ROME – We’re all familiar with the secularization that’s swept over the West, alienating many from the Catholic faith and leaving empty pews in its wake. What’s less discussed is the fate of churches, parishes and basilicas faced with economic challenges and scarce attendance.
Vatican officials on Tuesday set out to rescue these forgotten religious sites, and the artistic and sacred treasures they contain, by issuing guidelines on how to address their disposition.
“It’s a cultural and pastoral phenomenon of great importance,” said Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, at a press conference July 10.
“You see it in the parish priest who is in difficulty and doesn’t know what to do, creating gelato shops, garages, pubs, or even worse,” he added.
The cardinal referred to a case in the Czech Republic where a Catholic church was transformed into a night club, but there are many others. The Dominican Selexyz Church in the Netherlands today hosts a library and cafeteria. The Church of San Lorenzo in Venice, Italy, is now a concert hall. The Church of Santa Barbara in Llanera in Spain has been refurbished with psychedelic art to welcome skateboarders.
While in these cases churches maintained at least the power to unite the community and bring people together, in many others, spiritual spaces are left in disrepair or forgotten.
That’s why the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) and the Gregorian University in Rome have called for an international congress next November 29-30 called, “Does God not live here anymore? Disposal of places of worship and integrated management of ecclesiastical cultural assets,” to be held at the Jesuit-run campus.
Given the massive scope of Church properties around the world, it comes as no surprise that there’s no exact number of struggling and abandoned churches. Secularization, a decrease in vocations and economic mismanagement have led to significant challenges for many parishes worldwide, and speakers at the press event said that the problem exists in many countries.
“We have registered an extraordinary interest by the bishops of various countries,” Ravasi said.
The congress aims at presenting guidelines on the disposal and reutilizations of the Church’s patrimony. In the next few weeks, delegates from bishops’ conferences in Europe, North America and Oceania will discuss and approve the document.
Ravasi pointed to the multiple factors that affect the questions of unutilized churches.
“The first is historical, because the issue of requisitions of Church property has always happened, just think of Napoleon and then the Renaissance,” he said.
In Italy, for example, some of the most beloved churches of natives and tourists alike don’t actually belong to the Catholic Church but were seized by the Italian state in the 1800s.
A places of worship fund, or “FEC”, in the Italian Interior Ministry actually holds control over the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence as well as Santa Maria sopra Minerva and Santa Andrea della Valle in Rome. In total, FEC manages over 820 churches on the boot-shaped peninsula.
Ravasi said that the question regarding rundown or vacant churches also has a geographical aspect, since it concerns countries with different issues and challenges, but most of all it plays into the cultural and social context.
“The phenomenon is one of the mirrors of the decline of religious practice and the clergy, of the progress of secularization,” the Vatican culture czar said.
The issue is especially relevant in Italy, Ravasi added, due to the sheer number of churches. There is a constellation of over 100,000 churches in Italy, though only about 65,000 continue to be managed by the bishops. The others are either under the FEC or owned by private entities.
Recent earthquakes in the country have also led to the destruction or damage to about 13,000 churches.
The issue needs to be handled with a “value-based and pastoral approach,” said Cardinal Nunzio Galantino, head of the Italian bishops’ conference and recently tapped by Pope Francis to head the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, or APSA, the office that handles the Vatican’s investment portfolio and its real estate holdings – as well as serving as the Vatican employment office and procurement agency.
The main issues arise when “churches no longer belong to the diocese or parishes, but are handed to private parties who do with it whatever they please,” Galantino added.
Finding solutions is not easy, Vatican spokespersons said. Secularization in the West shows no sign of slowing down, and while vocations may continue to increase in some areas of the world, for the large part Europe has seen the number of priests dwindle.
Applying financial rigor seems to be the best solution in the short term, but Galantino has his reservations. Suggesting that visitors pay a ticket to visit churches – especially historic and artistically important ones – has led to scarce earnings and plenty of criticism.
But interest in the community to help and protect these religious sites continues to be strong.
“In many cases, the church, even when not very attended, represents a strong connection with the memory of places, with the history of the community, and those commercial transformations where the memory of all of this is completely lost often inspire protest by local communities,” said Don Valerio Pennasso, director of the national office of ecclesiastic cultural assets of CEI.
Galantino added that often “there have been petitions by laypeople who complained and were afraid of an eventual destruction due to lack of protection” for places of worship.
While the guidelines may prove to be a helpful tool in avoiding the transformation of the local chapel into a hair salon, it would seem that laypeople may be instrumental in protecting religious spaces worldwide.
There are others who continue to build churches, in the hope that beauty will be the siren’s call leading the flock back to the pews. The Pontifical Council for Culture has recently sponsored ten small chapels created by illustrious architects from all over the world, on display at the Biennale exhibit in Venice, Italy.
Ravasi’s hope is that these sites will inspire sensitivity toward the sacred, and avoid the idea that places of worship will be used in a way not aligned with their initial purpose.
“One cannot enter indifferently in a space that still breathes the wreaths of incense and preserves the echo of liturgical songs,” he said.