Follow the ancient pilgrims' trail through the plains of central France and you'll come upon a vision of soaring spires and flying buttresses that sail above the fields like a medieval mother ship. The 13th century Chartres Cathedral is a relic of an era when bishops crowned kings and kings crowned conquests by building monuments to their faith. To Roman Catholics, the cathedral which has burned down and been rebuilt several times over the centuries has always been a sacred place. Since the 9th century it has been the home of the Veil of the Virgin Mary, a long piece of silk said to have been worn by Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. It has a famed labyrinth, a 262-m winding stone path that pilgrims used to trace on their knees. Its 172 stained-glass windows use every rainbow color to tell Biblical stories from Adam and Eve to the Revelation of John. Naturally, "there is a tendency to visit the cathedral like one visits a museum," says Marie-Josèphe Deboos, head of the church's welcome center. "But this is not a museum. It is a living place, a religious community."
Tell that to those who treat Chartres Cathedral as if it were a satellite gallery of the Louvre, just another stop on the Grand Tour of Europe. The disembodied voice that announces each hour on the hour that "this is a place of prayer" seems to be talking to himself. And Malcolm Miller, who has guided tourists around the cathedral for more than 40 years, can't help but catalog the "vulgarity" of the visitors: the woman who asked what he meant by the terms Old Testament and New Testament; the one who let her dog drink the holy water; the couple he shirtless, she in a bikini who arrived on a feast day, strode up to the altar and took a flash photo of the bishop, mid-Mass. Look around and play your own game of Spot the Vulgarians; how about the folks at the back, pumping euros into the machine that spits out "official" Chartres coins?
In its ancient glory and modern angst, Chartres is strangely emblematic of European Christianity right now. This church mirrors the church the institutions of the faith, whether Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox or independent. It is caught between history and modernity: filled with the few blazingly faithful and the many who feel a faint, indescribable pull; a huge, almost forbidding presence that is nearly always half-empty inside; a place of shadows and more shadows, with the occasional shaft of bright, brilliant light. In 1966, a TIME cover story pondered the fate of Christianity and asked, is god dead? The magazine wasn't the first to pose the question theologians have lamented society's secularization for centuries nor would it be the last. He's still not dead, but these days in Europe, He's not always in the same old places. So it's worth asking: Where has God and Christian faith gone?
The institutions of Christianity, of course, have long been in decline, but the consensus is that the pace has been quickening. "Parish life is essentially dead," admits a senior Vatican official. Church attendance has dwindled by more than 30% in Britain since 1980. Over the same period, the percentage of the population claiming membership in a religious denomination has dropped more than 20% in Belgium, 18% in the Netherlands and 16% in France. Christianity remains Europe's main religion, with about 550 million adherents. But the number of Europeans who identify as Catholic by far the biggest denomination on the Continent has fallen by more than a third since 1978.
At times, the church has been its own worst enemy backing Franco's brutal regime in Spain (something it still hasn't apologized for) and stonewalling the Irish pedophilia scandals of recent years. But even before these revelations, the church "was an oppressive force," says Willie Walsh, the Bishop of Killaloe, who went on a millennial pilgrimage of reconciliation in 1999. "It was judgmental and placed too much emphasis on a God who was very much to be feared."
What may be new, however, is that the Christian establishment now sees and accepts itself as a minority force an underdog, where in centuries past it literally ruled Europe. "Churches have always gone through periods when their influence is greater and periods when it was less. Now we are down," says German historian Jobst Schöne, a bishop in the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church. "Christianity will be a minority. Nobody should close his eyes to that fact."
In all of Ireland, just one Jesuit priest Tony O'Riordan from County Cork will be ordained this year. At least he believes in God; last week, the Church of Denmark suspended a pastor after he told a newspaper that God doesn't exist. That man may want to consider a career change, but he's not alone in breaking with religious traditions. According to the Third Wave of the European Values Study, a report by Tilburg University in the Netherlands that will be released to the public in July, only in Ireland, Malta and Poland do more than half the people go to church weekly. More than half of those polled in France, Britain, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands said that religion is not important to them.