Brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus our Lord,
“The church is closing.” In the coming years this announcement will be heard more often in the various parishes of the Archdiocese of Utrecht. But also in the other dioceses and in the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, church buildings are forced to close their door.
“The church is closing.” A sentence of only four words, but meaningful and dramatic words. Because for the faithful concerned it means an end of an era. ‘The church’ that closes is, after all, their church. It is the church were they let their prayers ascend to God, where they were baptised and had their children baptised, were they were married and were they said goodbye to their loved ones. The church also which the faith community itself saved up for: stone by stone, beam by beam, roof tile by roof tile. Until the church was ready to enter service as the highest attainable purpose for a building: as a House of God and meeting place for His people. The church is the place where we may receive the Eucharist and so can come closest to Christ.
But most parishes no longer have the number of faithful or the financial means to keep all their church buildings open. Parish councils therefore need to make choices and that is a heavy burden on their shoulders. That the parish council works carefully, prepares the decision-making process well and follows the required procedures, is no comfort for the parishioners. That the faithful are welcome in a neighbouring church in the parish in the future, does not remove the pain of losing their own church. The closure of their own church building feels like an amputation, as if the heart is torn out of the faith community. Sometimes faithful experience the church closing as a form of eviction, they say: in their village or neighbourhood God is sent out into the street, and so are they. Church closing is a process of mourning.
I understand those emotions very well. As archbishop of Utrecht I have been able to offer the Eucharist in many churches over the past few years – often for a joyful occasion such as a Confirmation or an anniversary. Every time I was impressed by the faithful dedication of those present. But afterwards I often also heard stories of concern for the future – that the Sunday service draws only a few dozens of people; that there are virtually no volunteers to be found anymore; that the choir can’t find any new member; that there is a shortage of acolytes; that the roof needs repairing, but that there really is no money for it.
Of course, all those concerns also reach the ears of the parish councils. In this time they are faced with very difficult decisions. The estimates regarding church attendance, the number of volunteers and the finances are rarely optimistic. In 2012, church attendance in the Netherlands turned out to have dropped with no less than 9 percent in one year. The secularisation in our country by now not only influences the number of of faithful, but also the number of church buildings. It sometimes feels as if we, as Church in the Netherlands, need to become small to be able to pass through this time of individualisation. Of course: we are maintained by the faith in Christ and the hope He offers, and we don’t live on statistics and numbers alone. But we also can’t afford to be unrealistic, to stick our heads in the sand. The administrators of parishes must look ahead, but also to the larger reality of the parish – a larger reality which sadly grows ever smaller.
At the end of 2007, my predecessor, Cardinal Simonis decided to merge the 326 parishes of the Archdiocese of Utrecht into 49 new ones. I adopted and executed that decision. This reform was necessary because the structure of more than 300 parishes no longer suited the decreased number of faithful and priests. These mergers, however, have nothing to do with the closing of churches. Among some parishioners exists the misunderstanding that it is the archbishop who decided which church buildings in the Archdiocese of Utrecht are to be closed. That is not so. Parish councils consider completely independently if a church building has to be closed. We must, by the way, realise that the parish councils make these decisions with pain in their hearts and would ideally like to keep open all church buildings. In essence the decision to shut church buildings is made by people who have quit and are no longer active as Catholics. The parish councils base the decision, born out of need, to close a church building on the local situation and on the expectation for the future regarding finances, church attendance, the number of volunteers, maintenance costs, and so on. As an aid, the archdiocese has drafted a procedure which parish council must follow when they are consider withdrawing a church building from service. This procedure guarantees a careful decision. In addition, the diocesan staff has distrubuted the note “Pastoral support for church closings” among parish councils. This note gives pointer for the pastoral support of a faith community in the event of the closing of their church.
In the process of shrinking that the Church in our country is going through we must not at all costs cling to our buildings, because they are not our salvation. Such a stone lifebelt might even pull us into the deep. We must find support with the Lord and each other. We must not give up our faith, but pass it on; we must not quit, but persevere. That does ask something of us. There are faith communities where the sense of community is so strong that it acts like a barrier. We must strive to also be a faith community “with the neighbours”. And while a sense of community is a great good, it can’t put up walls. Solidarity transcends the boundaries of local faith communities, because as the human body has many limbs, we are all together in Christ one body. Among us as Christians the sense of community must reach further than the direct environment. What matters is that we desire to grow in unity of brothers and sisters in Christ: not just in our own faith community, but also and especially across the boundaries of our own faith community. That is why I make a double appeal to you: on the one hand to faithful to receive “homeless” parishioners and make them feel welcome in “their” church building. That openness is important to let the changeover go as smoothly as possible. This is more than a friendly greeting at the church door; it requires involving the new churchgoers in the daily affairs of their new home”.”On the other hand I appeal to the faithful whose church building is to be closed: don’t let you faith life and your participation in the life of the Church end with the building’s closure. Joina neighbouring faith community in the parish and help fellow faithful make the changeover (for example by organising transport). The Second Vatican Council described the Church as the pilgrim People of God. This pilgrimage is in our faithful “DNA”. Sometimes we start on our way out of our initiative, sometimes we are forced to do so by circumstances. But we may Always trust that the Lord is near, that He travels with us. He led His people through the desert and will also led us through this barren time.
More than once in the Gospels Christ encourages the Apostles in times of adversity. In the various Letters in the New Testament and in the Acts of the Apostles, the first Christians are also encouraged several times. Because it is so human: to become dejected. At those times, though, we may experience that we do not only draw strength from within ourselves, as becomes clear from the Acts of the Apostles (27:20-26). Here we read how St. Paul does not lose sight of his task, to proclaim the Gospel, even during his shipwreck. So we also don’t have to fear in times of adversity, because the Lord is with His Church:
“For a number of days both the sun and the stars were invisible and the storm raged unabated until at last we gave up all hope of surviving. Then, when they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among the men. ‘Friends,’ he said, ‘you should have listened to me and not put out from Crete. You would have spared yourselves all this damage and loss. But now I ask you not to give way to despair. There will be no loss of life at all, only of the ship. Last night there appeared beside me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve, and he said, “Do not be afraid, Paul. You are destined to appear before Caesar, and God grants you the safety of all who are sailing with you.” So take courage, friends; I trust in God that things will turn out just as I was told; but we are to be stranded on some island.'”
May these words from God to Paul may be a support and inspiration for us during our pilgrimage in this stormy time. Let us pray therefore for the intercession of St. Willibrord, the patron saint of our archdiocese.
+ Willem Jacobus Cardinal Eijk
Archbishop of Utrecht