The European Conference on Secularity

Fr. Heiner Wilhem, a member of the conference organizing committee, introduces the work of the days.

The conference begins

The European Conference on Secularity opened October 18 in Clairefontaine, Belgium. The conference is the concluding moment of the general visitation of the European continent (in July, Asia had a similar continental gathering).

The theme of secularity took root at the 2009 General Chapter where European SCJs noted the effect of secularity on the church and a desire to better understand its impact, especially as it affects vocations, ministry, and the members of the Priests of the Sacred Heart themselves.

The conference organizing committee includes Fr. Heiner Wilmer (GER), Fr. Lorenzo Prezzi (ITS), Fr. Fernando Rodriguez Garrapucho (ESP), Fr. Stefan Tertünte (GER), Fr. Javier López Martínez (ESP), Fr. Joseph Famerée (EUF), Fr. Manuel Barbosa (POR), and Fr. John van den Hengel (1AG).

Exploring societal groupings to better understand the impact of secularity on society, its challenges and the new possibilities it offers to the church.

The first day of the conference began with introductions from Fr. André Conrath, Fr. Heiner Wilmer and Fr. José Ornelas Carvalho.

Fr. André spoke of the history of Clairefontaine, the conference host. For many years the complex, tucked in the Belgian countryside near Luxembourg, served as an international school. Among its alumni are bishops in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, South Africa and Luxembourg. The current prime minister of Luxembourg is also an alumnus of the school.  Newly remodeled, the property now serves as a meeting and retreat center.

Fr. Heiner introduced the topic of the conference: secularity. The theme took root at the 2009 General Chapter where members of the European entities noted the effect of secularity on the church and their desire to better understand its impact, especially as it affects vocations, ministry, and the members of the Priests of the Sacred Heart themselves.

The conference was designed to follow the See, Judge, Act method. To “see” the situation of secularity in Europe, Tuesday’s speakers presented a sociological analysis of the different milieus or spheres of European society, along with their needs and desires.

New opportunities

The first speaker, Dr. Matthias Sellmann, has done extensive studies on the relationship of faith and contemporary society. He spoke of secularity, noting that it isn’t a concept that is antagonistic toward religion. Secularity can allow for a freedom from religion, but it also allows a freedom FOR religion, for a multitude of religious expression.

A free society offers people an opportunity to choose from a variety of religions. Areas where there are strong divisions between church and state actually allow for greater opportunities for religion.

“Religion doesn’t disappear,” said Dr. Sellmann in reference to the impact of secularity, “it changes shape. People continue to be spiritual.”

There is a significant need for the response of the church to society. “There is an element of wisdom and understanding found in religious language that can’t be translated to secular philosophy.”

Secularity is not “the death of religion,” he continued, “but a new opportunity.” People continue to search for truth. The Priests of the Sacred Heart have a message that is relevant to modern society, one that can have an impact on people’s lives.

Understanding contemporary society

The second presenter, Peter Martin Thomas, has served as a diocesan director of pastoral ministry to youth in Germany, and is now a frequently sought speaker and consultant on sociology and contemporary society.

Mr. Thomas spoke of how one finds both commonalities and differences among people in societies; how people who are very different also have many similarities. “It is important to have a holistic view of people’s lives to understand what makes them tick,” he said.

Much of his presentation focused on the research he has done in what he called “milieus,” or societal groupings. He identified them as: Traditional, Established, Intellectual, Modern-Performing, Modern-Mainstream, Consumer Materialists, and Sensation Orientation.

In the Traditional Milieu he said that people were generally older, female, often widows who lived in small households who had a basic education and generally worked in or were retired from lower paying jobs. “They are rooted in post-war values that include making the church a priority in their lives,” said Mr. Thomas.  Sunday mass is important to this group and they generally respect the church as an institution.

Using a slick Rolex watch advertisement to give a sense of the Established Milieu, Mr. Thomas described this group as being in their 40s to 50s, generally married men with children.  They are highly educated, work in a professional job or own a business, generally have a high income, and are comfortable with technology. They respect tradition but are open to change. They are people who are used to having responsibility.

The Intellectual Milieu includes a broad age range of people, from their 20s through 60s. They are more often women who work in liberal professions. They are tolerant, cosmopolitan, and are sensitive to social justice issues. They have a global awareness and sense of responsibility. Generally they have an interest in a variety of religions and they know themselves well.

Those in the Modern-Performing group are ambitious, often men in their 20s to 30s. They are single and highly educated with good incomes. They seek intense experiences and need to be where life is “happening.” They are high level consumers and quick to move for professional success, or travel extensively for work concerns. “This is a person who would be difficult to tie to a parish,” said Mr. Thomas. The person in this group moves frequently, and with a busy professional life, would prefer to relax on a Sunday rather than go to church.

The Modern Mainstream was one of the larger groups identified. The age range is from the 30s to 60s, male or female, generally married with children. Members of this group have attained an intermediate level of education and work as mid-level employees or as civil servants. They seek a comfortable, not confrontational lifestyle. This group is often very busy with the demands of work and family, and seek situations in which their children are welcome.

Consumer-Materialists come from a wide range in age, are men or women, and are often divorced. They generally have a lower education level, or are unskilled. Many work irregularly.  They want to keep up with the mainstream but often don’t have the means to do so. Many feel that they are limited, or disadvantaged. “This is a group that the church would do well to reach out to,” said Mr. Thomas.

A montage of heavy metal music introduced the Sensation Oriented group. These are often younger men, generally single. They are junior employees or sometimes unemployed. They are unconventional and rebellious and enjoy being different. They often belong to a sub-culture, spending their weekends traveling to follow a favorite sports team or musical group.

Mr. Thomas spoke of these milieus as a way of showing the many components of modern, western society. To be relevant, the church (and religious communities) must be present in a unique way to each of these groups. The language and structures that have impact on one group might be irrelevant to another. A “one size fits all” church does not work in a pluralistic society, or at least not to all the components found in that society.

It can be complicated. Each group has different expectations of the church and of the priest. No one priest or religious, no one community can assume each role, or fulfill each expectation. There are many paths. However, this also means that there are a multitude of possibilities for the different talents of individuals and the many charisms of religious communities.

The church could just minister to those who continue to come to its doors and “consider the others as lost,” said Mr. Thomas.

“Or,” he continued, “we could celebrate the variety of ways that God is present in so many people and the variety of ways that we can respond to that presence.”

How is the church seen and perceived by these various groups? Is it credible and authentic to them?

To better know the needs of the people, Mr. Thomas said that the church must listen. “Don’t just be a church that offers,” he said, “be a church that listens and hears people’s needs.”

After small group discussions one SCJ noted that Fr. Dehon was a sociologist; he traveled extensively to better understand the world and get a better sense of God’s expression in a variety of realities.

“For us to know society better is a way for us to be more Dehonian,” said the SCJ.

Click here to read Fr. John van den Hengel’s homily at the opening Mass.

Click here to view photos from the conference.