Europeans stray from Catholicism

Church struggles in culture it dominated

By Tom Hundley, Tribune foreign correspondent. Tribune staff reporter Steve Kloehn contributed to this report from Rome

April 13, 2005

MILAN, Italy -- Two days after a quarter of a million mourners packed St. Peter's Square for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, it was business as usual at St. Nazaro Maggiore.

Don Giulio Giacometti, the church's cherubic 82-year-old pastor, celebrated Sunday mass for a minuscule congregation of fewer than 30 souls.

Most of the congregants were elderly, about two-thirds of them women. And mostly they were solitary worshipers, scattered in empty pews, their whispered prayers scarcely audible in the vast basilica that dates to the 4th Century and holds a treasure-trove of Renaissance art.

The story is the same everywhere in Italy and Western Europe. As Roman Catholicism struggles for relevance in a culture it once defined and dominated, its churches are in danger of becoming museums of Christianity, more likely to be visited by tourists with guidebooks than parishioners with prayer books.

That danger was recognized by the pope.

"Certainly Europe is not lacking in prestigious symbols of the Christian presence, but with the slow and steady advance of secularism, these symbols risk becoming a mere vestige of the past," he wrote in 2003.

This week the church prepares to choose a successor to Pope John Paul II, and one question that will weigh heavily in the thinking of the cardinal-electors, especially those from Europe, is how to rearm the church in its battle against the rampant secularism and materialism of Western society.

Many of those cardinals hope part of the answer lies in the huge crowds that descended on the Vatican last week for the pope's visitation and funeral, and the outpouring of enthusiasm for his papacy, according to Austen Ivereigh, spokesman for London's archbishop, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.

"They are very, very amazed by it. They weren't expecting it, Ivereigh said. "I think the cardinals are analyzing that right now. Their answer will be one of the factors that helps determine who is the next pope."

Don Giulio had a simpler answer. "We must listen to the words of our Holy Father John Paul, and in our hearts he will tell us what to do," Don Giulio told his congregation in his sermon Sunday.

Indeed, throughout his 26-year pontificate, Pope John Paul II repeatedly exhorted Catholics in the wealthy countries of Europe and North America to reject the culture of instant gratification. He lashed out at the West's "blind submission to consumerism." He warned that freedom without sanctity is a form of slavery.

But the message has largely fallen on deaf ears.

Slumping attendance

Regular church attendance in Italy, a country in which 97 percent of the population describes itself as Catholic, has fallen to 30 percent, according to Saverio Gaeta, editor-in-chief of Famiglia Cristiana, a popular Catholic weekly. In large cities such as Milan, the figure is probably closer to half that, he said.

In Ireland, once a stalwart of stern Catholicism, only 50 percent of the population attends mass every Sunday, down from 91 percent 30 years ago, according to a recent study.

In France, where 76 percent of the population is Catholic, only 1 in 20 bothers with church services. Since the late 19th Century, France has vigorously enforced the secularization of all spheres of civic life. The most recent manifestation of that was last year's legislation that banned Islamic head scarves and all other symbols of conspicuous religiosity from French classrooms.

Italy, on the other hand, has always seemed more comfortable in its Catholic skin. Crucifixes hang in virtually every classroom and in many government offices. Last year, when a judge ordered the crucifixes removed from classrooms where Muslim youngsters were taught, there was a national uproar. The ruling was reversed.

As a matter of national pride, most people in Italy are openly rooting for an Italian pope.

But that does not translate into strict adherence to Catholic teachings.

Abortion, which was legalized here in the 1970s over the Vatican's fierce objections, is hardly an issue anymore. Italy also has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, evidence that most Italians ignore the church's teachings on birth control. And it now seems that many parents scarcely bother to teach their children the basics of the faith.

"The parishes tell me there are children who do not know how to make the sign of the cross," said Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, Milan's archbishop, after a 2003 study on the state of the faith in Italy was published.

"The rich vitality of the faith today is seriously under threat," said Tettamanzi, who is regarded as the leading Italian candidate for the papacy. "Faith seems just a repetitive reality: tired, drawn out, dull and inward-looking."

Marco Bupeschi, a 34-year-old broker, blames it on "the weekend."

Bupeschi, who assisted Don Giulio at Sunday's mass--altar boys being almost non-existent in Italy these days--explained that St. Nazaro Maggiore is in an affluent neighborhood of Milan and most people living in the area are too busy pursuing leisure activities to have time for church.

Ivereigh, who was an editor at the Catholic newspaper the Tablet before joining the staff of Murphy-O'Connor, put it a different way:

"Life in Europe is damn comfortable at the moment," he said. "People work far too much, but they are not exposed to human suffering in the way they used to be. Until we have the great clash of civilizations or the petrol runs out, until people have to face the great questions of human existence, I think it will be difficult for the church in Europe to evangelize."

One church packed

One church in Milan that was packed to the gills last Sunday was St. Bartolomeo, where Rev. Tomasz Klimczak celebrated mass in Polish.

About 500 people jammed into the richly frescoed church, the overflow spilling onto the steps outside. Because this was a memorial mass for Pope John Paul II, the numbers were larger than usual, but not by much, according to Klimczak.

Most were immigrants who work in the low-paying jobs that Italians refuse.

"For them, the church is something that gives strength. They come here to hear the words in Polish, to be part of a community, and this gives them the strength to work in a foreign land," said Klimczak, 41.

Church attendance in Poland remains the highest in Europe. About 60 percent of the country goes to mass every Sunday. And while Poles carry their religious fervor with them wherever they go in Europe, it does not appear to be contagious.

Last year, when the European Union was drafting a constitution, Poland and the Vatican joined forces to lobby for some mention of God and Christianity in the preamble. The idea was rejected, and church leaders warned that Europe was becoming openly hostile to religion.


Copyright 2005, Chicago Tribune