(AFP) – Apr 22, 2008
LUBLIN, Poland (AFP) — A striking brunette sashayed down the catwalk, showing off her simple yet elegant white robe and black headgear to the enraptured audience.
Sister Lucja of the Order of the Sacred Heart of Jesus smiled as the crowd burst into applause.
Faced with a slump in the number of nuns, monks and seminarians in Europe's Roman Catholic heartland, the Church in Poland is trying to dust down its image.
The recent, somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion show in this city in southeast Poland was just the latest sign.
"The name 'fashion show' is provocative. We want to show that we live simply, and that even if we sometimes dress in an old-fashioned way, our clothes are a reflection of our lifestyle," organiser Father Andrzej Batorski, a Jesuit, told AFP.
After Sister Lucja, other nuns, then Jesuits and Capuchin friars hit the red carpet to show off their cassocks in the main hall of the Catholic University of Lublin.
The 90-year-old university is a renowned centre of religious and secular teaching and research in Poland, where more than 90 percent of the 38-million-strong population professes to be Roman Catholic.
Some two dozen orders took part in Batorski's fair, setting up their stalls to try to spread the word that taking religious vows isn't a thing of the past.
The stands boasted multimedia displays, leaflets, giveaway calendars and -- at the missionary orders' booths -- souvenirs from Africa and Asia.
Meanwhile, religious chants echoed from loudspeakers.
Under Poland's post-World War II communist regime, the Church played a dual role as both a religious institution and as a bulwark against the authorities.
While its clout has remained significant since the regime's demise in 1989, and is certainly far stronger than in most other European countries, it has been a victim of its own success in helping bring about political change.
In a democratic country where the free market has brought previously unimaginable opportunities for a new generation of Poles, drawing new recruits is becoming a headache.
The mainstream Church's image has also been tarnished by an ultra-Catholic fringe whose outbursts regularly grab headlines, turning off would-be recruits.
"Ten years ago, we had 25 novice nuns. Last year we only had six," said Agnieszka Kranz of the Servant Sisters of Debica, a small Polish order.
Such figures are a worry for the Polish Church, and even for Roman Catholicism beyond the country's borders.
Until recently, the Polish Church was training more than a quarter of Europe's priests, monks and nuns, and supplied them worldwide to fill gaps in other countries.
Last year, the number of Poles taking vows fell by around 25 percent.
For the 2007-2008 academic year, Poland's diocesan seminaries, which train priests, recruited 786 new students, down from 1,029 the year before.
The total number of trainee priests has fallen by 10 percent in one year, to 4,257.
The country's monastic orders are also feeling the pinch.
The number of novice nuns slumped from 728 in 1998 to 468 last year. The number of new monks fell by half to 797.
"For the Polish Church, this is ringing alarm bells," said Monsignor Wojciech Polak, who oversees recruitment.
Batorski said it is up to the Church to reach out to young people, speaking a language they understand.
"We wanted via the fair to enable people to meet those who have chosen a monastic life, to show that they are just regular individuals," he said.
"At the same time, we wanted to give a voice to people who have taken vows, allowing them to explain their chosen path and their faith," he added.
The Polish Church has also jumped headlong into cyberspace, and also turned to other planks of public relations.
Most orders have their own website -- and the Jesuits have even posted a video on YouTube. Others have tried television advertisement and the Franciscans even give their monks public speaking training.
At the Lublin fair, however, the impact seemed limited.
"I'd miss men, and nuns don't use make up or colour their hair," said Dominika Pietron, an 18-year-old school student.
However, she said she appreciated her hour-long discussion with a nun there.
"Religion helps you take a look at yourself, and builds confidence. But it should only be taken in small doses," she said.
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