In 2009 I had the privilege of being a guest at the Maranatha church in Tilburg, Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch. This church is the home of the student chaplaincy in that city and as such hosts the activities of several student bodies. A priest is appointed for the pastoral care of students and staff of nearby Tilburg University.
The students and priest during my visit were perfectly hospitable to me and the other guests. There was food, there was conversation, there was interest in one another. There was only one problem. Only after my visit had concluded did I realise I had in fact been in a Catholic church.
While merriment and nourishment that was on offer are not alien to Catholics (on the contrary), there was little else to indicate the Catholic identity of church and even the priest. The interior of the church, picture at left, was a rectangular space marked by bare stone, concrete and bricks. There was an altar table of sorts, but no visible tabernacle, or any other indication of the presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The priest, Fr. Hub Lenders, was dressed in his casuals, perfectly fine for the warm summer weather of that day, but perfectly unsuitable to indicate the fact that he was a priest and as such available for pastoral care and distributing the sacraments. If I was told he was the caretaker of the church, I would have also believed it.
This is a situation which is, sadly, not unique to the Maranatha church. There is still a major lack of identity in many Dutch churches and priests. And the results are easily understood, and in evidence at the Maranatha church: the Catholic identity is watered down in order to befit communion with the local Protestant communities. Ecumenical services in which a cracker is shared with anyone who wants to, whether they are Catholic or even religious or not, and the condoning of same-sex relations, abortion, euthanasia and many other things which society promotes, but which are at odds with Catholic teaching, were the result. For many of the students and staff attending services at the church there was virtually no clear difference between Catholic and Protestant, religious and irreligious. The message being communicated was that the only thing that matters was goodwill. While there are always exceptions, I do think this was generally the rule.
But the diocese is finally ready to change things, using the retirement of Fr. Lenders as an excuse. It has appointed Fr. Michiel Peeters (picture at right) as his successor; a young priest with experience abroad and also a Dutch blogger at the critical and active blog Voorhof.net. While Fr. Peeters intends the maintain the church community’s ‘living room’ atmosphere, he is also tasked with bringing it back in line with the diocese and the world Church and her teachings and faith. This requires an accurate presentation and communication of what that faith is. Ecumenical ‘table prayers’ are out, a proper licit Mass in is.
Of course there are protests, as there usually always are when things change ofter a long time. And now, like often, these protests flow from a lack of knowledge about the faith of the Church and an almost Protestant understanding of what faith and church are. And while we share much with our Protestant brothers and sisters, this is not one of those things.
For the students of Tilburg and the Maranatha church this means a renewed introduction to the Catholic faith and the Catholic understanding of what the Church is: in the first place sacramental and educational, and from that flows her outreach to the world, Catholic or not.
Photo credit:  Baasjochem/Flickr,  Peter de Koning/Brabants Centrum