They stood in a line that stretched at least a mile, sometimes 30 abreast. Huddled in blankets in the evening cold, and gratefully accepting bottled water from priests patrolling the line during the hot daylight hours, the mourners -- who wanted one last glimpse of Pope John Paul II -- waited patiently for as long as 12 hours. The funeral of this modern pope has become the greatest Christian pilgrimage of all time. Accordingly, images out of Rome this week give the impression of a still-vibrant European Christianity.
And yet, this outpouring, fattened by the presence of 2 million Poles, is somewhat misleading. For while believers have not disappeared (particularly in the newly free countries of Eastern Europe), they have become a distinct minority in a continent that is decidedly post-Christian.
George Weigel, the theologian who produced John Paul II's masterful authorized biography "Witness to Hope," has a new slender volume out that addresses Europe's sickness of the soul. In "The Cube and the Cathedral," Weigel begins with a series of questions that limn the problem:
What accounts for disturbing currents of irrationality in contemporary European politics? Why did one of every five Germans (and one third of those under 30) believe that the United States was responsible for 9-11, while some 300,000 French men and women made a best-seller out of 'The Appalling Fraud,' in which author Thierry Meyssan argued that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed by the U.S. military. ... Why is European productivity dwindling? ... Why does Sweden have a considerably higher level of its population living below the poverty line ... than the United States? ... Above all ... why is Europe committing demographic suicide, systematically depopulating itself in what British historian Niall Ferguson calls the 'greatest sustained reduction in European population since the Black Death of the 14th century'? What is happening when an entire continent, wealthier and healthier than ever before, declines to create the human future in the most elemental sense, by creating a next generation?