The precious Catholic Church in the United States is in trouble. This is not news, of course, to anyone who has watched a newscast or read an American newspaper within the past few years. When I moved from Denver to the Netherlands a year ago, I did not know what to expect, but I was certain things could not be any worse here than in the United States. I was mistaken. Here in Limburg Province, the one overwhelmingly Catholic province of the Netherlands, Jesus and Mary greet me at every corner. Each tiny village has its shrine, lovingly maintained by the villagers. Religious festivals and parades are a way of life; and Easter Monday, Ascension Day and Pentecost are holidays. I was comforted by my good fortune in coming to the Catholic part of the Netherlands.
What I found, though, was a different kind of trouble: not the heated arguments of liberal versus conservative, not the wringing of hands over the lack of vocations, not even a church embroiled in scandal. Instead, I found a church that seems to be quietly dying.
True, the festivals are big, and first Communion is still a major event in the life of a child. But the conspicuous absence of anyone younger than 65 in the churches was troubling. I cannot say I blame them for staying away, though. It took only two visits to Sunday Mass in the village to send me out hunting for a service that did not feel like a funeral Mass.
I found myself longing for a good argument over the nuances of Catholic life, or a passionate homily, even if I disagreed with the content just as passionately! I fondly remembered reading statements by our U.S. bishops, and then devouring the controversy that inevitably followed. The U.S. Catholic Church may be in trouble, but at least we are still fighting. There is life in this fight, embers of hope, signs that we still care enough to get hot under the collar. We may be sick, but we are still fighting for a life we love. Here, it feels as if the patient has long since expired, but no one has noticed.
Are we 21st-century Catholics destined to choose the lesser of two evils? Maybe not. My search took me just over the border to an ancient abbey in Belgium, where in 2001 a small group of lay people, with the support of the local bishop, started a lay Cistercian community. Cistercians? Monks? Silence? Prayer at all times of night and day? Was this an answer to a church in need of revival or nothing more than a nostalgic look back at the good old days?
I went to the rector of the Christian community of Val-Dieu, Jean-Pierre Schenkelaars, hoping to find some answers. What I discovered is that the church in Europe and the church in America are distant cousins formed by two very different cultures. We are hurting on both sides of the Atlantic, but the illness manifests itself in different symptoms. Perhaps, then, there is not one cure but an opportunity to learn from one another.
The learning began for me when Dr. Schenkelaars explained that Europeans wonder why Americans are so religious. They are baffled by public professions of faith from our civic leaders and the American bishops’ insistence on a unified public image. They question our assertion that Americans subscribe to a policy of separation of church and state and point out that religion is, in fact, a huge part of American social identity. Consequently, we argue and fight and publicly struggle with religion as a matter of course.
Europe, on the other hand, seems to have collectively walked away from a church that exerted control over every imaginable facet of public and private life for centuries. Church in Europe today is a private matter. There are no public arguments about matters of faith, and civic leaders dare not dip their toes into the frigid waters of religion for fear of losing them. In the absence of public debate, however, it seems that the European church has remained frozen in timea time that does not speak to younger Europeans.
It is in this context that I began to understand this new model of Christian community at Val-Dieu Abbey. For eight centuries, people have come to this place spontaneously, without obligation, seeking the welcome, the silence, the aura of spirituality provided by the Cistercian order. How can a small group of laypeople take the wisdom of an ancient tradition and revitalize it for today’s young Christians, who have no religious identity or language with which even to begin asking questions? In a culture where it is easier to talk about sex than religion, can a small lay community have any real impact? Can the chasm between young adults and the church be filled with the efforts of this dedicated group?
My first clue that they were on to something was the noise coming out of the chapel one morning. Frederic and Claire, young married members of the community, had brought their toddlers to morning prayer. The ancient room reverberated with squeals, while the adults continued to welcome another day with song and prayer. Were the monks turning in their graves? None of the living folks seemed fazed.
On another morning, Marylene, a community member who works for Caritas International, treated me to a preview of an art show to be held that week, works by young people in response to the efforts of Caritas in third world countries. Perhaps this is a language of faith and experience that the greater church in Europe does not yet speak.
One Sunday morning, after the 10:30 Mass for the local community, I was struck by the abundant life evident in the snack shop on the abbey grounds. The community opens the cafe each Sunday, and the locals fill it to the rafters with smoke, laughter and conversationanother version of a spiritual language that has been missing, perhaps?
These images swam in my head as I wondered if this was enough. Is it working? Are they making a difference? Will this save the church? But I found that saving the church was the farthest thing from the collective mind of this community. The process itself seems to be the goal. A slow, sometimes painful process of building a diverse spiritual community of families, maintaining and modernizing these ancient buildings, welcoming seekers of God, reaching out to the local community and beyond, all takes time, lots of time. And that is just fine with these folks.
There is no model for this, no formula and so no requirements. They have made mistakes along the way, mistakes they are not afraid to admit. They are grateful that the buildings take so much time to change. This allows for a slow process of spiritual growth as well. They ask themselves, how can this reconstruction of buildings and land also reconstruct us? The focus seems not to be on numbers or making a big splash, but on building community so as to serve the greater community. Dr. Schenkelaars did not speak of transforming the church, or of liberal and conservative viewpoints, lack of vocations or liturgical correctness. He spoke of God and giving European men and women a new language to the divine.
Is it possible that what seemed to me to be a dying church is actually a church poised for new life? As is so often true in matters of spirituality, all may not be as it seems. After years of over-control, Europeans spoke. They did this not at a great conference with famous speakers, not in scathing editorials or energetic rallies. They spoke with their feet. Today only 10 percent to 15 percent of Europeans attend church regularly. From my American perspective, it is tempting to pronounce the European church dead. But that familiar theme of death and rebirth is nagging at me.
Is it possible that the Holy Spirit is right in the midst of this chaos, poised to breathe new life into an ancient church? And will pain in the American church lead to a death of sorts, and maybe a rebirth that none of us can imagine today?
The community at Val-Dieu is just one model. It is not the answer for all of Europe. It is not necessarily the answer for the American church, either. But it is one spark of hope in the complex world of Catholicism. In spite of the handwringing and fighting in the United States and the apparent apathy in Europe, the Holy Spirit is still alive and working in individual Christians. The Spirit may not be transforming the entire church before our very eyes, and may be acting too slowly for some and too subtly for others. Nonetheless, the spirit is working in our hearts just as the small Christian community at Val-Dieu is working on those ancient buildings. That may be the hope Val-Dieu offers to both the European and the American churches.