Choosing a pope: France's Catholic legacy

France's iconic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris (image from November 2012) Catholic cathedrals like Notre Dame de Paris mark France's landscape

Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church will being electing a new pope on 12 March. The new pontiff will have a host of issues to deal with, among them the decline in active worship right on his doorstep - in Europe's Catholic countries.

The bells echo off the old, cold stone walls of the church of St Pierre de Guise and along the quiet, empty rural lanes of this village in northern France.

St Pierre serves some 38 villages. Even so, the pews inside are only half full. It is a symbol of French Catholicism's decline in more ways than one.

Start Quote

Fr Innocent Feugna

Here I'm preaching to pensioners”

End Quote Fr Innocent Feugna

The congregation is largely grey-haired and ageing. Behind the pulpit there is the priest, Innocent Feugna, a 37-year-old deacon from Africa.

"In Cameroon, Mass is animated, it's alive - here, services are still flat and cold," he says.

"In Cameroon, the churches are full. We've got children. We've got adults, all ages.

"It's completely different from France - here I'm preaching to pensioners."

He moved to Guise last October. Before that, the church had been without a priest for a year.

'Daughter Church'

It is not just smaller congregations that the French Church is struggling with. There are also fewer people joining the clergy. The country needs to import them. The average age of a priest here is just over 75.

"Young people have different aspirations," Fr Feugna says.

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Sophie Gherardi

Large sectors of society... know absolutely nothing and have no interest in that religious tradition”

End Quote Sophie Gherardi Fait Religieux

"Their interests lie elsewhere. The Church perhaps doesn't have the right message for young people here."

That's a problem, and a challenge to the old ways of doing things in France. The country is known as the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church. Catholicism has been practised here for more than one and a half millennia.

In 1966, 80% of the French declared themselves Catholic. By last year, 35% of the overall population and 63% of 18-24-year-olds said they were "of no religion".

It is estimated that barely 5% of French people regularly go to Mass.

"The Church was really a defining institution that would accompany the lives of French people from birth to death," says Sophie Gherardi, who set up Fait Religieux - a French religious affairs think tank.

Now, "large sectors of society are completely estranged to the long-standing traditions and really know absolutely nothing and have no interest in that religious tradition".

That is clear from figures produced by the Catholic Church in France itself. The number of baptisms has dropped by almost a quarter since the start of the century. The number of Catholic marriages has fallen by 40% in that time.

Legacy of faith

Opinions differ within the Church as to how to attract more people to Mass. Modern secular society has been the main enemy of not just the Catholic Church but of Christianity in general in recent decades across Western Europe.

Worshippers in the newly built church of St Thomas in Vaulx-en-Velin, near  Lyon. December 2012 St Thomas in Vaulx-en-Velin, near Lyon, is one of the few new churches built in France

The more liberal Catholic thinkers believe the next pope must embrace that society and adapt the Church's teaching to better reflect it.

Conservatives, however - and generally it is they who have held sway in this debate so far - argue the Church will retain its influence and identity only if it sticks closely to its historical traditions.

In the Dupont Cafe, in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, Anne-Sophie Barreteau and her friend Augustin Romieu struggle to decide how more young people might be attracted to the Church. The pair are a rare breed - practising 20-somethings.

Anne-Sophie would like the next pope "to attract young people by wanting us to be challenging to ourselves".

"Letting themselves be attracted by something quick or easy is not always the best," she adds.

For Augustin, the character of the next pontiff is key: "I hope the next pope will be younger than Benedict XVI.

"We have more Catholics today in Latin America and Africa. Maybe that would be more representative? But to me it's not most important. Most important is the personality of the pope and his own skills."

As for whether the Church should modernise to attract more young people, Anne-Sophie is cautious: "The Church is like a legacy - and if you give up this legacy, you lose everything."

Street power

Indeed, even faced with declining congregations in terms of legacy, the Church does remain a power here.

At Fait Religieux, Sophie Gherardi argues that recent protests over the likely introduction of gay marriage in France show quite how much influence it retains.

"The mobilisation started from the churches," she says.

"Even if the Catholic Church never really said that they were the people who were mobilising, I think the Catholics on the streets counted themselves and discovered they were still there and a power."

France remains a traditionally Catholic country. Some three and a half million people go to Mass every week - a big number despite the declines. Catholicism is embedded in French culture.

Yet the Church is less vibrant across Europe than it once was, and that most probably will not change whoever is appointed to be the next pope.

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