ROME: The faithful lowered their heads in prayer as the priest raised the host over his head. The only peculiarity about the act of worship was its setting: A garage-like space inside an apartment building with an altar made of bamboo.
It was supposed to be temporary, but Father Arnaldo D’Innocenzo’s makeshift church in this desolate, working class community on Rome’s western outskirts has been serving local parishioners for more than 30 years.
About 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the east, in the historical center of Rome, tourists mill about the 400-year-old Baroque Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, admiring the trompe l’oeil frescos on the ceiling and the relics of saints.
But regular worshippers there are few and far between.
It’s a situation that has been confounding the Diocese of Rome, the very heart of the Roman Catholic world: The magnificent churches of the city center serve more as museums than houses of prayer, while many among the burgeoning throngs of the faithful in the scrappy outskirts of town are forced to worship in garages, former grocery stores, or prefab buildings.
One reason is that there is a higher concentration of regular churchgoers among the poor Italians and eastern European immigrants living in the suburbs than among the more affluent Romans in the heart of the city. Much of the center also has been taken over by commercial spaces and government buildings — resulting in lower population density.
For Rev. Ferruccio Romanin, rector of St. Ignatius Loyola, the problems are compounded by intense competition for worshippers: There are at least 10 other churches within a short walk from where he preaches. And in Rome’s historic center, there are more than 200 churches that are an important part of the country’s artistic heritage.
“The problem in Rome is the high concentration of churches. But you can’t ship them out, they’re historical,” Romanin said. “There’s no solid group here. They change. They’ll come and say, ‘oh what a nice sermon,’ and then they leave and I never see them again.”
Meanwhile, the Diocese of Rome is struggling to provide for the spiritual needs of the rapidly growing neighborhoods on the outskirts of Rome.
Bishop Ernesto Mandara, who is in charge of building new churches within the diocese, says huge amounts of church funds go into the upkeep of the glorious churches of the city center — which are no longer serving much of a religious function — at the expense of parishes on the outskirts that are in desperate need of churches. He said he is hounded daily by priests, some of whom have been waiting for a church for years.
“Sometimes I live as if I were surrounded by creditors — I have to hide from parish priests, some of whom live in dire situations,” Mandara said.
At his parish of San Patrizio a Colle della Mentuccia, D’Innocenzo described the frustration he has lived through waiting for a church.
“I’ve been here 33 years, I’ve become an old man,” he said.
He said generations of children have been baptized and received their first communion in his ramshackle church, but nobody wants to get married there. “They all looked for a more beautiful church,” he said dejectedly.
In downtown Rome, such artistic landmarks as Santa Maria del Popolo e San Luigi dei Francesi are mostly empty and their religious purpose has been reduced mainly to hearing confessions — often from tourists.
“At the root of the problem is how to keep up these structures that from a pastoral point of view are not needed, but that are artistic treasures,” said Mandara. “The problem of the new churches in Rome is an absurd problem.”
Mandara said there are 19 existing parishes that still do not have churches, and finding the money to do so can be a struggle. The average cost of building a parish church is between €3.5 million ($4.62 million) and €4 million ($5.28 million), with half the funding coming from tax payments to the church, and the other half coming from the diocese.
Raising money can be a challenge in working class neighborhoods.
“Getting economic help from the new neighborhoods is difficult, but not for lack of generosity,” Mandara said. “Often, it’s young couples with a mortgage. I can’t ask people with mortgages to give me money.”
Complicating matters is the fact that some neighborhoods sprang up without planning in the 1960s when the poor in southern Italy began migrating north. As a consequence, many do not include zoning for a place of worship, which means added years of bureaucracy, Mandara said.
In Rome’s heavily immigrant Montespaccato neighborhood, a parish serving about 10,000 people was established in 2000 and it is not close to getting a church.
About 500 faithful who attend Mass gather in what was probably supposed to be a grocery store. A purple neon sign over the door identifies it as a church and inside, electric stoves keep people warm. Catechism lessons are held in a musty underground garage.
“For one hour it doesn’t harm anyone, but for anything more than that it becomes a health issue,” said the Rev. Danilo Bissacco, who heads the parish.
Mandara’s cause got a boost during the Catholic Church’s 2000 Jubilee year, when 50 new churches were planned for the city as part of initiatives to mark Vatican celebrations.
That’s how D’Innocenzo finally got his church. He will inaugurate it on March 18.
“It took the Jubilee of 2000, when the city agreed to transform farm land into areas zoned for construction,” D’Innocenzo said. “And that’s when we bought it.”
His flock has grown over the last 30 years. The audience for his very first Mass in the parish of San Patrizio a Colle della Mentuccia consisted of “four adults who had come to take a look and five children.”
The new church is more imposing, with the altar high above the congregation. But after 34 years leading his flock in the cramped quarters of his garage-like church, he has mixed feelings about moving out.
“I’m sorry to lose this direct rapport,” D’Innocenzo said.