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.

The Church as an island?

From a distance, I’ve been following the discussion that has developed around the suggestion from theologian Frank Bosman and information scientist Eric van den Berg that churches across the country ring their bells should the Dutch football team be victorious in the World Cup final. Of course, that point is moot now, but the suggestion and the discussion it raised is interesting. Bosman and Van den Berg offer their own analysis here (in Dutch).

They list a number of positive responses from the Remonstrants, the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, staff members of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Father Harm Schilder and even the Church of Santi Michele e Magno, better known as the Church of the Frisians, in Rome.

But it is some of the negative responses which lead me to what I want to discuss. People say that the Church should not concern itself with anything popular or worldly, that church bells should only be used to call people to prayer or service, and that this involvement with the World Cup in some way supports idolatry since, some say football players are then treated as gods themselves.

For the vast majority of people, church bells are the main and often only visible sign of the Church in daily life. They hear them in the morning when they ring to call people to Mass, when it is time to pray the Angelus and even when another hour has passed. That alone shows that church bells have long outgrown a strictly liturgical or ecclesiastical use. They are social and cultural phenomena which play a part in the daily life of both christians and others. All of which does not imply that their function of calling people to prayer and Mass is any less important.

The Church is a part of society, even when we try to abide to Christ’s words when he said that we do not belong to this world (cf John 17: 16-18). The simple fact is that we do live and function is this world, even if our fate lies beyond it. Christ has even sent us to follow our vocation in this world. That vocation, our christian identity, should also be the foundation and deciding fact of what we do, but it does not preclude an expansion of activities. Ringing a church bell to celebrate something or other (be it a football victory, the Queen’s birthday or New Year) that plays a major part in the life of many people or which has an important role in society does not bring us down to some lower level, but may ultimately function to raise others up.

It’s ultimately a simply choice: we, as a Church, fall utterly silent and retreat to our own isolated world, thus ignoring Jesus’ call “that the world may believe” (John 17: 21), or we remain present, in both simple and significant ways, but ultimately in the lives of people. It is through the Church that God’s salvation works. That Church must therefore always let her voice be heard, on serious matters of life and death, but also in pure joy and celebration.

The Catholic faith reflects the full human experience, and more. Prayer, knowledge, wisdom and contemplation, but also laughter, celebration, sadness, compassion and the whole spectrum of human emotion.  I see many who seem to advocate a serious, dark and grim Catholicism. The reason, they appear to say, is that the problems we face are serious and grim. Well, no doubt about it. But such a faith has more in common with some isolationist and restrictive Protestant communities which deny basic human emotions and conditions than it does with the full range of human and divine life that comes to us through the Church.

The Catholic Church can’t allow itself to be an island, “entire of itself” (to quote John Donne). She must be seen and heard, because Christ must be seen and heard. With the christian identity as a form foundation, the Catholic Church can weather a joyful celebration here and there. She may even grow from it.

Muslim worship in a Catholic church

I’ve read a few news reports today about a Catholic parish in Belgium which allows use of its church to a group of Muslim faithful who are temporarily without a place of worship of their own. The local priest, Fr. Henry Rémy, sees it a simple act of hospitality towards fellow faithful. The Dean of Gilly, in whose deanery the parish lies, has approved of the decision.

It is of course very hospitable to allow one’s own facilities to be used by others if they have need, but this situation immediately made me think if it was this simple. Catholic churches have a very specific identity which dictates how they may be used, and, likewise, Islam has very specific rules of how its tenets must be followed. Wouldn’t there be problems from either side if faithful Muslims would pray in such a highly Christian environment? Wouldn’t it, at the very least, be rather disconcerting for faithful of either religion to be confronted with symbols and texts which deny your own faith, in a place where that faith is all-important?

Not being Muslim, I can’t speak for them, of course. But I am Catholic, and the Catholic Church has a rather handy and extensive body of documentation to fall back on. For this question, I only referred to the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Can. 1219 of the Code says this: “In a church that has legitimately been dedicated or blessed, all acts of divine worship can be performed, without prejudice to parochial rights”. That seems pretty straightforward. It may be assumed that ‘all acts of divine worship’ refers only to Catholic worship, but it doesn’t say so specifically, so can. 1219 offers no objections to Muslim worship in a Catholic Church.

Can.  1220 §1: “All those responsible are to take care that in churches such cleanliness and beauty are preserved as befit a house of God and that whatever is inappropriate to the holiness of the place is excluded”. This is a bit more difficult. Use and appearance of the church must be appropriate to the holiness of the house of God. The question now becomes: is Muslim worship appropriate in God’s house? Christianity and Islam are not the same, and neither are their respective concepts of God. Is a misrepresentation of God, in the form of Allah as the Qur’an describes him, not inappropriate in His own house? I would say so. Of course, there are also similarities in our different concepts of God, and these must not be forgotten. But belief in the divinity of Jesus, the Son of God, is integral to our concept of God, and the foundation of the Church and of every church. Denial of that divinity, as Islam does, is rather inappropriate if uttered in God’s house.

The Catechism tells us a thing or two about the church building and its function.

§ 1180: “When the exercise of religious liberty is not thwarted, Christians construct buildings for divine worship. These visible churches are not simply gathering places but signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ”. Church buildings have very specific functions: they, and the use they are put to, are the visible manifestation of the Church as the mystical body of Christ, of all men united in Him. Muslim worship (and many other possible uses too) are at odds with this important point. The physical building allows us to show others that we are part of Christ’s Church, and also reminds us that we are. Other uses waters that down, ultimately obscuring our identity to others and to ourselves. That is a true risk, and that is why it is so important to be on our toes when it comes to church usage.

§ 1181 defines the above even further: “A church, “a house of prayer in which the Eucharist is celebrated and reserved, where the faithful assemble, and where is worshipped the presence of the Son of God our Savior, offered for us on the sacrificial altar for the help and consolation of the faithful – this house ought to be in good taste and a worthy place for prayer and sacred ceremonial.” In this “house of God” the truth and the harmony of the signs that make it up should show Christ to be present and active in this place”.

How an easy act of solidarity can have some hidden risks. I don’t envy the Muslims in this parish for their use of the church, nor do I blame them. It’s great that they have a place to continue their worship until they have a new permanent roof over their heads. But, based on the two main points outlined above, use appropriate to the holiness of God and to the identity of His Church, it would perhaps have been better to allow use of a parish hall or some other room outside the church itself.

The nature of church buildings

Archbishop Eijk of Utrecht has written an interesting letter to the parish councils in his diocese. It discusses the use of church buildings outside Mass and prayer services. Essentially, the archbishop implements what he has done in his previous diocese, Groningen-Leeuwarden.

The entire letter can be read (in Dutch) here, but I would like to share the following section:

“The main assumption is […] that a church is primarily a house of God, intended for divine service. Virtually any other use, no matter dignified, is therefore essentially excluded. The only exception allowed is the use of the church for concerts of sacred and religious music.

“According to tradition […] the church building is the place where the people of God assemble […] to hear the word of God, to pray together, to receive the sacraments, to celebrate the Eucharist and adore the Eucharist as a continuous sacrament in that place. The church building can therefore not be considered as a normal public space which can be used for all sorts of meetings. It is a sacred place which is continously dedicated to the worship of God through the consecration or blessing it has received. The church building is a sacred place, also outside liturgical celebrations.”

In my opinion, and from some limited experience, this makes all the difference between a Catholic church and a Protestant one. I’ve always noticed, when stepping into a Protestant church, that it was just a building. Sure, it can be well-built, beautifully furnitured and inspirationally decorated, but it is a building. It receives meaning from its use by whoever is in it at a given time.

A Catholic church, on the other hand, is more than that. The actual presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament (something which Archbishop Eijk curiously does not mention in his letter) assures a sacred focal poitn for the entire building and consequently of the people there too. And many people realise that, if often subconsciously. Just look at the hushed tones in which most of them speak when entering after curiosity got the better of them upon passing the open doors.

We, as ‘users’ of the building, have a task to assure the continuous sacred nature of our churches. That task comes directly from our faith and our awareness of in Whose presence we are. People must therefore be educated in that. The subconscious awareness that the building is something special must be nurtured and eveloped into a mature sensibility. That in turn will feed our faith, helping it to grow and mature.