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The Sounds of... Churches face an uncertain future

A visit to a cathedral near Basel reveals how one religious community practises its faith even as more people in Switzerland and across the West turn away from the church.

The percentage of people in Switzerland who say they don’t belong to any religion increased by 13.5% between 2000 and 2016, according to the Federal Statistical Office. But in places like Arlesheim in northwestern Switzerland, churches and their services continue to be part of the community, despite certain challenges.

Arlesheim’s cathedral was built in the 1680s as a satellite church for the one in Basel. It has become the town landmark, with its impressive exterior and interior architecture that was restored in the Rococo style of the late Baroque period. The church’s organ was made by renowned builder Johann Andreas Silbermann and is admired worldwide for its special sound.

In mid-October, this parish and the one in the nearby town of Münchenstein both welcomed a new pastor. Reverend Sylvester Ihuoma originally comes from Nigeria and has lived in Europe for 26 years. Prior to his arrival in Switzerland, he led an African parish in Germany for 14 years. In a special service, he is officially appointed to his new position.

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Pie chart showing religion distribution

​​​​​​​Lack of clergy

The fact that the two parishes once again have their own pastor is no longer a matter of course. Both Catholic and Protestant parishes increasingly struggle with a lack of clergy.  

But the need for new pastors is rising, particularly due to the number of retirements. According to a report in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper, two-thirds of today’s pastors in Switzerland will be retired by 2032. The number of theology students is not enough to fill the gap.

In recent years, Swiss churches have often found applicants in neighbouring Germany. But that solution will likely be short-lived, as Germany is also expecting a wave of clergy retirements. The Protestant Church now wants to address the shortage of pastors with people who want a career change.

University graduates aged 30-55 who would like to re-train as pastors are to benefit from a shortened course of study. In addition, the church would like to encourage young secondary school graduates to study theology with special project weeks in classrooms.

Worship around the world

What is churchgoing like in other parts of the Western world? A partnership with public service media in Poland, Canada, the Czech Republic and Romania yielded the following dispatches from religious ceremonies in those countries:

Poland

Some 93% of the Polish population identifies as Catholic, but visits to Catholic churches have declined by 36% in recent decades. Still, Sunday masses remain an important part of life for many Poles.


Canada

Kateri Tekakwitha, who lived from 1656 to 1680, was a member of Canada’s Mohawk Native American tribe, from the Kahnawake Reserve near Montreal. She was made a saint by the Catholic Church in 2012.  In October, the sixth anniversary of her canonisation was celebrated at the St. Francis Xavier Mission in Kahnawake. The choir sings in Mohawk, and some prayers can also be heard in this indigenous language.

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic is one of the countries with the highest number of atheists. The number of believers has halved in the past two decades. Only a fifth of all Czech citizens state that they belong to a religious denomination. Of those, only one in ten goes to church regularly (at least once a month). The Roman Catholic Church has the largest share.


Romania

According to the latest census, 86.5% of the Romanian population identify as Orthodox Christians. For this project, the team from Radio Romania International visited various Orthodox services. They were held in a centuries-old monastery with World Heritage frescoes in the region of Bukovina, in a cathedral in the capital of Bucharest, and in a small wooden church in the northern region of Maramures.

“The Sounds of…” project

This article is part of an ongoing project with our partner media Polskie Radioexternal link, Radio Canada Internationalexternal link, Radio Romania Internationalexternal link and Radio Prague.external link Each service produced a video giving insight into the different worship traditions of the four countries.


Christianity in Switzerland

Around 60% of people living in Switzerland identify as Christian, and the majority of those are Roman Catholics. In 1970, just under half of Swiss residents identified as Catholic, and today it stands at about a third. Over the same time period, membership in the Protestant Church declined more sharply, from just under half of people in Switzerland to about a quarter.

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