ROME – Pope Francis wrote in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato si, that, “by learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism.”
The pope quoted this line again in a Nov. 29 message to a Vatican conference centered on answering the question of how to preserve the beauty and the sacredness of now-empty and unused Catholic churches.
“The common sense of the faithful perceives of the environments and objects destined for worship the permanence of a kind of imprint that does not end even after they have lost that destination,” the pontiff said.
Catholic churches which are no longer being used for worship, he said, can still be preserved in such a way that they can be “witnesses to the faith of the community that produced them in the past and for this reason they are in their own way instruments of evangelization.”
The pope’s message was sent to participants of a conference called “God No Longer Lives Here?” taking place at the Vatican Nov. 29-30.
The meeting has brought together representatives of bishops’ conferences, the Pontifical Council for Culture, and university professors, to approach the question of what to do about closed churches from a multi-disciplinary perspective.
A goal of the conference is to draft guidelines for what to do with churches that have been de-consecrated and perhaps sold; a problem of particular interest for several European countries – as well as the U.S. and Canada – as population shifts, declining numbers of parishioners, and priest shortages bring an increased number of church closures.
Yet the interest in protecting the historic and cultural significance of unused churches remains.
In his message, Francis told the conference that the fact that there are now many empty churches should not be a cause for anxiety but welcomed “as a sign of the times that invites us to reflection and requires us to adapt.”
Church teaching instills the duty of protecting and conserving the Church’s goods, he said, in particular its cultural heritage, which has no “absolute value.” But in the case of necessity, cultural goods “must serve the greater good of the human being and especially [be] at the service of the poor,” he said.
He noted that the conference will make suggestions and indicate possible actions, but the concrete choice of what to do will ultimately fall on bishops.
“Disposal should not be the first and only solution to think about,” he advised, “nor ever be carried out with a scandal to the faithful. Should it be necessary, it should be inserted in time in the ordinary pastoral planning, be preceded by adequate information…”
Quoting the first book of Maccabees, he said that when “Jerusalem was liberated, and the temple defiled by the pagans restored, the liberators, having to decide the fate of the stones of the old demolished altar, preferred to put them aside ‘until a prophet appeared to decide them.’”
“Even the building of a church or its new destination are not procedures that can only be treated technically or economically but must be evaluated according to the spirit of the prophecy,” he concluded. “Through them, in fact, passes the testimony of the faith of the Church, which welcomes and enhances the presence of its Lord in history.”