Amsterdam, faith along the streets of the city. The Catholics’ “silent march” to remember the miracle of the Eucharist

On the night of Saturday, March 17 the faithful retrace the steps of the historical pilgrimage through the neighbourhoods of the Dutch capital city. It originates from an extraordinary event that dates back to 1345. The initiative mobilizes ecclesial communities and involves citizens and tourists. “Eucharist is life” is the theme of this year’s meeting

On the night of Saturday, March 17, will take place the “silent procession” that every year passes through the centre of Amsterdam to commemorate the Eucharistic miracle. On March 15 1345 a seriously ill man received the anointing of the sick and the holy communion. The following morning however, the Host was found unscathed among the ashes of what the man had vomited and thrown in the fire. The event was all the more extraordinary because for two times the Host was brought back to the parish church but it miraculously returned to the home of the sick man.

Procession and twenty Masses. Thus on Saturday, on a one-hour procession in the dark, with no symbol or signal, groups of faithful who arrived from world countries for this occasion, will retrace the route of the Host in those special circumstance, meditating on this year’s theme: Eucharist is life”, Jeroen Brenninkmeijer, this year’s coordinator of the renewed Organizing Committee, told SIR. “We offer pilgrims the image of the disciples of Emmaus and we suggest the idea of thanksgiving that is never self-evident but should be rediscovered in life. The single groups sometimes decide specific prayer intentions.” On that evening, churches in the city-centre will be celebrating approximately twenty Masses; in fact according to tradition, pilgrims attend Mass before the procession. “For the first time this year we organized an open seminar the previous Wednesday (March 14), the Conference of Elsenburg, the name of the Dutch family that for four generations, since the beginning of this tradition in 1881, was actively involved in the organization of the event. It was fully booked”, and this is encouraging.

Historical tradition. The specific trait of this procession is its “silence.” “For a long period Catholicism in Amsterdam was forbidden, the churches were made invisible and public processions were banned along with vestments, canonicals and religious images”, Brenninkmeijer said . “But people continued celebrating this miracle with a silent walk in the middle of the night to avoid being seen. When Catholicism was recognized again, in the mid 19th centuty, the tradition regained momentum but it was perpetuated in silence.” The number of participants continued to grow steadily until the 1960s, with a peak in 1956, when Russia invaded Budapest, when 90 thousand people attended.” That year the silent procession “was experienced as a protest against the oppression.”

In the red light district. Brenninkmeijer said that “organized groups of people arrive in Amsterdam from all across Holland, by bus and train, they take part in one of the Masses and then they start the walk, from 10.30 pm to 2.30 a.m. On Saturdays at that hour the centre of Amsterdam is crowded with people, and the procession passes through it, also passing by the red light district that has very narrow streets. Sometimes it’s hard to remain united and follow the route.” Before being elected President of the organizing Committee, Brenninkmeijer, 46, father of three with a professional life in the world of finance, was one of the volunteers who helped pilgrims cross the street in the city centre.

The respect of Turkish taxi drivers. “Bystanders react to this religious event with great surprise and with many questions. The volunteers do their utmost to ensure silence as much as possible, and make sure that the groups keep walking together. They also answer the questions of people who want to know what’s going on. This ancient tradition is met with great respect and wonder.

Some people feel ill at ease, some try to approach the groups and ask questions, others feel called into question.

This year we also distributed leaflets requesting attention and respect in hotels, restaurants and cafeterias along the way. Moroccan and Turkish taxi drivers show utmost respect before what they consider a public demonstration of religious devotion amidst a population that for them has lost faith in God.”.

An ageing Church. It’s probably the most important religious tradition in The Netherlands. “Those who still consider themselves Catholic feel encouraged and attracted by the sense of community that is transmitted. People feel involved also because the pilgrimage is organized at local level by parishes and dioceses.” Figures have been declining over the past years. This year some 5 thousand pilgrims are expected to attend, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the numbers dropped even further in the next 10 years. The Catholic Church is ageing: “In the ecclesiastical Province of Amsterdam 80% of Church-attendants are over 65. This means that in ten years … Keeping the tradition alive gains increasing importance every year.”

The program for young people. “We are working on various initiatives directed at preserving its significance also among the young generations, with the involvement of other Catholic realities. We published a historical research on the silent march and its meaning for the city of Amsterdam; it is currently being translated and it will be published by the University of Notre Dame” (Indiana, USA). “The Dutch bishops support the silent walk and most of them participate.” There is a special program for young people that starts at 7.30 pm with workshops, music, discussion groups on various themes, areas of silence and for confession. At 10.00 pm the Bishop of Amsterdam Msgr. Jos Punt, delegate for the Pastoral Care of young people, will celebrate Mass for the youth. The silent procession begins at 11.00 pm. There are always 250 to 300 youths, arriving from different areas. “With time the procession opened up also to the participation of non-Catholics, especially those involved ecumenically feel welcomed to take part.” The 40-60 age-group is the smallest. They are those who are no longer religiously involved. Some of them are attracted by the silent walk, perhaps precisely because it is silent, in stark contrast with Amsterdam’s nightlife. Others have drifted apart also to mark a distance from what their fathers had done. However, “when their participation involves a personal invitation, they return.”