London congregation includes people who were born in just about every region of the world.
London congregation includes people who were born in just about every region of the world.

Catholicism is on the wane in Britain and across Western Europe, but migrants are helping to swell church congregations.  As Pope Benedict the XVI prepares his tour of the country this week.

A loud-singing, hand-clapping choir gives an African twist to this church service in southeast London.  It is a world away from the more somber hymns normally heard at traditional Roman Catholic churches in Britain.

Dorothy Mukalula is originally from Zambia and has been singing with this church for more than 20 years. She says the choir here is more like what you might find in her home country, Zambia. "We sing when we are happy, we sing when we are sad and we are trying to do the same here," she said.

The congregation at this church includes people who were born in just about every region of the world.  But about 85 percent are from Africa.

Seated along the pews are families from Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, and Ivory Coast.  

Nigerian congregation member Martin Sparkari says the church is the glue that holds the African community together.  He says it also helps to maintain their national identities. "It has actually tremendously helped in sustainable existence of different groups that are in this country," he said.

Across Europe, Catholicism is in crisis and disputes around the Church are growing.  Pedophile priests and Vatican policies on contraception, women in the clergy and homosexuality have made the pope's visit to Britain this week controversial, even before he arrives.

Keith Porteous Wood is from Britain's National Secular Society. He says mass attendance in Great Britain has been cut in half during the past 20 years. "There has been a breathtaking decline in the church attendance since 1960 and that decline has been accelerating as congregations have got older and older,  Wood explained.

He says migrants to Britain are the only thing limiting that decay. "The decline has stemmed slightly in the past few years because of an influx of people from Poland, Africa, the Philippines, which have to an unknown extent reduced the extent of church decline," Wood said.

He says many migrants are leaving Britain because of the financial crisis, so the new additions to the Catholic Church may not be permanent.

But the story of the Catholic Church in Africa is different.  It has the fastest growing Catholic population in the world.

Choir singer Dorothy Mukalula says when Pope Benedict comes to Britain this week, Africans here will give the him the same welcome as they would in their homeland. "Some years ago I know the late pope visited Zambia, and I know my mom was very excited," she said. "They all had material done for that. So yeah, we're going to do something similar."

The pope arrives in Britain on Thursday for a four-day visit.