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New fervor among young Italian Catholics

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Citing drug use and materialism, she says young Italians' misguided pursuit of happiness has led to a crisis of values. "All young people seek happiness," she says. "Unfortunately, the world offers a happiness that ends quickly, like candy melting in your mouth."

Vatican officials say young people's thirst for moral direction is driving a resurging interest in Catholicism. "There's a reawakening after a time of secularization," says Sister Giuseppina Fragasso, vice president of the Vatican's association for cloistered monks and nuns.

The number of Catholic clergy has dwindled worldwide since peaking in the late 1960s. In particular, it's getting harder to attract new blood to the priesthood. According to the Vatican's statistics office, monasteries have been closing too fast for their researchers to keep track. While other Christian sects attract priests by allowing them to marry and by inviting women to ordination, the Catholic church still prohibits such activities.

But the tide is turning in Italy. Nearly half of adult Catholics attend mass at least weekly, up from 35 percent who did so in 1980.

Clergy credit much of young people's interest in Catholicism to the late Pope John Paul II, stressing the impact of the World Youth Days he started in 1984. Catholic fervor reached a crescendo with his death in April 2005. "This pope really brought the faith closer to young people; there was a strong bond between him and us," affirms Giovanna, a young biologist praying by John Paul II's tomb in Rome.

However, not all young Italians are so swept away by Catholicism. Even those who are draw limits on the role of religion in the public sphere.

While the church wields enormous moral power - in June 2005, it successfully lobbied Italians to boycott, and thus invalidate, a referendum on embryo research, artificial insemination, and egg and sperm donation - Italians remain strongly against its involvement in politics. A December 2005 poll found 41.5 percent of Italians are totally against church influence in politics.

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