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‘The importance of community’ — Dutch Bishop Hendriks on Christian hope

That the Netherlands is one of the most secularized countries in the world sounds almost like a cliché.

But with Mass attendance under 2% of Catholics, a dire vocational situation, and hundreds of churches and parishes being consolidated throughout the country, the Netherlands might be considered a showcase of what’s to come in a rapidly secularizing West.

Bishop Jan Hendriks with members of the Eritrean Catholic community in the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam. Courtesy photo.

Once a missionary powerhouse, which provided around 10% of foreign missionaries around the world, Mass attendance halved by the 1950s, and plummeted after the Second Vatican Council. 

In the decades after, Dutch Catholicism became synonymous with “experimental” theology, liturgical abuses and heterodoxy.

But there are those who believe that the Church in the Netherlands has still much to offer after a troubled post-conciliar period. And that, in fact, Dutch Catholics are already offering something important to the world.

One of those is Bishop Jan Hendriks, bishop of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam since 2020, where he was first assigned as auxiliary bishop in 2011.

Hendriks, a canon lawyer and reader of The Pillar, was the most recent bishop in the Netherlands to unveil a wide-ranging parish consolidation plan, in which around 60% of the churches in the diocese would be closed

But the bishop told The Pillar that the process is necessary to give a new impulse to the evangelization of the country from bigger, tightly-knit communities.

Bishop Hendriks talked with The Pillar this month in the Cathedral of Saint Bavo about secularization in the Netherlands, evangelization in the postmodern world, migration, parish closures, and the Eucharist. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bishop Jan Hendriks. Courtesy photo.

How did the Netherlands become among the most secularized countries in Europe?

Catholicism was forbidden in the Netherlands from the Reformation until the time of Napoleon, so only in the 19th century did you see an enormous network of Catholic institutions appearing — churches, congregations, schools, hospitals, etc.

There was in that century a very strong involvement of the hierarchy, because this development had to be controlled so that it would take a good course. 

But the spiritual aspect was a bit neglected. This was what Karol Wojtyla noticed when he visited the Netherlands after World War II. He was impressed by the enormous organization of Catholicism. But at the same time he noticed it was superficial, spiritually lacking.

So, that was a process that was already going on in the late 1950s.

And then in the 1960s this was reinforced by the Second Vatican Council. The Council stressed the responsibility of the laity and the involvement of the laity in apostolate, which was a good thing.

But here in the Netherlands something similar happened to what is happening with Fiducia supplicans in some episcopates. The Council was seen as a break, as a new beginning. 

So, in many ways the Council was never received. Nobody studied the documents, [many] just saw it as an excuse to mark a new starting point. Immediately after the Council we had the Dutch Pastoral Council, which created a very liberal atmosphere. Clerical celibacy was discussed, sexuality was discussed, the role of women in the Church. 

So, like the German ‘synodal way’ but 50 years earlier?


The liturgy became very liberal. You went in a few months from the Tridentine Mass to very liberal experiments, in which the Eucharistic prayers could not be considered prayers, sometimes there was not even consecration. It was terrible.

And then, the Netherlands became a very prosperous, very rich country in the 50s and 60s, which created a new mentality. Laypeople wanted to be free from the hierarchy.

And bishops were very [impacted by] this because in the 60s they decided that all Catholic schools should be in the hands of laypeople. 

So they asked all the parishes, the religious congregations and dioceses to hand over the responsibility of Catholic schools to independent lay institutions.

And they abolished catechism in schools.

I’m the bishop responsible for Catholic education [in the Netherlands], and nowadays it is very difficult to find Catholic teachers. 

So, we can only provide a minimum amount of requirements to approve new Catholic schools and offer them guidance and inspiration so they live their Catholic identity.

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One sign of secularization is the process of parish closures all over the Netherlands. You have been the most recent bishop to announce a plan of parish consolidation in the Netherlands, and there’s some resistance to the idea. 

How have you dealt with people unhappy about losing their churches?

We have no choice. We have to close down churches.

The government does not pay for the churches, we have to pay them ourselves.

The Catholic church lost its churches in the Reformation, so many had to be built in the 19th and 20th century. And the church is not rich.

We cannot continue having all these churches because, especially in rural areas, very few people come to church.

We have to make decisions that nobody likes. I don’t like them myself, but we can’t do everything. 

Many people tell us “let us wait until we have spent the last penny.” But the problem is that in this process, communities have to unite in bigger areas and parishes and if you spend all the money, then you have nothing else left for the community that is just starting.

It is painful. I understand very well the people who are suffering.

One area of our diocese is West Frisia. And West Frisians are very strong people, and they want to defend their churches.

But many times, they don’t want to defend them in order to have the Eucharist, but to have them as a sort of meeting center for the town. That’s not what our churches are for. You can’t spend the money of the parish just to have it as a meeting center.

So we have to look for solutions and see the local situations. We take our time, have people get used to the idea, and take it slowly because it is stressful for priests, as well.

I have already had two or three cases of burned out priests, and all were related to cases like this. Not even because they had to travel to many places and churches under the same parish, but because some of the churches were closing down and a lot of people were complaining and did not want to close the churches. The nervous stress was just too much for them.

Many seem to believe that the Gospel is unintelligible in postmodernity. Is a solution that the Church adapts to contemporary ways of thinking?

No, that is not a solution.

We would lose the Gospel itself, and lose Jesus Christ.

It is not about us adapting to the times, but us adapting to Jesus Christ.

There is no other solution than to remain faithful to the message of the Gospel and proclaim it with strong conviction and to be clear.

Of course, we have to be welcoming to people of all backgrounds but watering down the message is not the solution.

You see that the young people who convert or return to the Catholic Church, come because of these strong convictions, not because of a watered down message.

Then the Church must remain a sign of contradiction …

Yes, it should.

That is not easy, especially in a country like the Netherlands. How do you suggest people live this personally?

First of all, we have to accept that we are a sign of contradiction.

We should not shy away from that. 

Then, especially for young people, it is very important to live in community, to have community with each other, to have experiences of faith.

One of the focus points of our diocese is the apostolate for young people.

We’ve had to cut down our expenses very, very much, but we didn’t cut down on youth apostolate.

So we have many, many activities for young people to bring them together and educate them in the faith. 

How are you helping young people become better evangelizers?

We have the missionary school, which is shaped in an active and broad way, so we can offer pilgrimage and weekend activities in which young people get educated on the faith and in their mission. They have to be strong in their faith, know their faith better.

And then, in this program, they are also in touch with specialists in communication, for example, so they know how to transmit their message more effectively.

So we’re trying to help them become apostles of Jesus Christ in this society.


The Netherlands was once a missionary powerhouse. Now, it barely has any vocations to priesthood and religious life. What can be done?

In the Netherlands we have 44 seminarians in total, and more than half of them are foreigners.

In our diocese, we have 18 seminarians—10 from the diocese and 8 in the seminary of the Neocatechumenal Way.

But what I always notice is that most of our seminarians have a background in a community or institution of the Church — like the Neocatechumenal Way or Opus Dei, or perhaps a parish that had a very lively community with young people. 

So, I feel like I’m repeating myself, but I cannot stress enough the importance of community.

You just mentioned that many seminarians in the Netherlands are foreigners. The Netherlands has received a lot of migrants in the last few years. Do you think that migration can be an opportunity to revitalize the Church in the Netherlands?

For sure, absolutely.

Right now, I’d say 60% of our confirmation students have a foreign background.

We have at least seven English-speaking communities in the diocese. You will also find Spanish, Croatian, French, Italian, German, Polish, Tagalog. We also have the Surinamese community and also many Eastern Catholic communities.

That’s the beauty of our diocese,  we have many nations together. Amsterdam seems to be one of the most international cities in the world, and that has given new life to our parishes.

Now, we have perpetual adoration on various churches in Amsterdam, because Amsterdam has been traditionally, since before the Reformation, a very eucharistic city, and this was an initiative of several groups of migrants. There is also a group of prayer for vocations in Amsterdam, which was set up by the Surinamese community, and the devotion to the Divine Mercy has been spread by the Filipinos.

You just mentioned that historically, Amsterdam is an ‘Eucharistic city.’ How so?

Soon in March we will have a silent march, which commemorates a Eucharistic miracle. 

Some time in the 14th century a sick man received Holy Communion, but vomited it, so the host was thrown to the fire in a piece of cloth. The cloth burned, but the host remained intact and it was taken to the church in a box.

Again, the next day the priest tried [to burn the vomited host], and it again resisted fire. So the priest understood he had to make a procession. 

From that moment Amsterdam became a very famous pilgrimage site from all over Europe. Even the [Holy Roman] Emperor came to venerate the miracle and granted Amsterdam the right to wear the Imperial Crown upon its coat of arms.

Then, with the Reformation, the chapel was closed down and handed to the Protestants. At some point the host was lost and the chapel was demolished at the beginning of the 20th century.

But veneration of the miracle continued secretly.

Eventually, in the 19th century, even though processions were legally forbidden, Catholics started a silent procession at night. They saw a legal loophole: They weren’t formally doing a procession, just walking together in silence. And they did it during the night so as not to bother anyone. Only about 30 years ago we were allowed to actually legally call it a procession!

What’s the role of the Eucharist in the re-evangelization of the Netherlands?

Everything is grace. So faith cannot but be a gift of the Lord.

It's not our work. We can’t bring about the conversion of the Netherlands [by ourselves]. It is grace.

We need supernatural vision to be and live in the presence of the Lord and adore him. 

That is why I’m very glad that an initiative of perpetual adoration started five years ago and has continued since.

The Eucharist is essential for evangelization. It reminds us that we cannot bring about this change ourselves.

It’s clear that the situation of the Church in the Netherlands is not good, but you seem to be a hopeful person. Why?

I’m hopeful because it is not my Church. It’s the Lord’s.

Everything is already announced in the Gospel. 

Jesus said “When the Son of Man comes back to Earth, will he find faith?” Everything is in His hands. 

That is more important than what we do. This should be the foundation of our hope.

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