May 2, 2005


Catholic Church withers in Europe (Charles M. Sennott, May 2, 2005, Boston Globe)

The cavernous, cinderblock construction of the Church of the Most Precious Blood, built in 1954 in a solidly working-class neighborhood here, reflects an era when Ireland's priests could marshal one of the world's most devout Roman Catholic flocks for Mass each Sunday and on other days of obligation.

A half-century later, the massive church was nearly empty during Mass on a recent Sunday -- its cold, cement walls echoing with the thin coughs of elderly women, who seem to make up the majority of parishioners in many Irish parishes.

Here and across Europe, Catholicism is withering after decades of steady erosion from the forces of secularism, consumer culture, and the fallout from priest sex abuse scandals.

In some of Catholic Europe's largest dioceses in Germany, France, Italy, and Ireland, the percentage of Catholics who attend Mass regularly has slipped to as low as 20 percent, and in a few cities, like Paris, has reached as low as the single digits, according to figures compiled by the church.

The new pope, Benedict XVI, who hails from Germany, has said that the erosion of the church in Europe is one of the greatest challenges facing his papacy. He has called on Catholics to resist ''a dictatorship of relativism" in the modern, secular West that he believes has damaged the Christian foundation of Europe.

In his just-published book, ''Values in Times of Upheaval," the pope, who was then still known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, ruminated on the besieged soul of Christian Europe. ''In order to survive, Europe needs a critical acceptance of its Christian culture. Europe seems, in the very moment of its greatest success, to have become empty from the inside. Crippled, as it were," he writes.

How to heal the church looms over the next papacy, and those who know and work with Benedict say he is intent not so much on reaching out to the wayward many, but on turning inward and strengthening the core of the faithful few. [...]

To stem the tide will require a deeply spiritual and creative response, say priests and parishioners alike, and the church in Ireland is trying its best to come up with the formula.

Last month, on the fourth Sunday of Easter, which is also known as vocation Sunday, news that the Archdiocese of Dublin would not graduate a single priest from one of its seminaries rippled through the congregations.

At Our Lady Help of Christians on the Navan Road, a middle-class section of Dublin, the new archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, conceded in his homily that ''the relationship between the community and its parish has changed."

Last month, on the fourth Sunday of Easter, at a gospel Mass at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Dublin, young men and women belted out rocking renditions of gospel arrangements such as ''Something So Wonderful" and ''Shackles." The church, which holds 1,000, was packed; hundreds stood in the back and along the aisles, swaying and clapping to the music.

The Rev. Brendan McManus, who presided over the Mass, said the gospel service was established to bring young people back to the church.

''We're trying to bring the message in a different way, through music, through a creative, dynamic liturgy, and through participation," he said after the service. ''This is the direction the church will have to take in Europe if it is going to address the problem.

''In the wake of the Celtic Tiger [economy], people are searching for something meaningful," he said. ''Many people realize that there is still a void there, even with all of the affluence and the consumer culture."

The Celtic Tiger phenomenon is tied to the endurance of Christian values in Ireland, so they're wise to try avoiding the fate of the Continent.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 2, 2005 7:42 AM

Why not copy successful models?

I was having a conversation about churches/religion with my German brother-in-law, and he was telling me about a "really dynamic Lutheran church" in their previous town.

He commented that the pastor was dynamic, the place was always full, and there were (gasp) children. (the other local pastors disliked the guy intensely).

Sensing something strange about this, I asked "Did this pastor spend any amount of time in the US?"

Some what surprised, he said "Yes, how did you guess?"


I live a few miles from Willow Creek, and I've visited Orange County CA enough to see the vast size & scope of Saddleback.

Leaving the theology of such issues aside, getting people back into churches presents a "marketing" issue, and these institution are doing something right.

Not knowing enough about "Catholic doctrine" to know whether this offers any opportunities, I defer to other's greater expertise.

It's a thought anyway.

Posted by: BB at May 2, 2005 10:03 AM

My advice to the RCC is "physician heal thyself". The Churhc needs to purge its ranks of corruption and cover ups (the Magdelene Sisters launderies/slave labor, the Austrian seminary scandals, and all the other ongoing scandals similar to America's problems). The RCC will have no credibility unless it walks the walk, no matter how much it talks the talk. The Word, no matter how True, will fall on deaf ears unless the speakers of the Word conform their lives to their own standards.

Posted by: daniel duffy at May 2, 2005 11:00 AM


For the most part the rank-and-file Catholic isn't as affected by the injustices you mentioned. If they know and respect their local pastor the day-to-day hasn't changed for them.

The Roman Catholic Church, and the papacy in particular, has the unenviable task of being a moral voice. I agree with you that they have a lot of work to do in house but it isn't from the bottom up, rather the top down. Benedict XVI is the right man at the right time.

Posted by: Bartman at May 2, 2005 2:25 PM

daniel - Try as we might, the Church will always be composed of sinners. Of course they need to try harder to be faithful, but other steps can help too. Making the liturgy more reverent, traditional, and artistic as Benedict wants, and the church more courageously evangelical, will be big steps forward.

Posted by: pj at May 2, 2005 3:28 PM