Photos and Text by Matthew Plese
(Editor’s Note: Matthew Plese is a veteran traveler to Catholic nations and cities, where he visits forgotten shrines, mountain monasteries, precious relics of incorruptible saints, and some of the most sacred places on earth. This year, he changed course and traveled to formerly Catholic cities in the Netherlands and Belgium. Here is his report.)
Alas, these two nations have fallen far from their glorious and faithful past.
They are cities where centuries ago the Faith was attacked by Protestants and where the Church’s martyrs grew in vast numbers. Of late, they have become bastions of liberalism, modernism, and secularism.
Nowadays, few souls here remain attached to any religion; in the Netherlands over half of the population is irreligious. Catholics make up the next largest share but the total number of citizens who belong to any religion is shockingly low at 32%. Belgium – which on paper has a much larger number of Catholics – has been infected with liberalism since their 1831 constitution. The nation is a proponent of euthanasia, abortion, and same-sex “marriage.”
So in March 2018 I arrived, seeking to find any relics that remained, to venerate the Catholic shrines, and to pray along the way for their souls.
A Surprise in Amsterdam
My journey started in Amsterdam, until recently famously friendly to recreational drug and sex tourism. Perhaps surprisingly, this city of canals is also home to a few Catholic destinations – the main one being St. Nicholas Basilica just a few minutes’ walk from the Central Train station.
The Basilica has a collection of religious murals and above the high altar is the crown of Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1486 – 1519.
In a country with few Catholic churches – most are Protestant — the Basilica of St. Nicholas is actually the city’s main Catholic Church. Built in 1887, it was only declared a Minor Basilica recently. The Basilica is well worth a visit, especially for Latin Vespers each Sunday at 17:00. I prayed along as they chanted Traditional Gregorian Vespers – a true rarity in the low countries.
The next day began with morning Mass at St. Agnes Church, run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. Located just 20 minutes via tram from St. Nicholas, the church is – highly unusually for Holland — staffed by several priests.
Confessions can be heard in either Dutch or English, since English is known and spoken by virtually all of Amsterdam’s residents. The FSSP parish is a true gem of Faith in a country that needs our prayers.
Praying for Conversions at Utrecht
I ventured to explore the true religious heart of the Netherlands, the city of Utrecht — especially the beautiful Church of St. Willibrord, which offers the Traditional Latin Mass.
I also paid a visit to the city’s once-Catholic Cathedral, appropriated by the Protestants at the Reformation.
The highlight is the Cathedral’s soaring Dom Tower, a true testimony to the once-great dedication of the people of Utrecht and the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the Faith. The Gothic-style Tower is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, at 112.5 meters high.
It was there that I prayed for the conversion of these people through the intercession of The Martyrs of Gorkum, St. Willibrord, St. Oda, St. Bernold, and the other saints of the Netherlands.
Art, History and Antwerp
Then, I took a train from Amsterdam to Antwerp, Belgium, a border city. I was not disappointed.
First, there’s the Antwerp main station, one of the most unique in Europe, adorned with over twenty different kinds of stone and soaring, arched windows. The sunlight flooded the station, a welcome sight in a country with a disproportionate amount of rainfall.
My primary destination in Antwerp was the Cathedral of Our Lady, built in 1521. The belfry of the cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the place contained more triptychs than I have ever seen, including several famous paintings by Rubens like his legendary works Elevation of the Cross and Descent from the Cross. I was delighted to also see his impressive painting of the Lord’s Resurrection in a small side chapel as well. (While most of the Cathedrals I have visited in Europe are free to enter, this one charged a nominal admission fee, but it was well worth the price.)
The Cathedral itself is a metaphor of the eventual return of the Faith to this part of the world. Back in 1794, the French revolutionaries – the same ones who murdered nuns and destroyed cathedrals — plundered Our Lady’s Cathedral in Antwerp and left it seriously damaged. Four years later, the French government sought to completely demolish the building in 1798. At last, in 1816, many priceless works of art were finally restored from Paris when the French liberal government disbanded and the Bourbon Kings were restored to the Throne of France. (During this time, three Peter Paul Rubens masterpieces were restored to their rightful place in the Cathedral.)
The Cathedral itself cannot be over emphasized. No visit to Northern Europe would be complete with this awe-inspiring and art-rich destination. In fact, of all the museums and Cathedrals I have visited, only the Louve, religious art museum in Florence, and the Vatican Museum had in my opinion a more impressive art collection.
Antwerp is a fascinating town and well worth a short stop. After roughly 4 hours in the city, I took a train which passed through Ghent before arriving in my next Belgian stop: Bruges.
Stepping back in time in Bruges
Hidden in this small, medieval town of cobblestone streets is the wonderful Basilica of the Holy Blood. The Basilica was built in the 12th century to house a precious relic of the Holy Blood. The relic is a cloth with the blood of Jesus Christ, housed in a vial, brought to the city by Thierry of Alsace after the 12th century Second Crusade. The cloth itself was collected by St. Joseph of Arimathea.
In the upper chapel’s Gothic interior are murals depicting Thierry of Alsace bringing the relic of the Holy Blood from the Holy Land. In 1310, Pope Clement V issued a papal bull granting an indulgence to pilgrims who visited the chapel to venerate the relic.
The relic is kept in a silver tabernacle on a side altar. What an awe-inspiring moment to pray before a relic of the Blood of Jesus Christ! Yet, how many of us fail to recall that we truly consume (not just venerate but even truly consume) His Precious Blood – the same Blood! – in Holy Communion.
Also in Bruges is St. Salvator’s Cathedral. Though it has been under major construction in recent years, it is also worth a stop for its beautiful paintings. After a few hours exploring the city, I headed on to Brussels, the capital of the European Union and of Belgium.
The Martyrs of Brussels
My first stop after arriving in the heart of Brussels near their famous central square – which is considered by some as the most beautiful square – is the Church of St. Nicholas.
Inside this quaint church rests the holy relics of 19 Martyrs of Gorcum. These Catholics were killed by a Protestant gang on September 7, 1572. Among their number are 10 Franciscans, 2 Norbertines, 1 Dominican, 1 Augustinian, 4 members of the diocesan clergy, and 1 layman. Truly they represent the Universal Church.
Previously in the 18th century across the street from the Church of St. Nicholas was a Franciscan convent that has since been destroyed. The relics of the Gorcum martyrs were carried from that convent to the Church of St. Nicholas and kept in a gilded, copper shrine created by Franz-Xaver Hellner. The shrine is a true work of art and a beautiful expression of Faith.
The shrine rests on four lions. The panels depict Fr. Francois van Rooy, the Virgin Mary with St. Boniface and the Franciscans van Outers. Along the sides are the nineteen martyrs in robes.
Most affectingly, on the roof of the reliquarium are six scenes which illustrate scenes from their stories including their imprisonment, their boat journey to Brielle, the last questioning of Guillaume de la Marck, their hanging, the carrying of their relics to Brussels, and their canonization.
Also in Brussels is the Cathedral of St. Michael, a modest version of Notre Dame in Paris. Inside is a truly unique Baroque pulpit by Hendrick Frans Verbruggen and a large organ which contains 4300 pipes, 63 stops, four manuals and one pedal. I spent some time there praying for the people of Belgium to return in greater fervor to the Catholic Faith.
And finally, worth mentioning is that Brussels too is home to the Traditional Mass. Tridentine Masses are offered in several locations: FSSP (Minimes) FSSPX (St. Joseph) Institute of Christ the King (St. Anne, Watermael-Boitsfort), Sacre Coeur de Linthout and also in nearby Maleizen, with Fr Gert Verbeken of the Servi Jesu et Mariae.
Most Catholics do not immediately think of the Netherlands and Belgium as travel destinations. Home to many protestant and atheistic ideas, the Faith has been under assault in these countries for years.
But as my travels illustrated, the Faith lives on.
Inside the cities in Belgium and the Netherlands are testaments of a Catholic past and the promise of a future which we can help attain through our work of catechesis and prayer. Join me in praying a Pater and an Ave for the souls in these nations. Lord have mercy!