Prayer and confession give place to drinking and dancing in Europe's empty churches

June 26, 2023
Prayer and confession give place to drinking and dancing in Europe's empty churches. The confessionals that had been used by generations of Belgians to confess their sins were stacked in a corner of the former Sacred Heart Church, serving as a reminder that both the stalls and the Roman Catholic place of worship had outlived their usefulness. In order to transform the cathedral into "a new cultural hot spot in the heart of Mechelen," virtually within hearing of where Belgium's archbishop lives, the building will be shut down for two years while a cafe and concert stage are constructed. The former Franciscan chapel that is now a five-star hotel is right around the block from where music icon Stromae spent his wedding night amidst the stained-glass windows. As religion and church attendance have shriveled over the past fifty years, churches, convents, and chapels across Europe—the continent that fostered Christianity for the majority of the past two millennia—stand vacant and becoming more and more abandoned.

“That is painful. I will not hide it. On the other hand, there is no return to the past possible,” Mgr. Johan Bonny, bishop of Antwerp, told the Associated Press. Something needs to be done and now, ever more of the once sacred structures are repurposed for anything from clothes shops and climbing walls to night clubs.

The phenomena is widespread throughout the Christian heartland of Europe, from Germany to Italy and many more countries in between. Northern Belgium's Flanders region, which is home to some of the biggest cathedrals on the continent and the best art to decorate them, is where it really stands out. If only there were enough devoted. According to a 2018 report by the PEW research company, only 55% of the 83% of Belgians who claim to have been reared as Christians still identify as such. Only 10% of Belgians still regularly attend church.