Closing Churches in Italy
By “Awake!” correspondent in Italy
“CLOSED: apply to the parish priest.” This was the title of an article published by the Catholic magazine Jesus. It dealt with the growing frequency with which churches are being closed in Italy and the alarm among Church officials over this spreading phenomenon.
Exact statistics about the number of churches closed in recent years are not available. However, it is generally accepted that it amounts to hundreds, with many others facing abandonment.
Among the churches closed are several large cathedrals. These were originally built to serve the needs of hundreds, or even thousands, of worshipers. The magazine Jesus declares that “Turin cathedral has become a mere attraction for foreign visitors” who flock to see the “Shroud of Turin.” “The survival of Milan cathedral,” one of the most famous in the world, depends on income from other activities to help meet expenses.
What can be said about other places of worship? “For many churches, including several veritable artistic monuments, no solution has been found. They have had to be closed down as places of worship and are, at best, destined for other uses,” says the magazine Jesus.
Closed churches are encountered in cities, rural areas and mountain communities alike. A typical example is that of Rogliano, in the province of Cosenza, a town of about 7,000 inhabitants. Over the last 10 years 3 of Rogliano’s 8 churches and a monastery have been closed down or are destined for other uses. One church, St. Hippolytus, is now a workshop where cars are repaired. Another church, Our Lady of Constantinople, was turned into a barn years ago. Of the five remaining churches, St. George’s is used only occasionally. And there are only two regular parish priests at Rogliano. The spacious ex-monastery now houses shops and municipal offices.
In Rome and other large cities many churches and convents have been either abandoned or turned into hotels, warehouses, pizza parlors, gymnasiums, hospitals or museums. In other cases they have had a notice saying “Closed for Repairs” hanging on the door for years; but the repair work has never been started.
Decrease in Seminaries
According to official statistics, seminaries training students for the priesthood have decreased in number from 375 in 1970 to 259 in 1979—a decrease of 116 in less than 10 years. Many others are only in partial use.
In this regard Il Gazzettino of Venice comments: “The years of plenty when new recruits arrived at our seminaries in ever-increasing numbers are now a distant memory. . . . These enormous half-empty buildings are the most obvious and sad remains of so many shattered dreams.”
Sanctuaries containing specially venerated religious images do not fare much better. “At least 300 of the 1,500 such buildings in Italy” are closed, states the magazine Jesus.
Decrease in Churchgoers
In Italy in recent years there has been much talk of a “religious revival” among young people. However, Catholic leaders have been disappointed by the results of a poll carried out by a team of Catholic researchers among 5,000 young people from 18 to 25 years of age.
The newspaper Corriere della Sera published an interview with Giancarlo Milanesi, the Catholic priest in charge of the poll. “Above all,” he said, “the inquiry shows that the advance of secularism that has been going on for years among the younger generation has by no means slackened its pace, as might have been supposed by the regularly aired theories about a so-called ‘return to spiritual values’ or a ‘religious revival.’ On the contrary, no return to spiritual values has taken place; it is a myth. . . . In fact, only 9.1 percent of young people ‘associated’ (that is to say, members of either Catholic or nonreligious clubs and associations) and 0.4 percent of the ‘nonassociated’ . . . admit to feeling a ‘religious need.’”
Why does this “advance of secularism” continue among young people? Why do they feel no need to deepen their spirituality? Why are they deserting the churches? Settimana, a magazine for the clergy, admits: “Our festivities are rather impersonal affairs and, although we make great mention of the word ‘community,’ a person may get a warmer welcome inside a fruit and vegetable shop than he does in a church.” It added: “The gathering is bombarded with random excerpts from the Gospel and sermons that either misrepresent the Scriptures or have nothing to do with them at all.”
Declining Numbers of Clergymen
Another reason for the closing down of many churches in Italy is the shortage of priests. This scarcity is a consequence of the so-called vocational crisis.
Regarding this the monthly clergy magazine Vita Pastorale admits: “During the two millenniums of its history the Church has experienced various crises from either within or without. We have overcome these difficulties at the cost of divisions and setbacks, the effects of which can still be felt today. However, a similar lack of vocations, in turn the cause and effect of other no less fatal crises, has never been known before. Many people rightly wonder what the Church will be like in ten years’ time when members of the clergy and religious orders will be older and reduced by half.”
In nearby France, when a parish is left without a priest and Mass cannot be said, a group of laymen hold some services. According to Settimana, the Church is considering the adoption of similar initiatives in Italy. However, the magazine recognized the difficulties involved in carrying out such a proposal “considering the widespread lack of ministerial commitment.” In other words, Church members lack the desire to take part in ministerial activities.
The publication Gazzetta del Sud reports that in the diocese of Reggio Calabria alone there are “already 15 parishes without a priest.” According to La Stampa, in the diocese of Turin 12 parishes “are about to be left without a priest.” Some of these churches open their doors just once a year to celebrate a special Catholic festival.
In addition to these various causes, Church authorities note other reasons for the phenomenon of the closing of churches. One is the population drift away from historic centers and mountain communities.
Another threat to the survival of numerous churches is the lack of funds and the rise in expenses for the upkeep of buildings that are often of colossal size. “How can churches like those in the center of a city continue to subsist, surrounded as they are by blocks of offices and attended by a small number of worshipers? What possible income can they have?” asks the magazine Jesus. It adds: “We shall have to resign ourselves to the fact that the fate of many churches is to be closed down and left unused for worship.”
Thus, a growing disinterest in spiritual values, the decline in the number of clergymen, the population drift away from certain areas and the increasing costs are chief reasons for the closing down of churches. All of this is indicative of the serious crisis afflicting the Catholic Church in Italy, as elsewhere.
A Significant Contrast
When considering the various religions practiced in Italy, many have noticed a contrast between the general religious crisis and the growing success enjoyed by one group of Christians. In an article entitled “Why Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Have So Much Success?” Corriere della Sera admitted that this group has become “the most important of the non-Catholic religions in Italy” and spoke of “the reasons motivating so many young people to adhere to the movement.”
Would you like to find out the reasons for this contrast for yourself? We invite you to do just that by writing to the editors of Awake! magazine for further information.