Pontifical Council for the Pastoral
Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

 Round-Table (I) 

Meeting of Cultures and Its Impact on the Faith

and Values of Today's Young Generation

Positive aspects

(Unofficial translation) 

Rev. Fr. Pierre DEVOS, S.J.

President of SECIS

Belgium

As the starting point of this presentation, I will make the following observation which is valid in any case for the Western countries  but can also be seen in part all over the world. Today's young generation experiences:

-        greater ease in communications through the GSM, PC, Ipad and other means of more immediate contact;

-        reduced distances thanks to ever more efficient means of transportation;

-        hyper-information which occupies the spirit to the detriment of reflection;

-        better knowledge about the mechanisms involved in the functioning of our world, including the human body, which, however, is not of great help to them when they are confronted with suffering and death;

-        less dependence with regard to cultural pressures, which generates a corresponding loss of meaning of limits.  They think they can do anything; everything seems permissible;

-        Paradoxically, among many young people, a feeling of loneliness, which is the result of an individualistic way of life encouraged by a consumer society.

In this context of society, the search for meaning is still very present but the ways to achieve it are often inadequate. The international students that come from living Christian communities can play a very important role here as “missionaries” of the Faith.

Context of the European Union

The European Union (EU), which currently brings together 27 States, does not have formation among its competencies (exclusive or shared). However, it plays an important role of coordination and harmonization in this area based on what the different countries propose. The Bologna Process is an example of this.  In this framework, it promotes quality formation and explicitly emphasizes the level of knowledge and the competitive aspect of the offering in this area in view of a globalized economy. The programs proposed by the different countries that are beneficiaries of the European funds are addressed, in addition to the EU countries, to the neighboring countries and to 80 other countries around the world .

Until World War II, human migrations were made essentially between the European countries and later from Europe to other continents. Immigration only began at the end of the war. At present, it represents about 1 million people per year. The European markets are affected by the arrival of competent managers from the countries of the East and the South (brain drain), and also by unskilled labor which is lacking in countries with a high standard of living. It is worth noting that the policy carried out by the EU in this area falls within the competence of defense and security.

To this migratory phenomenon is added the mobility of young people in formation.  This takes place between EU countries but also from outside the EU towards it. The reasons that prompt non-Europeans to come and study in the EU are the level and quality of our formation, their diversity, and, in some cases, the opportunity they represent for settling in the EU after graduation. On the whole, the prerequisites which allow access to formation in the EU are the following:

-        proof of admission to a higher educational institution in the country aimed at;

-        proof of sufficient means of support;

-        a medical certificate attesting to good health;

-        for people over 21 years of age, a certificate of good conduct and character. 

The Place of Catholic Student Residences in this context

The aim of the Catholic Residences is to offer a human context inspired by the Gospel to the men and women who come to pursue their studies in the EU. This involves: helping them first of all with all the steps that need to be taken when someone settles in a foreign country for a sufficiently long period of time; offering them material and human conditions which enable them to succeed in their studies, and, finally, helping them to get integrated into a cultural context that is different from their own while respecting their own culture.

The Catholic Residences exist autonomously or they can be associated with a university parish that offers a place of more explicit expression of the Faith. Moreover, there are some associations, like the KAAD (Katholischer Akademischer Ausländer-Dienst) in Germany, the Work of St. Justine in Switzerland, the Afro-Asian Institute in Austria, the FENACA-Aalmoezeniersdienst (National Federation of Foreign Student Centers) in Belgium, and others in the Church which watch over the international student' interests within the Church.  Many of these national associations have formed an international association called SECIS (Service of European Churches for International Students). It will be presented to you over the course of this Congress.  The aim of this association is to exchange experiences regularly and to facilitate the organization of international projects to benefit the students.

Those who come to a residence are looking for a living situation that will allow them to carry out their studies well. With few exceptions, they also hope to build some relationships and get integrated into the place (the host country). Apart from doctoral formation, which takes many years, most often the stays are limited to one or two years of specialization which complete a basic formation that has already been acquired.  Moreover, the demands from the viewpoint of “the employer”, whether this is the university or the high school offering the formation, are significant and thus require a lot of energy and a lot of personal investment. Therefore, the time lived “in the residence” is rather limited. Also, some students are already married when they arrive and so they are less available for life in the student residence than if they were single.  Confirming this observation, a critical review of the EU mobility programs is being made at this time. The points being dealt with include the poor quality of the students' cultural insertion (cultural learning), a result of the “short term”, and the fact that the universities' excellence is presented more on a competitive basis rather than on their ability to create networks. 

Connection between cultures and religions

The stay abroad is an occasion to discover another culture and not just to acquire a skill that is not found in the country of origin.

As Catholics, it is worthwhile here for us to try to clarify the link that exists between cultures and religions. In our residences, we surely welcome students of the Catholic religion from a different cultural context than our own, but we also welcome students who belong both to another religion and to a cultural context different than our own.

A religion can be defined as a system of beliefs called to give an explanation (and thus sense) to the universe, natural phenomena and our own existence.  It often invokes one or more gods or supernatural forces and involves obligations on the part of its followers. It is characterized by some non-empirical aspects and the existence of dogmas. A culture also presents itself as a system of beliefs, values, habits, behaviors and objects which the members of a society share in order to manage their relation to the world and with one another. Culture and religion are transmitted from generation to generation through the learning which we designate by the term education. Both of them have to do with the concept that each one has of the world in which he lives.  They offer him the possibility to structure this reality. One essential difference is that one appeals to what goes beyond man in order to structure and give meaning to reality, while the other is based essentially on human experience. 

It was Pope John Paul II, in 1979, in his Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae, who spoke about the inculturation of religion.  Stated in other terms, he spoke about the penetration and taking root of the Christian faith within cultures. Penetration and taking root were spoken about but not integration because the evangelization process brings something new: good news that come from elsewhere. An article published in the July 2010 issue of the review “Etudes” makes an enlightening analysis of this relation between religions and cultures. In Western Europe, we see in this regard that many people make reference to the Christian tradition as to a cultural fund that taught them respect for others, attention to the weakest, a fair sharing of goods, etc. They are no longer believers but they belong to the Christian culture. In contrast to this attitude, some fundamentalist or evangelical movements turn up which take a distance and detach themselves from any cultural appearance. It is pure and hard faith or excessive dogmatism that marks the transcendence of the divine message. 

How is this relation lived by the students?

For the students who come to our residences, the amount of information to be assimilated, which is sometimes excessive to the detriment of reflection, does not leave much available time for personal reflection, which naturally includes reflection on the religious element. Now, the personal ability to make reasoned choices is essential when someone goes from one culture to another. It is essential not only to discover and integrate the positive elements of another culture without renouncing what is good in one's own, but also to position one's religious approach in relation to these two cultures.

Here our residences have an essential role to play: our mission is to learn to know the men and women who come by respecting their freedom and their choices; to offer them, as Catholic adults, a reflected view of our situation as believers in the culture they are discovering.

This intercultural and religious dialogue requires time and availability, and all the more so because it takes place in a new language which the student from abroad does not master in all its nuances. This is one reason why local insertion at the end of a stay limited to one year is often relatively poor. What should we say, then, about stays that are limited to a semester!

It should be added to the above that for the men and women who come to our country, there is not just the encounter of two different cultures but a passage, in part compulsory, from one culture to another. In this context, it is imperative for them to keep an open attitude; otherwise they will take refuge in their own culture, which leads to isolation, or renounce their own tradition to the point that it is distorted or depreciated, which is not better. 

Projects

The members of SECIS think that the very existence of a network of residences and centers distributed in different EU countries could contribute effectively to making up for the overly limited knowledge about European culture and its relation to religion among the students who live in these residences for a time. For this purpose, they  intend to create a kind of exchange program between residences/centers which will take up and organize realistic proposals from each of them. The students who wish to could have a brief stay (for example, on the occasion of symposiums, formation sessions...) in a town or city different from their place of study. The association would provide the financing, albeit partially, according to the availability of funds. These different experiences would be enhanced by a period of reflection, either locally or by geographic groups, to avoid overly expensive trips.