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Bishop Jozef De Kesel of Bruges has an excellent message on the topic of suffering and death in the perspective of the Resurrection.
“All that is written about us, will be fulfilled by you in these days”. Thus the opening verse of a song that Willem Barnard wrote for the start of Holy Week. Much is said in those few words. That He shared our existence to the very end. That nothing human is unknown to Him. The final days, the days of His passing. These are also the days that refer to what is impossible, but what the Church counts as her deepest conviction: that He is risen. The final days: they are the days of ‘pascha’, the passing from death to life. And in these days He fulfilled all that was written about us.
What is striking is that that also includes His death. You would think that the Resurrection makes everything in order again and that we would better forget this dying and that death. Especially considering how scandalous that dying was: condemned and executed. But that dying and death does belong to what He fulfilled in those final days. No Easter without Good Friday. Death is also part of the Pascal mystery.
The Church has never been tempted to hide or trivialise that death, let alone suppress it. Paul says with emphasis: “We are preaching a crucified Christ” (1 Cor.1 :23). And when Holy Week begins with the introit of Maundy Thursday, we sing: “Let our glory be in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In Him we have salvation, life and resurrection, through Him we are rescued and set free.”
Glory in the Cross, that is a strange and alienating thing to say. Isn’t suffering being cherished here? Isn’t it explained as something positive? That is something that the Church and Christianity is sometimes accused of. A sort of mystification of suffering. When, a few weeks, the expansion of the euthanasia bill for minors was voted on, we were confronted again with that criticism. Are faithful not aware of the suffering of people? Shouldn’t people be freed from that suffering? Is that not the ultimate at of compassion? Or is it perhaps meaningful and good that people suffer?
Suffering is something we should pursue. That would be absurd. Pain must be relieved and that is possible today. Therapeutic stubbornness can’t be justified. Christianity does not cherish suffering. Not even that of Jesus. Jesus did not seek out suffering. The Gospel informs us that Jesus, when things did indeed get dangerous for Him, retreated more and more. Now and then we read that He did not show Himself in public. In the end He even prayed that that cup could pass Him by. He tried to avoid danger as much as possible. But not at the expense of His mission. He would complete that mission to the end. And if the Cross was part of it, He would accept it. He said so to His disciples: “Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).
But there is one question that remains. Why did God not answer the prayer of Jesus? Why couldn’t He change the minds of those who wanted to kill Jesus? Why couldn’t God arrange this differently, without that suffering and without that Cross? For faithful people the Resurrection is the ultimate answer to that question. Here, God breaks through all barriers. Indeed, what awaits is neither more nor less than a new creation. But not without that detour of suffering an death. Like the People of God once, when it left Egypt and tried to escape from a life of slavery, had to make a detour through the desert, a place of testing and suffering. Why no direct route to the promised land? Why that detour? Why Jesus’ death? There is only one answer to that question: because that detour, because suffering and death are a part of the human condition. We are not gods but human beings. About Jesus it is also said: “Who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. [...] and being in every way like a human being” (Phil. 2:6-7).
In the media debate about the expansion of the euthanasia I gradually started to ask myself this question: doesn’t all this also have to do with the fact that death is loosing its place in our secular society? That life is being arranged in such a way that it doesn’t really exist? It is being banned as much as possible from life. And when it comes and can’t be avoided, let it strike as quickly as possible. The euthanasia file is no longer about the physically unbearable suffering. It is increasingly about psychological suffering. And while the danger of a slippery slope as denied at first, the transition seems fairly obvious. Psychological suffering is real suffering, so why exclude it? And why not go further? Existential suffering also exists. Suffering because the meaning of life itself has been affected. It is striking that suicide is no longer a taboo today. Of course it is shocking in the case of young people. And that is the focus is rightfully on prevention. But the elderly? These are people that are “done” with life and so “step out of it”. That language says much. Suicide becomes a lucid and courageous act. Death is being made harmless from the start because it is no longer recognised for what it really is: a sign of radical finality. A sign that I did not decide or want my existence but was given it. A sign that I am not my own origin.
In a column in De Standaard rector Torfs rightfully notes, “life must be beautiful, and if it is not, death is an option. Suicide is today not just an escape for people who are deeply unhappy. It is equally there for someone who, after careful deliberation, decides that his happiness is not enough”. Where one no longer realises that finality and mortality, and so also death, are an essential part of what it means to be “a human being on earth”, life itself in its deepest sense becomes trivialised. Life in itself has then no meaning or value. Meaning and value depend on a presupposed quality to which it has to answer. But what is quality? The lightness with which “stepping out of life” is being discussed ultimately refers to the lightness with which life itself is being discussed.
The Christian faith in the Resurrection does not trivialise death. It belongs to our finite and mortal existence. And it is that finite existence that Christ wanted to share with us. Everything that is written about us, is fulfilled by Him. Including our death. Even if our culture tries to keep death as much as possible out of sight, death is and remains a mystery that we will never fully comprehend, let alone solve. Christian is no mysticism of suffering. But it does not deny death. But – and this is the heart of our faith – it is taken up in the even greater mystery of God’s love defeating death. That is what Christ fulfilled for us.”
It seemed like an April Fools’ joke at first, but if it is, it is impressive in its preparation, scope and execution. Five young Catholics of the Belgian youth collective Verse Vis asked to and succeeded in interviewing Pope Francis and had the entire question and answer session recorded for later broadcast. And they did it all via the shortest route possible, directly from them to the Pope. And the Holy Father responded enthusiastically. As he explained in a short bit of footage released earlier, he feels obliged to help a young person when he or she comes to him with questions.
A press conference later today will give more information… or make us all look like fools.
Despite the date, the course of today removed all doubt that this was some elaborate joke. Both Belgian and Dutch broadcasters have plans to broadcast the interview on television, and a photo appeared just now of the young interviewers posing with Pope Francis and Ghent’s Bishop Luc van Looy:
More reports and comments from various media are appearing on the group’s own website, linked above. From these we learn, for example, how the interview became a reality: Inspired by the World Youth Days in Rio last summer, the group, which endeavours to communicate the faith to young people in an appealing way, shared their idea to interview the Pope with Bishop van Looy, who promptly sent a fax to the Vatican and received a response with permission for the interview. The group then prepared a number of questions, both personal and general. The actual contents of the interview, which was more like a conversation than a Q&A session, remain under wraps until the Thursday evening broadcast of Belgian news program ‘Koppen’. Pope Francis was friendly, comforting and cordial and gave his interviewers a message of hope for the future: to find the treasure in their hearts and cherish that for the rest of their lives.
They say it’s a law that’s hardly going to be used. But they said the same about euthanasia in the first place: safe and only when necessary. But now we see people opting out of life for various reasons, and the system finds ways to allow them. A slippery slope that just got a little slippier, as Belgium now allows children under the age of eighteen to die when they choose to. Because children are capable of making that choice. We don’t allow them to vote, to marry, to have sexual intercourse when they want, to drink or smoke (in theory…). But to die? Sure, if you want to, we’ll help you. Life is not something that requires thought, consideration, or a well-developed, dare I say, adult sensibility.
The bishops aren’t too pleased either. Last night they published the following:
“The bishops of Belgium are very much disillusioned about the approval in the Chamber of Representatives of the law regarding liberalisation of the euthanasia law for minors. They regret the approval of a law which is, according to many experts, useless and has many flaws.
The bishops agree with all who have expressed themselves unambiguously against this law on the basis of their experience and expertise. They fully support the rights of the child, of which the rights to love and respect are the most fundamental. But the right of a child to request his or her own death is a step too far for them. It is a transgression of the prohibition to kill, which forms the basis of our humane society.
The bishops fear that this new law will open wide the door for a future expansion towards people with a handicap, people with dementia, the mentally ill and people who are tired of life. They insist that everything possible be done to fully combat pain and suffering and that all who professionally and voluntarily assist the sick and suffering be supported to the maximum.”
“Fully combat pain and suffering… support for all who assist the sick and suffering.” That is exactly what is not happening today, as a result of allowing euthanasia in the first place. Death has become just a choice, and an easy one at that, certainly preferrable to a slow and painful road to possible recovery. Life has become a right, a commodity, ready to be returned when it becomes inconvenient, and that is not just true about people’s own lives. Another person’s life can be just as inconvenient, after all, so why not get rid of it too?
It won’t come to that? I don’t know. They said it wouldn’t come to this either…
Although he had indicated earlier that the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels is usually made a cardinal, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard is not surprised that he is not on the list announced yesterday. On his behalf his spokesman said:
“He will be 75 in 16 months, and then he will have to offer his resignation as archbishop. That is why he thinks it is better that the title, should it be given to the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, would go to his successor.”
Many had assumed that the archbishop would be a cardinal in the upcoming consistory. But in not selecting him, Pope Francis is not denouncing the archbishop or his actions. Rather, the Pope chose to select new cardinals fro the peripheries of the world: more from South America, Afica and Asia, less from Europe. In essence, there was simply no room on the list for a new Belgian cardinal.
Coveting the red is something that goes against the very nature of Archbishop Léonard. I am not surprised that he isn’t, as he prefers simple means of conduct and personality, and the cardinal’s hat is not something to strive for, but to accept in humble gratitude and determination to justify the choice.
On 6 May 2015, Archbishop Léonard will be 75, after only five years and four months in the see of Mechelen-Brussels. Of course, he can still be made a cardinal at any point between not and his 80th birthday, or even after that, but the fact remains that we are in the final years of Archbishop Léonard’s tenure. A sad realisation.
Simply because it’s always good to read something by the great Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, I have translated an interview he gave to Belgian magazine Knack. The interview was conducted by Walter Pauli and subsequently shared in full on Facebook by Fr. Felix van Meerbergen, and covers such topics as foreign priests, Catholic funerals, the archbishop’s efforts to be everywhere in his archdiocese, the attacks on him by Femen and other leftwing loonies, homosexuality (of course), Pope Francis (including a theoretical papal visit to Brussels), and more.
A good read which shows some unexpected sides of the archbishop. Who knew he is apparently a good entertainer, and you have to admire his attitude towards the attacks against him, which I shared on Facebook yesterday:
“The Femen attack was the most enjoyable: I only got water on me. The pie I got in my face in the cathedral in 2010 was decorated with strawberries, and that tasted nice. Only in Louvain-la-Neuve it was mostly unpleasant: those pizzas were really greasy. Terrible.”
There’s more, so read my translation here.
Photo credit: Belga
On Thursday, the “upper church” of the Belgian Marian shrine at Beauraing was elevated to the dignity of basilica minor. The building, built in addition to the original chapel built on the site after the Blessed Virgin appeared there to five children in 1932 and 1933, will henceforth carry the name of Basilica of Our Lady with the Golden Heart.
The importance of Beauraing as one of Belgium’s most important pilgrimage sites was reflected by the fact that seven bishops concelebrated the Mass with Bishop Rémy Vancottem, the ordinary of the Diocese of Namur, in which Beauraing is located. They were Cardinal Godfried Danneels (em. archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels) and Bishops Pierre Warin (aux. Namur), Aloys Jousten (em. Liège), Guy Harpigny (Tournai), Antoon Hurkmans (‘s Hertogenbosch, Netherlands), Gérard Coliche (aux. Lille, France) and Pierre Raffin (Metz, France).
The new basilica is unique in several aspects. It is very young for a basilica, as it was consecrated only in 1960, and it stands out in its concrete barrenness. There are no decorations and statues (ony very subdued Stations of the Cross). The architect of the building wanted all attention to be on the altar.
Evidently, the vitality of the devotion and the faith displayed here is strong enough to overrule the other unofficial requirements for a minor basilica: that it be of a certain age (usually understood to be in the range of centuries) and of an outstanding beauty.
Our Lady with the Golden Heart is the 28th minor basilica in Belgium, and the fourth in the Diocese of Namur.
Bishop Vancottem’s homily follows in my English translation below:
It is with joy that we are gathered in this in this upper church of the shrine of Beauraing, which was elevated to the status of basilica today.
When Mary appears to the children of Beauraing, it sometimes happens that she says nothing; but it is her attitude and her gestures that speak. Her smile. The arms that are opened. And how can we not be touched when she shows us her heart, as a heart of gold? A mother’s heart which is an expression of the tenderness and the love of the heart of God. A golden heart which reflects all the love of Jesus – Jesus, who, as the mouthpiece of God’s love for all people, goes to the extreme by dying on a cross -, and so one couldn’t give this basilica a better name than that of Our Lady with the Golden Heart. With this, the basilica does not replace the chapel that Mary requested from the children. In a sense, it is an extension of it, and an invitation to answer increasingly better to that other wish of Mary’s to come a pilgrimage here.
In the Gospel of the Annunciation we have just heard Mary pronouncing her “yes” to God. The Gospel ends with these words: “And the angel left her”, which indicates that Mary, according to the Gospel, received no further special revelations. She continued “her pilgrimage of faith” through the dark moments and hardships of life. “[T]he Blessed Virgin,” the Council states, “advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully persevered in her union with her Son unto the cross” (Lumen Gentium, 58).
For us, who are still on or pilgrimage in a world where our faith is often tested, the faith of Mary is an example. What was announced by the angel is impossible, humanly speaking. And yet the answer of Mary is a simple and clear: “You see before you the Lord’s servant, let it happen to me as you have said”. Mary trusts the Word of God and devotes her entire life to the service of the “Son of God”. This is typical of the “Gospel image” of the Virgin Mary: Her initial “yes” will develop into lifelong loyalty.
At the moment of her Son’s birth, faith was needed to recognise the promised Saviour in this child of Bethlehem.
- Of the many years of Jesus of Nazareth’s hidden life, the Evangelists only remembered the moment when Jesus was found in the temple. That was a moment of darkness in Mary’s faith. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”, Jesus tells His parents. But, the Gospel adds, “they did not understand what he meant. … His mother stored up all these things in her heart” (Luke 2: 48-51).
- Mary suffers the most radical test at the foot of the cross. She stands there, and it is there that she becomes the Mother of all the faithful. It is there that she receives her mother’s heart. It is there that we understand that we can entrust ourselves to her motherly protection.
How important it is to discover the mother of God. Our mother began her journey in faith, like us her children, through dark moments and the tests of life. Her “pilgrimage” is also ours. The “yes” of the Annunciation led Mary to the foot of the cross. But the cross has become a Glorious Cross, an elevated cross. The cross leads to the shining light of the resurrection.
Coming to Beauraing on pilgrimage, we meet Mary, but only to let her lead us to her Son. “Do you love my Son?” she asks. “Do you love me?””Pray, pray often, pray always.”
In this Year of Faith, in the heart of this Eucharist, she achieves for us, through her prayer, that we advance in faith in Jesus, her Son, died and risen, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Oh Mary, teach us to weather the tribulations of life, to utter a yes to God without equivocating, as you did at the Annunciation by the angel. Be our guide on the way that leads to God, through our yes that we repeat every day.”
The coming pastoral year will be especially dedicated to catechesis. The Catechesis Commission of the Bishops’ Conference will issue a document in early September about the pastoral course concerning the sacraments of Christian initiation. We will have the opportunity to discuss that further later.
I wish you all a good start of the pastoral year!
Photo credit:  Notre-Dame de Beauraing,  Tommy Scholtes
Happy birthday to Bishop Gerard Johannes Nicolaus de Korte, who today marks his 58th birthday.
Bishop de Korte was born in Vianen, Diocese of Haarlem (today Diocese of Rotterdam), and became a priest and later auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Utrecht, before becoming ordinary of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden.
“Paprocki said he could accept some legal protections for same-sex couples, but that same-sex marriage is “inimical to the common good” and civil unions often are marriage masquerading under another name.”
“It is a good thing for states to regulate relations between people of the same sex, but for the Church that is not true marriage, between man and woman. So you must add a new word to the dictionary. But the fact that it is legal [...] is not something that the Church can say anything about.”
Two quotes from two different sources. In recent days, one has generally been hailed as brave and Catholic, the other as in defiance to what the Church teaches and pandering to society’s whims. The first quote is from Michael Clancy in the National Catholic Reporter, describing a comment made by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield (pictured at left) in a debate about same-sex marriage, the other from Godfried Cardinal Danneels (pictured below) in an interview for De Tijd. Bishop Paprocki is generally much appreciated in orthodox Catholic circles, and rightly so, while Cardinal Danneels is not, and often just as rightly so. But in this case, it appears as if the same thoughts and comments are treated differently, solely based upon who uttered them.
The issue of same-sex marriage is a thorny one, as it involves two different schools of thought on what marriage is, the secular and the religious. Add to that the often emotional and personal involvement of many different people, and you have what appears to be a recipe for disaster. The former point is clear, for example, in Bishop Paprocki’s distinction between civil unions and marriage: that is a distinction the Church generally upholds, also for marriage between a man and woman, who don’t actually get married in the civil ceremony. That is another type of union, a profoundly secular one. And can the Church exert any influence on that, as Cardinal Danneels asks? He clearly says she can’t, whereas Bishop Paprocki considers it harmful to the common good, and so already says something about it. The Church can’t order the state on what to do, that much is true, but she can, indeed she must, remain vocal about what is and is not allowed in a state. That is a direct consequence of the Church having and upholding a set of morals. So if we read Cardinal Danneels’ comment as a statement against the Church saying anything about same-sex marriage, we are mistaken. And if Cardinal Danneels meant to say that, he is equally mistaken.
Balancing the Church’s opposition to a changed definition of marriage is the fact that she is called to defend the dignity of all humans, regardless of sex, creed, race, language or sexual orientation. In that context, the Church must welcome legal protection and benefits for persons with same-sex attraction, just as she must for others. If a state chooses to recognise the fact that two persons of the same sex have formed a union and therefore have the right to legal protection and recognition, the Church can’t do anything but support that. That is not the same as recognising the morality of that union, but merely a recognition that the union exists and that it involves two people with their innate human dignity. But a union between people, be they friends, family, of the same sex or different sexes, is not automatically marriage.
Marriage in the original Christian definition, is not only about a union between two people. There are other factors which combined make a union a marriage: the free decision to enter into it, for example, but also, and this is the one that caps the union both parties entered into, the openness to new life. If one of those, or other, factors are not present, there can be no marriage. It is a union, but not a marriage.
All the above, the facts on the ground, the dignity of all human beings and the morality of actions, do not change the Church’s teaching about same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general. In fact, they are all enveloped by this teaching. No one, in or outside the Church, can arbitrarily change the definition of marriage. But that fact should never be understood as discriminatory towards certain people, or as a reason to look down upon or exclude them. Their human dignity means that we are not allowed to do so. We must found a middle way between impossibility and rights, between facts and desires.
So, no, we can’t call a union between two persons of the same sex a marriage, as its very nature prevents it from fulfilling what marriage calls for: the openness to life. But neither can we bar people with same-sex attraction from the legal rights and protections enjoyed by other persons. So, as both Bishop Paprocki and Cardinal Danneels have stated, the Church can support a state’s legal regulation and protection of same-sex unions, but she can’t change what marriage is, can’t support the state doing that, and nor should she be forced to pretend to.
And in closing, let’s not muddle the issue, which is sensitive and difficult enough, with our thoughts about who said what. Even people we don’t often agree with can be correct.