This year I was blessed to celebrate the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord with my prometida (fiancé) in Spain. Though she has lived in the Balearic islands for almost two decades, she was born in Córdoba, Argentina, where Pope Francis once spent an intense period of self-reflection before being named archbishop of Buenos Aires. One among many reasons I love her is that she can both laugh good-naturedly and raise one eyebrow when I joke with colleagues that she is “my second-favorite Argentine.” Add to that her willingness to leave island paradise for Chicago winters.
There is at this point unquestionably a “viento del sur” or Southern wind blowing through the Catholic Church. The pope is from Argentina, the newly elected superior of the Jesuits, Arturo Sosa, S.J. is from Venezuela. There are more new cardinals from “majority world” (African, Latin American and Southeast Asian) countries than ever before. This leadership reflects the explosive growth of Christianity in the southern hemisphere in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Christianity in Europe and North America is changing. Even the debates over artificial contraception and divorce are not the same as they were 30 years ago. Most millennials are not so much antagonistic to the church’s teachings on these matters, as they are apathetic and confused that older generations would even care what a “voluntary organization” had to say about their choices.
I am an enormous fan of the current pope. But I’m also not deluded enough to think that the “Francis Effect” has stemmed these intensely powerful cultural tides. Yet, we are called to respond and to engage the contemporary developments of our world with joy and hope (“gaudium et spes”).
So too must we recognize that the energy of the church is no longer anchored in the Anglo-European experience, which exported a particular vision of Christianity for quite a long time (about 1,800 years, give or take). Spain has enormously elaborate festivals for things like Good Friday and Epiphany. They cherish their traditions, as do we. We ate Roscon de Reyes and left bowls of water for the Magi’s camels, along with our empty shoes for gifts, overnight on Jan. 5 as countless Spanish speakers have done for generations. We even saw the Disney movie “Coco” which celebrates some of these Hispanic traditions. But when we went to Sunday Mass there on the shore of the Mediterranean in the heart of the land of the Camino de Santiago and of the missionary fervor that once helped evangelize at least three continents, the 25 people present was an unusually large turnout.
It’s no longer debatable that the ever-ancient and ever-youthful vitality of the church has shifted away from Europe and America to “brown-bodied” places, and Catholics from the former bastions of the faith now have twin charges: both to respond to and celebrate this fact accordingly. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating an abandonment of the important and holy sites of a North Atlantic past, but rather an honest recognition that Nairobi and Bogota now have a lot more practicing believers than do Dublin and Paris; and that Europe, while always holding a special place in Christian history, was not the original location of its central mysteries, anyway. Syria was always much closer to the action than was Barcelona.
Even back home in the United States, those who claim that the church cares for migrants simply to fill their pews and collection plates are misinformed at best and race-baiters at worse, who understand neither Catholic social teaching, nor Matthew’s Gospel. Yet, I agree with them on one count: that the “invading” Catholic culture en camino will eventually in a few decades unseat the lethargic European one reclined on ivory couches reminiscing over their long-held laurels. The difference is that I welcome the eruption of popular piety and exultant traditions as driven by the Spirit who blows where it wills, and am thus excited to learn from and experience anew “the shape of the church to come.”
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.