By Francesco Paloni – Katholiek Nieuwsblad
AMSTERDAM — One year after the first ecclesial lockdown came into effect in the Netherlands, “ordinary parish life is partly falling away” and the crisis is accelerating the already existing problem of secularization.
This is the conclusion of a study by the Dutch Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad, based on interviews with 21 priests from across the 7 Dutch dioceses.
It is not just that the number of regular churchgoers is steadily declining: Several priests point out that it’s mainly those who already had a weak bond with the Church who stop attending at all, and the majority of priests know that the bond currently dissolves more easily.
“The very loyal churchgoers will attend,” said a priest from the archdiocese of Utrecht. “But we now miss all those people who have less of a bond with the Church. And the same goes for families and children.”
One priest from the diocese of Rotterdam sees a portion of his parishioners still attending and showing a certain commitment, “but we have now entirely lost all those people who, before the virus broke, were at the edges of the parish.”
Again and again, the priests’ stories show how the COVID-19 puts a heavy burden on sacramental life. One year after the Dutch Church adopted its first significant measures against the virus, the number of baptisms, marriages, first communions and even anointings of the sick and funeral Masses all seem to be going down.
A priest from the northern diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden says that nearly all catechetic activity, such as preparing children for their first communion or confirmation, has ceased.
“These activities cannot take place now. But they used to contribute positively to the parish. That’s what we run into the most,” he said.
A priest in the southern diocese of Roermond notes how part of ordinary parish life falls away because of the coronavirus. In his case, this means that people often reschedule baptisms and marriages.
“Baptizing a child is not a problem,” he said. “But a baptism always comes with a family party, which is not possible now. The same thing goes for marriages, those have all been rescheduled for May or later on in the year, with people hoping that it’s possible then.”
Elsewhere in the country, marriages and baptisms are also being rescheduled because of restrictions on the number of attendees.
“We hope that they come back after a while,” said a priest from the diocese of Breda. “But that is not guaranteed.”
Some priests said they feel that the ecclesial culture with regard to funerals is also changing. They noted how people more easily skip a funeral Mass and take their deceased straight to a crematorium. One parish priest suggested that the reason for that may be that they are still allowed to gather for a cup of coffee after the ceremony there – something that is currently not possible in churches or parish halls.
“People who previously would have come to church, now don’t,” one priest said.
The coronavirus is also accelerating secularizations. In September 2020, six months after the ecclesial lockdown of March, Katholiek Nieuwsblad concluded that the number of churchgoers in Dutch parishes had dropped by as much as 25 percent. Interviews with priests suggested that it was mainly the elderly and vulnerable parishioners who skipped church, out of fear or caution.
About half a year later, this negative trend is continuing, said a priest from the diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam. Except for the Masses, nearly all activity in his parish has ceased, he added.
“Some parishioners have disappeared from the radar entirely. We have lost all of them. At a certain moment, people get used to not going to church. The Church has suffered great damage because of the abuse scandal, and now this is added to that.”
A southern priest saw attendance in his churches drop with about 15 to 20 percent, an acceleration of the ‘regular’ decline caused by secularization. “In this regard, we have become the Church of 2030.”
The accelerating secularization is also felt in the diocese of Den Bosch. One of the priests Katholiek Nieuwsblad interviewed is under no illusions: After COVID, he said, fewer people will return to his parish.
Catholic parish choirs are also suffering from the pandemic. Ever since the bishops promulgated preventive measures, singing in church has been restricted to a soloist or a very small choir.
“This is a huge challenge for choirs,” said a priest from the diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam. “They try to support each other through online contact, but there are still people who say: ‘I’m done with it.’ also because they are older.”
Nearly all the priests the Dutch newspaper spoke to think that after the crisis, the face of the Church in The Netherlands will have changed. Parishes will have to make do with fewer churchgoers, and probably also with fewer volunteers and smaller choirs. Some priests expect that livestreaming Masses will continue to be important in the future.
The crisis also quickly became a financial burden on parishes, an investigation by Katholiek Nieuwsblad revealed in May 2020. Almost a year later, the reactions of many of the priests we spoke to, show that this situation has hardly improved.
Despite all this, some priests think the developments are not entirely negative.
“One consequence might be that mainly the most motivated churchgoers will return,” said a priest from the diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam. “People, who come less out of habit, to put it positively.”
The coronavirus crisis also offers other opportunities, said a priest from the archdiocese of Utrecht. He thinks the Church should look for new ways to reach people.
“Many roads have been blocked, but those are trodden. This lockdown has awoken the Church and our parish to look for another way to get in touch with people,” he said.
A priest from the diocese of Roermond notices more interest in and openness towards the actual message of the Church. In this regard, he says, the Church “can reinvent itself.”