The Vatican is drawing up guidelines for the sale of deconsecrated buildings

Does not God dwell here anymore? That is the question a conference at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University will be addressing later this year.

Starkly as it is couched, and poetic as it sounds, the question is in reality quite prosaic. The focus of the two-day gathering in November will be the decommissioning of places of worship and the management of the Church’s cultural heritage. In other words, it will seek an answer to the question: what to do with churches that have fallen into disuse and/or dilapidation beyond the means of dioceses to repair or beyond their reach due to contingent political circumstances?

Many readers will have heard of churches turned into nightclubs, and many will have horror stories to hand of beautiful sacred spaces neglected and crumbling. A walking tour of any old Roman neighbourhood is likely to bring an ambler to the door of a half a dozen churches fallen into varying states of disrepair. One may wonder what grand vision might be in the works to save them.

The conference programme, however, suggests the specific issues to be addressed are mostly technical in nature, regarding the legal niceties of ceding sacred space and rendering places of cult capable of “profane” – ie secular – uses and determining which secular purposes are appropriate, or else the best ways to navigate the often fraught political and social waters that surround such cessions.

At a press conference last week, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi – president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, which is co-sponsoring the event together with the Italian bishops’ conference – told reporters that, although guidelines for the decommissioning and repurposing of sacred spaces exist, “they are too generic”, hence the proceedings will seek to articulate and agree upon specific guidelines.

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