Is the Church getting smaller? Church attendance is the foundation of Christian life. It is, therefore, the appropriate measure to gauge the strength of the Church at any given time. At present, statistics worldwide give an uncomfortable picture. 

Latin America registered (in 2013) about 50 per cent of Christians who still attend church regularly. Canada (in 2013) registered about 29 per cent attendance while the US (in 2014) registered about 47 per cent attendance and 25 per cent in Australia (in 2013 – well before the child sex scandal involving Cardinal Pell shocked the Church in that country).

In Europe, the trend is towards a seriously sliding Church with attendance ranging on an average from 36 per cent (in 2013 in Italy), 19 per cent (in 2011 in Spain) and 11 per cent (in France in 2011). These are three countries in Europe where the Church still boasts of a high Catholic presence and influence.

Africa more than compensates for this overall negative picture with attendances ranging from 75 to 85 per cent of declared Christians in that teeming and stirring continent. Do not be surprised, therefore, if in a few years’ time we will witness an ironic reversal of the historical roles whereby the new faith missionaries will start to come from Africa to convert pagan Europe.

Over the past few decades, the outlook of the Church has changed drastically. Many churches have been closed owing to declining numbers of attendees, lack of priests and high costs of maintenance. In several countries in Europe, some of the dioceses have decided upon an extensive process of merging parishes while others are looking towards more cooperation between parishes.

If one were to study more critically the statistics quoted above, one would become aware that the greatest fall in attendances, when broken up by the age of attendees, was in the young people bracket. This is alarming since it indicates a grim future for the Church.

In his compulsive book The Pope in Winter, on Pope John Paul II, author John Cornwell states: “In many countries, as John Paul well knew, young people were not going to church. In France, where Catholicism is notionally the main religion, only seven per cent of young people under 16 go to church even once a year.”

In 1969 when Father Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) was a young professor of theology at the University of Bonn, he was interviewed on German radio and gave a prognosis of the Church and predicted its future. 

With his sharp and penetrating intellect, it is worthy to quote parts of that interview in some detail. 

It will need to become more relevant to the world outside by tackling issues that matter to people and by focusing on developing spiritual life

He predicted that: “... the future of the Church, once again as always, will be reshaped by saints, by men, that is, whose minds probe deeper than the slogans of the day, who see more than others see, because their lives embrace a wider reality ...”

He then continued: “... from the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge – a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she has built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members...” 

Ratzinger concluded that: “in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her centre: faith in the true God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world”. 

The decline in church attendance together with the crises of relevance and endurance brought about by the heaviest scandal ever in Church history – the worldwide paedophile priests scandal – can bring about a forced revolution in Church thinking and attitude. 

Through necessity it will need to become more relevant to the world outside by tackling issues that matter to people and by focusing on developing spiritual life as preached by Christ within the social life of the community.  

As it gets smaller, the Church will get involved in matters that are much nearer to people as experienced by them on a daily basis rather than, as in the past, by giving too much importance to abstract issues which the people, anyhow, little understood but which occupied a great proportion of their daily interaction with the Church at parish level, diocese level and even global level.

On his part, Pope Francis is taking the Church through an extraordinary journey. He is a passionate defender of the disenfranchised, an unwavering enthusiast for dialogue as a way of building bridges between people of different backgrounds and beliefs. 

His intention is to transform the Church from one based on showy triumphalism into “a poor Church of the poor”. In him, humility and power go together.

Louis Cilia is president, National Association of Pensioners.

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