By Tom Hundley, Tribune foreign correspondent.
Tribune staff reporter Steve Kloehn contributed to this report from
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
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
"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.
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
"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
Marco Bupeschi, a 34-year-old broker, blames it on "the
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
Ivereigh, who was an editor at the Catholic newspaper the Tablet
before joining the staff of Murphy-O'Connor, put it a different
"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 in Milan that was packed to the gills last Sunday was
St. Bartolomeo, where Rev. Tomasz Klimczak celebrated mass in
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,
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
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