Only a few miles from the throngs that pressed into St. Peter’s Square to bid farewell to Pope John Paul II, a soaring Baroque-style basilica echoed with emptiness.
Inside, 20 of the faithful were sequestered in a side chapel for the noon Mass, while Father Virgilio Missori, 84, sat alone near a confessional booth awaiting penitents who did not come.
In many ways, the quiet scene day in and day out at the 17th century Basilica of Sts. Ambrose and Charles on the Corso is far more representative of the state of the Roman Catholic Church today than the one in St. Peter’s Square, where an estimated 2 million pilgrims paid homage to John Paul in what was arguably the world’s largest funeral.
For the moment, the Catholic hierarchy is reveling in the outpouring of adoration and affection for the late pope. But it is commonplace scenes such as the sparsely attended Basilica of Sts. Ambrose and Charles that are increasingly on the minds of the world’s cardinals as they prepare to elect John Paul’s successor.
“The church in today’s world needs to face some real crises. There’s a crisis of faith. I’ve been saying there’s a crisis of indifference or apathy,” said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C.
For all the glory of its churches and its history as the preeminent keeper and promulgator of the Christian faith, the Roman Catholic Church is in retreat in much of the developed West that used to be called Christendom.
Regular attendance at Mass is on a downward spiral in many predominantly Catholic countries, especially in the church’s European heartland. It is much the same story in the United States.
At the same time, while the worldwide Catholic population now numbers more than 1 billion, the church’s share of the overall world population has dropped slightly. The church in the U.S. continues to grow, but at a lower rate than the overall population. Such issues are not the only ones facing the cardinals gathered here for the conclave to replace John Paul that begins April 18. The church’s growing priest shortage, concerns about the centralization of decision-making authority in the Vatican, and the need to foster better relations with Islam are among the issues at the top of the agenda.
But the comments of cardinals here indicate that they are equally concerned about declines in church participation and the slowing growth of the overall Catholic population.
Among the causes, cardinals say, are the secularization of cultures, opposition to the church’s teachings on sexuality, the increasing popularity of Protestant evangelism, declining European birth rates and the church’s failure to quickly stem the sexual abuse of children by priests.
This week, two church leaders are scheduled to deliver carefully prepared meditations to the cardinals on the problems facing the church and the need for careful discernment in choosing the next pope. The meditations were ordered by John Paul in 1996 in anticipation of his death.
In terms of actual numbers, the worldwide Catholic population grew by almost 10 million in 2003 to a total of 1.07 billion worldwide, according to a Vatican report. But the percentage of Catholics in the overall world population edged slightly down in 2003.
The church has dramatically added to its numbers in South America and Africa. But in Europe, the number of Catholics declined by 647,000 last year, the Vatican reported in August.
In the United States, with 64 million Catholics, 71% of Catholic population growth has been because the number of Latinos has grown, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said.
But even in the U.S. Latino population, there are signs of erosion.
A 2004 study showed that although 700,000 Latinos converted to Catholicism or returned to the faith, 3.2 million left the church. Put another way, the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life study showed that for every Latino who comes to Catholicism, four leave it. Many of them flock to Pentecostal churches, while others become Baptists, Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The number of Latino Catholics in the United States has remained steady at about 26 million because of new immigrants, who are largely Roman Catholic, the study found.
Also disturbing for the church is the decreasing number of people who attend Mass at least once a week.
In Latin America, with the exception of Mexico and El Salvador, less than half of all Catholics now attend once a week, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a church research organization based at Georgetown University.
In much of Europe, with the exception of Italy, regular Mass attendance has long been declining. In Spain, 30% of Catholics attend Mass weekly, and in France just 12%.
Even in Italy, the home of the church, less than half of the nation’s Catholics attend Mass weekly, the survey found.
In the U.S., weekly regular attendance dropped to 45% of all Catholics in 2004, compared with 52% four years earlier, a Gallup Poll found. The figures compiled by the Center for Applied Research were bleaker still, with only 32% attending regularly in 2004.
It remains to be seen what steps the next pope can take to bring back lapsed Catholics. If a charismatic, world-traveling pope like John Paul, who enchanted millions and made personal evangelism a mark of his pontificate, could not stanch the hemorrhage, how can his successor?
“There is the growing phenomenon ... in which church attendance is disappearing or disappeared,” said Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, the largest archdiocese in the U.S.
Meanwhile, population shifts in Europe caused by lower native birthrates and the influx of immigrants from Muslim countries could over time chip away at the Catholic Church’s long dominance of the religious landscape in Europe, says Joseph Claude Harris, an independent researcher in Seattle with the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
“Many years of likely immigration patterns will result in Islam becoming a large European faith,” Harris wrote. “Interfaith activities will cease to be esoteric endeavors.”
Cardinals here this week urged a continuation of John Paul’s interfaith outreach to other religions, especially Islam.
The Catholic Church also faces issues within. Cardinals are worried about what they agree is the church’s diminishing hold on the hearts and minds of its constituents.
“Aggressive secularization is something that has to be met,” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said when asked about challenges facing the church.
With disagreements over sexual mores, “the challenge to address human experience from the viewpoint of faith in those areas is greater than ever,” George said.
Church leaders say that secular culture unrelentingly extols excessive self-fulfillment at the expense of the common good. While Pope John Paul II repeatedly spoke about solidarity with the poor and warned against unbridled consumerism, McCarrick said the entertainment media and advertising do the opposite.
“Television ... presents heaven as being rich as you can be, as powerful as you can be, as beautiful as you can be, as skinny as you can be -- all those things,” the Washington cardinal said.
In contrast, he said, the church’s message is to be as kind, courageous, and generous as you can be, and to love the poor and work for peace.
Church leaders readily acknowledge that they cannot blame all their problems on the media. The credibility of U.S. bishops still has not fully recovered from the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the church beginning in 2002, when it was disclosed that some bishops had looked the other way or participated in cover-ups to protect molesting priests. Victims said the abuse had robbed them of not only their human dignity but their faith.
The church’s credibility had been put to the test decades earlier, when Pope Paul VI issued his 1968 encyclical against artificial birth control. Most Catholics in Western nations decided not to listen to their bishops then, and many have since taken issue with the church’s current opposition to ordaining married men to the priesthood in the Latin rite or Western church (there are married priests in the Eastern rite), and the role of women in the church.
Such factors may help explain why Missori, the Italian priest, maintains a lonely three-hour vigil for penitents each day at the Basilica of Sts. Ambrose and Charles. For the most part, Missori, a church historian and authority on Latin and Italian literature, sits and reads beneath the vaulted ceiling with its heroic frescoes of another era depicting angels, saints and sinners playing out the church’s salvation story.
A few blocks away, hundreds of youths congregate on the Spanish Steps to see and be seen. On average, Missori said he hears just 10 confessions a day.
“They don’t come to say their sins, but only their troubles,” he said. “There are many, many troubles. You cannot imagine.”
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A faith’s changed landscape
Under Pope John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church has grown in some areas and lost ground, notably to evangelical Protestants, in others. Here is a look at some of the changes in the Catholic ranks:
Catholics by Region
More than two-thirds of the world’s Roman Catholics live in Latin America and Europe:
Latin America: 41%
N. America: 7%
Latin America: 43%
N. America: 7%
Gains and losses
Catholic populations in some countries have changed by 10 percentage points or more over the last 35 years.
*--* Increases: % of 1970 % of 2005 Country population population Lithuania 66 77 Angola 48 68 Decreases: Paraguay 98 86 Puerto Rico 95 71 Honduras 93 82 Belgium 90 76 Austria 89 71 France 88 76 Panama 87 73
Numbers do not add up to 100% due to rounding.
Population comparisons are from 1975 to 2005. Priest and parish statistics compare 1975 and 2000.
Sources: ‘Global Catholicism,’ World Christian Database, Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Graphics reporting by Cheryl Brownstein-Santiago
Staff writer Teresa Watanabe in Los Angeles contributed to this report.