Pastor Eveline

As the German army retreated from Holland at the end of World War II, its leaders decided, with a certain ecumenical impartiality, to blow up the bell towers of both the Catholic and the Reformed churches in Zevenbergen, near Breda, fearing that these would be used as lookout posts. After the war, the towers were quickly rebuilt. Today they stand as architectural statements to both the importance of religion in the Netherlands and to its long-standing sectarian division (see Timothy P. Schilling, page 10).

The Calvinists, in their elegant gothic church, an edifice they acquired at the Reformation, taught that no sacerdotal mediation was necessary between the believer and God. There was no sacrament of holy orders, no real presence in the Eucharist. The Catholics, in their solid 1930 brick building, strongly emphasized the importance of the priesthood and the Mass. Today’s young Catholics in Zevenbergen should be forgiven if they seem to have forgotten the centrality of both, for now the priest arrives only once every five weeks.

This does not mean that there is no reason to go to church other Sundays. Nor does it mean that there is no resident pastor. The pastor is now a nonordained woman, Pastor Eveline, who does not offer Mass, hear confessions, or anoint the sick.

The change from resident male priest to female pastor was not an easy adjustment for some parishioners. Even now my friends in Zevenbergen, a young Dutch-French couple who studied in Chicago, are still getting used to it. Each Sunday, Pastor Eveline leads a service of readings and songs. She has a fine voice and is aided by a good choir, a splendid pipe organ, and a highly competent organist. Wearing a beautiful vestment, something between a priest’s chasuble and deacon’s dalmatic, she processes to the altar led by two altar boys (no altar girls!). Her sermons are long by American standards, but they are delivered with passion and enthusiasm. After the readings and a prayer, she goes to the tabernacle and removes a large ciborium containing hosts consecrated by the priest on his last visit. She and an elderly man distribute Communion to the congregation, and the service concludes quickly. When I visited, everyone was invited to come to an area behind the altar to examine a collection of Greek and Russian icons Pastor Eveline had assembled. No one seemed in a hurry to leave, and many stayed to fill the front pews for a baptism that was to follow.

Ordinarily, Eveline does the Sunday baptisms, but since my friends had invited me to baptize their new baby, she assisted wearing an alb, and a stole that she had bought in the Holy Land. She invited the little cousins and other children to hold lighted candles around the baby and to sing “Happy Birthday, Little Vincent.” After the baptism, she gave the baby a taste of milk and honey, as is done in the oriental rites. Later, she told me that she conducts the parish funerals but that a priest comes to witness the marriages.

Pastor Eveline is one of five lay pastors who now serve a cluster of towns in the diocese of Breda. While the priest comes every fifth week to offer Mass, she is the person who speaks for the Catholic Church four Sundays out of every five, the one who preaches and prays, who presents the body of the Lord in Holy Communion, and who instructs and consoles.

Some questions arise. Is this a stop-gap measure? Will Pastor Eveline be replaced if, per impossibile, enough celibate males come forward for ordination? Will a growing number of people ask why Pastor Eveline and her dedicated female colleagues cannot also celebrate Mass, hear confessions, and anoint the sick? Several Dutch and Belgian priests told me that female hospital chaplains are already anointing patients, as it is almost impossible to find priests to give the official sacrament. Will young women desiring parish ministry soon outnumber male seminarians (as has happened in several American Protestant denominations)? Will the prohibition against ordaining women be seen as unjust and foolish as more and more women are appointed pastors of priestless parishes? Will the already limited opportunities for sacramental confession become all the more rare? Will the sacrificial reality of the Sunday Mass become a cherished memory as a new generation becomes accustomed to the somewhat “Protestant” weekly prayer service?

There are prelates in high places who do not want to hear these questions, and who are even more uncomfortable with the possible answers. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is nudging the Catholic Church to begin thinking “outside the box.” Could it be that something of our church’s future can already be discerned in the parish at Zevenbergen and in its new pastor? end

Published in the 2003-11-21 issue: 

The Reverend Willard F. Jabusch is chaplain emeritus of the University of Chicago.

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