by D. FINDLAY
fiVER the past few years
the image of Holland has changed from that of a place of well-laid towns, prosperous contented burghers. placid Friesian cattle and Heineken beer to that of a country of religious ferment.
How much of what people here have heard about the Dutch Church is true? After living in the country for almost three years I can only give my personal impressions.
publicity has been given to events which are taken out of context or which represent the activities of only a minority. The general lack of awareness of the country does not help matters. However, it is undeniable that the tone of Dutch Catholicism is very different from that in these islands.
Generally. the Catholics of the Netherlands fall into three broad groups: The majority of ordinary people and priests who are all for change and development where necessary, so long as it is in conformity with the basic Christian message;
The conservatives, who arc quite a large minority and principally consist of older people who want to preserve a more traditional form of Catholicism. whose voices are the periodical Con frontalie and the organisation "The St. Michael Legion";
And. finally. people whose ideas and theology fade into humanism and who see Christ just as another great man.
The middle-of-the-roaders have few mental blockages against new developments in theology and practice and make a clear distinction between the timebound and the timeless elements of Christianity.
Their willingness to experiment where the way is open does lead to some odd results at times and one or two resounding flops. but it is probably true that "the man who never made a mistake never made anything else" — and they have their successes too. The famous Dutch Catechism has inaugurated a new era in adult catechesis.
The group which we might roughly call Christian Humanists. I have been told, is quite large. It consists to a great degree of people with a Catholic background or who live in areas of the country like Brabant and Limburg where Catholicism is intrinsically bound up with the local culture, and who still go through the motions of Catholicism out of habit or because it is the done thing.
This is often combined with a strong admiration for the kind of life which Christ advocated we should lead.
There is a feeling abroad that change in Holland has occurred out of the blue, that it represents a sudden frenzied attempt to be trendy at all costs. This. in general. is not accurate. It is a truism of human life that nobody ever changes a system or thing which works.
The plain fact was that Christianity was rapidly falling out of the lives of people in a country which was traditionally — to all appearances -Christian to the core.
In the immediate past not only was the strongest political rivalry that 'between the Catholic and the Protestant political parties (which are still the largest in the country although they are now in a coalition) but also between everything front Catholic and Protestant newspapers to assistant candlestick-makers unions.
It was a matter of either standing idly by or acting in the new spirit of the Vatican Council to try and save the situation.
And the changes in general aren't all that out of this world. The Dutch liturgy is simpler and more streamlined than ours, particularly with regard to the Offertory, and Communion is normally given out on the hand, sometimes by lay people assisting the priest. The majority of people receive Communion.
Oral Confession has died out through disuse by the people, although it always has been and still is available. A service of penance has been brought in. the sacramentality of which is still a matter of debate among theologians.
The responses at Mass are. however, made with varying enthusiasm and sometimes are practically non-existent. The number of young people in the churches is also often
minimal except during special youth Masses.
The position of Christianity among young people is awkwald to assess. It is true that theology is a popular subject of study at universities and often of conversation. but whether this indi cates anything more than theoretical interest I would doubt, for many people at present find religion fascinatingly interesting but irrelevant to ordinary life.
However. I know one priest theologian who runs seven different discussion groups a week for young people on the subject of theology, and I know personally that the interest of those involved is strong and genuine.
Then there is a teenagers' choir and liturgy group run by another priest of my acquaintance in which the youngsters concerned give up a great deal of their spare time to singing practices and the preparation of the variable parts of the Mass. Although this takes time and effort it is done with great enthusiasm and is something
which one would not readily come across elsewhere.
A friend of mine went along to Mass at the University of Tilburg students' chapel and received an unfavourable impression of things.
He told me that there was a large poster advocating optional celibacy behind the altar, at which the priest. dressed in a very bourgeois business suit was standing engaged in conversation with someone, when all of a sudden he began saying Mass. The whole thing is naturally, of course, very experimental.
What of the priesthood? In general Dutch priests seem friendly and hard working in a situation which can often be bitterly disappointing. It has been said of them that it is they rather than the laity who have made the running as far as "being progressive" is concerned. and I think that this is true to some extent.
Many lay people seem less enthusiastic in that direction than priests. Some of them may hold views with which many people here might not agree, but that does not necessarily indicate that they are heretics.
We have nO monopoly of the truth or necessarily the best way of expressing it here. Most of them are making an honest attempt to reflect God in trying times.
The priest shortage is of course serious in Holland, and the experiment with clerical education which was first undertaken some years ago with regard to the Concenfraties is a generally acknowledged failure. This involved doing away with traditional seminaries and sending clerical students to the universities to study theology on the same basis as everyone else.
Most did not persevere, due perhaps in part it has been said to a lack of cohesive community life.
'However, another experiment in which four or five clerical students live in the same digs or flat while studying at the university with the emphasis on a strong community spiritual life is apparently working very successfully with a missionary congregation in Tilburg.
At the moment there is only one traditional seminary left in Holland and that belongs to the British-centred Mill Hill Fathers. But it is run on modern and sensible I ines.
All in all the Dutch Church presents a strange combination of vitality and decay at the moment. and all easy generalisations one way or the other are bound to be inaccurate.