relevant in our times.

CWR: Is the European “implosion” just a transformation in a political, economic or social way or will we totally erase the Christian base which is the foundation of Europe?

Bp. Nuno Brás da Silva Martins: The answer to this question always depends on the seriousness of the Christian life that we live. It depends on what Pope Benedict XVI calls the “creative minorities,” able to initiate new realities, to mark the collective life and to be the engine of new attitudes, also in social and even political and economic ways. I am sure that faith will not disappear in Europe because I met so many of these “minorities.”

CWR: Are the recent bombings in France or the instability of the political situation in Portugal signs of this implosion? We can predict a few more signs?

Bp. Nuno Brás da Silva Martins: I have no doubt on that. Terrorists in Paris were European. And the deputies in the Assembly of the Republic who approve anti-life and anti-family laws are also Europeans. These are signs of a way of life that is losing the enthusiasm and identity, and heading towards an abyss. I will not miss so much this way of living without hope and without human goals.

CWR: Refugees who come to Europe are reasons for hope or have deluded? And we, Catholic Christians, we have reason to expect a stronger Europe and aware of their Christian foundations?

Bp. Nuno Brás da Silva Martins: It depends on what they expect from Europe. I believe that, for now, they want to live, and dream of a job and some money, with a safer and more peaceful life. I believe we can offer that. Concerning the faith, the Christians of Syria and some other countries have much to teach us. But we also cannot fail to welcome them in our communities and to offer them the testimony of our life of faith. As I said, I have found many communities and many Christians that try to seriously walk in the Christian path. Even if the “cultural Christianity” disappears, the lived Christianity will always remain and will look also to become a new culture.

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About Diogo Miguel Machado 0 Articles
Diogo Miguel Machado is a native of Lisbon, Portugal. Currently, he lives in Rome, Italy where he is studying Theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. Formerly, he was the Editor in Chief of Fundamentum, the academic theology journal of the Catholic University of Portugal in Lisbon. There, he also served as a staff member of the Political Studies Institute, which features the only Great Books program in Portugal. He is widely published in the Portuguese Catholic media.