Dutch bishops give pope bleak picture of Church in decline
By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS (Reuters) - Dutch bishops visiting Rome this week have given Pope Francis a dramatic snapshot of the steep decline of Roman Catholicism in its European heartland.
Both Catholic and Protestant Christian ranks have shrunk dramatically across Europe in recent decades, and hundreds of churches have been sold off to be turned into apartments, shops, bars or warehouses.
In the Netherlands, churches have been closing at a rate of one or two a week. The bishops told the pope in Rome on Monday that about two-thirds of all Roman Catholic churches in the Netherlands would have to be shut or sold by 2025, and many parishes merged, because congregations and finances were "in a long-term shrinking process".
Their five-yearly report blamed a "drastic secularization" of society, although a critical group of Dutch lay Catholics said the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by priests, which has afflicted many Catholic dioceses around the world, had also driven many people away, as had the closures themselves.
The only bright spot for the Dutch church was the finding that the election of the popular Pope Francis in March appeared to have slowed the exodus this year.
Francis has made it his mission to restore the Church's relevance with a message of simplicity and charity, although his parallel plan to open up its hidebound institutions may take years to make itself felt.
Cardinal Willem Eijk, head of the Dutch bishops' conference, said that the bishops' 90-minute meeting with the pope had examined the Dutch Church's decline and the effects of the scandals that first came to light in 2010. Continued...