Conference organizers also announced a photo contest that will take place primarily on Instagram, with the hashtag "#nolongerchurches," and will encourage photographers to document what happens to de-consecrated churches. The photos selected will also be displayed in an exhibit, and they will be published in the Italian Magazine "Arte cristiana, Casabella e Chiesa: architettura e communicazione."
In comments to the press, Archbishop Nunzio Galantino, president of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA) and until now secretary general of the Italian bishops conference, said the topic of what to do with de-consecrated churches is a "salient issue," and one that is important for the Italian bishops.
Though the question of what to do with an increase in churches being closed is primarily a problem in France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Switzerland, according to a press release on the conference, Italy, the United States and Canada have also faced similar dilemmas.
And opposition to the sale of sacred spaces has increased even among non-believers, many of whom believe churches, even if unused, add historic, cultural and artistic value to their communities.
"What is the situation today? We have a change of context," he said, pointing to the problem of decreasing Mass attendance, priest shortages and the closing of rural churches which have gone unused for years.
The issue is a social, cultural and economic problem, he said, explaining that when these churches belong to dioceses and parishes, it is easier to keep them in use and take care of them, but when these churches are no longer associated with a diocese or parish, often and unfortunately "there is a private interest" involved in what happens to it.
Professor Ottavio Bucarelli, who works at the Faculty of History and Cultural Heritage of the Church at the Gregorian University in Rome, was also present at the press conference, and told journalists the "sacred nature" of places of worship must always be respected.
"A church remains a church even when it is no longer a church, even when it has been transformed into something else," he said, "so at a certain point we have to respect the faith of so many believers who have prayed and worshiped there for centuries."
Elise Harris was senior Rome correspondent for CNA from 2012 to 2018.