You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Catholic Church in Belgium’ category.
A potentially difficult situation that is bound to raise more than a few eyebrows has developed in the Diocese of Bruges, as Bishop Jozef De Kesel has assigned a priest, who has been found guilty of at least one case of molesting a minor in the past, to the parish federation in Middelkerke, halfway between Ostend and Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast.
Father Tom Flamez appeared in court in 2008 and 2009, where he was found guilty of sexual molestation of teenage boy. In January of 2009, the court, for reasons of its own, decided to waive any punishment, as Bishop De Kesel explains in a statement released today:
“For a period of five years, Tom Flamez was permanently monitored by the house of justice in Courtrai. Even during this time the probation commission had no objections to an eventual appointment as parish priest. Unlike the reporting of some media he never violated the probationary conditions. In January of 2014 the commission of the court of Courtrai decided that the trial period could be ended. Until this day Tom Flamez is sustainably and professionally supervised.”
In the meanwhile I have also presented this file to a higher ecclesial authority. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith agreed with an eventual appointment, starting on 15 January 2014. Tom Flamez has been working on occasion in the parish of Middelkerke since September of 2011. His work there was positively evaluated. All this led me to decide, after consulting the diocesan council, to appoint Tom Flamez as parish priest in the federation of Middelkerke. Convinced that everyone who has shown to be able deserves a second chance, I hope that Tom Flamez will be given the opportunity to properly fulfill the duties entrusted to him.”
This statement is a response to ongoing media speculations that Fr. Flamez did violate the conditions of his probation, something which the bishop denies. Additionally, many also link him to the disgraced former bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, who resigned in 2010 after admitting being guilty of years of sexual abuse. This subject, of the sexual abuse or violation of minors, is extremely sensitive and needs to be handled very carefully. In the first place for the sake of the victims, but also for all others involved with the perpetrator in his new duties.
Of course, Bishop De Kesel is correct that everyone deserves a second chance when he or she is able to take it. And our entire legal system is founded on the principle that once a person has been punished for a crime, he can’t be punished again for that same crime. He starts over with a clean slate, so to speak. But as Fr. Flamez has not been punished (for reasons we don’t know – perhaps the case was settled in some form outside court), many may feel that this principle does not apply to him.
Bishop De Kesel, backed by not only his own diocesan council, but also by the court and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith, which has authority in all abuse cases, has decided that there is no reason for Fr. Flamez not to be the priest in a parish, working with people of all ages, including children and youth. And in this he also seems to be supported by the church in Middelkerke, where Fr. Flamez has been a familiar face for these past three years.
Let’s hope his trust is justified, and that this is an example of how people who once made grave mistakes can leave those behind them.
Yesterday it turned out that the careful process followed by the bishop – consulting both his diocesan council and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before appointing Fr. Flamez – was not as careful as it seemed. He forgot one all-important group: the victims of sexual abuse by clergy. And it was Fr. Flamez himself who made the best call possible in not accepting the appointment as parish priest of Middelkerke. A statement published yesterday says that the bishop realises that the appointment hurt the victims of sexual abuse, and that that was never his intention. Which begs the question: why did he not realise this beforehand?
The Belgian bishops use certain guidelines when dealing with clergy who have been found guilty of sexual abuse of minors. One of these is that they can never be allowed to work with children and young people again. The position of parish priest does entail working with people of all ages, including youth and children.
We can’t know what the exact motivation was for Fr. Flamez’ decision not to accept the appointment. Was it the questions in the media which made his position untenable, or perhaps a realisation that this was not the sort of duty he could take up considering his past mistakes? Yesterday’s statement only mentions “given circumstances”, which is as vague as it gets.
All in all, this whole situation, despite the apparent care expressed in certain areas, gives the impression of carelessness. The victims, be they of the priest in question or of other clergy, can not be ignored. The Church is under scrutiny in this area, and may well serve as an example to other institutions. But not when things like this happen.
It is a shame that none of the interventions presented by cardinals, bishops, laity and other participants at the Synod are made public, a sentiment I share with more than a few, among them Cardinal Gerhard Müller. But we can take a look at at least one, which was given yesterday afternoon by Godfried Cardinal Danneels, the archbishop emeritus of Mechelen-Brussels. Cardinal Danneels was one of the Synod fathers personally selected by Pope Francis.
^Cardinal Danneels (right) leaves one of the Synod sessions. Also pictured are Bishop Anders Arborelius (left) and Cardinal Béchara Raï (centre).
“God is just and merciful. He can’t contradict himself. He can separate good and evil in a great straddle. We, we have difficulty because we are only poor ballet dancers for a moment in the whole of history.
It is up to us, poor sinners, to find ways of mercy which do not deny the truth; to find a way for the times in which we live and for every culture. It is up to us to find ways of mercy.
I will limit myself to a single way of mercy, which is so necessary today. Many are confronted with the failure of their first marriage and have committed themselves to a second marriage which, however, is neither valid for the Church, nor sacramental. Today there are many people in this situation. What do we do for them? They often desire regularisation but known that there are no options. While many fall away there are others who suffer much. What do we do for all these brothers and sisters who desire to be able to marry anew for the Church?
I regularly think that we could established something in the Church like the catechumenate and the ordo penitentium of the past, for which the Church could be a mother. Actually, what matters is more is to organise some pastoral care for divorced and remarried people, and less about an institutional change. How to form priests and laity for this specific ministry like, in the past, for the catechumens and for those in the process of receiving pardon for their sin?
In the first place we are invited to greatly respect our brothers and sisters, the divorced and remarried. Mercy starts where we have unconditional respect for all who want to live within the Church but can’t marry again for the Church and receive Communion.
The same respect is due to every actual marriage. Some carry within them the seeds waiting for spring. Very often divorced and remarried faithful are consciously or subconsciously looking for a way out. But there is no way out. In many cases couples are on the way to the ideal they so desire. Respect must be the ministry of our Mother the Church a ministry which sees the growth, the journey.
How to create space in the mission of the Church for a ministry for divorced and remarried people? In the first place, let us try and find these people. Many are hiding and dare not speak about it, sometimes not even with their partner. There is much hidden suffering. It is up to us priests to search for the sheep who want to come home but do not have the courage to say so.
Let us invite these people to come together, to meet and listen to one another, but in the presence of the shepherd. A shepherd who listens with his heart. There should be no immediate focus on the painful question of Communion being denied to those who have entered into a second marriage. True listening carries healing within it.
It is so important to speak with them, to let them speak about the beauty of marriage and the Christian family. Beauty is so powerful! This is obviously not esthetic beauty, but beauty who is the sister of truth and goodness. According to Aristotle “beauty is truth in all its glory”. Pulchrum est splendor veri.
Among our contemporaries there is much scepticism about the truth; even goodness can discourage, but beauty disarms. Beauty heals. Archimedes said about our world today, “Give me a place to stand and I will lift the world.”
The divorced and remarried are not the only suffering children, but there are far more than we think. My appeal – in all simplicity – is: to love God’s children. Their pain and suffering is often great. They don’t immediately ask for the regulations of the Church to change. Their cry is rather one to the shepherds with their hearts in the right place, why carry the wounded lamb on their shoulders. Beauty disarms. We hold the cards: there is indeed nothing more beautiful than Christian marriage and a deeply faithful family. But we must communicate the truth to divorced and remarried people – delicately – with the words of Saint Francis in mind, which he spoke to the superiors of his small communities, “never let anyone leave you in sadness”.
+ Godfried Cardinal Danneels,
Rome, 8 October 2014
Photo credit: Siciliani Gennari/SIR
Bishop Johan Bonny has been making headlines in Catholic media, first in Germany but today also in his native Belgium. In an extensive note the bishop of Antwerp outlines his thoughts and expectations for this autumn’s Synod of Bishops. Various media have presented this as an attack on Popes Paul VI and St. John Paul II and their documents on difficult subjects related to marriage, family and morality. But reality is somewhat different. Bishop Bonny does not exclusively discuss the contents of various magisterial pronouncements, but does offer strong criticism on how they came about, and how they are put it into practice.
In this post, I will summarise the text and offer my opinion here and there. As it is a fairly long text, this post is a work in progress. Expect updates over the coming days.
In the first part of his document, the bishops explains that he sees the development of an ecclesiastical question within the discussion about marriage and family, which he traces back to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on contraception and sexuality, Humanae vitae. The way in which the Pope developed this text, apparently ignoring the advice of experts he had appointed himself, stands in stark contrast with how the Second Vatican Council went about matters: in strong collegiality which led to a virtually unanimous passing of documents.
This lack of collegiality in such an important matter has led, so the bishop explains, to a gap between the Church’s moral teaching and the moral understanding of the faithful. And we do see this happening: statements, decrees, encyclicals and the like do not play much of a role in the lives of the faithful, even though they can be important for properly living as Catholic faithful. Of course, a perceived lack of collegiality can not be the only explanation for this, as Bishop Bonny admits. I would even go so far as wondering if many faithful are even aware of how documents are developed, at least not in our time.
Among bishops, Curia and Pope, more collegiality can have positive results (and also negative), since we should not be afraid of talking about such important matters. But the Church is no democracy. The very nature of the papacy, of the body of apostles and disciples that Christ established, is at odds with that. The Pope has magisterial primacy, and he must be free to exercise it. But of course it is good to do everything to avoid needless division and even opposition, although that can probably never be rooted out completely.
And so, on an August afternoon last week, the Dutch bishops announced the first fruits of a 2001 request from Rome to realise a new, more accurate translation of the Roman Missal. The process has long been in apparent limbo, although work must have progressed behind the scenes. There was little way of knowing it did, though, and as late as February of 2012, Cardinal Eijk stated that a new translation of the Lord’s Prayer – to be the same in both the Netherlands and Flanders, as the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments desired – would still be a long way off. But the differences are now overcome, and the Congregation gave its permission for use and publication on 10 June of this year. The bishops are still to announce exactly when the new texts may be used in the Churches.
As the process took so long and information about progress was so scant, there are still many questions. How exactly will the changes be introduced? Will the faithful simply be presented with a fact, or will there be suitable catechesis? Looking at a similar effort – the new English translation of the Missal – and some of the initial responses to the new text of the Lord’s Prayer, the need for catechesis seems obvious. It is perhaps a characteristic of the Dutch mentality that any change is looked upon with suspicion. What’s more, in matters of faith, one’s own feelings and experience of the new is contrasted with what is known, and the known is usually clung to. “I am going to keep praying the Our Father in my own words, because that’s the way I like it.” With a change of this kind, people not only need to know the reason for it, but also the reasons of these texts, in whatever translation, in the first place. Why do we pray the Our Father? Why does the Mass have the structure it has? Why use one word and not the other?
Words convey meaning, obviously. The words we use in prayer reflect the faith we have, and in that sense it goes both ways: we address God, but the words we utter also teach us. Words, the Word, is central to our faith. Christ speaks to us in the Gospel, the liturgy and even our own prayers, and what He tells us must be translated well. Translation can’t muddle up the original meaning. It’s too important for that.
I hope that the announcement of the new translation, as well as the publication of a first “small Missal” is a first step that is followed by a program of catechesis and education about the word we use and their meaning.
The Lord’s Prayer has existed for decades in both a Dutch and Flemish translation which differed in various places. These differences are by now ingrained in the collective consciousness of the faithful, so finding acceptable changes was a long and slow process. Not only did the new translation need to be more faithful to the Latin source, but it also needed to remain understandable. The words and passages that were the same in both versions were not changed, but the differences were. Here follows a brief look at what was changed. I’m offering English equivalents of the relevant Dutch translations, so this overview serves more as an explanation of the problems and their solutions, and not as an accurate reflection of the text.
The Latin text is as follows:
Pater noster qui es in caelis:
sanctificetur nomen tuum;
adveniat regnum tuum;
fiat voluntas tua,
sicut in caelo, et in terra.
Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie;
et dimitte nobis debita nostra,
sicut et nos dimittimus
et ne nos inducas in tentationem;
sed libera nos a malo.
1. in caelis: In the Dutch version this was translated as in heaven, while the Flemish used in the heavens. The plural used in Flanders is more accurate, but was deemed to be archaic. The Willibrord translation of the Bible also generally uses heaven in the singular, and this translation is most often used in the Mass. The choice was made to retain heaven in the singular.
2. sanctificetur nomen tuum: Translated as Your name be holy (or hallowed) in The Netherlands and Holy (or hallowed) be Your name in Flanders. The version of the Netherlands was retained in order to retain the structure of the first three supplications of the prayer, which all end with verbs (hallowed, come, done).
3. sicut in caelo, et in terra: Here the issue centered around the word as (sicut). The Netherlands use zoals, while Flanders uses als. Both words are close in meaning, with zoals something like like as, and als meaning as. The word sicut appears twice in the text and is translated the same both times in the Dutch and differently in the Flemish text. The choice was made for zoals, to keep both instances of the word the same in translation.
4. dimitte nobis debita nostra: Translated as Forgive us our trespass/mistake/guilt (singular) in the Netherlands and Forgive us our trespasses (plural) in Flanders. Debita is also plural, so the choice was made to retain the Flemish translation.
5. sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris: Here the translations differed significantly. The Netherlands had As we forgive others their trespassing, while Flanders used As we forgive our debtors. As mentioned above, sicut was translated zoals. The Netherlands translations translates the noun debitores with a description (others who trespass), while the Flemish also employ a noun (debtor, albeit not strictly in the financial sense). For this reason, and although the equivalent of debtor in this meaning is not very common in Dutch, the Flemish version was retained.
6. et ne nos inducas in tentationem: Here, no difference existed between the Dutch and Flemish versions: And lead us not into temptation. The reason to nonetheless change this lies in the Greek source text of the Gospels in which the Lord’s Prayer comes to us. A more correct translation of tentationem is not so much temptation as it is today generally understood, but with the added meaning of being put to the test. The old translation also seems to imply that it is God doing the tempting, while we ask Him not to lead us into it. This is incorrect, as we, for example learn from James 1:13: “Nobody, when he finds himself tempted, should say, I am being tempted by God. God may threaten us with evil, but he does not himself tempt anyone.” The new translation uses the Dutch beproeving, which may be translated as test, but also as ordeal or tribulation.
In the time during and following Pentecost, the dioceses in Northwestern Europe generally get new priests, as seminarians are ordained during this time in which the Church remembers and celebrates the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the Apostles and His continuing work in the Church today.
The ordinations are spread out across the entire month of June, with the first batch having taken place last weekend. On 6 June, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck ordained Fathers Marius Schmitz (30) and Christoph Werecki (28) for the Diocese of Essen, and on Sunday the 7th the vast majority followed, with 5 new priests in Aachen, 4 in Berlin, 1 in Dresden-Meiβen, 1 in Erfurt, 3 in Hamburg, 2 in Münster, 2 in Osnabrück, 5 in Paderborn and also 5 in Würzburg. Additionally, 6 transitional deacons were ordained in München und Freising, as well as 2 permanent deacons in Trier.
On Monday the 9th, the first of a number of ordinations in the Netherlands took place, of Father Ton Jongstra in ‘s Hertogenbosch. He was ordained for the Focolare movement. On Saturday, 14 June, 2 new priests will be ordained for Haarlem-Amsterdam and 1 for Roermond. On the same day, in Würzburg, two Franciscan priests will be ordained. On 21 June, one priest will be ordained for Utrecht.
Lastly, on the 22nd, 2 new priests will be ordained for Mechelen-Brussels, one transitional deacon for Bruges on the 25th, and a final new priest for Ghent on the 29th
All in all, we’re looking at 41 new priests, 7 transitional deacons and 2 permanent deacons in the dioceses of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. The youngest priest is 25-year-old Fr. Johannes van Voorst tot Voorst, to be ordained for the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam; most senior is 63-year-old Fr. Joost Baneke, Archdiocese of Utrecht. The average age is 33 for the priests and 34 for the deacons.
Most new priests and deacons come from the dioceses for which they are ordained, but some have come from abroad. Fr. Alberto Gatto (Berlin) comes from Italy, Fr. Przemyslaw Kostorz (Dresdem-Meiβen) from Poland, Fr. Mario Agius (Haarlem-Amsterdam) from Malta, Fr. Jules Lawson (Hamburg) from Togo, Fr. Jiji Vattapparambil (Münster) from India, and Fr. Alejandro Vergara Herrera (Roermond) from Chile.
Below an overview of names, dates and the like of the latest influx of men who will administer that most necessary of services to the faithful: the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Diocese of Essen: Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck ordains Fathers Marius Schmitz (30) and Christoph Werecki (28).
Diocese of Aachen: Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff ordains Fathers Matthias Goldammer (27), David Grüntjens (26), Achim Köhler (40), Michael Marx (30) and Andreas Züll (38).
Archdiocese of Berlin: Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki ordains Fathers Alberto Gatto (40), Bernhard Holl (33), Johannes Rödiger (33) and Raphael Weichlein (31).
Diocese of Dresden- Meiβen: Bishop Heiner Koch ordains Father Przemyslaw Kostorz (27).
Diocese of Erfurt: Bishop Reinhard Hauke ordains Father Andreas Kruse (44).
Diocese of Fulda: Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen ordains Father Markus Agricola.
^Archdiocese of Hamburg: Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke ordains Fathers Heiko Kiehn (33), Roland Keiss (29) and Jules Lawson (47).
Archdiocese of München und Freising: Reinhard Cardinal Marx ordains transitional Deacons Alois Emslander (29), Johannes Kappauf (28), Manuel Kleinhans (30), Michael Maurer (28), Martin Reichert (26) and Simon Ruderer (30).
Diocese of Münster: Bishop Felix Genn ordains Fathers Jiji Vattapparambil (35) and Thomas Berger (38).
Diocese of Osnabrück: Bishop Franz-Josef Bode ordains Fathers Hermann Prinz (44) and Kruse Thevarajah (29).
Archdiocese of Paderborn: Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker ordains Fathers Christof Graf (28), Markus Hanke (41), Stefan Kendzorra (29), Tobias Kiene (28) and Raphael Steden (26).
Diocese of Trier: Bishop Stephan Ackermann ordains permanent Deacons Hans Georg Bach (59) and Michael Kremer (51).
Diocese of Würzburg: Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann ordains Fathers Andreas Hartung (31), Sebastian Krems (38), Paul Reder (42), Michael Schmitt (31) and Simon Schrott (29).
Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch/Focolare movement: Bishop Jan van Burgsteden ordains Father Ton Jongstra (56).
Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam: Bishop Jan Hendriks ordains Fathers Johannes van Voorst tot Voorst (25) and Mario Agius (31).
Diocese of Roermond: Bishop Frans Wiertz ordains Father Alejandro Vergara Herrera (34).
Diocese of Würzburg/ Franciscans: Bishop Firedhelm Hoffman ordains Fathers Martin Koch (33) and Konrad Schlattmann (28).
Archdiocese of Utrecht: Wim Cardinal Eijk ordains Father Joost Baneke (63).
Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels: Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard ordains Fathers Gaëtan Parein (37) and Denis Broers (54).
Diocese of Bruges: Bishop Jozef De Kesel ordains transitional Deacon Matthias Noë (24).
Diocese of Ghent: Bishop Luc Van Looy ordains Father Herbert Vandersmissen (32).
Photo credit:  ordinations in Aachen, Andreas Steindl,  new priests of Hamburg, K. Erbe
Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp wrote a message for the feast of Pentecost, discussing the seeming opposition between the Spirit and the institute of the Church. Of course, there is no opposition, but the Holy Spirit works in the Church and the Church needs to be continuously open to His workings. Not an easy task…
“The Pope and the Holy Spirit: do they get along? It seem a superfluous question. But much ink has been spent and battle has been done, but in and outside the Church, about that topic. For some the Holy Spirit is invisible where the Pope is. For others the Pope is invisible where the Holy Spirit is. Institute and charisma, durability and renewal, shepherding and prophecy: they are so easily put in opposition to one another. Yet the story of Pentecost begins in the house where the Apostles are. They are among the first to receive the Spirit for the mission that the Lord has entrusted to them.
I thought of Pentecost when I was in St. Peter’s Square for the canonisation of Pope John XXII and John Paul II. In his homily, Pope Francis said about these Popes that they “cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church in keeping with her pristine features, those features which the saints have given her throughout the centuries. Let us not forget that it is the saints who give direction and growth to the Church. In convening the Council, Saint John XXIII showed an exquisite openness to the Holy Spirit. He let himself be led and he was for the Church a pastor, a servant-leader [guida-guidata], guided by the Holy Spirit. This was his great service to the Church; for this reason I like to think of him as the the pope of openness to the Holy Spirit.”
This is the work of the Holy Spirit: to continuously reveal the original features of the Church. That is what Jesus promised His disciples, shortly before his departure: “the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you” (John 14:26). The memory of the Church and Christians is short, especially concerning the heart of the Gospel and the witness of Jesus. The Holy Spirit doe snot have an easy task in continuously reminding the Church of the word and example of Jesus. You have to be the Holy Spirit to not get sick of it!
During this time of Pentecost we pray for “openness to the Holy Spirit”. We ask that the Holy Spirit may renew our Church community, bring her closer to the times, reveal her original features. We pray for all those who carry responsibility in the Church community: that they, as shepherds, let themselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. And especially: we thank the Holy Spirit that He hasn’t given up our Church community, despite our short memory. Perhaps because of that the Holy Spirit is as light as air and as fire: to be able to get along with us!
+ Johan Bonny
Bishop of Antwerp”
In an interview for the campus newspaper of the Catholic University of Louvain, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, who is the university’s Grand Chancellor, speaks about the future, which includes what may well be his last year as Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels.
Archbishop Léonard will reach his 75th birthday on 6 May 2015, little over a year from now.
“The rule is that you tender your resignation to the Pope around your 75th birthday. It is up to him to decide what happens then. Sometimes, depending on the situation and your health, he will ask you to stay on a bit longer. The archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Meisner, is 80! In other situations you retire. I will do what will be asked, and enthusiastically so. It is a wonderful duty. I meet so many people, from soldiers to prisoners, from professors to young families. That gives an unimaginable wealth to life. If I am allowed to continue doing that a while longer, I would be very grateful. When I retire, I will also enjoy that very much. Didn’t I say a priest had to be flexible?”
In a television interview, the archbishop said a bit more about his retirement plans.
“Once retired I would like to live near a shrine in Belgium or France, to hear confessions or give conferences. I do intend to leave the dioceses of Mechelen-Brussels and Namur, since I have already been active there for so many years.”
André-Joseph Léonard was a priest of the Diocese of Namur from his ordination in 1964 to 1991, when he was appointed as that diocese’s bishop. In 2010, he was appointed as archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels.
The rest of the interview, which also touches upon the Catholic identity of the Catholic University of Louvain, science and faith, the archbishop’s work as Grand Chancellor, priesthood in past and present, the future of evangelisation, Pope Francis and Archbishop Léonard not being made a cardinal, can be read in my translation here.
Photo credit: KU Leuven – Rob Stevens
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…