A cold North Sea wind blew fiercely and the rain came down as Alice and I were drawn by the pealing of bells to the Krijtberg Church, a gothic structure that sat amidst a row of Amsterdam merchant houses. Illuminated by tall stained glass windows, the interior of the church was a joyous mélange of greens, blues, yellows, violets, and browns. In contrast with the often dour, whitewashed interiors of Dutch Reformed Churches, the Krijtberg was built in the 1880s by Amsterdam’s Catholic minority in the exuberant style of the 14th and 15th centuries.
Today, the Krijtberg Church is a tiny toehold of faith in a city that had long been a bastion of Protestant Calvinism. Since the 1960s the Netherlands has experienced a massive falling away of believers. The Dutch Reformed Church’s large cathedral at the city center was converted to exhibit space. Churches of both communities were torn down or “repurposed” into bookstores, apartment dwellings, or discos. In the 1990s, efforts to demolish the Krijtberg were thwarted at the last moment by a popular outcry. The church remains one of the few places offering an alternative to the nearby world of busy banks, shops, and offices.
“The Krijtberg Church,” an information flyer reads, “is a place of rest and silence, where one can pray and reflect, a place were people may find in liturgy and sacraments the one source of life: God, who wishes to live among people.” Staffed by Jesuit priests, it offers two daily Masses, Saturday confessions, and five Masses on weekends. Sunday liturgies vary from a Mass with Dutch Hymns, a quiet Mass, and a choir Mass with classical Latin polyphony. The Mass we attended was listed as a “High Mass with Gregorian chant.”.
The organ swelled and the congregation joined a choir of eight men in white albs singing a difficult Gregorian plainsong usually reserved for monasteries. Most of those present seemed to understand the Latin, and seemed familiar with the prayers that had been added to the liturgy since the 1960s. The esthetics of the music, however, obscured a faith community wracked by decades of turmoil.
During the 1960s the Dutch Catholic Church seemed on the cusp of a golden era. The flawed but beautifully written Dutch Catechism for Adults achieved international fame, lay councils were established in all the parishes, and ministries refocused. Convinced that the neighborhood parish was outmoded in the larger cities, special churches were set-aside for children, for artists,and for hippies. In the process, things Roman were ignored or discarded. Local congregations developed their own prayers and list of Scripture readings. Liturgical vestments were treated as medieval vestiges, with priests often choosing to wear choir gowns and gray stoles. The decision-making role of bishops was discounted.
That morning in church such troubles seemed far away as the priest began his homily on the Gospel reading from St. John:“I give you a new commandment: love one another.” At several points the priest quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s 2005 Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est – God is Love.” The fact that the priest referred to the Holy Father at all was reassuring. For decades contentious Dutch renewal movements resisted what was perceived as efforts by the Vatican to “re-Romanize” the Dutch Church, and instead favored parish-level decision-making on a broad range of controversial topics. In response, Rome pressured the Dutch hierarchy to moderate these tendencies with only limited success. When Pope John Paul II visited the Netherlands in 1985, he was met by large groups of protesters shouting “Pope go home.” The negative attitude toward Rome only began to change with the coming of Pope Francis.
“Credo in Unum Deum…in unam sanctam catholicam… Ecclesiam, “I believe in one God…. in one holy catholic…church.” The members of the congregation alternated verses of the creed with the choir, many of them singing the words by heart. Public affirmations of faith have become rare in the Netherlands where a rising standard of living, the sexual revolution, and peculiarly Dutch attitudes toward personal freedom coupled with loss of respect for virtually all forms of institutional authority made organized religion a non-event. Despite a renewed interest in “spirituality” in recent years, the majority of those in the Netherlands continue to view themselves as either “unaffiliated” or “non-believing.”
“Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” — “Holy, Holy, Holy” — the assembly sang. But the notion of “holy” was far removed from day to day life. During the same years in which the Catholic community closed institutions wholesale, saw a drop off in vocations to the priesthood, and experienced a major child abuse scandal, the Protestant churches lost even a higher percentage of their membership. Today Catholicism is the Netherlands’ largest faith group, but only 5.6 percent of those who declare themselves Catholics attend Mass regularly.
Approaching the communion rail communicants knelt and received the Eucharist in their hand, while high above their heads an ornate arch spanned the nave displaying portraits of the 12 apostles and supported the bloodied figure of Jesus on the cross, flanked by Mary and St. John. For many years, devotion to Mary and the saints was dismissed. But that morning the congregation unhesitatingly sang the 12th century hymn “Ave Regina caelorum,” ¬-describing the Virgin as “the queen of heaven and the gate of morning… pray for us.”
“Ite Missa Est”, go forth the Mass is completed, the priest sang out, and the congregation replied with the lyrical refrain of “Deo Gratias”, “Thanks be to God. We walked out to the street against the sounds of the majestic 1905 Adema organ filling the air. We found ourselves once again in the rain as pedestrians and bicycles streamed by, and overhead the tall twin spires of the Krijtberg scraped the slate gray sky. The Latin Mass that day had been a prayerful respite for a Catholic community tired of endless contestation, a curative balm that had led to the deeper, calmer water of Christ’s abiding presence.