Sunday Mass in Amsterdam

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.



  1. I’m going to be at a conference in Leiden in November…
    Hadn’t really thought that it would be difficult to go to Sunday mass!

    1. @Ralph Bremigan – comment #1:
      When you are in Leiden, I encourage you to go to the Heilige Lodewijkkerk (Saint Louis Church). They have OF Mass celebrated in Dutch, but also in Latin and (partly) in English and also EF Mass. See for their Mass schedule.

      The Dominicuskerk in Amsterdam isn’t a Catholic church at all; its liturgies have nothing to do with holy Mass. Yet, there are some Catholic churches in Amsterdam worth visiting, like Saints Peter and Paul Church (aka Papagaaikerk), which has a sung OF Latin Mass every Sunday, and Saint Agnes Church which has EF Mass almost every day.

      Yes, the Dutch Church is still very liberal and in a terrible state, but orthodoxy is on the rise, especially among young Catholics. The group around Huub Oosterhuis and Bernard Huijbers once had a large impact on liturgical music in the Netherlands, but its influence is certainly waning. Oosterhuis’ hymns are slowly being removed from hymnals and missalettes because of their heterodox and sometimes forthright heretical content.

  2. 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.

    It isn’t quite so simple, in fact.

    First of all, I agree that the Dominicuskerk is on the edge of the radar. It is heading towards what Huijbers and others described as a “post-Christian” incarnation. From what AWR says, it has moved even further than the last time I was there. I think the primary value at play in the gathering is that it is the assembly that confects the Eucharist: i.e. all are concelebrants in a deeper sense than RC theology would currently accept. Young people have drifted away because the advanced theological options espoused by communities such as this are simply too hard work for them.

    Secondly, in earlier days the bishops recognized that by alienating themselves they would not help the pragmatic Dutch Church to get through the post-VII transition. A bishop like Zwartkruis would take tea every Sunday afternoon with his married clergy and his priests who had “left” but who were still actively ministering and had not been laicized (people like Oosterhuis, who BTW is a text writer rather than a composer). They would discuss pastoral strategy. This was not officially known, but many were aware of it.

    A new generation of conservative bishops, led by the likes of Simonis, put paid to any future dialogue. A significant proportion of the Church simply went underground, and is still there. People are still attending some form of Eucharist — and it may bear some resemblance to AWR’s experience — just not visibly, unlike the Dominicuskerk folk; and so those people do not form part of the official statistics. In fact the bishops would prefer not to acknowledge their existence at all.

    Thirdly, this is not just a Catholic problem. Non-catholic Christians in Holland are in the same situation. Official numbers have plummeted. Unofficial numbers are not accurately known any longer.

    Fourthly, it could be that the thing which will keep people at least marginally in touch with the Church is music. There is more choral singing in the Netherlands per head of population than any other country that I am aware of, and the national bodies servicing this vast corpus of musical activity are still flourishing. There are implications here for ecumenical relationships, too.

    In sum, although the overall picture is depressing, it needs nuancing. A major factor is the Dutch dislike of any form of imposed authority. Add that to a different view of priesthood and liturgy, season it with a lack of opportunity to discuss things openly in any kind of official forum, and you have a recipe for potential disaster.

    1. @Paul Inwood – comment #3:
      Paul makes a good point – there is much scripture and reference to scripture in the singing. Also, I’m told that during the school year there is a bible reading, but in the summer they’re using these other literary sources.

      I believe my church attendance figures are from a survey of the whole population, so it would include everyone whether they’re on official church rolls or not.

      Sorry to confuse the text writer and the composer – of course it is Hiujbers who is the composer! I’ve corrected the post.


  3. Dear God, wasn’t there a Church of Christ Science nearby to attend? But on a lighter note, when I was preparing for the priesthood, many of our teachers held up what Holland was doing in the 1970’s as a model of the future of the Church in the USA, and at that time the future to me was like 1990. We even sang the songs of Bernard Huijbers and Huub Oosterhuis at Mass. When we were presented the Dutch model of Church and liturgy as well as their Dutch Catechism in the 1970’s seminary, it was presented totally positive and certainly in the spirit of what Vatican II desired for the Church, if only the Church, meaning the mean old hierarchy, would get out of the way and let the fruits of Vatican II actually be realized as in Holland. In a sense reading about the dismal state of affairs there is kind of like the movie “Back to the Future” for me. And while I know many here would disagree with me, the future that my seminary hoped we would experience by 1990 and the liberal theology that I was taught, that I don’t think is a caricature at all, is where the trajectory of liberal theology and anti-authority leads people as Holland seems to confirm in 2013 in the most depressing way possible.

  4. Fascinating.

    It seems the two extremes are more alike in that the talking is all amongst themselves, without a thought to dialogue, discernment, reflection, let alone evangelization. Seriously, there has to be a choice better than JPII’s orthodoxy preaching at empty pews and a free-for-all disconnected from the Word.

    Conservative bishops have had their crack at the Netherlands for more than a generation now. Whatever the laity might be doing they’re not supposed to, the bishops and Rome have the responsibility for leadership. Clearly, it’s time to rethink the JPII approach. By the way, did he ever visit the Netherlands?

    1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #4:

      Clearly, it’s time to rethink the JPII approach. By the way, did he ever visit the Netherlands?

      No, he didn’t. He wanted to, but the Dutch authorities, both ecclesiastical and secular, told him that they couldn’t afford the huge bill for security that trips like this inevitably run up. “You are most welcome to come,” they said, “but the Vatican must pick up the tab for security.” End of project.

  5. @Kelly Marie Santini – comment #5:

    “No Penitential Act, Gloria, or Collect. No first reading, responsorial psalm, second reading, Alleluia, or Gospel.” I mean really, what’s left??!!

    Well, rites of gathering and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, for a start. I suspect that the absence of a formal Liturgy of the Word does not necessarily equate to a complete absence of scripture. Typically Dutch table prayers carry chunks of scripture, so perhaps that was the case here, with the “Liturgy of the Word” embedded within the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In that case, having the intercessions after the distribution of bread and wine would make a certain amount of sense.

  6. I might call it “liberal” in the technical sense of prizing liberty above all. But I suspect that if you told most American Catholics that you went to “a really liberal Catholic Mass” they couldn’t begin to imagine what you describe.

    I might be tempted to call it “Protestant,” except that even scripture seems to have gone out the window. This takes it a step beyond anything I ever experienced in Belgium.

  7. I find this interesting because my mother was born in the Netherlands, and she, my aunt and my maternal grandparents have been huge influences on my faith. In 1998 I spent a week in the country and went to several churches, especially in smaller towns, but never found a church in Amsterdam (I was there on a Sunday) partly because I couldn’t read Dutch and Internet access at the time was very limited, and as a result, never got to Mass. It did not occur to me that Mass was endangered; I just thought it was bad planning on my part. I also have read a fair bit of Henri Nouwen. So, I don’t think of the Dutch as spiritual heathens.

    On the other hand, they are now and always have been very independent thinkers. They have global interests in oil, electronics, banking, etc, but have almost no natural resources – not even dirt, which they had to take back from the sea. I would imagine that the people involved in the service Fr. Ruff attended are invested in what they do, and it would be difficult to take it away from them, because they simply believe they are on the cutting edge of liturgy like they frequently are in other areas.

  8. Maybe this OSB father did not attend mass at Dominicuskerk, but a study hour like listed for June July. What he did see is anyway no standard and not copied anywhere in this country. The statistics are the aftermath of an unrealistic evolution. The figures of attendance between 1850 and 1960 were the result of repression by Protestants until 1850 and the high standard of bishops and theologians we have had for more than 100 years. Now 50 years later the attendance is soon like in France. Really a pity is that we have not discovered in time how after the death of John XXIII in1963 the Curia got three popes one after another to strengthen their route. For us, it looked like, we lost the way of Jesus Christ at the top. Our protests here in the eighties and even now are unstructured. Read Mahatma Gandhi and the Handbook for Reform of Richard K.Taylor and you will see what protesters are missing. The book is now available on internet free of charge. Pope Francis will need us, will need the support of millions for his planned reform of the curia, of egalitarian treatment of women and of priesthood for married men. The meetings with thousands of benevolent churchgoers are not sufficient. If his plans will not die with him, he needs the support of millions of small groups at the roots in the parishes, especially of those angry enough to put energy in protesting against misbehavior of bishops and priests.

  9. My wife and I had an almost identical experience (and, I suspect, an almost identical reaction) when we attended this Mass way back in the summer of 2000. (We had been at the annual week-long meeting of Universa Laus, which that year was held in Soesterberg, near Amsterdam.) It sounds as if nothing has changed. We came away impressed by the strong feeling of community but pretty sure that we hadn’t actually celebrated the Mass.

  10. This is such a huge contrast to my experience in Krakow today. I went to the dominican basilica for evening Mass and it was packed to the brim with people of all ages, people were sitting on the steps of confessionals, standing in the side aisles of the large gothic church. The mass itself had only organ music and a young dominican priest chanted most of the orations, but I wouldn’t call it “reform of the reform.”
    Certainly Poland and the Netherlands have very different histories and situations, but it just strikes me that perhaps a different approach to implementing the council might have had something to do with such contrasts.

    1. @Stanislaus Kosala – comment #16:
      With all due respect to Krakow – and I’ve had similar wonderful experiences there and elsewhere in Poland – I think your comment shows a distressing lack of basic respect for culture and for peoples. The Netherlands isn’t Poland. And all the wishful thinking and finger pointing and judgementalism in the world won’t make it so.

      A big part of JP2’s pastoral mistakes was his inability to see this. What he experienced in Poland was so great, he just couldn’t understand, couldn’t get it through his head, why it couldn’t work that way everywhere else. But there are many reasons why – different history, different culture, different political system, different religious influences, and on and on and on.

      It would have been very interesting if Catholic church leadership in the Netherlands – Rome and Rome-appointed bishops – could have said to themselves, “Just what is possible in THIS situation, with THESE people?” instead of thinking they could impose what they wanted and it would work. Well, it didn’t. It failed disastrously.

      The worst Catholic theology available to us since Vatican II is the kind that ignores culture. We see it sometimes in church leadership, and many times on this blog.


  11. In poland, the council wasnt implemented immediately because of the iron curtain and the result was a healthier church. but now, with the conciliar noveties moving in along with EU “culture”, the faith of the youth in poland and many slavic countries is headed the same way as the western europeans of the previous generations

  12. I write to defend the 1970s Dutch Catechism, mentioned by Fr Allan McDonald at #4. I have a copy – in English, 1974:- ‘A New Catechism: The Catholic Faith for Adults’. It is a translation of ‘De Nieuwe Katechismus’, commissioned by the hierarchy of the Netherlands. The 1974 edition includes a Supplement with clarifications which had been required to the original (1967) publication. That fact will indicate the different ‘pulls’ which existed in those years. (I suppose they still do.)
    But, subject to the modifications in the Supplement, the Dutch ‘New Catechism’ did have the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur. I’ve had a quick look-through this evening, and I don’t think any present-day Catholic would have any problems with doctrine or liturgy. I recall that I found the ‘New Catechism’ to be informative and inspiring. I don’t think there was anything to match it, at that time. Previously, catechisms had been small booklets which set out Church doctrine in summary form. The ‘New Catechism’ was 510 pages, dedicated to explaining and teaching the faith.
    It did not ‘talk down’ (but treated us as adults, per its sub-title); its purpose was to persuade, rather than to ‘lay down the law’; and every page was written (or translated) in such a way that an English reader would not think it to be a translation. If there is an underlying spirit, I would describe it thus:- optimistic; inclined to be merciful rather than to judge; open and outgoing (to society; to other faiths); and eager to persuade and convert. It all sounds very much like the ‘spirit of what Vatican 2 desired for the church’.
    (Others may wish to compare the spirit of the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church.)
    If the Dutch church has indeed gone astray in the past 40 years, then I think the villain will have to be sought elsewhere than the 1970s Dutch Catechism – which I do not believe was either ‘liberal theology’ or ‘anti-authority’.
    I am Lay, English, Catholic (and I was 19 years old when I bought this book in 1975, Holy Year).

  13. How incredibly sad. The Catholic part of the Netherlands used to produce an abundance of priestly vocations, and many of these priests served as missionaries.

    With respect to what caused this depressing state of affairs, I think Stanislaus Kosala’s comment contains much truth.

  14. “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.”

    The response cannot be gratitude, but rather sadness, and a turning to the Lord in deep prayer for the souls of those involved. These folks have lost their way and are living life without the grace of the sacraments. “Oh Lord, have mercy on them, and on us, and on the whole world.”

  15. The Dutch Church has been deconstructed into oblivion. On a positive note the collapse of the Dutch Church ensures that this Dutch disease will be less and less a threat in the future.

  16. I love this post, Anthony!

    To those commenting negatively… What is something positive you have learned from this post? How can the experience Fr. Anthony outlined above help expand your thinking or help you in your spiritual life? Where is God in what you read? Just a few questions for you to think about… Blessings on your day!

  17. 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.

    I’d love to hear the rationale for that. The documents of Vatican II needn’t be quoted, but I’ll accept remarks in the Spirit of the Council.

    in the Netherlands there are Catholics who don’t think in the usual categories of official and unofficial

    I’m surprised that Catholics of that persuasion can be married to Catholics of the opposite persuasion, and not know about their irregular situation until you show up and ask a question. It seems so painfully out-of-touch to me.

    P.S. Fr. Anthony, are you familiar with a Fr. Roderick Vonhögen (from Amersfoort, Utrecht)? His Twitter handle is @FatherRoderick.

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