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Decommissioned churches. The Holy See recommends reuse for cultural, social, charitable purposes. In dialogue with civil communities

"Decommissioning and Ecclesial Reuse of Churches. Guidelines” is the document of the Holy See published today on the website of the Pontifical Council for Culture with the purpose of offering ecclesial communities the tools to address a delicate, growing phenomenon, namely, the reduction of places of worship to profane use and their new destination

Management and conservation expenses of movable and immovable  property, advanced secularization and diminishing numbers of believers, urbanization and demographic contraction in small towns, declining members of the clergy. This set of factors make is necessary

to reconsider the management of ecclesial cultural heritage, notably of places of worship

whose decommissioning (and ensuing new destination) represents a growing phenomenon entailing diverse challenges. While it is more apparent in some Western regions, in the short run it is likely to spread also to areas where this phenomenon was otherwise unprecedented. Criteria and guidelines for the management of this delicate conversion process are contained in the document “Decommissioning and Ecclesial Reuse of Churches. Guidelines”, published today in English and Italian on the website of the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Holy See dicastery competent for these matters. The document was approved by the same Dicastery chaired by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, and by the delegates of the Bishops’ Conferences of Europe, Canada, the United States of America and Australia, upon the conclusion of the international Conference “Doesn’t God Dwell Here Anymore? Decommissioning Places of Worship and Integrated Management of Ecclesiastical Cultural Heritage”, convened by the Pontifical Council for Culture, in collaboration with the Italian Episcopal Conference and the Pontifical Gregorian University at the same University at the end of November.

The Guidelines – an introduction, five chapters and 11 final recommendations – contextualize this phenomenon and propose to Catholic communities (bishops’ Conferences, dioceses, parishes, religious institutes) instruments to address it in the awareness of the heterogeneous nature of concrete situations. The essential premise is

the need to preserve disused churches from improper (“sordid”) use

and avoid situations that can give offence to the religious sentiment of a Christian people. It’s of fundamental importance to

engage with the local religious or civil communities in planning and decision-making activities,

in dialogue with all interested private and public subjects to ensure that the projects of transformation, states the document, “are sustainable from a technical, economic, social and cultural point of view” inserted within “the history of community identity”. Moreover, “the care of this ecclesiastical cultural heritage is primarily the responsibility of the religious community.”

Bearing in mind the variety of juridical situations of the different countries, the conservation of religious heritage “is ideally initiated by the religious community and carried out in collaboration with professional conservationists, and all other interested parties including the appropriate state authorities”, is the first recommendation. This requires planning specific courses in the field of cultural heritage, with a focus on the artistic value of religious cultural heritage and its value for evangelization, within the theological formation of newly appointed bishops, future priests, deacons, thereby also promoting interaction with conservation experts and State officers.

The inventory of movable and immovable property

(and the cataloguing of items of cultural interest) is of the essence, and it should be prepared by each ecclesial organism, while it is advised to create an international cataloguing handbook.

Every decision concerning ecclesial cultural heritage “must be part of a coordinated territorial vision” that encompasses social dynamics, pastoral strategies and conservation needs. In order to give the heritage a wider use it will be essential

for the ecclesial community to engage with the civil community in the region.

The process discerning the future use of a decommissioned church must involve heritage and conservation specialists, architects, in conjunction with the parish and the faith community.

According to the Guidelines, “The grave decision to change the use of an edifice built as a sacred Christian place”, in compliance with Canon and civil Law, should be taken in partnership with the different ecclesial subjects involved (the entire people of God, the bishop, the parish priest, the pastoral council, religious orders, associations and ecclesial movements, the confraternities, other pastoral workers, and members of the parish) in order to find a realistic and appropriate solution. In cases of alienation of sacred edifices, efforts should be made to introduce a protection clause of said buildings.

The Holy See document invites to ensure that the reuse of the dismissed edifice

is compatible with the original purpose of the building.

Commercial use for speculative ends should be excluded. Reuses for cultural purposes  – museums, conference halls, bookshops, libraries, archives, artistic  workshops – or for social purposes – charity, Caritas centres, healthcare clinics, soup-kitchens etc.), are to be preferred.

As regards moveable assets previously preserved in decommissioned churches (furnishings, vestments, images, paraments) – exception made for those tied by state legislation – the Guidelines exhort to ensure

their continuity of use and life in other churches that are in need of these materials in the same territory, or in poor Churches

as a sign of fraternal sharing. Items removed from their original purpose and with special value should be documented and placed in a museum, preferably an ecclesiastical museum. If provided, the related guidelines of the local bishops’ conference must be followed.

Finally, the Guidelines recommend that altars, lecterns, pulpits, sacred images and sacred furnishings generally be removed from decommissioned churches, as their presence could contrast with the new use of space (this does not apply when the decommissioned religious edifice is transformed into a museum), in compliance with State Law and in agreement with the competent civil authorities.

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