Parish and Pilgrimage in a Changing Europe

John Eade

Parish, Pilgrimage and the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe

For centuries the Roman Catholic Church has relied on a structure where the parish has been the most local territorial unit (see, for example, Pounds 2000, 1-6). Through the coordination of parishes within a hierarchical structure of dioceses, archdioceses and clergy, the papacy sought to fulfil its historic claim to leadership of a universal Church. Although this claim was contested after the ‘Great Schism’ of1054 CE and the deep divisions between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, European colonization from the fifteenth century provided the Vatican with the opportunity to export its hierarchical structure beyond its European heartland to the Americas (see della Cava 1970) and then to other regions of the world. Yet, after the Reformation more decentralized systems of local

J. Eade (*)

University of Roehampton, London, UK © The Author(s) 2016

D. Pasura, M.B. Erdal (eds.), Migration, Transnationalism and Catholicism, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-58347-5_4

organization were developed by some Protestant Churches. In England, for example, although the Anglican Church retained the hierarchical model, a variety of Nonconformist churches emerged, which rejected the authority and hierarchical structure of the national Church. Alternatives to the parish system were developed where ‘gathered communities’ worshipped in chapels and (sometimes secular) meeting places (see Weaver 2002; Beazer 2011).

Since the 1950s the parish system has come under increasing strain in Europe. The Roman Catholic Church is grappling with social and cultural changes, which have led to a persistent decline in regular religious observance and vocations. Although one authoritative report in 2015 claimed that ‘Europe’s Catholic population’ grew by 6 % (CARA 2015, 1),1 the number of those involved in regular worship across Western Europe has massively declined since the 1950s. In France, for example, while those attending Catholic churches on a weekly basis in 1952 constituted 27 % of the population, by 2006 this had fallen to less than 4.5 %. In England Sunday Mass attendance fell from 1,703,800 persons in 1989 to 875,600 by 2005, a fall of 49 %.[1] [2] As for vocations although the number of those training as priests increased globally, in Europe between 1980 and 2012 the number of priests fell by 56,830 or 23 % (CARA 2015, 6). In some west European countries this decline was even more precipitate. Hence, between 1985 and 2001 there was a 40 % drop in The Netherlands, while France and Belgium experienced declines of 33 % and 30 % respectively. In contrast, Poland saw a 35 % increase.[3] In Europe, the number of parishes has declined by 12 % with a net loss of 16,669 parishes since 1980 (CARA 2015, 4).

Despite this evidence of decline, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has sought to retain the territorial model represented by the parish through consolidation and developing the concept of ‘missionary parishes’. Hence, parishes have been amalgamated, churches closed and worshippers encouraged to create ‘mission parishes’ served by one or more priests and often containing more than one church. As the bishop of the English diocese, Salford, explained, ‘to allow the parishes to be missionary, lay people will have to take up not only a great deal of the administration but also their rightful part as co-workers with the priests in the task of evangelisation and other ministries’.[4] At the same time the Church’s hierarchy has sought to build on the massive expansion of pilgrimage shrines across Western Europe—a more complex world of mobility, contestation and mixture (see, for example, Eade and Sallnow 1991; Frey 1998; Coleman and Eade 2004; Margry 2008; Jansen and Notermans 2012; Albera and Eade 2015).

The growing number of people visiting pilgrimage shrines has been assisted by and contributed to the massive expansion of the travel and tourism industry after the Second World War both in Europe and further afield. The NGO, Green Pilgrimage Network, estimated that approximately 250,000,000 people visited major shrines around the world, including 30 million at the Hindu shrine of Tirupati in India, another 30 million at the Sikh religious centre of Amritsar, 20 million visiting the Roman Catholic shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico and 15 million arriving at the Muslim pilgrimage centre of Karbala in Iraq.[5] Visitors appear to be attracted to these religious centres for a variety of reasons and some of the reasons may have little or no connection with institutional religion (see Timothy and Olsen 2006; Collins-Kreiner 2007; Reader 2014), encouraging shrine officials and helpers to distinguish between ‘pilgrims’ and tourists (see Eade 1991). There is clearly an intimate and long-established interweaving of tourism and pilgrimage which is not confined to Europe and to places associated with Christian traditions.

Yet, Western Europe contains the most diverse range of pilgrimage shrines. Major Christian centres such as Altotting, Assisi, Czestochowa, Fatima, Lourdes, Rome and Medjugorje, which attracted between one and eight million visitors, were joined by a range of smaller international, national and local shrines, such as Taize (France), Iona (Scotland), Walsingham (England) and Lough Derg (Ireland).[6] The development of cultural diversity associated with global migration has also encouraged the emergence of non-Christian shrines in the UK and Germany, for example (see Eade 2013). People were not only attracted to specific places but also to walking along the routes which linked shrines across Europe. While the revival of the camino routes across France and Spain to Santiago has attracted most academic interest (see Frey 1998; Graham and Murray 1997; Gonzalez and Medina 2003; Sanchez y Sanchez and Hesp 2015), other routes across Europe have also been redeveloped such as the Via Flaminia to Rome and the route to Trondheim in Norway. (In Poland the routes leading to the Marian shrine of Czestochowa were established well before the revival of these Western European routes.)

  • [1] The report did not explain how it defined a ‘Catholic population’ in Europe and the other regionsof the globe.
  • [2] Religion in the United Kingdom: Diversity, Trends and Decline, Item 10,, accessed 19 January 2016.
  • [3] lics-24793/, accessed 19 January 2016.
  • [4] ‘Bishop proposes halving number of parishes in Salford diocese’, Catholic Herald 23 November2015., accessed 8 April 2016.
  • [5] Green Pilgrimage Network ‘Pilgrim Numbers’,, accessed 21 January 2016. It should be noted that the collection of visitor numbers atmany shrines is a very inexact science.
  • [6] Ibid.
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