- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005

PARIS — “God is back among intellectuals,” says Aleksander Smolar, a leading European thinker who heads the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw and teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris.

“You can feel there is a problem of soul in Europe; people are conscious of a void and there is a certain crisis of secularism,” he said.

Seeking to fill that void, several dozen faithful Catholics gathered one recent Tuesday evening, as they do each week, to pray in the freshly painted basement of St. Denys church in northern Paris.

One after another, standing in a circle, they gave thanks aloud to God. One woman was grateful that an argument with her son had not gotten out of hand; another prayed for continued strength to keep looking for a job; a third, in tears, thanked the Lord “for helping me put up with all the humiliation I suffer.”

Then they all sang a simple hymn. Some swayed; some held their palms outstretched; others closed their eyes.

‘New Path Community’

For the past nine years, St. Denys parish has been run by a priest from the “New Path Community,” a charismatic Catholic movement that has borrowed much from the American Pentecostal tradition.

While the pews in traditional Catholic churches have emptied, the New Path and similar congregations have blossomed, attracting thousands of believers to prayer groups and Sunday Mass across Europe.

They are drawn, says parish priest Father Louis-Marc Thomy, “by the charisma of a community life. They say they feel unity and peace with us. And they find joy in rediscovering faith in a joyous manner.”

The prominent role that religion continues to play in American public life, meanwhile, has undermined the widespread European view that modern societies inevitably grow more secular, and that religion is an attribute of underdevelopment.

Spirituality on rise

“A preoccupation with spirituality is much more present now at a religious and philosophical level” than it was a few years ago, said Dominique Moisi, a French political analyst.

In Britain, the country’s largest bookseller has noticed that preoccupation, and moved to meet it. Expanding the shelf space it devotes to religious and spiritual books, “We have increased our range over the last few years,” said Lucy Avery, a spokeswoman for the Waterstone’s chain.

Sales of such books rose by nearly 4 percent last year, she said, and titles like the Dalai Lama’s “The Art of Happiness” and a modern-language “Street Bible” have become best sellers.

“I have noticed that a lot of general-interest publishers are turning to religious books now for commercial reasons because that is what the public wants,” said Laurence Vandamme, a spokeswoman for Cerf, the largest French religious publisher.

In France, leading philosopher Regis Debray, once a comrade in arms of Che Guevara in the Bolivian mountains, has devoted two of his most recent books to explorations of God and religion. Le Monde, the French establishment’s newspaper of record, this year introduced a glossy bimonthly “World of Religion.”

A need for meaning

“The need for meaning affects the secularized and de-ideologized West most of all,” wrote Frederic Lenoir, the editor of the new Le Monde magazine, in his first editorial. “Ultramodern individuals mistrust religious institutions … and they no longer believe in the radiant tomorrow promised by science and politics; they are still confronted, though, by the big questions about origins, suffering and death.”

Rocco Buttiglione, a confidant of the pope who was denied a bid to join the European Commission last year because of his staunch Catholic views on social issues, has a ready answer to such questions. “For a long time they told us that science and math would give us the identity we need,” he said.

“Both failed. Now when Europeans ask themselves ‘Who are we?’ they don’t have an answer. I suggest we are Christians.”

That opinion is not widely shared. Critics point to the millions of immigrant Muslim Europeans living in France, Germany, Britain and Spain, not to mention Europe’s indigenous Muslims in the Balkans.

Nor are there many signs of a resurgence of organized religion on a continent where church attendance has plummeted nearly everywhere in recent decades.

74 percent believe

Yet 74 percent of Europeans say they believe in God, a spirit or a life force, according to the latest findings of the European Values Study, a 30-year, continentwide survey. And youth workers in Britain are finding “consistent evidence … that a secular generation is being replaced by a generation much more interested in spiritual issues,” said Stuart Murray-Williams, a theologian at Oxford University who recently published a book entitled “After Christendom.”

A wide array of religious groups has sprung up across Europe to meet that generation’s needs, most notably Buddhist communities.

“I’ve noticed a steady increase in interest,” said Suvannavira, a Russian-born, British-educated monk who runs the Western Buddhist Order’s Paris outpost in a cramped storefront meditation center. “Our order has doubled in size since 1990.”

“The discourse has changed,” Mr. Murray-Williams said. “Ten or 15 years ago, any mention of spiritual experiences would have drawn blank looks. Today people are hungry to talk about them.”

He said it’s too soon to say what all this portends.

“It will be a while before we know whether or not it is strong enough to challenge the culture of secularism,” he said.

What’s it all about?

Secularism is showing signs of wear, argues Jacques Delors, who once bemoaned Europe’s lack of “soul” when he was president of the European Commission. “I fear that the construction of Europe is sinking into absolute materialism,” he said. “Things aren’t going well for society, so society is little by little going to start asking itself what life is for, what death is and what happens afterwards?”

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