News Analysis

The Vatican: When churches convert

St Lambertus church in Erkelenz-Immerath is demolished to make way for a coalmine (Getty)

The Vatican is drawing up guidelines for the sale of deconsecrated buildings

Does not God dwell here anymore? That is the question a conference at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University will be addressing later this year.

Starkly as it is couched, and poetic as it sounds, the question is in reality quite prosaic. The focus of the two-day gathering in November will be the decommissioning of places of worship and the management of the Church’s cultural heritage. In other words, it will seek an answer to the question: what to do with churches that have fallen into disuse and/or dilapidation beyond the means of dioceses to repair or beyond their reach due to contingent political circumstances?

Many readers will have heard of churches turned into nightclubs, and many will have horror stories to hand of beautiful sacred spaces neglected and crumbling. A walking tour of any old Roman neighbourhood is likely to bring an ambler to the door of a half a dozen churches fallen into varying states of disrepair. One may wonder what grand vision might be in the works to save them.

The conference programme, however, suggests the specific issues to be addressed are mostly technical in nature, regarding the legal niceties of ceding sacred space and rendering places of cult capable of “profane” – ie secular – uses and determining which secular purposes are appropriate, or else the best ways to navigate the often fraught political and social waters that surround such cessions.

At a press conference last week, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi – president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, which is co-sponsoring the event together with the Italian bishops’ conference – told reporters that, although guidelines for the decommissioning and repurposing of sacred spaces exist, “they are too generic”, hence the proceedings will seek to articulate and agree upon specific guidelines.

Cardinal Ravasi proposed two main criteria: “Make sure that the [decommissioned] temple remains always within the community, with some value as a spiritual, cultural and social symbol”, and that any eventual profane uses “allow for the protection of the internal heritage”, by which he means the sacred artwork and furniture of the structure, “for example by transferring it to the diocesan museums, so as to leave the space as bare as possible”.

Professor Ottavio Bucarelli, director of the department of ecclesiastical cultural heritage at the Gregorian, told the Catholic Herald that, like it or not, the loss of sacred spaces is a reality, and one with which the Church must reckon. “This [artistic and cultural] patrimony was born for the purpose of worship, for the propagation of the faith, for catechesis, for charity – as well as for culture.” He continued: “All this is a patrimony we need to conserve, to pass on, and use correctly still today.”

Bucarelli also stressed that the goal of his department and of its partners is to preserve the Christian cultural legacy first and foremost for the Christian faithful. “We are at pains to underline that,” he said, “through our work of research and development, and by way of synergies with other institutions – not only ecclesiastical, but also civil institutions, such as universities [Rome’s polytechnic institute and La Sapienza university] – our purpose is to find solutions that can become guidelines to be entrusted to dioceses.”

Delegates from bishops’ conferences in Europe, North America, and Oceania will be involved in the process of crafting the guidelines and will participate in the conference in November.

The purpose is to help Church leaders “understand how to act correctly in cases of possible decommissioning of worship buildings,” Bucarelli said, explaining that a church building is “a meeting place of God with his people – with the community of the faithful, who must find in these buildings something that hearkens to God”. He went on to say: “That’s something that can’t be lost in the transformation of these buildings, not even when the property changes hands.”

Cardinal Ravasi indicated that in his view, in Europe at least, the matter is one of practical necessity. “[Europe] has a great patrimony of churches,” he said, “far superior to its current needs.” Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to take practical necessity in one area as an absolute rule. One ought not think the need for decommissioning in one place is opposed to “the need to build new churches in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas – for example, Mexico City – because urban plants have changed, sometimes they are huge,” Cardinal Ravasi said.

Pope Francis has consistently called for Catholics to cultivate historical memory as part of a living faith and not view the faith as though it were a museum. A candid observer might ask how a programme of profaning the sacred and consigning sacred art to viewing galleries fits into that vision. Nevertheless, the problems facing local Churches throughout the Western and Westernised world are intricately enmeshed in astoundingly complex processes of secularisation and demographic change. Hard, practical thinking about how to face those problems may be unpleasant, but Church leadership at the highest levels seems to have determined that such thinking cannot be postponed.