In the Vortex, empty parishes and poor priests? Some nuances

A recent episode of Michael Voris’ The Vortex about the Catholic Church in the Netherlands has led to some questions about whether it is really true that more than 1,000 parishes will close  in the coming decade and Dutch priests will have to find jobs in the secular world, or even become tenants of the few remaining faithful in a secular wasteland. Or so the tone of the piece comes across.

As ever, there is some truth in the matter, but the situation is somewhat more nuanced than suggested. In this post I want to  highlight some ofhe intricacies of the situations.

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkIt is true that the number of parishes in the Netherlands is decreasing. And it has been for some time now. But it is inaccurate to claim that parishes are shutting down. Rather, parishes are merging with their neighbours to create larger parish clusters or megaparishes. This happens in most Dutch dioceses, and it is an organisational change, virtually always triggered by financial reasons and the lack of priests. The exact form that these mergers take differs per diocese. In Groningen-Leeuwarden, where I live, the parishes are merging, but with local faith communities continuing to come together, sometimes without a church building of their own. Or so the diocese, and especially our former bishop, Msgr. de Korte, hopes. Priests are tasked to travel in their parishes to minister to the faithful. In the Archdiocese of Utrecht, the new megaparishes have socalled Eucharistic centers assigned, churches where Holy Mass is celebrated every Sunday, while other churches in the parish will host Mass less frequently. I have compared the two approaches, as promoted by Cardinal Wim Eijk (at right) and Bishop Gerard de Korte, here.

aa%20Staatsiefoto%20Mgr_%20Wiertz%201_06KLEINThe idea that priests may need to find jobs comes from a speech made by Bishop Frans Wiertz (at left) of Roermond in October. Speaking at an annual meeting of the diocese, he discussed the current state of affairs in the Church in the Netherlands, comparing it with the Church in other countries.  He also spoke about the financial side and described how the network of institutionalised social support, by the government but also by the Church, is now reaching its financial limits. While it is a good thing to support anyone who needs it, that support can not continue forever, or become a right for all. Quoting the bishop:

“A parallel development has been going on in our Church, in contrast to all those countries I have visited. Earlier this year I asked a parish priest in Sri Lanka how he managed his livelihood, who took care of it. He said, “The people here are too poor, they can’t afford it. And the bishop? How would he have to do it? He can’t pay all the priests.” So I asked him how he earned his daily rice. He said, “I just work.” He was a teacher at a school. On the side. So parish priest and at the same time teacher at a school. He did that for forty hours a week. He taught English, history and of course religion.

Dear people, this was also the situation in our country until about 1960. There was no set salary for priests then. In one prosperous parish the priest received a higher salary and in the other parish, which had nothing, he had to survive of the gifts that the people brought him. In the Middle Ages the priest had a garden and he had to grow his own vegetables, and he sometimes had some cattle as well. There are stories of parishes where the chickens flew through the church.

Of course, I do not want to return to that situation.But I do want to say that, analogous to the state, the Church introduced social arrangements: roughly the same salary for all priests. They count on that too. Parish councils take care of it. A solidarity arrangement was introduced. The diocese receives money from parishes to help other parishes, for example when rebuilding and painting is needed and there is no money for it. That all functions, as long as not everyone calls upon it. But when it has become a right, and the rich parishes also want to receive those 20 percent – I don’t know how high those percentages are – from the diocese – from other parishes – it no longer works.

I am strongly convinced that we need another form of financing in twenty years. And that priests must all be missionary then, and willing to contribute to the costs of their livelihood. If it isn’t necessary, that is fine by me. I also do not want to invoke it, but when you, as a missionary, are not willing to give something yourself, what kind of missionary are you?

This is a vision of the future. I am not saying it will be reality. I also do not say it needs to come in a hurry. We have the time. I think it will take at least 20 years… The people in the parishes will have to maintain their own church and also the priests, it can’t automatically come from somewhere else. I think that this is a future which we must at least acknowledge.”

Bishop Wiertz was speaking from his heart, as a bishop on the verge of retirement, and his speech was in many ways that of a bishop taking stock of the Church he is about to leave in the hands of another. He was certainly not painting a depressing image, or outlining some new policy. Taking inspiration from the flourishing churches he encountered on his travels abroad (Bishop Wiertz visits one of the countries where his diocese sponsors missionary and charitable activities every year), he wants to encourage the Church in the Netherlands to move forward into the future from a current situation which is, indeed, not wholly positive or even encouraging. The Michael Voris program which inspired this blog post is not wrong when it notes that there are problems. Howver, that does not mean that there are faithless wastelands where church bells once tolled, or poor priests plowing windswept fields just yet. And even if there were… we have faith, hope and love. Even a mustard seed of either can grow into something great.

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