Video: Mass appeal?

NBC News
By Ron Allen Correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/20/2005 9:21:59 PM ET 2005-04-21T01:21:59

At Sunday mass in the French village of Allainville, St. Pierres' church has a congregation so small, it gathers only once every other month. The priest, Fr. Meyongo Engelbert, is from Africa. He is there because France lacks enough priests, even for its dwindling congregations.

“Our pastoral work is limited because we cannot go right into the homes of people meet them and talk with them as it’s supposed to be,”  says Fr. Meyongo Engelbert.

While the faithful do fill pews in countries like Poland, Ireland and Malta, in much of Europe, and especially France, storied churches andcathedrals seem to attract mostly faithful tourists.

It’s a secular shift strongly criticized, by the new pope, Benedict XVI. His new book, published last week, calls Christianity the key to Europe's very survival.

In France various studies indicate less than 7 percent of the people regularly attend church services, a number that's falling. But that doesn't necessarily mean this is country without any faith, because a significant majority, nearly two thirds, say they still believe in God.

Unlike America, religious wars ravaged Europe for hundreds of years. That's why French law separates God and government more strictly than in America.

“People think the church should not have a say in private issues and that's quite difficult for the church,” says French Catholic spokesperson Marie Caroline de Marliane.

The French say they prefer to live secular lives, more concerned about material things than spirituality.

Cyril Breward and Felicity Nielson were both raised in European Catholic homes. They've been together 24 years, but have not married. They have three kids and insist their family is as moral and decent as any.

“Breaking away from the Catholic church represents growing up, becoming a free thinker and moving on,” says Nielson.

Fr. Andrew Greely, a noted American author, believes that lay people and priests should collaborate more, if the church is to thrive again.

“Church leaders have just done dumb things,” says Fr. Greely. “They've tried to take control like they used to have and it just antagonizes people”

Fr. Englebert, in his 30s, half the average age of French priests, still has hope.

“I really consider that the French church is alive, modernizing the church,” he says. “That is being alive.”

It’s a message he spreads while keeping faith that more French Catholics will come to hear it.

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