When in the Netherlands freedom of religion was introduced,
suppression of Catholics by protestants ended. For 300 years Catholics had kept their faith alive by gathering in house churches. History may have a
lesson for the future.
From 1850 on-wards each Catholic community showed its power by building a church with an impressive tower. Volunteers united in religious orders offered education for all children. Laborers and farmers formed Catholic unions. With their own Catholic political party they participated in building an exemplar social care system. For 100 years the number of priests was growing steadily. Dutch priests outnumbered many Catholic countries. In 1960 there was a priest for every 2000 Catholics. At the same time 8860 missionaries were working in underdeveloped countries with about the same number of sisters and brothers.
Gradually but especially after World War II bishops, priests, religious and other educated people discovered a growing split between the official Church and modern life and not only in the Netherlands. The Dutch became the trustworthy allies for pope John XXIII to make Vatican II a success. A Dutch bishop declared for TV that couples could use contraception pills for birth control. The national council of bishops asked the pope to make celibacy no longer obligatory for priests.
In the sixties and seventies Dutch Catholics awoke from a dream. Rome blacklisted their bishops and many theologians for tolerance of free thinking publicity. This interference in freedom of thinking and in freedom of press was a shock for the vast majority of the faithful. At once it made the official Roman Catholic Church lose its former trustworthiness and its moral authority. The public reaction could not be misunderstood. The Dutch Catholic people abolished the sacrament of confession forever. While until 1965 a parish priest still used to get 2000 people in the confessional at Easter, in 1969 he got only 10.
To improve the connection with the hierarchy, the pope gradually replaced the majority of bishops by autistic people with the obligation to preach obedience and to hold on to the old theories. This strategy gradually alienated the hierarchy from the modern world and from the grassroots. A visit of pope John Paul II to the Netherlands was intended to fill up the empty pews again. But before the arrival of the pope a crowd of 12.000 people came together in the Hague on May 8 1985 urging the application of the decisions of Vatican II. The pope did not listen at all. His visit was the beginning of <de Acht Mei Beweging> (the eighth of May Movement) which during the following years kept urging for the application of Vatican II but also for social change in the Dutch society. In 2003 the movement came to an end. It was more or less converted into the association Marienburg which up to 2018 followed the pattern of editing a magazine and booklets, having talks and conferences, writing newsletters and updating a website.
At the last general assembly Marienburg members agreed that during those years past all actions did not result in any structural change of the official Church. The association would do better by switching her main attention from the hierarchy to the people of God, to small independent Catholic communities and to the realization that priest is everyone who lives the Gospel. It means changing from an association criticizing in detail the wrongs in the structure of the Church towards a movement to awaken the task of the grassroots to behave as participants in the priesthood of Jesus. The association chose to practice the old Christian way of synodality.
Pope Francis often uses the concept of synodality as a paradigm for the future.
On May 5 2018 he backed a study of the ITC International theologian Commission which showed how this this concept is related to the earliest Christians.
According to the Greek word from which it derives, synodality means to travel a road together. Synodos is a gathering but also a group of travelers. In the Acts of the Apostles, those who proclaim Jesus, crucified and resurrected, are referred to as “the people of the (new) way” (Acts 9:2). These people of the way follow Christ together, who is “the Way” (John 14:6). When they gather, progress is not a question of finding a majority but of finding a consensus which is based on a common mind and which will thus be carried by many. It means to listen first, and secondly to act and speak based upon what has been heard. Church leadership understood in this way will do its best to proclaim the faith in a language that takes seriously the experiences and the lives of people today. Finally Church is not something outside ourselves. It means to practice that “we are church.” Or rather “Be church”. You can read the study on
Marienburg decided to use the idea for a change of strategy. Instead of conferences about desired changes in the structure of the official Church, it is now taking time for practicing synodlity with ecumenical home dialogues on matters of conscience like Amoris Laetitia, unwanted pregnancy, birth control, voluntary death, destination of life, unemployment, poverty, environmental care, empty pews, help for LGBT’s, balance between law and love etc.
On internet everybody can see that A.C.C. American Catholic Council already is going this road with listening sessions in preparation of People’s Synod in Dallas on October 12-14 this year (https://thepeoplessynod.org/).
They write “Our faith is stronger than the institution. Join us as we dialogue about our common heritage, the very foundation of our faith, and the life we create for ourselves through that faith. It’s all about LOVE; it was Jesus’ simple message! Let’s make our faith intentional and collectively be the force of light in our dark, violent, destructive world where hurting people continue to hurt people.”
The Netherlands will have a People’s Synod in 2019. Question is whether more European organizations could be found on a similar road. So Marienburg could learn from them and they from each other
The present opposition to living the gospel is more refined than brutal, but effective. Parishes and communities are shrinking. The influx is minimal. When eventually, let us say in 2050, gatherings are attracting only thirty faithful people or less, the Spirit of Jesus Christ can once again survive in house churches. We can prove it at this moment by getting together with youngsters, neighbors and strangers, finding each other in ecumenical house sessions where we listen to each other’s attempts to live evangelical love in the disturbing world of today.
June 20 2018 Ed Schreurs