VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is drafting guidelines to help Catholic dioceses find appropriate ways to decommission unneeded churches so they don't end up as discos, gymnasiums or gelato shops.
The Vatican's culture ministry is teaming up with Rome's Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University and the Italian bishops' conference to host an international conference in November on managing the sale of churches and handling of their assets. The event already has a title: "Doesn't God Dwell Here Anymore?"
Culture Minister Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi told reporters on Tuesday that many dioceses in Europe, North America and Australia have more churches than they need or can maintain, thanks to an increasingly secularized society, fewer church-going Catholics and financial constraints.
The Vatican wants to ensure the buildings maintain some of the spiritual, cultural and social value they had as consecrated places of worship, Ravasi said.
"If it's used in an intelligent way," such as for pastoral work or cultural or social meetings or even as a bookstore or library, the church could sign off on it, the cardinal said. "But making it a gelateria? It'd be difficult."
Ravasi cited the decommissioning of a Prague church that was turned into a nightclub as a decidedly incorrect way of disposing of a once-sacred space. Italy in particular is grappling with the issue given its vast number of artistically important churches and too few resources to maintain them, especially the ones damaged by frequent earthquakes.
Another key criteria will be a way to ensure that any significant artworks inside a church being put up for sale — frescoes, statues or other work — are removed and placed in a diocesan museum "to leave the space as bare as possible" when new owners take over, Ravasi said.
The Vatican sent a draft of the proposed guidelines to bishops' conferences and plans to finalize them during the Nov. 29-30 conference. A photography exhibit of successfully decommissioned churches also is in the works.
Ravasi is planning the conference on properly disposing of extra churches while his ministry is enjoying critics' praise for its participation in the Venice architectural biennale: The Holy See commissioned 10 new, evocative chapels in the woods of Venice's San Giorgio island.