At morning Mass in St. Anthony's Church on Sunday, Lancelot Rodrigues, an 84-year-old Roman Catholic priest, can name just about every member of the congregation in the sparsely populated pews listening to his sermon in Portuguese. He keeps the service short, to about 30 minutes. He knows from years of practice that brevity brings better crowds.
Even two days before Christmas, there were only a few dozen people to hear Rodrigues say they should open their hearts to Christ on his birthday. Nearly all those seated in the church have been coming for many decades; they are either middle-aged or as silver-haired as the priest.
"It is sad," Rodrigues said. "The fervor of the people has now diminished."
In Macau, the birthplace of Catholicism in China and East Asia, the ornate beauty of the centuries-old churches bears testament to its past. During the Ming Dynasty, Mateo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit and mathematician, became the first to carry Catholicism from Macau to Beijing, where he is buried.
But 450 years after the Portuguese established Europe's first settlement here on the China coast, bringing missionaries who spread Christianity to China, Japan and Korea, Catholicism in the place the Portuguese called "City of the Name of God" is in crisis.
For the past 30 years, the number of Roman Catholics and their proportion of Macau's population have been in steep decline, a stark contrast to the 45 percent increase in the number of Roman Catholics worldwide over the same period, according to the Holy See in Rome.
The church in Macau now counts only 18,122 adherents, less than half as many as 30 years ago, and the share of Macanese who call themselves Catholic has now fallen to less than 4 percent, compared with about 15 percent in the 1970s.
There are fewer baptisms. Priests complain that many Roman Catholics are not even married in the church anymore.
"It's very rare for my friends to go to church," said Jessica Marques, who at 27 was about the youngest person to come to Sunday Mass in St. Anthony's. "I don't think their parents go."
The decline is also affecting the priesthood.
The average age of a priest in the Macau Diocese is over 60. No priest has been ordained by the diocese in 15 years.
Still, the churches here are plentiful. There are 28 chapels and churches in the 29.8km2 of this semiautonomous region of China, which was vacated by Portugal in 1999.
But Macau's gambling-fueled economic boom has posed an unexpected challenge to the religion, as many Macanese chase quick riches in the glitzy casinos.
Today there are as many casinos as churches, and unlike the churches, the casinos are full and quickly growing in number. The MGM Grand, the latest of many new huge gaming complexes, opened on the waterfront last week.
Rodrigues, a jovial priest who has a taste for an occasional fine glass of whiskey against doctor's orders and admits to having made the odd wager himself in earlier days, said the casinos were both a blessing and a bane.
"In Macau, we were not prepared for this avalanche of money coming in," he said. "After all, the state and the casinos give us all the benefits we have here, and we forget about the religious benefits. The church, God, has been forgotten."
Historically, Catholicism has occupied an uneasy place in China. It was suppressed during the Cultural Revolution. When restrictions were relaxed in 1976, the official Beijing-controlled church had trouble accepting the notion that the Vatican should have the right to appoint bishops, although there have been recent signs of a thaw.
Rome, too, struggled to adapt to Chinese culture. In the 18th century, Augustinian and Jesuit priests were expelled from Macau in a dispute with the Vatican over the practice of allowing Chinese converts to Catholicism to maintain the tradition of ancestor worship.
Cheng Hing Wan, a researcher in religious philosophy at the University of Macau, said Buddhism and Taoism in Macau had remained strong, even as Catholicism declined. "They have a natural affinity with Chinese culture," he said of these beliefs. "This is something the Catholic Church can never have."
Yet elsewhere in China, the state-controlled church, while relatively small and kept under tight rein by the Communist government, has been flourishing.
The size of the Beijing-authorized church is estimated at 7 million practitioners, but the underground church lifts that to at least 10 million, religion experts estimate.
Hong Kong has won converts, perhaps because of its high-profile cardinal, Joseph Zen (
Bishop Jose Lai (
To find priests, Lai said he had taken to searching for recruits abroad, persuading four South Korean priests to fill the gaps of his aging clergy.
Still, he added, "As a diocese, we have to get our own local priests."
That is likely to remain a difficult goal. The rapid growth of Macau has given the young a dizzying array of leisure and work choices. The average casino job is lucrative enough to enjoy a spendthrift lifestyle.
The answer, some priests say, might come in emulating the promotional flair of the casinos. Rodrigues criticized priests for becoming too distant from the people they seek to serve.
"What we need here are priests with public relations attitudes, like the casinos," he said.
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