Migrants keep Church alive in Holland

Migrants keep Church alive in Holland

Fr Cornelius van der Geest

The following is the edited text of a letter written in January by Father Cornelius (Kees) van der Geest, a member the Society of the Divine Word, who spent forty-five years as a missionary in Papua New Guinea and often visited Australia. He retired in 2008 to his homeland, The Netherlands. Fr van der Geest's report provides an up-to-date snapshot of the state of the Church in that country.

I am now living as a member of HIRCOS, which stands for the "Hague International Religious Community Schilderswijk". The last word is the name for this area of the Hague. It is called so because all the streets are named after Dutch painters ("schilders"), but you could be forgiven for thinking that it refers to all the coloured people who make up the big majority of the population here. Most Dutch people stay away from here, if they can.

The Holy Spirit Sisters and the Divine Word Missionaries together started this new mission here fifteen years ago. The idea was not to take over the parishes that were without priests. They were treading new missionary ways. Perhaps the three main pillars of our pastoral plan are the following:

Pastoral care for the Catholic migrant population. Whereas the media give the impression that most migrants are Muslims, perhaps more than half of them are Christians. They come from all over: from Africa, the West Indies, South America and Asia. Within the secularised Dutch society, with Dutch churches empty of people, closing down rapidly, our Catholic people from overseas are trying to live their faith in enthusiastic, traditional ways.

Members of HIRCOS have been accompanying the Indonesian community, the Portuguese-speaking communities from Brazil, Africa and Portugal, the English and French-speaking Africans, and the Spanish-speaking communities mainly from South America.

It is now clear that the migrants will play an important role in keeping the Church alive in this country.

From the start, contact with and care for people in need of support in this new and strange world was part of the program. The HIRCOS members had to find their own ways of conducting the dialogue with the poor and disadvantaged. They give service in "walk-in-houses" like the Salvation Army, and in area-meeting-points called "attention centres." They have also taken on language teaching and other help for refugees.

According to our present spirituality, dialogue with other-faith-people should be an important part of our missionary task. Physically that should be simple. We are living in the heart of Muslim country. All neighbours, shopkeepers, barbers and bakers in the area are Muslims. For the moment our dialogue is limited to being good neighbours. That is already something.

In Holland, as in many other West European countries, there is a growing anti-Muslim movement. A political party along these lines has won almost one-sixth of the votes at the last elections. The best thing to do for these people would be to come and live with us in the Schilderswijk for a few months and observe the fathers, mothers and children. They make good citizens. Nevertheless it is a bit frightening to see the tensions becoming stronger between sections of the population.

Financial difficulties

The pioneers of HIRCOS have moved on in the course of these fifteen years. At present the community consists of two elderly Dutch priests with mission experience in Brazil and PNG, one elderly Dutch sister who worked in East Berlin, one Indonesian sister, one Filipino sister, two Indonesian priests and one Indian priest.

The Catholic parish in which we are situated, already composed of four former parishes, will become part of the one big cluster parish of the Hague North together with seven other parishes. All of them have to become financially healthy before they can join the cluster. That is where our parish has a great difficulty. We are deeply in the red. Two diocesan committees are guiding the parish and the different migrant groups in straightening out the finances and improving the flow of money.

The present situation is that churches have had to be closed and sold. Church personnel have to be redistributed and this causes a lot of anger. The migrants blame the Dutch Church for only looking at finances. One strong African woman shouts at the top of her voice: "God can make money out of stones." I think she means it to be taken literally. I have never seen God do that, but she has a point.

I don't think it is a matter of finance. It is the collapse of faith. With more faithful, there will also be more resources. In Papua New Guinea money was always scarce, but we did not have to close churches. Here the process seems unstoppable.

We, the HIRCOS members, are right in the midst of this. The committees of the diocese are counting on us to accept more parish matters and pastoral duties, the reason being that we are all volunteers and will not burden the diocese with salary demands. That is however a bit short-sighted as most of our members are confreres and sisters from other continents. Because of them our province has taken on a new vitality, and there may still be a future waiting.

That means, however, that we cannot endlessly remain depending on the ageing Dutch province. So, we are looking at ways to secure the financial survival of our mission here.

A lot will happen in the near future. Where it all will end, we don't know. One positive experience was the annual gathering of the Taize young people. It was held in our diocese with twenty-five thousand of them from all over Europe. We gave accommodation to six of them: young committed Christians, a rarity in Holland, but a real encouragement for us. The future is ours, but it will be very different.

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