28 September 2022

Roermond: Don't Think It Can't Happen Here

Apropos of my last post, don't think the Church collapse in the Netherlands can’t happen in America. It's just happening at a slower pace.

From Our Sunday Visitor

By the OSV Editorial Board

Four in 5 Catholic parishes in the Netherlands are in financial trouble, Dutch News reported last November. And in the (nearly) one year that’s passed since that report, the situation for Dutch Catholics has not gotten much better. In fact, recent news from the Diocese of Roermond, located in the southern region of Limburg in the Netherlands, indicates the situation is becoming increasingly urgent.

In an August letter, the vicar general of the diocese, Msgr. René Maessen, announced that individual churches will now no longer have the obligation to host a regular Sunday Mass. In a letter posted on the diocesan website, Msgr. Maessen states, “It is simply no longer possible in many deaneries to structurally seek and find enough priests to celebrate Eucharist every weekend in every church.”

Some news outlets reported that the diocese was lifting the obligation to attend Sunday Mass or that cancellations of Sunday Masses would be widespread. In response, the diocese has clarified, “This, of course, is not the case and the letter does not say so.” So what is being done? The diocesan website explains: “The diocese has indicated that parishes — in situations where there really is no other way — no longer have to offer a celebration every week, but, say, once every two weeks.” Parishes, joined in administrative federations, are being asked to pool resources and coordinate Sunday Masses.

The decision was made, Msgr. Maessen writes, because of a nexus of concerns including the dwindling number of available priests, the sparse number of congregants in some places, the lack of volunteers to make Sunday celebrations possible and the financial burdens of necessities such as electricity and heat.

But finances alone cannot determine the course of the Church’s decision-making, and the Diocese of Roermond knows this. Msgr. Maessen insists, “The Church must not allow itself to be guided solely by organizational and certainly not solely by business reasons.” And yet, the letter rightly insists that parish life is so much more than simply having the resources — either fiduciary or personnel — to celebrate Sunday Mass.

The recent decision comes just six years after a diocesan initiative to promote Sunday Mass attendance. Maessen’s letter refers to the 2016 policy, saying, “The diocese’s policy until now has been to offer at least one Eucharist every weekend in every parish church in Limburg.” To many, the recent decision seems to be a throwing in of the towel. And yet the full work of evangelization does not consist in merely providing a robust schedule of convenient Sunday Masses.

We would do well to remember that, historically, Limburg is a very Catholic region of the Netherlands. Even today, according to 2021 diocesan statistics, the diocese is home to 623,000 Catholics. (By comparison, this would put Roermond in America’s top 30 most populous dioceses, just under San Antonio and El Paso, Texas.) And yet, fewer than 20,000 attend Sunday Mass in Roermond. Last year, only 100 couples had a Catholic wedding in the diocese.

What has happened in Roermond could happen here. Consider that in 1970 there were 426,309 Catholic weddings in the U.S. Last year that number dipped to below 100,000. Without fervent action on our part, the Church in the United States may be looking at a future just like that of Roermond.

Are you a parishioner concerned about the financial state of your parish? Have you noticed parishioners, even entire families, who have not returned to Mass following the COVID-19 pandemic? First and foremost, it is your responsibility to do something. Increasingly, with fewer clergy and less community stability, inviting friends and family back to Mass is the responsibility of the lay faithful.

What’s more, those families that are making the choice to practice the Faith need increasing support from parish communities. Parishes can, and should, create events that are family-centered and family-focused to attract and be a source of strength for parents of young children. Providing potluck dinners and social activities such as card nights or bocce are ways parishes can build community. Networks of grandparents can offer child care and organize support nights for parents. Notices can be put up to welcome young children at Mass, making it known to all that they are beloved members of the community and not a distraction.

Finally, initiatives must be taken on a broad scale to help non-Catholics to discover (and nonpracticing Catholics to rediscover) what the Church has to offer. Times of economic distress can be moments of evangelization. In an age when many are longing for meaning and purpose, the rich treasure of Christian spirituality must be opened and made available. Digital initiatives are important, to teach catechesis and introduce the rhythms of personal prayer. But local communal initiatives are even more essential. Relic tours, revitalized Eucharistic devotion, the Rosary, special celebrations for feast days throughout the year — all of these are part of how devotional life can be encouraged in parish communities.

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