Challenge for pope in Europe's dwindling church

Mar 19, 2013, 11:16 AM EDT
A woman watches the inauguration of Pope Francis on a giant screen outside Notre Dame cathedral, Paris, Tuesday, March 19, 2013. Pope Francis urged princes, presidents, sheiks and thousands of ordinary people gathered for his installation Mass on Tuesday to protect the environment, the weakest and the poorest, mapping out a clear focus of his priorities as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
(AP Photo/Michel Euler)

BORGLOON, Belgium (AP) — The church is made of rusty steel beams separated by gaps, and its austere beauty won it an international prize. Yet the eerie desolation of the see-through art installation has also turned into a reflection on the state of Roman Catholicism on a religion-weary continent where real churches, like the dozen dotting the hills of this verdant area, increasingly lose their flock and function.

Pope Francis faces a daunting array of challenges, and one of them is bringing souls back to the historic heartland of the Catholic church. The pontiff has already gotten off to a promising start with a humble charm that has electrified Catholics — and his installation ceremony Tuesday reinforced his sway over hearts and minds as he launched an appeal to protect the planet and the poor.

But reviving the faith won't be easy on a secularized continent that has been horrified by church sex abuse scandals and alienated by the church's conservative positions on contraception, female ordination and priestly celibacy.

"There won't be any miracle solutions on offer for the new pope," said Rik Torfs, a Belgian senator and professor of canon law at Leuven University.

Across large swaths of Europe, empty pews and empty pulpits are the stark reality of centuries-old churches in a continent where, not so long ago, the village spire was the main point of reference for society. In Italy, the Vatican's own backyard, being Catholic often seems more a cultural trait than a way of worship. Traditionally Catholic France and Ireland are also turning away from the church. Even in deeply devout Poland, the nation of the widely beloved Pope John Paul II, faith is starting to waver.

"The structure of the church, both statistically as intellectually has been very much weakened," said Torfs.

For signs of this decline, look no further than Paris, where the famed Notre Dame Cathedral is celebrating its 850th anniversary this year.

On Pope Francis' installation day, thousands of tourists easily outnumbered less than 200 worshippers in the pews, even as the ceremony on St. Peter's Square was televised inside the cathedral.

A total of 13 million people visit Notre Dame each year, making for long lines to get inside. But the cathedral's own website notes that for those who want to attend Mass, there is rarely a wait.

To highlight the move to secularism, many churches have been turned into restaurants and shops, or even demolished, often given a new function in society never intended by those who originally built them.

In Belgium's Ghent, a chapel is now a fancy women's clothing store. Across the border in the Netherlands, Maastricht has seen its Dominican church become one of the fanciest book stores in Europe. In the same city, a 15th century Gothic church is now ensconced in a contemporary boutique hotel.

It is this disappearing act that gave Pieterjan Gijs of the Gijs Van Vaerenbergh architecture firm ideas.

Built like a real village church, the Borgloon art installation's layered structure allows visitors to see right through it, and this evanescence gives it a double layer of beauty and philosophical depth. It won the 2012 prize for best religious building by the web site Arch Daily.

"Ever more, churches stand empty and in that sense, it latches on to this issue," Gijs said.

Looking through his work of art, called Reading Between the Lines, one can see Borgloon's real Saint Odulphus church, whose origins go back almost a millennium and which has now fallen on hard times.

Inside, 12 little candles symbolized all of the baptisms that have taken place there in nearly 1 ½ years, a small number for the main church of an area covering some 10,000 people. By contrast, 17 little crosses show the number of church burials in just the past four months — testament to a dwindling flock that is not being boosted by enough new souls.

Maria Vrancken, who remembers going to church every day as a schoolgirl, doesn't see too many full church services at St. Odulphus anymore. "No, only for funerals," she said. "And even then, it depends who gets buried."

The statistics bear her out.

The latest figures from Leuven University Professor Marc Hooghe show that baptisms in Belgium declined from 93.6 percent of births in 1967 to 57.6 percent in 2009. Religious marriages suffered an even worse fate, going from 86.1 percent to 26.2 percent over the same period. And church attendance fell from some 43 percent to just 5 percent.

The Pew Research Center assessed religious observance during the papacy of Pope Francis' predecessor, Benedict XVI, in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, and found it low within the four nations with the biggest Catholic populations in western Europe.

"Across all four countries, a minority of Catholics say religion is very important in their lives," the Pew study found, going as low as 15 percent for French Catholics. Weekly Mass attendance continued to decline. Among Spanish Catholics, it sank from 31 percent to 24 percent between 2009 and 2011, and in Germany, Benedict's homeland, it fell from 23 percent to 16 percent over the same period. French Mass attendance slipped from an already low 10 percent to 9 percent. Pew said it had not routinely surveyed Mass attendance in Italy.

That decline in popular support has affected the standing of the church in society and politics and also undermined its strength from within. "There was a short circuit between the church and the contemporary world. The church no longer has the structure it had a few decades ago," said Torfs. "It has weakened more than public opinion realizes. It is even worse."

Things are already bad enough for 63-year-old Vrancken in Borgloon. She said there were two priests left for 13 churches, medium to very small, in and around the eastern Belgian town.

"There are some retired priests who come in and help every now and then," she said. "So they say that people have to go to Mass, but they almost cannot do it anymore because there are almost no more Masses left."

Here again, the stats back up her point. The Hasselt bishopric which covers Borgloon had 843 diocesean priests in 1967; that number had dwindled to 335 in 2009. For the whole of Belgium, the number of priests went from 10,087 to 3,659 in the same period.

And with quantity, also went some quality, said Torfs.

"The big problem is to find enough people that can engage in this world and stand their ground. Priests who can take on the external world and have enough gravitas."

Still, the right pope will be able to make a difference.

And Pope Francis, said Torfs, has certainly made the best possible start.

"For the first time in decades we have someone with a new outlook on the world," he said. "We haven't had that in a long time."


Lori Hinnant contributed from Paris