The city of Utrecht has a large number of beautiful churches. If you are looking for a list of all the church buildings in this city, you can find a very complete overview on Wikipedia. On that list you will see that these church buildings date from different times, from the early Middle Ages to well into the twentieth century. But then it stops. No new churches have been added in the twenty-first century. You also see that quite a few churches have recently been given different uses. Some have been converted into apartments, or have been given a cultural purpose. For example, the Buurtkerk church, the construction of which began as early as the tenth century, now houses the Museum Speelklok. Another medieval church, the Geertekerk, is mainly used for congresses and other meetings. Unfortunately, in the last column of this Wikipedia overview, where the current status of the church is indicated, a large number of Utrecht’s houses of worship is labeled with the word: Demolished. Behind that word is often a great deal of tragedy. At one time, these churches served as the home base of a religious community. Often the members of the church were emotionally attached to their building, but they experienced how the membership continued to decline and how it became increasingly difficult to survive as a congregation. Eventually, there was no other option but to sell their building. Sometimes it could be given a different purpose. Often it ended up in the hands of a project developer who had commercial plans, and an apartment building arose after the church building had been demolished.
Today, I read in my newspaper that yet-another large church in Utrecht is about to disappear, namely the St. Joseph Church. It is a neo-Gothic building of considerable size that was built in 1901 and restored in 1997. The church has beautiful stained-glass windows and an organ with great cultural-historical value. The organ was built around 1872 for an evangelical church in Barmen, Germany, and purchased by the St. Joseph Church in 1919. But now the church, with its furniture and organ, is offered for sale by a Utrecht estate agent. Whoever buys the property is expected to find a suitable destination, and this means it will not automatically go to the highest bidder. This is not always the case when a church is put up for sale, but St. Joseph’s is Roman Catholic property and Catholics are generally more picky about selling churches than most Protestants. Ideally, when a Catholic church goes up for sale, they would like to see another faith community purchase it for Christian worship. The Seventh-day Adventists in the Netherlands bought a few years ago, at a reasonable price, a Catholic church building in Oost-Souburg in Zeeland (for the congregations of Middelburg and Vlissingen which merged) and an attractive modern Catholic church in the Mariahoeve district of The Hague.
The sale of the Utrecht St. Joseph Church fits into an unfortunate pattern. Many church buildings disappear or have been given a different role as a result of the decline of most Christian denominations. But with the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands, this process is going faster and is more dramatic. A large number of parishes, spread across the country, cease to exist or merge with other parishes. Often several parishes share only one priest, who has time for little else beyond funerals, wedding services, and baptisms. Due to financial concerns the governance structure of the Dutch dioceses has been drastically cut back in recent years. In short, it is going downhill with Dutch Catholicism. We see the same pattern in a number of other countries.
How do we as Adventists understand at this? This development does not fit with the traditional interpretation of certain prophetic portions in the Bible. Adventists have always proclaimed that the end-time coalition of God’s enemies will be led by the Roman Catholic Church. I must confess that I gradually left that view many years ago, even though I still have objections to quite a few aspects of Catholic doctrine. And I do not deny that the Roman Catholic Church has often played a very questionable role in history (and certainly in the Middle Ages). But today there is nothing to suggest that Catholicism is getting stronger and wants to go to war against other Christian believers. In our postmodern age of secularization and church-leaving, other Christians are not our enemy, but we—-with all our differences—-should present a united front against the forces in our world that want to dismiss the Christian faith as outdated.
No, I do not applaud the sale of the St. Joseph church in Utrecht. It is a shame that yet another place of worship is disappearing in this beautiful city.