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An exemplary icon of steadfast dedication to those in need is no more. Father Frans van der Lugt was abducted, shot and killed this morning in Homs, Syria, the city and country that was his home for more than four decades. The Dutch Jesuit priest did not think of leaving his home and the community he was a part of – consisting not only of the few Christians in the city, but also, especially in later years, of his Muslim neighbours in the widest sense – as civil war engulfed Syria and cut off the part of Homs where Fr. Frans lived from the rest of the world.
Thousands of people in this pocket continue to struggle with hunger and poverty, something that Fr. Frans tried to alleviate in the ways he could. He brought the attention of the wider world to their plight and managed to get what little food there was – some of which he grew – out to the families who needed it.
In February, he illustrated the situation to a Dutch journalist as follows: “In the morning we eat a few olives. We cut vegetables out from between street tiles and make soup out of it in the afternoon and in the evening we see what’s left.”
A month earlier, he made the following emergency call:
“I am speaking to you from the old and besieged city of Homs. One of our greatest problems is hunger. There is nothing to eat. There is nothing worse than to see people in the streets looking for something to eat for their children.”
Do you think that the world will do something or will everyone watch while we die?
“That is impossible. It is impossible that we suffer while the world does nothing. Not only the world has to do something, but we all have to as well. Otherwise we will die. We do not want to die from pain and hunger.”
Father Frans did not see the world stop watching and doing nothing. He took but one side, the side of the people and their needs to live. That was not a side of guns and bombs, violence and war, but of faith, community and fraternal love. He was fighting the people’s hunger and insanity that comes with it, as well as the world’s impotence in doing anything about it. For that he apparently had to die.
In the days after the funeral of Bishop Jan Bluyssen, last Thursday, I’ve been reading a fair amount of criticism on how the Mass was performed. It was not in line with how the late bishop would have wanted it, some say. The large number of representatives of Church and state, the guild members in their folkloristic costumes, the clerics in cardinal red and bishop’s purple… all this are not becoming a bishop who was close to the people, who was loath to portray himself as lording it over the laity, who was, for many, a man among men, trying his best to serve the Lord and His Church as a bishop.
It should be noted here, that the funeral Mass was offered according to the liturgy of the Church. Attending bishops and other clergy were there to pay their respects to Bishop Bluyssen and they did so as prelates of the Church, which is not a 9-to-5 job, but, in lieu of their ordination, their identity. Bishop Bluyssen would have worn his liturgical clothing for the very same reason.
^Bishops attending the funeral Mass of Bishop Bluyssen. Clockwise from the top: Frans Wiertz (Roermond), Gerard de Korte (Groningen-Leeuwarden), Everard de Jong (aux. Roermond), Theodorus Hoogenboom (aux. Utrecht) and Joseph Lescrauwaet (aux. em. of Haarlem-Amsterdam). Behind them Cardinal Simonis.
Funerals are important. They are the final moment in which friends and family can bid farewell to a loved one, and a time to mourn that person. In that light, it is understandable that people feel ill at ease when a funeral seems to be about something else than the person being mourned. But when the funeral takes place from a Church, when the deceased (and hopefully his or her family and friends) are Catholic, there is an important element to the funeral that secular ceremonies lack. It is a Mass, so the first and most important focus is on Christ, and the deceased is seen and remembered in His light.
What does that mean for the Catholic Church funeral Mass? Is mourning and remembering out of the question? Certainly not, but there are two things we need to consider: death is not the end, and those left behind are not powerless in the face of death.
A person’s life on earth has ended, but we believe that the soul is immortal and will return to its Creator, barring any obstacles. Prayer is the most powerful tool we have to make sure those obstacles are removed or diminished, and that is where we, those left behind come in. Our prayer is an act of love for the person we miss.
The funeral Mass is a Mass. That means that it is primarily the remembrance and actualisation of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, the single most redemptive event in our entire history. Christ defeated death by rising after three days. Our loved one who has passed away follows our Lord in death, in the hope of one day rising with Him. Here, our prayer comes in again.
Catholic funerals, then, are not first and foremost a remembrance or even a celebration of the life that has ended. It is our sending off the deceased into the hands of the One who defeated death once and for all, and the start of our duty of prayer towards him or her.
The funeral Mass should be considered, planned and discussed out of its identity as a Mass. All other elements, such as eulogies and music, must be measured against this. And then, sometimes, the conclusion must be made (by the person who is responsible for the liturgy of the Mass: the priest) that some things are not suitable for Mass, but can be more suitable for a separate occasion before or after the Mass.
The Mass is the Mass is the Mass: we leave our beloved in the hands of the Lord and help him or her with our prayers, in the faithful hope of being reunited one day, as we follow the example of the first to rise from the dead: Jesus Christ. This transcends any personal preferences or opinions. Jesus can’t be left out of the equation. In the end, a person’s life comes to fullness in the light of the Lord, and there is no better memory than entrusting him to that light and expecting a future reunion.
^ Bishop Hurkmans incenses the coffin and mortal remains of Bishop Bluyssen, just like the offerings to the Lord, and the Word we receive from Him, are incensed during the Mass.
Photo credit: Ramon Mangold
While in the south we bid our farewells to Bishop Joannes Gijsen today, up north we rejoice as a young man is confirmed in his service to the Lord and His Church. There is always joy, even when we mourn the end of an earthly life.
I can’t be there, so I’ll just use this blog to express not only my heartfelt congratulations, but also my gratitude for his service, to Sander Zwezerijnen as he is ordained a transitional deacon at the St. Boniface church in Leeuwarden today.
Photo credit: Sander with Bishop Jan Hendriks, his seminary rector for most of his formation, upon receiving his magna cum laude diploma from the Pontifical Lateran University, last May/Tiltenberg.org
Another day, and another new bishop in Germany. This time it’s the Archdiocese of Cologne receiving a new auxiliary. Bishop-elect Ansgar Puff succeeds Bishop Heiner Koch, who was appointed as ordinary of Dresden-Meißen in January.
The new auxiliary bishop joins Cardinal Joachim Meisner and fellow auxiliaries Manfred Melzer and Dominik Schwaderlapp in the archdiocesan curia. His titular see is Gordus in modern Turkey, a see previously held by the late Bishop Alfons Demming, auxiliary bishop of Münster, who died last October.
Bishop-elect Puff will be consecrated on 21 September, at Cologne’s landmark cathedral of Ss. Peter and Mary. He will hold pastoral responsibility for the archdiocese’s southern district, which includes the city of Bonn and is home to some 600,000 Catholics.
Bishop-elect Ansgar Puff is 57 years old and has been a priest since 1987. He has been a parish priest in, among others, Cologne and Düsseldorf. Since 2012, he has also directed the archdiocesan office tasked with pastoral care and formation of priests, deacons and pastoral workers.
In an interview with Dom Radio, the newly-appointed bishop said that, upon hearing the news of his appointment, he felt as if the ground fell away underneath him:
“As it should be, the cardinal told me the news, which I was first obliged to keep a secret. But now I am happy to be able to share it. As a first reaction, I was of course quite shocked.”
In the same interview, Msgr. Puff also speaks about his vocation to the priesthood. Upon the interviewer’s remark that it wasn’t immediately clear that young Ansgar would embark upon a career in the Church, he said:
“The good Lord does write on crooked lines, and I took a long time to find my way. Piously said: the good Lord needed a long time before he had me where I am today.”
How did he come to the realisation to become a priest?
“That is a long story. It was a search for the meaning of life. My core question was: If I am the best social worker in the world, and people still die some day, what point is there to life? Concretely: if death exists, why does one live? Without faith I was unable to answer this question and so I embarked on the search of faith.”
About what he most looks forward too, Msgr. Puff said:
“To the meetings with people, to the contacts with the communities! I want to be like a travelling priest and proclaim the happy news of Jesus Christ.”
Not unlike Pope Francis, then.
“I don’t yet know him personally, but everything that I have heard and read about him has impressed me much. Especially his thought that you have to go out, not remain closed within the Church. Christ said, “You are the salt of the earth.” And salt has to go into the soup. If it stays in the salt jar, it is of no use. We have to go out, give ourselves purely, disperse ourselves and give the taste to others. In the language of faith: to be a servant of the peace of the world. I think that is a good perspective.”
Photo credit: PEK/Kasiske
Yesterday I watched a movie befitting the national day of remembrance we mark every May the 4th in the Netherlands. Sarah’s Key deals with a journalist investigation into the fate of a French Jewish girl whose family used to live in the house she and her husband have just bought. The girl’s entire family was deported to and killed in the Polish death camps, but of the girl and her brother there is no trace in the records. A story, therefore, about a girl who was deemed unwanted, but fought and managed to survive her would-be captors and murderers’ efforts to see her dead.
One storyline deals with the lead character’s unexpected pregnancy. As she and her husband have tried for years to conceive and are now somewhat older than the average first-time parents, there is some conflict about what to do. She wants to keep the child, he pushes for abortion.
In a movie about the Holocaust this is an extremely poignant topic. The one lies in the past, the other is very current, but both are centered around death. Public opinion about the Holocaust is, rightly, one of horror and unanimous rejection, but abortion is extremely well-accepted in modern society: it is a medical procedure and an expression about a person’s control over and right to her own body. Or so many genuinely believe.
But put both side by side and compare them: the Holocaust was the conscious and wilful murder of persons that some decided were unwanted, not worthy of life and without a place in their world order. Abortion is the wilful killing of an unborn person that one or more people have decided is not wanted, should not be allowed to burden other’s lives and has no place in their world.
There may be seemingly mitigating circumstances in many cases of abortion, but those guilty of the Holocaust would have said the very same thing. “We had no choice, we were under orders, what could I do?” Today we hear, “I can’t take care of a child, there is no place for a child in my life at this moment, I have no choice.” And so human lives are daily sacrificed to other people’s rights, choices and (perceived) limitations.
When talking about the Holocaust we do not accept this: the murder of countless people is not suddenly alright because others wanted to exercise their rights or choices, and not even because they were forced to. The murders are not suddenly okay.
The same should be true when we talk about abortion (and, for that matter, euthanasia). Murder is never alright. Mitigating circumstances don’t make it so. It is certainly never a clinical procedure, an industry as the Holocaust was in the past, and abortion is today.
Remembering the dead, as we did yesterday in this country, must never be a safe ritual which only refers to the past. There are organisations which rightly emphasise that many of the atrocities we remember still happen today in other parts of the world. But we are not exempt from that realisation. In our society there is also still a Holocaust taking place every day: a Holocaust against the unborn.
And those unborn are persons, just like the Jews and other unwanted persons during the Holocaust never stopped being persons. Many would wish it so, but there is no magical transition during birth which make a fetus a person. A person is a person is a person from the get go. Killing a person is never alright, never a medical procedure, never an industry.
Time to stop the Holocaust.
These days this blog certainly gives the impression of being preoccupied with death. But, then again, death is part of life, and when it encroaches we can benefit by acknowledging it. So, with that, in mind, onwards to another post about a death in the local Catholic family.
Last night a life ended that was greatly animated by concern for others, both abroad and at home. Also a life that was not without its critics, who accused it of being perhaps too generally spiritual as opposed to Catholic, and on some topics far too liberal. But that criticism did not leave its mark. Silence, care and simply doing what needed doing did.
Bishop Martinus Petrus Maria Muskens passed away last night at the age of 77. The final years of his life were marked by ever decreasing health and mobility, although he was able to attend several major celebrations within the Diocese of Breda, including the 50th anniversary of his own ordination to the priesthood. Bishop Muskens is survived by his own predecessor, Bishop Huub Ernst, and two of his predecessors, Bishop Hans van den Hende and Jan Liesen, as bishops of Breda.
Bishop Muskens, whose first name was usually shortened to ‘Tiny’, started his life in the Church as a priest of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch in 1962. His study of missiology at Nijmegen led him to Indonesia, where he worked for eight years as director of the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference’s documentation centre. In 1978, Father Muskens went to Rome, to become rector of the Dutch College and teach Church history at two international colleges. One of his most noted efforts there was the restoration of the Church of Saints Michael and Magnus, better known as the Church of the Frisians. Today this church is the home base for Dutch pilgrims and officials in Rome. In 1994, Pope John Paul II appointed him as the ninth bishop of Breda. Bishop Muskens was consecrated by his predecessor, Bishop Huub Ernst, which marked his first permanent return to the Netherlands since he left for Indonesia. Marking his international and interfaith outlook that would come to the fore in later years, Bishop Muskens chose the simple word “Shalom”, Peace, as his motto.
Following two minor strokes in 2001, Bishop Muskens decided to request a coadjutor and an early retirement. These were both granted in 2006, in the form of Bishop Hans van den Hende, and in 2007, when Bishop Muskens joined the Benedictine community in Teteringen, where he was simply known as “Brother Martinus”. Shortly afterwards, a chance collision with a cyclist led to him breaking his hip. He never walked again without the aid of a cane, and at major celebrations he was usually present in choir or in a pew at the front of the church.
In his years as bishop of Breda, Msgr. Muskens was perhaps the most visible bishop in the media. Several of his statements and convictions caused ripples in society and also within the Church. He was, for example, in favour of abolishing mandatory celibacy for priests, and suggested the use of condoms as a lesser evil. He was also in favour of female deacons. On the other hand, other acts and statements made him quite popular in society. He said that a homeless person should be allowed to steal a bread if that meant survival, and at another occasion he slept in a doorway to underline the plight of homeless people. This social engagement gave him the nickname I used in this blog post’s title: the Red Bishop.
His experience in dealing with Islam was also visible in his work as bishop. He suggested that the Dutch national holiday of the second day of Pentecost be traded for a holiday to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid, since the former lacks any theological basis. He also suggested we address God also with the name Allah. On the other hand, he was also critical of Islam. The dialogue between Christians and Muslims has no future, he said in 2007, as long as countries in the Middle East continue to forbid the construction of churches.
Like him or not, there is no denying that Bishop Tiny Muskens was a character, and he knew it. He knew the importance of sometimes shaking up set morals and convictions. As such, he leaves some big shoes to fill, but I’ll go as far as to say that we could use someone to fill them.
Journalist Arjan Broers, who wrote three books with and about the bishop, characterises Bishop Muskens in the epilogue to one of those books:
“In this book, you won’t read how all sorts of people feel at ease with Muskens, because they don t need to pretend with him. You will neither read how people often felt visibly uncomfortable with him. Not out of awe for His Excellency, but because he is so hard to fathom.
You will not read how Muskens can pester people [...]. You won’t read how he can act like a tank, by walking into a Church institution in Rome, bishop’s cross on his chest like an imposing identification, and keep on walking and asking until he gets what he wants. And you’ll neither read how, at other times, he accepts how things are without a fight.”
A tank, a man with a mission he simply had to see through, Bishop Muskens got away with it and did what he understood as the right thing. And he simply did it, without much words, as he was perfectly at ease with silence. Silence just because it’s silent.
The Requiem Mass and funeral will take place on 23 April in the Cathedral of St. Anthony in Breda. Bishop Muskens will be laid to rest in the family grave in his native Elshout.
Photo credit: R. Mangold
“One thing above all appears different, seen with the eyes of faith: death! Christ entered death as we enter a dark prison; but he came out of it from the opposite wall. He did not return from whence he came, as Lazarus did who returned to life to die again. He has opened a breach towards life that no one can ever close, and through which everyone can follow him. Death is no longer a wall against which every human hope is shattered; it has become a bridge to eternity. A “bridge of sighs”, perhaps because no one likes to die, but a bridge, no longer a bottomless pit that swallows everything. “Love is strong as death”, says the song of songs (Sgs 8:6). In Christ it was stronger than death!”
A humpback whale stranded alive on an uninhabited island southwest of the Dutch island of Texel, earlier this week. Despite much effort, rescue workers were not able to return the beast to sea and it was eventually killed to end any further suffering.
The result? People suggesting there should be a silent march for the animal. Rescue workers being threatened with bodily harm for failing to succeed. A politician treating this as a national tragedy.
In the meantime, killing unborn children remains fully accepted. Few march for them or mentions them in parliament. Families remain in poverty, even in this country, and food banks keep struggling to provide them with basic necessities. Super markets, in the meantime, throw away tons of unsold produce every day. Elderly people can be killed with full support from government and populace. No one thinks to suggest this should not be so. Coffee shops selling marijuana can continue to set up shop near schools, where children increasingly smoke it in between classes. These same children become sexually active at younger and younger ages, since everything is allowed, after all… I could go on.
Whales dive deep for their food. Our society seems to be sinking equally deep, but there is no sustenance waiting there…
Saturday we marked the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (which refers to the conception of Mary, not of Jesus, as many mistakenly think) and in The Hague the annual March for Life (picture at left) braved the freezing cold to make a stand for the right of life of all people. And life is the common denominator between these too. Mary was prepared since before her birth to carry, nurture and protect the perfect life in her womb, and today we are called to extend the same protection to the life of all people, born or yet unborn, healthy or ill, rich or poor.
Being a Catholic, I can’t be anything but pro-life. This is admittedly a moniker laden with political and other connotations, but for me it simply means that I choose life over death. Life is the original and ultimate gift we have been granted by God. And as with all His gifts, He doesn’t simply give and then walk away. No, He is with us forever, there when we reach out to Him when life gets difficult or even seemingly impossible.
But being pro-life is not the exclusive territory of Catholics, or even of Christians. All it requires are open eyes and a compassionate heart. Eyes that are open to the reality of both the difficulties and the beauty of life. A heart that is compassionate towards the person suffering, for whatever reason, and willing to help overcome that suffering.
I live in a society where abortion and euthanasia are generally considered to be human rights. As a result, they are seen as medical procedures aimed at curing a patient from the illness of pregnancy or pain. The very nature of life, as a gift from God and a responsibility for all of us, is thereby completely forgotten. Not even wilfully so, but out of ease or ignorance. Especially among younger people – teenagers, children even - this stance on abortion has lead to an increase in abortions, teenage pregnancies and a liberal attitude to sexuality that was unheard of even ten years ago. Children aged 12 or 13 are engaging in unprotected sexual intercourse, which from their standpoint is understandable if the unwanted consequences are so easily dealt with. Add to that the fact that abortion and euthanasia are both presented as having little to no psychological consequences on the person in question or their families, and these procedures indeed become simple cures for a disease.
But these are lies. Pure and simple.
Life is not a disease. Life is a gift, and a gift that brings with it responsibilities. Life is not subject to opinion, not a subjective value attached to an object. We can’t therefore decide who is worthy of life, or decide on when it starts or ends. Our active contribution to and participation in the life that we have been granted is delineated by these absolutes: it begins and ends at times that are beyond our qualification and competence.
Does that mean an immovable attitude on our part? Although there are boundaries we cannot cross, we can be compassionate and moved within those boundaries. We not only can, we should.
The concerns of people who do not share our standpoints are nonetheless legitimate. Questions about a child conceived in rape, or a lingering illness which will certainly end in death are ones we should confront. While we can’t say that the life of an unborn child of a patient should be terminated, we must work towards easing any suffering, be it physical or psychological. Unwanted pregnancies are a reality. They are not always easy, and they can be painful. Illness by itself is never enjoyable, and nor is pain without a chance of a cure.
Life, as a gift, transcends all this, however. The pain it sometimes brings us is never all it brings. In ways that we can’t conceive, an unborn child may prove a blessing for those around him. The natural death of a person can be a positive formative experience for others. We are not islands, and we are called to live in relation to others. That is not any different when illness, pain and being unwanted is concerned.
Life is immeasurably valuable. This is something we must never forget, because the risks are too great when we do.
I am pro-life. I can’t be anything else.
Photo credit: “A nation born out of prayer”, Mars voor het Leven/Facebook
A good question for today, and one I was asked yesterday, is why Christianity sometimes seems to be so focussed on death?
It’s true, sometimes we read and hear a lot about death, but also about the life that comes after. On the Cross, after all, Jesus Christ saved us, for all time, from eternal death, so to ignore it in our faith would be rather foolish. But does that mean that our life here on earth is nothing but a prelude to what comes later, a time of preparation and not a life of positives an negatives in its own rights? Certainly not.
We currently (assuming that my entire readership consists of people here on earth, of course…) live in God’s creation. This is where our earthly life takes place, and God created it because he desired to do so, and He intends us to life in it. To not life that life to the fullest in the Creation that God has given us responsibility for (Gen. 1:28), would be negligence.
God also went to great lengths to assure that life would endure, that His creation would not be left empty. An example is the story of Noah (Gen. 6:9 – 8:22).
In Jesus Christ, God desired to grant man the fullness of life (Matt. 4:4). Throughout the Gospels we find reports of how Jesus restored people to the fullness of their lives, in the miracles He performed. And, as I wrote before, Christ died and rose again to be victorious over death (Rom 6:10).
So to say that our life here on earth only matters as a time of preparation for what is to come is not true. But that is not the same as saying that the time to come does not matter, or that we should not prepare for it.
Death is a reality. Some day our life here on earth will end, and after a shorter or longer time we will enter into the eternal life with God. In the final book of the Bible, Revelation, we read much cryptic language about the end times, but we may be assured from this text that death no longer has any power of those belonging to Christ. That is us. But our earthly life will end, and we will meet the Lord face to face afterwards. It is good, even necessary to prepare for that. As Christians, it is good to have some preoccupation with death, although it should not be a singular preoccupation, because we also have a duty in life.
Today is All Souls’ Day, on which we remember all who have died; those who are with the Lord, those who are not, and those who someday will be. We all belong to the second or third category. A prayer for the dead is also a prayer for ourselves.
Photo credit: Inge Verdurmen
Art credit: ‘The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs’, by Fra Angelico (1423-4) © The National Gallery, London