The Italian Bishops have come up with a series of guidelines for deconsecrated churches, in which they urge that redundant places of worship be converted into libraries and community centres before into hotels, houses, discos or casinos.

– Concert halls, nightclubs, skate parks… no

As Crux reported February 28, the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) presented this week recommendations drawn up with the government on what to do with Catholic churches no longer used by their communities as worship spaces.

In comments to Crux, CEI secretary general Bishop Stefano Russo said that in the event of churches going on the property market, the Bishops’ wish is that as much as possible they continue to “cared for by the community, particularly the Christian community”, and that “they can preserve their function as a place of worship”.

The Italian prelates’ desire comes as more and more churches in Europe and beyond are meeting undesirable ends once their lives as places of worship have come to an end, including being put to use as concert halls, nightclubs or skate parks.

– Can’t put a price on patrimony

Carlo Birrozzi, Director of the Central Institute for Catalogue and Documentation in Italy, said that “the best of the possible hypotheses” for deconsecrated churches is that their new owners “affirm the values, read the history” of the structures and transform them into pastoral work and catechesis centres, or even libraries, thereby maintaining as much as possible the original architecture, meaning and ambience of the buildings.

What neither the Bishops nor the Institute want to see is deconsecrated churches “reduced… into restaurants, clubs, and supermarkets”, Birrozzi said.

Russo also explained to Crux that another undesirable end for a church would be for it to end up in private hands, given that “the Church has always been a public place open to everyone, so when you sell for another intention, it is no longer a fluid place”.

“Because of this, you can’t generalise on how much a church costs. When a church conserves, both outside and inside, the elements that strongly characterise it as a church, it becomes much more difficult to change it and sell it”, Russo added in general terms.

On deconsecrated churches, “we have the duty to preserve [them], also as a testimony for the value that these buildings have”, the CEI spokesman said.

– Pope Francis’ advice: Church goods “do not have an absolute value”

The question of what to do with deconsecrated churches is one that’s becoming more and more urgent in Europe and around the world, given the decimation of the numbers of faithful coming to Mass every Sunday due to secularisation, the plunge in priestly vocations, and Church economic, financial and sex scandals.

It was for that reason that in November 2018 the Vatican Council for Culture, the Italian Bishops Conference and the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Faculty of History and Cultural Heritage of the Church organised a conference on the theme: “Doesn’t God Dwell Here Anymore? Decommissioning places of worship and integrated management of ecclesial cultural heritage”.

In a message to that conference, Pope Francis recalled that “the observation that many churches, which until a few years ago were necessary, are now no longer thus… should be welcomed in the Church not with anxiety, but as a sign of the times that invites us to reflection and requires us to adapt”.

The Pope also invoked what he called the “constant ecclesial teaching which, while inculcating the duty of protection and conservation of the Church’s goods, and in particular of cultural heritage, declares that they do not have an absolute value, but in case of necessity they must serve the greater good of the human being and especially at the service of the poor”.

That’s why he “strongly recommend[ed]” that every decision to do with the reuse of unused churches “be the fruit of a concerned reflection conducted within the Christian community and in dialogue with the civil community”.

“Decommissioning must not be first and only solution to be considered, nor must it be carried out with the scandal of the faithful. Should it become necessary, it should be inserted in the time of ordinary pastoral planning, be proceeded by adequate information, and be a shared decision, as far as possible”, Francis recommended.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.