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Tough time for Catholic Church, despite popularity of Pope Francis

The Pope is proving popular with the masses, but evidence his charisma is reinvigorating the Australian Catholic Church is harder to find.

The faithful in our hemisphere have watched as the cult of celebrity surrounding Pope Francis has amplified during his recent three-city visit to the United States.

His Holiness reaches out to followers via Twitter, preaches tolerance, encourages care of the environment, has announced that abortion can be forgiven as a sin and offered open-armed acceptance to gay and lesbian Catholics who have felt alienated from their church for decades.

Dr Bob Dixon, director of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Pastoral Research Office, said it was difficult to gauge to what degree the "Francis factor" was at play in Australia.

"Is there a Francis effect? Quite possibly, but not one that shows up in [religious] personnel numbers," he said.

"It is probably more likely to be found in the attitudes and practices of ordinary Catholics."

While some were celebrating the Pope's call for a modern church, the age profile of Australian Catholics was of concern, he said.


According to a survey of the Catholic religious institutes in Australia, the median age of religious personnel in Australia was 73 years old, while the average age of congregants crept up from 55 years in 2006 to 57 years in 2011.

The report showed a 67 per cent drop in the numbers of Catholic nuns, brothers and priests (not including diocesan priests) in Australia between 1966 and 2009.

"The major cause of the decline in the numbers of religious sisters and brothers is death; not surprising, given their age profile," Dr Dixon said.

Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn Christopher Prowse said the Church was going through "tough times" due to the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, an ageing demographic and the lowest recorded numbers – fewer than one in eight – of Catholics attending Mass regularly.

"Something is dying, but something is rising to new life."

He said Francis' papacy was one of joy and humility. In providing hope to the masses, he demonstrated the potential to revive the appeal of Catholicism.

"He seems to be able to understand the new questions people are asking in today's more sophisticated world and bring the age-old wisdom of the Church coming from the scriptures to today's searching world, looking for meaning, purpose and hope," Archbishop Prowse said.

ANU emeritus professor of political science John Warhurst said the Australian Catholic Church was battling the same fronts as its counterparts across the developed world.

"The Catholic Church in Australia is having to import priests, including in the Canberra Goulburn Archdiocese, just to maintain the services and parishes, which are also being amalgamated," he said.

"I can't predict if Archbishop Prowse is right about a reflowering. The measure will be what young people do and whether young Catholics see this as the start of a new era. If they don't, the trends won't be reversed."