Catholic Pope Tries to Call in East Europe Flock the Church Finds Its Influence Waning after the Fall of Communism. It Struggles to Find a New Role as Secularism Rises in Popularity

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FOR the Roman Catholic Church in Central and Eastern Europe, the 40-plus years of communism, in the words of Pope John Paul II during his recent trip to Poland, were "times most profoundly marked by suffering."

Under communism, Catholicism and other religions were widely persecuted.

In the immediate aftermath of communism's 1989 implosion, the mood of persecution gave way to hope. Led by the Polish pontiff, the church looked to quickly reestablish itself as the preeminent spiritual force in the region. But events over the past five years have caused those early hopes to fade. In the post-communist era, the Church has run into difficulty in conveying its message to the people.

"Under communism it was easier for the church to determine what was more moral and immoral. Everything linked to communism was immoral. Now it's not so clear," said Jakub Karpinski, an expert on Poland who is based at the Open Media Research Institute in Prague.

If anything, the church has lost influence in a region that includes the staunchly Catholic nations of Poland, Slovakia, and Lithuania, political observers say. In particular, the church in Poland (95 percent Catholic), a major political force during the communist era, has seen a significant erosion of influence.

"Communism paradoxically was a time of tremendous influence for the church," Mr. Karpinski said. "With more freedom in every domain, a certain secularization has developed."

To a certain extent the loosening of the church's authority in Central Europe is a natural phenomenon, political observers say. In Poland, the church before 1989 was the only institution that retained a large degree of independence from communist authorities. As virtually the only outlet for dissent, religious worship for some served as a form of political expression. Thus, church positions on issues could influence political debates.

The church still possesses a strong voice in Polish politics, Mr. Karpinski and others say, but it nonetheless has lost its appeal for some, who have found other forums for expression, Karpinski said.

Pope disappointed

The secularization trend is a source of disappointment for the pope. During his recent trips to Central Europe - a visit in May to the Czech Republic and Poland, and his just-completed trip to Slovakia - the pope despaired at the lack of the church's influence over the development of formerly communist countries.

"An ever-more powerful intolerance is actually spreading in public life," the pope said during his Polish trip in a reference to antichurch feelings. The faithful, the pontiff added, "notice the increasing tendency to marginalize them from the life of the society. …