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Europe’s Catholic Parishioners Take a More Active Role in Church

One of the biggest challenges German-born Pope Benedict XVI faces will be to revive and restore the Roman Catholic faith in Europe. Churches are half empty and priests are scarce in a region that, most experts agree, is becoming increasingly secular. Europe's remaining practicing Catholics are beginning to flex their muscles, which may fundamentally change the church, from the grassroots up.

Sunday Mass at Saint-Jean de Montierneuf is very similar to service at just about any Roman Catholic church, except that leading members of the congregation participate more actively than in other churches during the service. On any given week, teams of parishioners visit the sick, prepare Sunday liturgy and organize community debates, all tasks that were traditionally left to priests.

For Father Claude Moussolo, one of Montierneuf's two parish priests, this new lay leadership is a positive change. The 31-year-old priest draws comparisons between his active congregation and the very first Christians.

Father Moussolo says, parishioners at the Montierneuf church are trying to live by the faith of the First Century church, before the priests centralized everything. He says, now, everyone has a responsibility in church life.

Philippe Devaux agrees. The 50-year-old French professor is part of Montierneuf's lay management team. So is his wife, Emmanuelle.

Mr. Devaux says parishioners like himself feel a new sense of responsibility.

The local life of the church depends on their initiatives. Montierneuf is among a growing number of churches in the Poitiers Diocese, where lay Catholics are largely running the show. A first in France, the experiment in lay management was crafted a decade ago by Poitier's archbishop, Albert Rouet.

Monseigneur Rouet says priests are still necessary, but that does not mean they should be the only ones in charge. He says a parish is not like a business. He says it is about faith, charity and prayer. When parishioners start taking responsibility for their church, he believes, others will come.

In fact, while church attendance continues to slide elsewhere in France, it has increased slightly in parts of the Poitiers Diocese. Other dioceses have visited the Poitiers churches, and are beginning to replicate its experiment in lay management.

Numbers are growing. From Amsterdam to Bonn, Catholics are beginning to take control of their parishes.

And, they are doing it in ways experts like Nicholas de Bremond d'Ars believe may transform the church, at the grassroots level, in the absence of change from Rome.

Mr. de Bremond d'Ars is a priest and sociologist at the School of High Studies in Social Sciences in Paris. He doubts any French churches will openly contest the Vatican. He says they are too busy with just running the parishes. But he thinks, once lay people become accustomed to acting in what he calls "a free and responsible manner" there could be a very interesting adaptation of Catholicism at the grassroots.

Scattered examples of church revival amount to small ripples against a powerful current of European secularism. This, after all, is the continent that rejected any mention of Christianity in the new European Union constitution, and where many governments are moving to legalize such Vatican taboos as same-sex unions and euthanasia.

Although some observers speculate that German-born Pope Benedict will push for a re-evangelization of the Catholic Church in Europe, a number of Vatican critics doubt the new pope will be any less conservative than his predecessor, John Paul II.

As a result, activists say grassroots dissident Catholic movements will continue to blossom, under Pope Benedict.

In many ways, the new clout of practicing Catholics is a practical response to the dearth of priests across Europe. Only 90 priests were ordained in France last year, down from a thousand, 50 years ago.

That has forced churches to import priests like Montierneuf's Father Moussolo, who comes from the Republic of Congo.

And, although some European parishes have transformed into vibrant dissident movements, advocating married clergy and gay unions, others - at least tacitly - are toeing the Vatican's conservative line.

In the Haarlem suburb of Amsterdam, for example, a church run by a group of dissident Catholics draws as many as 700 people on Sundays, according to an international reform movement called “We are Church.” A number of grassroots Catholic movements are also working for change in Germany.

But other Catholics groups are working within the boundaries of Vatican dictates. Lieven Boeve, a theology professor at Belgium's Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve, points to more cautious changes taking place in Belgian parishes. .

"There are definitely people looking for new forms of local community formation. But a lot of these things happen, you could say, within the broad borders of the church," he said.

Mr. Boeve says some lay-run parishes have increased the age of confirmation from 12 to 18 years. In other parishes, lay people and priests are experimenting with new forms of liturgy. Mr. Boeve says the Catholic Church is not dying in Europe. He says the main body of the church is becoming smaller.