The Church in Suriname

Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond is visiting the diocese of Paramaribo in Suriname. Monsignor Wierts has been making work visits to different countries each year in January, to show the variety and scope of the world Church. In Suriname he’ll visit pastoral centres, schools, seminaries and various projects which his own diocese supports financially. He’ll also meet with various religious leaders and will administer the sacrament of Confirmation in two small villages in the west of the country.

Just before the trip the diocesan magazine of Roermond had an interview with the bishop of Paramaribo, the Dutch-born Msgr. Wim de Bekker.

An interesting look at a diocese that is both far away and closely connected to the Netherlands.

By Frans van Galen

Bishop Wiertz and Vicar Storcken of mission affairs are currently visiting the diocese of Paramaribo in Suriname. It is the country’s only diocese and consists of thirty parishes. Some 20 priests minister to about 110,000 people: a quarter of the population. The diocese is 51 years old and is led by Bishop Wim de Bekker (70), born in Helmond. Before Bishop Wiertz’s visit to his diocese, Bishop de Bekker was kind enough to give an impression of the state of the Church in Suriname.

What does the Church that they will meet look like?

“Luckily the Church in Suriname is not grey as we have sadly seen in the Netherlands. There is a lot happening on our diocese, which obviously pleases me greatly. There is a major focus on youth work, and this year we gained a special apostolate by the establishment of the cathedral choir school, consisting of some 60 children. A very special result of that is that a number of parishes now have their own youth choirs. In the coming year we’ll increasingly promote formation days for school children. Our diocese obviously also cares for the sick and elderly and provides Catholic education. The interior of Suriname is a separate chapter. We work with a large number of catechists who have followed a 5-year course, and who have an annual week of refresher courses. They are responsible for Church life in the villages. Msgr. Wiertz will be meeting a number of them when we go to western Suriname for the Confirmations.”

Are there striking differences between the Dutch and Surinam Church or also similarities?

“The Church is alive here. That is largely due to the fact that we cherish social contacts. And the participation of children and young people in the Masses should also not go unmentioned. The message of peace during the Eucharist is always a very warm moment. And of course there are differences in music and song. But there is still an inhertiance from the past, in the form of the familiar Dutch songs which often jar somewhat with the lighter and more rhythmic intonation of the Surinam an Caribean music. Because of the climate our churches are open to the wind, which also brings in street noises which can be a little disruptive, but we are used to it. We also have a shortage of priests. At the moment there are twenty for the entire country, and their average age is high. We have four Redemptorists from Brazil, a priest from Nigeria, two Belgian brother priests, a few Dutchmen and seven priests from Suriname. Too few to be able to be everywhere.”

What is the place of the Catholic Church in Surinam society?

“We are there. The Church has a solid place and is often consulted. I try to be present at special events as much as possible and people appreciate that. Radio and television take the word of the Church into account.”

How is the relationship with other denominations?

“The relationship with other denominations is good. The Roman Catholic Church takes part in the Committee of Christian Churches, and ecumenical cooperation with the Moravian Church, the Dutch Reformed Church in Suriname, the Lutheran church, the Anglican church and the Salvation Army. The committee was established in 1942 and therefore older than the World Council of Churches, and we’re quite proud of that. The Roman Catholic Church also works as part of the Interreligious Council in Suriname, which consists of two Muslim organisation, two Hindu organisations and the Catholic Church. Both groups meet monthly. We’re also trying to established some cooperation between them in the area of social problems. The upcoming elections play a part in that, but HIV and AIDS also demand our shared attention. Next year we want to create a chaplaincy for sailors.”

Are their specific new projects which require your attention?

The youth needs special attention. We want to modernise our formation center. When the accomodation is welcoming, the message can be brought across better and people will have good memories of it. The upgrading of our education institutes requires special attention now. We want to establish a polytechnic, and that is a lot of work. In January we are starting a second course for the diaconate and the classes for parish assistants.”

How about the support from your native country?

“I think we should speak of my former country instead of my native country. It is about Suriname and not my random connection to the Netherlands as a Dutchman. There are many needs, especially for the schools in the interior where a lot must be improved. There is a major shortage of housing for teachers and some schools need renovations. Sadly, education in Suriname is not equal, and faith-based schools get only limited grants from the government. Improvements and restorations are possible only through aid.”