Antwerp, Churches and Tourism
Tourism Pastoral, Diocese of Antwerp (TOPA vzw)

TOPA? Who are we?

The port of Antwerp in Austrian times

TOPA welcome group: our objective


On the emblem of TOerismePAstoraal Antwerpen (TOPA), the façade of Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady stands for so many expressions of religious art and culture in the cities and towns of the diocese of Antwerp.

The 5 stars symbolise the pillars of the welcome function in and around monumental churches:

     * Scientific

     * Didactic

     * Hospitable

     * Volunteer

     * Pastoral

The water waves represent the Scheldt, the stream that made Antwerp great and which opens it up to both the sea and the hinterland.

The blue colour is both that of the stream and that of Our Lady, the patron saint of the cathedral, the city and the diocese of Antwerp.

Revd. Rudi Mannaerts,
in charge of tourism pastoral in the diocese of Antwerp

You find out how we intend to fulfil this mission in the following bars:

The tourists who visit historic churches are very diverse in motivation and in religious and cultural background. Awareness of this diversity should help the Topa guide to find the right tone for the tour. The public that visits a historic church can be broadly divided into:

1. The broad public

Cultural tourism continues to be popular, even if it is just ‘to have seen’. What group does not get out of the bus to have a look at the main monumental church of a tourist destination? In the cultural heritage, religious monuments and art treasures often occupy the first place. The West is indebted to Christianity for a large part of its (most famous) cultural relics. Therefore, a visit to such a church is a must on every travel programme. For many, however, visiting famous churches is little more than a form of superficial cultural snobbery.

This broad public will not easily follow a guide for an hour. Hence the importance of thorough basic information in the visitors’ folder or near the works of art on site.

2. The art-loving public

A significant part of the public comes specifically with artistic and art historical interest. Motivated, they are curious and hungry for insights and information about the building and its art treasures.

The more the compulsory “entrance fee” forms a barrier for the public to enter a church, the larger the share of motivated art-loving public, and the more likely it is to ask for a guide.

An important part of this audience are local cultural associations that sometimes put the same church on their programme several times because of an occasional theme.

3. The soul-searching public

With so much cultural consumption, one should not underestimate the number of tourists who are consciously “searching” for insight and meaning. Isn’t the space of a consecrated church building meant to bring people closer to the meaning of life? The atmosphere that is typical of “religious” church buildings is meant to invite and stimulate them to reflection and contemplation. The works of art can be of further support in this.

That is why they do not expect so much from a “cramped” professional art guide, but are even more delighted when the guide helps them step by step to discover the meaning in art.

4. The religious public

Christian believers may feel at home in a church because the symbols familiar to them offer a foundation for experiencing their relationship with God. They may feel invited by the religious frame of reference to engage in prayer, however briefly.

Because they experience the quiet of a (chapel in a) church as the best way for their spiritual experience, they consider the plain-talking guide to be a disruptor of their church practice. That is why tourism and certainly the Topa guide must respect the reserved areas for silence and prayer, as a sign of respectful hospitality.

In Antwerp, the church heritage forms a significant part of the cultural heritage. 

In the cathedral

In the first place there is the Our Lady’s Cathedral, the main church and symbol of the city of the Scheldt, the most important of all cultural tourist attractions. That is why it was the right church to start the Pastoral Tourist Office there in 1993, “Antwerp Cultural Capital of Europe”, with an international “summer community”, followed a year later by the permanent welcome group.

In the touristic monumental churches

The second field of action for Topa lies in the four other tourist monumental churches: St. Andrew’s, St. Charles Borromeo’s, St. James’ and St. Paul’s.

Because St. Andrew’s and St. Paul’s had already developed their own structures, including guided tours, Topa’s attention was rather focused on St. James’ Church (2006) and then on St. Charles Boromeus’ Church (2007).

Since then, Topa members have gradually integrated themselves into the welcoming activities of the St. Andrew’s church.

Finally, in 2009 St. Paul’s asked to help take care of the welcoming by means of guided tours and to train the welcoming staff. Moreover, St. Paul’s is the first church outside the Cathedral where an international summer community was active (in 2009).

In the other historic churches

Besides the monumental churches with a strong tourist appeal, there are many historic churches in the 19th century belt and in the districts. Their sometimes surprisingly rich heritage deserves more attention. It is up to Topa to support the local initiatives, e.g. on the occasion of jubilee celebrations, by providing PR information, documentation and training.

In 2012, Topa took the initiative for an annual Night of the Antwerp Churches in August and with growing success.

The field of operations can be broadened even further to include ecclesiastical institutions such as convents, chapels and the beguinage, but also hospitals, schools, places of worship and even private homes. If on-site guided tours are not appropriate, an visitor’s brochure can be an alternative to the reception.

Topa is also gradually expanding its operations to other cities in the diocese of Antwerp: Lier, Herentals, Turnhout and Hoogstraten.

Religious heritage

Furthermore, Antwerp is famous for its many religious street statues, for which the Cross and Statue Association works hard, including raising awareness through guided tours.

And under the banner of purely religious themes, you can also visit many a (“civilian”) museum.

With a pastoral attitude, Topa wants to experience tourist welcoming in churches as a form of hospitality. You want to delight a guest by giving him a pleasant experience. In this case, Topa wants to provide cultural enjoyment to the guests in monumental churches, but hospitality also means that the Topa guide approaches the visitor as personally as possible, if he or she so desires.

  1. With a tangible welcome

  • The visitor must be able to feel that the Topa guide is really waiting for him with:
  • enthusiasm as a basic attitude,
  • a greeting, whether general or personal, whether supported by a hand gesture or not,
  • a short welcome: “good morning/afternoon, welcome to the …. church”.

2. With quality and style

  • style through careful articulation and intonation, appearance, and posture.
  • quality through knowledge of the subject, a varied subject matter, didactic approach, and a balanced use of time.

3. Paying attention to the different levels of interest

Given the variety of expectations among the public, Topa wishes that none of the visitors remain hungry. Therefore, the guide must be open to the more deeply motivated visitor. In an all too superficial mass culture, the depth of thought is all too quickly crushed; a culture guide, especially as a Christian, must not succumb to this.

The Topa guide therefore wants to avoid 2 cliffs:

  • the encyclopaedic approach (“this and that, by that, then that”) willing to impress by displaying knowledge.
  • the anecdotal approach willing to score points by being light-hearted and hardly dares to elaborate on basic insights for fear of coming across as “too serious” (“boring”).

That is why Topa, from its preference for cultural-historical guided tours, opts for a didactic approach. Throughout his discourse, the guide aims to provide the visitor with a “key” of basic insights to help him understand art better. A “key” that you can “put in your pocket” to use elsewhere in similar art enjoyment. Hence the title of the didactic syllabus: “The key to the revelation of…”. It is precisely because of this didactic approach, as well as the pleasant way of speaking, and this within a reasonable length of time, that the Topa guide will provide the visitor with a pleasant moment that he or she will gladly look back on.

4. tailored to the visitor’s private interests

A deeper Christian sense of hospitality prompts the Topa guide not to regard the visitor simply as an anonymous “tourist”, but to really approach him personally as a “guest”.

The intended personal approach in the tour is done by responding to the interests of our “guest” as much as possible.

During the regular tour, the Topa guide selects a few works of art or aspects that (in-)directly match the visitor’s interests:

  • his study or profession.
  • his world of life, hobbies, etc.
  • his origin, in terms of nationality or residence

and this in two ways:

  • Rather than impressing the “tourist” with “our” history, “our” monuments and “our” appearance), the guide wants to focus on what binds us together. That is why he likes to select from the monumental churches what forms a starting point for our common cultural history, in good as well as in bad days. It is even surprising how often we can point out visible relations that make our monumental churches not only “Antwerp”, but also a bit “foreign”.
  • Depending on the origin of our guest, we also compare certain works of art or phenomena with similar ones in his country of origin.

In this way, the Topa Guide tries to stimulate the foreign visitor to get to know the kinships in everyone’s culture better. In this way, we hope that our guest will feel more at home in “our all’s Antwerp”.

Topa wants to concretise hospitality by, among other things, providing guided cultural-historical tours.

This means that tourists with a cultural interest can expect a correct and scientific tour from the guides, with a balanced characterisation of the respective monumental church in its most important religious, historical, artistic, technical, and social aspects.

Hence the willingness of the guide to continue to deepen his knowledge of cultural history in general and the Antwerp monumental churches in particular. This permanent training takes place during the monthly meeting of the welcome group, at Topa lectures and not in the least by self-study.

A good guide tries to mediate between the message of the work of art and the viewer. He is the medium who must help bridge the gap between the two. In other words, he wants to let the work of art tell its story. That is why “Make stones speak“, the motto of the European umbrella organisation “Ars et Fides”, is also the motto of Topa.

The philosophy and spirituality of a work of art belong essentially to that work of art.

  • A ‘scientific’ approach to art does not only imply a positive-scientific approach to matter and technique.
  • Moreover, Art History, as a subject of study, encompasses much more than just stylistic evolution.
  • Whoever overlooks or fails to address the essence and message of the work of art is not fully practising science.
  • When visiting a Roman Catholic church, such as most churches in Antwerp, it is therefore quite normalto allow the general Christian and specifically Catholic vision of life contained therein to be expressed.

Hence, from all possible angles, even more than the how question, the why question of the meaning of ecclesiastical art prevails.

The guide therefore strives for the ideal: to help visitors penetrate the meaning of the work of art, to help them think about it and ask questions about it. After all, art and art guides can and must lead to reflection! That is why we want to provide visitors with a key to discovery.

The Topa Guide who commits himself to practising such a form of hospitality does so voluntarily “according to godliness and ability (of free time)”. From a Christian faith perspective, this welcoming to churches can be experienced as a voluntary commitment pro Deo (for God), which implies that he commits himself, of his own free will and without remuneration, to the free tours in one of the churches.

Welcoming private visitors to monumental churches is a form of social service. For those who, as private individuals, are not able to call on an official guide (and pay for one), will be served by the voluntary offer of a welcome guide. Such a hospitable reception will be even more heartening if it is truly offered of one’s own free will. In this sense, all Topa guides are “equal”, irrespective of their status as, for example, city or museum guides, or in their background of study, such as art, church or city history.

Such voluntary work implies that no visitor can require a guided tour from the Topa guide, nor can he or she enforce expectations regarding language or target audience. Therefore, Topa will only publish guided tour offers if one feels strong enough to do so in that church in that particular season.

In the case of group visits, the balance between supply and demand is different. If groups call upon a guide, subject to agreements on time, duration, language, themes, and target audience, Topa aims, as far as possible, to seek out guides who can answer these specific questions. Since the visitor’s request precedes the offer of the guide, it is therefore logical that a fair compensation should be offered for such services.

A voluntary commitment is by no means an alibi for arbitrariness and even less for not keeping to agreements. That is why every Topa guide has to sign the fundamental objectives of the Topa welcome group as well as the operating regulations of the churches in which he is active.

A church building belongs to a church community. Most of the Antwerp churches are Roman Catholic. The final authority is the local bishop, who delegates the responsibility for the church building to the pastor. The Topa welcoming in a church always takes place under the auspices of the official bodies of that church, in this case: the pastor and the church administration.

To be able to better look after the work in a church and to stimulate a kind of group bonding, the Topa guides form their own welcome group per church, under the direction of a coordinator.

The Welcoming Group is included in the organisational chart of the church concerned. The Topa guides may therefore feel like a member of the permanent team of that church.

That this welcome is provided “in the name of the local church community” is evident from the fact that the tours are advertised in various ways.

  • Information about the guided tours is:
    • displayed outside the entrance, at the counter, on information boards, etc., and this as an official initiative of the church concerned,
    • published in newspapers, magazines, and other media,
    • announced
      • By the guide through the microphone
      • on the websites of Topa, MKA and possibly the church concerned,
      • by reference to it by the receptionist,
      • by individual contact in the church or at the entrance.

The welcoming guide is recognisable by an official sign. A uniform sign, such as a badge, is necessary to be able to act as a recognisable ” welcoming ” person and, if necessary, to be able to act with a certain authority against undesired behaviour by visitors. This badge is personal and limited in time.

All who are guests in a church subscribe to the uniqueness of the consecrated space. Especially the one who publicly acts as a guide share in the task to “take care that nothing happens which, in any way, is not in keeping with the sanctity of the place and the respect due to the house of God” (can. 562). In other words, he is committed to “preserve the cleanliness and dignity befitting the house of God” (can. 1220 §1).

Besides, those who themselves experience a church as a “house of God” or as a place of worship are best placed to articulate the individual character of a church.

Regardless of one’s own interpretation of ecclesiasticism, the Topa guide aims, through a subtle and enthusiastic way of telling the story, to make tourists marvel not only at its beauty, but also at the motivation behind religious art. This way, the visitor can feel that these art treasures are “eternal”, in the sense that the core message of this Christian art can always speak to people anew. “Art: eternal beauty, but also eternal topical meaning”.

However, it is by no means the intention to:

  • preach, let alone try to convince,
  • or to proclaim our strictly personal vision (hence the importance of scientific, art-historical education, certainly in the field of iconography and art theology).

Whether the Topa guide is Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican or Protestant should not play a role in the construction of the Welcoming Group. All Christians are welcome to the extent that they show their respect in an open ecumenical spirit:

  • the common Christian faith and for the specific accent of the other Christians
  • as well as for the specific character of the church buildings where the tour takes place (in Antwerp mostly Catholic).

Without compromising their own personal identity, the guides take a consciously ecumenical approach, especially to works of art that are polemical in nature.

Like any social service, welcoming tourists is to the Topa guide an opportunity for Christian commitment: pro Deo (for God). Christians commit themselves through faith in Christ, who is truly “the Light of the world”.