Everyone knows the narrative: The Catholic Church is in decline in Europe. Congregations are shrinking, Mass attendance is declining, and fewer people are baptizing their kids. Bishops, citing declining Mass attendance and the “irrelevance” of the Church, are posing controversial changes to Catholic doctrine, seemingly with the hope that those changes might spark renewal.
By the numbers, that story is true. But it’s not the only story. And in countries like the Netherlands, even where the Church is in a dire situation, there are still converts to Catholicism.
The Pillar spoke with four young converts to Catholicism — all received recently into the Church — to find out how they became interested in Catholicism, and how they decided to convert.
Of course, the big picture is worth noting.
All but five of the 50 countries with the highest conversion rates to Catholicism are in Africa and Asia. The faith is growing quickly in places like Kenya, Nigeria, and South Korea. Even the U.S. has a significant number of Catholic converts, and the UK is known for its historically high-profile conversions.
The Netherlands is a different story.
Once the home of a strong, devout Catholic minority, more recently Mass attendance and sacramental reception have fallen off a cliff in the Netherlands, even by the standards of a rapidly secularizing European continent.
Between 1860 and 1960, a period known as the Rijke Roomse Leven — “the Rich Roman Life” — Catholicism flourished among the Dutch.
In that period, Catholic schools, newspapers, hospitals, unions, football teams, radio and TV stations, and a Catholic university were founded. The Catholic community in the Netherlands was so active that then-Father Karol Wojtyła spent 10 days in the Netherlands in 1947, and wrote that he was struck by “the vigor of the Church … its active organizations and lively ecclesial communities.”
But after World War II, the sexual revolution and the Second Vatican Council, both Catholicism and Protestantism collapsed in the country.
In the 1980s, 37% of Dutch children were baptized in the Catholic Church, today it is fewer than 3%. Thirty-eight percent of civil marriages were solemnized in the Church in the 1980s; last year, fewer than 1% were, according to statistics collected by Radboud University, one of the two Catholic universities in the country.
Catholics made up 40% of the Dutch population in the 1970s — by 2021, they were 20.8% of the country.
All that decline has decreased institutional footprint. In 2003, there were more than 1500 parishes in the Netherlands—In 2021 the number was 641.
But from the ashes of the Rijke Roomse Leven, and the confusing post-Vatican II period in the Netherlands, some young people are returning to the Church of their grandparents—or the Church that their grandparents opposed.
And their interest in the faith means that young converts — part of the first generation of Dutch people raised without religion — might give some hope to Catholicism in the Netherlands.
These are the stories of Chelsy, Kick, Cisco, and Teun—four recent converts to Catholicism in the Netherlands.
Their conversion stories point to the increased role of the Internet in the lives of young people, and the growing influence of social media influencers and public intellectuals - even non-Catholic ones - on the future, and present, of the Church.
Who are they?
Kick Hofman is 25 years old and was baptized in 2022, at the Easter Vigil.
Originally from Utrecht, but raised in Nijmegen, Kick studies physics at Radboud University in Nijmegen.
“My mom was raised a Calvinist and my dad is a Remonstrant, which is a Dutch denomination that does not baptize infants. So I was not baptized as a child. My parents don’t really attend church regularly, but I’d say I was raised a bit more religious than the average in the Netherlands. They do believe and were never anti-religious — but they see religion as more of a personal relationship with God,” Hofman told The Pillar.
Teun Steeunhower, 21, studies theology at the Protestant Theological University in Amsterdam. He lives in an Opus Dei residence in Utrecht—a half an hour's train ride away from Amsterdam.
“Last Christmas, I was received in the Catholic Church,” Steeunhower told The Pillar.
“I was not raised a Christian at all, but I was baptized in a protestant church in 2019, after attending church regularly for about a year, and then became Catholic last Christmas.”
Chelsy Kuiper is from Chairière, a 250-person village in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium.
Chelsy went to the Nijmegen university in the Netherlands as part of the European Union’s Erasmus Exchange program. She stayed for her graduate studies.
There at the university, Chelsy discovered Catholicism; she was baptized at the Easter Vigil on Saturday.
“I wasn't baptized because my parents were not very religious. They didn't believe in a God, even though my father had a Protestant upbringing,” Chelsy told The Pillar.
Cisco Haans is 21 years old and studies garden and landscape design in Arnhem. His brother, Harvey, converted to Catholicism two years ago, which eventually led to his own baptism this Easter Vigil.
“I wasn’t raised religious, Catholic, or anything at all. And I didn’t have much information about religion in general, just the stuff you get from school here in the Netherlands, which is not a lot,” Cisco said, laughing.
The first encounter
For his part, Teun Steeunhower told The Pillar that he found his way to Catholicism through YouTube — and because of his interest in conservative political videos.
“When I was 14 I became politically interested because my dad enjoyed American politics and I got that from him,” Steeunhower said.
“At some point, he showed me videos of conservative activists such as Ben Shapiro or Dennis Prager. And as a typical 15-year-old, I was addicted to YouTube, and I started watching a lot of these videos,” he added.
But then he noticed something: all the conservative activists he respected were religious people.
“So I started thinking: ‘Why do I believe what I believe? What is the basis for saying something is good or bad?’ I remember seeing a video series of Dennis Prager on the Ten Commandments that impacted me a lot,” he said.
After watching those videos, Steeunhower felt moved to accept the Gospel.
“I knew I wanted to become a Christian. But I didn’t know many Christians, no one in my high school was Christian, except for one guy that was in a semi-Christian cult,” he recalled, bursting with laughter.
“But he lent me a Bible,” he said.
“Through my mom, I knew some people who went to a Protestant church, and I started attending. The music made a big impression on me; it was mostly from the Genevan Psalter and from the ‘Liedboek van de kerken’ (Songbook for the churches) of 1973,” Steeunhower added.
“Since then, I’ve been consistently going to church. The music and the preaching attracted me, and all these concepts I heard about: mercy, grace. I saw in the church paper that there was catechesis available, so I just showed up.
“And half a year later, I said I wanted to be baptized, because I was turning 18 and thought it was a nice moment to formalize my relationship with the church,” he concluded.
Kick Hofman, too, attributes his conversion to YouTube lectures and intellectuals. At least in part.
“My father works at Radboud University at the Titus Brandsma Institute,” Hofman explained.
“He used to work with a lot of Carmelite priests and also now some Dominican sisters, and I grew close to a Sacramentine monastery. And my dad is quite a talker, so he usually bumped into the monks when they were walking nearby our house and always talked to them, so I was raised with some notion of how Catholics were,” he said.
“Then, in primary school, I studied in a nominally Catholic school, but I started becoming more interested in Christianity. The dad of one of my classmates was a protestant preacher, so I went to his church every now and then. But in middle school, I pretty much became an agnostic, which is default practical atheism,” Hofman said.
Then, YouTube encouraged him to open his mind, Hofman said.
“But in my third year of university, I found some Jordan Peterson lectures and saw the respect he showed to all these traditions and the wisdom they have—that if they are not objectively true, at least they have some practical value and show a deeper truth of how we interact with the world.”
“So, I decided that maybe I should look into the Bible again. So I tried an app that has a Bible reading program that took me about a year and a half to complete,” Hofman says. “And somewhere after this journey started, the pandemic happened, so I suddenly had a lot of free time on my hands.”
“I found some Christian and Catholic channels that discussed some apologetic things and came by the five ways of Thomas Aquinas, the Kalam cosmological arguments and thought it all made a lot of sense.”
“My own university courses introduced me to fine-tuning arguments. Some constants in the universe are such that life is possible, and if they just changed a little bit, there wouldn’t be the possibility of life. So the universe is so finely-tuned that maybe there’s a creator that knew what He was doing,” Hofman said.
“Science actually helped my conversion.”
“So, I thought that Christianity was not only useful but it also made sense—that it might be true. I read about apostolic tradition and the papacy and thought it made sense, so that tilted me away from Protestantism and closer to Catholicism,” he explained.
Every year, thousands of European young people take part in the Erasmus Exchange program of the European Union, spending at least a semester abroad. Few of those young people plan to go to church. But that’s one of the very first things Chelsy Kuiper did when she got to the Netherlands in 2021.
“I started my Erasmus [Experience] in September 2021 and I thought it was the opportunity to do new things and go outside of my comfort zone,” she said.
“Then, I met Harvey [Cisco Haan’s brother] in pragmatics class and he was learning French; he told me he wanted to meet to improve his French skills, so we started practicing and he quickly told me that he was Catholic.”
“First, I felt this barrier inside of me. I didn’t think he was annoying or anything, but I felt weird. But the more we talked with each other, I started to appreciate him. I thought: ‘I have to hand it to him, it's difficult to stand up for your faith and especially nowadays.’”
“So I started to become a bit more curious and ask more questions about the faith, so one day he asked me if I wanted to go to an Alpha Course ‘Open Day’ in October, organized by the Catholic Students’ Association of Nijmegen. And it was very nice because people were very welcoming even though I told them that I'm not religious,” Kuiper explained.
The Alpha Course is a catechetical and evangelical program which aims to teach the basics of the Christian faith. Founded in London in the 1970s, the courses are most popular in the U.K., but are offered by Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox communities in other parts of the world as well.
“I was kind of surprised by being so well received because I was welcomed despite my beliefs. At this point, I didn't know who God is, I didn't know whether God exists and I was overwhelmed because those people were very happy to see me. So, I started to come again for each session.”
“It was not easy in the beginning because some things are strange when you’re not a believer. I remember one of the first topics is: ‘Who is Jesus for you?’ I was like ‘a moral teacher or something?’” Kuiper recalled with a smile.
Kuiper was not the only recent convert in the Netherlands through an Alpha Course.
Cisco Haan, baptized this year at Easter, was invited to an Alpha Course in Nijmegen by his brother, who is also a convert to Catholicism.
“I have been interested in politics since very young. And when people share about politics, you know other ideologies, and also religion comes up in the discussion. That’s when I first came in contact with religion as a social dynamic,” Haans recalled.
“Then my brother and I started talking about if we believed in God, so I started asking myself if I believed in God, if there is a God.”
“And when I was studying art history in Nijmegen –before I changed to landscaping— I got in touch with the students’ church and the Catholic Students Association,” he adds.
“I wasn’t looking that much into religion, but my brother was, and he asked me if I wanted to come to an Alpha Course ‘Open Night,’ and I thought that I had nothing to lose. That was what I was looking for, just the basics of religion and seeing what people believed in,” Haans said.
Haans recalled that the Alpha Course he attended “really helped me in discovering what the faith was, and what people believed in, and then I started more looking into it myself and discovering the faith.”
“So I started going more to the student church for Mass. Then my brother got baptized two years ago. And at that point, I started seriously thinking that now I had to do something: I started thinking if I wanted it, if I wanted to go for it, and if I really believed.”
“There wasn’t really a moment when I became convinced I wanted to be Catholic. But when I started to pray for the first time, and started discovering more and more about the faith, it just clicked,” Haans added.
“The Catholic faith makes sense,” Haans told The Pillar.
“It’s like a puzzle. You see the puzzle and think you’ve finished it, but then discover something else. At first, you’re like, ‘no, no, I already finished the puzzle and this doesn’t fit.’ But then you see it’s the same puzzle getting bigger but it’s always complete. I haven’t found anything that doesn’t fit or doesn’t make sense,” Haans said.
Chelsy Kuiper told The Pillar that when she started going to Mass, she realized she belonged in the community of the Church.
“Harvey, Cisco’s brother, invited me to go to the student’s church,” Chelsy said. “I couldn’t quite grasp every single meaning at the Mass, but I saw all the community being one, together, and it was both confusing and beautiful.”
“The community was very welcoming. You being there matters. So that gave me the will to come back,” she adds.
“So I started thinking about conversion, but it wasn’t easy. I lost my mother when I was a little child, and despite not having a religious family, one of the first things I was told to do [when she died] was to pray, but I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know how to pray,’ so I was just there in my room hoping to get a sign. But I did not get a sign,” Kuiper said.
“So, since then, I have been resentful of God. I think I chose not to have God in my mind.”
“I did believe in something. After all, the universe is very nicely done, very nicely constructed. But initially, I started practicing paganism, Wicca, to be more specific when I was 15. When you’re a teen, you’re interested in things that you can't understand,” she said.
“I liked it because I felt empowered. I could ask for things, like luck or protection. There were rituals that were making me feel safe. But it also brought very bad things. Some things felt weird, I felt in my heart it was bad.”
“But when I came here and I started encountering the word of God and seeing how this very nicely applied to my life, I started to open myself to God more,” she added.
“Then, in one of the Masses — I don’t really remember anymore what was said — but I felt overwhelmed after Mass and I had to go to the bathroom and cry.”
“I had this feeling of certainty that God existed. But I had behaved so wrongly—so I had this deep experience of knowing that God exists and that He loves me unconditionally. And it’s so beautiful to know He loves me but so painful to see that I wasn’t able to love Him back,” she said.
“But that’s why I decided to become a child of God. I knew that God exists. He loves me. He is my father. So I wanted to be His child and be baptized.”
Kick Hofman, who considered becoming a Catholic after watching lectures and Catholic channels on YouTube, told The Pillar that “at some point, I convinced myself to sometime go to Mass.”
“At that point, everything was at home through YouTube because of restrictions. But I found out about the students’ chaplaincy. I first went to the ecumenical service they have, but I was like, ‘okay, this is not a Mass, which is what I want.’”
“So I finally got myself to Mass.”
“After the Mass, some people said hi and invited me to an activity they had afterward. It was a conversation about the different parts of the Mass and reading some testimonies of saints about the Mass. And I liked it very much, so I stayed for that, and the next week I went again,” he said.
“I started to show up every week.”
“And at that point, it was a bit of a Pascal’s Wager: if things are 50/50 and you’re not sure which is true, just start living like a Christian and find out that way. And I said ‘Well, what do Christians do? They go to church and they pray.’ So I started praying,” Hofman added.
“After the summer break, the program for catechumens started. Father Joseph [the chaplain of Radboud University] told me that it was fine [to attend] if I wasn’t 100% sure yet.”
“But I felt completely at peace in prayer. My head said that this was probably true, while my heart felt very deeply that this was true. So, around Christmas 2021, I told Fr. Joseph I was sure I wanted to be baptized,” he remembered.
“There was never a big moment where I said, ‘I want to be Catholic.’”
“It was just that intellectually it made sense and while praying the rosary I felt the certainty that this is true. So my mind led and my heart followed,” Hofman said.
Steeunhower told The Pillar about his long intellectual journey to Catholicism.
“At first, I studied mechanical engineering in Delft, but then I switched to theology,” Steeunhower told The Pillar.
“But I was still stuck with the same question: ‘Why is this true and how do I know what to do—because at the protestant church I got baptized I did not get that much guidance to know what to do with my life,’” he added.
“So, I started looking for a source of authority and found the Three Forms of Unity of the Reformed tradition, which is considered a hallmark of Reformed orthodoxy,” he added.
“But Catholicism always loomed in the background,” he said.
“With the pandemic, I started wasting a lot of time because I didn’t want to study mechanical engineering anymore, so I started watching a lot of YouTube videos, especially almost all episodes of Bishop Barron’s ‘Word on Fire Show.’”
“I felt it was nice to have a Church that speaks with authority and tells you what is right. But I was not actively considering it at that point. So, I got a clear conception of what Catholicism was and how it was different from Protestantism. But I was still convinced of my Protestant project,” he said.
“But two things changed everything. First, I read “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh by recommendation of Bishop Barron and I also watched Tridentine Mass online, with Mozart’s Requiem, and I was really stunned by how beautiful it was.”
“So, at that point, I came to the conclusion that I could not agree with everything that the Three Forms of Unity said,” Teun said.
“One was really clear: art in churches — the forms of unity say there should be no art in churches, not even as a book for the laity. But I think art can really help you in your faith life. So, I couldn’t accept my own source of authority anymore. “
“In October 2021, things moved quite fast to my “defaulting” toward Catholicism. I read “Apologia pro Vita Sua” by Newman, then I read the “Institutes” by Calvin, and was fed up with Calvin,” he says laughingly. “Then I read the “Treatise of God” in Aquinas’s Summa, which I liked, especially the part on predestination.”
And then, the decisive moment came. Teun discovered the Catholic personal prelature, Opus Dei.
“That same month, I also found this Opus Dei residence in Utrecht. Another student of theology who had lived in the residence invited me for a lecture on the five ways of Aquinas. I was stunned by the intellectual atmosphere. I found a house full of people interested in these kinds of questions and we could discuss philosophy, theology, etc. So, I immediately asked: ‘What can I do to live here?’,” he added.
“It only took about a year for me to say that I wanted to become Catholic. It was around August or September 2022.”
“Finding this Opus Dei house was great for me as someone who was interested in Catholicism but had a hard time finding Catholics. There are Catholic students and adults living here, and a lot of people who are Catholics or interested in Catholicism also come here,” he says.
“We have daily Mass and I read the” Compendium of the Catechism” and started having spiritual direction, which was nice because it was not like ‘no, no, you have to become Catholic now.’ I did not feel pressured, I could do everything at my own tempo, but knowing there were people willing to help me and answer my questions,” he edsaid.
“And I was not able to find it anywhere else.”
Converting to Catholicism is always challenging. In the Netherlands, among the most secularized nations in the West, “challenge” seems inadequate to describe it.
“I was already going often to Mass, but it was hard to see that there were not many people going to church. If you go to a church, it’s 30 people tops, and almost all are over 60. They don’t even seem interested in new people going to church, it’s just a state of resignation,” Teun Steeunhower told The Pillar.
“Becoming a Catholic is quite counter-cultural. I only met one Christian while studying in school. So, sometimes it can be a bit depressing to see there are so few Christians,” he said. “But it’s just the time you’re born in and you have to play your part in it.”
“Some of my viewpoints definitely changed,” Chelsy said. “Thus, some discussions are a bit more complicated at home, especially with my siblings because they know that I had a certain vision and now they know some of these viewpoints have changed. But it’s the same me, you know? I just feel like I have more understanding of certain things.”
“But when they heard that I wanted to become baptized they were like no, you're joking.”
“One of my sisters thought that maybe I was getting into a cult because some people told my brother that this type of Catholicism in Nijmegen was very strong or something, so it raised some worries in my family. But I just showed her I’m still me and now she feels like she doesn't have to worry anymore about this,” she adds.
“I'm not going to let myself be toned down because I am in a secularist world. I’m still going to be me. I will not exclude people because now I’m Catholic and I see they live a sinful life, but I’m not going to encourage them, and if they ask me my opinion on it, I will be very honest,” Kuiper said.
“I wasn’t raised Catholic or religious, so it’s challenging because you have a different way of viewing the world,” Cisco Haans said. “It’s hard to accept some things that the Church teaches or make a habit of praying often or forgiving people, and so on.”
“It’s challenging to be a good Catholic. But it’s a process, it’s not instantaneous.”
“I’ve had some reactions from friends that are not so accepting of my baptism. They don’t understand why would I become Catholic or why would I believe in God because of the scandals of the Church, it’s the first thing they think of, and they don’t look further than that.”
“My parents were okay with it, they just asked a lot of questions about it,” Kick Hofman said. “They had been in contact with enough Catholics to know it was fine. I also have a cousin who converted in the 90s and became a Carmelite sister a few years ago, so my family has some experience with conversion to Catholicism.”
“One of my brothers did ask me if I was crazy—but there was not a big pushback among my friends and family. Most of my friends took a very relativistic approach. It was like “interesting, but it’s your thing, you do you.”
“But it’s not easy. Some of the assumptions and defaults of our culture are rejected by Christianity and vice versa. Atheistic and liberal assumptions are baked into our culture,” he adds. “But I haven’t had much trouble; I never was much of a talkative person, so people aren’t used to me saying strange things because I don’t say many things anyways,” Hofman said with a smile on his face.
“If two years ago you’d asked me ‘Hey, are you Catholic?’ I’d say ‘No, of course not.’ But now I'm very strong in my faith. I'm very happy about my relationship with God and It just has brought me so much peace,” Chelsy Kuiper said.
“I’m happy to have many Catholic friends.”
“I’m lucky to be in the students’ church with a lot of young, believing people. It’s great to have a community,” Kick Hofman said.
“My faith also changed the way I see things. Before converting, I saw science as a way to describe the world. But now I see science as a study of how beautiful God’s creation is,” he adds.
“I’d say to people thinking of Catholicism to just start praying. Start with little things, start looking into it yourself, and just start living it. Try taking it seriously for one week and I think you will discover why you should become Catholic yourself,” Cisco Haans said.
“The future seems bleak sometimes. People don’t believe anymore. But the Church won’t die, it will become smaller and more faithful, and from it, we will try to re-evangelize the country,” Hofman added.
“It will be hard work and will take a long time. But there’s always hope.”