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A bit of alternate history, or a look at how things could have been if history hadn’t gotten in the way…
A Church province of Mechelen covering what is now Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The Archbishop of Mechelen would have truly been Primate of the Netherlands: his archdiocese would have covered the provinces of Brabant (or modern Flemish and Walloon Brabant) and Antwerp. It would have had seven suffragan dioceses, some of which are similar to the ones we know today, while others would have been radically different in composition:
- Amsterdam: the provinces of Holland (modern North and South Holland), Utrecht, Overijssel, Friesland, Groningen and Drenthe
- Bois le Duc: the provinces of North Brabant, Gelderland and Zeeland
- Bruges: the province of West Flanders
- Ghent: the province of East Flanders
Liège: the provinces of Liège and Limburg (modern Belgian and Dutch Limburg)
- Namur: the provinces of Namur and Luxembourg (the modern Belgian province and the sovereign Grand Duchy)
- Tournai: the province of Hainault
Map of the Kingdom of the Netherlands as it existed from 1815 to 1830. Subdivisions depicted are provinces, not dioceses.
The bishops of all these dioceses would be appointed with royal consent and would swear and oath to the king upon their installation. Bishops and clergy would receive an income from the state.
All this could have been reality, had the Concordat between the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Holy See of 1827 become reality. The Belgian revolution and subsequent independence prevented this of course, and while the Belgian dioceses continued to exist and develop according to the descriptions in the Concordat, the Dutch dioceses would never become reality. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1853 when a whole different set of dioceses were created.
In that plan, which did become reality, the massive Diocese of Amsterdam (at 18,521 square kilometers taking up about one third of the total territory of the kingdom) had no place. In fact, no cathedral would ever be built in the Dutch capital, which instead became a part of the new Diocese of Haarlem. I described the recent Catholic history of Amsterdam in an earlier blog post.
The failed Concordat of 1827, which was signed by Pope Leo XII (and not Leo XIII, as I mistakenly wrote earlier) (pictured) and King William I, sheds an interesting light on what could have been. Whereas the Church in what is now Belgium and Luxembourg was predominant in society and had dioceses which had already been established (with the exception of Bruges, which would be split off from Ghent in 1832, and Luxembourg, separated from Namur in 1840), the northern Catholics lived in mission territory (the Mission ”sui iuris” of Batavia) and in four apostolic vicariates (‘s Hertogenbosch, Breda, Grave-Nijmegen and Ravenstein-Megen), three of which were less than thirty years old. Since the Reformation there had been no hierarchy to speak off in the modern Netherlands. The (often Italian) superiors of Batavia frequently didn’t even live in the territory they had pastoral responsibility, choosing Brussels or Cologne instead. The Concordat was, then, something of a diplomatic victory, especially since royalty and government were far from tolerant of the Catholic Church. Hence the oath to the king and the state control over clergy income. In fact, the creation of a mere two dioceses in areas where there were none yet (Bois le Duc and Amsterdam) would have helped as well: it meant there were only two extra bishops to contend with: in the southern part of the kingdom, there already were dioceses with bishops, so little would change there. The Concordat would simply solidify the relation between Church and state there.
If the Concordat had become reality, how would the map of the Dutch Church province look today? Assuming that Belgium would have become independent at one point or another, the province of Mechelen would be spread over two or even three countries (Luxembourg continued to exist in a personal union with the Netherlands through the same head of state, but since the Grand Duchy could not have a female head of state, the two nations would go their separate ways as soon as the first Queen inherited the Dutch throne). The Diocese of Liège as proposed in the Concordat could have gone both ways: split between Belgium and the Netherlands or wholly Belgian. The proposed Diocese of Bois le Duc would have been rather unmanageable, combining strong Catholic and Protestant parts of the country into one. The province of Gelderland would one day be split off, but to do what? Become an apostolic vicariate in its own right? Be merged with Amsterdam? The proposed Diocese of Amsterdam was also hard to control, split as it would be by the Zuiderzee: the part formed by Holland and Utrecht would be physically separated from the rest in the northern part of the kingdom. Perhaps the latter part would form a new diocese with Gelderland, with its cathedral in… Zwolle? Groningen? Deventer? Arnhem? Who’s to say? And what of Utrecht? That oldest of all sees in the northern Netherlands, once established by Saint Boniface as his base of operations from which to convert the Frisians. Now just a part of a new Diocese of Amsterdam… The Concordat of 1827 may have appeased the state for a while, but for the Church it would have been quite unmanageable and unrealistic.
The present layout of dioceses in the Netherlands
Perhaps it is a blessing that it never became reality. Today there are voices that there are too many dioceses in the Netherlands, but for the major part of their history, they have worked well enough. A Church province limited to a single country, with its own metropolitan see in the oldest Christian centre of the nation.
Happy birthday to Bishop Johannes Wilhelmus Maria Liesen, who today marks his 53rd birthday.
Bishop Liesen was born in Oosterhout, Diocese of Breda and became a priest of the Diocese of Roermond and later Auxiliary Bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch and is now the Bishop of Breda.
“The death of Msgr. Bluyssen has affected me deeply. He was the bishop who ordained me a deacon and a priest. At my consecration as bishop he was one of the concelebrants. My appreciation for him is great. For seventeen, he was bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch with all the beauty, but also with all the difficulties that this office brings with it. His kindness, tranquility and wisdom have helped him in his task. As bishop emeritus he continued to follow and sympathise greatly with the Church, the diocese of Den Bosch. In addition, he loved to study, wrote books and celebrated life with family and friends. Of course, like many others, Msgr. Bluyssen suffered through developments in the Church, but he was able to see them in a larger perspective. I will also miss the paternal presence of Msgr. Bluyssen at diocesan celebrations, which he always tried to attend. I am confident that Msgr. Bluyssen is now with the Lord, together with Mary and the saints. After all, like we do, he believed in a God of the living, and not in a God of the dead.”
Words from Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, second successor of Bishop Johannes Willem Maria Bluyssen, who died peacefully in his sleep on Thursday morning, as his heart surrendered after a life of 87 years in the service of the Church.
Bishop Jan Bluyssen hailed from Nijmegen and was ordained in 1950 by Bishop Willem Mutsaerts, and served as a parochial vicar in Veghel before studying spirituality in Rome. Returning to the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, he taught at the diocesan seminary in Haaren and also became spiritual director there. On 28 October 1961, Blessed Pope John XXIII appointed him as auxiliary bishop of the diocese, serving with Bishop Willem Bekkers, the ordinary. Bishop Bluyssen was made the first and to date only titular bishop of the see of Aëtus in modern Greece. After the unexpected death of Bishop Bekkers, Bishop Bluyssen was appointed to succeed him in October of 1966. The photo above shows the bishop shortly after his appointment, returning from a post-conciliar meeting in Rome. Bishop Bluyssen served until he offered his resignation for health reasons in 1983. This was granted on 1 March 1984.
Bishop Jan Bluyssen was the last surviving Dutch Council Father. Towards the end of the Second Vatican Council, he attended several sessions and was involved in several post-conciliar meetings on the liturgy. Bishop Bluyssen was the last bishop to be consecrated in the pre-conciliar rites. It is then perhaps paradoxical that he is considered a member of the more progressive wing of the Dutch bishops in the 1960s and 70s, who did most to change the liturgy and the Church in the Netherlands as a whole.
As a bishop, Bluyssen was continuously affected by health problems surround his heart, which ultimately led to his early retirement in 1984. Following his retirement, Bishop Bluyssen devoted himself to writing, of which his memoirs, Gebroken Wit (Broke White), published in 1995, are most notable.
The years of Bishop Bluyssen’s episcopate were turbulent ones in the entire Dutch Church. The Second Vatican Council had started an unintended chain reaction in which everything was questioned, from the way parishes should function to how the liturgy should be celebrated, even to what the Church and faithful should teach and believe. Bishop Bluyssen was often allied with the more progressive movements, questioning much with them and trying to put the new thoughts into practice. In the seventeen years that he was ordinary, Bishop Bluyssen closed the seminary in Haaren and saw the number of active priests, as well as new seminarians, drop dramatically. Bishop Bluyssen made sure that things remained quiet in his diocese in the time surrounding the special Synod on the Dutch Church that Pope John Paul II convened in 1980. Partly in response to these developments was the appointment of his successor, Bishop Jan ter Schure, who was generally far more conservative and in line with Rome.
Bishop Bluyssen was deeply conscious of his own limitations and failings. This sense of reality, his esteem for people as carriers of the faith and his own modesty made him hugely popular, both during and after his time as ordinary of ‘s Hertogenbosch. The more formal and serious side of being a bishop, which Bishop Bluyssen described as “being bound to the Gospel, bound through loyalty to Christ, whose task I am called to perform … which comes to me via and through the Church”, was coupled with his being a positive and winsome conversationalist.
With the death of Bishop Jans Bluyssen the Dutch Church has lost a good man, a true man, with good and bad sides, a man of faith and a man of the people. Despite his failing health, he remained a integral part of his erstwhile diocese, for far longer than the 17 years he served as its bishop.
On Tuesday, the bishop will lie in state in the bishop’s house, where faithful may visit on Tuesday evening, and Wednesday afternoon and evening. A Vespers for the repose of Bishop Bluyssen will be offered on Wednesday evening at 7 at the cathedral basilica of St. John. His funeral will take place on Thursday from the same church, starting at 11.
Photo credit:  Paul Kriele,  Peter van Zoest/ANP Historisch Archief, ANP,  Wim Jellema/wimjellema.nl
Sad news today, as reports come in that Bishop Johannes Bluyssen has traded the temporal for the eternal today. He was 87.
Bishop Bluyssen was auxiliary bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch from 1961 to 1966 and ordinary of the same diocese from 1966 to 1984.
The beloved bishop remained an honoured guest at all major diocesan events, especially ordinations.
Although the bishop was frail of health, his passing came as a surprise for all. More information about funeral arrangements, as well as a proper obituary on this blog, will follow later.
Happy birthday to Bishop Antonius Lambertus Maria Hurkmans, who today marks his 69th birthday.
Bishop Hurkmans was born in Someren, and became a priest and later bishop of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch.
Bishop Joannes Gijsen, who passed away at the age of 80 today, has left a mark on the Church in the Netherlands. Virtually all elements of his service led to comments, criticism, questions and, also, admiration and support. From his appointment in 1972 to his sudden retirement in 1993, his troubled time as ordinary of Roermond and his efforts to maintain a form of Catholic education in the Netherlands, his surprise appointment to Reykjavik and the comparisons between life there and back home (which often saw the Dutch situation in a bad light); Bishop Gijsen made his share of ripples in the pond of the Church.
But in the very first place, Bishop Gijsen must be understood as a man of faith, Asked if he ever experienced any doubt about his faith, he said in an interview in 2007: “True doubt? No, never! I am convinced that the Roman Catholic faith holds the fullness of all knowledge of God and man.”
He lived his life as a bishop that way, as he illustrated in that same interview:
“We’re all priests of the Catholic Church, and especially a bishop has responsibility for the entire Church. You must be able to be deployed anywhere. Of course, it is something else if you can’t because of health or something. But if you’re healthy, you can never say “no”.”
“If, somewhere in northern Iceland, there are a few Catholics who are interested in the Catholic faith, you must be able to offer it to them. Our Lord didn’t say: I want to convert the entire world in one go. He went to backward little Palestine and walked around there for three years, if not less. He reached only a few people. But that nonetheless became the foundation of the faith that reached the entire world.”
Joannes Baptist Matthijs Gijsen was born on 7 October 1937 in Oeffelt, a village in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, just on the border with the Diocese of Roermond. He was ordained for that latter diocese in 1957, by Bishop Joseph Lemmens. Although he spent some time in the parish, he was mainly a teacher at the seminaries in Kerkrade and Maastricht, and a student of theology and Church history in Münster and Bonn. In 1972, he was appointed as the 22nd bishop of Roermond, a move that was quite controversial, as the new bishop was known as conservative and his appointment as one imposed from Rome. Reflecting the latter, Bishop Gijsen was consecrated by Pope Paul VI in Rome, with the archbishops of Utrecht and Armagh serving as co-consecrators. Cardinal Alfrink, the archbishop of Utrecht, would have preferred a consecration in Roermond as a first step towards reconciliation, but was evidently overruled. Bishop Gijsen was installed at St. Christopher’s Cathedral in Roermond on 4 March 1972.
As bishop, he modernised the diocese in the line of the Second Vatican Council,determined as he was to put the Council’s documents into practice. In that sense, Bishop Gijsen was not so much a man of the “spirit of Vatican II”, but of the true Council. As a former teacher himself, he worked to maintain some form of true Catholic education in his diocese, with mixed results.
Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary of Haarlem-Amsterdam, today describes Bishop Gijsen as follows:
“He was a bishop with a vision, not conservative in the sense that he wanted to return to the time before the Second Vatican Council. On the contrary, with heart and soul he wanted to be a bishop who stood in and for that council and wanted to put it into practice. He wanted to be loyal to the Pope and the Church. He wanted “to prepare the way for the Lord”, as his motto was. That moved him, among others, to start a seminary at Rolduc, which has formed some 175 priests, including five of today’s bishops (among them Msgr. J. Punt and myself). As Pope Paul VI hoped and expressed, that little plant has borne fruit for the entire country.”
Above: Bishop Gijsen, third from left, pictured with Bishops Punt (second from right) and Hendriks (far right) and several other priests educated at Rolduc, photographed in May of this year.
In January of 1993, Bishop Gijsen suddenly and unexpectedly retired as bishop of Roermond. He moved to Austria to become the rector of a convent. Although rumours abounded about the reasons, the bishop would later explain:
“I have never had Crohn’s Disease, and I have always enjoyed the support of the Vatican. I can deny rumours of that nature without a doubt. I left because the doctor told me: “If you stay for one more year, you’ll either have a stomach perforation or an intestinal disease from which you will not recover, or you’ll have an aneurysm or a stroke. There is no way you’ll be able to keep this up. You must stop now!” That was the reason why I quit so suddenly. It was sudden for me as well. Agreed, the danger of a collapse was also caused by the developments and the experiences of those twenty years [as bishop in Roermond]. But it was mostly exhaustion.”
Three years of recovery followed, after which Bishop Gijsen relayed his renewed availability to Rome. At that time, the Diocese of Reykjavik in Iceland had been vacant for more than two years, so Bishop Gijsen was sent to the see where his great uncle Bishop Meulenberg had served in the 1930s. He was initially sent to be Apostolic Administrator, but in 1996 he was appointment as diocesan bishop.
Where Roermond represented a time of struggle and management, Reykjavik was by far the more enjoyable of Bishop Gijsen’s appointments. In 2006, he spoke in an interview about his appreciation for the country and the Icelandic people:
“I encountered much understanding. Seen from Rome, Iceland, land of the Vikings, seems a barren and terrifying place. But it most certainly is not. Consider, for one, the weather: here in the city, in the shadow of the mountains, the temperature rarely drops below -5°C. [...] From the very start I liked it here. I am very pleased with this place. Life at 66 degrees north is not that different from life in he Netherlands, at 53 degrees. But life is much more organised.”
In 2007, Bishop Gijsen returned home to the Diocese of Roermond and to his family. He moved in with one of his sisters in Sittard, and took on the pastoral care of a small convent. He shunned the media since then, devoting himself, no doubt, to his books and whoever came for a visit.
Looking back on his own life, something he was not too keen to do, Bishop Gijsen said, in the same 2007 interview quoted above:
“I have always tried to simply think along the same line as the Church. I have mainly tried to act on the basis of the Second Vatican Council, because that was our duty, especially for a bishop. I have done so with my abilities and with my inabilities and with the abilities of the people around me, and with their inabilities. We shouldn’t want to judge the result of that this soon. I think we should wait a while. I think you should never want to be your own judge, so I am not going to judge my own life; I’ll leave that to history.”
Today, many priests and bishops have been influenced in one way or another by Bishop Gijsen. As Bishop Hendriks said above, some 175 priests were educated at the seminary he started, but Bishop Gijsen also ordained and consecrated several bishops. In 1983, he ordained the future bishop Everard de Jong, and in 1985, the future Cardinal Wim Eijk. He also consecrated his own auxiliary bishops, Alphons Castermans in 1982, and Joannes ter Schure in 1984. The latter would become bishop of the neighbouring Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch almost exactly two months later.
Of course, Bishop Gijsen suffered his share of criticism, and he was not afraid to offer it himself. Shortly before his appointment as bishop of Roermond, he accused the Dutch bishops of having “set the faithful adrift” following the disastrous pastoral council of Noordwijkerhout. He went his own way, and this in part was reason for Blessed Pope John Paul II to call a Special Synod on the Netherlands in 1980.
^Bishop Gijsen, right, with Pope John Paul II, during the latter’s visit to the Netherlands in 1985.
Most serious in his later years were several accusations that surfaced regarding sexual abuse, both in Roermond and in Reykjavik. While no accusations were deemed inadmissible in court, they do point towards serious mismanagement on the part of Bishop Gijsen.
Bishop Joannes Gijsen was not perfect. He had his flaws, but he was driven by an honest desire to be of service and to do what was needed. For that, especially during the 1970s and 80s, we should laud him.
The funeral is planned for 29 June, at 10:30 in the morning, from St. Christopher’s Cathedral in Roermond. On the eve of the funeral, there will be a vigil Mass for the late bishop at the Carmelite convent chapel in Sittard.
Photo credit:  Bisdom Roermond,  arsacal.nl,  Dagblad De Limburger
Happy anniversary to Bishop Robertus Gerardus Leonia Maria Mutsaerts, who today marks the 20th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.
Bishop Mutsaerts is Titular Bishop of Uccula and Auxiliary Bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch. On 5 June 1993 he was ordained by Bishop Joannes ter Schure, at the time the ordinary of ‘s Hertogenbosch.
In this first week after Pentecost, three dioceses in the Netherlands are gearing up to ordain three priests each on Saturday. While it is no set rule, it is customary for new priests to be ordained around this time. Later on in the year, the expectation is that there will be at least one more ordination coming up in the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, for example.
Tomorrow, however it will the Dioceses of ‘s Hertogenbosch, Haarlem-Amsterdam and Roermond’s turn. Diocese by diocese, here are the new priests:
Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, to be ordained by Bishop Antoon Hurkmans in the Cathedral Basilica of St. John:
- Peter Koen
- Bart Theunissen
Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam, to be ordained by Bishop Jan Hendriks, the auxiliary, since Bishop Jos Punt has decided to temporarily lessen his workload in preparation for surgery:
- Jeroen de Wit
- José Marin de Val
Diocese of Roermond, to be ordained by Bishop Frans Wiertz in St. Christopher’s cathedral (and depicted above on the cover of the diocesan magazine):
- Roderick van Attekum
- Carlos Martinez
- Ralf Schreiber
With three of the new priest hailing from outside the Dutch borders (Marin del Val and Martinez are Colombian, and Schreiber German), this year’s class has a fairly strong international element. And that is a trend which will become steadily more standard in the future, particularly since the Diocese of Roermond has just announced that no less than six Indian seminarians will be trained to become priests in that diocese. Starting their time in the Netherlands with an intensive fulltime course to learn the Dutch language, it will be interesting to see if and how these priests succeed in adapting to Dutch society, mentality and culture.
For now, however, prayers for the new priests of this year and all the years to come. May their numbers ever increase, for we do indeed need them.
And finally, to close with the reminder that Pope Francis imparted to the priests he ordained on 21 April:
“[D]ear sons, exercising for your part the office of Christ, Head and Shepherd, while united with the Bishop and subject to him, strive to bring the faithful together into one family, so that you may lead them to God the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Keep always before your eyes the example of the Good Shepherd who came not to be served but to serve, and who came to seek out and save what was lost.”
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