VATICAN concern at "dark clouds" looming over the Continent as the millennium approaches has prompted the Pope to call a gathering of European bishops in Rome next year.
A Vatican document to be issued next week speaks of the need for Europe to rediscover its Christian roots and refers to the possible salvation of the Continent through the Second Coming.
The publication is a Lineamenta, a working document for the planned synod. Its existence was disclosed at the end of a conference of Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales yesterday. European bishops last held a synod in 1991 and another gathering in under a decade would be unprecedented - indicating the extent of papal concern.
The document, to be issued next week to diocesan bishops in England and Wales, reveals that the Pope is worried about the resurgence of nationalism and wants to see "integral rebirth" of the Continent. Written by a senior Vatican cardinal, it says Europe must overcome "fatigue, doubt and discouragement". A rediscovery of faith would "disperse the many dark clouds hanging over Europe".
The document notes that the collapse of communism has restored individual freedoms but with it has come progress "often-times devoid of spiritual values".
The author, Cardinal Jan Schotte, criticises "outdated institutions" of democracy in Europe, which are displaying a "certain lack of tolerance". He accuses Europeans of attempting to "eliminate" reference to the Christian faith in promoting the right to freedom of choice, and points with alarm to the growth of sects and new religious movements.
However, the document concedes that there is a "general desire for goods of the spirit" and looks forward to a "new revelation" that will reawaken hope and faith.
"As an epoch comes to an end with the approach of the third millennium, Europe is fully in possession of great signs of faith and testimony," it says.
"At the same time, however, the Continent feels the wear on its peoples produced by history's various tensions, oftentimes generating great disappointment. Despite this situation, Europe is not abandoned to a hopelessness beyond redemption; its Christian roots remain and constantly endure."
God is reserving to Himself the "proper time when grace will result in a new revelation of his Person".
The document acknowledges progress made in addressing drug addiction, pornography, sex tourism, paedophilia, abortion and euthanasia. "On the other hand, insensitivity to other people's sufferings also seems to be on the increase, caused by its excessive coverage and diffusion by the information media."
The European synod will be the last in a series of pre-millennial gatherings called by the Pope. The Asian bishops are meeting now in Rome. The Americans met before them, and the Africans in 1994.
The 22 diocesan bishops in the Catholic Church in England and Wales who receive the document will have to answer questions on the meaning of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, on the pluralism of faith and culture in Europe and on how the desire for spirituality is manifesting itself in their dioceses.
They will take into account the observations of more than four million Catholics in their churches. The responses, from bishops throughout Europe, will be collated into another document which will form the basis of discussions at the synod, likely to be held in the autumn of 1999. At least four senior bishops from England and Wales are expected to be invited.