A leading cardinal has said the Church in Ireland must be prepared to consider closing hundreds of churches to concentrate resources on building strong faith communities.
Speaking in Dungarvan on Monday, April 16, on ‘What the Irish Church could learn from the recent history of the Church in Holland’, Utrecht’s Cardinal Willem Eijk said that withdrawing from underused churches could be necessary if the Church is to build for the future.
“It’s very painful for a bishop to have to close down a church,” Cardinal Eijk told The Irish Catholic, but stressed “closing down churches is working for the Church of the future”.
Explaining how the cost of maintaining near-empty churches can detract from the Church’s missionary ability, the Dutch cardinal said “we should not spend all the financial reserves we have – the next generation should not be left with empty hands in announcing the Gospel”.
There are currently 250 open churches in the Archdiocese of Utrecht, the cardinal said in his speech, down from 400 and with around two thirds of all diocesan churches expected to be closed by 2025.
Although the closure of churches, even following consultations, can be painful, the cardinal said that it ultimately tends to be welcomed by parishioners who participate at Mass in packed churches filled with people there through conviction rather than convention.
“Sometimes people will say ‘if you close down my church I will not go to church anymore’, and some people will not go anymore but the real faithful will come nonetheless,” he said.
“Afterwards they come in a church which is more filled on Sundays – it’s fuller on Sundays, and they say that’s more inspiring,” he continued. “Afterwards many people are glad that we decided to combine churches and to bring people together in one church that remains.”
Describing this as better than maintaining an overstretched and underfunded infrastructure, the cardinal also said the Church must direct funds towards the solid formation of seminarians and of catechists and other parish and diocesan staff.
Despite declining numbers and involvement throughout the Church in the developed world, the cardinal maintained there was reason for confidence, noting how Irish and Scottish missionaries had provided a model for how the Church could be rebuilt, with his own diocese having been founded by St Willlebrord, an English monk who had studied in Ireland.
“We are now as strangers in a pagan hostile society – less so in Ireland but very much in Holland – and we must have the courage to be strangers like Jesus and the apostles, like St Willebrord, like the Irish-Scottish monks of the past in order to have the possibility to announce the Gospel in our regions,” he said.
“It’s the real evangelisation,” he continued: “I find it encouraging and inspiring to view it in this way, to be like the apostles, beginning with nothing.”