Despite the fact that the current COVID-19 protocol in The Netherlands allows churches to admit 50 worshippers, six parishes in the Archdiocese of Utrecht chose not to hold any physical celebrations at all. The decision led to angry reactions from parishioners and a letter from Cardinal Wim Eijk of Utrecht instructed the parishes to re-open their doors.

In the letter, which was sent to all parishes, Eijk writes that the archdiocese received letters and e-mails “with very disappointed or angry reactions” from parishioners in the affected parishes. The archdiocese understands this, says the cardinal, who describes attending celebrations as “essential for the salvation of souls.”

According to spokesman Roland Enthoven, the long-term effects of such decisions also play a role.

“If you close churches completely for too long, it remains to be seen to what extent things will pick up again afterwards,” he said, referring to the letter. In it, Eijk expresses his concerns about the progress of church life “now and in the future.”

The cardinal warned the parishes of a “scarcely recoverable undermining of church life” when the faithful are unable to attend physical celebrations in their parish churches for an extended period of time.

Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic has proved to have a major impact on parish life, causing, among other things, a decline in Mass attendance. In his letter, Eijk also says he is taking into account that the pandemic might continue for several more years.

He therefore instructed the 6 of 42 parishes in his diocese to resume physical celebrations “as soon as possible, but in any case from Sunday, January 16th onwards.”

According to Enthoven, parishioners from the affected parishes complained mainly about not being able to receive Communion, which is allowed under the current protocols. Parishes are currently allowed to hold celebrations with up to 50 worshippers present. The celebrations must end before 5 p.m., the bishops announced in December, after the Dutch government announced new restrictions due to the rise of the omicron variant.

One of the parishes that chose not to admit any worshippers is Saint-Martin Parish in Zeist. The parish has been adapting to the lockdown, Father Johan Rutgers told the Dutch weekly newspaper Katholiek Nieuwsblad.

“This time, too, we as a parish have asked ourselves what was wise,” he said. “In doing so, heart and mind were on opposite ends of a scale. The heart said: We must stay open, that is also what the bishops told us. On the other hand, everything closed, except for essential shops. As a parish, we decided it was our responsibility to bring together as few parishioners as possible. The motivation was protection. Whether this was a good decision or not, can only be judged in retrospect.”

According to Rutgers, the decision was taken in good conscience. It was certainly not meant as a decision against the bishops, he emphasized. The priest said he also agrees with the cardinal’s letter, especially with regard to the salvation of the faithful.

“We were planning to open this weekend anyway. We hope to remain a place where people come together to celebrate and meet,” he said.

Another parish that offered only livestream celebrations over the past few weeks is Pope John XXIII parish in Houten, which includes seven churches in nearby towns and villages. When asked by Katholiek Nieuwsblad, parish priest Fred Hogenelst, did not want to comment on the issue.

However, the reasons for the decision are mentioned on the parish website.

Among other things, the website said that at this stage of the pandemic, the board and pastoral team do not want to contribute to extra travel movements and thus extra risks of infecting people. The parish complies with the lockdown to “protect staff, volunteers and fellow parishioners from infection.”

Father André Monninkhof, the parish priest in Ommen, kept his parish open and  fully supports the words of the cardinal.

“It is important to exercise caution,” he said. “But we have a protocol that allows us to celebrate anyway, while taking the necessary precautions. Where it is safe to do so, I think it is important that we continue to come together as a faith community.”

According to Monninkhof, the cardinal is right in writing that this is important for the salvation of the faithful.

“For me it is self-evident to stick to the protocol. It has been well considered; it has been well thought out.”

He also said parishioners are grateful that they can come to church again and are able to receive communion. “They greatly appreciate that this is possible again.”