By Linda Bordoni
Over the last several decades hundreds of Catholic parishes have closed due to a combination of reasons: a shortage of priests to serve them, too few parishioners to sustain them, insufficient finances to support them.
But the fact that a church is no longer a church and whether it has simply been abandoned or sold for another use is an issue that is close to the heart of the Church and its people.
That’s why the Pontifical Council for Culture is spearheading the international conference dedicated to “Decommissioning places of worship and integrated management of ecclesiastical cultural heritage.”
Day one is dedicated to the serious and urgent matter of the decommissioning of churches and their new use. On the second day, attention will focus on management and promotion of the ecclesiastical cultural heritage as a diocesan pastoral activity.
Bishop Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, spoke to Linda Bordoni about it:
Bishop Tighe explained that the conference looks at a situation that is increasingly urgent especially in Europe and in North America “where there are many church buildings that are no longer meeting the direct needs of communities”.
He specifies however, that in every part of the world the situation is different.
“In some parts of the world, churches were built in inner cities which are no longer populated” he said while in others the number of people who are going to church has decreased exponentially.
It is a sensitive issue, that requires “a coming together of people to talk about it and discuss the general principles and what decisions can be applied locally” he said.
So, Tighe, continued, this event “is bringing people from different countries who have engaged in this issue, offering them a chance to share their ideas and best practices, trying to articulate some general principles that could apply across the situations and trying to re-imagine future uses of churches”.
Re-imagining future uses of churches
It is necessary, Bishop Tighe said, to try to think for example, of redefining a church that is too large for contemporary use so that part of it can be used for religious functions and other parts of it for different community purposes.
One of the things, he added, that is guiding this initiative, is remembering that churches that were built for religious purposes were also built to facilitate the community.
“So if you are thinking of future uses of churches, not to just think of commercial uses, but to look at the kind of uses that are compatible with that desire of being of service to communities. So cultural uses like museums, art galleries, theatres… uses that still allow the communities to benefit from them” he said.
Other uses that are being explored Tighe said, are spaces for dialogue and debate and ‘building community’ even among people who are not necessarily believers.
Safeguarding the ideals that led to the building of a church
One of the things is to look at, Tighe said, regards what instruments can be used to make sure that a church that is being sold can continue to serve the community; perhaps some sort of restrictive covenant: something that means that for future use, certain uses are excluded.
“Obviously that probably limits the commercial value of the church you are disposing of, but ensures that sense of a commitment to a community and to the ideals that led to the building of the church in the first place” he said.
In a wider perspective, he pointed out that this is not just a question for the church, but it also engages city life and the possibility of making good use of buildings that can continue to offer a benefit to citizens.
Tighe mentioned successful decommissioning stories that have led to former churches being used as libraries, art galleries, concert venues, as opposed to some incongruous situations, “less acceptable situations in which you may find yourself in a public house having a drink and there are elements of Christian symbolism that are still there”.
Finally, he spoke of the need for an ecumenical approach to the issue as this is not a problem that is unique to Catholicism.
“Other Christian churches, he said, are also looking at this issue, and after this I imagine there will be a need for an ecumenical approach: that we think together about how we come up with practices that best serve our communities”.