Are Churches Easily Dispensable?

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Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle is a slogan that helps us poor modern people use more and waste less. It encourages us to reuse as much as possible, even before recycling. Obviously, good recycling puts less of a burden on mother earth. But should ecclesiastical buildings, i.e., church buildings, which are either abandoned by the faithful, fallow for lack of priests, or are incurring heavy costs for dioceses follow the same trajectory as plastic or glass?

Although the exact number of churches that have been deconsecrated or re-purposed is not available, plenty of ecclesiastical buildings in Europe and the United States have been “repurposed” as museums, archives, restaurants, pubs, hotels, four-star exclusive resorts – the list goes on.

For example, the Church of St. Felicity near the Duomo in Verona, Italy, one of the oldest churches in Verona, consecrated in 1207, has been de-consecrated and transformed into an upscale restaurant with the name of Ristorante Santa Felicità.

St. Mary’s Church in Dublin, Ireland, built at the beginning of the 18thcentury and closed in 1964, was abandoned for a number of years until it was bought and transformed into a restaurant and bar in 1997. The transformation was given the Dublin City Neighborhood Awards 2006, where it won first prize in the category of Best Old Building. Now it goes by the name of The Church Bar and Restaurant.

The travel destinations section of The Telegraph (London) notes that, at the historic heart of Assisi, Italy, you may enjoy the Nun Assisi Relais and Spa and Museum: “This stylish convent-turned-design-hotel enjoys a quiet spot in the historical heart of Assisi. An inspired renovation not only transformed the 13th-century structure into a sleek, minimalist haven; but also uncovered the ruins of a Roman amphitheater – now home to an atmospheric ‘spa museum’.”

Can ecclesiastical buildings be recycled, re-purposed, or transformed without profanation?

Last month, Pope Francis sent a message to the participants in a conference titled “Doesn’t God Dwell Here Anymore? Decommissioning Places of Worship and Integrated Management of Ecclesiastical Cultural Heritage,” organized at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Francis cautioned that every decision made “be the fruit of a concerned reflection conducted within the Christian community and in dialogue with the civil community,” and “decommissioning must not be the first and only solution to be considered, nor must it be carried out with the scandal of the faithful.”

The Code of Canon Law (Can.1222 – 2) is also clear about the proper use of ecclesiastical buildings. Even if they are re-purposed, the focus must be for the good of the souls and the good of the faithful who for centuries have contributed to building the churches: “Where other grave causes suggest that a church no longer be used for divine worship, the diocesan bishop, after having heard the presbyteral council, can relegate it to profane but not sordid use, with the consent of those who legitimately claim rights for themselves in the church and provided for the good of souls.”

Ristorante Santa Felicità, Verona

But a question remains: is selling and transforming churches the only way out of the contemporary crisis in Catholicism? Is Christianity giving up? Does Francis’ “poor church” mean – at times – no church at all? And if there is a Christian revival, why are Christians giving up churches?

A church is building and people, bricks and mortals, a memory immortalized. The churches are common property built by a Christian community. In Sermon 336, commenting on The Building and Dedication of God’s House within Us, St. Augustine of Hippo states that we ourselves are the very house of God: “This is our house of prayer, but we too are a house of God. If we are a house of God, its construction goes on in time so that it may be dedicated at the end of time.”

The church building evangelizes even with its presence, and if the building is no longer even physically present in the historic places – plazas and small-town centers, in the memory of the people – how can this Church evangelize or receive any sustenance from the faithful? The Church becomes poorer – and not in a good way.

“The two small coins worth a few cents” (Mark 12:41) offered by the poor widow are not being used properly; in fact, they are being abused if there is a rush to re-purpose and sell churches and monasteries. We cannot destroy what generations of faithful ancestors have built over the centuries.

And besides, Church authorities have many other properties to sell. Why not first sell mansions, shore houses, and luxury apartments – all of which have been in the news recently? Selling churches is an easy way out. It is giving up, and giving away the store; it is deserting the battle and becoming the field hospital church, caring solely for the wounded and the poor.

Instead, the Church of Christ should evangelize and find the reasons why the churches are empty. How can the faith be transmitted to Gen Z – the generation following the millennials, the least Christian generation to date – when Christianity is beginning to strip itself of its historic churches and collective faith memory?

The religious cleansing of memory will not serve evangelization. Destruction of memory means the destruction of people who build the memory, and in Catholicism means the destruction of faith and generations of faithful. The churches were built in the hearts of cities; how can cities be stripped of their heart?

What about the dead, buried in the crypts of churches and monasteries? Would they be part of the deals? They are Christianity’s ancestors, voting with their bones. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” So should the Church.

Tradition in the form of church buildings, which are made up of mortar and mortals, are not for sale. They are to be kept, preserved and transmitted to the next generations. It is the very least we can do to honor our faith, our ancestors, and our future.

Ines Angeli Murzaku is Professor of Church History at Seton Hall University. Her extensive research on the history of Christianity, Catholicism, Religious Orders, and Ecumenism has been published in multiple scholarly articles and five books. She edited and translated with Raymond L. Capra and Douglas J. Milewski, The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano, part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Dr. Murzaku has been featured frequently in national and international media, newspapers, radio and TV interviews, and blogs. Her latest book is Mother Teresa: Saint of the Peripheries.