Doing more with less – how to face the challenge of church closings

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkI recently made my Dutch-language blogging debut over at Broodje Paap, and the subject of that first post – how to respond to necessary church closing and parish mergers – remains topical. Today, Cardinal Wim Eijk, target of much criticism and often seen as personally responsible for the decline of Catholic life in his Archdiocese of Utrecht – personally reacted on Radio 1 (a very welcome development in itself – we need to see and hear our bishops in the media more often).

In his radio interview, Cardinal Eijk laid out the facts that caused him to make disconcerting predictions of more than 90% of the Catholic churches in the archdiocese closing in the next 20 years. Some of his critics have presented this prediction as active policy on the cardinal’s part, but, as the cardinal said today, he doesn’t like it any more than we do. But we can’t close our eyes to the facts.

The Church in the Netherlands is, by and large, old. There are young people, of course, but in many churches and parishes, the elderly are in majority. This has an effect on finances and prospects for the future. With ever-decreasing financial contributions from the faithful, parishes and dioceses must look to savings and investments, and those can’t last forever. Some parishes – the cardinals expects that the vast majority – will at one point have to consider if they can afford the upkeep of all their church buildings, for example. Maintenance, electricity, heating… these are not free. It is unavoidable that churches will have to be closed, and this calls for new efforts on the part of the faithful.

And that, in my opinion, is what we must really focus on. Without denying or ignoring the pain of a community losing the church where they worshipped, got married, prayed, celebrated Mass, said goodbye to their loved ones, formed a community, this closing must in the end invite us to a renewal.

A renewal of faith, of active Catholic life, perhaps outside the familiar boundaries of church building and even parish or diocese. What form this can take, I don’t know, but when we limit ourselves to finger-pointing and anger, it will certainly take no form at all.

A first step in this process is communication, which is not only speaking, but also listening. The priests and bishops who find themselves in these situations must listen to and acknowledge the pain the faithful share with them, as well as their suggestions and ideas. And likewise the faithful must listen to and acknowledge the efforts of priests and bishops to make the best of a bad situation and ideally work with them to achieve that. It is important to remember that, as Catholics, we are all on the same side.

A second step, which is closely linked to the communication I outlined above, can be an openness to the faith that the Church wants to teach and share with us. Our faith is bigger than our own desires and opinions. We can’t allow ourselves to remain closed in by those, but we must be open to Christ, His teachings, His sacraments, His Church, whatever form it may take at this moment in time. Some things, after all, are more fundamental to our faith than others. Buildings and parishes boundaries do not make our faith, the person of Christ – and all He gives us through His Church and those He has appointed to minister to the faithful – does.

In the end, I don’t  think that church closing force us to become something new and unheard of. Rather, we are invited to return to the essence of our faith. That does not require that we do less, but rather more with fewer means. Each one of us needs to make an effort. Only looking to our priests and bishops to do something is irresponsible. We must all act, together, as Catholic Christians.

Our faith is positive. Let us remain so as well.

Funeral freedom

The parish councils of three parishes in the Diocese of Roermond have come up with a solution for the increasing demand of funeral services in a church, but without all the trappings of a Mass. Upon enquiries from the diocese, the parish priest, Father Ralf Schwillens has emphasised that the services will retain an “ecclesiastical character”, but the proposal remains that families can rent a church for a funeral service without a priest (and without Communion, it must be said), and have great liberty in the choice of rituals, music, poems and speeches.

The diocese is not in favour of this “new form” which aims to lure people, who otherwise would limit their funeral service to crematorium or cemetery, back to the Church.

While the goal of getting people back into the church is a lofty one, I have my doubts if this proposal is a good idea. Despite the aforementioned promises of the parish priest it gives the family of the deceased enormous freedom in choosing things that are not necessarily compatible with the location (although they may, admittedly, choose things that are compatible, of course).

A Catholic church is not merely a building. While it may sometimes be used for other purposes than the celebration of Mass or the administering of the sacraments, its uses must always be in accordance with the Catholic identity of the building.

It is a sad fact that there will not always be a priest available to offer a funeral Mass, and neither will the deceased or his or her family be wanting a funeral Mass. That does not mean that everything is allowed or desirable. A funeral in a Catholic church should, by that fact, be Catholic, even if there is no priest available and therefore no funeral Mass possible. And since it must be Catholic, it must elevate and educate those present in their Catholic identity. Everything Catholic is, in a way, educational, after all. It all prepares us for the reality of the encounter with God.

I don’t think that giving prospective users of a church building complete freedom of choice will achieve that. It’s not a priest or Catholic community’s duty, either, to allow anything that merely feels good. But that is a risk that this proposal presents.

Wish not granted – a multifunctional building instead of a real church for Lutselus

In January of last year, I wrote about Joey Wolfs, the 13-year-old altar server who started a petition to prevent a multifunctional centre replacing the church that collapsed on Christmas Eve 2010 in Lutselus, Diocese of Hasselt, Belgium. In an interview at the time, Joey said:

Lutselus needs a new church. A real one. Not one of those multifunctional things where there’s a Mass in the morning, a meeting of the elderly in the afternoon, and a youth gathering in the evening. You can’t be dancing between pulpit, baptismal font and altar, right? In a place where just before Our Lord was a guest?”

By the end of this year, the first stone for that new church could be laid, but sadly, it will not be the proper church that Joey and many others desired. Rorate reports that the new building, which is dubbed a “prayer space” instead of a church, “will be able to be changed into a multifunctional space. This will prove useful should there be a day when the church can no longer be used as such.”

The places we use for our worship have their influence on the way we worship. A church will do so differently than a meeting hall which was converted to meet the most basic needs for a community of faithful. In the secularised countries of western Europe the Church has need of proper churches for the new evangelisation. Multifunctional centres will not do that trick.

Photo credit: The church immediately after the collapse. REM

Evening reflection: The house of God

When the time of the Jewish Passover was near Jesus went up to Jerusalem, and in the Temple he found people selling cattle and sheep and doves, and the money changers sitting there.
Making a whip out of cord, he drove them all out of the Temple, sheep and cattle as well, scattered the money changers’ coins, knocked their tables over and said to the dove sellers, ‘Take all this out of here and stop using my Father’s house as a market.’

John 2:13-25

Today’s Gospel reading at Mass, of which I share a part here, is well-known, but it has much to tell us. In the first place, we are invited to think about the Father’s house, the house of God. Jesus forcefully throws out people who are there only for their own profit, who turn the Temple into a market place, something it is not. In doing so, they defeat the purpose and focus of that building, the Lord God.

Today, the Father has many houses. The churches all over the world, where His Son is present in the tabernacle, are also His houses. The Church, with a capital ‘c’, is His house. And His people, the faithful who form Christ’s mystical body, are His dwelling place. Even those who do not believe, but who were created by God nonetheless, are home to Him.

What Jesus tells us about the Temple, that it is not a market place, goes for the modern houses of the Father as well. We do not need to fill our churches, the Church, ourselves and our neighbours with all kinds of distractions that have their place outside. God already fills those places, and when we realise that He does, we are urged to take care of them, as they are home to the holiest of holiest.

Let’s not hide God behind distractions; be they choirs standing in front of the tabernacle, cold rules and regulations, or worldly concerns. Give God time and space in His house, and make sure the house is fit for Him.

Art credit: ‘Jesus chasing the merchants from the Temple,’ by Raymond Balze

Lent is here

The retable doors are closed, the carpet is gone, ‘Alleluia’ no longer sounds… Lent is here, and may it be a holy, beautiful and enriching time for everyone.

“The general opinion about this time is likely to be one of sadness, of the greyness of life. But instead it is a precious gift of God, strong and full of meaning, […] the route to the Lord’s Easter.”

- Pope Benedict XVI, Homily for Ash Wednesday 2011

A real church, “not one of those multifunctional things”

Some encouraging signs of solid faith come from Belgium, from a 13-year-old boy. Joey Wolfs is a devoted and enthusiastic altar sever in churches in Diepenbeek and surroundings, in the Diocese of Hasselt. One of those churches is the Regina Pacis in Lutselus, which collapsed mere hours after the Christmas Eve Mass a few weeks ago. The municipal council of Diepenbeek is deliberating what to put in the church’s place, but Joey has already made up his mind.

“Lutselus needs a new church. A real one. Not one of those multifunctional things where there’s a Mass in the morning, a meeting of the elderly in the afternoon, and a youth gathering in the evening,” he says in local newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. “You can’t be dancing between pulpit, baptismal font and altar, right? In a place where just before Our Lord was a guest?”

In order to make sure that the right thing happens, Joey has already collected more than a thousands signatures of local residents. With next year’s council elections, Joey is pretty certain of himself and his cause.”Everywhere I go, people say: that boy is right. The people of Diepenbeek come and ask if they can sign the petition. If there’s not going to be a new church, people will not forget that in the voting booth.” In other words, the town council had better take him seriously.

In a country where the faith of so many has been hit hard be recent events, and in an area of the world where new churches tend to be community churches instead of sacred spaces, Joey’s initiative is a hopeful witness of faith and sensibility.

Unsurpisingly, Joey wants to be a priest when he is old enough.

Directions in the liturgy

This past week I had the opportunity to serve at two Masses, the first ad orientem, the second versus populum. I don’t have much experience serving at the former – I think, in fact, that this was only the second or third time I did – but the proximity in time to what I’m used to offers a great opportunity to compare them.

Both Masses were according to the Ordinary Form, so the direction the priest faces was really the only significant difference. And what the priest does to an extent dictates what the people assisting him do.

The above photo, which was taken by David Oostveen during last week’s Bootcamp, gives an idea of what the ad orientem Mass looked like. The priest, Father Martin Claes, is facing the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament – Christ – and the crucifix above it. All the parts of the Mass which are directed at God – prayers, the words of consecration, the offerings of bread and wine – are spoken and presented in this direction. Priest and congregation all face in the same direction: the priest truly leads the people in prayer. The homily and other parts of the liturgy of the Mass, which are directed at the congregation are of course spoken while the priest faces the people.

In his lecture a few days after this Mass, Fr. Harry van der Vegt spoke about reference points in the Mass. The liturgy of the Mass has such a reference point, one which is reflected in the very building it takes place in: Christ, truly present in the tabernacle, and the depiction if His sacrifice on the cross, in the form of the crucifix on the altar. Like a Renaissance painting, the lines of the church guide the eye to that point.

The versus populum Mass which I served at today breaks the eye away from that reference point. The priest stands behind the people’s altar (visible in the foreground of the above photo) facing the congregation for all parts of the liturgy: both for those parts aimed at the people as for those parts directed at God. That lends a very different atmosphere to the Mass, at least for me as an acolyte. Facing the congregation is a self-conscious job: you are aware that the things you do or don’t do are being watched (whether people really watch me is something I doubt, though, but the feeling remains). The awareness of the congregation does not vanish when I don’t see them , of course. I am very much aware that it is not just the priest and me at that Mass, but my attention, merely because of the fact that I look in His direction, is on Christ and so on His sacrifice on the cross, on the Eucharist, the unbloody sacrifice.

Of course, God is not dependent on the direction we face when it comes to hearing our prayers and seeing our offerings. Essentially, the orientation (a word which, in itself, seems to refer to the act of turning eastward – east being the traditional side of the apse in Catholic Churches) towards the Lord is for our own benefit.

In his address to the gathered clergy attending the Clergy Conference in Rome last January, Msgr. Guido Marini quotes Pope Benedict XVI on this matter:

“Let us listen to the words of his Holiness, Benedict XVI, directly, who in the preface to the first book of his Complete Works, dedicated to the liturgy, writes the following: “The idea that the priest and people should stare at one another during prayer was born only in modern Christianity, and is completely alien to the ancient Church. The priest and people most certainly do not pray one to the other, but to the one Lord. Therefore, they stare in the same direction during prayer: either towards the east as a cosmic symbol of the Lord who comes, or, where this is not possible, towards the image of Christ in the apse, towards a crucifix, or simply towards the heavens, as our Lord Himself did in his priestly prayer the night before His Passion (John 17.1). In the meantime the proposal made by me at the end of the chapter treating this question in my work ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy’ is fortunately becoming more and more common: rather than proceeding with further transformations, simply to place the crucifix at the center of the altar, which both priest and the faithful can face and be lead in this way towards the Lord, whom everyone addresses in prayer together.””

As all parts of the liturgy, the direction we face and the things we gaze upon have the function of leading us towards the Lord. Giving Him due attention is not only an act of gratitude and loving worship, but also a step towards understanding, both spiritually and intellectually. God has come down towards us, has loved the world so much that He gave His only Son (John 3:16) for our salvation. This is something unheard of. God needn’t have done anything of the kind, but He did it all the same. That understanding of the sacrifice He was willing to make for us is, in my opinion, a basic cornerstone of our participation in the liturgy of the Mass.

Back to versus populum and ad orientem. This ‘leading us towards the Lord’ is possible with both of these (if done correctly, of course), but the means by which they achieve it is different. In a Mass versus populum the sacrifice of Christ is approached via the people, the community, the mystical body of Christ which is the Church. This grounds the Eucharistic sacrifice in the people, the recipients of the salvation Christ won for us. In a Mass ad orientem we first look at He who made the sacrifice. Since we believe that Christ is truly physically present in the Eucharist it seems almost impossible not to look at Him – or at least in His direction – when we address Him.

The immediate difference, at least for one who has the honour to be kneeling in front of the altar where the sacrifice on the cross is made present again, is very clear. The sacrificial character of the Mass retakes its rightful place in the liturgy, a place that in the recent past has often been overshadowed by that other important element: the communio, the sense of community of the gathered faithful.

Although ad orientem worship is often misrepresented as ‘the priest turned away from the people all the time’, the reality is more intricate. The liturgy has a structure which fits the people of God gathered before the Lord. Some parts (the readings, the homily, the invitations to prayer) we share as a community; we listen together, we pray together, we answer together. Other parts are about the community as a whole – faithful and priest – turning to the Lord, to speak to Him, to ask Him things, to offer Him our whole being. This is an inner attitude reflected and strengthened by outward gestures. And we need these gestures, as means to learn, to understand and often simply to get into the right mood.