Magazine article Commonweal

Holy Surplus: Recycling Dutch Church Art

Magazine article Commonweal

Holy Surplus: Recycling Dutch Church Art

Article excerpt

Catholicism is quickly fading from the crowded cities and flat countryside of the Netherlands. 'While still the country's largest faith, it's in retreat as secularization, the sexual-abuse crisis, and lay discontent with the hierarchy take their toll on once-solid parishes. No matter what the indicator--totals of priests, nuns, baptized Catholics, regular churchgoers, religious weddings or funerals--almost all trends point downward.

The latest sign of the faith's steep decline came in early December when Dutch bishops made their every-five-years ad limina visit to the Vatican. Outlining this "long-term shrinking process," as their official report called it, bishops conference chairman Cardinal Willem Eijk told Pope Francis the overall number of churches was also falling fast. "We foresee that a third of the Catholic churches in our country will be closed by 2020 and two-thirds by 2025," he told the pope.

Catholic and Protestant churches have been shutting down at the combined rate of about two per week for several years. The Catholic Church is now stepping up the pace with a plan to regroup the fifteen hundred parishes that existed in 2003 into two hundred large units by 2017. Deconsecrated churches have been sold and turned into everything from apartments and pubs to bookshops and health centers. Others have simply been torn down. But either way, the "sacred surplus" they leave behind--such as chalices, vestments, statues, and pews that no longer have any use--is piling up in the storerooms and basements of church buildings around the country.

The problem is acute in the Netherlands because its churches receive no support from the state. In most other European countries, direct or hidden subsidies help keep church buildings open even if their congregations cannot maintain them.

A small network of Dutch art specialists began ringing the alarm bells about five years ago. They helped parishes draw up inventories of their sacred holdings, and some rare pieces went to museums. But most surplus items were workaday church fixtures with no great value outside the liturgy. Reluctant to simply destroy them, the experts began to send the objects to parishes in places where the church is expanding rather than shrinking. Soon Dutch church art was turning up in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

"If an object was made to be used in the liturgy, I want to keep it in the liturgy," said Eugene van Deutekom, director of the Museum of Religious Art in Uden, near 's-Hertogenbosch in the southern Netherlands. "This is a way to give a second life to these objects."

Evelyn Verheggen, an art historian in the Rotterdam diocese, also spoke in terms of keeping a tradition alive. "When you give an object to another church, or a church in another country, it's like someone donating a heart or another organ," she said.

Over the past few years, Dutch church art has begun popping up in unexpected places. Most pieces are sent by individual parishes or dioceses, without any central coordination. Some experts team up to meet a request, as van Deutekom and Verheggen did to send three shipping containers full of statues, an altar, a church bell, a lectern, and even rows of well-worn pews to a cathedral and church in the Dominican Republic.

Dutch monstrances have ended up in convents in Egypt and Argentina. Once word of the recycling drive got out, parishes in several African countries sought chalices, ciboria, and vestments. A parish in Brazil asked for an organ, while one in Indonesia said it had an empty building that could take just about everything a church would need. Requests have even come from Italy, where there surely is no shortage of Catholic art. Some needy parishes in southern Italy have received chalices and monstrances.

The revival of Christianity in the former communist countries has meant rising demand there as well. A Ukrainian church building used as a gas-mask factory for decades has been refurbished with pews, statues, and crucifixes from a church near Eindhoven. …

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