Amsterdam was festive last Christmas with dazzling light displays illuminating the Damrak and Dam Square. Skating rinks were crowded with laughing children, Santa Clauses, and the strains of 'Jingle Bells' coming from the big, crowded stores.
But what is left of Christmas in one of the most secularised countries in Europe, where 58 percent of the population, according to one survey, does not know exactly what happened that day? In a country with 900,000 Arab immigrants out of 16 million inhabitants, and twenty mosques in Amsterdam alone?
The Oude Kerk, the oldest church in the city, built in 1309, stands solidly in the heart of downtown. Around it is the red-light district. From the windows in which they are displayed, the South American and Eastern European prostitutes knock on the glass in order to attract the attention of passers by. A few of them wear Santa Claus hats.
The Neuwe Kerk, the church where the kings of Holland were crowned, is a museum. The only 'church' in the city that is crowded is the church of Scientology, a six-story building in the thick of the city centre. 'Institute of religious technology,' reads a sign inside. They offer free stress tests. There's a ton of people.
It's strange, this string of churches that aren't churches any more: but condominiums, pubs, mosques. You look at the garbage collectors, the labourers in the streets, the waiters in the pizzerias: almost all of them are Moroccan or Turkish.
The populist right-wing party of Gert Wilders is in second place among voters, and the election is in a few months. Two-thirds of the Dutch say there are too many immigrants. In the suburbs there are neighbourhoods like Slotervaart, completely Muslim ghettos, where it is almost impossible to find a Dutchman. They've all gone. Rotterdam has an even higher percentage of Muslims, and a Muslim mayor.
In reality, the fear of Eurabia seems to be simply a consequence of an even more radical phenomenon: the almost complete secularisation of a country that, until the last war, was Catholic or Protestant, but in any case Christian.
There has been a collapse: only seven percent of Catholics now go to Sunday Mass; only 16 percent of children are baptised. And Holland has been a pioneer in gay marriage and euthanasia.
'After Vatican Council II,' says Professor Wim Peeters, a teacher at the seminary of the diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam, 'the Dutch Church entered a profound crisis. The generation of the 1950s is gone, and it forgot to educate its children.'
In 1964, religious education in the schools was abolished. Two generations of Dutch have forgotten the ABCs of Christianity. In the register of the seminary of Haarlem, the number of priests plunges at the end of the 1960s. In 1968, there isn't even one.
'I believe,' Peeters says, 'that we would have nothing to fear from Islam, if we were Christians. And it often seems that today the Dutch are afraid of everything: of having children, as they are of immigrants. But fear is the exact opposite of faith.'
Still searching for Christmas, at number 40 on Oudezijds Voorburgwal, in the red-light district, there is a little gate. At the top floor of the Museum Amstelkring is a church, a clandestine church, dating back to the time of the Calvinist persecution that prohibited Catholic worship.
In the attic are an altar, an organ, and ten pews to which the faithful came secretly. 'Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder' is the name of the church: our dear Lord in the attic. Christ in the attic, you wonder, is this Christmas in Amsterdam?
And yet. In the seminary of Haarlem-Amsterdam there are 45 seminarians, in part the reflection of a strong Neocatechumenal presence. Bishop Josef Punt explains that today something has changed in comparison with the hardest crisis, twenty or thirty years ago. If in 1968 not even a single priest emerged from the seminary, he says that today every year in Holland as a whole 15 new priests are ordained, who keep the numbers at a stable level.
'In this diocese', says Bishop Punt, 'a few hundred people each year ask to be baptised as adults. A new yearning can be perceived, generated by the sense of emptiness. Of course, we are talking about small numbers. We are a missionary Church. Everything has to be started all over again. In the monasteries outside of the city, we are creating centres of evangelisation for those who, far from the faith, want to rediscover it. In our Catholic school in Haarlem, we are not able to accept all the requests for enrolment. I have the feeling that these parents, although they are no longer believers, are fascinated by the beauty of Christianity, and want it for their children.'
Desire for God
It takes trust to believe this, in this city where from the bell towers of churches that are no longer churches, the bells play cheerful Christmas melodies. A thousand Santa Clauses, and no nativity scene. Except for a tiny one in the Salvation Army branch near Centraal Station, in the soup kitchen for the poor. Twenty homeless people numbed by the cold, giant thermoses of hot coffee, and that little nativity scene.
And then again, at Egelantinstraat 147, almost in the suburbs, a shabby house. You ring, and one of Mother Teresa's sisters opens the door. There are four of them. Here there is Mass every morning, and vespers every evening. An undecorated chapel, two sisters in adoration. Beneath the altar, the manger of the nativity scene.
'In spite of everything,' Professor Wim Peeters told us, 'the desire for happiness, and therefore for God, is always there, in the heart of man.'
Reprinted from 'Avvenire', the newspaper owned by the Italian bishops' conference.