As secularisation takes an increasingly firm hold over French society, Catholic congregations are disappearing and the country's ageing priests are dying.
France has already lost more than half the priests it had in the 1960s
Father Andre Bouzou moves through the market in Montcuq - a picturesque place amid vineyards and sunflower fields in the Lot valley in south-west France - with the easy familiarity of a man confident of his welcome.
The way Fr Bouzou picks his way between the stalls selling duck confit and local honey, kissing some of the stall holders and ruffling their children's hair, makes it seem that the Church still occupies a central role in people's lives.
But priests are scarce in the Lot valley now, so scarce that Fr Bouzou has no fewer than 40 churches to look after. It would be a virtually impossible task, but for the fact that many of them have almost no congregation.
There are just a handful of worshippers for Fr Bouzou's mass at St Laurent Lolmie.
Outside, the little churchyard is crowded with the tombs of past generations of the faithful. Inside are just the former mayor (baptised in this church 84 years ago), two elderly women and three nuns.
They can all remember when every church like this had its own priest.
Times gone by
One of the nuns tells me that the pews are now empty because of materialism and the breakdown in community life, but Fr Bouzou blames people's aversion to belonging.
Fr Bouzou only manages to visit this village church once or twice a year
"They're prepared to take part," he says, "but they don't want to belong to an institution."
Fr Bouzou, who is 63 and has the faded good looks of a former film star, is younger than most priests in the Cahors diocese. The average age is 68.
For decades, the Church in France has been living on borrowed time, relying on a body of priests whose average age has steadily increased. That time has suddenly run out.
Recent research suggests that French priests have become so old that half of them will die in the next eight years.
At Puy L'Eveque, Michel Cambon is Fr Bouzou's nearest fellow priest. He is the only one who seems really angry about the crisis.
As we walk among the dilapidated tombs in the churchyard with their fallen crosses and mournful statuary, the church bells clang balefully.
Fr Cambon - who has more than 30 churches to look after - says his elderly congregation is dying out so rapidly that in 10 years there may be no church in Puy L'Eveque at all.
"People kept saying it would be all right," says Fr Cambon, "but they're about to be proved wrong. My fear is that the Roman Catholic Church will disappear altogether in France. That's the path we're on."
For French seminaries it is a well-trodden path. Only 150 men completed their training as priests last year, for the whole of France.
In the library at Toulouse Seminary, Fr Lucien Lachieze-Rey pushes ancient wooden stairs into place with a squeal of un-oiled wheels, and searches for a book to illustrate the point. He says ordination seems less attractive to young people now.
"Priests used to have higher status in French society," he says. "They were considered respectable and significant. Now, like teachers and engineers, they don't have the respect they used to."
The Church has sought a solution in the African countries, to which it took Christianity more than a century ago.
Almost 30 priests from former French colonies such as Senegal, Gambia and Ivory Coast are in the diocese.
African priests are being drafted in from former French colonies
Fr Anatole Kere sees himself as a missionary, bringing the faith back to a post-Christian country.
The evening I met him he was sitting amid the faded grandeur of the presbytery at Fumel, giggling infectiously as he prepared two young couples for the baptism of their children.
At home, in Burkina Faso, Fr Kere might preach to 5,000 people. Here he will often find just five in church.
He is mystified that the faith that so enthuses Africans is all but ignored in France. He blames the material wealth of French people.
"It gives people the sense of having a refuge," he says. "They become uninterested in spiritual things. They don't seem to realise the dangers in neglecting the spiritual side of man."
Fr Bouzou must often leave wedding parties early to say mass elsewhere
Fr Bouzou takes a wedding service at Montlauzun on a sunny Saturday. This couple were lucky. More and more weddings are conducted by lay people. So are funerals, and even baptisms.
Some priests support a movement called Focalari, a broad-based, un-dogmatic approach to Christianity aimed particularly at the young, in the hope of bringing people back to church.
But many others support an even more radical idea, in open defiance of the Pope's strict edict: an end to compulsory celibacy and even the ordination of women.
The wedding party unfolds under a huge chestnut tree in a field behind the church. Someone has tied paper streamers to the lower branches. A four-piece band is playing and the bride dances with two children at the same time.
Fr Bouzou mingles for a few moments, then, unnoticed, disappears.
There is a wedding in St Cyprien, mass later on at Montcuq, and the funeral of an old friend in Lascabanes.
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 6 January, 2005 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.