ROME – When it comes to threats to Christianity, a longtime missionary in Africa has argued that more than physical persecution, Western secularism poses a greater danger, as the Christian faith is rapidly expanding in areas where Christians are persecuted, whereas it is declining in the traditionally Christian West.

Speaking to journalists during a Sept. 7 roundtable on Catholic missionary activity amid the coronavirus pandemic, Uruguayan Father Martin Lasarte, a longtime Salesian missionary in Africa, said that every stage in the Church’s missionary outreach has had “its beauties and its challenges.”

In modern times, Lasarte said he believes the greatest challenge to this task “is the growth of Western secularism, which kills the faith.”

“The biggest danger we face … is the secularist (society) without the dimension of transcendence,” he said, adding that while secularism is currently most problematic in the West, thanks to globalization it will soon “go everywhere,” a trend he believes ought to prompt a “very important for missionary reflection.”

Pointing to examples within Europe, Lasarte noted that the Salesian order in Poland at one point drew around 50-60 men to the seminary annually, while today the number is closer to four or five.

Latin America has also been hit by a wave of “impressive secularization,” he said, adding that a wide “religious gap” exists which is increasingly being filled by Evangelical churches.

In this sense, the Catholic Church “has not been a mother or a teacher,” but an administrator, he said, adding that once the Church loses the charism of teaching, mission, and spreading the faith, “it loses its identity.”

Popular piety as being a major opportunity for the Church in Latin America to reclaim its lost evangelizing zeal, he said, while in Europe the hope comes largely from missionaries from Africa or Asia who bring a freshness to the faith that has been lost in the Old Continent.

Holding a degree in Sacred Scripture, Lasarte has been a missionary in Africa for 25 years and was a papal delegate to the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon. For the past five years, he has formed part of the global team of missionary animation for the Salesian Congregation, and he is currently preparing to return to Angola, despite the fact that its borders are still closed due to the COVID-19 coronavirus.

When it comes to missionary activity, Lasarte did acknowledge the problem of anti-Christian persecution, noting that roughly 250,000 people throughout the world are being persecuted for their faith. Quoting Pope Francis, he said there are more martyrs today than there were in the early centuries of Christianity, calling the phenomenon “a new ecumenism, an ecumenism of martyrdom,” as Christians are often slaughtered without distinction.

He warned against the increasing sentiment of nationalist Hinduism in India that is leading to greater discrimination against Christians and other minorities, and also pointed to China as an example of a country where the situation for Christians is becoming more precarious.

In China, not only have Christians been persecuted for their faith, but the wider problem, Lasarte said, is that communism has led to the centralization of power and “the absolute submission to political authority.”

“A Christian cannot put the government first,” he said, adding that when the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association tells faithful that the party comes first, and then their faith, “I have to question (it),” Lasarte said, adding that from what he has heard from people on the ground, “China is increasing control over its people.”

He also highlighted secularization as a problem in China, saying the phenomenon of urbanization in the country is leading many families to go astray, as there are fewer points of reference where they can practice their faith in large cities.

Noting that the Vatican is currently on the verge of renewing a two-year provisional agreement with China on the appointment of bishops, Lasarte said a careful consideration of this courtship is needed, because when the word “dialogue” is mentioned, it could have a different interpretation for the Chinese which still needs to be understood.

Ultimately Lasarte said he is “a friend of China, because Christianity is growing.” While Protestantism is currently growing more rapidly than Catholicism in China, it is still a positive thing, he said, because “Christianity emphasizes much more human rights (and) the dignity of the person.”

Lasarte pointed to the ironic trend that it is precisely within these countries with communist or other authoritarian regimes, including Laos, that the Catholic Church “is getting stronger.”

“Christian life, the presence of the Church, is growing a lot in Africa and Asia, east and south Asia,” as well as a few small countries in Oceana, he said, noting that over the past 10 years, the Salesians have sent around 150 missionaries to Vietnam – home to Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận, who spent 13 years in a re-education camp after the Communist takeover of Saigon.

“In Vietnam, which is communist, the Church has an enormous vitality,” Lasarte said, calling it, “very vibrant, very missionary.”

Christians in Vietnam are a minority “with a strong identity which leaves its mark on a pluralistic society,” he said, noting that Christianity is also growing fast in other countries where they are a small minority, such as Nepal and Bangladesh.

He contrasted this to often-voiced fears in the West that soon Europe, a traditionally Christian culture, will dominated by Muslims, “not because of conversions, but because of births,” as Muslim migrants tend to have more children than European nationals.

The paradox here, he said, is that there is a growth of Christianity in traditionally Islamic countries and a growth of Islam in countries with an ancient Christian tradition.

However, he insisted that the numbers are not the problem for Christians in the West, but that “even more dangerous than when Christians die is when they die due to an illness (called) secularization,” which is a threat that comes not from outside, but from within.

Lasarte clarified that while having a lay state in itself is not dangerous, and can even be a good thing, the risk comes from “that accent that is almost combative to the Church.”

In Europe, “a re-evangelization is needed,” he said, noting that in today’s globalized society, “missionary activity doesn’t have borders.”

He argued in favor of the “broader vision” that comes from having a multicultural perspective, insisting that “when you have a Christian, missionary community, that is multicultural, you have a community that is richer.”

“Europe will continue to need more missionaries, which is a need we will continue to respond to,” he said, and warned against falling into the “sickness of self-referentiality which can endanger the Gospel,” calling it “a condemnation to death.”