We’re all familiar with the secularization that’s swept over the West, alienating many from the Catholic faith and leaving empty pews in its wake. What’s less discussed is the fate of churches, parishes and basilicas faced with economic challenges and scarce attendance.

Vatican officials on Tuesday set out to rescue these forgotten religious sites, and the artistic and sacred treasures they contain, by issuing guidelines on how to address their disposition.

“It’s a cultural and pastoral phenomenon of great importance,” said Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, at a press conference July 10.

“You see it in the parish priest who is in difficulty and doesn’t know what to do, creating gelato shops, garages, pubs, or even worse,” he added.

The cardinal referred to a case in the Czech Republic where a Catholic church was transformed into a night club, but there are many others. The Dominican Selexyz Church in the Netherlands today hosts a library and cafeteria. The Church of San Lorenzo in Venice, Italy, is now a concert hall. The Church of Santa Barbara in Llanera in Spain has been refurbished with psychedelic art to welcome skateboarders.

While in these cases churches maintained at least the power to unite the community and bring people together, in many others, spiritual spaces are left in disrepair or forgotten.

That’s why the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) and the Gregorian University in Rome have called for an international congress next November 29-30 called, “Does God not live here anymore? Disposal of places of worship and integrated management of ecclesiastical cultural assets,” to be held at the Jesuit-run campus.

“The phenomenon is one of the mirrors of the decline of religious practice and the clergy, of the progress of secularization,” Ravasi said.

The issue is especially relevant in Italy, he added, due to the sheer number of churches.  There is a constellation of over 100,000 churches in Italy, though only about 65,000 continue to be managed by the bishops. The others are either under the Italian places of worship fund, or “FEC”, or owned by private entities.

Finding solutions is not easy, Vatican spokespersons said. Secularization in the West shows no sign of slowing down, and while vocations may continue to increase in some areas of the world, for the large part Europe has seen the number of priests dwindle.

Full story at Catholic Culture.