by MICHAEL OTTO
AUCKLAND — Kiwi priest Fr Marcel Smits might have 11 churches in his parish in the Netherlands, but getting to them by bicycle is no problem.
Fr Smits, who grew up in Howick and attended Holy Cross College, Mosgiel, doesn’t drive in Holland. While he has a New Zealand drivers licence, he has never needed to get a Dutch one, “because I never missed the car”.
He is pastor of the Parish of the Resurrection in eastern Holland in Utrecht archdiocese, near the border with Germany, and the flat terrain suits cycling.
“One of the great advantages of working there is not having to have a car,” Fr Smits told NZ Catholic during a visit to Auckland. “It is one of the perks.”
Celebrating three or four Masses a weekend, Fr Smits can end up cycling up to 30km in that time. He clocked up many more kilometres a week before his bishop asked that one church in his parish be designated a eucharistic centre, which always has a fixed Sunday Mass. His parish is the result of an recent amalgamation of 11 smaller parishes.
The cycling keeps him fit. “It also keeps me sane,” Fr Smits said.
Parishioners occasionally offer to drive him places, and there are a few people he can contact in an emergency if, for instance, he needs to minister at a hospital.
Cycling is very much part of the culture in Holland, he said. People aged in their 90s can be seen pedalling a bike, he added.
But the culture is very much a secular one, with many Protestant and Catholic churches having dwindling, ageing congregations.
In Fr Smits’s parish, there are 22,000 Catholics, but a typical Sunday Mass count is 400.
While churches fill up for festivals and for events like first Communions, it is difficult to enthuse people about coming to Mass, he said.
Although Fr Smits can see a growing interest in spirituality in his part of Holland, many people are no longer looking to the traditional churches for this. Instead, they are looking for spiritual growth on their own, using books, and even crystals. This spirit of individualism not only affects churches, but affects other social outlets — for instance sports clubs, with people too busy to commit time.
Individual freedom to choose is also a main ideology behind euthanasia laws in Holland, Fr Smits said.
“There are a lot of things that are now legal that weren’t legal say a generation or two generations ago,” he said. “So there’s a divergence between moral law and civil law, that were once closer together. It didn’t fit into the moral law, using euthanasia as an example, but that is now legal.
“What I notice is that among some people, is that distinction is not there. So if it is legal, it must be okay. And I think that is perhaps one of the bigger challenges to being Christian now in a society like that, is that the civil law doesn’t necessarily correspond to the moral law.”
Some, but not all, Catholic schools are also something of challenge for parishes. They operate much more independently than in New Zealand. Although most villages in his parish have a Catholic school, some are Catholic in name only, Fr Smits said. But others have good relationships with the parish and are keen to cooperate.
“We are active in trying to make contact with the schools. We also try to make ourselves available if we are doing something in their programme.” Access to schools for the parish depends on the “enthusiasm” of the principal, he said.
One thing Fr Smits has noticed in his visit to Auckland is how vibrant some of our churches are, with enthusiastic migrants contributing strongly.
In his part of the Netherlands, there are not similar migrant numbers to boost church attendance.
Although there are still cultural attachments to the Church, and most people support the Church financially, if only in a small way, a couple of generations have been “missed”, Fr Smits said.
But there are signs of hope, especially among the young.
“The young people now, the people who are coming, don’t have the baggage of the past. People talk about the “rich Roman life” — het rijke Roomse leven — from the 50s.
“But a lot of people have a lot of hang-ups about that too — being forced to go to Mass every morning, being forced to fast, and all these rules, and suddenly they didn’t need to do that anymore. “So it has created a lot of baggage for them. The children of those people got some of that baggage with them.
“But the children who are coming now don’t have that baggage. So, while it is a very small group, that is the sign that the faith is going to keep on finding form there and it will be very different from how it has been in the past, it will be very different from how it is now.
“But that gives me the hope that the Gospel will continue to have a presence here, and it is up to us to try and discern what presence the Holy Spirit wants from that, because it will be very different.”
Fr Smits is also encouraged by the loyalty and steadfastness of the core of people who are involved in voluntary work, visiting, and other activities in the parish.
“They are fairly robust against all the attacks and all the things that go on against the Church.”
Priestly vocations, while not enough to ensure that each parish will have a priest as older clergy die off, are “steady, a solid group”, and that gives hope too, Fr Smits said.