22nd February 2020

The Future of Religious Life in the Highly Secularised Low Countries: Is the Glass Half Full?

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Over the past two years Mr Paul Wennekes conducted extensive research into future oriented religious life in The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. He shared some of his findings at the recent annual meeting of the Conference of Dutch Religious (KNR) called ‘Colourful Religious Life’ (KRL). The theme of the meeting was ‘Salt of the Earth, the role of religious communities in a secularised society’.

Salt of the Earth

Salt of the EarthHow many people still know the meaning of the term ‘Salt of the earth’? What could be the role of religious communities in a secularized society?

In the past two years I have done research into future forms of religious life in Catholic and Protestant churches in the Netherlands, Germany and Flanders. My starting point was trying to imagine what a Christian Netherlands could look like 20 or 30 years from now. Most likely, Christians will be a small minority in an overwhelmingly secular society. We can hardly imagine the enormous changes within the mainstream churches. But I notice time and again how deeply influenced I am by the concept and experiences of being part of a mainstream church and how difficult it is to think of a future situation in all its radical secularism.

This same story could be told about the demise of the catholic orders and congregations. I am 62 years old, raised in Oudenbosch in Western-Brabant, where all educational institutes were in the hands of the Brothers of Saint-Louis and the Franciscan sisters . It was one of the former general superiors of the Brothers of Oudenbosch who wrote a short book in the 80s, with the title “Sterven of werven” (to die or to recruit). His choice was to work towards a decent and well-planned closure for his congregation. In the last couple of decades many religious communities followed this path of responsibly and carefully working towards what is euphemistically called “responsible completion”. The majority of orders and congregations that are now still present in the Netherlands will not be there anymore in 10 or 15 years.

Social visibility of religious life will also drastically diminish, just like knowledge about faith and understanding of religious language. Many believers find it increasingly difficult to speak about their faith. Mgr. de Korte rightly talks about the ‘religious speechlessness’ of Dutch Catholics. But in my opinion this ‘speechlessness’ can be found in other circles as well.

Change, renewal, identity

This story about demise and phasing-out definitely doesn’t tell the whole story. In all the conversations I had over the past two years, I kept being surprised by the many initiatives, from so many different angles, all working towards a future for religious life and religious community life. Surprisingly enough, the Protestant churches are very active in this field.

I was struck by the fact that questions about finances, legal structures or converting buildings didn’t take center stage. Key issues are things like identity, spirituality, charism and the mission that people envisage for the future.

Openness for forms of cultural Christianity

At the same time one can notice a clearly noticeable openness, outside of faith communities, for religious phenomena. All sorts of companies, marketing people and interest groups jump on this bandwagon. This interest takes on very different, and sometimes surprising forms.

Let me take you on a little excursion along examples of Christian content and symbols in unexpected places.

The Dutch theologian and blogger Frank Bosman has his doubts about the secularization thesis and doesn’t tire to point at the many traces of Christianity in modern popular culture, movies, videogames, etc.. Like in the videogame Assassins Creed, where the battle between good and evil is fought underneath a cross, where you can find ‘apples of Eden’ and even a ‘Shroud of Eden,’ a clear reference to the Shroud of Turin. Apparently, people still recognize these symbols and meanings.

The phenomenon The Passion (Dutch Holy Week TV Musical) has been discussed a lot. Who would have thought 20 years ago that it would be possible that well known artists would willingly perform in a musical about Christ’s passion or that people would be willing to walk in procession with a lighted cross, through the city in the night?

DELA, a national company who organizes burials, is taking over the complete building complex of the Augustinian friars in Eindhoven to establish a place for ceremonies for the deceased under the name DOMUSDELA. DELA is very aware that many people are looking for places to commemorate decisive moments of life, but who don’t want to be confronted with the Church institute. So it’s o.k. to have a neogothic church building that awakens feelings of the transcendent, but no statues of saints or an altar, let alone a pulpit. Is it a coincidence that the name that DELA chose for this place is in Latin?

DELA wants that the statue on top of the church – among locals known as ‘Jesus Daredevil’ – to be lit up every time a child is born in Eindhoven. Such a publicity stunt! But why, of all things, this statue? Let the children come unto Me! Is there still a desire among people to live under His blessing?

Have you heard about the “Missa in Mysterium” of the Dutch comedian Herman Finkers? It’s a fully sung Gregorian Mass, while Herman Finkers whispers the translation of the Latin texts either in Dutch or in the dialect of eastern-Overijssel. All performances were sold out in no time. It is explicitly presented as more than a concert: it’s a coming together to ‘give praise to the Mystery of love’ (also called the Christ-Mystery) in an artistic, mystical manner. Language on the threshold between religious and secular worlds and much more than just theatre.

The glossy magazine “Klooster” (Monastery) was meant to be a one-off publication, but the success was so overwhelming that up till now 8 issues have been published, with also a website and newsletter, and who knows what else. Members of religious institutes themselves are critical about the layout and content of the magazine, but the publishers have undoubtedly struck a sensitive chord among the wider public, who most certainly are not only Catholics.

The last few years there have been a series of t.v. programs and movies about monastic life. Annemie Struyf for example drew almost 1.5 million viewers in Flanders with her documentary about the Trappist Sisters in Brecht, that’s one quarter of the total Flemish population! Keywords are silence, slowing down, radical life choices, faithfulness, searching in openness.

Urban monasteries have become very popular in the Netherlands. You can find urban monasteries (ecumenical, most of them) in Middelburg, Groningen, Leeuwarden, Zutphen, Nijmegen, Arnhem, Utrecht, Den Haag, Amsterdam, Haarlem and I probably forget a number of them. Why do the founders insist on using the name ‘monastery’?

In the former abbey of Sion in Diepenveen a monastic community was established specifically for young people. Young people can spend a year off there and are offered among others a program called ‘social-media-detox’. When you look at their website, it is striking how much religious imagery is used, with new forms of religious clothing and the office prayers. Apparently this appeals to a group of young people who have not been raised with these symbols and images.

This also applies to Casella, the program for young people of the Augustinian Sisters of Saint Monica in Hilversum. Here also, the focus is on silence and meditation. But notice the religious images: a (glass) monastic cloister, a labyrinth, a meditation room with a view of the outside world. If you look at it from a specific angle, you might recognize a heart with seven swords or seven rays. And they name it: Monastery Casella, not just ‘Casella’.

Talking about sisters: did you know that Sister Leonarda is on sale? Just like Sister Canuta and Sister Chrysanta? These are all names of apartments in a former monastery in Gemert. A smart entrepreneur knew instinctively that the slogan “Living in a monastery” would sell better than “Living in an apartment complex”! And on top of that, this real estate agent gave the complex the name ‘7th Heaven’, with the subtitle “and happy ever after”. I don’t know if the instruments of the crucifixion in the logo contribute to this long and happy life ever after…, but apparently these images evoke something positive marketing-wise.

New initiatives

Back to ‘Salt of the earth’. How can religious communities, in a society that is only half secularized, become ‘Salt of the earth’? The answer can be found, by going towards a conscious, clear identity. At the same time it would be good if communities would work together much more.

In my research over the past two years, I visited many new initiatives and talked to people who look for new and adapted forms of religious community life. In almost all conversations, the main question was about identity. This identity is the starting point for looking for new or adapted forms of religious community life. Let me introduce some.

The former Cistercian abbey Mariënkroon in Nieuwkuijk had become much too big for the last friars. Focolare offered them the chance to grow old in their own abbey. Gradually Focolare took over parts of the complex. Now, there are about 40 focolarini living on the terrain, some 40 others in the immediate surroundings. And together with the other members in the country, this complex is becoming a regional and even national spiritual center. Focolare knows very well what the religious and emotional value is of an established center. Perhaps the old thesis from the past saying ‘it’s not the stones but the people’ was too one-sided.

The community of Chemin Neuf took over the Paulusabdij in Oosterhout from the Benedictine monks. In contact with the Sisters Benedictines and the Sisters Norbertines, living in convents nearby, they are thinking about ways for this ‘holy triangle’ of abbey/convents to be saved for the future. Because it is clear by now, that no one wants to sell these unique buildings to a real estate developer.

There is a growing interest to become an oblate or join a third order. Not every community has the same number of candidates. But, for example, the Willibrordsabdij welcomes about ten new candidates each year. Also the worldwide organization of Benedictine oblates attracts more and more interested people. The possibilities of working together of the oblates and third order associates could be used much better.

Some communities deal with specific issues. The Franciscan eco-community Stoutenburg was a successful initiative that unfortunately had to close its doors. But some former members made a new start with the Brothers of Huijbergen. The Jeannette Noëlhuis (inspired by Dorothy Day’s ‘The Worker’) in Amsterdam focuses on social justice. There are communities that focus on peace and justice. Emmaus forms communities to offer alternative shelter for people. Don’t forget the Lioba convent in Egmond, with its focus on artistic crafts, etc.

The Protestant church in the Netherlands is Calvinist. It wasn’t exactly known for its openness to monastic life. But it’s within the PKN (Conference of Protestant Churches) that the initiative was taken for a “monastery in the cloud”, where at a certain point a fully digital monastery will come to be, with a digital library, digital cells, where you can fast digitally, etc. Digital forms of monastic life, streaming of the liturgy of the hours, the activities of the Dutch Jesuit Nikolaas Sinbotin and many others on social media: these are all new forms of spiritual presence among people who are searching for religious community, but are not able to visit a monastery or abbey regularly.

There’s a well-known book by the Dutch author Geert Mak, “Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd” (How God disappeared from Jorwerd – a small village in Friesland). But not so well known is the fact that in Jorwerd of all places, a new, semi-monastic community was started: the new monastery (My Klaester in the Frisian language, which is difficult to pronounce for me). How God disappeared from Jorwerd and returned. In Amsterdam, of all places, people are now establishing at least 10 new communities on a religious basis.

But also outside of the big cities such communities exist, like De Zilt in Gorinchem where families and singles live in a monastic-like setting and offer temporary shelter. A catholic version is De Wonne in Almelo.

Many people are searching for closer forms of community. On all levels there are experiments. There are secular initiatives like De Knarrenhof or Abbeyfield Houses, where people live in a sort of ‘hofje’ (court): by themselves but with a great degree of social support. There are initiatives with a Christian identity that are joining this movement. The Lutheran deaconry has converted the former Augustana Church in Amsterdam into 16 apartments for a wide range of inhabitants and a chapel! This Augustanahof plays a special social role in the neighborhood.

In several countries like Italy, France, Germany and the USA new forms of beguinages are springing up. There, people strive to have a sort of ‘living-apart-together’ kind of community life. In Bochum, Germany, a new classical beguinage was built around a modern beguinage chapel. A new style of beguinage was established in a former office building in the German city of Essen. Why do these feminist, and politically and socially very outspoken communities wish to call themselves explicitly ‘beguinage’ and not simply ‘community’?

In Den Bosch, Franciscans are experimenting with a ‘community of communities’ where Franciscans, Poor Clares and lay Franciscans share the former monastery of the Capuchin friars. Together they are striving to build a Franciscan center for Southeast Netherlands.

In the Wittem monastery, a mixed community of brothers, sisters and laypeople had become too small for the big building. But instead of selling the whole building to a real estate agent, three wings of the building are going to be used in the future by an alternative care provider. One wing will remain for the Redemptorists so that this complex will remain as a pastoral-spiritual center. There are plans to establish forms of cooperation between the future two parts of the complex in order to safeguard the diaconal mission of the place.

Sometimes religious have to withdraw entirely from a convent or monastery. But there are cases where they can leave their mark on the future of a building. In the former convent of the Sisters of Schijndel in the Hoogstraat in Eindhoven, there are no less than 7 social and idealistic grass roots organizations. These organizations explicitly want to continue the social engagement of the sisters. In all this the question is how and if there can be some sort of common (very partly Christian) identity.

Shared spirituality can be the basis for cooperation within what I would call a spiritual family. Emmaus Nederland has a number of communities in the Netherlands where people find temporary shelter within a community where people live and work together. Emmaus has difficulty finding new members for the core groups. This may have to do with the issue of identity. The same is true for the different Vincentiusverenigingen (societies of Saint Vincent de Paul) in the country. At the same time the congregations with a Vincentian spirituality ask themselves what the role can be of the big motherhouses in the future. Working together, or at least a common reflection on the future within the Vincentian family, seems obvious.

Migrants will probably play a growing role in Dutch churches, in Glane, near Enschede, stands the Ephrem monastery, which has been the center of the Syrian-Orthodox church in Northwestern-Europe. The younger generation is almost entirely integrated in Dutch society, but wants to keep their own religious identity. They very much look at the monastery as spiritual center. Most brothers and sisters who live in the center are quite old. The community has to deal with the question of what form it can have in the future. This will probably only be possible through ecumenical cooperation.

Exchange, getting to know each other and ecumenical cooperation will be a necessity and will offer many opportunities. Three umbrella organizations are already in existence: the Association Samen Kerk in Nederland (SKIN), of and of the ‘Baptistenkerken in Nederland’.

Importance for us

In summary: On the one hand there is a rapid decline of the mainstream churches (volkskerken), loss of knowledge of religious language and images, much less visibility in society, rapid decline of religious communities. On the other hand there is a growing openness for religious phenomena, many initiatives working towards a future of religious life, people asking religious orders and congregations questions about spirituality, and the demand of lay people to become associate members.

Does all of this mean anything for you, who live and work as religious in the Netherlands? I am convinced it does! Your congregation also has to take far fetching decisions about the future. But before finances or rules or forms of cooperation with lay people are discussed, we must start talking with each other, much more than we do now, about our identity and our vocation; our mission as a tiny minority within a mostly secularized society. But that is a difficult conversation.

(Slightly edited)

Paul Wennekes


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