Spain

The bells tolled in the face of depopulation. What now?

Numerous temples in Aragon, Extremadura and Castilian towns rang their bells at the end of March to make visible the "emptied Spain". Now it is time to go deeper into the messages.

Rafael Miner-April 13, 2021-Reading time: 5 minutes
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The objective was to make visible the problem of an emptied Spain, wounded by depopulation and abandonment. And the bells of the churches of Zaragoza, including the Basilica del Pilar, rang for five minutes in the middle of Holy Week, on March 31, in solidarity with the social platforms that denounce the situation in which the villages of the so-called 'emptied Spain' find themselves.

Bishop Carlos Escribano had requested a ringing of bells in the parishes of the diocese, coinciding with the second anniversary of the demonstration that a year ago went through the streets of Madrid, A ringing of bells to make visible the problem of depopulation in the rural world.

The Archbishop of Saragossa has stated that he continues to "very current" the pastoral letter Nazareth was a small townpublished by the bishops of the six Aragonese dioceses in December 2019, on the Church in Aragon at the service of the rural world.

"The joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of the people of our time, especially the poor and those who suffer, are at the same time the joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of the disciples of Christ," wrote Bishop Escribano, recalling the message of the Second Vatican Council.

Alert also in Extremadura, León and Zamora

The ringing of the Aragonese bells was preceded by those of the parishes of the ecclesiastical province of Merida-Badajoz, which joined the request made by the bishops of the dioceses of Extremadura to ring the bells at 11 o'clock on Easter Monday, the 29th, as a sign of alert to reflect on the situation of the emptied Extremadura.

With the bells, the Archbishop of Merida-Badajoz, Celso Morga; the Bishop of Plasencia, José Luis Retana, and the diocesan administrator of Coria-Cáceres, Diego Zambrano, called to "analyze our reality and to organize ourselves to influence it," they said in the note that was read out over the weekend in the parishes. Two of the temples that rang their bells were the Co-cathedral of Santa Maria and the Basilica of Santa Eulalia in Merida (Badajoz), among many others.

Extremadura is one of the Spanish regions with the highest number of "calls for special attention", The note points out, which offered, for example, these data: "37.7 % of the population lives at risk of poverty, being the region with the lowest income in the whole country, with 115,455 people at the bottom of the unemployment line"..

On the other hand, the text stressed the idea that "our towns are aging, with hardly any children or young people; the countryside is increasingly suffocating", and "we are an empty space for communications (internet, highways, trains). A total of 88 municipalities have lost a quarter of their population".

The bishops of Extremadura look at "this situation with realism, but also with Christian hope, which is not overcome by pessimism, and from our ecclesial mission we want to give positive and hopeful answers to this situation". And they encourage to work "some from the faith, which moves us to work for the Kingdom of God; others, from their human values. And all of us as part of this land that suffers, but that has so many resources to get out of its situation, that can put into action so many capacities. It has so much future to build"..

On that day, parishes of Castilian municipalities also made their presence felt. The bells of several towns of León rang on the 31st in Villavante and in other towns such as Valderrey, Santa Marina de Torre, Celadilla del Páramo, Villares de Órbigo, Villarejo de Órbigo, San Andrés de las Fuentes, etc., and the bells were also heard in more than a hundred towns in the counties of Zamora.

Pastoral responses

In Spain there are approximately 8,130 municipalities[MRB1]  according to official data at the end of 2019, and slightly more than 23,000 parishes, according to the report of the Episcopal Conference. And the problems of the 'emptied Spain', largely due to the low birth rate and the emigration of young people to the cities, do not remain in the civil and economic sphere.

More from the half of the villages in Spain have less than one thousand inhabitantsA good part of them are at risk of immediate depopulation, but the Church is not abandoning these small, aging rural communities and is studying the possibility of implementing new formulas for pastoral care.

As Juan Carlos Mateos, director of the secretariat of the Episcopal Commission for the Clergy and Seminaries of the Episcopal Conference, explained, priests today are fewer in number and older than in the past, and their parishes are often left with few faithful.

The effort that some priests, usually younger, must make to attend to their parishioners is enormous and sometimes exceeds their strength, especially in autonomous communities such as the two Castillas, provinces of Galicia, Asturias, territories of Aragon, Extremadura, areas of Andalusia, etc. And this is not to mention what Juan Carlos Mateos has called "Unbelief and secularization, which are not a phenomenon alien to rural Spain either."

Formulas under study

In this context of "pastoral response" Abilio Martínez Varea, bishop of Osma-Soria, formulated in a forum of the magazine Palabra, now published in the Spanish language. Omnesheld at the end of 2019, the proposal for the "to mature the possibility of considering as a single parish community the group of parishes entrusted to the pastoral care of a priest and to act accordingly in pastoral terms. Our present pastoral organization, with many small parishes scattered over a very large territory, requires a profound rethinking. A serene reflection is therefore necessary at all levels in the diocese".

The Forum took place in Madrid with the presence of the engineer Alejandro Macarrón, consultant and director of Renacimiento Demográfico, who moderated the event; the bishop of Cuenca, Monsignor José María Yangüas; vicars from other affected dioceses, such as Coria-Cáceres; Castilian parish priests who attend up to 30 or 35 parishes; and various experts such as José Luis Pascual, director of Computer Systems and Networks of the archdiocese of Burgos for many years.

Very low birth rate

"We are moving from a country where one grandparent looked after four grandchildren to a country where four grandparents look after one grandchild."The average ageing of the Spanish population, which is very worrying in terms of its magnitude and rate of growth, has reached very high levels in a large part of Spain," said the engineer Alejandro Macarrón at the Forum, with words by Tomás Burgos, former Secretary of State for Social Security. The average ageing of the Spanish population, which, in the consultant's opinion, is very worrying in terms of its magnitude and rate of growth, is reaching very high levels in a large part of Spain.

"The main cause of depopulation in rural provinces in the last 40 years has been and continues to be the insufficient birth rate. The cases of Soria and Jaén are very illustrative.", said Alejandro Macarrón. "Jaén, with much more net emigration than Soria since 1975, has lost far fewer inhabitants, and its population is much less aged. This is due to the fact that its average fertility rate has been much higher than Soria's in the past decades (not anymore).".

"On the underlying problem of births in Spain", adds Alejandro Macarrón, "as long as there is no change in mentalities and laws in favor of the birth rate and the formation of stable families with several children, no substantial changes can be expected. But at least the fact that there is no additional 'super-surge' due to the pandemic would already be something positive, a small relief after the catastrophic birth data of December and January".

Some initiatives

In recent times, initiatives to repopulate rural Spain have begun to be revitalized. For example, the Repuebla plan, which focuses on the provinces of Castilla y León, has two phases, as reported by the Cope radio station. The first phase involves contacting local councils to create a bank of free housing. In the second phase, these homes are rented or sold to those users willing to move to the area (www.planrepuebla.es). You can also see ideas of various types and styles at www.españadespoblada.es or in www.volveralpueblo.org.

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