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The Dutch bishops have not yet spoken much in public about the upcoming Synod, but today Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, auxiliary of ‘s Hertogenbosch, does. And he makes a point that has been emphasised before by both Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Burke: the Synod is not about divorce, remarriage and admission to the Eucharist. The question is a bigger one, as Bishop Mutsaerts explains:

Bisschop Rob Mutsaerts“With the extraordinary Synod of the Family which opens on 5 October, Pope Francis mostly aims for a greater appreciation of the Christian marriage as a sacrament. It is clear that in today’s culture the Biblical vision on marriage and family is considered to be virtually unattainable, and is seen more as a burden than as good news. Perhaps that is the reason for Pope Francis to have scheduled the beatification of Paul VI at the end of the Synod, as a closing statement.

Paul VI was a staunch defender of Christian marriage. His famed and infamous encyclical Humanae Vitae, however, achieved the opposite according to public opinion. The Biblical ideal was almost completely forgotten. It is to be hoped that October’s  Synod will not result in a repetition of Humanae Vitae. Expectations, after all, are high. Some fervently hope that the Pope will change the Church’s teaching about divorced and remarried people; others fear he will. That would result in a repetition of Humanae Vitae. And that is exactly what Pope Francis is afraid of: “I have not been happy that so many people – even church people, priests – have said: “Ah, the Synod will be about giving communion to the divorced”, and went straight to that point”, the Pope told reporters on the return flight from Israel.

The questions is much broader. The family is in crisis. Young people rarely choose marriage. They choose others ways of living together. The family is in crisis because marriage is in crisis, according to the firm opinion of Francis.

I hope that the Pope will get the Synod he has in mind, and not the Synod which is mainly concerned with the single question of divorced and remarried faithful. That is certainly a genuine problem, but a far more complex problem lies at its root: few understand marriage as a Christian vocation, strengthened by sacramental mercy. Not without reason did the Pope give  it “The pastoral challenges for the family in the context of evangelisation” as title, and he placed it as such emphatically within the context of evangelisation. Evangelisation is without meaning if we consider it without the Gospel. The words of Jesus to both the Samaritan woman and the woman caught in adultery was hard to accept for those who heard it then and those who hear it now. Don’t forget that the Apostles thought that Jesus’ teachings about marriage were so difficult that it would be better not to marry. If the Synod is true to the Gospel – can she be otherwise? – she can expect the same response, and it will be her duty to inspire confidence that the Christian marriage is still recommendable.

Pope Francis is keen to emphasise that Christian marriage is a sacrament. Much of the confusion surrounding marriage and divorce arises when we lose sight of the fact that marriage is a sacrament. Marriage is not indissoluble because two people make a promise for life. The Church can dispense people from their promises. That is een true for the vows of religious. But the Church can’t undo a sacrament. Marriage is indissoluble for the same reason that we have tabernacles: a consecrated host can’t be ‘deconsecrated’, just like Baptism or the ordination of a priest can’t be undone. Even a priest who has ben laicised remains a priest, even though he can’t exercise the office of priest (although he can hear confessions in emergencies). Nobody, no Synod and also no Pope, can undo a valid sacrament. That’s simply how it is. We shouldn’t therefore expect a relaxation of rules regarding divorced and remarried people in regard to their receiving Holy Communion. Those who do expect this will be disappointed from the outset.

Most Catholics are unaware of the sacramental character of their marriage. Marriage, by the way, is the only of the seven sacrament which is not administered by a priest or deacon, but by lay people, by husband and wife when they say yes to each other. This is the sacrament that gives strength and mercy to be able to keep promises. That is what it is about for the Pope.”

kasperCardinal Walter Kasper has come increasingly under fire from fellow cardinals and others in the Church for his comments about marriage, divorce and Communion. While some are concerned by these visible disagreements, and Cardinal Kasper himself having even suggested that his critics are personally attacking him and Pope Francis, this really is simply what Pope Francis has said he wanted: open and free discussion about the topics that the Synod will devote its time to next month. And while I usually don’t want to commit myself to stark distinctions between left and right, orthodox and liberal, in this discussion it really does seem that those who want the Church to change or loosen up her teachings are honestly insulted by those who disagree.

In an interview for Vatican Radio, Cardinal Kasper commented on the situation. I have translated some of his answer which I think are most interesting in this context.

“Of course everyone has the right to publicly state their opinion. Nothing can be brought against that. But I wonder if the entire Synod is not being reduced to a single point. It is about the pastoral challenges in the context of the new evangelisation. That is far broader field. An insider problem is being place at the centre here. What matters is to be able to speak again and discuss the beauty and the Christian understanding of the family, which many today no longer know – it is about far more fundamental problems than simply this one. And secondly: what sort of understanding of the Gospel is this? It is the Good News. One can’t turn it into just a legal codex alone and then say that there can be no discussion about this point anymore. That makes the Synod a joke. Nobody has the right to say in advance what is possible and what is not. The Pope wants an open discussion, and that should be held. Then, in the Synod, to listen quietly to one another, in an atmosphere of prayer, and the in the end make a decision for the good of the faithful. I will not enter into polemics.”

“Without doubt the family is the cell of society and the cell of the life of the Church. In the family, in marriage and family, life and faith come closest together. It is an essential reality of life which has been raised to the glory of a sacrament. In that way it is a very vital and central issue for the Church to stand for marriage and family and offer solutions for the crisis that exists today. It is about these pastoral challenges, which is the theme of the Synod, not a war of doctrine. Of course, pastoral care is impossible without being oriented on the truth. But the truth is not an abstract system, but in the  end it is Jesus Christ in person, and we need to bring the people close to Christ. In that sense the Synod must be oriented on the truth and understand  Tradition as a living and bubbling spring and not as a rigid system.”

“I have posed a question, not simply suggested a solution. And I posed that question in agreement with the Pope. That’s very important for me. I asked, “When a marriage has failed one should do everything to repair it. But when there is no way back, when someone has entered into a new relationship which is, humanly speaking, a happy one, lived in a Christian fashion, when there are children, one can’t give up this new relationship without serious consequence. And we must also see how God offers new chances – and God does. That is His mercy, that He does not let go of anyone of good will. And everyone does what he can in their situation. And I think that this should be pastorally clarified in every individual case, after a period of orientation. That is called the ‘Via poenitentialis’ – but those involved suffer enough already without it. They do not need to perform great acts of penance. But a new orientation is necessary. That should be the sacrament of penance – that is why we have it – and the sacrament of penance also means re-admission to the Eucharist. But as I said, that is not the solution for all cases, presumably for a minority of all people who live in our communities, who suffer from it and have an honest desire for the sacraments, who urgently need the sacraments to deal with their difficult situations.”

In general it is hard to disagree with much of what the cardinal says. He is very right that the entire Synod is indeed being reduced this single topic (and his perceived opponent Cardinal Burke recently said the exact same thing). His words about the importance of family and the Church’s  defense of and communication about it are also very important, as are his concerns for those who are involved in a good, Christian, loving second relationship while their first marriage is still canonically valid. There is a problem there, but  not with the quality of the second relationship.

And that’s were the problem of the discussion lies. Too many people shift the focus to those second relationships and how the mean Church wants to destroy them and the happiness of those involved. That is a clear untruth. The fact remains that a marriage is a sacrament, and therefore something that can’t be broken by human hands (we simply need to listen to Christ’s words: “What God has joined, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9)). So when a marriage exists (we’re looking at pure existence here, not quality), there can’t be a second marriage next to it. This is, in essence the basis of the argument. All discussion and, indeed, pastoral care needs to be built on it. And at the latter the Synod will look in detail.

Cardinal Kasper’s mistake, in my opinion, is that he sweeps aside this basis when he says, “One can’t turn [the Gospel] into just a legal codex alone and then say that there can be no discussion about this point anymore. That makes the Synod a joke. Nobody has the right to say in advance what is possible and what is not.” There must be discussion, certainly, for the good of the faithful. But there are also parameters, which are set by Christ. If we want to follow Him, we must accept and work within His parameters. The Codex of Canon Law is the result of centuries of understanding these parameters and translating them for a host of situations, places and times. There must always be such development, and in that sense the law can change. But it can not be overwritten, swept aside or corrected as if what was once true no longer is. In the end it reflects the Truth that is its founder, Jesus Christ.

The Synod will certainly look at the law, but not in order to change it. No, it will concern itself with translation and communication. How can the pastoral care that the Church now offers be improved, so that what she asks the faithful is also possible for them to achieve. In a recent interview Cardinal Burke said, “It simply makes no sense to talk about mercy which doesn’t respect truth. How can that be merciful?” He’s right. Truth and mercy are not separate. How is it merciful to encourage someone to move further away from the truth that he or she wants to follow? And how are we true to what Christ’s asks of us if we show false mercy?

ordinationIn the time during and following Pentecost, the dioceses in Northwestern Europe generally get new priests, as seminarians are ordained during this time in which the Church remembers and celebrates the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the Apostles and His continuing work in the Church today.

The ordinations are spread out across the entire month of June, with the first batch having taken place last weekend. On 6 June, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck ordained Fathers Marius Schmitz (30) and Christoph Werecki (28) for the Diocese of Essen, and on Sunday the 7th the vast majority followed, with 5 new priests in Aachen, 4 in Berlin, 1 in Dresden-Meiβen, 1 in Erfurt, 3 in Hamburg, 2 in Münster, 2 in Osnabrück, 5 in Paderborn and also 5 in Würzburg. Additionally, 6 transitional deacons were ordained in München und Freising, as well as 2 permanent deacons in Trier.

On Monday the 9th, the first of a number of ordinations in the Netherlands took place, of Father Ton Jongstra in ‘s Hertogenbosch. He was ordained for the Focolare movement. On Saturday, 14 June, 2 new priests will be ordained for Haarlem-Amsterdam and 1 for Roermond. On the same day, in Würzburg, two Franciscan priests will be ordained. On 21 June, one priest will be ordained for Utrecht.

Lastly, on the 22nd, 2 new priests will be ordained for Mechelen-Brussels, one transitional deacon for Bruges on the 25th, and a final new priest for Ghent on the 29th

All in all, we’re looking at 41 new priests, 7  transitional deacons and 2 permanent deacons in the dioceses of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. The youngest priest is 25-year-old Fr. Johannes van Voorst tot Voorst, to be ordained for the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam; most senior is 63-year-old Fr. Joost Baneke, Archdiocese of Utrecht. The average age is 33 for the priests and 34 for the deacons.

Most new priests and deacons come from the dioceses for which they are ordained, but some have come from abroad. Fr. Alberto Gatto (Berlin) comes from Italy, Fr. Przemyslaw Kostorz (Dresdem-Meiβen) from Poland, Fr. Mario Agius (Haarlem-Amsterdam) from Malta, Fr. Jules Lawson (Hamburg) from Togo, Fr. Jiji Vattapparambil (Münster) from India, and Fr. Alejandro Vergara Herrera  (Roermond) from Chile.

Below an overview of names, dates and the like of the latest influx of men who will administer that most necessary of services to the faithful: the sacrament of the Eucharist.

6 June:

Diocese of Essen: Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck ordains Fathers Marius Schmitz (30) and Christoph Werecki (28).

7 June:

Diocese of Aachen: Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff ordains Fathers Matthias Goldammer (27), David Grüntjens (26), Achim Köhler (40), Michael Marx (30) and Andreas Züll (38).

Archdiocese of Berlin: Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki ordains Fathers Alberto Gatto (40), Bernhard Holl (33), Johannes Rödiger (33) and Raphael Weichlein (31).

Diocese of Dresden- Meiβen: Bishop Heiner Koch ordains Father Przemyslaw Kostorz (27).

Diocese of Erfurt: Bishop Reinhard Hauke ordains Father Andreas Kruse (44).

Diocese of Fulda: Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen ordains Father Markus Agricola.

hamburg, jaschke, priests

^Archdiocese of Hamburg: Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke ordains Fathers Heiko Kiehn (33), Roland Keiss (29) and Jules Lawson (47).

Archdiocese of München und Freising: Reinhard Cardinal Marx ordains transitional Deacons Alois Emslander (29), Johannes Kappauf (28), Manuel Kleinhans (30), Michael Maurer (28), Martin Reichert (26) and Simon Ruderer (30).

Diocese of Münster: Bishop Felix Genn ordains Fathers Jiji Vattapparambil (35) and Thomas Berger (38).

Diocese of Osnabrück: Bishop Franz-Josef Bode ordains Fathers Hermann Prinz (44) and Kruse Thevarajah (29).

Archdiocese of Paderborn: Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker ordains Fathers Christof Graf (28), Markus Hanke (41), Stefan Kendzorra (29), Tobias Kiene (28) and Raphael Steden (26).

Diocese of Trier: Bishop Stephan Ackermann ordains permanent Deacons Hans Georg Bach (59) and Michael Kremer (51).

Diocese of Würzburg: Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann ordains Fathers Andreas Hartung (31), Sebastian Krems (38), Paul Reder (42), Michael Schmitt (31) and Simon Schrott (29).

9 June:

Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch/Focolare movement: Bishop Jan van Burgsteden ordains Father Ton Jongstra (56).

14 June:

Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam: Bishop Jan Hendriks ordains Fathers Johannes van Voorst tot Voorst (25) and Mario Agius (31).

Diocese of Roermond: Bishop Frans Wiertz ordains Father Alejandro Vergara Herrera (34).

Diocese of Würzburg/ Franciscans: Bishop Firedhelm Hoffman ordains Fathers Martin Koch (33) and Konrad Schlattmann (28).

21 June:

Archdiocese of Utrecht: Wim Cardinal Eijk ordains Father Joost Baneke (63).

22 June:

Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels: Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard ordains Fathers Gaëtan Parein (37) and Denis Broers (54).

25 June:

Diocese of Bruges: Bishop Jozef De Kesel ordains transitional Deacon Matthias Noë (24).

29 June:

Diocese of Ghent: Bishop Luc Van Looy ordains Father Herbert Vandersmissen (32).

Photo credit: [1] ordinations in Aachen, Andreas Steindl, [2] new priests of Hamburg, K. Erbe

As Germany’s youngest ordinary came into his own, he outlined the goals and direction of the Church in the Diocese of Passau. Bishop Stefan Oster was consecrated on Saturday by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, metropolitan of the province of which Passau is a part, and Bishop Wilhelm Schraml, the retired bishop of Passau, and Archbishop Alois Kothgasser, retired ordinary of Salzburg in Austria, who Bishop Oster succeeded as professor of dogmatics at Benediktbeuern Abbey. The passage below comes from the new bishop’s closing remarks, at the end of the Mass at Passau’s cathedral of St. Stephen.

Bischof-Stefan-Oster-2481mk

“In these biographical notes, something is visible of what in my opinion is central to the direction of our Church in the future. In the first and foremost place it is about relationship. In the very first place a living, deep and supporting relationship with Christ. Be confident that that really exists, that it is not just a matter of thoughts and words, but that the encounter with the Lord really and concrete fulfills, supports,  transforms and in the deepest sense of the word can save and sanctify a life.

This is the miracle: the encounter of Jesus with us already exists in all of us, most especially in all who are baptised. The Lord is already there in each and everyone one of us. And that is why we, as Church, are already a community of encounter and witness, even before we do something. But the Holy Spirit likes us to work with Him. That is why all of us, who already belong to Christ, are also called to put this encounter into practice, to deepen it and also to help one another to enter more deeply into this encounter and to open up to one another again – and so to bring our Church in Passau and everywhere else to love in His power. We are called to be witnesses to each other of the presence of Jesus in our lives: in word and action. Another assignment for the future is also that we really open one another up to make new spaces for encounter and communication of faith, in which we can honestly and openly ask, seek, worship God and also give witness. We need this space, because in it the sacraments can once again be new nourishment and a new wellspring for us. We need them because, for example, they allow us not to leave the central mystery of the Eucharist as a 45-minute visit to the Church behind us, but actually the source and summit of our Christian life, as the last Council tells us.

I am also convinced that we do not have to let ourselves be divided into camps, standing against one another in the end. Of course there are more conservative and more liberal Christians, but we must be careful not to become a cliché and a caricature for the other. So I want to invite us: let’s maintain the dialogue and share the way. Let’s not demonise each other, because the other is seemingly part of the other camp. Let’s trust each other, and acknowledge that the other is also honestly seeking God – and for exactly that reason considers certain things especially important.

In the liturgy booklet you have seen that my motto is: “The victory of truth is love”. We sometimes find in our Church that some insist perhaps too much on the truth, and then sometimes succumb to the temptation of thinking that honest compassion for the neighbour is secondary, only an option when everything is formally correct. And we also see the opposite, a great multiplicity of affection for the neighbour or even the demand for this gift, but with little concern for the truth, given the great variety of situations in life. Dear sisters and brothers, both lead to marginalisation: truth without love remains abstract and ultimately betrays the one who, as Truth, is at the same time Love personified. And the other way around: Love without truth often does not even deserve the name Love, because it ultimately leads to arbitrariness. The united middle road, truth lived as love and vice versa: Love which testifies of the truth, this middle road leads to victory and has a Christian name: holiness.

Of course, holiness is a very big word, but don’t you think that holiness has, in the first place, to do with your or mine ability? It’s not a sort of competition sport in prayer or spiritual exercises. Holiness grows in the hearts of all people who always open themselves anew to the love of God, who allow themselves to be really touched and transformed by it. Holiness grows in who honestly seek Jesus, love Him and let themselves be loved by Him. Holiness is then God’s will for all of us, not just for bishop or all so-called ‘professional’ Christians. It is rather that the bishop, the priest, the deacon and all men and women who are called to the service of the Church, also have this vocation, as they help others to discover ever deeper that they are also called to holiness, to the deepest belonging to Christ.

Dear sisters and brothers, everywhere where this mystery of holiness shines out anew in one or more people, there the Church begins to grow anew, there people are being touched by a presence,which works more than a mere assembly of people could. There people are attracted and meaningful, encouraging, yes, life-changing encounter with the Lord take place. And then a prophecy is fulfilled, which the Prophet Zechariah spoke in the Old Testament, before the Messianic era (Zech. 8:23): “In those days,” we read there, “In those days, ten men from nations of every language will take a Jew by the sleeve and say: We want to go with you, since we have learnt that God is with you.” We, the Church of Passau and of course also beyond, we are these Jews. For we live in the time in which the Messiah, the lion of Judah, has already been seen, is already known. We are people who are related to Him, who carry His name. Let us then learn anew to know and love one another, so that the people also come to us and say, “We want to go with you, since we have learnt that God is with you.””

kräutlerHe is said to work closely with Pope Francis in the latter’s future encyclical on ecology, and as such he has been interviewed several times, not only about his own work, but also about his expectations for the future. Bishop Erwin Kräutler, Austrian but living in Brazil, most recently appeared in an interview for Austrian daily Die Presse. And much like the statements of other perceived close collaborators of the Pope, such as Cardinal Walter Kasper and Bishop Nunzio Galantino, Bishop Kräutler’s words are their own source of concern.

You can read my translation of the interview here, but there are a few passages that I want to highlight.

  • A right to the Eucharist. Bishop Kräutler agrees when the interviewer states that faithful have a right to the Eucharist. The bishop is about half right. The Church has the duty to bring the Eucharist to the faithful as much as possible, but the faithful can not exercise a right to receive the Lord. No one has that right. The sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, which is made present in every Mass, making it possible for us to receive Him in Communion, was a free choice from the Lord. He was under no obligation to do that for us, but He did it all the same (which indicates what a mind-boggling event that really is). But no one could or can demand that He gives Himself to us.
  • Celibacy. This is not really problematic, although I don’t agree with the bishop’s reasons. But the Eucharist does not depend on the priest’s celibacy, as the bishop claims. It depends on no characteristic of the priest, actually. If the priest does as Christ did, in unity with the Church, the consecration takes place and the Eucharist is celebrated.
  • Bishops’ conferences. Bishop Kräutler dishonestly contrasts Pope Francis with Pope Benedict XVI, by stating that it was impossible to make proposals to any Pope before Francis. This is an obvious untruth, and it is shameful to depict Benedict as inactive, even unwilling, because he emphasised the importance of prayer.
  • Ordination of women. The door is closed, but it’s still a door, so it may open. Nonsense. Pope St. John Paul II has been very clear that the Church is simply not able to ordain women, and Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have  simply upheld this conclusion. Impossible things are not certainly possible because we want them to.
  • Refusing Communion. A person’s conscience is indeed the first arbiter of whether or not we should come forward to Communion. But that conscience needs to be formed properly, and there the Church, in the persons of bishops and priests, has an important duty. To say that a bishop has no right to deny is denying an important duty he has.

The 1970s clearly are not dead yet…

One of the main problems with these kinds of ‘revelations’ and predictions of the future is that it’s all hearsay and speculation. We hear from secondary sources what the Pope did or did not say, wants or does not want, while  we have no way to verify if his words were communicated accurately and completely. And in the case of Bishop Kräutler, Pope Francis’ actions are heavily tinted by the bishops own old-fashioned hopes and ideas. In the end, we can only wait until something actually happens.

Bishop Erwin Kräutler was born in Koblach, Austria, in 1939 and was ordained a priest for the Society of the Precious Blood in 1965, at which time he moved to Brazil. In 1980 he was appointed as Coadjutor Prelate of Xingu in Brazil, succeeding his own uncle, Bishop Eurico Kräutler in 1981. Xingu covers a large area of the east-central Amazon basin, with the city of Altamira at its heart.

“Then John’s disciples came to him and said, ‘Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?’

Jesus replied, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is still with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

Matthew 9:14-15

ringsThe image of marriage is not unusual when Jesus speaks about Himself and those who follow Him. Here it is related to the practice of fasting, one of the essential things we do during Lent. From the question of John’s disciples we can gather that the followers of Jesus were the odd ones out: they were the only ones not fasting. This already shows us that being a follower of Jesus makes you stand out from the crowd. His ways are not necessarily the ways of the world.

Jesus’ reply to their question tells us that He takes up a very special place: He essentially says that He is the reason that His followers do not fast; the deciding factor in the question of whether or not we should fast and make ourselves ready and able to meet the Lord is He. By saying that His followers do not need to fast, since the bridegroom is with them, Jesus indicates that they are already face to face with the Lord. Once you’re there, there is little need to prepare.

Jesus is with them now, and that fact trumps all reasons for fasting, for preparation. But Jesus says something more. There will come a time when He will not be among them, and then His followers will fast. But why fast after what you were fasting for already happened? That’s pointless. But they will not be fasting after the fact. Jesus has another reason for them to fast: this encounter with God will not be the last. He will return, they will meet again, and that does require preparation.

The same is true for us. We too have met Jesus: in His Word, in the sacraments (especially in our Baptism and in the Eucharist), and in those around us. But we still need to fast, because we will come face to face with Jesus some day. He asks us to make that choice to meet Him. He asks us to allow us to be transformed by Him. Lent is the time in which we try and be open to that, to give Him the reins, so to speak.

Various bishops have written messages to their faithful on the occasion of Lent. In this post I want to go over six of them, written by bishops in and around the Netherlands. I have been scanning the various diocesan websites for them, and an interesting conclusion from that is that there aren’t  a lot. I have found one in the Netherlands, and a few in Belgium and the Nordic countries. Oh, and one from Luxembourg. None from Germany, oddly enough.

Anyway, let’s see what the bishops who did write a message found important to share.

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkFrom Utrecht, Cardinal Wim Eijk speaks about charity. He writes:

 “For many of us [Lent] is a time of abstinence, a period in which we deny ourselves “the pleasures of life” or at least limit ourselves. Lent is a journey through the darkness to the Light of Easter, a journey through the desert to the Source. And we take the time for that: this is not ‘merely’ a Four-Day March, but one of forty days. We do not fast with an eye on losing weight or adopting a healthier lifestyle – although these can certainly be positive side effects… [...] During Lent we place not ourselves but God and also our neighbours at the centre. It is the we have in mind when we downsize our consumption pattern.”

But the cardinal warns, Lent is not just about saving money to give to some charity. He quotes Pope Francis, who said that if we do not have Christ and the Cross, we are a enthusiastic NGO, but not a Church. In other words, we can’t lose sight of our faith when doing good. In addition to fighting material poverty, we must also fight spiritual poverty.

“[Lent] is after all a time in which we make room to enrich our heart and our spirit, through prayer and reading Scripture, by directing these on what the should be the heart of our existence: our personal relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ. We remove the frills and side issues from our life to experience that our wellbeing does not depend on them.”

In essence, Cardinal Eijk explains, our charitable actions can not be seen separate from the Eucharist.

“In the sacrament of the Eucharist we come closest to Our Lord Jesus Christ. In receiving the Eucharist we are conformed to Him. This creates obligations and holds an assignment: from now on, try to act in His Spirit.”

He concludes with pointing out several “desert experiences” that deserve our attention: the loneliness of people around us, and the loneliness that we as faithful can sometimes experience.

“We live in a time in which faith has long since ceased to be a matter of course, in which not belonging to a religion is increasingly becoming normative. Going to Church on Sunday has almost become “socially maladjusted behaviour” now that this day is beginning to look more and more like every other day of the week. And then there is the unavoidable fact that several churches will have to be closed in the coming period, churches in which parishioners have often had decades worth of precious experiences and memories. It is clear: a person of faith in the year 2014 must stand firm to continue following Jesus faithfully.

But the person of faith and his faith can also be shaken from within. Every faith life has fruitful and barren periods. Barren periods during which we are locked up in ourselves, imprisoned by doubt and sorrow. Sorrow for the loss of a loved one or the disappearance of what was once familiar. In those dark nights of abandonment it may seems as it of our prayer do not reach beyond that barrier of sorrow, as if they return to us like a boomerang.”

Countering that is the realisation that Christ is with us, even in times of sorrow and suffering, even of sin.

01-mgr%20leonardBrussels’ Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard sheds a light on the three constituent elements of Lent – fasting, almsgiving and prayer – and asks his audience some direct questions. About fasting, he writes:

“Properly understood, fasting is an act of love for God. Is it not right to happily deny ourselves something for the people we love the most? [...] The way in which our Muslim brother and sisters practice Ramadan can inspire us in an exemplary manner to be at our most generous in this field.”

About almsgiving, the archbishop explains:

“This is an important aspect of Lent. Brotherly sharing starts at home. With that I mean the sharing of friendship, respect, patience and service.”

Lastly, there is prayer. Archbishop Léonard remind sus that the most important prayer is the Eucharist. About personal prayer, he asks us a question:

“We all know, at least in theory, the importance of prayer. But reality shows that a solid reminder sometimes does wonders! I ask you again: “How much time did we spend on prayer over the past month? Where were we?” Lent is an excellent opportunity to make a new start or, who knows, finally get started. Spending a few minutes a day with the Lord is not to much to ask, is it?”

And prayer is not hard:

“We must at least realise that every one of us can pray, even a longer prayer. Prayer is not reserved to priests and religious. It does not require a diploma or any special talent. The desire for prayer and asking Jesus, like His Apostles did, “Lord, teach us to pray!” (Luke 11:1), is enough. Let su listen to the voice of the Lord, who asks us, “Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share a meal at that person’s side” (Rev. 3:20).”

hollerichArchbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg uses his message to urge the his faithful to devote themselves even more to the practices of Lent and Easter. In order the hear the voice of God, we must be ready to do so, he writes.

“I [...] propose we fast and do abstinence every Friday during this time of preparation for Easter. A simple meal can help us break down barriers in our daily routine and to open ourselves to Christ’s call. It is also a gesture of solidarity with the poor. And it would be good to not do it alone, but to do so in our various communities. Fasting and abstinence open our hearts and make us better able to pray. Would this not be an opportunity to pray more, to maintain dialogue and contact with the living God? Without personal prayer these things elude us!”

Archbishop Hollerich also speaks about almsgiving, about giving something up for the other. And this is also good for ourselves:

“Let’s shake ourselves up during this Lent! Let’s open our hearts to the distress of the world, which also exists in Luxembourg. Only someone who opens their hands to share can receive this gift: the freedom of the children of God.”

The archbishop urges us to celebrate all of Lent, not just Easter, but also Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, in order to encounter Christ fully in our hearts.

Despite the problems the Church faces, and we as individual faithful also, Lent is ultimately a season of hope, and that hope grows the closer we come to the Living Lord.

anders+arborelius+ruotsi+katolinen+kirkkoBishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm takes a slightly different approach to his message for Lent, as he does not explicitly discuss what we can and should do during this season. Instead, he begins with the image of a forgotten God, opening his letter with these blunt lines:

“We forget God. We live in age where God has become the forgotten God. Even the one who says, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me” (Isaiah 49:14) has in fact himself forgotten God.”

But God does not forget us, he continues. We can’t imagine how close God is to is, and how much he loves us. It is up to us to remind others that, while they may forget Him, He never forgets them. And that is hard to communicate, but we must remain hopeful.

Forgetting God contains an enormous risk for us, the bishop explains:

“When we forget God, there is a great risk that we also forget man and fail to see him in his dignity of being created in the image of God. When God is forgotten, creation itself is diminished and so are all created beings. In a time and environment where consumerism is paramount, everything – and everybody – is easily reduced to things that can be consumed. When God is out of sight, so is humanity – indeed all of creation is brought down and diminished.”

But God is knowable in His creation, Bishop Arborelius states. “His presence permeates everything”. And when we get to know God, our respect for His creation grows. In Lent, that respect is shown by our refraining from making unnecessary use of created things.

“We eat less. We disengage ourselves from our covetousness. We try to help our neighbour. We meet God in the poor and naked. We forget ourselves so that we can set God in the centre. We serve those who need us. We praise Go for His goodness. We deepen our faith. Lent helps us to seek God with greater eagerness. We are more receptive to God’s will for us.” St. Birgitta likens God to a washerwoman, who constantly washes us clean of our sins and guilt. During Lent we are serious about our conversion. We prepare ourselves for the triumph and joy of Easter through contrition and penance, by receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation and by participating in the Eucharist more often. We unite ourselves to the suffering and crucified Christ so that we can meet Him as the Risen and glorified Lord. The cross always leads us to the joy and peace of Easter.”

During Lent we must make a choice, the bishop insists.

“We must choose sides. We cannot limp on both sides. Mediocrity and half-heartedness must give way to devotion and commitment. We must begin each day anew in the new life of grace. We must seek the face of God each day by praying to Him and serving Him in our neighbour.”

But we need not stand alone in this radical choice. We are part of the community of the Church, which strengthens us, and the saints in heaven support us by their prayer. This is an antidote against selfishness and forgetting God.

Bishop Arborelius concludes his letter by presenting the Blessed Virgin, to whom the bishops of the Nordic countries will consecrate their nations on 22 March in Lund, Sweden, as our great help in heaven. She helps us be more evangelising and a better witness of Christ.

johan-bonnyAntwerp’s Bishop Johan Bonny devotes a major part of his message to the Belgian bill which allows euthanasia on minors. He quotes part of the bishops’ response to that immoral piece of legislation, which was sadly signed into law by King Philippe only days ago.

“The bishops agree with all who have expressed themselves unambiguously against this law on the basis of their experience and expertise. They fully support the rights of the child, of which the rights to love and respect are the most fundamental. But the right of a child to request his or her own death is a step too far for them. It is a transgression of the prohibition to kill, which forms the basis of our humane society.”

Following this reminder of the Church’s opposition to the laws of death, Bishop Bonny writes about the two complementary topics of freedom and solidarity.

“From where does our freedom come, and what does it consist of? Where does our solidarity consist of and what does it consist of? In the Christian view of humanity and the world freedom and solidarity are inseparable. They are like twins who belong together and strengthen each other.”

Using the example of St. Damian, Bishop Bonny then asks what connection we still make between freedom and solidarity. Lent leads us to the answer to that question.

“What was Good Friday but the ultimate unity of those two: freedom and solidarity. Why did Jesus end up on a cross? On the one hand because He wanted to be free: free to witness to the truth free to say and do what the Spirit of God inspired Him to do, free to give His life for His friends. On the other hand because He wanted to remain solidary: solidary with poor and broken people, solidary with the martyrs of all times, solidary with a weak and sinful humanity. He did not make a success story out of His life. He lost His trial. He was carried off through the backdoor of society.”

And so we come full circle, as the bishop seems to want to imply a link between the victims of draconian laws and Jesus Christ.

bürcherReykjavík’s Bishop Pétur Bürcher writes about the Year for Consecrated Life that Pope Francis has announced for 2015, and uses the opportunity the address the religious communities in Iceland which, he says, “are a sign of hope for  our Church!” The bishop goes on to relate the contributions that the religious communities have made to Catholic Iceland and announces a plan for the future:

“I would like  to establish a male monastery, if possible with the Benedictines or  Augustinians who in the Middle Ages possessed several monasteries in  Iceland. We have already found a large piece of land with houses and  a heated church in Úlfljótsvatn. Now we have to find a monastic community!  I have undertaken a lot to find it and hope soon for a fulfillment of  my dream which has become one of many people in Iceland and abroad!”

hoogmartensLastly, Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt opens his message by acknowledging that our environment does not make it easy for us to have the right attitude to start Lent.

“There is very little around us which calls us to it. The chocolate Easter eggs are already in the supermarket and commercials and media have always spoken with more easy about carnival, dieting and the Ramadan than about Christian fasting. Lent is apparently considered to be a private matter which we had better not discuss too much.”

But Lent is a precious time of conversion, the bishop says, drawing parallels with Christ’s time in the desert and the forty years that the people of Israel spent in the desert. It is a time of conversion from worldly things, in preparation for the future. And that conversion begins with the person of Jesus. Quoting Pope Francis, Bishop Hoogmartens says we must understand Christ’s deepest ‘being’.

“Jesus reveals Himself, not with worldly power and wealth, both more so in weakness and poverty. He came to us with a love which does not hesitate to sacrifice itself. He became like us in every way, except in sin. He carried our suffering and died on the Cross. It is He who we must open our hearts and lives much more to during Lent. From out of the love of Jesus, out of His mercy as the Christ, we can, as it were, ‘practice’ our witnessing, in honest love for the other, during Lent.”

The bishop emphasises the two sorts of poverty we must address, material and moral. About the latter he says:

“The extreme emphasis on human autonomy, for example, which became to shockingly visible in the recent amendments in Belgium regarding euthanasia, must urge us Christians to even more support care and nearness to suffering people according to the Gospel.”

In the first place, the bishops concludes, we must first make a conversion ourselves, before we can address the various sorts of poverty we see around us, for it is in Jesus that we find the means to fight it.

—————-

As many styles as there are bishops. Some offer deep theology, others outline plans for the future, but all offer points that we can keep in mind during Lent.

bisschop de korteThe first bishop to do so, Bishop Gerard de Korte looks ahead to the upcoming ad limina visit in his regular contribution to Friesch Dagblad and the diocesan website. For those who know the bishop, his two main topics should come as no surprise: ecumenism and the speechlessness of the faithful have been at the heart of his work since his arrival in Groningen in 2008.

In the first week of December all Dutch bishops will go to Rome. We will visit the graves of the Apostles Peter and Paul, celebrate the Eucharist in several places and for a full week we will have numerous meetings with the closest collaborators of the Pope and with Pope Francis personally. This visit, which has been prepared intensively in the Netherlands over the past months, invites to mark time. Probing questions must be answered: what is the state of the Church today? What is the future of ecclesiastical life in our country? Very important as well is the question of what sort of leadership the Christian community needs today and tomorrow. In that context, you could consider all officials in the churches, but from my position I primarily think of the interpretation of the office of the bishop within the Roman Church.

Speechless faithful

For more than half a century our Dutch culture is characterised by great prosperity and an increasingly educated population. Partly because of this our society is marked by individualism, a deep desire for participation and democracy, and, not least, a rapid moral liberalisation. Christian faith communities in general and the Roman in particular must come to terms with this cultural state of affairs. Powerful individualisation has caused many parishes and faith communities to shrink. The Church in our country has become extremely vulnerable. Numerous families no longer succeed to socialise the younger generations into the Church. Even more tense, I think, is the crisis of content of the faith. Many Catholics, but other Christians as well,  are speechless about the content of their faith and can no longer articulate very well what motivates them. The big question is how church officials in general and bishops especially should make policy today. In my opinion contextual leadership is the only fruitful way. One thing and another implies to me a substantively clear message centred on Christ in combination with a cordial attitude and openness to dialogue.

Encounter and cordiality

In the modern Netherlands, where self determination and assertiveness are important values, religious searchers are today scared off by ecclesiastical ritualism and legalism. Most faithful appreciate a faith community’s cordiality and inspiration in faith and do not think in terms of legal or illegal. When a Church official or ecclesiastical office does do the latter, they immediately are at a disadvantage in communication. In case of a conflict the vast majority expects both within and without the Church no one-sided disciplinary measures, but a two-sided dialogue.

Encounter and cordiality are indispensable to really reach people’s hearts. In that sense I consider Pope Francis’ actions to be an important example on how to approach people as bishop of the North. Christian faith is in the first place a relational faith. Christian truth, after all, is a person, Jesus Christ Himself. To come to faith requires process oriented thought. After a process of initiation people can ultimately make the leap of faith and find with Christ direction for the journey of life that we all make. A bishop has various duties. As a teacher he must protect the teaching of the Church that has been handed down, and at the same time he is a shepherd for his people. The combination of teacher and shepherd is not always easy. A teacher in the Church today is wise to shape that teaching pastorally, without denying the truth of the Christian faith. In that context no bishop will be able to avoid disciplinary measures every now and then. But this does require great pastoral wisdom and prudence.

Ecumenical involvement

Dutch culture’s profound individualisation does not leave the churches unaffected, on the contrary. Many young, but also older people no longer see any reason to be art of a parish of church community. There is a crisis of transmission on a broad front. Church leaders must therefore give priority to finding new forms of church building for the progression of the Gospel. Church life, after all, principally requires community building. When people experience their faith as separate atoms that means the end for the Christian community. In that context Church leadership, in my deepest conviction, also needs ecumenical involvement. As a hopefully vital minority Christians of different traditions are called to continue searching for more unity around the living Christ. I sincerely hope that bishops, but also officials in other Christian communities, will make a fundamental choice for that path.

It is hard not to read the bishop’s comment about pastoral leadership and disciplinary measures as a criticism of the actions of Cardinal Eijk and other bishops (notably Bishops Hurkmans and Mutsaerts) who have had to correct priests and other faithful in their dioceses over the past years. While he is of course right that pastoral wisdom and prudence are required assets for a bishop in such situations, there are also cases in which these have reached their limit and other steps need to be taken for the wellbeing of the faithful and the truth of the faith.

The balance between pastoral sensitivity and the need to defend the faith via stricter actions (between teacher and shepherd, as Bishop de Korte puts it) is one that will come increasingly to the fore everywhere, I think. Pope Francis has firmly placed the former at the heart of his papacy, leaving the latter to those working with him. We have seen that, I think, in the recent writings of Archbishop Müller about marriage, divorce and the sacraments. Rather than some form of tension between Pope and Curia, we should see this is the modus operandi of the Francis papacy.m

It is good to recall that the Dutch bishops will not only be meeting the Pope, but also the prefects and presidents of the dicasteries of the Curia.

ringsShortly after the retirement of Archbishop Robert Zollitsch as ordinary of Freiburg im Breisgau, someone in that archdiocese pushed through a proposal to allow remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. This caused some consternation, not least in the Vatican, since no such changes in doctrine had been proposed, let alone come into effect. Simply put, the archdiocese was out of line, doing something which it simply could not. Last month, Archbishop Gerhard Müller wrote an article outlining the Church’s  teaching about marriage, divorce and the sacraments in L’Osservatore Romano.

Today, he wrote a letter to Archbishop Zollitsch, who still manages the affairs of Freiburg as Apostolic Administrator, in which he presents his conclusions about the proposal In short, it needs to be withdrawn and revised. Below is my translation of he letter, which will also be sent to the other diocesan bishops of Germany.

MüllerYour Excellency!
Honourable Lord Archbishop!

With the Document Prot. N. 2922/13, of 8 October 2013, the Apostolic Nuncio has communicated the draft of the guidelines for the pastoral care of separated, divorced and civilly remarried people in the Archdiocese of Freiburg, as well as your newsletter to the members of the German Bishops’ Conference prior to the publication of this letter, to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A careful reading of the draft text reveals that it does contain very correct and important pastoral teachings, but is unclear in its terminology and does not correspond with Church teaching in two points:

“Remarried divorced people themselves stand in the way of their access to the Eucharist”

1. Regarding the reception of the sacraments by divorced and remarried faithful the proposal from the bishops of the Oberrhein area is recommended anew as a pastoral direction: after a process of discussion with the parish priests, people concerned can either reach the conclusion to participate much in the life of the Church, but to deliberately refrain from receiving the Sacraments, while others can in their concrete situations achieve a “responsibly reached decision of conscience” and be able to receive the Sacraments of Baptism, Holy Communion, Confirmation, Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick, and this decision is “to be respected” by the priest and the community.

Contrary to this assumption the Magisterium of the Church emphasises that the pastors must recognise the various situations well and must invite the affected faithful to participation in the life of the Church, but also “reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred  Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have  remarried” (cf. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, of 22 November 1981, N. 84; also compare the Letter of this Congregation of 14 September 1994 about the reception of Communion by remarried divorced faithful, which rejects the proposal from the Oberrhein bishops; and Benedict XVI, Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis of 22 February 2009, N. 29).

This position of the Magisterium is well-founded. Remarried divorcees stand in the way of their access to the Eucharist, insofar as their state of life is an objective contradiction to the relationship of love between Christ and the Church, which is made visible and present in the Eucharist (doctrinal reason). If these people were allowed to receive the Eucharist this would cause confusion among the faithful about the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage (pastoral reason).

2. In addition to this a prayer service is suggested for divorced faithful who enter into a new civil marriage. Although it is explicitly stated that this is not some “semi-marriage” and the ceremony should be simple. but it would still be a sort of “Rite” with an entrance, reading from the Word of God, blessing and giving of a candle, prayer and conclusion.

Such celebrations were expressly forbidden by John Paul II and Benedict XVI: “The respect due to the sacrament of Matrimony, to the couples  themselves and their families, and also to the community of the faithful,  forbids any pastor, for whatever reason or pretext even of a pastoral nature, to  perform ceremonies of any kind for divorced people who remarry. Such ceremonies  would give the impression of the celebration of a new sacramentally valid  marriage, and would thus lead people into error concerning the indissolubility  of a validly contracted marriage” (Familiaris Consortio, n. 84).

The affected faithful are to be offered support, but it must be avoided that “confusion arise among the faithful  concerning the value of marriage” (Sacramentum Caritatis, N. 29).

Due to the aforementioned discrepancies, the draft text is to be withdrawn and revised, so that no pastoral directions are sanctioned which are in opposition to Church teaching. Because the tekst has raised questions not only in Germany, but in many parts of the world as well, and has led to uncertainties in a delicate pastoral issue, I felt obliged to inform Pope Francis about it.

“Going paths which fully agree with the doctrine of the faith of the Church”

After consultation with the Holy Father, an article from my hand was published in L’Osservatore Romano on 23 October 2013, which sumarises the binding teaching of the Church on these questions. This contribution was also published in the weekly edition of the Vatican newspaper.

Since a number of bishops have turned to me and a working group of the German Bishops’ Conference is dealing with the topic, I would like to inform you that I will send a copy of this letter to all the diocesan bishops of Germany. Hoping that on this delicate issue we are going pastoral paths, which are in full agreement with the doctrine of the faith of the Church, I remain with heartfelt greeting and blessings in the Lord.

Yours,
Gerhard L. Müller
Prefect

eijk official portraitJust before the weekend, Cardinal Eijk wrote a letter to the priests, deacons and pastoral workers in the Archdiocese of Utrecht about what could perhaps be considered the single most divisive topic in the Dutch Church today: parish mergers and the closing of church building.

The letter is, in my opinion, one of the better written outings of a bishop in recent years. Cardinal Eijk starts out by explaining his understanding the pain of seeing one’s church closed, and the role the building plays in the lives of so many faithful.

“It is the church where they let their prayers ascend to God, where they were baptised and had their children baptised, were they were married and were they said goodbye to their loved ones. The church also which the faith community itself saved up for: stone by stone, beam by beam, roof tile by roof tile. Until the church was ready to enter service as the highest attainable purpose for a building: as a House of God and meeting place for His people. The church is the place where we may receive the Eucharist and so can come closest to Christ.”

In recent years, the project of parish mergers in several dioceses has led to communities splitting off from the diocese and choosing their own path. These communities are usually driven by their very strong sense of community which they want to preserve. About that, the cardinal writes:

“There are faith communities where the sense of community is so strong that it acts like a barrier. We must strive to also be a faith community “with the neighbours”. And while a sense of community is a great good, it can’t put up walls. Solidarity transcends the boundaries of local faith communities, because as the human body has many limbs, we are all together in Christ one body. Among us as Christians the sense of community must reach further than the direct environment. What matters is that we desire to grow in unity of brothers and sisters in Christ: not just in our own faith community, but also and especially across the boundaries of our own faith community.”

Cardinal Eijk also devotes words to how the process works: that the initiative of closing churches does not lie with him, but with the parish councils in question, and that no one enjoys such a necessary step. But needs must, as they say, and the reality of today means that we can’t stick our heads in the sand, but that we must face it head on. And that is not always enjoyable.

And at the root of all these considerations? There lies our true support: the Lord Himself. When we become dejected, lose faith and even hope when our church is forced to close, we may find ourselves in the good company of the Apostles. But in Christ there is always hope, even if our home of many years is lost. As Catholics, we have a higher home to strive for, after all.

A good letter, well worth a read. I have an English translation available here

About this blog

I am a Dutch Catholic from the north of the Netherlands. In this blog I wish to provide accurate information on current affairs in the Church and the relation with society. It is important for Catholics to have knowledge about their own faith and Church, especially since these are frequently misrepresented in many places. My blog has two directions, although I use only English in my writings: on the one hand, I want to inform Dutch faithful - hence the presence of a page with Dutch translations of texts which I consider interesting or important -, and on the other hand, I want to inform the wider world of what is going on in the Church in the Netherlands.

It is sometimes tempting to be too negative about such topics. I don't want to do that: my approach is an inherently positive one, and loyal to the Magisterium of the Church. In many quarters this is an unfamiliar idea: criticism is often the standard approach to the Church, her bishops and priests and other representatives. I will be critical when that is warranted, but it is not my standard approach.

For a personal account about my reasons for becoming and remaining Catholic, go read my story: Why am I Catholic?

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[Dutch] Internationale Theologencommissie - Sensus Fidei in het Leven van de Kerk.

30 June: [Dutch] Paus Franciscus - Boodschap voor het Katholieke Jongerenfestival.

19 June: [Dutch] Paus Franciscus - Interview in La Vanguardia.

18 May: [English] Pietro Cardinal Parolin - Homily at the consecration of Archbishop van Megen.

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3 May: [Dutch] Paus Franciscus - Boodschap voor de Wereldgebedsdag voor Roepingen 2014.

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Sancta Maria, hortus conclusus, ora pro nobis!

Sancte Ramon de Peñafort, ora pro nobis!

Pope Francis

Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Metropolitan Archbishop of the Province of Rome, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the Servants of God

Bishop Gerard de Korte

Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

Willem Cardinal Eijk

Cardinal-Priest of San Callisto, Metropolitan Archbishop of Utrecht

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