“In large western urban centers, in addition to the increase in the fluidity of the sense of belonging and anonymity, the decline in religious practice, determined by various causes internal and external to the church, has produced a decrease in the faithful and financial resources, and consequently it has drastically reduced the need for churches. Added to this is the situation of the clergy, with many elderly priests and very few ordinations. All this leads to the decision to merge, integrate or merge parishes, with the consequent under-use and abandonment of churches ”.
This is what is stated in the guidelines for the decommissioning and reuse of churches developed by the Vatican ministry for culture in 2018. The gradual withdrawal of Christianity in Europe, including Italy, has in fact also significant consequences on the immense ecclesiastical cultural heritage.
If its conservation for many centuries was in fact guaranteed by the presence of a widespread clergy, of religious congregations that nourished the life of monasteries, convents, churches, basilicas, and the communities that lived around those places, now this is no longer the case. The problem, for a country like Italy, whose history is inextricably intertwined with that of the Catholic Church, is that cultural heritage and ecclesiastical assets often coincide.
Time is running out: according to data released by the Vatican itself, 50 percent of monasteries will close their doors in less than ten years, while the aging of priests and the scarcity of new vocations describe a scenario destined to change the social landscape of a country traditionally Catholic like ours: churches and convents will empty.
To this must be added the progressive depopulation of towns and small villages, a general demographic data which must be taken into account. In such a context, inevitably, churches, historic buildings, monasteries, parishes are abandoned, sold or abandoned: a myriad of historic building structures, often centuries old that dot the peninsula from one end to the other. A heritage that risks being lost, at least in part. Or used to replenish the coffers of some diocese by transforming an ancient convent structure, a disused church, a house for religious that has remained empty or almost empty, into a five-star tourist resort, a shopping center, a bar or a nightclub. .
Consider that in Italy there are 67 thousand churches, while there are about a thousand ecclesiastical museums starting from the diocesan ones and passing through parish, missionary museums, connected to sanctuaries, of religious orders. This implies an exceptional quantity of artistic goods, furnishings, organs, frescoes, paintings, altars, works of inestimable value or simple testimonies of popular faith, of the passage of eras and histories.
A convent is not just a church, it is part of the urban, social and cultural system
But we are not alone faced with a problem of conservation of architectural objects and structures. The knot is also the relationship that was or still exists between these buildings and the people who live around them. Massimo Bottini, architect, president of the section of Italia nostra in Valmarecchia, member of the Alliance for soft mobility (Amodo), directed the restoration of the convent of Santa Caterina and Barbara in Sant’Arcangelo di Romagna (more than 5 thousand square meters ), a few kilometers from Rimini.
An intervention that tried to safeguard the genius loci of the structure (where the nuns still live) as a place of welcome for tourists and travelers, of meditation, of spiritual research and also as a laboratory of experiences – crafts and management of natural resources – updated to the times, in which the traditional activities carried out by religious meet with the secular city.
“A convent is not just a church, it is something that is part of the urban, social and cultural system of our cities. So I’m not talking about the walls, the bell towers, the works of art. I’m talking about the community that decides to live together there, for example according to the Benedictine principles for which it is essential to host the stranger. In this sense we must remember that we ourselves are often strangers in our cities ”explains Bottini.
“That world is a place where people, in addition to finding themselves, can actually come into contact with that religious community, but also with that part of the city and its past”. In a monastic complex like this, the first pharmacy in the country was born and rainwater collection systems were created. It is therefore a piece of living history that interacts with the present.
“How many other convents like that of Santa Caterina and Barbara do we have in Italy? We are talking about relaunching the villages, the identity, the places, but first we need to get in tune with these places, then we can do any kind of restoration ”continues Bottini.
For Bottini, the first reason for the neglect of so many historic buildings is not to be found only in the failure to carry out the necessary restorations. All this happened “also because those places were no longer inhabited by people and therefore, if no one controls the appearance of a stain or a crack, it is clear that these places are destined to collapse, but they collapse first of all in memory and in people’s feelings “.
An approach shared by Fr Luca Franceschini, director of the National Office for Ecclesiastical Cultural Heritage and Religious Buildings of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI). “The relationship with the communities is part of the experience of the buildings. I come from a diocese (Massa Carrara and Pontremoli) where there are many small villages now almost uninhabited. However, if there is a small number of people who take care of the buildings, they also notice if something is wrong and it is they who in some way present the urgencies and problems of the buildings themselves. And it is always the people who make donations so that the church can go forward in the daily dimension, therefore in the ordinary maintenance of a building. After all, it is precisely the communities that often co-finance, albeit with increasing difficulty, more complex works, because the eight per thousand never finances a restoration project 100% ”.
Fr Franceschini cites as an experience of virtuous reuse, that “of the convent of the Capuchin friars in Pontremoli, which the friars left for use by the diocese and therefore to the local community. The latter has created there a place of welcome for pilgrims and meetings for spiritual exercises, activities that have nothing commercial. So in the convent we return to experience a religious type, but completely different from the community life of the friars who lived there before ”.
The widespread fear among those involved in the conservation of cultural heritage, both in ecclesial and secular environments, is that in the end the former buildings intended for religious use will be transformed into shops, fast food restaurants, luxury hotels or other.
For this reason, the guidelines of the Vatican Dicastery for Culture also indicated an alternative path to pure commercial exploitation: “The privileged areas for the reuse of underused churches are certainly tourism and the creation of spaces of silence and meditation open to all. As in the past many churches did not have an immediate pastoral purpose, such as parishes, and were born at the behest of lay people, for example brotherhoods, so even today some of them, in a perspective of co-responsibility and diversification of strategies, could be entrusted to lay aggregations: associations and movements that guarantee a prolonged opening and better asset management. In some realities the experience of a mixed use of space is gaining ground, allocating a part of it to the liturgy and another to charitable or social purposes ”
On the other hand, Fr Franceschini explains, if there are still not so many churches completely abandoned in Italy as in continental Europe, the decline in attendance at religious services has its weight because “there are many churches that in some way remain a somewhat disused, which may be used only on certain occasions, for the feast of the saint, for some celebration and then risk being closed for ten months a year. And this is a very sad situation. Perhaps we will no longer even be able to pay for the electricity connection for buildings of this kind ”.
From a financial point of view, “there is a great commitment on the part of the Church. Each year a share of the funds of the eight per thousand is used for the restructuring of churches and for their safety, for example by installing alarm systems or for the restoration of pipe organs. But the funds are absolutely insufficient ”, explains Fr Franceschini. On the other hand, convents and monasteries do not fall under the responsibility of the CEI, but belong to congregations and religious orders.
The contribution of the communities of the faithful is not enough, while “the banking foundations, which in the past contributed much more, now have less availability. Public bodies no longer have funds. For example: until 25 years ago, when a restoration was carried out in compliance with the provisions of the law, the superintendencies contributed between 30 and 40 percent of the total. And this was already an important contribution. Then they began to disburse the funds three years later than the start of the work: how can a company work in this way? How are wages paid? ”.
The reality is that now “it is very difficult to have a partnership by the State and public bodies in the work that is done and therefore the only source, let’s say sure, that we have every year is that slice of eight per 1000 destined for this purpose “.
On the other hand, not all ecclesiastical cultural assets are owned by the CEI. The Italian Environment Fund (Fai), for example, has some of absolute value and has taken care of the restorations, making them accessible to the public. An example of this is the Abbey of San Fruttuoso, a Benedictine monastery whose origins date back to the year one thousand on the Ligurian coast between Portofino and Camogli. Or the abbey of Santa Maria di Cerrate, in the province of Lecce, a place of faith of Byzantine origin and a center of agricultural development specialized in the processing of olives: the complex includes a church that has been rededicated where a mass is held once in month.
Then there is the Fund for Religious Buildings (FEC), a body controlled by the Ministry of the Interior. In total there are 840 buildings managed by the Fec, including many churches, about seventy of which are located in Rome, for example San Lorenzo in Lucina, Sant’Andrea della Valle, Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme , Santa Maria del Popolo and Santa Maria in Ara Coeli at the Campidoglio.
The resources necessary for the conservation, restoration, protection and enhancement of religious buildings “are obtained primarily from the administration of the fruitful heritage that the Fund owns: apartments, shops, rustic funds.
Other resources come from a state contribution. Finally, private contributions are used by means of “sponsorship contracts”, we read in the presentation of the FEC. In the budget for the years 2022 and 2023 of the Fund, an allocation of approximately 8 million and 700 thousand euros and approximately 9 million and 400 thousand euros respectively is foreseen.
In short, the question of resources, of their finding in a period of crisis, remains at the fore in the management of such a large part of the Italian cultural heritage. On the other hand, even if there are collaboration agreements between state and church, it is the social and spiritual mutation of the population, the relationship between territories and historic buildings, that requires urgent responses.