More Catholics staying out of pews

Church attendance is dropping in Poland for the first time in decades, according to newly released data, following a sharp fall in priestly and monastic vocations in the predominantly Roman Catholic country. ‘Looking back over 30 years’ research, we must clearly confirm that fewer people are now going to church,’ said Revd Wojciech Sadlon, a priest from Poland’s Roman Catholic Pallotine order.

But this isn’t a drastic fall – compared to other countries of Europe, we can still be proud and consider ourselves the mainstay of Christianity.’ The data, collected in the last three months of 2009, showed a slight recovery in Mass attendance in 2009 to 41.5% of the population of 38 million, compared to 40.4% in 2008. However, they also confirmed a ‘slow but steady fall’ in all 44 Roman Catholic dioceses over the past decade, running as high as 9.2% in some parts of the country.

The priest was speaking after presenting the figures during a press conference at the Polish Bishops’ Conference secretariat. He told Poland’s Catholic Information Agency that sociologists of religion had identified numerous causes for the decline in church attendance, including cultural and social change, and problems in the church’s pastoral work. He noted that Poland’s practising faithful remain largely rooted in country communities rather than in large towns and cities, but that ‘pessimistic predictions’ about a sudden drop in participation had not so far been borne out.

The report followed growing concern over an accompanying decline in priestly vocations in Poland, with 687 Poles beginning first-year seminary training at the end of 2009, 5% fewer than in 2008. The number of women wishing to become Catholic nuns has also plummeted, with around 300 beginning pre-novitiate studies in 2009, compared to 723 a decade ago, while 28 convents closed during the year. The director of the Polish church’s Statistics Institute, Witold Zdaniewicz, said that about 45% of Poles had attended church regularly in 1991–2007 and he believes the current downward trend will continue. ‘But religiousness is a process and it’s always hard to discern unambiguous tendencies. At certain periods, we can speak of a fall or an increase. But these are always just hypotheses, and we have to wait to see whether time confirms them.’

However, a Polish member of the Vatican’s Papal Council for Culture, Krzystof Zanussi, said the decline was a consequence of post-communist Westernization and suggested the church needs new ways of responding to popular religious and pastoral needs. ‘We’ve been used to having strong spiritual leaders, and we don’t seem to have maintained the high standards we set ourselves when times were hard,’ Zanussi, a film director, said in an interview. ‘Religious decline doesn’t have to be the inevitable price of freedom and modernization – people are still strongly Christian in their thinking here. But we seem to have become more frivolous as we’ve become wealthier and more secure.’ Priestly vocations doubled in Poland after the 1978 election of the Polish pope, John Paul II, peaking in 1985–7, and currently account for a fifth of the Roman Catholic church’s total in Europe, where many Catholic dioceses depend on Polish priests to help make up for local pastoral shortages.

Jonathan Luxmoore
Ecumenical News International