Is the Church burning? And it’s Spirit as well?

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The Church Burning — Crisis and future of Christianity” Is this really an attack on Francis Bishop of Rome just as the “Catholic-conservatives” had hoped for?

From a great church historian comes an impressive exploration into the crisis of the Christian world with an analysis of different (and competing) ideas on how to get out of it. Crisis means struggle. Today the Church is in an ‘agonistic’ condition, which is to say involved in a struggle, not against external enemies but against indifference and discredit. On the night of April 15-16, 2019, the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris burned down.  That fire — described in the opening of the book — devastated one of the main centres of European Christianity and quickly became a symbol for the critical situation that the Church has been in for many years for now. In France and Italy, as in Europe and around the world, there has been a continuous reduction in religious activity, a decline in vocations, and a diminished presence of Catholicism in public life. This situation of emptiness, which concerns us all, is explored and documented by the author through figures and events as well as through the analysis of the positions taken by the protagonists within the Church itself, from popes to bishops, from theologians to those animate the main religious movements.  The situation today is so difficult that one can legitimately say, “We’re beyond the threshold to the end; we’re now operating on the ‘remains’ of an irreversible event.” But crisis does not always mean decline. It’s vital to react and be open to the future, knowing that “the great risk in a crisis is to be content with merely ‘putting a patch on things,’ and surviving, staring only at the present and always comparing things to a halcyon past.”

Andrea Riccardi

The title of the latest book by Andrea Riccardi an — Italian historian, professor, politician and activist—, and the founder of the Community Sant’Egidio ( and a prominent figure within the Catholic world, engaged on the front lines of the war on poverty and inequality, was immediately “used” to attack Pope Francis, saying that if the Church “burns” that it would be his fault. Let’s take a look at what Riccardi himself had declared in a recent media interview.

The question that ultimately inspires the latest book by Andrea Riccardi (La Chiesa Brucia? Bari, Laterza, 2021, pages 248, ISBN: 9788858144114) is one that leaves you with bated breath and a bit of anguish just to ask them: Has the crisis of the Church already reached a point of irreversibility? It was well known that the “vital parameters” (a sharp decrease in the number of ordinations, a noticeable fall in attendance by the faithful at sacraments, religious life no longer appealing to the faithful, just to mention a few) are in serious trouble, but is the situation really so serious? Surely the pandemic storm that has hit the world is virulently demonstrating all of the pre-existing frailties already within the Church.

For this reason, the precise and detailed overview of the crisis of the Church in the West which Andrea Riccardi carries out, mixing together his precision as a historian, the analytical interpretation of the sociologist and his passion as an ecclesiologist, constitutes today the most complete and definitive documentary source for delving into a debate that is instead too often characterised by the superficiality of beliefs.

The Church is Burning — The Future of Christianity.” This is the title of the latest book by Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio and a leading figure in the Catholic world, engaged on the front lines of the war on poverty and inequality. The text begins like this: “The night between 15 and 16 April 2019 the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris burned down. That fire devastated a historic centre of European Christianity and also symbolically represented the crisis situation in which the Church has been facing for many years. In France as in Italy, in Europe and elsewhere in the world there has been a continuous reduction in religious practice, a decline in vocations, a lower incidence of the Catholic presence in public life.”

Here the so-called “Catholic-conservatives” or “traditionalists” or “Tridentinists” (which refer to those that adhere to the decisions made at the Council of Trent of 1545-63), immediately “used” this “harsh” title to attack Pope Francis, saying that if Church “burns,” then the fault would rest on him. Let us, therefore, take a look at what Riccardi himself declared in recent interviews with the media (Osservatore Romano, Avvenire  and La Stampa (all three articles are in Italian and have been translated through Google Translate Web for your benefit):  

  • I know that the question I ask in the opening pages of the book can be distressing for many. And I also add, in all honesty, that I don’t have the answer in my pocket. But I wanted to put it, because I believe that the greatest urgency today is to go back to “thinking,” “to restore dignity to thought” and to a “thoughtful debate.” “Opening the windows,” overcoming the polarisations based on “preconceptions” and “defensive attitudes.”
  • We cannot think that it is enough just to “patch up the present” or “manage the institutions”. When I say that we must “go back to thinking”, I mean that we must “go back to having a vision”. “Vision of the world”, of “history”, vision “of the Church” in a world that has changed rapidly as never before since the beginning of human history. But, I confess, I still don’t see all this on the horizon.
  • If someone thinks of a “routine” fulfilment, a “self-referential walkway”, which does not actively involve all the people of God, I say it provocatively: better let it go.
  • There is a need to feel the “fire” of the crisis to begin a journey of reflection on the future and “reading of the reality in which we live”.
  • No ideas and indications for the future are generated, if you do not first understand them in depth. Never before has it been the “time of listening” and “meeting” with each other as today.
  • I believe that the origin of the crisis afflicting the Church can be traced back to a “paradox”. And that is that the most global institution that exists in the world (editor’s note: the Catholic Church), in the end, struggles to withstand the impact of “globalisation”.
  • We were bewildered by the profound changes, let me say “anthropological”, that “globalisation” has brought to our lives. Let me give you an example: the “speeding up of time”. The Church is “anchored in her rhythms”, to a conception of time that is not that of the “digital”, but perhaps not that of the “industrial age” either. The speed of relationships favours an emotional level that, for example, the neo-Protestant movements are better able to intercept.
  • We cannot think that evangelisation is the prerogative of an “ever smaller” and “ever older” clergy. There is, for example, the great “problem of women”. I do not want to make a facade feminism, as it is also in fashion, but I register that in the world there has been an epochal revolution that has not been listened to in the Church.
  • A priest runs five parishes, when all goes well. Most of the actors in parish life are – silently – women. But they are always placed in a “top-male” structure, therefore not recognized for what they do and what they deserve. Without women, many parishes would not survive. The point is not to claim some more space or role. The point is to begin to really think about a Church that is “a place of communion between men and women”.
  • The Church must also pay attention to the “religious sentiment of the people”, because it too is a cultural expression that should not be underestimated. The Church must become aware of the crisis and rediscover “the communicative enthusiasm of her own faith”. And then she must stimulate “different forms of Christian life” that undertake a “journey into history”. “Not pastoral models to” apply “: it is necessary to let these” sprouts “grow naturally 
  • I believe that we must overcome a style that has prevailed anyway and that I call “neo-Tridentinism”. A style entirely aimed at the “management of the institutions”, at the redefinition of “certainties”, which contradict the quintessence of the Christian profile: “being in history”. 
  • When I speak of “neo-Tridentinism” I think of the search for “functionality” that is not there, a research that has generated much, too much attention to “forms” and “structures”.
  • Even in the relationship with the poor, what I call “neo-Tridentinism” has prevailed, this mix of “efficiency” and “perfectionism”, which reduces charity to “institutional activity”.
  • The “traditionalists” are not “the tradition”. “Traditionalism” is a “reinvention” of what is thought to be tradition.
  • Stating that the troubles of the Church derive from the Second Vatican Council (editor’s note: therefore from “progressive” ideas) is misleading. And it doesn’t seem to me that “traditionalist groups” are a conspicuous answer.
  • The Church is large and plural. Now we must be careful because we risk “graying” with “tired” institutions, and a “sluggish ruling class”.
  • Catholics must fight against “irrelevance”, without aspiring “to power”. There is a need for a “re-flourishing season”, which can take place by “trying”, “working well” and even “making mistakes”, it doesn’t matter.
  • The crisis of the Church is not determined by “external factors”, such as persecution or communism. It comes from “internal reasons” and from the “relationship with society”.
Fr. David Maria Turoldo

Riccardi closes his book with the prayer-poem, addressed to the Lord, by the theologian of the Order of Servants of Mary (Servite Order) Fr. David Maria Turoldo (1916-1992): “Liberate me from the gray, from the spirit of senility”.

From the above it can therefore be deduced, gentlemen “traditionalists,” “Catholics-conservatives,”“Tridentinists,” that the content of the book “The Church Burns — Crisis and future of Christianity,”  goes in an exactly opposite direction to yours, in which you dream of a Catholic Church with a Pope:

  • wearing ermine and red leather shoes,
  • who celebrate the “Tridentine Mass” in Latin, which no one can understand, facing at a wall [ad orientemto the east] of the church and not at the “people” [Versus populumtowards the people] and without exchanging a pax “sign of peace.”

And perhaps also:

  • who uses the “pluralis majestatis” —the Royal Plural— again, as a sign of absolute power,
  • which carries us back into the “arms” of the “Gestatorial Chair.”

But in your vision of the Church, what exactly happened to Jesus?