Last spring on a trip to Erfurt Germany, the medieval university town famous for the Augustinian cloister where Martin Luther was ordained to the priesthood, I learned that only twenty percent of the population professed adherence to Christianity. When the topic of religion came up in a conversation with a young woman in a hotel lounge I asked her whether she was a member of a church. Without hesitation she replied:Ich bin Heide. I am a heathen.
It is hardly news to discover pagans in the heart of western Europe where once Christianity flourished. The steep decline in the number of Christians has been underway for generations, even centuries. What surprised me was the complete absence of embarrassment in her use of the term “heathen”. She did not say she no longer went to Church, nor that she was not a believer. For her, Christianity, no doubt the religion of her grandparents if not her parents, was absent from her horizon. Two days earlier my train had stopped at Fulda where St. Boniface, the apostle to the Germans, was buried. Boniface had gone to Germany to convert the heathen, and in a spectacular and courageous gesture felled the sacred oak at Geismar. The astonished onlookers soon hearkened to Boniface’s preaching and received Baptism. It would seem that if Christianity is ever to flourish again in the land between the Rhine and the Elbe a new Boniface will have to appear to fell the sacred oaks of European secularism.