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Europe

Polish influx changing the face of UK Catholic Church

Pope Benedict XVI is heading to Britain this week, but many of the Roman Catholics he meets there may not be British. The ranks of Catholics in the UK have swelled in recent years with immigrants from Eastern Europe.

People standing below a cross at sunrise

The EU has brought mobility for Poles and more Catholics to Britain

At St. Andrew Bobola's Polish Church in Shepherd's Bush, West London, the Rev. Marek Reczek has been busy preparing for the pope's visit and says he is taking a sizeable contingent to a vigil with the pontiff in Hyde Park on Saturday.

"Two hundred and fifty people. Polish people," he tells Deutsche Welle. "We want to pray and meet with our Father."

St. Andrew Bobola’s Kirche in London

Parishioners at St. Andrew Bobola's are eager to attend a vigil with the pope, their priest says

The 2004 accession of Poland to the European Union saw tens of thousands of Poles migrating to the UK - many of them bringing their staunch Catholic faith with them. This has helped the Catholic Church in England and Wales slow a decline in congregation sizes.

In the last UK census in 2001 there were 4.2 million Catholics in England and Wales - 8 per cent of the population. A 2009 Ipsos Mori poll found there were some 5.2 million Catholics, about 9.6 percent of the population.

According to Paul Woolley, director of public theology think tank Theos, it's difficult to know how much of that boost can be attributed to immigration. "But certainly anecdotally it is a significant factor in that growth."

More Catholics, less attendance

But immigration isn't the whole story, he told Deutsche Welle, and the reality is complicated.

A trip to a Polish supermarket in West London found that every single shopper described him or herself as Catholic, but not one was aware of the pope's impending visit.

The National Secular Society claims Mass attendance in Britain has dropped by half in two decades from nearly 2 million in 1990 to just under a million in 2010.

While there may be more people in Britain who call themselves Catholic that doesn't necessarily mean there are more practicing Catholics.

A more conservative approach

Those Eastern European Catholics who are attending Mass are changing things, according to Woolley.

The nameplate of St. Andrew Bobola’s Kirche in London

Some are concerned that Polish Catholic Churches are too separate from the main Church

"Migration is not only increasing Catholic numbers, but it's also shaping theology," he said. "It's making it not only orthodox, but perhaps more conservative than it has been in the past."

This comes at a time when Pope Benedict is leading the Catholic Church to stick to traditional values.

Concern has been raised, however, right at the top of the church, about a separate Polish Catholic Church being created in Britain and that Catholic Poles are not integrating fast enough into the wider church.

As immigration from Eastern Europe slows due to the recession, the Catholic Church may have to look elsewhere to boost its numbers.

Author: Olly Barratt in London (hf)
Editor: Rob Turner

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