Stretched across Elder Neil L. Andersen’s desk are several photos captured during his recent assignment to Western Europe.
The many images double as both personal mementos for the apostle — and as visual testaments to the multi-generational power of the Church on the Continent.
Some of the people pictured with Elder Andersen are in their latter years. Others are young or at the cusp of middle age. A few are women. A few are men. Many are children.
But all, he said, can aptly be called “defenders of the faith.”
• In one photo, Elder Andersen stands shoulder to shoulder with Elder Caleb Wilkinson, a young missionary from England serving in France. When Elder Andersen presided over the France Bordeaux Mission, Elder Matthew J. Wilkinson’s father was one of his missionaries.
• Another photo includes Jean and Marie-Blanche Caussé — both Church converts and the parents of the Presiding Bishop, Bishop Gérald Caussé. The senior Caussé was Elder and Sister Kathy Andersen’s branch president three decades ago.
“They have been diligent and faithful in their service,” said Elder Andersen.
• Elder Andersen is seen in another photo sharing a smile with Bernard Lilaud. Almost a half century ago, a young Elder Andersen and his missionary companion stopped Lilaud on a street in Angouleme and introduced him to the gospel.
Now the Lilauds are a multi-generational Latter-day Saint family in France.
• And in a photo snapped after a member meeting in Vienna, Austria, Elder and Sister Andersen greet a young girl who fashioned a makeshift sign during the gathering.
The sign reads simply: “I am a defender of the faith.”
An apostle’s “homecoming”
Elder Andersen grew up in Idaho, thousands of miles from Europe. But many of the key moments of his life have occurred on “the Continent.”
He served a full-time mission to France in the early 1970s, and then returned to that nation as a mission president in 1989. Later, as a General Authority Seventy, he served in the Europe West Area presidency.
His most recent European assignment (Jan. 18-Jan. 27) included a stop in Bristol, England, for a priesthood leadership conference; a first-time visit to Wales for a member meeting; a missionary meeting in Paris; a member meeting in Vienna, Austria; and time spent with local Church leaders and members in his mission “home” region in southern France.
He marvels that 30 years have passed since he, Sister Andersen and their children — Camey, Brandt, Kristen and Derek — arrived in Bordeaux to begin his three-year assignment as a mission president.
“I thought at the time that it would be our last ‘large’ service in the Church,” he said with a smile.
‘Defenders of the faith’ in Europe
Some might argue that Europe enjoyed its Latter-day Saint “moment” in the 19th century when legions across the continent joined the Church and immigrated to the United States, providing an essential role in the growth of the young Church.
But Elder Andersen challenges any suggestion that Europe’s most pivotal contributions belong to Church history. Today’s European members continue to play an essential role in the growth and stability of the Church.
There is a power that is solid and real.
During his recent assignment, Elder Andersen repeatedly felt an impression of European Latter-day Saints: defenders of the faith.
In recent decades, regions of the world such as Latin America and Africa have enjoyed prolific Church growth.
Meanwhile, in Europe observant Christians are becoming minorities in many countries. “Because of that, they have become true defenders of the faith,” said Elder Andersen.
The Lord, he added, has revealed “there would be righteous people to receive Him at His coming,” in all areas of the globe.
Latter-day Saints in Europe answer a sacred charge. “They defend the faith and keep the restored gospel firmly implanted with strong generations that come one after another,” he said.
Evidence of deep-rooted, gospel-centered homes abounds across many European countries. Elder Andersen was presiding over the Bordeaux mission in 1992 when then-Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles organized the Bordeaux France Stake. All three members of the original Bordeaux stake presidency were Church converts.
“Today, all the members of the Bordeaux stake presidency — and all of their wives — grew up in the Church,” he said. “It’s an amazing difference. There is a power that is solid and real.”
Elder Helmut D. Wondra is an Area Seventy in Vienna. He grew up in the Church and is now raising his own children. The Wondras are emblematic of the many multi-generational chains “holding the line” across Europe.
Those family chains of faith were fortified by a visit from a latter-day Apostle.
“During his visit to Vienna, Elder Andersen encouraged us to be defenders of the faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” wrote Elder Wondra. “In order to be able to do that I feel that we need to always remember our Savior and pray daily with real intent to have His Spirit with us at all times. We must search the scriptures and the words of our living prophets to find Him, to better understand Him and His doctrine and what He did for us.
“And then we need to try to follow His example by doing small acts of kindness and faith. The more we do that the more we will be filled with His light and then it will come natural for us to share it with our families, to teach our children about it and to speak of the joy that we feel because of Him to our friends and people we meet.”
As Latter-day Saints worldwide strive for “home-centered, Church-supported” families, they “can look to the long established examples of many in Europe,” added Elder Andersen.
Through the testimony of goodly parents, daily prayer and regular study of the Book of Mormon, many European children have found protection in their lives because they understand the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
The temple: evidence of God’s love
Almost two years ago, France’s first temple was dedicated in Paris. Three new temples in Europe will be dedicated in the near future in Rome, Italy; Lisbon, Portugal; and Frankfurt, Germany.
Continued temple building across Europe is comforting to the European Latter-day Saints, said Elder Andersen. It reminds them that God loves them and their relatives, on both sides of veil. They are never alone.
One of the central opportunities of the restored gospel is to strengthen families through the temple, added Elder Andersen, citing a quote from President Russell M. Nelson at last October’s General Conference Leadership Meeting:
“We are uniquely able to strengthen families because we have temples,” said the Church president. “The ordinances, covenants, and blessings of the holy temple are only offered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“The noblest yearning of the human heart is for a happy marriage that can endure beyond death. Fidelity to covenants made in a temple sealing will lead to just that.”