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People know Amsterdam for a lot of different reasons.

Amsterdam’s ‘silent walk’ starts at the Kalverstraat, one of the busiest shopping streets in Amsterdam. Credit: John Garma/The Pillar.

Many people know it for being one of the most libertine cities in the world, with its legendary nightlife, hundreds of coffee shops — famous for selling pot, not coffee -- and probably the best-known prostitution district in the world.

If you’re a historian, you might think of Amsterdam as the home of capitalism. If you’re an art lover, you might think of it as the home of the Rijksmuseum, which hosts dozens of Van Goghs and Rembrandts.

But Amsterdam became known worldwide 700 years ago for a very different reason: A Eucharistic miracle.

The “miracle of Amsterdam” is commemorated every year in March by thousands of pilgrims from across the Netherlands, as well as other European countries, with a silent procession known as the Stille Omgang - the Silent Walk.

The Pillar decided to join the pilgrims March 16 this year, to see what drives people to walk in a silent procession on a Saturday night, in the middle of the loudest, busiest part of Amsterdam.

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I joined a group of friends from the Radboud University student chaplaincy at a church, the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, located in the Keizersgracht, a street named after Emperor Maximilian I.

The name of the church is typically translated as the Church of Our Lady, but the literal translation would be the Church of Our Beloved Lady, as Dutch Catholics usually add the term lieve — beloved — to Marian advocations.

The interior of the Church of Our Beloved Lady. Credit: The Pillar/John Garma

The OLVK, as it is commonly abbreviated, is a beautiful neogothic church in the heart of Amsterdam, originally built by Redemptorists, but sold to the Syriac Orthodox Church in 1985, due to a lack of vocations.

The church is now shared between the Syriac Orthodox and the Catholic Church. It is served by Opus Dei priests and is usually home to a youth event ahead of the Silent Walk.

But to understand why Catholics of all ages, from across the Netherlands and as far as Spain and the UK, come to walk silently during one night every March, you’d have to go back in time to a pivotal event in Amsterdam's history.

In fact, you’d have to travel 700 years back into the past.

On March 15, 1345, the wife of a seriously ill man called his parish pastor to administer last rites at their house, on a residential street known as Kalverstraat. After receiving the host, the man vomited. As was prescribed, the consecrated host was thrown into the fire with the rest of the vomit.

The next morning, the host was discovered intact in the ashes. It was put into a box, and then taken to the parish priest at Saint Nicholas Church, today known as the Oude Kerk - the Old Church.

Some versions of the story add that the host miraculously made its way back to the house on Kalverstraat, not once, but twice.

People in Amsterdam decided it was clear that the Lord wanted to stay in the house, which was turned into a chapel.

In the 1300s, Amsterdam was nothing more than a fishing town. But infrastructural improvements eventually allowed bigger boats to dock in the city harbor, and the story of the miracle spread like wildfire, quickly turning the town into a major pilgrimage center, and a strong commercial city within the Holy Roman Empire.

“The miracle evolved very quickly and made the city thrive,” said Jeroen Brenninkmeijer, head organizer of the walk.

“Thousands of people came as pilgrims, so hotels, trade, and the harbor took off very quickly, which meant Amsterdam became a rich city very quickly,” he told The Pillar

In fact, the miracle was so well known at the time that when Archduke Maximilian fell ill in the 1480s, he promised to visit the Heilige Stede  — the Holy Site, as the chapel was known — in gratitude after his recovery.

The archduke fulfilled his promise within two years, donating liturgical vestments and ornaments to the chapel. 

Years later, when he became emperor, he would permit Amsterdam to use the imperial crown in the city’s coat of arms. It was a sign of gratitude—although some think the gratitude was due to the loans he received from the city of Amsterdam during a period of conflict in the empire.

A 1518 drawing showing the miracle and Amsterdam’s coat of arms with the imperial crown on top. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

During the first two centuries of the devotion, the miracle was commemorated with a huge procession throughout the city center every year in March, close to the anniversary of the miracle.

But in 1578, Amsterdam converted to Protestantism in a bloodless coup known as the Alteratie, and Catholic authorities and clerics were kicked out of the city. Churches and monasteries were seized by the Protestant authorities and turned into Protestant churches or public buildings.

Catholicism was banned in public spaces, but privately “tolerated.”

Catholics were allowed to celebrate Mass in clandestine churches, but they could not give public expressions of the faith; they could not even walk out from church after Mass together.

The miracle chapel was taken by Calvinists and turned into a Protestant church. 

Then, years after Catholicism was legalized in the Netherlands and as the silent walk gained significance again, in 1908, the church was demolished and part of the land sold, while a smaller church was built.

That smaller church was in turn sold in 1970 and is now mostly a convention center, and the Kalverstraat is today one of the biggest shopping streets in Amsterdam.


This month, we began our Silent Walk with a youth program and Mass, celebrated by Amsterdam Bishop Jan Hendriks.

The youth event drew about 200 young Catholics from across the country. There were talks about the Eucharist, and Eucharistic adoration, while a handful of young priests offered confession. With the Blessed Sacrament exposed, the church was absolutely silent for an hour.

Eucharistic adoration at the Church of Our Beloved Lady in Amsterdam. Credit: John Garma/The Pillar.

At 10 p.m. Bishop Hendriks offered Mass.

The bishop’s homily was short but passionate. My Dutch is not good enough to understand most of it, but I could tell it was about being a pilgrim. Hendriks is a fervent preacher. At the end of the homily, he was kind enough to offer some words in English for the pilgrims who didn’t speak geweldig Dutch.

Bishop Jan Hendriks of Amsterdam preaching the homily. Credit: John Garma/The Pillar.

After Mass, we headed from the OLVK church to the Kalverstraat, where we’d begin our walk.

Technically, the Stille Omgang is not a singular walk. It is instead many walks, as different groups begin at different times in the night, with some starting as early as 9 p.m., and others not starting until 4:00 a.m.

But the route is always the same: pilgrims start in the Kalverstraat, where the miracle happened, and finish at the Begijnhofkapel — the chapel of the Beguines — where silent adoration takes places, and coffee and broodjes are served in the Engelsekerk, an English Reformed Church across the street.

Most parish churches around the city have their own programs ahead of the walk. There is an event in English crafted specifically for young people, and pilgrim groups from other cities gather in nearby churches to adore the Blessed Sacrament before the walk.

Some groups start the walk in the morning from nearby cities, traveling by foot or by bike.

In fact, before the walk began, I had been in Utrecht, 30 miles from Amsterdam, at a birthday party. I inquired about a friend I expected to see there.  

“He started doing the walk earlier today, from Utrecht,” another friend told me.

Dutch people like to walk. A lot.

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People praying in silence in front of a lamp that marks the place where the miracle of Amsterdam happened. Credit: John Garma/The Pillar.

The Netherlands is one of the most secularized countries in Europe, which means participation in the walk has dwindled in recent decades. But organizers believe it could be a recipe to create stronger bonds among Catholics.

“We want to offer solid formation programs during the week of the walk, and we want everyone to go to Mass and Adoration before or after doing the walk,” Brenninkmeijer told me.  

“It’s true that churches are closing and we are fewer Catholics, but this is a moment where Catholics can see each other in somewhat bigger groups and tell themselves, ‘Hey, we’re still here, and we’re still visible’.” 

Brenninkmeijer said that at its highest point in 1956, 80,000 people would gather to walk. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the number sat around 5,000. Today there are around 2,000 registered participants, but small groups of unregistered pilgrims make it hard to get an exact number. 

The Silent Walk of 1969. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

But the modern version of the pilgrimage walk started with just three people, in the 1880s.

After the procession was banned in 1578, Catholics kept the tradition of walking through the route privately for a while.

But at some point, the walk fizzled out.

Then, in the early 19th century, freedom of religion became part of the Dutch constitution. In 1853, the Church hierarchy was reinstated.

This paved the way for a period known in the Netherlands as the Rijke Roomse Leven (the Rich Roman Life), a hundred-year period in which Catholicism thrived in the country. Catholic institutions were created, including schools, a university, sports clubs, newspapers, and unions. This period saw such an abundance of vocations that the Netherlands became the source of 10% of the world’s missionaries, despite being a small, majority-Protestant country.

Nonetheless, Catholicism was still somewhat restricted in the country, especially in the heavily Protestant north. For example, the Dutch constitution banned ‘public worship outside of buildings and enclosed places,’ but the provision was usually only applied to Catholics. 

In 1881, three Catholic Amsterdammers discovered a 17th-century document that indicated the exact route of the Kalverstraat procession and decided to revive it.

The Dutch people have a strong “out of sight, out of mind” streak. Contrary to popular belief, drugs are officially illegal in the country, but sale and consumption are tolerated in private. Despite the puritanical tendencies of many Dutch Calvinists in prior centuries, prostitution was almost always tolerated, as long as people were discreet.

And for centuries, Catholicism was merely another social annoyance to be tolerated.

In a very Dutch way, the original planners of the walk crafted it discreetly so they did not attract problematic attention, and also –- some say — as a way to protest the legal restrictions still imposed on Catholicism.

The walkers decided not to wear any religious symbols—no crosses, no Blessed Sacrament, no banners. Niets. Nothing to attract attention as an illegal procession. They were just a few people walking together in the middle of the night, in absolute silence.

And thus the modern Stille Omgang was born. 

Within three years, more than 300 people were walking.

A century later, in 1983, the procession ban was lifted. Still, organizers decided to continue with the tradition of the Silent Walk as a simple nighttime walk to remember the history of persecution and suppression of Catholicism in the country.

“Even if some 35 years ago processions were allowed again in the Netherlands, never was it considered changing this silent procession into a formal procession. Instead, a Corpus Christi procession was added, which now takes place in Amsterdam as well,” Bishop Hendriks told The Pillar.

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As we started our Silent Walk, the route moved quickly from the apartments, offices and stores of the Kalverstraat, into an area with many bars and restaurants. It was a noteworthy contrast.

Outside the bars, the streets were quiet. The only noises coming from the walk were rosaries jingling and people whispering prayers in dozens of different languages.

But walkers could hear electronic dance music and reggaeton blasting from the inside the bars they passed, even if some refrained from playing music outside, or lowered the volume a bit as a sign of respect for the Stille Omgang tradition.

On the street, onlookers were visibly flabbergasted at the sight of 200 people walking silently on a Saturday night in one of the busiest streets of Amsterdam. 

A few drunken partygoers asked what was going on. Maybe a couple of them thought it was a hallucination, after visiting one of the city’s many coffee shops, which, again, do not sell coffee).

Credit: John Garma/The Pillar.

But people say you can tell true Amsterdammers from tourists by their reactions to the walk.

Even if the walk is smaller than in years past, the Stille Omgang is still a staple of Amsterdam, known by locals across the city.

While visitors gawked, natives of the city nodded knowingly at the walk.

At one point, the walk passed a very busy bar just by the Warmoesstraat, one of the city’s oldest streets. A few young men sat outside, drinking and smoking. Some were amused at the sight of people walking prayerfully and joked about it, asking who these people were. 

One of them, half drunk, told the others to pipe down.

“It’s the Catholic thing,” he said. He made the sign of the cross, joined his hands in prayer, and shut his eyes. The other friends were dumbfounded by his reaction, but he continued praying for as long as the group crossed the street.

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The Warmoesstraat is busy at night. Drunken partygoers jump from bar to bar in large groups, and delivery bicycles try to dodge the swarms of tourists and Amsterdammers flocking through the streets. Add thousands of Catholics praying in silence, and the scene becomes even more chaotic.

Ten years ago, the event was used as a training night for new police officers, Brenninkmeijer told me. Young police officers would come from across the country to help keep the walkers safe in the streets of downtown Amsterdam.

But that’s not the case anymore, so organizers had to look for volunteers to help alongside the route.

“Bikers rule Amsterdam,” Brenninkmeijer told me. “They just don’t give a shit about red lights, or anything.”

“Many of the streets we walk around have very small alleys and a lot of bars and coffee shops, so you always need some security,” he added.

And help came from a very unexpected place.

“So, there’s this store in the Warmoesstraat called the Condomerie, I think the name is quite self-explanatory. The owner is the son of a Protestant pastor, to give you an idea of how the Dutch work,” Brennikmeijer told me laughing.

“And the owner of this shop noticed that sometimes the walk was not safe for people across the Warmoesstraat, not because they could get robbed or stabbed, but because they had to deal with many drunk or drugged people that were rude to them, or made it hard for them to go through,” he added.

“So he spoke with the owners of some of the pubs and shops on the street to fund some additional professional security, so that the groups could go safely through the street in the evening. That’s how we got better security for the walk.”


The contrast between the walkers and the city environment is one of the most striking things about the Stille Omgang experience.

The Warmoesstraat is technically located in the red light district. There are no brothels or prostitutes in the Warmoesstraat, but a wrong turn or two might land you in a distasteful area, with women standing behind glass doors with red fluorescent lights.

The streets of the red light district are probably the busiest in Amsterdam. But most people are just walking around drunk or on drugs, some gawking at the women, others laughing at the weirdness of the situation. 

The windows somehow make the situation even more inhumane, as if the women were locked in for the amusement of the masses, with many noticeably underage onlookers, like an open-air zoo.

When I shared my impressions with Bishop Hendriks, he agreed that the contrast of the walkers with the city is notable.

“During the Stille Omgang, you walk through the nightlife area of Amsterdam with all its excesses, in silence and praying,” he told me.

Credit: John Garma/The Pillar.

“This is an eloquent sign and very fitting for followers of Jesus Christ. The Stille Omgang is always during Lent and often – like this year – at the beginning of the Passion period,” he added.

“That reminds me of Jesus. When He was carrying his cross He must have felt lonely while people insulted Him. Still, He did this all out of love for us, for sinners,” the bishop reflected.

“This is what we should do as well: we walk there in silence, not taking part in that nightlife we see around us, but praying with love for those people and hoping they will discover the true meaning of their lives.”

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