S-HERTOGENBOSCH, The Netherlands – Growing work pressure, parish mergers and church closings are causing stress for parish priests in the Netherlands, sometimes even leading to clergy feeling overwhelmed.

Spokespeople for several Dutch dioceses acknowledge the problem, according to the Dutch Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad, but they deny that there has been an increase in burnout among their priests.

The Netherlands is one of the most secularized countries in Europe, and for years the number of practicing Catholics has been in steep decline. Although about 3.5 million nominal  Catholics still live in the 17.5 million-strong Western European country, the number of active churchgoers has fallen from nearly 400,000 to less than 100,000 over the past two decades, according to figures from Nijmegen University’s KASKI Institute.

Therefore, in the seven dioceses in the Netherlands, a radical process of parish mergers and church closures has been underway in recent years. This is causing unrest among parishioners, but the process is also taking a heavy toll on priests.

In a recent edition, Katholiek Nieuwsblad published interviews with several priests who have experienced burnout. Common denominators in their stories are a high workload due to parish mergers and the feeling of being made the bogeyman in church closings.

“There is so much negativity,” said Father Eugène Jongerden, parish priest in Amstelveen, a town near Amsterdam.

“People are telling me: ‘You are going to close our church!’ No, it’s a thing we’re doing together. But in their perception I am the angry manager who has to close things down by order of the bishop,” he said.

“When a church has to close you think: ‘I’m letting all these people down now’,” said Father David van Dijk, a priest in Reusel, a village in the south of the Netherlands.

“I had sleepless nights for months because of it. The average priest here has such a full agenda. I was restless. At one point I was so busy that my mother said, ‘Since you’re a priest, we hardly see you anymore.’ My mother was right. The parish took up all my life,” said van Dijk.

A priest must also be careful not to get caught up in negativity, he added.

“I’m a human being and if I can’t recharge my human battery; I can’t do anything for other people either. Sure, priests should be available, but in a normal way. I know now: I am not a human laundry machine,” van Dijk said.

The COVID pandemic put additional pressure on the clergy. On the one hand, because of increased pastoral concerns, and on the other, because the pandemic has further accelerated decline in church attendance and financial problems, as an earlier investigation by Katholiek Nieuwsblad showed.

For at least one priest the Dutch weekly spoke to, the pandemic was the final straw.

“In retrospect, I was running on my last legs,” Father Jan-Jaap van Peperstraten, a parish priest in Alkmaar, said.

When all of the Netherlands went into lockdown around Christmas 2021, something had to give for van Peperstraten. “I had to stay strong, but I had no strength left in me. That was my breaking point, that’s when my burnout started.”

“I blamed it all on COVID,” the priest continued. “That was the easiest explanation for people. But the true problem lies much deeper. The pandemic merely brought it all to the surface.”

An inquiry at the seven Dutch dioceses shows that the mental problems of priests are recognized, but at the same time, spokesmen deny that there is an increase in the number of burnouts. Most dioceses are unable or unwilling to give specific figures because of the confidentiality of these cases.

In Dutch society as a whole, the number of burnouts is on the rise. A recent study of research center TNO shows that in 2022, 1.6 million people in the Netherlands suffered from burnout symptoms, about 20 percent of the entire working population. In 2021, this number was 1.3 million.

Dutch dioceses cannot confirm that this increase is also seen among church personnel. Stress among priests and other workers in the pastorate “is real,” acknowledged Marc de Koning, spokesperson of the Diocese of Breda, “but that was also the case 30 years ago.”

However, church officials do acknowledge that the process of parish mergers and church closings place new demands on priests, for which they are not always well equipped.

“Priests are by nature used to dealing with people in a pastoral way,” said Matheu Bemelmans, spokesman of the Roermond diocese.

“But sometimes as ‘managers’ they also have to make some tough decisions.”

Francesco Paloni is editor of the Dutch Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad.