As Pope John Paul II winds up a world youth conference in Toronto, a study concludes that spirituality has grown among young Christians in Europe over the last 20 years, even as church attendance is declining.
The survey of spirituality among young Roman Catholics and Protestants in Europe is part of ongoing research into changing European values on matters ranging from immigration to homosexuality, that began in 1981.
The latest religious survey, published this month, investigates the beliefs of 18-to-29-year-old Christians, living in Western and Eastern Europe.
It finds that more young people believe in God, in spirituality and in life after death than they did 20 years ago. But fewer believe in the church or attend service in religious establishments.
French sociologist Yves Lambert, who headed the research, agrees the findings are indeed paradoxical. "Although church attendance is dropping in western Europe, Mr. Lambert says, those who describe themselves as Christians express stronger religious beliefs than in 1981," he said. "Even youth who say they are not religious believe more in God today, and in life after death."
The European findings are by no means uniform. In many former Communist countries, the study found that both faith and church attendance among youth are rising. That's also the case in Portugal and Italy, where church attendance rose slightly to 67 percent and 54 percent, respectively in 1999, the date of the latest survey.
Mr. Lambert says he cannot interpret the perplexing statistics. In staunchly Catholic Ireland, priest sex scandals are a likely cause, he says, for plummeting faith in the church, which has halved in 20 years. But overall, he says, the survey did not ask youth to explain their answers.
But noted Belgian theologian, Pierre de Locht, argues the Roman Catholic church has failed to respond to youth needs. Father de Locht, a Roman Catholic priest and frequent church critic, says the church's moral stance is too rigid and does not answer problems facing youths today.
Martine Millet, a Protestant youth pastor in Paris, also agrees Europe's churches had failed to satisfy spiritual yearnings among the young. She also faults the French government in particular for prohibiting the study of religion in public primary schools. She said French parents growing up in the rebellious 1960s have also rejected religion. As a result, she adds, French youth of today face a spiritual void. The survey finds less than half of French Christian youth believe in God, or go to church.
Still, Mrs. Millet says, some church leaders are trying to reach young Europeans by organizing camping trips, social evenings and humanitarian trips overseas. In some cases, she says, they are succeeding.