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VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - An international conference discussing the rash of closed churches and how to dispose of them is scheduled at the Vatican for November.
On Tuesday, Vatican officials announced they were planning a two-day conference to address the many parishes being shuttered around the world and sold off for profane use. They explained that the purpose of the conference is not "whether or when to dispose of or sell a church — the ultimate choice is that of the bishops and sometimes it is an obligatory choice — but rather to demonstrate the need for long-term planning involving the communities and the search for an understanding with the civil authorities."
In other words, the international meeting will determine matters like what a closed church building can and can't be used for.
Organizing the November conference are the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture, the Italian bishops' conference (IEC) and the Gregorian University in Rome.
In Europe especially, closed churches are re-used in shocking ways. For instance, St. Joseph Church in Arnhem, the Netherlands, is functioning now as an indoor skate park. Other closed churches have been turned into concert halls, nightclubs or gelato shops. Still, others lie abandoned, getting covered in graffiti and filled with litter.
The Vatican conference — titled "Does God Still Live Here?" — will produce a document with a set of guidelines for closing churches. This document will then be discussed and approved by representatives of bishops conferences in Europe, North America and Oceania.
Italian Cdl. Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture — one of the organizations behind the conference — noted in Tuesday's press conference, "We have recorded extraordinary interest on the part of episcopates from different countries."
The cardinal said, "The phenomenon is one of the mirrors of the decline of religious practice and the clergy, of the progress of secularization."
The problem of closed churches being repurposed in strange ways is not entirely unique to Europe. Similar situations exist in the United States.
Catholics abandoning the Faith in droves is a large part of why parish closures happen. But in the United States, another potential factor for parish closings is the priest sex abuse crisis. The Church in the United States was hit especially hard by allegations of sexual abuse by clergy and alleged cover-ups by dioceses.
The sex abuse scandal has led to sex abuse settlements, which cost the Church millions of dollars annually. In the United States alone, experts estimate that sex abuse settlements have cost the Church a total of about $3 billion so far.
Another factor contributing to parish closings in America is Catholics' mass migration from ghettos to suburbs. During the mid-to-late 20th century, this led to the sprouting of new suburban parishes with modern architecture.
For example, there is Urban Artifact, a craft beer microbrewery in Cincinnati, Ohio. Located in a rough neighborhood in Northside, Urban Artifact is in the undercroft of a closed Catholic church.
It used to be St. Patrick Church. But as parishioners' numbers fell steeply, the archdiocese of Cincinnati had to close the parish and sell the property. It came into the possession of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and the church itself was renamed St. Pius X, but got sold off again. Then the property became a microbrewery. Urban Artifact opened to the public in 2015.
Floorboards from the old gymnasium behind the church were repurposed, lining the walls for acoustic treatment alongside a hodgepodge of other materials.
What used to be a donations box for prayer candles in the church has been used as a tips jar.
In front of the building, on the stone porch at the church's main entrance, a large plaque installed by the SSPX remains embedded in the stonework. One night in 2016, some patrons went outside to look at the architecture after a concert. One middle-aged man discovered the SSPX plaque and remarked loudly, "This used to be one of those rebel churches!"
But this is not typical for closed Catholic churches in the United States. Many of them are turned over to Protestant denominations, converted into concert halls or left empty and in shambles.