It’s a sunny Sunday morning, and altar boys ringing silver bells announce the passage of the Blood and Body of Christ through the ancient streets of Eijsden and its surrounding pastures.
Roman Catholic families line the route to watch the start of “Bronkfeest,” a local religious festival that dates from time out of mind.
A girl with a red cape precedes the host, while others throw flowers and wait while the parish priest gives a benediction at one of several altars along the way. One girl plugs her ears, giggling, when a cannon signals the Eucharistic procession can resume.
Bronkfeest is celebrated in numerous towns and villages in the far south of the Netherlands shortly after Pentecost – and it is just one of dozens of regional Catholic traditions that continue to thrive around the country despite a sharp fall in churchgoing in recent decades.
The 1345 “Miracle of Amsterdam” – in which a host wafer survived being burned in a fire – is still commemorated with a silent procession in the capital’s historic center deep in the night every March 15.
In the north, the town of Heiloo – or “Holy Wood” – was a pilgrimage site for centuries after St. Willibrord preached and performed miracles there around A.D. 690.
Calvinists dominated Dutch politics for centuries after the Reformation, and in 1573 they destroyed the main Catholic church in Heiloo. But its foundations were rediscovered in the 20th century and a newly built church on the site, Our Dear Lady in Need, draws pilgrims once again.
These days, relations between Dutch Catholics and Protestants are good, and when the country’s three main Calvinist and Lutheran churches merged in 2004, their first service was held at a Catholic cathedral on Utrecht’s central square.
Though the Netherlands is frequently the target of criticism by religious conservatives and the Vatican for its tolerant policies toward marijuana, prostitution and euthanasia, many Dutch are both socially permissive and highly religious.
According to the country’s Central Bureau for Statistics, 59 percent of Dutch identify themselves as religious. The largest single group, 30 percent, is Catholic.