Notre Dame de Paris
Notre Dame de Paris Wikipedia

France is an overwhelmingly Catholic country -- up to 88 percent of the population belongs to the Roman Catholic church, according to the CIA World Factbook. However, the number of active believers has been falling for decades.

Nonetheless, France boasts a glorious and splendid Catholic legacy -- from the iconic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris to its status as one of the first countries to adopt Catholicism as its official religion. In fact, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800, France’s history became inseparable from that of the Catholic Church

Moreover, Avignon in the south of France served as the papal seat from 1309 to 1377 -- the last of the so-called ‘Avignonese popes’ was Gregory XI, who was born Pierre-Roger De Beaufort in Limoges-Fourche. (No Frenchman has served as the Holy Father since then.)

But now in the second decade of the 21st century, with the College of Cardinals having elected a new Pontiff in the Vatican -- Pope Francis of Argentina -- France’s Catholic Churches are increasingly bereft of parishioners.

The numbers are grim. Last year, according to reports, more than one-third (35 percent) of France’s population and almost two-thirds (63 percent) of youth said they belonged to “no religion.”

Very few people, an estimated 1-in-20 of the French, regularly attend Mass anymore.

Father Innocent Feugna, an African deacon who toils at St Pierre de Guise in northern France, complained that his congregation in aging and dying out.

“Here I'm preaching to pensioners,” he lamented to BBC.

"In Cameroon, [the Catholic] Mass is animated, it's alive -- here [in France], services are still flat and cold. In Cameroon, the churches are full. We've got children. We've got adults, all ages. It's completely different from France."

Not only are France’s church-goers aging, so are church officials -- the average priest in the country is now 75, forcing the importation of foreigners to conduct religious services.

"Young people have different aspirations," Feugna stated. "Their interests lie elsewhere. The Church perhaps doesn't have the right message for young people here."

Needless to say, it is very hard to find potential priests among French youth, commented Douglas Yates, assistant professor of political science at the American University of Paris and professor at the American Graduate School in Paris.

“As the priests in France get older, they are being replaced by Africans, particularly in rural areas, a phenomenon that draws not a little attention in the mass media,” he said, “If the trend continues, the Catholic church will become a minority religion. Already it is eye-to-eye with agnostic and atheists. Modern France is a secular society.”

Members of France’s own Catholic Church have admitted as such -- noting that the number of baptisms has plunged by almost 25 percent since 2000, while the number of Catholic wedding services has dropped by 40 percent over that period.

“The Catholics are dispersed throughout the country, more heavily in the rural areas than in the urban centers, but nevertheless geographically omnipresent,” said Yates.

“Demographically, the practicing Catholic population is gray haired, as anyone could see who walks into a French church. Many churches are so ill-attended that they are abandoned, or sold to the commune (often turned into private homes, restaurants or even cafes).”

Interestingly, despite its adherence to Catholicism, France has had a stormy relationship with the Vatican.

Odon Vallet, a French religion and Vatican scholar, explained to FRANCE 24, why there have been no French popes in over 600 years.

“This historical absence can be explained, notably, by the difficult relationship that Church and French kings had with the papacy,” he noted.

“And it’s important to remember that Napoleon put a pope in prison.”

Moreover, while the embrace of Catholic values appears to be slipping from the French consciousness, the rocky road for the legalization of same-sex marriage would suggest that some church teachings have deep roots.

A bill approving gay marriage (and the right of gay couples to adopt) was passed in the lower house of parliament last month – but it was hardly unanimous. The measure passed in the National Assembly by a vote of 329 in favor to 229 against, while 10 deputies abstained.

The bill remains subject to approval by the senate before it becomes law.

Already, Paris has witnessed huge protests against the bill from social conservatives and church figures.

Last year, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, the archbishop of Paris, warned a group of French bishops in Lourdes that same-sex marriage "would be a transformation of marriage that would affect everyone" and amounted to a form of “deceit.”

Indeed, Yates notes that Catholicism should not be discounted as a force in French society.

“The Cathedral remains a pillar of the identity of most French cities, and the parish church the symbolic center of small town France,” he said.

“One of the most visible showings of French Catholics were the public protests against gay marriage that filled the streets of Paris this winter. If those crowds are any indication, French Catholics have a voice equal to other social forces.”

Yates also points out that the French media that has not only given an extensive amount of space and time to covering the papal conclave, but it has been extremely careful not to offend its French audiences.

“One could say that while the French are no longer a practicing country, they remain nominally Catholic, and retain something of this in their national identity,” he noted.