The contribution of international communities of religious to the future of the church

Gerard Moorman

More | Reflective articles

The contribution of international communities of religious to the future of the church

Gerard Moorman

More | Reflective articles

What do mission and evangelism mean at the beginning of this new millennium? The rapid globalization of recent decades has meant that there is almost no place in the world where people have never come into contact with the Christian faith. At the same time, many countries on the ‘old continent’ that were formerly Christian have been secularised to a large extent. The most vital churches can now be found in the southern hemisphere. ‘New missionaries’ from these churches have been contributing to the future of church and faith in the Netherlands since the 1990s.

In 2006 there were 8500 religious in the Netherlands, 185 of whom came from abroad. In 2019 there were 448 foreigners out of a total of 3859 religious. At the moment, foreigners make up more than 10 percent of the religious in the Netherlands. Approximately two thirds of the foreign religious come from a non-European country – with Indonesians as the largest group, followed by Filipinos and Indians. The numbers of religious from the Netherlands and from other countries will only converge in the coming years; there is no need to be a clairvoyant for that.

The group of ‘new missionaries’ is extraordinarily diverse, not only in terms of origin, but also in terms of their spirituality. A first large group that I would like to mention are the members of missionary congregations such as the Society of the Divine Word (SVD), the Missionaries Servants of the Holy Spirit (SSpS), the Spiritans (CSSp), the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC), Montfortians (SMM) or the Society of African Missions (SMA). They live in international communities, often with a few Dutch fellow religious, in all regions of the Netherlands. From the simple fact that the provincial superiors of three of the above-mentioned congregations (SVD, SSpS and CSSp) are now foreigners, we can conclude that the foreign members have a significant input.

Foreign religious are also strongly represented within the relatively young congregations present in the Netherlands: the Brothers of Saint John (CSJ), Servants of the Lord and of the Virgin of Matará (SSVM), Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation, the community of Bridgettines (OssS) in Weert and the Missionaries of Charity. Another group are the religiouspriests who came to the Netherlands at the invitation of a bishop. In the diocese of Den Bosch, for example, a number of Indian priests of the Heralds of the Good News work in parishes; in Limburg, there are priests from the Mission Society of the Philippines; and in North Holland, quite a few priests from the Neokatechumenale Weg are working in parishes.

The Netherlands as a country of mission

Why are they coming? What you often hear from foreign religious is that they want to help their institute here or that they think it is important to preserve their charisma for the Netherlands. They see needs in society and dedicate themselves to the poor, refugees, foreigners. But there are also foreign missionaries who are concerned about the church in the Netherlands. “You have brought us the gospel. Now you have forgotten the gospel, so we bring it back to you.” The Netherlands as a country of mission, that’s a message that many Dutch don’t want to hear.

The Netherlands is not an easy country for mission. The foreign religious are confronted with incomprehension about their mission, with racism, with difficult procedures to obtain a permit for residence and work. The Dutch language turns out to be difficult to master for many.  They have to deal with a church with few young people and which seems to have little perspective for the future. Also shocking for most is the far-reaching secularization. They are confronted with a society in which religion doesn’t play a big role or is even ridiculed, whereas daily life in their countries of origin is still imbued with religion.

It happens regularly that people come to the Netherlands, but after a few years decide to return to their own country. But many manage to find their own way here. By now there are dozens of ‘new missionaries’ who have been in the Netherlands for 15 years or more.

Making a difference

I see foreign religious really making a difference in the church landscape, especially in the following areas: youth chaplaincy, migrant chaplaincy and what I call ‘presenting the world church’.

Youth chaplaincy: The foreign religious are often in their thirties and forties. They have more affinity with the experience of young people than their older colleagues in this chaplaincy. Out of an evangelical zeal and concern for the future of the Church, many foreign religious are active in youth chaplaincy.

Migrant chaplaincy: Foreign religious often are being drawn, especially in the early stages of their stay in the Netherlands, to their own ethnic communities. It goes without saying that an immigrant community is happy when they have a priest from their own country in their midst. This can be a trap, both for the community and the priest, when they stay too much in their own circle. But certainly if the immigrant community is diverse, for example an English-speaking or French-speaking parish where people come from all over the world, a priest who comes from that particular linguistic area can play a good, connecting role.

To present the world church: The Dutch sometimes tend to think they know things better than others. This is a cultural trait that can also be found in the church. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, many Catholics distanced themselves from old traitions and devotions. I am also thinking of an a priori distrust of bishops by some ‘progressive’ Catholics. That attitude is incomprehensible for foreign religious. They are not afraid to show a sincere and visible piety, which makes some Dutch people realize that in the past decades we may have sometimes thrown away the baby with the bathwater.

Dealing with diversity

On a somewhat different, but no less important level, I find the presence of foreign religious of great importance for our society as a whole. Europe is in an identity crisis. Knowledge and understanding of our religious roots has become limited. Who are we still? Internally, there are all kinds of political tensions at both the national and European level. Populism is on the rise all over Europe.

Jonathan Sacks, the former British Chief Rabbi, daid  that learning to deal with diversity  is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. This is pre-eminently the task of missionaries: dealing with differences, learning to live with others, building bridges between people. Mission-now certainly also means working towards an inclusive society where there is room for everyone and where people look after each other. As far as I am concerned, the international communities that can be found everywhere in the Netherlands are signs of a new unity in a globalised world.

Building the church together

The hundreds of religious, mainly from Asia and Africa, who live in the Netherlands, are active in the parish chaplaincy, set up small-scale missionary projects, are active in youth work and develop activities within the framework of the ‘new evangelization’. Compared to the Western missionaries of the past, the new missionaries do not have the money or the means to get large projects off the ground. They bring themselves and their willingness to work here. They bring their experience, their faith and their desire to follow Jesus. They try to assist people and build bridges between people who otherwise would not meet.

The foreign missionaries develop their own emphases and thus in fact present the world church. They are not afflicted by the ‘religious speechlessness’ of many Dutch Catholics – a term that Bishop Gerard de Korte often uses when he speaks of the difficulty many catholics have in boldly witnessing to their faith. We may be grateful for the presence and commitment of the foreign religious. Let us build with them a church that has a future.

End notes / Literature list

Fotografie: Erica Op ‘t Hoog (KNR)

About the author

Gerard Moorman

Gerard Moorman is a staff member of the Dutch conference of superiors (KNR) and coordinator of the group “Kleurrijk religieus leven” (colourful religious life) which brings together the foreign religious working in the Netherlands. He looks in his article at the role foreign religious play in the Netherlands, now a missionary country itself.