MACAO - At morning Mass in St. Anthony's Church on Sunday, Lancelot Rodrigues, an 84-year-old Catholic priest, can name just about every member of the congregation in the sparsely populated pews listening to his sermon in Portuguese. He keeps the service short, to about 30 minutes. He knows from years of practice that brevity brings better crowds.
Even two days before Christmas, there are only a few dozen people to hear Rodrigues say they should open their hearts to Christ on his coming birthday. Nearly all those seated in the church have been doing that for many decades; they are either middle-aged or as silver-haired as the old priest.
"It is sad," Rodrigues said, reflecting on the dwindling ranks of believers who turn up each Sunday. "The fervor of the people has now diminished."
In Macao, the birthplace of Catholicism in China and East Asia, the ornate beauty of the centuries-old churches bears testament to a glorious past. During the Ming Dynasty, Mateo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit and mathematician, became the first to bring the message of Catholicism from Macao to Beijing, where he is buried.
But 450 years after the Portuguese established Europe's first settlement here on the China coast, bringing pioneering missionaries who spread Christianity to China, Japan, and Korea, Catholicism in the place they called "City of the Name of God" is in crisis.
For the past 30 years, the number of Catholics and their proportion of the population in Macao have been in steep decline, in contrast with a 45 percent increase in the number of Catholics worldwide over the same period, according to the Holy See in Rome.
In 1978, the church in Macao counted 39,010 adherents. By 2004, the number was down to 18,122. From about 15 percent of the population in the 1970s, the share of Macanese who call themselves Catholic has now fallen to less than 4 percent.
There are fewer baptisms. Priests say many Catholics do not even get married in the church anymore.
"It's very rare for my friends to go to church," said Jessica Marques, who at 27 was about the youngest person to come to Sunday Mass in St. Anthony's. "I don't think their parents go."
The decline is also afflicting the priesthood. The average age of a priest in the Macao Diocese is older than 60. No new priest has been ordained by the diocese in 25 years. The number of diocesan priests in that period has almost halved, compared with only modest fluctuations in global diocesan priest numbers since the 1970s.
Still, the churches here are plentiful, and enduring. There are 28 chapels and churches in the 11.5 square miles of this semiautonomous region of China, which was vacated by Portugal in 1999. St. Anthony's, or Santo Antonio to the Portuguese, is one of the most storied church. Built of bamboo and wood in 1558, it was replaced by stone and mortar 80 years later. In a sign of the tenacity of Catholicism here, it has burned down and been rebuilt many times.
But Macao's gambling-fueled economic boom has posed an unexpected challenge to the religion, as many Macanese chase quick riches working or betting in the glitzy temples of a new materialist faith. Today there are as many casinos as churches, and unlike the churches, the casinos are full and quickly growing in number. The MGM Grand, the latest of many huge gaming complexes under construction, opened on the waterfront last week.
Rodrigues, a jovial priest who has a taste for an occasional fine glass of whiskey against doctor's orders, and acknowledges having made the odd wager himself in earlier days, said the casinos were both a blessing and a bane.
"In Macao, we were not prepared for this avalanche of money coming in," he said. "Everyone wants to make a buck. The people cease to go to church, to Mass especially. We have a very big decline in that.
"After all, the state and the casinos give us all the benefits we have here, and we forget about the religious benefits: the church, God, has been forgotten."
Historically, Catholicism has occupied an uneasy place in China. It was suppressed during the Cultural Revolution. When restrictions were relaxed in 1976, the official Beijing-controlled church on the mainland had trouble accepting the notion that the Vatican should have the right to appoint bishops, although there have been recent signs of a thaw.
Rome, too, struggled to adapt to Chinese culture. In the 18th century, Augustinian and Jesuit priests were expelled from Macao in a dispute with the Vatican over the practice of allowing Chinese converts to Catholicism to maintain the tradition of ancestor worship.
Cheng Hing Wan, a researcher in religious philosophy at the University of Macao, said Buddhism and Taoism in Macao had remained strong, even as Catholicism declined. "They have a natural affinity with Chinese culture," he said of these beliefs. "This is something the Catholic Church can never have."
Yet elsewhere in China, the church is faring somewhat better in disseminating the word of God. The mainland church, while relatively small and kept under tight rein by the Communist government, has been flourishing. The size of the Beijing-authorized church is estimated at 7 million practitioners, but the underground church lifts that to at least 10 million, according to religion scholars.
In Hong Kong, across the Pearl River Delta from Macao, Catholic Church officials said there were 4,188 baptisms last year, more than half of them of people older than 7.
Some attribute Hong Kong's success in winning conversions to the high profile of Cardinal Joseph Zen, who has openly sided with the city's democracy movement and marched in the streets in solidarity with democracy advocates. Dominic Yung, the director of social communication for the Hong Kong Diocese, said having a "very outspoken" cardinal undoubtedly helped recruitment. "Cardinal Zen has been an example not only for the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, but for the whole society," he said.
Bishop Jose Lai of Macao, the second Chinese cleric to hold the post, is far more reticent about politics. A day before thousands of Macanese marched in protest this month over government inaction on democracy and corruption, Lai said in an interview, "I am not political." He said he had quieter ways of communicating with Edmund Ho, Macao's chief executive.
"If I need to say something, I can write to him or make an appointment with him," he said. "I don't need to go to the streets."
But Lai laments the failure of the diocese to sufficiently inspire young Catholics to enter the priesthood. The last four priests ordained were between 1978 and 1992.