The Italian Almanac


Italian News - April 13

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 Renaissance art.

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.

Regular church attendance in Italy, a country in which 97 percent of the population describes itself as Catholic, has fallen to 30 percent.

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 faith.