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As church attendance drops, Europe's most Catholic country seeks modern pope

Kacper Pempel / Reuters

Catholic believers pray during the celebration of the Assumption of Mary at Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland, on Aug. 15, 2012. Poland is one of the most devoutly Catholic countries in Europe and is the birthplace of John Paul II.

Polish Catholics are hoping for a new pope with fresh vision.

In Poland, widely considered the most Catholic country in Europe, the church has been plagued by dwindling attendance, surging secularism and increasing alienation among young people.

"Well-educated young people from the cities are leaving the church," said Marej Zajac, a writer for the Polish Roman Catholic weekly magazine Tygodnik Powszechny.


According to Poland’s Statistical Institute of the Catholic Church, weekly church attendance has dropped from 53 percent of the population in 1987 to less than 40 percent in 2011. It’s the lowest number ever recorded, said Bruce Porter-Szucs, a history professor at the University of Michigan who writes extensively about Poland.

Radek Pietruszka / EPA

Catholic faithful around the world celebrate the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II.

This is a far cry from 1978, when Poland’s Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, imbuing Poles with pride – and the Polish Catholic Church with unprecedented energy. That was evident in 1979 when John Paul conducted an eight-day pilgrimage to Poland. Approximately 13 million people — one-third of Poland’s population — came out to greet him.

After John Paul’s death, the commanding role of the papacy in Polish life diminished.

And, as in other parishes around the world, priests in the Polish Catholic Church are facing allegations of sexual abuse. These abuses, often concealed, are seriously damaging the church — especially because critics say the Catholic leaders in Poland are not dealing aggressively with the problem.

Growing secularism is another issue the Polish Catholic Church faces. Church observers say the Vatican must focus on contemporary issues and that there needs to be a Christian renewal to counter the secularism.

"Benedict XVI’s thinking was shaped by the problems of the 20th century,” said Zbigniew Nosowski, editor-in-chief of the Catholic monthly Wiez. “But now we need a pope who will help us face the rapidly emerging problems of the 21st century."

Nosowski said the church lacked a strategy to deal with mounting contemporary problems throughout Benedict’s papacy. He foresees the church accepting a married priesthood this century as a way to counteract the decline in men seeking the priesthood.

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The pope delivers his final audience in St. Peter's Square as he prepares to stand down.

"We will need more priests to fulfill our basic ritual demands — like performance of the Eucharist," he said.

Some religion writers say the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI could provide an opportunity for other equally bold changes, such as open discussion of birth control, civil unions and in vitro fertilization.

"If we can accept the resignation of a pope, we should be able to accept other big changes," said Adam Szostkiewicz, a writer for Polityka, a secular liberal magazine. "People here are prepared for deeper changes and a more democratic style of managing things."

Liberal church leaders supporting change are a dwindling minority, and the Polish church is tilting to the right.

The Polish Catholic Church openly supports the conservative Law and Justice party, which aggressively opposes the moderate coalition government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his Civic Platform party. Overt church involvement in politics has alienated moderate Catholics.

"It could destroy the identity and unity of the Catholic Church in Poland," said Zajac. "We are Christians because we believe in Jesus Christ and not because we vote for a political party favored by the church."

Christian moderates are also angered because many Polish bishops support Radio Maryja, an ultraconservative Catholic radio station run by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, a Catholic priest and Redemptorist. 

Janek Skarzynski / AFP - Getty Images, file

Priest Tadeusz Rydzyk (center), chairman of Radio Maryja, demonstrates on Sept. 29, 2012, in Warsaw against Poland's centrist government in a rally called by unions, an ultra-Catholic movement and politicians.

Radio Maryja’s broadcasts have been accused of demonizing Jews, gay men and lesbians, and of opposing Polish membership in the European Union as a corrupting influence. Critics say it has become the voice of the Catholic Church. Others challenge that claim.

A new pope must distance himself from the Polish church’s swing to the far right, said Stanislaw Obirek, a professor of anthropology at Lodz University and an expert on the church. He was a member and teacher in the Jesuit order until 2005.

Obirek said the Polish church started to support radical right-wing groups after the death of Pope John Paul in 2005. The new pope must counter this trend by promoting further democratization of Polish society, he added, stressing that the church cannot continue to cling to its traditional role in a rapidly changing world.

"Polish Catholicism has to radically change itself to adapt to social, religious and political conditions," he said. "Or else condemn itself to marginalization."

Don Snyder, an NBC News producer for more than 25 years, is a special correspondent for NBCNews.com

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