“We did not come to demolish the church but to build it up” Foreign Missionaries in The Netherlands

According to Ad Gentes the responsibility for mission work is entrusted to the local church. But as mission of the Catholic, i.e. worldwide Church, mission has a universal dimension. For this reason, new churches should participate in the universal mission of sending missionaries to other parts of the world (Ad Gentes 20). This mission started with South – South mission and is now being supplemented with mission to Europe.[1]

Previous research shows that foreign missionaries in the Netherlands are mainly working in territorial parishes, among Catholic immigrants and among believers of other faiths, but not among those who do not have faith or who criticize faith.[2] None of the international religious institutes that send missionaries to The Netherlands focus on what is usually seen as the core business of these institutes, the missio ad gentes, or primary evangelization.

According to one of the superior’s secularism is a “bridge too far”, as secularism is difficult to understand for insiders and even more so for outsiders. The Netherlands is one of the most de-churched countries in Europe, but also one of the most spiritual.[3] Grace Davie describes this as ‘believing without belonging’.[4] The question that will be addressed in this chapter is: How do foreign missionaries in The Netherlands deal with secularism?

Controversies and contested claims

Missionary institutes in the Netherlands no longer send missionaries to former mission territories,[5] but receive foreign missionaries to work in the Dutch society. This welcoming of foreign missionaries has been contested and is considered controversial, both from the perspective of the sending church,[6] and the receiving church. One of the provincial superiors whom we interviewed said that his invitation to foreign missionaries to work in the Netherlands was contested by his Dutch fellow-priests within his own religious institute who argued that the young churches overseas have themselves a shortage of priests.

This reversed mission of foreign priests is not only contested within the religious institutes, but also in the Dutch church and society at large. Whereas “reversed mission” can be interpreted and justified as an expression of the “mutual missionary assistance of Churches”,[7] Dutch Catholics ask themselves, what is the “assistance” that foreign priests bring, and in what way is it “mutual”? And, assuming that “reversed mission” can be compared with outsourcing in international businesses, and outsourcing is based on the principle of demand and supply, people ask, what is the demand, or whose demand is it?[8] Foreign priests are compared with clerics within Muslim communities, brought from Turkey and Morocco, who are estranged from the Dutch situation, and are in need of civic integration courses.[9]

A pamphlet entitled Church and Ministry that is popular among progressive Catholics, distributed by the Provincial and Council of the Dutch Province of the Dominicans mentions among others “importing priests from abroad” as a strategy of the “Church authority” to meet the shortage of priests and to reduce the number of “Services of Word and Communion” in the parishes. It notes that “many church communities are, to say the least, unhappy with this situation”.[10]

On the one hand Dutch Catholics understand that “reversed mission” is a consequence of a globalizing world and church. On the other hand, they do not accept that their church and country are seen as a “mission territory”, and that they are only at the receiving end, and no longer have something to offer to the world.[11] Simply reversing the “one-way street” sign is not “mutual” either. Also, other studies which were conducted in countries including Germany and the United States,[12] show that there is an ambiguity or uneasiness in the relation between foreign priests and the receiving churches.[13]

There is also an ambiguity and uneasiness on the side of the foreign missionaries. Some of them came to the Netherlands to convert Dutch people, e.g. to bring back the gospel to those who forgot about the gospel. They are well aware of the paradox, that it was often Dutch missionaries who brought the gospel to them,[14] e.g. to the “young Churches” in the southern hemisphere for which they are very grateful. Once they are here they discover that many Dutch people are no longer members of the church or know about the gospel, but that they are deeply spiritual and do a lot of charity work.[15] It goes without saying that the group of foreign missionaries is not homogeneous. They come from different religious institutions and different countries, and their views of church and mission vary accordingly.

Quantitative data

Between the First World War and the Second Vatican Council missionary institutes in the Netherlands sent an overwhelming number of missionaries to the mission territories. In 1950, 1 out of 550 Dutch Catholics was working as a missionary overseas, and 1 out of 9 Catholic missionaries in the world was Dutch.[16] But, since the beginning of the 21st century, this mission has been reversed. The number of foreign missionaries working in The Netherlands has more than doubled over the past seven years,[17] as the following table shows.

2006 2013 2014 2016
Priests 45 101 109 95
Brothers 10 19 18 17
Active Nuns 109 292 288 263
Contemplative 21 61 74 66
Total 185 473 489 441


In 2014, 8,83% of the total number of members of religious institutes (N=5538) was “foreign”, in 2016 9,3% of the total number (N=4717) of members of religious institutes was “foreign”. The database of the Conference of Netherlands Religious Institutes does not distinguish between European and extra-European foreigners, but it is estimated that two thirds of the foreigners are extra-European. The enormous growth over the past years can partly be explained by the fact that some provinces of Netherlands religious institutes merged with other European provinces which caused mobility within these provinces. About one fifth of the foreign missionaries are involved in the ad­ministration of their religious institutes. And again, one fifth of the foreign missionaries belong to new religious institutes that were founded outside the Netherlands.[18] These statistics are not complete because not all new religious institutes are members of the Conference of Netherlands Religious Institutes, and their foreign missionaries are not included in the database. Also, foreign priests and nuns working in dioceses are not included in these statistics.

If we look at individual religions institutes, the Dutch Province of the Mission Congregation Servants of the Holy Spirit (SSpS) has 47 members in the Netherlands of which 9 are from Asia and 1 from Latin America. The Society of the Divine Word (SVD) has 59 members in the Netherlands – Belgium Province out of which 18 are from Asia and Africa.[19] The Congregation of the Holy Ghost (CSSp) has 60 members in The Netherlands; 44 of them are Dutch and 16 are African.

At the European level, the Mission Congregation Servants of the Holy Spirit (SSpS) has 754 members in Europe from which 79 members are non-Europeans, that is 10.5 percent.[20] Out of 79 members mentioned above 62 are from Asia.[21] The Society of the Divine Word (SVD) has 250 foreign missionaries working in Europe out of a total of 1126 SVD missionaries in Europe.

Qualitative data

How do the foreign missionaries themselves experience and understand mission in Europe? Here I refer to three of them in an exemplary way, namely Sr. Melina Polo SSpS from the Philippines, Fr. Avin Kunnekadan SVD from India, and Fr. Charles Eba’a CSSp from Cameroon.

Sr. Melina Polo came to the Netherlands in 1991. She had a preference to be sent to Papua New Guinea, but she was appointed to the Netherlands. “After such an appointment we may think about it for two weeks. I was unsure, afraid for the unknown. Of course, The Netherlands is different from Papua New Guinea. Europe is more difficult. We had heard about secularization, but what was it? That people find it more difficult to speak about God. But how? That was the idea that I came with. Now I experience it myself, now I know what secularization is”. After she came to the Netherlands she started to study theology so she could have a better understanding of what the situation was, and what to do as a missionary sister. “In my own country, the task was rather easy to find: catechesis, recollection. In the Netherlands this could not be done in the same way”. When she started with a bible group, the interest was not that big. “People wished to read the bible, but in a different manner: they prefer bible study above bible sharing”. And she continued, “In the Netherlands we do not like vagueness. A pastor must be down to earth. Dutch people want to keep the faith for themselves; it must not be too expressive”. In a bible group she experienced that people preferred bible study rather than bible sharing. It shows that people prefer intellectual discussions above showing the bible text and how it relates to their life. When asked how she looks at mission in Europe, she says: “Those who go as missionaries to Europe don’t need to bring money … Not action is central that much, but accompanying people, be with them, and walk with them on their paths”. She specifies further, “You are challenged to share your faith, not only with people who still go to church, but also with others. The Dutch experience their faith by helping people, not that much by going to church. And of those who do go to Church, you cannot always say that they are social-minded”. Asked whether she has changed as a religious sister living in the Netherlands she says, “I have got a broader horizon … I appreciate the openness of Dutch people. I learned not to judge the life of others. The intention of mission cannot lie in putting up structures which are not yet present. And to conclude she says. “I don’t need to talk about God always and everywhere. I may not force others to share my faith. This cannot be. Every person has his relation to God. I have to appreciate it. And sometimes, I experienced, I can learn from this.”[22]

Fr. Avin Kunnekkadan came to the Netherlands in 2005. He describes his initial experience as follows. “In India I had my regular job, a certain status as a religious missionary which I lost here in the beginning. I was used to working in a fixed structure within the institutionalized church. I had my own identity. As it was lost it was very painful … I was helpless and had to begin anew like a child … The emptiness within and the loneliness and helplessness made me sad”. According to Fr. Kunnekkadan, the situation in Europe calls for a new way of doing mission, “to be a religious missionary in Europe is to be closer to the people, particularly the poor and strangers and faith seekers. To belong to them, to the seeking people, and listen, share their concerns and give them some hope in life was the new way.” Although he defines himself as a missionary, he understands his task “not to convert” people, because in his view, “the Dutch are Christian enough. There is a lot of neighbor love and charity. People help each other and collect money for philanthropic aims”, but to bring everyone together as a family. Asked to describe his missionary priesthood in the Netherlands he says, “building bridges is an important part of it…. I find building bridges important… building bridges between people diverse people and cultures and forms of spirituality, encourages us to creativity”.[23] What he admires of the Dutch is their openness. “If you are gay or prostitute you do not need to keep it secret, like in India”. Asked about gay marriage he says it is “up to the Bishops to decide”, but in his parish gay are welcome. They are also “Children of God. They belong to the Catholic family”. Asked about other liberal values in the Netherlands, such as euthanasia, he says “Difficult issue. If you suffered from cancer for many years … Not long ago a parishioner who was severely ill came to me to talk about euthanasia. I talked with the whole family. As a pastor I said to them: support and accompany each other. Pain and suffering are also part of life.

Fr. Charles Eba’a came to The Netherlands in 2006. After his study of philosophy in Gabon and theology in Nigeria, he wanted to work in Brazil or Belgium, because he already knew French, but he was sent to The Netherlands. “What I knew about the Netherlands was that it was the land of euthanasia and other strange things, legalized prostitution, a lot of water and cold weather. And I knew that there were many Muslims in The Netherlands”. Asked about his first experiences he says, “The lack of spontaneity and joy in the Church is big in The Netherlands. There is quite some piety, but this exists in quiet modesty. This will not last long”. Asked what his answer to this would be he says, “Bring back joy to the church”. “Christianity that was brought to Africa from Europe is fading away. As African you ask yourself whether this was fake, whether they [Europeans] now reject what they [Europeans] brought to Africa. But you can also look at in a different way. Now the African Church is blossoming. She [the African Church] can help Europe in its turn to make sure that the faith bears fruit here”. In the past, the older generation has criticized the church, and they left the church behind them. They let the ecclesial structures collapse. Now the youngsters remain with empty hands. “I want to bring back the faith in a way that fits the present time”. But, “this is not only a task for priests”, says Fr. Eba’a. “The church in Europe must learn that being Church does not depend on the presence of clerics. If you gather with few people as Christians – with two or three in his Name – you can be Church. Just do it together”. In the beginning it was not easy for him. “I found it difficult to accept how children spoke to their parents, at the same level, without respect. And in the church, I could not get used to women who were leading liturgical services in the church. This was really shocking”. However, his experience in the parish made him open-minded. “Now I appreciate if I am present when a woman leads the service … the stage of tolerance is past. Now it is acceptance”. Asked how the Netherlands’ culture changed him he says, “I am now more open to the world. If I am back in Cameroon, I have more difficulty with the hierarchy and how homosexuals and lesbians are there looked at”. His missionary life is nurtured through interaction with young people and visiting families. “I think that it is important that the church goes where the people are, to places where the action; then people can discover in you what the church is”.[24]

Presence, Project and Diakonia

From the 1970’s onwards, religious institutes in the Netherlands developed an approach that could be described as “Christian presence” in harmony with the spirituality of Charles de Foucault.[25] So, when these institutes invited foreign missionaries to the Netherlands they wanted them not “to do many things”, but simply “to be there”.[26] The foreign missionaries, however, came from churches that are mainly project-oriented. Coming from so-called developing countries, many of them saw mission primarily in terms of offering social services to people in need.[27]

Sr. Polo says that “foreign missionaries don’t need to bring money”. But, “the dimension of social justice is included in it [presence]. Also, in the Netherlands there is much to do in this field”. And, “The Netherlands may be a rich country with a well-organized social system. But also, in the Netherlands there are poor people. People who have to struggle for life … For those people I want to be present”.[28] By offering social services to people in need it is seen as a way to make present the gospel values in peoples’ lives. The missionaries are always ready to answer anyone who asks them to explain the hope they have in them (1 Peter 3:35). The foreign missionaries, however, do not make the distinction between “sacramental” and “social” ministry. Coming from non-Western cultures, they tend to think in more holistic terms. They speak about “integral development”, in which material and spiritual development, development of body and soul, go together.

In a well-fare state, material needs are catered for by the government. Due to neo-liberal politics, the state’s social services are minimized, and churches fill in the gaps. The tragedy is that Dutch priests think that immigrants and people at the underside of the society need social ministry, but these people increasingly go to the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches where their spiritual needs are taken seriously.[29]

Parish, Mission, Missionary Parish

Because of the emphasis on “presence”, until recently it was common practice in the Netherlands, members of religious institutes did not take responsibility for parishes. Many Dutch missionaries — who returned home after serving as missionaries overseas – did not see it as their primary task to “fill in the gaps” in parishes, but to perform extra-ordinary ministries in addition to parishes. In many cases they set up a parallel structure.

However, most foreign male missionaries are trained in their seminaries to be parish priests.[30] They do not see a conflict between parish and mission, but tend to think in terms of missionary parishes, or pastoral mission, in accordance with the Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio.[31]

In their view, if parishes were run by missionaries they would simply duplicate the existing parishes, indeed they would not add anything to traditional parish structures. But foreign missionaries want to show alternatives and add their own voices to the plurality of voices in the church.

In contrast to the diocesan priests, who tend to focus on herding the “church-goers”, foreign missionaries focus more on the “lost sheep”, or “spiritual seekers”[32] Fr. Kunnekkadan concludes, “We can use the parish structure to be present … By being present in parishes we are more visible and we can be more open”.[33]

Spirituality and community life

Apart from being one of the most secularized countries in the world, the Netherlands is also one of the most de-institutionalized societies in the world. Coming from an era in which the Netherlands was extremely church-centred, divided into neatly separated “pillars” (Catholic, Protestant, socialist) in which life was collective, the Dutch nation has become highly individualized.

Coming mostly from non-Western societies which are perceived as more communitarian, new missionaries want to show in the Dutch context that community life is valuable. “In the Netherlands there is a lot of loneliness”, says Fr. Kunnekkadan. Therefore, they stress the value of family and family ministry.

Moreover, the new missionaries who have lived in the Netherlands for a longer period of time understand that most Dutch people are not secularists, atheists or even agnostics, but “spiritual seekers”. As Fr. Kunnekkadan says, “deep in their heart the Dutch are spiritual”.[34] What is lacking in the Church is happiness and a sense of humour. “In Cameroon faith was a feast … This is lacking in The Netherlands”, says Fr. Eba’a. “Not without reason evangelical Churches in The Netherlands attract more people”.[35]


Bishops who invite religious institutes and foreign missionaries to work in their dioceses expect a revitalization of the local church. The little evidence that we have got suggests that this has not happened. A critique is that the foreign missionaries are not so visible in the Church.[36]

The question that was addressed in this chapter was: Flow do foreign missionaries in The Netherlands deal with secularism? First, secularism is not easy to be defined, and most foreign missionaries experienced that secularism does not necessarily signify unbelief. Many Dutch are spiritual and support charity works. Foreign missionaries are not encouraged to address the issue of secularism by their religious superiors. According to them it is almost impossible for foreign missionaries to get accustomed to secularization. It is a bridge too far.

The foreign missionaries themselves say that they are used to non-Christian environments, coming from India, where Christians are a minority, or China, where religious expression was restricted until recently. And, according to them, when Dutch missionaries went to their mission territories, they also had to get accustomed to the surroundings that were different from the ones they came from. The same applies to foreign missionaries coming to the Netherlands.

(Ref: European Mission Studies, No.2, 2020, pp.153 – 165)

(Gift from Orbis Books to SEDOS Library)



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