What effect does the closure of a church have on a village? Is Catholic life in these villages disappearing together with the church? In the Dutch village of Afferden the local church was sold to a Buddhist movement from Thailand and converted into a temple.
Parishioners are happy with the new owners: “The Buddhists invest an enormous amount of time and energy in the village.”
When the Buddhist monks in their orange robes first walked through the Dutch village in the east of the country, the villagers were more than a little surprised. Mark van Dinteren is one of them. He used to work as a handyman for the church in Afferden. Two years ago this church was sold to the Dhammikaya movement from Thailand and subsequently converted into a temple by the Buddhist monks.
Van Dinteren often went to church. He does miss the weekly Masses. Yet he is also happy with the newcomers, who he believes are already well established.
“The Buddhists are friendly people and already completely accepted by the villagers. I am happy that the church is still being used by people who have its best interest at heart,” he said.
The sale of the church in Afferden is part of a lengthy process of church closures in the local parish of St. Francis and St. Clara. Only the church in the nearby village of Druten remains open, the four other village churches have all been closed.
During the process of church closures, various project plans were submitted by parishioners in order to keep these churches open. Ton Perlo, vice-president of the parish board, was one of the people responsible for the evaluation of these plans and concluded that they were all inadequate.
“They did not meet the strict guidelines of the diocese and financially speaking were not sound. Then there is not much left for us to do,” he explained.
The search for a new owner for the church in Afferden was not an easy one. After a long period of waiting, the parish board eventually received a bid from a party that was interested in taking over the church: the Buddhist Dhammikaya movement from Thailand.
“That was a tricky one,” admitted Perlo. “Church guidelines do not allow non-believers to buy a church.” He is referring to the guidelines of the Dutch Catholic Church, stating that if a religious party wants to buy a church building, it must also be a member of the Council of Churches, a partnership of eighteen Christian Churches in the Netherlands.
After extensive deliberation, the parish board finally managed to convince the Diocese of Den Bosch to make an exception to the rule. The fact that it would remain a spiritual center, even though it would be a Buddhist center, was the determining factor, according to Perlo.
“It remains a spiritual building. It’s better to have Buddhists in it than apartments,” he said.
When asked if a church could then also become a mosque, Perlo said that would be another discussion.
“No, Buddhists are different. They do not really have a religion, as Muslims do,” he said.
Freek van Genugten, policy officer of the Diocese of Den Bosch, agrees that as a rule only religious parties affiliated with the Council of Churches can buy a church. Yet this case, he says, is an example of “necessity knows no law.”
“An exception was made in this case because there were no other buyers. What weighed heavily in this case was the fact that a new party came in that corresponded with the function of the church,” Van Genugten said.
He also emphasized that it will not become the custom in the future to sell churches to other religious groups, saying, “This will remain an exception to the rule.”
Luang phi (venerable monk) Sander Oudenampsen was surprised when he found the church.
As the only Dutch-speaking monk, he was actively involved in the search for a good location for a temple. He proudly gives a tour of his new prayer site and shows the huge golden Buddha statue – “it will be replaced by a larger statue from Thailand” – and the various paintings about Buddha’s life.
The location of the church makes it very suitable for a temple, he said.
“Originally we were looking for a location in Amsterdam. But it’s much quieter here. Ideal for meditation,” the monk explained.
When asked if it was difficult for the Buddhist movement to buy the church, he replied it wasn’t.
“No, not at all. I know that the diocese has strict guidelines when it comes to reuse. We were allowed to buy it because, according to them, Buddhism is not officially a religion. But, to be honest, that has also been an administrative solution. We do see it as a religion,” Oudenampsen said.
Nevertheless, he is convinced that Buddhism is closely linked to Christianity, and therefore corresponds well with the original function of the church building.
“They’re both focused on prayer, on meditation. That’s also what I hear from the people who visit the meditation evenings,” he explained.
The Buddhist monks regularly organize free introductory evenings where the basic principles of meditation are explained. More and more villagers attend these meditation classes, said Oudenampsen, including “many people who used to go to the church before.”
Elderly people from the village come to him with questions about life as well. Just like the “pastoral task of a Catholic monk,” he sees it as his task to answer these questions and teach them about Buddhism. He notices that there is a hunger for more knowledge about the deeper meaning of things. “I think Buddhism can provide many answers to these questions.”
One of the visitors of the meditation evenings is the former parish priest of Afferden. Between 2005 to 2013, Father Gerard van Hoofd served in the village, after which he retired. His time as a parish priest in Afferden and the surrounding villages was “one of the best times of his life.” He remembers that the community in Afferden was a small but living community: “It was a group of people that really believed in the church and really wanted to make something of it.”
But after several discussions with the parish board and the diocese, Van Hoof noticed that parishioners slowly began to lose their faith in the church. After the church was closed, Van Hoof tried to motivate people to go to the church in the nearby village of Druten.
“I went to Mass in Druten in the hope that people would follow me there. But they didn’t. I only know two people from Afferden who go to Mass in Druten,” the priest said.
Van Hoof is open and honest about his love of Buddhism and meditation. He is therefore pleased with the new role of the church and with the fact that former churchgoers can meditate there.
“The Buddhists invest a huge amount of time and energy in the village, and put a lot of effort into being known and seen,” he said.
Van Dinteren doesn’t think it’s a problem that some of the other parishioners are now meditating in the temple. Yet he himself doesn’t feel the need to do the same, nor, however, does he feel the need to go to Mass in Druten. He does still like to visit the Lady Chapel in the cemetery, a place that feels familiar to him.
Van Dinteren sees that the people in Afferden are trying to find their own way: For example, by lighting candles on All Souls Day.
“The Catholic traditions are not likely to disappear in Afferden anytime soon, you know,” he said reassuringly.
“Even if the church is closed, we do find ways to practice our faith. The traditions will certainly continue to exist. But in our own way,” he said.
What effect does the closure of a church have on a village? Is Catholic life in these villages disappearing together with the church? And what are the consequences of closing a church for village traditions, the involvement of volunteers and the solidarity among villagers?
There is still much we don’t know about this. Therefore, the Dutch Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad is currently carrying out extensive research, with the financial support of the Dutch Journalism Fund, trying to give a clearer picture of a growing problem in the Dutch and in the international Catholic community. Crux will be providing translations of these updates.
This article was written exclusively for Crux and translated by Susanne Kurstjens – van den Berk.
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