I had to act to make sure the archdiocese would not go bankrupt. That creates room to work on our assignment.
There has been a lot of discussion these past weeks about the archbishop’s removal of a volunteer who publically misbehaved. Both orthodox and more liberal faithful have the obligation to behave normally. The impression was almost created that I did not value volunteers. I certainly do!
The archdiocese would not work without numerous volunteers. I greatly value their input. Amidst all the bickering, the main goal of the archdiocese has almost been lost: how are we doing? For an answer we need to go back to the Founder of the Church: “You are the salt of the earth.” With these words Christ gave his disciples a definitive and and at the same time temporal assignment: Christians must ‘spice up’ society, they must give it taste. In our time and culture, though, the Catholic taste is rare.
The reason for this is twofold.
1. On the one hand the process of people leaving the Church plays a part. In the middle of the 20th century we were the greatest ‘job agency’ of missionaries in the world, now we have a shortage of priests, extinct religious orders and congregations and tons of people for whom the Good News means nothing. That has made the faithful more modest..
2. On the other hand, society considers religion with distrust. In that context it is hard to add taste – mockery and disapproval are always present. I sometimes get the feeling that the more fanatical atheists would like to add warning stickers to Bibles: “May seriously damage the spiritual health”. Or: “Faith is addictive, don’t start.” Pointless claims, but indicative of our times, when faithful are regularly considered ‘retarded’.
That is why churches look for other ways to show their relevance. At the start of the Kerkbalans Actions, the annual fund drive of several church communities, the voluntary contribution of church members was published. With their social and cultural activities volunteers in Roman Catholic parishes and protestant communities contribute some 400 million euros to society annually.
An impressive amount, but the greatest contribution of the faith is the personal connection to Jesus Christ. How to communicate that in a time in which faith is no longer apparent? How to involve people at the periphery? How to make an offer they can’t refuse to people outside the church?
These are urgent question: currently 16 percent of the Dutch population considers themselves Roman Catholic. In 2020 it is expected to have dropped to 10 percent – the number of new Catholics is a little bit higher.
Broad people’s church
That requires organisational adaptations. Too long, the archdiocese of Utrecht had a structure that was based on the broad people’s church of the past. A result was an annual deficit of 1.7 million euros on a budget of 5 million.
At the time of my appointment in 2008 it became clear that we were racing towards bankruptcy. That called for immediate intervention. That reorganisation has given me the image of a bishop who only thinks about money. I did indeed have to make a number of very difficult decisions, most recently the closing of the seminary in Utrecht.
Our former accountant referred, recently in Trouw, to the eating of millions into our own capital as a form of ‘investing in the future’. But, looking back, it was more like a game of poker with the spirit of the times, that the latter has one: that investment has not decreased the number of people leaving the Church and the archdiocese has almost run out of chips.
But I didn’t jut bring the diocesan structure ‘up to date’. I also continuously envisioned a pastoral cause: giving the Church at the local level the power to grow. If the Church wants to appeal to modern people, she should be present in daily (parish) life. We need vital faith communities for our future and let’s be honest: some parishes were far from vital.
That is why we implemented major changes on the parish level, changes that had already begun under my predecessor. Until recently the archdiocese consisted of 316 parishes, soon that will be only 50. The former parishes will continue to exist as faith communities, but under an overall parish council. Without the effort of many parishioners this operation would have been impossible, and I am very grateful to them for that.
This scale increase allows local faith communities to join forces and be truly missionary together. A missionary faith community isn’t only geared towards churchgoers, but also and especially on peripheral churchgoers and people who don’t know Christ and His Gospel.
I cherish the image of God the Father who is always home and awaits His children. These days sadly often in vain – His children no longer call. Many deny His fatherhood and don’t take the effort to do a ‘spiritual DNA test’- life without God is fine for them. The gnawing feeling that ‘there is more between heaven and earth’ is smothered beneath daily cares or the search for quick but fleeting earthly happiness. While the Roman Catholic has the characteristics of an inner speed regulator: taking time for prayer, the service to God and fellow man, moderation.
We are facing an enormous task, but I see signs of hope. I have been a bishop now for more than ten years and in conversations with catechumens I notice that they have an increasing understanding of the faith. As a Church we must stand for our identity. That is not a 1950s mentality, but life from the Source of all times. (Arch)bishops, priests, deacons and pastoral workers are actually ‘relationship counsellors’ who bring people into contact with Jesus and His Message. In that, they are supported by many volunteers. Ina truly missionary Church we all have that role. Because it’s not about us, but about Him.