I’m in Amsterdam this week for the biennial meeting of the Internationale Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Hymnologie (“International Fellowship for Research in Hymnology). I’m German-English translator for this group, and I’m giving a keynote this year on “David’s Harp in Postmodern Times: Psalm Singing Today.” Composer and Pray Tell contributor Paul Inwood is speaking on liturgical composition.
I was able to visit last week with some leaders in music and liturgy from the Haarlem-Amsterdam diocese. With me (on his way to the UK) was Pray Tell contributor Chase Becker. It is sad to hear how rapidly the Catholic church is in decline here, with only a few mostly elderly people involved in the church anymore. Our hosts spoke of parish choirs with average age of 75. Fifty years ago, over 40% of Dutch people were Roman Catholic. The figure is now below 17% and will soon be below 10%. About 1% of the entire population attends Catholic liturgy on Sunday. Never before have I had the sense that by going to Sunday Mass, I would contribute significantly to raising the national average.
I had made plans to worship at the famous Dominicuskerk (Church of St. Dominic) on Sunday, the home of people such as Bernard Huijbers and Huub Oosterhuis. Perhaps you’ve read The Performing Audience or sung “What is this place where we are meeting?” I was prepared to experience progressive Catholicism up close. My hosts simply said that they do a lot of singing at Dominicuskerk, but the liturgy is overly stark and simple, almost anti-ritualistic.
Do you know about Dutch Catholicism? It was the cutting edge of left-wing Catholicism already before Vatican II, and certainly after. Think made-up liturgies that don’t use a sacramentary/missal. Already under Paul VI, the Vatican stepped in with moderate and conservative episcopal appointments to regain control of a runaway church. Then came very conservative appointments under John Paul II.
I once believed (about 20 years ago) that the Netherlands were a perfect example of how progressive theology destroys Catholic identity and empties churches. Then I read John Coleman, The Evolution of Dutch Catholicism, 1958-1974. Coleman has a bias, to be sure, but his statistics seem to show that the episcopate in the Netherlands maintained high respect of Catholics of all ages, including young people, during the wild years, certainly much higher than the episcopate in neighboring countries whose credibility was in free-fall. Then came Rome’s counter-revolution beginning around 1970, and respect for the episcopate began to plummet, soon catching up with and falling below neighboring countries.
(I know, I know, causation is not easily established. What would it have been otherwise? Would anything have worked in this rapidly secularizing society?)
My hosts said that interest in the 1962 missal is almost non-existent in the Netherlands. Latin Mass at Sint-Agneskerk is the same time as the Dominicuskerk so I couldn’t do both, but I hope to attend a Latin daily Mass this week if the conference schedule allows.
And so I set out this morning for Dominicuskerk, Give Us This Day in hand since I don’t quite always catch everything in Dutch.
Dominicuskerk is a big neo-Gothic building. Now, there is a platform against the left wall in the middle of a long narrow nave, congregation gathered around all sides, piano and choir opposite platform. Pretty full church, virtually all over 60 or 70. Only a few who looked to be in their 30s or 40s, all female. About three children.
Large pipe organ (rather Romantic sounding) was used for about 1/3 of the music, piano for the rest. Choir sang in harmony, sometimes with people and sometimes alternating with them. Quite advanced and interesting piano parts, at times a sort of Dutch version of Calvin Hampton. Music of Hiujbers and Löwenthal and Oomen and others. Quite nice music, really.
My first indication that Give Us This Day wouldn’t be of much use was when I looked at the Order of Worship handout. No Penitential Act, Gloria, or Collect. No first reading, responsorial psalm, second reading, Alleluia, or Gospel. Rather: song, prayer by female prayer leader, song repeated; welcome talk by another woman; song; a man read from Dorothee Sölle; homily by another woman; song; and on to the collection with piano intermezzo. Uh, no Nicene Creed. Then a table prayer with sung elements (no Sanctus) led by seven people (5 women, 2 men, none vested), and sharing of the bread and wine. Then general intercessions, blessing, and song. Coffee served at the platform.
I was flabbergasted by all this, to say the least. Frederick Bauerschmidt has helpfully prodded all of us at Pray Tell to move beyond tired old conservative/liberal labels in theological discussions. Fritz, I’m really trying to heed your advice, but is it OK this one time for me to use the term liberal??
After the service I spoke with a man who said he’s a priest but married and not in official ministry, and he pointed out to me another priest (lay clothes in front row) who was at the service. He told me that this style of liturgy was accepted by the local bishop after Vatican II as one example of what the Council made possible, but later bishops did not approve, and it eventually came to a break between the bishop and the Dominicuskerk community.
So now I knew, I was part of a schism. (Actually, I think under the old theology you couldn’t be guilty of doing what you didn’t know you were doing.) I thought to myself that the last time I missed my Sunday Mass obligation was in high school when I rode an all-night bus to the Future Farmers of American national convention in Kansas City and then slept all morning in the hotel room.
I met a very friendly couple who invited me to a local place for coffee and the best apple pie in Amsterdam. Delightful conversation. I asked when the break with the diocese had happened. No, we’re still part of the church, the man said – Dutch Catholicism has a wide range to it including communities and services like this. Actually not, his wife informed him. That’s why there’s no official priest presiding. News to him – he thought it was because there are so few priests left in the Netherlands.
Here’s what I find interesting: in the Netherlands there are Catholics who don’t think in the usual categories of official and unofficial, who think that a service with seven unvested lay co-presiders is with diocesan approval, because that sort of thing was apparently possible at one time. It then struck me that the diocesan music and liturgy people I met earlier didn’t raise an eyebrow when I mentioned Dominicuskerk or say a word about it being outside the church. I gather that boundaries of all sorts are fluid in the Netherlands.
Dominicuskerk is, to say the least, a bit beyond my usual comfort zone, but I’m grateful to have been a part of it. I tried to experience it through the eyes of the dedicated and passionate people whose home it is. We sang and prayed of a new world, a new creation, of a God who is with us in Christ, accompanying us on the journey and calling us to a better future.
And so my week has begun.
Pray Tell doesn’t ordinarily get into hotel recommendations, but I will say this about Best Western in Amsterdam. When you ask at the bar next to the reception desk for just a bit of wine, a few drops in the bottom of a glass, they give it to you at no charge and don’t say a word about it being a strange request.