MILAN, Italy — When Catholic children grow up not knowing how to make the sign of the cross, it's time to do something.

That's why Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan, Italy, thought to be a front-runner to succeed Pope John Paul II, has issued an urgent call for Catholics to make greater efforts at evangelization.

At a time when many are concerned that Christianity is being replaced by secularism in Europe, Cardinal Tettamanzi, in a pastoral letter, “You Will Be My Witnesses,” urges his flock of more than 5 million Catholics to undertake a missionary “conversion” parish by parish.

The letter came in the wake of a survey by an Italian daily newspaper, La Repubblica, reporting a significant drop in the number of Italian Catholics attending Mass.

La Repubblica found that while 87% of Italians say they are Catholic, regular Mass attendance has dropped from 35.7% in 1985 to 29.3%.

The survey also shows that marriages among Italians fell 10% in 2000-2001.

It found, however, that 50% of Italians pray at least once a day.

Cardinal Tettamanzi's letter, which outlines a three-year plan for Europe's largest and most influential archdiocese, echoes John Paul's 2001 apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte (At the Beginning of the New Millennium), in which the Pope outlined the need for “a new apostolic outreach [lived] as the everyday commitment of Christian communities.”

Cardinal Tettamanzi, who became archbishop of Milan in July 2002, points out that “the rich vitality of faith today is seriously under threat … Faith seems just a repetitive reality, tired, drawn out, dull and inward looking.”

He often repeats in the letter: “We are not born Christian but become so,” and is advocating cate-chesis for adults because many are uneducated about the faith.

Broken Tradition

“Children often don't know who Jesus is because the bond between the generations has been broken,” the cardinal says.

He's thinking of people like Domenico Pelliccia, a 55-year-old divorcee from Rome who received the faith from a very devout mother but today rarely attends Mass. His son also rarely attends.

“We split from the Church in adolescence and have never returned,” he explained. “We're still in rebellion. It's connected with social change, disdain for authority in the '60s and, in any case, I feel perfectly content without it.”

In fact, a survey conducted in April 2003 by Mario Pollo of Rome's Free University of Most Holy Mary Assumed, at the request of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, vicar of Rome and president of the Italian bishops' conference, revealed “a sharp break in the transmission of the Catholic faith to the younger generations.”

Pollo noted that “parents no longer transmit the faith to their children.” They send their children to the parish, “but at home? Absolutely nothing.”

The survey influenced Cardinal Tettamanzi's letter. He proposes a three-year program in which parents play a key role in preparing their children for a Christian life.

Because of the widespread trend of children abandoning the Church after confirmation, Cardinal Tettamanzi is directing that confirmation and first Communion be administered at the same time rather than four years apart, as is customary. This will be done at age 11 rather than in adolescence.

Cardinal Tettamanzi is also trying to get the faithful to reach out beyond their parish to unchurched Catholics and nonbelievers and to place themselves in diverse areas of daily life.

“He is inviting all the faithful to practice their faith ‘full time,’ taking their faith further afield to the workplace and social activities,” said Msgr. Luigi Manganini, episcopal vicar for evangelization in the Archdiocese of Milan.

Sacramental Catechesis

A key concern in the letter is the lack of reverence for, or understanding of, the sacraments. Weddings have become “a social custom based on aesthetics: the dress, the presents, the guests, the photos and the meal,” the cardinal said. He has written a plan of preparation for the sacrament of marriage.

“Engaged couples who are in need of recovering their faith must be encouraged to promote and put into practice their faith in a communitarian and/or personalized way,” the cardinal writes.

But most provocatively, Cardinal Tettamanzi advises priests to withhold the sacraments from those who are “insufficiently devout.” There are no specific indications how a priest would do this, and the document says the Church is not in a position to judge a person's faith. But it says the Church can and must judge the “necessary conditions” concerning how a person freely responds to God's grace, and so it can and must discern whether those conditions warrant the “admission” to the sacraments or not.

Msgr. Manganini believes the cardinal's letter “addresses what is at the root of pastoral problems.

“It focuses on the primacy of Jesus Christ and evangelization, not re-evangelization,” he said, adding that it draws on theology and the Bible but is also practical and “situated in the ordinary, day-to-day problems of parishes.”

Father Robert Gahl Jr., who teaches moral philosophy and theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, welcomes the document.

He said the cardinal has “proposed a renewal of the sacramental life so that many might approach the sacraments in order to meet Jesus and not just fulfill an obligation or partake in a social event. Being culturally Catholic is not enough. Christians must develop a personal relationship with Our Lord.”

But Father Joseph Dunnigan, a priest ordained in the United States who is now working in a parish in southern Italy, was skeptical.

“I remember a renewal program in Britain where the numbers attending Mass actually dropped further because it was led by overbearing people,” he said.

“In my experience, the vast majority of Catholics here pray regularly even if they don't go to Mass. Almost all are aware of the need to go to confession, especially before receiving Communion,” Father Dunnigan said.

“The waters still run deep as far as Communion is concerned,” he stressed, adding that refusal to give sacraments sounds like a “terribly bossy” thing “guaranteed to upset people.” But he acknowledged that Milan is what he called a “different country” than the south, where Catholicism remains more socially embedded.

“Sure, at weddings the happy couple look like Ken and Barbie,” Father Dunnigan said. “But even if they lack taste, they respect the priest and display reverence.”

Will it be a stimulus for other parishes? “Absolutely,” Father Gahl said. “Milan, being one of the largest archdioceses in Europe, is very much a leader in Italy and the world.”

However, its success, he said, depends on the “personal belief” of those leading the program. “The Pope has made it clear that the New Evangelization depends on contemplative prayer,” he said.

“If the program leaders aren't people of prayer, then it won't bear solid fruit.”

Edward Pentin is based in Rome.