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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
As an addendum to my previous post comes the news that one of the Council Fathers still alive today is, in fact, not. Ten Days ago, on June 15, Archbishop Albert Joseph Tsiahoana passed away at the age of 84. At the time of Vaticanum II he was an auxiliary bishop of Diégo-Suarez in Madagascar. He would later become the archbishop of that same archdiocese, which today is called Antsiranana.
We are all mortals, and when considering the average age of the surviving Council Fathers it would be surprising if not more would enter eternal life before the Year of Faith opens.
What to say about the horrific bus crash in Switzerland which killed 22 children and 6 adults? Terrible in itself, the news becomes even worse when the names become faces, as happened via social media today.
The message of support from Pope Benedict XVI, the prayer vigil led by Archbishops Léonard and Berloco, the papal nuncio, at Louvain’s St. Peter’s church, the visits of Archbishop Léonard and Bishops Hoogmartens and Lemmens to the schools the children attended, even Bishop Lemmens’ flying down to Switzerland to offer any means of support to families and survivors on behalf of the bishops of Belgium, are but attempts to soften the pain. At best we may hope and pray that they will bear good fruit.
Words? I don’t think there are any.
Photo credit:  AFP Photo/Sebastien Feval,  Reuters/AP
“Osama bin Laden – as we all know – was gravely responsible for promoting division and hatred between peoples, causing the end of countless innocent lives, and of exploiting religions to this end.
Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us before God and before man, and hopes and commits himself so that no event be an opportunity for further growth of hatred, but for peace.”