Catholic church adjusts to minority status in Europe

Now that it is often treated like a maligned minority, the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe has decided to start acting like one too.

Taking a page from pressure group tactics, the Church is increasingly staging "Catholic pride" events in public and training members to stand up for their faith on the world's most secularised continent.

This new self-confidence marks a sharp departure from the defensive stand the once-powerful Church had taken since the 1960s in Europe, where religious practice has collapsed and Catholicism is often the butt of cruel jokes.

With such vital signs as baptisms, Sunday Mass attendance and new priestly vocations having fallen so low, some in the Church think the only way it can go now is up.

"Something is changing," Brussels Cardinal Godfried Danneels told Reuters at a week-long conference in Paris aimed at rekindling the faith in the not very religious French capital.

"The Church had descended into the catacombs and was afraid of public manifestations. Now Catholics are a minority and, like all minorities, they don't have complexes. They are much less afraid of professing their faith than they were 20 years ago."

French sociologist Marcel Gauchet saw the change as a way for the Church to remake itself as a counter-culture. "No religion can exist anymore without some way of displaying its identity," he told the Catholic weekly La Vie.


Europe's younger generation has also changed, Danneels said during the "urban mission" drive attended by Catholics from around Europe in late October.

"They are completely ignorant of most things about the Christian faith, but they are open to listen," he said.

The Paris "urban mission" effort, a mix of conferences and concerts attracting Catholics from around Europe, was part of a five-year drive launched in 2003 in Vienna and due to continue in coming years in Lisbon, Brussels and Budapest.

This campaign to strengthen Catholicism in Europe is a telling turn-around for a region once so solidly Christian that it sent missionaries around the world.

Cathedrals grace its cities, but only 10-15 percent of Catholics worship regularly.

John Paul II appealed for a "new evangelisation" as far back as 1979, during his first trip as Pope to his native Poland, and has made this "proud to be Catholic" theme a trademark of his globe-trotting mission. But he was clearly ahead of his time.

Paris Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, a Jewish-born convert, first suggested the "urban mission" idea to fellow cardinals as they discussed the Church in the new millennium.


Like the World Youth Days, the Pope's bi-annual jamborees often described as a "Catholic Woodstock," "urban mission" events are strong on popular attractions such as theatre or rock, reggae and gospel music concerts.

There was also a "happy hour" for young single Catholics.

The cardinals sponsoring the event, aged between 52 and 78, seemed a bit defensive. "We are not televangelists," insisted Lustiger as he explained why they staged the shows.

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, whose city Vienna has a long history of art, architecture and music created for the Church, said contemporary culture was an important means to address youths he said were "practically religious illiterates."

"The Church has always appealed to the senses with liturgy, theatre and music," he said. "The sensory means are different but the sensory perception remains."

Budapest's Peter Erdo, at 52 Catholicism's youngest cardinal, admitted his tastes were more classical but added: "Young people communicate much less with the printed word and more with audiovisual methods. We have to recognise this."


The message is not divorced from the music. At a Christian rock concert outside the Church of Saint Sulpice, tents were set up to offer information about Catholicism and space to sit down for a quiet talk with a priest. Inside, confessions were heard.

Diocesan priests in roman collars, Franciscans in their brown robes and nuns in pastel habits easily mixed and chatted with the crowds ranging from children to grandparents.

"So many people are looking for meaning in their lives," said Christophe, a Paris seminarian enjoying the music. "If the Church doesn't come out in public, where will they find us?"

"This is great," said Eloi Sardin, a 16-year-old from Limoges in southwestern France who knew all the groups on stage. "It's a different approach to our religion."

The main focus of the week was the "International Congress on the New Evangelisation," a series of workshops aimed at helping Catholic activists to better know and live their faith.

In parish churches and Catholic school classrooms, they discussed how to talk about their faith with others, help the homeless or strengthen marriages when so many end in divorce.

The meetings buzzed with the whispers of participants summarising the discussions in English, German, Portuguese or Hungarian for friends who couldn't follow them in French.

"This kind of meeting shows what richness there is in the Catholic Church," said Vienna teacher Birgit Knott. "It's interesting to come and see how parishes work here," said Margit Schmatzer, one of the six pupils who came to Paris with her.

Guy Gilbert, a long-haired French priest who has worked with juvenile delinquents for over 30 years, was clearly pleased with the new way the Church was presenting itself.

"All the media says about the Church is that the Pope is against condoms and dribbles into the microphone," he said. "It's good the Church shows a smiling face and tries to understand the world."