From May 11-15 the Pope will visit Holland. In the first of three articles Fr John Wijngaards of Housetop Centre for Evangelisa tion explains why this will be a visit of special significance.
1INDERSTAND1NG what has happened Uto the Church in Holland is difficult enough for a Dutchman like myself; I don't know how foreigners will ever make sense of it.
Its fortunes have been so varied arid contradictory that they leave sociologists bewildered; let alone what the man in the street will think. As a result the Church in llolland has become a favourite page-filler for popular journalism. It has been heralded as thy paragon of dedicated reform. It has equally been decribed as lax, wild, and heretical. The truth of the matter is that what is happening in Holland is both alarming and exciting. But this truth has to be seen in shades of grey, not in black and white.
Not so long ago I visited a church in Haarlem on a Sunday morning. The building, large enough to accommodate a thousand people, was constructed in the early 1940s. At the time seven Masses were celebrated on a Sunday, each packed to capacity. Now only a few hundred people are present and the Masses have been reduced to four. The majority of the congregation, I saw, was over sixty.
In its days or glory this parish produced one priestly ordination a year. Now the whole diocese of Haarlem, with all its 213 parishes, does not even reach that number. What has happened? Has the Church collapsed?
Now before we jump to wrong conclusions, remember that what we witness in this Haarlem parish does not reflect the whole Dutch situation, as I will point out in subsequent instalments. But there has been a decline, even collapse.
A predominantly rural Church became middle-class and urbanised. An isolated ghetto Church lost all its protective walls and fences. Secularisation, which had devastated Italy, France, Austria long before, hit Holland in the fifties and sixties. It took a terrible toll in Mass attendance (down from 65 per cent to 25 per cent) and basic Church membership (those married and buried in the Church: from 90 per cent to 63 per cent of born Catholics).
In the past a typical Catholic Family had seven or eight children. Father would work on his farm from early morning to late at night. Mother, pregnant most of the time, nursed the smaller children, kept the house clean, cooked the meal, and spent the rest of her time at the washtub or the clothes line. Cash was always in short supply so feed was simple and new dresses were bought only once a year.
There was a lot 'of fun and love and the throb of real life in such a large family, but also constant worry and anxiety. Children learned early the virtues of the poor: sharing small joys in frugality, protecting the family name, and enduring hardships as the price for common responsibilty.
My mother for instance had eight brothers and sisters. Her father was a primary school teacher whose salary covered only the most essential needs. My mother remembers how an ordinary boiled sweet was an extraordinary treat. One day four of the children shared one of them on their way to school: each sucked it in turn for a distance of twenty steps!
Strict if not puritanical moral discipline, vigorous Sunday worship, regular family prayer at night were all part of the picfure. All this changed in the years of war and post-war upheaval. More prosperity meant higher education. More people moved into clerical and industrial jobs. Small towns became cities. Settled communities were broken up. Every home got its TV set. Three quarters of Holland became urbanised. What had come to Amsterdam already in 1937 — some 45 per cent of the population claiming no Church membership — now spread to the whole country. The Catholic
Church felt its impact as much as any other Christian Church.
Moreover, the Church in Holland had been built up as a 'ghetto church, ill-prepared for such social changes. It had been forced to do so after centuries of systematic persecution and oppression by the Protestant majority. Catholics had been barred from top jobs in the government and the army.
Only toward the end of the nineteenth century did Catholics acquire equal rights in voting, in education and employment. To achieve this social emancipation, Catholics had organised themselves in every sphere of life. There was a Catholic political parts , Catholic trade unions, Catholic commercial enterprises, and Catholic sport associations.
Catholics built their own schools and hospitals, and established a Catholic university at Nijmegen. Catholics would read their own daily papers, listen to their own radio and television programmes. As late as 1953 the bishops of Holland decreed that the sacraments should he refused to those Catholics "who regularly listen to socialist programmes; subscribe to socialist newspapers or join socialist 'organisations".
This rigorous policy of isolation could not possibly be maintained. During the war half the population of Holland had been evacuated and uprooted. Protestant and Catholic communities were mixed up for good.
"Fite industrial and social upheavals described above did the rest. The pillars of the old structures crumbled and gave way: Holland became an open church — thanks be to God! — but the process could not happen without paying the price of heavy losses in personal memberships.
Catholicism in Holland was of a militant and dedicated type. It had acquired its convictions in the crucible, of persecution. When in 1867 Pope Pius IX called for volunteers to defend the Papal States, three of the eleven thousand who responded came from Holland. When the Church called for more missionaries, Holland again rose to the challenge. Seventy seminaries and 88 missionary societies maintained a work force of over 10,000 missionaries in the field. This militant Catholicism and its specific' needs made Holland very receptive to the vision of. Vatican II.
Some conservative groups in Holland maintain that the decline of the Church was due to the Vatican Council and liberal policies encouraged by the Dutch Hierarchy. I honestly believe this contention is not true. It is not supported by the facts.
Statistics vary not with the progressive or conservative views of the pastors. but with the degree of urbanisation of the locality, iti liberal, hut rural Utrecht regular Mass attendance is 28 per cent. Conservative, more urbanised, Rotterdam registers 17 per cent. The tornado that hit Holland was more a social upset than an inner-Church discussion. About this discussion which had almost wgreoewkn into a civil war more next Next week: Church of