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Ghent’s Bishop Luc Van Looy devotes his Christmas letter to the peace of this period. Peace in ourselves, but also the peace we are obliged to share with those who need it most, especially the homeless, the displaced and the refugees.
To all people of good will
Christmas letter from Msgr. Luc Van Looy, Bishop of Ghent
The commemorations of the start of the First World War remind us of what our ancestors did to achieve peace. In the past year we could learn much from the media about this dark page in our history. At the same time we are continuously confronted with the horrible situations in which many people live today, because of the violence of war. The UN speaks of 28 million people without a home and 10 million refugees in the world at this moment. Among these people there are a great many children, especially since those countries in which war now rages have a culture of families with many children. In 2013, 15,840 people asked for asylum in Belgium, people mostly from eastern European and African countries.
We can’t take comfort in the thought that these things happen in distant countries. We can’t remain blind to the situation of so many displaced persons in our towns and cities: homeless, squatters, people without a house, who are completely dependent on social services for their food and clothes. Perhaps we et to easily rid of our duty by giving some small alms or donating to some project for children in Africa or Latin America. A child in London asked, “Why would I go to my mother’s when there is no electricity of water there?” These people need our love, just like our material support.
Pope Francis sees in these “new forms of poverty and vulnerability … the suffering Christ”. “The homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, and many others” all call to mind the suffering Christ. The image of breaking the bread and pouring the wine as His body and blood are irrevocable signs of the total givenness of Christ. Pope Francis calls for generous empathy out of that union with Christ. Referring to himself, he says, “Migrants present a particular challenge for me, since I am the pastor of a Church without frontiers” (cf. Evangelii Gaudium 210).
Christmas is an ideal period for special focus on these social problems. Mary and Joseph also failed to find shelter for the birth of Jesus. In addition, they were forced to flee with Him to Egypt. Herod did not recognise the Messiah in this child; he was not interested in the person, but to his own position as steward. It is our duty to focus on the person and not to judge or generalise based on race or culture, religion or ancestry, poverty or wealth, orientation or age. The incarnation of Christ shows us that every human being deserves attention. Jesus comes among the people. He joins in their conversations and speaks with authority, but at the same time He listens to their concerns. He has special attention for the deprived, the sick, the poor, the children. His attention is for the sinners; He lets the adulterous woman go, to ultimately praise her to the expense of the host. He is a man among men. He did not take pride in His descent. On the contrary, He became the servant of all.
In the social unrest that we have witnessed recently, we need to distinguish what is important. Here too, man needs to be in the centre instead of mere power play. Here the Pope also speaks: “Conflict cannot be ignored or concealed. It has to be faced. But if we remain trapped in conflict, we lose our perspective, our horizons shrink and reality itself begins to fall apart. In the midst of conflict, we lose our sense of the profound unity of reality” (Evangelii Gaudium 226).
Christmas teaches us to bring peace. “He is the peace between us” (Eph. 2:14), and He paid the price for it with His blood on the cross. People and cultures are diverse and you can try to achieve peace through negotiations, but nothing is as strong as the unity of Spirit. Unity is fundamental and transcends all conflict. Looking for a synthesis, one must depart from the desire for unity among all people. It is a matter of appreciating the other, esteeming him – more than yourself – and recognising and accepting the dignity of all. This attitude can defeat all partisanship and conflict. No one is more man because he or she was born in some privileged culture or in a certain context. Equality flows from the gift of life itself, which everyone has received from the same Father.
Dear friends, states of war, conflict, migration and poverty can not leave us unmoved. There are many initiatives in this time of Christmas to ease the fate of others, to share the warmth of the community. In this time everyone may experience that Christ has come to bring peace and unity. But it is important that this attention is not limited to the period of Christmas, but spreads throughout the year. The service to people and the world – we call this te diaconate – is an essential aspect of our Christianity.
I wish for the year 2015 to be a year of solidarity and service for all of you, of friendship which resolves conflicts, of peace in families. May the peace of Christ for every man be even stronger than just a “Christmas truce”, so that it may be a new start wherever necessary. For it was God’s intention to give everyone peace, when He sent His Son into the world.
Merry Christmas and a happy new year.”
While it’s not really a letter for Advent, the timing of this message from Bishop Manfred Grothe, Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Limburg, is not coincidental. In it he looks back on the past year, an eventful one for the diocese, which is still in a sort of transitional period following the resignation of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst and the financial drama that led to that.
“Dear sisters and brothers in the Diocese of Limburg,
After the start of the new liturgical year we are in the time of Advent, in which we prepare for the coming of the Lord. For many people it is a time, both professionally and privately, to look back on the past month and to use the weeks before Christmas to re-orient themselves: Where do I stand? What are my goals for the coming year?
As Christians in the Diocese of Limburg we look back on eventful and challenging months. Much has happened – although not everything has always been visible for everyone – and as Apostolic Administrator I was able to go part of the way with you. For that I thank you from my heart. I have above all used the time to first hear and get to know the diocese, its administration, commissions, consulting bodies and communities.
Things have quieted down in the Diocese of Limburg, and the headlines of the media have gone. Together we have started on a path of reorganisation and we have already taken important steps. Various bodies have had the courage for self-reflection and correction. Much has become clearer and more visible, but much also still needs time. I am confident that we can make a new start together, that trust will be renewed. In that context I especially think of the men and women who have withdrawn from recent confrontations and also risked an open debate. I wish that our diocese draws ever more together and regains a healthy self-awareness and self-confidence. From the joy of faith we can draw the strength to witness to the people of the loving closeness of the living God.
In the new year we will continue the reorganisation of the diocese’s financial management. With an eye on canon law the diocesan financial council will be installed with a new staff. The goal in this is a clear and unambiguous division of responsibility in the administration of the diocesan council and its authority and control. By employing external personnel a greater independence will be achieved while maintaining the duties of the financial council.
In addition the statute of the see will be revised, in cooperation with the relevant bodies, and the organisation’s management will be reorganised. Greater differentiation of assets and the path of transparency will be consistently continued. Already in July of 2014 the diocese published the assets and financial commitments of the Diocese of Limburg, the cathedral chapter and the school organisation.
In the coming months the thoughts and opinions of volunteer and paid staff, which was collected between September and the end of November, will also be evaluated. This evaluation will be an great additional help for me to process what happened and to learn from it. Today I can already thank all who made use of the option of making a phone call. There have been more than 100 calls. These reports have made it possible for me to get an idea of your thoughts and feelings and to understand better how you have experienced the past year. It is encouraging to me that the majority of callers have reported by name.
Nine new parishes will be established on 1 January 2015. Together with the 14 ‘new type parishes’ already existing half of the 45 new parishes has then been established.
The ‘new type parishes’ are past the stadium of planning and prognosis and already in many ways a concrete reality and a first answer to the changes and challenges of Church life. Together with the diocese, its curia and synod, I want to continue in this way. The process as a whole should not be reversed and stopped. But the questions from the people in the parishes and communities are heard and easily understood. That is why we will continue with the visits to the communities. I can understand the concerns related to such a process of change and I also see many hurdles which must be overcome in dialogue and together. We must develop the steps to allow faith and community life to be lived strongly and with new impulses, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. That will certainly be a challenge since Church and lived faith will get a new face and will also be realised in a different shape and form. In addition to the geographical reorganisation of the diocese, perspectives must also be developed in the coming year that demonstrate how pastoral care in the ‘new type parishes’ may be realised and succeed.
A special working group with representatives from several departments of the diocese has worked intensively to find a use for the building complex on the Domberg in Limburg. The complex was built as a house for the bishop of Limburg and will in principle also be used as such. We want to use the coming months to open up and de-mythologise the house. There will therefore be guided tours for employees as well as for groups from the Diocese of Limburg. The buildings are planned to be used for conferences and meetings of various organisations. In addition, it can host exhibitions, theological and other events. In this way we want to include the bishop’s house in the plans for the Diocese of Limburg. The private areas will be excluded from the opening, with respect for their private use.
In September Bishop emeritus Dr. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst left the Diocese of Limburg and moved into a private house in Regensburg. Until now there has not been a new assignment connected to this. I would have much preferred an official farewell, in whatever form. This has not been possible to date, for various reasons, but remains an option for the diocese. In the weeks until Christmas and the end of the year I invite all to accompany the bishop emeritus in prayer and ask God’s blessing for his future, which remains uncertain. Equally uncertain for now is when the election of a new bishop will be initiated by the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. The Holy Father wants me to remain as Apostolic Administrator in the Diocese of Limburg for a while longer and prepare for a new beginning while the see remains vacant. In the first half of the year I am allowed to fill the two empty places in the cathedral chapter and so complete the chapter for the election.
Dear sisters and brothers, the tasks that lie before us are complex and yet I see with gratitude that we have taken many steps in the past months. That gives me confidence. I invite everyone to continue on this path with magnanimity and mutual respect for the other. Not only our diocese, but also our society is faced with great challenges in the new year. We are discussing assisted dying and as Christians we have the duty to always and ever anew make the dignity of people in all phases of life visible. We provide a vital service to society. We also can’t lose sight of people at the edge of society and those who have fled to our country and look for help in their often indescribable need. That was made clear to me during a brief visit to the Burbach refugee centre. As Church of Limburg we will therefore continue to commit ourselves to a “culture of hospitality for refugees” and use our financial and human resources to give our neighbours not just a home, but also a piece of homeland.
I wish you a blessed time of Advent and a Christmas rich in mercy, and a blessed new year. God has become man. Let’s celebrate that with confidence and faith in God and show the people around us what that means for us.
Limburg, on the third Sunday of Advent
+Auxiliary Bishop Manred Grothe
Apostolic Administrator “
In his message for Advent, Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam addresses the distortion of religion in the world, and presents a two-fold solution:
“The world is in chaos, but there is hope. Humanity isn’t completely left to its own devices. 2000 years ago the heavens were broken open. Shepherds saw a great light. Angels showed them the way. The Messiah was born. God’s Son become man. Since then His Spirit comes down on this world. But the Evil is also making tracks. In the end, good shall be victorious. That is a divine promise. The Lord knows His time.
Distorted images of God
If that perspective of God, hope and eternity no longer exists, everything changes. Existing norms and values, the sense of humanity, everything loses its foundation. We have seen it in the last century, dominated by atheist ideologies and an unprecedented contempt of humanity. But religion in itself is no guarantee for peace and humanity either.
Distorted images of God and eternity can equally lead to cruelty. That is something we see especially in our time. In the extremism of the so-called Islamic State religion has taken on inhuman forms. No one seems to have an answer ready. Not the moderate and authentic Islam, and even less the western politicians and military. How to fight people who do not fear death, since they see it as a quick road to Paradise, even if they have to drag innocent people along with them. How to deal with people who think they can please God by cutting the throats of “unbelievers”. Nothing can stand up to that. Politicians and soldiers are powerless.
A father looks for his child
This is mostly a moral and spiritual question. It concerns closing the sources of hate, and denying the distorted images of God and eternity. Extremists draw their strength and fanaticism from them. For decades their hatred against the west has grown, partly because of western neocolonial politics.
What can we do now? I think two things: presenting an authentic image of God, and prayer. Recently I saw a documentary about a father looking for his son. There had been a fight at home, the boy had been unjust to his parents, went out into the world and had gone missing. His father then resigned from his job, sold everything he owned and went looking for his child. For years he travelled, across half the globe, until he had found his son and was able to embrace him again. All the fighting and accusations were completely forgotten.
There is no more beautiful image of who and how God is. You don’t need to look for him. He is looking for you. You only need to allow yourself to be found, by being open for His existence and His love, by the willingness to direct your life towards truth and justice, and by praying, even as a heart’s sigh. No prayer is lost.
Saved by prayer
Centuries before Christ the king of Assyria, Sennacherib, advances on Jerusalem with an enormous army. Hezekiah, the king of Judah, refuses to surrender the city. Sennacherib writes him a letter and taunts him, “Who do you think you are? You have seen how Assyria has defeated all peoples. How would Jerusalem be saved? Do not be fooled by the God you trust, He will not be able to save you from my hands.” Hezekiah goes to the Temple and places the letter on the altar of the Lord, and prays, “Lord, you alone are God over all kingdoms of the earth. Hear how Sennacherib taunts you, the living God. Save us from his grasp, so that all people of the earth will see that You alone are God”.
That night, Scripture informs us, the angel of the Lord brought down death and confusion on the camp of Assyria. Sennacherib struck camp and returned in humiliation to Assyria, where he died.
Whether it concerns our personal life or the situation in the world, the Lord waits for our prayer and confidence to bring salvation. Let us place our prayer and good deeds, but also our needs and sins, before the Child of Bethlehem, like the shepherds and the wise men did. He will give us peace and a solution, although perhaps along very different roads than we would expect. In that sense, I wish you a blessed Christmas.”
+ Msgr. dr. Jozef M. Punt
Bishop of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam
Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond devotes his Advent letter to the topic of the religious, the people who consecrated their lives and themselves to God:
“Brothers and sisters,
In this time of Advent we begin a new Church year. A year that Pope Francis has declared as the Year of religious life, consecrated life. Religious are not some different breed of people, but just like us, faithful who are living “in the world”, according to the three evangelical counsels: obedience, poverty and chastity.
They live together in a community of brother or sisters, according to a certain spirituality. Sometimes they have come together around a common goal. The communities in which they live are often called monasteries. The religious who lead a contemplative and withdrawn life, do so in abbeys.
It may seem as if almost no one in western Europe joins a monastic community anymore. But there are some 900 religious living in our diocese. Many are elderly and with a great service record, but there is also a significant number of young religious. Recently some new monastic communities settled in Limburg.
Many people associate abbeys, monasteries and monastic life with the long gone days of the “Rich Roman Life”. But nowadays, both in traditional monastic life and on its peripheries, interesting things are happening all the same.
From the media we may sometimes even assume that there has never been so much interest in monasteries, monastic life and products from monasteries. Our Pope Francis himself is a religious. In films and television programs monastic life continues to thrive. After the impressive films “Into Great Silence” about the monks of Chartreuse and “Des Hommes et des Dieux” about Trappists in northern Africa of some years ago, the RKK television series about monasteries and abbeys also turned out to receive good ratings.
Even more remarkable is the (re)discovery of this form of Christian life in Protestant circles. In Friesland a new Protestant monastery was established recently, based on old Catholic traditions. The ecumenical religious community of Taizé manages to draw and inspire more than 150,000 young people every year.
Religious life had and has great value for the Church. Religious were the ones to set the great developments of our western society into motion. They have also always coloured the life of the Church with their social, scientific and cultural initiatives. The Church would lose her variegation and topicality if monastic life were to disappear.
The Church, and with her also the faith, has a bad name for many people these days. But many – including young people – have a desire to connect with a deep and “higher” truth, which is more important than civil truths.
We all know these civil truths: the truth that you have to earn enough money to live or be able to do fun things in order to be happy. I am not saying that these are wrong truths by definition, but for religious and also for me other truths are more important.
Which ones? The highest truth that I know lies in the experience that there is a far bigger world that exists beyond man. A world which calls forth connectedness with God and with people. And one which is given shape in a special way in the birth of the Son of God, which we will celebrate again in a few weeks.
In the experience of the grandeur of creation and humanity the fuel for the religious life is also found. Someone who is sensitive to that experience – and becomes aware of it – feels something that makes everything human insignificant. Earthly pleasures pale in comparison. If you really accept the experience and dare to let go of civil frames of reference, you not rarely feel an appeal to connect in some way or another with that great truth.
The religious and consecrated life is a proven possibility in which the connectedness with God and people leads to unconditional service to the world, experienced from a fraternal or sisterly community.
I call upon all of you to approach both active and contemplative religious life in a positive way. To bring young people also in contact with it and to appreciate our brothers and sisters who chose the consecrated life as fellow faithful, who let the faith prevail in their lives, above all those civil truths of our modern time.
In these weeks of Advent we are at the beginning of the time of Christmas. The time in which we celebrate that God became man. In the past Christmas was concluded with the feast of the Presentation of the Lord at the Lord (2 February), traditionally also called Candlemas. Since a few years this is also the Day of Consecrated Life.
Following the consecration of God to the people at Christmas, we are then called to consecrate ourselves to God. On this day we want to especially remember the people who dedicated their entire lives to the service of Christ and His Church.
I call upon all the priests in our diocese to invite the religious in their area to take part in the services in their parish(es) on the Day of Consecrated Life. At the same time I call upon the religious of our diocese to visibly take part in the services in the parishes on that day. Their contributions in our diocese are important.
I call upon all of you to pray together in the coming year – and especially on the Day of Consecrated Life – for religious life in our Church . A prayer for new vocations. A prayer in which we ask that the variety and the actuality of our faith and our Church will root itself in the choices of many young people for some form of consecrated life.
In my personal prayer on that day I want to thank God for all the religious, old and young, the sisters and brothers, who are always working unconditionally for the people in Limburg, be they faithful or not.
Looking forward to a year in which we focus on the religious and therefore also their choice to imitate Christ, I wish you a good time of preparation for the feast of His birth.
Roermond, Advent 2014
+ Frans Wiertz,
Bishop of Roermond”
In his letter for Advent, Eichstätt’s Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke delves into the Incarnation, and specifically how the Incarnation of the Son of God also shows the way to our own incarnation. In other words, how we can become fully human according the plan of the Creator.
“Dear sisters and brothers!
Anticipation for the birth
A married couple expecting a child prepares for the event. The pregnant woman takes medical advice and denies herself a number of things. Long before the due date, the hospital bag is packed. Everything is guided by joy. Family and friends are also full of expectation. With the first Sunday of Advent, this week, a time of joyful expectation begins also for us. We prepare ourselves for the feast of the birth of the Lord. God becomes man in Jesus Christ!
The incarnation of God is a permanent invitation
The incarnation of God is not simply history, but a permanent invitation from God to us, here and now, to start on His way of becoming human. The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Church in the World, explains the meaning of the incarnation of the Son of God for our humanity: “For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. […] The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”
Humanity as personhood in crisis
A look at the Son of God become man and His way as a man shows a need for a way of becoming man. It seems as if man of today has become a question himself, as if his recognition as human, as a person with value, is in crisis.
Worldwide crisis of humanity
Despite progress, the accumulation of knowledge and growing global awareness of the unity of humanity, the dignity of people is trampled in many parts of the world. Economic and political power interests, or even fanatical religion will be their own end. Man in his dignity is left behind. At present we experience this dramatically in conflicts and hostilities. Millions of people are on the run, minorities are threatened. We think first of all of Syria and Iraq, where our Christian sisters and brothers suffer the hardships of persecution.
But the crisis of humanity is also visible around us:
Crisis of human dignity: debates on assisted suicide
We are in the middle of the debates about assisted suicide. Here the fear for unbearable suffering, the financial burden on relatives and loneliness are used as arguments to legalise assisted suicide. Even someone who is “religiously unatuned” and is not able to understand the inviolability of human life, which is rooted in the image of God, can see the danger in that. The legality of euthanasia can lead to sick people being subtly or openly forced to finally die. This trend is already clearly visible when it is indicated, always outright, how high the costs of caring for the dying is. In reality palliative care has already advanced so much that it can respond to existing fears without assisting in suicide: even in severe cases, doctors can provide a painless .
Identity crisis of people: Theory of gender
In another area the crisis of humanity is also visible. The ideas of “gender” are in opposition to a Biblical-Christian image of humanity. This constructed theory postulates that being man and woman is interchangeable in all areas of life. Upbringing and cultural conditions primarily shape the gender roles of man and woman. These are considered to be cultural stereotypes that need to be overcome. Under the gentle-sounding term of gender diversity many claim that there aren’t any objective genders like men and women. Instead they propagate a gender diversity with many gender-identities. The individual can choose his gender himself.
This view of humanity is surprising in a time in which many are concerned with protecting creation. They advocate preserving the ecological balance, which can only be lauded. They are convinced that the structured order of creation serves the whole.
On the other hand many on society suffer from disorientation and confusion when the nature of man and the meaning of the human person is at stake.
God created humanity as man and woman
At the beginning of Holy Scripture we read, “God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. […] God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good” (Gen. 1: 27,31).
Let us, as baptised, not be discouraged in our witness to humanity. Let us make the Word of the God and the guidance of the Church our own. The holy Pope John Paul II has left us a valuable legacy in the form of the message of the beauty of humanity, which the Creator desired as maleness and femaleness. In his catechesis which became known as the”Theology of the Body” he explains the order of Creation as an expression of the love of the Creator, for man is desired and loved by God for his own sake.
Their physical difference already shows that man and woman are ordered towards one another. This mutual orderedness once again reveals that, in order to be fully human, we need unity with a personal opposite. The highest form of this personal union is the mutual gift, the reciprocal giving of man and woman in the loving bond of marriage . This mutual giving is at the same time, of course, also a reciprocal receiving and accepting of the other. As each partner is accepted for his own sake, he will find himself through his self-giving. From this discovery of himself he is once again able to give himself anew and more deeply: this self-giving becomes a new source of life .
From the manger shines the light of true humanity
Dear sisters and brothers, Christmas touches many people, also today. The deepest reason is that God confirms and renews this order of love through the incarnation of the Son. From the manger and through the life of Christ shines the light of true humanity. The many people who are no longer deeply rooted in religious practice obviously also feel this.
Let us allow Christ to invite us to His way of becoming man, in order to become man ourselves. We, the baptised, can then give witness of how fulfilling the way of becoming man according to God’s order of creation and in the Spirit of Jesus is.
Encounter as the key to incarnation
The key to our own incarnation lies in encounter. Only in my opposite do I recognise myself and can I become the man according to God’s plan. In the reaction of the other I see my own “I” reflected, which I would not have been able to see otherwise. Encounter is therefore essential.
Three manifestations of human encounter can play a special role on the road to our incarnation. In a certain way they can also be understood as answers to the three symptoms of the crisis of humanity outlined above.
Incarnation in hospitality
Conversation with family members and friends, when I take them time for it, is one such encounter which can contribute to the formation of my own “I”, my own incarnation. Because of the reciprocity of encounter the same is of course also true for those who encounter me. There where we express hospitality and accept the stranger in Christian charity, an additional aspect is added. In the encounter with the stranger elements can be revealed which remain hidden in an exchange with people I already know. The hospitality towards refugees as a step in my own incarnation can then also be a first answer to the inhumanity in the world, which is shown in persecution and repression.
Incarnation in friendship
A second way of personal encounter is friendship. The essential characteristic of friendship as a human encounter is the personal attachment to one person. Precisely the friendship with Christ gives us the strength for such a deep personal connection. In friendship we learn to exceed ourselves and go beyond our urge for self-realisation. The acceptance of a friend for his own sake is the essence of friendship. True and lasting friendships are also a remedy for the desire for legalised suicide, which is in essence nothing but a cry of desperation.
Incarnation in marriage
The mutual acceptance of the other for his own sake finds its highest form in marriage. The personal bond of friendship is in the marriage between a man and a woman once more exclusively directed at one single partner. Through their reciprocal commitment and simultaneous acceptance of the other for their own sake, the partners encourage each other in their self-discovery and incarnation.
The marriage partners living in mutual love and commitment strengthen each other not only mutually, but also give direction to people who are still looking for the fullness of humanity in the spreading identity crisis.
All of you, who are travelling from the manger as roadside communities, as families, circles of friends, communities, parishes and organisations, the Triune God blesses, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Eichstätt, on the feast of Saint Elisabeth of Thuringia, 19 november 2014.
Gregor Maria Hanke OSB
Bishop of Eichstätt”
(1) Gaudium et Spes, 22.
(2) Cf. Gisela Klinkhammer, Mit großer Sorgfalt und klinischer Erfahrung, in: Deutsches Ärzteblatt 111 (38) , 19 September 2014, 1552f.
(3) Cf. Theology of the Body (TOB) 14,4; quoted in: John Paul II, Human Love in God’s Plan of Salvation. A Theology of the Body (republished by Norbert und Renate Martin), second revised edition, Kisslegg 2008, 161.
(4) Cf. TOB 17,6.
Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp has also devoted his letter for Advent to the topic of loneliness , or rather, to the slightly broader topic of the lost sheep. It seems that the Francis effect is quite visible in this year’s batch of Advent letters…
“In the spring I visited a kindergarten. The three classes had prepared a play for my visit. The performed the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). Two teachers and a dozen toddlers crawled around on hands and feet, dressed like sheep. They had a real sheepskin or a white cloth on their backs. One teacher was the shepherd: she wore a heavy cloak and had a staff in her hand. Another teacher was the lost sheep, that first got lost and was then kindly returned to the stable by the shepherd. I watch and was fascinated and touched. When the first group had performed the parable, the teacher asked a new group of children to play the sheep. “And who wants to be the lost sheep?” All hands went up in the air at the same, “Me, me, me, Miss!” The toddlers pushed and shoved to be allowed to be the lost sheep! I thought, how many hands will be raised when you are thirty or fifty years older? Who of you will then be the lost sheep, not in a play, but in real life?
In real life no one raises their hand to be the “lost sheep”. By the way, you don’t see the “lost sheep”, it is hidden in society or in the city. Someone who has been really hurt, abandoned or disadvantaged, doesn’t flaunt it. In real life, “lost sheep” have a tough sense of survival. They can survive for a long time in their loneliness. You must literally go out to find them, like the shepherd in the Gospel. And that can take a long time. During Advent, the liturgy asks our attention for the small and forgotten people around us. This does indeed require some searching, since you can easily live in our cities and towns without encountering a “lost sheep”. The preparation for Christmas starts with this kind of searching. Who will join in the searching?
This searching comes from the heart of the Gospel. On a certain day Jesus said of himself that “the Son of man has come to seek out and save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). And when He speaks of the shepherd joyfully carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders (Luke 15:5), He is talking about Himself. There would have been no Christmas if God had not come looking for the “lost sheep”. Jesus would not have been born in a stable, had He not come looking for people on the periphery of society. Advent comes from the Latin verb advenit, “He is coming!” For God this also means “He is searching”. May He also come and find me, in my comfortable home or in my fearful hideout?
In a real nativity scene there should be at least two sheep from the flock mentioned in the Christmas story (Luke 2:6-14). They are not hidden. They are the first sheep of the flock that Jesus gathers around Him as the Good Shepherd. They have found the warm stable where He awaits them. How many people in these coming weeks will not stop for a while at a nativity scene, feeling the homesickness of a “lost sheep” that may stand and be seen? Simply because lost or broken strands join each other for a while around the nativity scene.
I wish you a good Advent: “He is searching!” Not in play, but in reality.”
+ Johan Bonny
Bishop of Antwerp
Like previous years, Bishop Gerard de Korte is among the first to publish his Advent letter to the faithful of his diocese. Below my translation. In the letter, the bishop tackles the issue of loneliness, and thus creates a coincidental link with Pope Francis’ speech at the European Parliament today, in which he identified loneliness as “one of the most common diseases in Europe today”. More about that speech later. First, the bishop:
“Late last year the media reported a macabre find in a house in Rotterdam. The remains of a woman were found. She had been dead for more than ten years and no one had missed her. Her daughter had rung the doorbell once or twice on Mother’s Day. But no one opened the door, and the daughter concluded that the closed door meant that she was still not welcome. Ten years dead in a house and no one notices. Symbol of groundless loneliness.
Of course, this is an extreme example. But we all know that loneliness is a major problem in our society. Many elderly people lead a lonely existence. When I was a parish priest in Utrecht, I visited elderly people who received visitors twice a week. They were home alone for the rest of the time. In Nestor, the magazine for the Catholic Union of the Elderly, I read last year that 200,000 elderly spent the Christmas days alone.
But loneliness is not only an issue for elderly people in our society. More than a few young people also struggle with loneliness. And there are plenty of couples who are physically together but spiritually lonely because they can no longer share the most essential things of life. In the end, many a philosopher states, every person is lonely to a certain extent. At heart, everyone remains hidden for the other. At the same time people try to break through that existential loneliness by searching mutual commitment, friendship and love.
God looks for us
In the coming weeks of Advent we prepare for the feast of Christmas. Christmas is a feast of connection; of light and desire for peace. The Christmas tree is decorated and good food is purchased. Family and friends are invited, perhaps also to chase away our loneliness. Because as human beings we realise that we can only be happy in connection with others.
Many Catholic families also have a nativity scene. Christmas is, after all, about the birth of Christ. Christmas makes clear that God wants to break through our loneliness. That is told clearly in Luke’s Gospel of Christmas, with singing angels and worshipping shepherds. The Gospel of John is a bit more abstract and theological: the Word has become flesh and has lived among us. But both evangelists say the same thing with different words: In Jesus, God comes looking for us. In Jesus, God reveals His love for us and He shows us that that love is the meaning of our lives.
Is Christ welcome?
The big question for each of us is: do I accept God’s offer? Can Christ really come into my life? Is there room for Jesus in my inn? Do I really want to life in friendship with Jesus? Several Christian thinkers have been said to have made this remark: “If Christ had been born a Thousand times in the stable in Bethlehem, but not in our heart, His birth was pointless”. In these words I hear the statement of John the Baptist: “He (=Christ) must increase; I must decrease”. And I also think of the nearly mystical words of the Apostle Paul: “I do not live, but Christ lives in me”.
Here we touch upon the core of our Christian existence. Christian life requires conversion, a transformation. My own “I” must become increasingly like Christ. In other words: I must become more like a Christophorus, a Christ-bearer. When we truly follow Christ, we will be praying people who place God in the heart of our lives. We will not remain imprisoned in self-interest but manifest charity. In the case of an argument, we will not harden ourselves, but really choose forgiveness and reconciliation. We will be mild and merciful for each other and thus reflect God’s mildness and mercy. I wish you a fruitful time of Advent on the road to Christmas.
Groningen, 25 November 2014
+ Msgr. Gerard de Korte”
It’s barely November, but two potential Christmas gifts came to my attention today.
Father Robert Barron’s series on the Catholic faith, Catholicism, is set for release in the Netherlands, with Dutch subtitles. Originally released in the United States several years ago, the series appears to be a wonderful tool for catechesis, but also an interesting look at the great variety of our worldwide Church, as well as the heart of the faith.
The 500-minute DVD series is available for the price of €39,90 from the Catholic Alpha Centre and Publisher Betsaida, which is connected to the St. John’s Centre seminary of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch.
Also from ‘s Hertogenbosch comes the second book, this time for adults, from the pen of Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, auxiliary bishop of that diocese (and at the moment filling in for ordinary Bishop Antoon Hurkmans who is taking his rest for medical reasons – prayers for him). In it, the bishop aims to correct all sorts of misconceptions about the Church and her faith. He writes:
“This is no scientific book. I don’t pretend to be a theologian, I’m no cultural sociologist or scientist. In order to explain things to non-experts, a pragmatic and sober approach by someone who knows the topic well is often more effective than a highly scientific approach.”
The book, titled Gewoon over Geloof (a play on words which means both “simply about faith” and “acting or talking normally about faith”), aims to correct an image of the Church in modern secular society, which consider the Catholic faith to be “backwards, irrational, medieval, illiberal, unreasonable, misogynistic, homophobic and brainwashed”.
Bishop Mutsaerts has one previous book on his name, a children’s book titled Jezus kan niet voetballen (“Jesus can’t play football”).
Painful scenes in Cologne’s cathedral on Christmas morning. As Cardinal Meisner, on his 80th birthday, celebrated the birth of the Lord among us, a disturbed woman mounted the altar and struck a pose, bare-breasted, shouting “I am God!”. She was forcefully removed from the sacristy and cathedral
Footage below (it may be disturbing):
Like Brussels’ Archbishop Léonard – another target of Femen hooligans before him – Cardinal Meisner remained as calm as can be in his response. At the end of Mass he offered his blessing to all, including the woman who, he said, “needs it most”. He has not made much mention of the incident since. Auxiliary Bishop Dominik Schwaderlapp deemed the action not worthy to make a big fuss about.
Like the earlier incident with Archbishop Léonard, it is perhaps a good thing to express your support and prayerful union with the cardinal archbishop and the faithful of Cologne. Cardinal Meisner may be contacted via this address:
Seiner Eminenz Joachim Kardinal Meisner
It is also good to pray for this obviously disturbed woman and others who are tempted by evil ideologies and actions.