In his letter for Lent, Cardinal Eijk once again broaches the subject of church closings, the topic for which he has been criticised so strongly in recent months. Even now, there is a petition on its way to Rome to ask the Pope to stop the cardinal from closing all those churches – something which he is pertinently not doing: his prediction of hundreds of churches closing in the coming years is just that, a prediction and not policy.
In the letter, the cardinal writes:
“The secularisation I mentioned above is also becoming increasingly visible in our own Archdiocese of Utrecht, in part because many parish council are forced, because of greatly decreasing attendance and structural financial shortage, to close church buildings. Among the directly involved that is cause for deep emotions of sorrow. But also for me: every time I receive a parish council’s request to secularise a church building, I do so with a heavy heart.”
Like I and others have said time and again, it is not the cardinal deciding to close specific churches, but the parish councils who are responsible for those buildings. Despite this, various groups, including retired priests and pastoral workers in the archdiocese, continue in their accusations that the cardinal is wilfully closing churches and purging the archdiocese of all those who are critical of him. The difference between these groups and the cardinal is that the former are solely motivated by emotion, while Cardinal Eijk does acknowledge that emotion, but does not consider it the deciding factor in solving the existing problems. He continues:
“This has been cause for confusion and anger in more than a few people. But it is important not to persist in that anger. There is a danger than anger turns into bitterness,and bitterness is like a dungeon in which no light penetrates. It is important to remain open, to God and to fellow parishioners with whom we are the Church. That goes for churches that remain open for the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and also for villages and city suburbs which no longer have a church building. As Catholics we can come together there at other times, to be near to each other and deepen our faith through prayer, Scripture, catechesis. When a church building disappears, our faith and being Church in a village or suburb does not.”
This sound like an echo of what Bishop Gerard de Korte wrote earlier: living communities, even in places where there is no church building. The critical parties often make the mistake of limiting the Church to the celebration of Mass or the possession of a building of their own. But while Holy Mass is the most important treasure the Church has, it is by no means the only one. And the Church has never been confined to walls. No church in the world, not even Saint Peter’s in Rome, is the deciding factor in the continued existence of the Catholic Church.
Yes, closing churches is painful and emotional for all involved. But it should not be reason for accusations, but for renewed vigour in our faith life. If we want our communities to be alive and with a future, we must do our best to make sure they are. We don’t have the luxury of sitting and waiting for the bishop to fix things for our communities. As Catholics we must be active instead of passive, knowledgeable and open, charitable and willing to step over boundaries and look beyond our human limitations.