Written somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean…
The church bell rang out loudly, like a glorious sound, over the hillside of this historic town. I heard it proudly ringing across the water that separated my hotel from the city square. For my European colleague who lives in Amsterdam, it was a normal sound, signaling the noon hour – time for lunch. But for me, it brought excitement mixed with curiosity as church bells in the States seemed a thing of the past.
As we took a trolley into the city center, I couldn’t help but ask with fresh anticipation, “Where is the church where the bell tolled?”
“Not far, but sadly it’s no longer a church; it was converted into a museum last year,” he muttered under his breath.
“The church is a museum?” I gasped, wondering where people go to Mass now.
“They needed to do something with it, it’s such a beautiful building and people don’t really go to church anymore around here,” he stated with no indication of a feeling one way or another.
“If we have time after our meeting, can you take me there?” I asked with a burning deep inside.
“This is the Nieuwe Kerk or New Church in English” explained the guard at the entrance. I wondered why they had a guard, but then I entered and witnessed something that took my breath away. There were expensive merchandise, dresses and jewelry – all for a wedding convention. Not a wedding itself, but a marketplace for weddings.
How odd to learn that the last time this church was used was for a State wedding. The Dutch royal Princess was married here years ago before it lay dormant again. I was then stunned to see naked statues of wedding models in a place that once was sacred space. They happened to be positioned underneath statues of real Catholic Saints from years gone by.
It was explained that it was all done in the name of art and generally, people were supportive of this expression.
Apparently, the next convention coming in a few months is scheduled to be “The History of the Jewish People”. I felt a sense of confusion. In all due respect for the Jewish exhibit, this is the home of beloved Anne Frank and it seemed a bit odd to choose a Christian church. I was stunned, unable to move from the center aisle in front of the Altar. I felt like walking over to the cashier and over-turning the money changer tables and announce like Jesus, “This is a house of prayer, and you’ve turned it into a den of thieves.”
I learned that this church was dedicated in 1393 and opened in 1408 in honor of Mary, the Virgin Mother of God. In addition, it was dedicated a 2nd time in 1452 to the patron Saint Catherine of Alexandria who died a martyr for Christ in the 4th century. Legend has it that her bones are still buried under this once famous Altar. In 1578, this great Cathedral was taken over by Protestants who stripped away most of the statues, paintings and ornaments; even the Chalice itself! This was called the Iconoclast Fury that started the 80 years war ending when Holland officially declared itself Protestant and shut down all Catholic Masses.
The story is told that these Protestants wanted to hear the “word of God” without the distraction of these relics which were once cherished here by early Christians. Seems outrageous to me that these relics, given to remind us of the giants of our Christian heritage and decorate the house of the Lord, would be confused with worshiping idols. Also, it’s odd to me that Mass was positioned against the “word of God” when the Liturgy of the Word is spoken from Sacred Scripture and expounded in the homily. Today, surveys in the Netherlands have Catholics outnumbering Protestants 48% to 38% but churches remain empty. Jewish adherents make up 2% and Muslim immigrants, mostly from Turkey, 10%. Islam is the fastest growing religion here.
We decided to leave and walk out to this city built on leisure and designed around entertainment and the “finer things in life”. I felt empty for the faithful. To me, it seems like a “Godless” place for the spiritual wanderer who no longer knows what to believe.
Pope Benedict speaks of Relativism as the new threat that endangers our spiritual growth in Christ. It’s a new form of dictatorship that dominates our world. According to the Pope, it cries for freedom but in the end limits us to a spiritual jail that denies moral certainty and the truth of the Gospels. In an effort to be tolerant, the highest virtue to a relativist, we must abandon the teachings about God through the ages from churches like this one.
I write this while flying back to the States, thinking about the lost Chalice of Christ’s sacrificial cup of salvation once displayed on the Altar. It was sent by Queen Isabella of Spain as a gift and is now lost to the pages of history; taken from the same Altar that witnessed so many weddings blessed through the Holy Spirit. This former church is now a museum of fake wedding models displayed for sale.
Please pray for Christians in Europe. I pray that it won’t take a tragedy to rediscover Christ over here. Christ came to “comfort the afflicted” but also to “afflict the comfortable”.
Editor’s Note: Nieuwe Kerk was consecrated to St. Mary and St. Catharine. Established in 1408 as the second parish church (the new church) in Amsterdam.
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