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Dutch cardinal defends plan to end Sunday celebrations without priests

Cardinal Willem Eijk is committed to eliminating Sunday Word and Communion services in the absence of a priest over the next five years.

Cardinal Willem Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht and Primate of Netherlands. TilburgUniversity via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0).

A Dutch cardinal has said that he is pressing ahead with a plan to phase out Sunday Word and Communion services in the absence of a priest within his territory.

Cardinal Willem Eijk, the Archbishop of Utrecht, said in a Feb. 14 letter that he was committed to eliminating the priestless Sunday celebrations over the next five years, so that the Mass can “occupy its rightful central place” among local Catholics, despite protests from some members of the archdiocese.

In parts of Europe that have seen sharp declines in priestly vocations, Catholics routinely gather on weekdays for Celebrations of the Word and Communion, led by a permanent deacon or lay person. Scripture readings and the proclamation of the Gospel are followed by the distribution of Holy Communion, consecrated at a previous Mass.

When no priest is available to celebrate Sunday Mass, Catholic communities may be permitted to hold Word and Communion services, in accordance with local guidelines and the Vatican liturgy dicastery’s 1988 “Directory for Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest.”

Despite the growing prevalence of such liturgies in some places, Eijk, the Primate of the Netherlands, first signaled his intention to end Sunday celebrations without priests in a 2019 pastoral letter as his archdiocese marked a Year of the Eucharist.

The cardinal unveiled a plan for the gradual elimination of the celebrations — which have taken place in the archdiocese for decades — in a letter dated Oct. 27, 2022, which he said was the fruit of consultation in the archdiocese. He announced that “from Jan. 1, 2028, Word and Communion services on Sundays will be permitted only in exceptional situations.”

“It is my hope that in this way the celebration of the Eucharist will regain more of its central place on Sundays and solemnities in the Archdiocese of Utrecht as the celebration of the Paschal Mystery on the Lord’s Day, Sunday, the day on which we especially commemorate that the Lord rose from the dead,” he wrote.

Katholiek Nieuwsblad, a Dutch Catholic weekly newspaper, reported in January that the plan had “caused a great deal of unrest among a group of faithful in the archdiocese,” who launched a petition urging the cardinal to change course.

In his Feb. 14 letter, written in response to the petition’s signatories, the 69-year-old cardinal addressed the suggestion that since many churches where the practice takes place are earmarked for closure due to a steady decline in Mass attendance, the cardinal’s plan is unnecessary and they should be allowed to continue with the Sunday celebrations for the time being.

Eijk said: “However, there are parishes in which the process of church closure has yet to begin and where, consequently, for the time being many churches will remain open, so that if the policy remains unchanged, the number of Celebrations of Word and Communion — at least in those parishes — will remain high, and thus the Eucharistic celebration will not be able to occupy its rightful central place for many years to come.”

But Eijk, who has led the archdiocese since 2008, reassured local Catholics that Word and Communion services would continue to be available on weekdays in parishes and on Sundays in care facilities.

Last November, the Dutch bishops issued a stark report ahead of their ad limina visit to Rome, which noted that the number of Catholics in the Netherlands fell from 4 million in 2012 to 3.7 million in 2021.

Utrecht’s Catholics appealed to Pope Francis in 2015 after Eijk proposed turning the archdiocese’s 326 parishes into 48 larger communities each with a single “eucharistic center.”

In a pastoral letter, the cardinal said: “When I spoke to the pope, I warned that old Church structures wouldn’t exist by the time I retired — and that by 2025 two-thirds of our churches would have been withdrawn from divine worship. The pope was shocked, but repeated that we should move forward and not surrender to nostalgia for a past which will never reappear.”

Catholics in other parts of the Netherlands are also facing the prospect of church closures. Bishop Jan Hendricks announced in September that 60% of the churches in his Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam needed to close in the next five years due to dwindling churchgoers, volunteers, and income.

Cardinal Eijk, a former medical doctor, is known in the Netherlands for his strong opposition to the country’s permissive euthanasia laws.

Eijk has also previously come to wider media attention when he appealed for Pope Francis to “bring clarity” to the interpretation of his apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia. He recently called on Belgian bishops to withdraw a text allowing for a ritual blessing of same-sex couples, and suggested that the pope should write an encyclical addressing gender theory.

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