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.
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