There is this old saying that when America sneezes, Europe catches a cold — or something like that.
That’s true, these days, when it comes to many issues in economics and politics.
But I have always thought that this equation works the other way around when it comes to issues of culture, morality and faith. The trends we see in the European Union seem to make it across the Atlantic sooner or later. If this is true, European trends in Catholicism, and other faiths, are worth watching.
This brings us to another “think piece” for journalists (and news consumers), this time care of The Pillar, a must-follow independent news and commentary site covering many things Catholic. The headline: “Finding God in the Netherlands.”
But, before we get there, let’s pause to recall a famous 1969 radio interview, or sermon, offered by Father Joseph Ratzinger, who would eventually become Pope Benedict XVI. Readers will often find the full text under this title, “What Will the Church Look Like in 2000?” Here are two large chunks of this famous, many would say prophetic, material:
From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.
There’s more, a few lines later:
The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time.
This brings us to the long feature at The Pillar written by Edgar Beltran, a philosopher and political scientist from Maracaibo, Venezuela, who is doing Philosophy of Religion graduate work at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
This piece offers lots of detail on the conversion stories of several new Catholics in the Netherlands. That’s a solid, positive angle for coverage.
However, these positive stories are framed in the realities described by the young Ratzinger. Thus, here is the overture:
Everyone knows the narrative: The Catholic Church is in decline in Europe. Congregations are shrinking, Mass attendance is declining, and fewer people are baptizing their kids. Bishops, citing declining Mass attendance and the “irrelevance” of the Church, are posing controversial changes to Catholic doctrine, seemingly with the hope that those changes might spark renewal.
By the numbers, that story is true. But it’s not the only story. And in countries like the Netherlands, even where the Church is in a dire situation, there are still converts to Catholicism.
The Pillar spoke with four young converts to Catholicism — all received recently into the Church — to find out how they became interested in Catholicism, and how they decided to convert.
Of course, the big picture is worth noting.
All but five of the 50 countries with the highest conversion rates to Catholicism are in Africa and Asia. The faith is growing quickly in places like Kenya, Nigeria, and South Korea. Even the U.S. has a significant number of Catholic converts, and the UK is known for its historically high-profile conversions.
The Netherlands is a different story.
Once the home of a strong, devout Catholic minority, more recently Mass attendance and sacramental reception have fallen off a cliff in the Netherlands, even by the standards of a rapidly secularizing European continent.
What is the thesis statement?
It’s directly linked to the Ratzinger vision of the future, but with a major digital twist:
… (F)rom the ashes of the Rijke Roomse Leven, and the confusing post-Vatican II period in the Netherlands, some young people are returning to the Church of their grandparents — or the Church that their grandparents opposed. And their interest in the faith means that young converts — part of the first generation of Dutch people raised without religion — might give some hope to Catholicism in the Netherlands.
These are the stories of Chelsy, Kick, Cisco, and Teun — four recent converts to Catholicism in the Netherlands.
Their conversion stories point to the increased role of the Internet in the lives of young people, and the growing influence of social media influencers and public intellectuals — even non-Catholic ones — on the future, and present, of the Church.
The individual conversion stories include many details that up up to a larger whole.
Please read it all. Then go back and look at the Ratzinger quotes, once again. And here is the finale from The Pillar:
“If two years ago you’d asked me “Hey, are you Catholic?” I’d say “No, of course not.” But now I’m very strong in my faith. I’m very happy about my relationship with God and It just has brought me so much peace,” Chelsy Kuiper said. “I’m happy to have many Catholic friends.” …
“I’d say to people thinking of Catholicism to just start praying. Start with little things, start looking into it yourself, and just start living it. Try taking it seriously for one week and I think you will discover why you should become Catholic yourself,” Cisco Haans said.
“The future seems bleak sometimes. People don’t believe anymore. But the Church won’t die, it will become smaller and more faithful, and from it, we will try to re-evangelize the country,” Hofman added.
“It will be hard work and will take a long time. But there’s always hope.”
Smaller and more faithful? That sounds familiar.
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