Madrid church uses progressive features, technology to connect with apathetic youth

Story by Dylan McGuinness and Adam Tismaneanu 

MADRID–Saray Rodriguez, 33, strolls down Calle Hortaleza, a street in Madrid’s trendy Chueca neighborhood, staring at her as iPhone as she walks. When she passes San Anton Church, a 250-year-old chapel that recently reopened, she pauses, glances up from her phone and peers through the church’s open brown doors, reading the signs that advertise free Wi-Fi and coffee, pet-friendly Masses and its 24-hour, open-door policy. The televisions inside, flanking the pews, are visible from where she stands.

Seguinza, the director of San Anton, stands among the pews of his church. He believes the  church's progressive aspects will make people feel welcome.  Photo by Joe Thomas

Francisco Sigüenza, the director of San Anton, stands among the pews of his church. He believes the church’s progressive aspects will make people feel welcome.
Photo by Joe Thomas

“I would definitely be more attracted to this kind of church,” says Rodriguez through a translator. She identifies as Catholic but doesn’t attend church regularly. “It has things that churches don’t normally have like Wi-Fi, televisions and bringing pets also makes it more inviting. It’s just more adjusted to current times. I think all of this could bring more young people.”

And that’s exactly what Francisco Sigüenza, the director of San Anton, hopes to achieve.

“The idea, following Pope Francis’ instructions, is to have an open church,” Sigüenza says through a translator, referencing a speech made by the pope in February about the need for the church to be more open and accepting. “Open in every sense of the word. Not only being open 24 hours a day, but also being open-minded. The objective is not the technology itself, it’s about making people who come feel welcomed.”

In a country where Catholicism was once institutionalized under the regime of former dictator Francisco Franco, whose death in 1975 ended the authoritarian Spanish government that ruled for more than 40 years, a secular transformation has resulted in a religious atmosphere that is more cultural than spiritual. While the majority of the country’s citizens still considers themselves Catholic, the manner in which they practice is now dramatically less devout since the church was separated from the state by Spain’s 1978 Constitution.

As a result, some Catholic churches across the country are progressively altering themselves to both attract an increasingly apathetic society and reverse the damage done by the church and Franco in the country’s past.

“Religion has become, like so many things in our lives, something of an a-la-carte menu,” says Francisco Colom, author of a report for the 2013 European Science Foundation entitled “Political Catholicism in the Secular State: A Spanish Predicament.”

“You choose the parts that you find comfort in, like death, but you don’t have to adhere to the church’s other prescriptions,” he says.

According to a survey from March 2015 by the Spanish Center of Sociological Investigations, about 72 percent of respondents identified as Catholic, more than 14 percent identified as “non-believers” and about 10 percent claimed to be atheist. But experts such as Colom caution that the number who still identify as Catholic aren’t practicing as devoutly as those who did under Franco, who were essentially mandated to do so.

“All of this has meant, in cultural terms, the Catholic Church doesn’t have the same power as before,” says Colom. “That doesn’t mean it has disappeared, it just doesn’t play the same role as in the past.”

Although the majority of Spain still identifies as Catholic, a poll conducted by the BBVA Foundation, a “corporate social responsibility” branch of the BBVA bank, measured Spaniards’ level of religious involvement on a 0-10 scale, where 0 means “not religious at all” and 10 means “very religious.” The average was about 5 for citizens of Spain, less than that of Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Switzerland. The results came from 1,500 respondents over the age of 15 from each country.

These results showcase why churches such as San Anton are making efforts to reach out to citizens through untraditional methods.

“I really believe that [San Anton’s progressive aspects] can attract new people,” says Ana Sanchez, through a translator, as she exits the San Anton Church with her terrier after a recent Sunday night Mass. “At normal churches when the Masses finish, people just leave and that’s it. While this one, on the other hand, is open 24 hours, so anyone who passes by and wants to say something to Jesus can go in and do that.”

A view of the inside of San Anton church. In addition to being open 24 hours a day, the church offers free Wifi access, flatscreen televisions and permits pets during masses.  Photo by Joe Thomas

A view of the inside of San Anton Church. In addition to being open 24 hours a day, the church offers free Wi-Fi access, flatscreen televisions and permits pets during Masses.
Photo by Joe Thomas

Sanchez adds that she is very religious and an “active Catholic.” At 60 years old, she is evidence of a growing religious disparity between the older and younger generations of Spain. According to the same BBVA scale, people 65 and over averaged a 6.6 religiosity while those between 15 and 24 averaged only 3.6.

With the continuing trend of young people in Spain becoming less religious, San Anton’s approach is an attempt to reach out to a contemporary generation that may not want to attend a classical Mass.

“It has been my life dream to open up a church that is open 24 hours a day. There are a lot of people who need a space like this at any hour of the day,” says Father Angel Garcia, the president and founder of the Asociaciòn Mensajeros de la Paz, or Messengers of the Peace Association, through a translator.

The group is the nonprofit organization founded in 1962 that, in addition to opening San Anton as its “home base” two months ago, has a global presence in running social programs, development and relief assistance in 50 countries. For example, the organization recently opened an orphanage in Nepal following its devastating earthquake last April.

In opening San Anton, Father Angel has strived to establish a sanctuary for all those who have felt excluded by Catholic dogma.

“It is a church through which we want to create a space for those whom we’ve pushed away to come back to the church,” says Father Angel.

Irene Tórtalo, 27, says she isn’t religious and, although she has heard about San Anton, she says that she doesn’t think non-believers would be swayed in the church’s direction. Where she thinks it would be useful is for those who haven’t made up their minds yet.

“One of the main things I don’t agree with is the church’s stance on abortion, and the fact that they think they can decide issues like this,” says Tórtalo through a translator. “I think that the church shouldn’t use its power to influence people’s opinions in this way.”

Sigüenza, the director, emphasizes that the church simply seeks to welcome everyone, including Spain’s millennials of the digital age.

The registry of San Anton. An entry near the top reads "Thank you Father Angel for giving us the pleasure of a church from the 21st century."  Photo by Joe Thomas

The registry of San Anton. An entry near the top reads “Thank you Father Angel for giving us the pleasure of a church from the 21st century.”
Photo by Joe Thomas

“It’s like in the medieval times. The language that the church evangelized with was Latin but that had to change,” he says, referring to adjustments established by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. “Maybe now the language that we have to implement is the technological language.”

Not everyone has praised the developments San Anton has implemented. Francisco Javier Peréz, vicar of the Concepciòn de Nuestra Señora church in Madrid, is concerned that San Anton’s practices could be harmful to the broader religious service it provides.

“What was initially an interesting idea, is now something [San Anton is] losing control of because they are mixing things that should not be mixed,” says Peréz through a translator. “San Anton shouldn’t trust the effects of having the new TV screens and Wi-Fi.”

He adds that technology itself is not necessarily negative, noting his own church has televisions that are used for streaming larger Masses.

“If this technology does not help you get deeper in the Mass, it’s useless, it really shouldn’t be there,” he says. “Even if the church can use these kinds of methods, it must use them with thoughtfulness, without losing sight of what is essential because God has a lot of other methods.”

But even more conservative parishioners at San Anton don’t mind the added luxuries.

“I am usually a bit more traditional but this doesn’t bother me,” says Jose Antonio Samaniego, 50, through a translator, after a Sunday night Mass. “I hope the different things this church has to offer will attract more new people. As a Catholic, I really hope this will happen.”

The church is known for its unconventional features, but at their nightly 7 o’clock Masses, they don’t compromise the spiritual experience. On this Sunday night, a congregation of about 50 people fills the pews for reflection and prayer. The technology is used minimally, so as not to distract the churchgoers. Music is restricted to a man playing the organ and the four television screens simply display better views of the altar.

The leaders of San Anton are aware of the criticisms surrounding their sometimes unorthodox style.

“It’s true that we’ve had to apologize to some about this, but the bishop of Madrid has allowed us to do it,” says a grinning Father Angel. “It’s better to apologize than to ask for permission.”

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