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The Pope is here, but are Catholics?

for The Brooklyn Paper

The message of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to New York this weekend is one of hope — and hope is just what clergymen are clinging to most in Brooklyn.

Shifting demographics, suburban flight, and fierce economic challenges have caused many of the Brooklyn diocese’s parishes, churches, and schools to dwindle, merge, or, in some instances, close since the last visit by a Pope — John Paul II’s tour in 1995.

Then again, this is a religion that believes in rebirth after death, so community members believe that with the Pope’s help, they will rekindle the spirit within a rapidly changing community.

“This is a diocese of immigrants,” diocese spokesman Frank DeRosa said. “It was known as that 100 years ago and it’s known as that especially today.”

Churches that were once full of Irish, Italian, and German parishes now offer Sunday masses in 28 languages to accommodate an influx of immigrants, but the numbers are still below where they were.

Today, 1.56 million Catholics call Brooklyn and Queens home, down 100,000 souls from 12 years ago, according to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. Within the community, the number of schools, marriages, infant baptisms, priests and clergy have all diminished.

“There’s a death that has to take place, or is taking place,” Father Joseph Fonti of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Williamsburg, said. “You’re dealing with various levels of stages of mourning and separation and anxiety, but with you know that also, for the Christian, you always see that there’s new life to follow.”

The diocese has established “language apostle” programs to reach out to ethnic groups from Korea, the Philippines, Haiti, Romania, and various South and Central American countries and help them maintain personal associations from their native cultures, DeRosa said.

Even when demand still exists, rising economic costs and fewer resources, including teachers, have closed 32 schools, DeRosa said.

“There’s a change in demographics [with] poor people coming in from different countries,” he said. “They would love to support the parish and love to support the school, but don’t have the financial wherewithal to do that.”

Outreach and education are focus of Father Michael Gelfant of St. Anselm’s in Bay Ridge. Serving a parish that once boasted 3,000 families, Gelfant said 1,800 clans now fill his pews.

Now he’s going after another 700 Bay Ridgites who identified themselves as Catholic in the most-recent census. He works with parish pastoral councils to identify and address the needs of local parishes, including how to bring teenagers to the church and to ensure proper care for the elderly.

“It’s not a marketing tool, but it’s personal education. It’s bringing them back into the larger family,” Gelfant said. “They belong, but we don’t see them. So we say, ‘Let’s see you.’”

Fonti, 41, said his “biggest challenge” in Williamsburg is watching as gentrification displaces life-long parishioners. The bright young faces he now sees in his pews do offer some hope for the future, but keeping a balance has been his mission, he said.

“That’s what a parish community does, it keeps the light on in the midst of the change,” he said.

State of faith

Pope Benedict isn’t coming to Brooklyn (his loss), but if the Holy Father had journeyed to Kings, he’d find the faithful in a state of flux since the last time a Pope came to New York City. Here’s a handy chart on the state of Catholicism in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn (which includes Queens and Long Island). Source: Diocese of Brooklyn

Elementary schools160120−35%
High schools2220−9%
Infant baptisms24,39818,107−26%
Catholic population1,657,6191,561,638−6%
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