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Challenge for pope in Europe's dwindling church

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 19, 2013 at 10:16 am •  Published: March 19, 2013
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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."

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Lori Hinnant contributed from Paris