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Today we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, best known as Doubting Thomas. The passage from John 20, in which Jesus appears after His death on the cross, but Thomas happens to be absent is well known. Thomas refuses to believe what he didn’t see for himself, only to be corrected by the Lord when He appears again and shows His wounds to Thomas, even inviting him to place his hand in the wound in His side.

“You believe because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).

thomasRich as this passage from the Gospels is, and it teaches us much about the nature of faith, there is more to St. Thomas than this. In the Bible, he appears in all four Gospels, as well as in the Acts of the Apostles. Matthew (10:3), Mark (3:18) and Luke (6:15) first list him among the Apostles called by Jesus, while John first mentions him in the story of the death of Lazarus, where Thomas seems a bit defeatist. Upon hearing Jesus’ decision to go to Bethany, in the land of the Jews who had earlier tried to kill Jesus, he says, “Let us also go to die with him”  (John 11:16). Still, it indicates a willingness on Thomas’ part to follow Jesus whatever the consequences, even if death is one. Not exactly the sign of a doubting follower.

Later in the Gospel of John, we see another side to Thomas: the questioning follower, the man trying to understand. As Jesus announces His return to the Father, telling the apostles that they know where He is going and how to get there, Thomas replies, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). This prompts Jesus to teach him – and us – that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Thomas comes across as honest and straightforward, not afraid to ask about what he doesn’t understand. The next time we come across him is in the aforementioned passage of the Lord’s appearance in his absence. Thomas doubts, is still as honest and straightforward as ever, but not stubborn: he accepts what the Lord teaches him and professes his faith in his Lord and God.

Thomas appears once more among the disciples to whom Jesus appears at the Sea of Tiberias (John 21;2), but the Evangelist does not tell us any details about what Thomas may have said or done. But he did witness Jesus giving Peter the task to look after His sheep. After the Lord’s Ascension, Thomas remains with the other disciples, as Acts 1:13 tells us, part of the young and rapidly growing Church.

That’s all the Bible tells us about St. Thomas, but it’s enough to slightly correct the image we have of him as a doubter. It would be more accurate to see him as a very honest man, to himself and to others. He is not afraid to ask questions, or even to ask others to be more clear, but also does not hesitate to recognise his own errors and correct them.

Several post-Biblical sources tell of Thomas travelling to India to preach the Gospel there. Indeed, south India is home to the St. Thomas Christians, who can be traced back to the 2nd or 3rd century. The trip from the Holy Land to India would at least have been possible in the first century, as trade relations existed between the subcontinent and the Roman Empire. It is hard to tell what is true and what is apocryphal in this, but the fact remains that Thomas is strongly connected to Southern Asia, and Christian communities appeared very early in India. A strong-willed follower of Jesus may well have taken it upon himself to undertake such a perilous and uncertain mission to remote parts, all to spread the Gospel and enkindle the faith, serving the Lord as he did from the moment he was first called.

A recognisable story via Kath.net today. Painter Michael Triegel from Leipzig, once an atheist, entered the Church last Easter, and it was Pope emeritus Benedict XVI who helped him cross the Tiber. Triegel became known in Catholic circles in 2010, when he was commissioned by the Diocese of Regensburg – then still headed by Bishop Gerhard Müller, now the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a personal friend of the retired Pope – to paint an official portrait of Benedict.

michael-triegel-2010-11-20-7-0-23

^Triegel and the portrait he made, photographed in 2010.

Triegel himself doesn’t make a fuss about his conversion, although he recognises it is not something that happens every day. “You would not believe how often I have been asked over the past years, if I wanted to be baptised. There must have been telephone calls in higher Catholic circles, asking whether Triegel had already joined.” He was the atheist who painted the Pope, which made for juicy headlines. “Now I’m just an East German artist entering the Church. Also not exactly commonplace.”

What made him reach the momentous decision to receive the sacrament of Baptism was Benedict’s writings. “[These]  were important, his theory that faith and knowledge need not contradict each other. For me that was the breaking point. [...] I foudn that faith entered my heart via my mind.”

Like I said, a recognisable story. My introduction to the faith and subsequent entrance into the Church coincided almost exactly with the start of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. He was elected in April of 2005, I first attended Mass in that year’s Advent. His magisterium has been instrumental in my discovery of the Church and the faith, and so also my personal development as a Catholic. Mr. Triegel’s “breaking point”, that faith and knowledge need not contradict each other, was also a major discovery for me. It shone through in all I read from Pope Benedict XVI, especially when I started blogging in 2010.

On the occasion of his Baptism, Triegel said, “When one concerns itself for 30 years with the true, the good, the beautiful and even with religion, it can’t remain without any consequences whatsoever. For me, now is the time to be baptised.”

[EDIT} I have added a translation of the complete interview that Michael Triegel gave to Die Zeit.

“It was sharp…”
“We visited the Pope.”
“…white balance was right…”
“We visited the Pope.”
“…and we visited the Pope.”
“We pressed the button.”
“We had more time than we thought.”
“45 minutes. We could ask everything we wanted, all the questions.”
“Yes. And he said to us…”
“Find your treasure, he said, find your treasure.”
Tesoro, find your treasure.”
“Tight.”
“Yes. That’s a clear mission, isn’t it?”
“Oh man, mission. We visited the Pope.”

The reaction of the two young cameramen as they had just returned from the interview with Pope Francis is an example of their enthusiasm and the unprecedented feat that they and the three other interviewers managed to perform. Broadcast on Belgian television yesterday evening, below follows the transcript and translation of the interview as shown. The full report is well worth a look, even if it is in Dutch, with the questions asked in English and the Pope responding in Italian.

“Thanks for accepting our request. But why did you accept it?”

“When I sense that a young man or woman has a certain restlessness, I think it is my duty to serve that young person. To do some service to that restlessness. That restlessness is like a seed that grows and in due time bears fruit. At this time I feel that I can do you a valuable service by listening to your restlessness.”

“Er… I have the second question..”

“Ah, you.” (laughter)

“Everyone in this word is trying to be happy, but we were wondering: are you happy, and why?”

“Absolutely. (smiles) I am most certainly happy. I have a certain inner quietness, a great peace, a great happiness. That also comes with age. Of course, problems appear in everyone’s  path, but my happiness does not disappear because of those problems.”

“In many ways you show us great love to poor and to wounded people. Why is this so important for you?”

“Yes… Because (Pope Francis accidentally slips into English here, before continuing in Italian…), because that is the heart of the Gospel. I believe. I believe in God, in Jesus and the Gospel. The poor are at the heart of the Gospel. I heard that someone, two months ago, said, because of my focus on the poor, that this Pope is a communist. But that’s wrong. It is a commandment from the Gospel, not from communism. The Gospel is about poverty outside of ideology. That is why I think the poor are at the heart of the Gospel. It’s what it says.”

“I don’t believe in God, but your acts and ideas inspire me. So, do you maybe have a message for all, for us, for the young Christians, to people who don’t believe, or have another belief, or believe in a different way?”

“I think that you have to find authenticity in your way of speaking. I… My authenticity is that I speak as an equal. We are all brothers, believers or not, of one faith or another, Jews or Muslims, we are all equal. Man is the centre. [...] In this moment in history, man is pushed out of the centre. He has been pushed to the periphery. In the centre, money and power rule, at least in this moment. In a world in which money and power are first and foremost important… young people have been chased out. Young people no longer want children. Families are becoming smaller, families don’t want children. The elderly are pushed aside. Many elderly die because of a sort of hidden euthanasia, because no one cares for them and they die.  And now the young are chased out. For example, in Italy, youth unemployment of people under the age of 25 is at almost 50%. We are part of a culture of disposability. If it contributes nothing to globalisation, it is thrown away. The elderly, children, young people. During my years of service, now as Pope and before that in Buenos Aires, I spoke with many young politicians. That pleased me, because regardless of their political preferences, they spoke a new language, introduced a new music. A new music, a new style of doing politics. That gives me hope.”

“When I read the newspaper, or I look around, I sometimes doubt if the human race is capable of taking care of this world and of the human race itself. Do your recognise this doubt?”

“I ask myself two questions about that. Where is God? And where is man? And I also ask myself now: where are you, 21st century man? A question of… And it also reminds me of that other question: God, where are you? When man finds himself, he seeks God. Perhaps he won’t find God, but he sets out on a path of honesty, seeking out truth, a path of goodness and beauty. It is a long road. Some people don’t  find Him during their life. They don’t find Him consciously, but they are so real, so honest about themselves, so good and such lovers of beauty, that in the end they have a very mature and competent personality and meet God in all His grace.”

“We are all humans, and we make mistakes. What did your mistakes teach you?”

“I have made mistakes (laughs), and I still make them. They say man is the only animal that falls in the same well twice. In my life I have learned, and I still do, that mistakes are the best teachers. They teach you a lot. I don’t dare to say that I always learnt my lesson. Sometimes I didn’t, because I am very stubborn (laughs). That’s hard to change. But I learned from many mistakes and that has been good.

“Does he have a concrete example about himself, that he made a mistake himself?”

“No problem, I will say it. I wrote it in a book, so it is public knowledge. For example, I became a superior when I was very young. I made many mistakes against authoritarianism. I was too authoritarian. I was 36 years old. I learned then that you have to enter into dialogue and have to listen to what others think. That did not mean I had changed for good. The road is long. I learned much from my authoritarian behaviour when I was that young. That is how I slowly learned to make fewer mistakes. But I still make them. (laughs)

“I do have my fears. What makes you afraid?”

“Myself. (laughs) Fears? In the Gospel Jesus continuously repeats: Be not afraid, be not afraid. Why does He repeat that so often? Because He knows that fear is “normal”. We are afraid of life, of challenges. We also know fears before God. Everyone is afraid. Everyone. So you don’t have to worry. You should ask yourself why you are afraid, before God, before yourself. You should learn to delineate your fear, because there is good and bad fear. Good fear is like prudence, a careful attitude. Bad fear is fear that limits you. It makes you small. It paralyses you, prevents you from doing things. You must lose that fear.

“Last question. The terrible last question”. (laughs)

“Do you have a question for us?”

“My question is certainly not original. It comes from the Gospel. But after hearing all your questions, I think this is the right question at this time.

Where is your treasure? Where does your heart rest? In what treasure does your heart rest? Because that treasure will define your life. The heart is linked to that treasure, which we all possess. Power, money, pride… so many things. Or… goodness, beauty, the will to do good. It can be so many things. Where is your treasure? That is my question. But you must answer it for yourselves, alone. At home.

Thank you.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you very much. Please pray for me.”

This transcription and translation was based on the questions asked in English and the subtitled responses by the Pope. His answers as given above are therefore translations of translations, with the latter being edited translations to fit a television screen (the art of subtitling comes with a number of demands which are alien to translating for websites). I am fully aware that this is not ideal, but it is what it is.

verse visThe photo that Pope Francis is seen signing at the end of the video, as featured on the Verse Vis Facebook page.

“The Nuncio told me, and I couldn’t imagine it at first. I had planned on working in a parish again, in pastoral care, but now it was clear that all that, that path, was closed. And that was frightening at first.”

WeihbischofGösslSo Msgr. Herwig Gössl describes his first reaction to his appointment as auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Bamberg. The 46-year-old seminary vice rector succeeds Bishop Werner Radspieler, who retired as auxiliary bishop in September last. Archbishop Ludwig Schick, pictured above with the new auxiliary bishop, said of the appointment, “Herwig Gössl will fulfill the duty of auxiliary bishop in good and fraternal cooperation with me.”

Both the bishop and the archbishop noted the appointment coinciding with today’s feast day of Saint Francis de Sales. Bishop-elect Gössl said he saw it as a “beautiful and encouraging sign, and at the same an incentive”, as the saint’s “goodness and faithfulness, humanity and joy, piety and selfishness are qualities befitting an auxiliary bishop”. Archbishop Schick noted, “Francis de Sales was active as a bishop in the time after the Reformation in modern Switzerland. He was a soft spoken man wh overcame resentment against the faith and the Church in his preaching, celebration of the sacrament and charity. That is also an important challenge for our time.”

And while the new bishop was looking forward to returning to the “ground work”, so to speak, of pastoral care in a parish, that is exactly what he is looking forward to in his new position as auxiliary bishop: meeting the people, Confirmations, pastoral visits, which he was less able to do in his time at the seminary.

A short overview of Bishop-elect Gössl’s previous work in the Church:

  • Born in Munich in 1967, raised in Nürnberg.
  • Entered seminary in Bamberg in 1986.
  • Studied in Bamberg and Innsbruck, followed by his ordination in 1993.
  • 1993-1997: Priest in the parish of St. Hedwig in Bayreuth.
  • 1997-2007: Parish priest in Hannberg and Weisendorf, where he became very popular.
  • 2007: Appointed as vice regent to the seminary in Bamberg, followed in 2008 by a similar function in Würzburg, where he moved. Since both dioceses work closely together in the formation of their priests, Fr. Gössl combined his duties for both until this year.
  • Fr. Gössl has for year been a member of the Feuerstein Konferenz, an ecumenical meeting place for Catholics, Evangelicals and Anglicans.

Bishop-elect Gössl’s consecration date has not yet been decided upon, but will have to take place no less than three months from today. He has been assigned the titular see of Balecium, located in Albania, and held until last November by Bishop (now Archbishop) Franz Lackner of Salzburg.

eijkThe comments by Cardinal Eijk on the Council of Trent continue to cause a stir, chiefly in Protestant circles, but also among Catholics. Accusations that Trent was centuries ago and that times have changed are mostly heard, but these ignore that the cardinal was not speaking about current affairs. He spoke out of the assumption – which is the general Catholic one – that the dogmatic statements of a Council remain so, even as time passes. The implementation and even need of specific statements may change, and so there are texts which came out of Trent which are interesting, but no longer of much use beyond the theoretical study of them.

Cardinal Eijk spoke about the validity of – especially – the anathemas decreed at Trent, aimed at those who wilfully, freely and in full knowledge that they were doing so proclaimed untruths, even heresies, against the faith as taught by the Church. He also emphasised that people who today have a different image of God or understanding of the faith can’t be blamed for that: upbringing and tradition are not a reason to declare anyone cursed in the sight of God. That judgement, as the cardinal also said, lies with God anyway. The Church here on earth, however, can and should underline the faith she teaches and point out when someone is in error. That is what Trent did: she emphasised the truths of the faith and put an end to certain practices which were in contradiction to that, such as the trade in indulgences.

But that is not the level on which the debate is taking place. There is no discussion about the reason, mistakes or truths about what the Church teaches or what was decided and done at the Council of Trent. This was what Cardinal Eijk was talking about, but his critics focus on something else altogether: the tone.

arjan-plaisier-04Today the secretary of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, Arjan Plaisier, wrote an open letter to Cardinal Eijk asking him certain questions about his comments. Below are these questions, translated into English:

“Firstly: Is it in order to let tradition speak in such a way, outside the context of any ecumenical conversation or encounter? Does it fit in a time when much has taken place in the field of ecumenism, to make such a statement “about you, without you”? Isn’t this a denial of an ecumenical history which we have gone through together? Does this not block any further dialogue about fundamental faith topics which we can have, unilaterally or in the context of the Council of Churches?”

The progress of ecumenical relations does not take place in changing teachings or traditions (the latter word will have a rather different meaning for Catholics and Protestants anyway). Ecumenism is relational, a tool for increased understanding, not of abandoning truths. Whether the cardinal’s comments would block any further dialogue is not up to him. It is up to our ecumenical partners, who deserve to know what the Church teaches, in plain sight, not hidden under a blanket of “being nice to each other”. Sure, we should strive for cordial relations, but that can not be the final goal of ecumenism. It should be noted, in this context, that Cardinal Eijk has stated that he is fully behind ecumenism and agrees with Pope Francis on this topic.

The letter continues:

“Secondly: Do you have the opinion that the fundamental differences that exist between the Church of Rome and the Protestants, still need to be condemned in terms of “cursed” and “banned”?”

The cardinal never said anything of the kind. There are differences, and these must be addressed and named, but modern Protestants and the faith the proclaim are not addressed by Trent.

“Paul addressed that curse to the proclamation of a different Gospel, namely different than the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Crucified. Various dialogues between Rome and the Reformation have concluded that we recognise and acknowledge each other in this Gospel. That recognition has everything to do what the patient and honest efforts to better  understand each other in this. Fundamental differences remain, especially concerning ecclesiology. But is it in order, especially in light of the recognition mentioned above, to speak about these differences in the language of “cursing”? How, by the way, is this related to the mutual recognition of  the others Baptism?”

The fact is that the various Protestant churches have different teachings about certain matters related to the Gospel than the Catholic Church has. Does this mean that they follow a different Gospel? No, but there are differences. Acknowledging that both the Protestant churches and the Catholic Church follow Christ does not change anything about that. And once more, the anathemas of Trent, as the cardinal has said, do not automatically refer to modern Protestants and certainly not to persons. The Gospel text from St. Paul  was not presented by Cardinal Eijk as a reason to curse anyone, but merely as a possible motivation for the work of the Council of Trent. What mutual recognition of Baptism has to do with that, is anyone’s guess. Recognising that the Church and the Protestant communities use the same valid means of Baptism is no reason to assume that they are the same in everything.

Secretary Plaisier invites Cardinal Eijk to discuss this further in a future meeting. Perhaps that would be a good opportunity to explain a few things. About Catholic tradition, the meaning of Councils, ecumenism, anathemas, identity and truth. This would be good, because the criticism has generally not yet transcended the level of emotion: it is not nice what the cardinal has said, so therefore we are hurt. That is an injustice to the cardinal and certainly also to the churches and faith of the critics themselves

Photo credit: [1] ANP

With the ad limina officially over (although one meeting has been moved to today for those bishops remaining in Rome), it’s time to take a look back at what took place on Thursday. Friday activities will follow in due course.

Thursday morning was filled with the usual meetings, this time to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (the Congregation for Religious, in sort). Bishop Hendriks, in his daily blog, reports that these were “not boring, despite what some might think”. The meeting with Cardinal Coccopalmerio at the Pontifical Council, the bishop writes, was very fruitful and revealed that many cases of church closings and the merger of parishes, all very current affairs in the Dutch Church, need further study.

Not all bishops attended these meetings, as some were at the Pontifical Council for Culture. Bishop Gerard de Korte, one of these, expressed specific admiration for Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Council’s president, and his project of the Courtyard of the Gentiles, which aims to foster dialogue between faithful and non-faithful.

cappuccino break ad liminaIn the afternoon, after a lunch and cappuccino break (at left), Cardinal Angelo Amato received the bishops at the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints (pictured below), a meeting with some consequences for current Dutch causes. Top of the list were the martyrs of Alkmaar, murdered for the faith in 1572, and Fr. Johannes Roothaan, the second founder of the Jesuit Order. Both causes were dormant for decades, but may now become active again.

causes of saints meeting ad liminaBishop Frans Wiertz presented Dutch-born Bishop Frans Schraven as a possible patron saint for victims of sexual abuse. The case of Bishop Schraven, killed in China by Japanese soldiers in 1931 for not submitting the women and girls under his protection to be used as sex slaves, was opened earlier this year.

Mass on Thursday was offered at the church of the German College in Rome, the Santa Maria dell’Anima, which is also home to the grave of the only Dutch pope, Pope Adrian VI. Bishop Antoon Hurkmans was the homilist, and he spoke, among other things, about the mystery of the Church:

“The Church is a mystery because, although she is human, she is especially divine. We are the people of God. It is easy to recognise the human and the too human in the Church. The divine is harder to see, and can’t be caught in questionnaires. This depends on faith. In Jesus the human and the divine go together harmoniously. God is visible in the power of His words, in the signs He gives. The Apostle Thomas confesses, when He sees the signs of His wounds upon seeing Christ: “My Lord and My God”.

On another level, the Church carries God. God calls His people together. He is present in the faithful, in Holy Scripture, in the Sacraments, among others in men whom God calls to make Christ present in the Church as priests.”

Bishop Hurkmans also spoke about those who were the first to be called, the Apostles.

“Consider Peter. He is among us in his successor, Pope Francis. In a unique way he calls us to faith and gives hope to many. He speaks about Gods mercy. He touches, embraces, the hurt. His aim is to return to the Church the glory of her divine soul. He emphasises the mission of he Church: to restore hurt people in Christ. He explains, as we heard in the first reading, that there is no place in Gods plan for high fortresses. For pride, arrogance, selfish wealth. In the end times the gates of heaven will be opened for the just nation who remained loyal to God. Every Pope presents heavenly Jerusalem to the world. May our faith remain standing amid the storms and danger which leave destructive traces in Church and world. To continue expecting everything from God, in humility and simplicity.

hurkmans ad limina

He then likened the current Pope to his predecessor, Pope Adrian VI, who saw his own attempts to reform the Church stopped by an early death. “Adrian, a simple, humble Apostle who gave Christ a central place in the concrete life of the Church”.

“Brothers, brothers and sisters, in our time marked by a cultural break, Popes are part of a Church and world marked by secularisation, by a gap between rich and poor, by the need to clear the past, by major ethical questions because of the strides of science and digital means. There is so much around us. Today, Jesus calls us, as we heard in the Gospel, to continue searching for the basis. Christ continues inviting us to place ourselves under God, to do His will. Christ leads. He is the way, the truth and the life. It is Advent. Christ is coming among us. Let us, following the example of Peter, Adrian and our Pope Francis, make the mystery of the Church visible. By a simple and poor life. By meeting our neighbours one by one and come together with them around Christ. He comes to us, let us go to Him in gratitude. From our meeting with Him the reform that our time needs will flower. May God reign in our hearts. Amen.”

Finally, the bishops did not let the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas go by unnoticed, as Bishop Hurkmans surprised them all with a little present from the saint. “They can say a lot about bishops, but they all worked very hard,” he said as the reason for the presents. “Sinterklaas has asked me to respond to that and be his Zwarte Piet,”the bishop joked. “I have made a reminder to Pope Francis and Rome, and I have a print on which I wrote: “Ad Limina 2013. It is Francis! Faith, hope and love” with ‘hope’ underlined twice.”

Fr. Roderick Vonhögen made the video below for RKK. It is delightful to see our bishops in lighthearted moments like these.

Photo credit: [1] [2] Bishop Jan Hendriks, [3] Ramon Mangold

Also released yesterday, the full text of Cardinal Eijk’s address to Pope Francis at the start of the meeting of the bishops with the Holy Father on Monday. As reported earlier by several bishops, the talk is mainly a summary of the general report for the ad limina, and does not contain much we don’t know already. As an introduction, though, it suffices, and for the sake of completeness I share my translation below.

bishops with pope francis

Holy Father,

We, the Dutch bishops, have looked forward eagerly to this personal meeting with you, the current vicar of Christ on earth, and we consider it the high point of our ad limina visit, after the Masses at the graves of the Apostles Peter and Paul and in the Basilicas of St. John Lateran and of St. Mary Major. For the major part of the Dutch bishops this will be their first meeting with you, which adds a special tone to this moment.

The ad limina visit is in the first place a pilgrimage to the graves of the Apostles here in Rome and the personal meeting with you. It is also a chance to report on the religious, cultural, social and pastoral developments and some problems and special questions regarding our Church province. About all of this we have sent you a report from our Conference which, except for the report of each diocesan bishop, has also been published. In the general report we want to paint a clear and honest picture of the current situation in our Church province and we say clear-cut that it is not in every aspect optimistic.

The number of Catholics in the Netherlands continues to decrease rapidly. This mostly concerns the number of practising Catholics, which means that the number of financial means available is decreasing rapidly. Since the Church in the Netherlands is not subsidised by the state, she depends on voluntary donations from the faithful. Although these are very generous towards the Church, they are unable to collect sufficient financial means to maintain their parish churches. We expect that one third of the Catholic churches in our country will have to be closed by 2020 and two-thirds before 2025. In recent years the Dutch dioceses were forced, for the same reason, to reorganise their curia and let employees go. In the case of the Archdiocese of Utrecht, this was also necessary to avoid bankruptcy.

As in other countries, the Church in the Netherlands also has to deal with the problem of sexual abuse of minors by workers in the Church. The Dutch Bishops’ Conference and the Conference of Dutch Religious closely cooperated in having this issue investigated by an independent committee, with an institution were such cases can be reported, a commission to investigate them, a committee for recompense and a platform for psychological support of the victims. We are determined to recognise the problems of the victims, compensate the damage done and help them heal as much as possible. Regular meetings between the chairmen of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, the Conference of Dutch religious and a top down organisation of victims has led to increased mutual confidence. Together they determined the final date of 1 July 2014 for the reporting of sexual abuse by deceased person and abuse that is under the statute of limitations. We urge everyone to present evidence, insofar as it can support the claims of victims, and help them report the claims, as far as possible, so that the Church can make a fresh start in this area, in the victims’ interest.

Our report is realistic but not pessimistic. We notice that the practicing Catholics which remain are taking their faith increasingly serious, are more positive towards the Church and have an increasingly close personal relationship with Christ. We hope to be able to maintain a number of churches which can then serve as centres of  communities of faith with a living faith, which is visible in the liturgy, the catechesis of children, youth and adults and diaconal activity, which is so important in our modern society. These faithful will support the Church in the Netherlands and be the leavening of the coming Kingdom of God.

We are very much delighted to be able to meet with you today, and we want to say that we feel deeply united with you. Yu may be assured of our prayer for you, that God may richly bless you for your task to lead the Church in the world in this time. From our side, we ask you to pray for us and grant us your Apostolic Blessing.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

First, now that all bishops have arrived in Rome, the group shot:

bishops st. peter's  square

As is typical of Pope Francis, the Dutch bishops were not treated to his prepared speech, but to a 90-minute heart-to-heart. This audience, which for the Holy Father was preceded by a meeting with the Israëli prime minister, and for the bishops by one with Archbishop Beniamino Stella, the new Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy (of which Cardinal Eijk is a member), was widely anticipated by the bishops, and that anticipation was justified, considering their reactions afterwards (more on that in a later post).

While Pope Francis chose not to give his talk, he did hand the text out to the bishops at the end of their meeting. I present it below in English:

Dear brothers in the episcopate,

In these days in which you are making your ad limina visit, I greet each of you with affection in the Lord, and assure you of my prayers, so that this pilgrimage may be full of mercy and fruitful for the Church in the Netherlands. Thank you to the dear Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk for the words he addressed to me on behalf of you all!

Let me first express my gratitude for the service to Christ and the Gospel which you perform, often in difficult circumstances, for the people entrusted to you. It is not easy to maintain hope in the challenges that you are facing! The collegial exercise of your office of bishop, in union with the bishop of Rome, is necessary to grow in this hope, in true dialogue and effective cooperation. You are doing well to consider with confidence the signs of vitality which appear in the Christian communities in your dioceses. These are signs of the active presence of the Lord amid the men and women in your country, who expect authentic witnesses of the hope which gives life to us, the hope which comes from Christ.

With maternal patience the Church continues her efforts to answer to the needs of many men and women who, confronted with the future, experience anxiety and discouragement. With your priests, your co-workers, you want to be near to people who suffer from spiritual emptiness and who are searching for meaning in their lives, even if they do not always know how to express this. How else could you fraternally accompany them in this search, than by listening to them and share with them the hope, the joy and the means to go forward which Jesus Christ gives us?

That is why the Church wants the present the faith in an authentic, understandable and pastoral way. The Year of Faith was a good opportunity to show how much the content of faith can unite all people. Christian anthropology and the social teaching of the Church are part of the heritage of experience and humanity at the root of European civilisation, and they can help to reaffirm the primacy of man over technology and structures. And this presupposes openness to the transcendent. When the transcendent dimension is suppressed, a culture becomes impoverished when it should display the possibility of a constant and harmonious unity between faith and reason, truth and freedom. The Church, then, does not only offer unchanging moral truths and attitudes that go against the ways of the world, but offers them as keys to good human and social development. Christians have a special mission to answer this challenge. The formation of conscience becomes a priority, especially through the formation of the ability to judge critically, all with a positive approach to social truths, so that you avoid the superficiality of judgement and the withdrawing movement of indifference. So this requires that Catholics, priests, consecrated persons and laity, are offered a thorough and high quality education. I strongly encourage you to join forces to answer to this need and so enable a better proclamation of the Gospel. In this context the witness and dedication of lay people in the Church and society are important; they have an important role and should be strongly supported. All baptised Christians are invited to be disciples, missionaries, wherever they are!

I encourage you to also be present in public discourse in your society, heavily characterised by secularisation, in all fields where it is suitable for man to make Gods mercy and His grace for all creatures. In today’s world the Church has the task to repeat the words of Christ without ceasing: “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:38). But let us ask ourselves: whom of those we meet, meets a Christian, sees something of Gods goodness, of the joy of having found Christ? As I have said often, the Church grows through an authentically experienced episcopate, not through proselytising, but through attraction. She is being sent all over the world to shake up, shake up and maintain hope! Hence the importance of encouraging your people to grab the chances for dialogue, by being present in the places where the future is decided; where they can contribute to the debates about the great social crises concerning, for example, family, marriage and the end of life. Today more than ever we feel the need to go forward on the way of ecumenism and to invite to a true dialogue seeking the elements of truth and goodness, giving answers inspired by the Gospel. The Holy Spirit encourages us to go beyond ourselves and towards others!

In a country that is rich in so many ways, poverty affects a growing number of people. Increase the generosity of the faithful to bring the light and grace of Christ to the places where people are waiting and especially to those most marginalised! The Catholic school, offering young people a decent education, will continue to promote their human and spiritual formation in a spirit of dialogue and companionship with those who do not share their faith. It is important, therefore, that young Christians receive quality catechesis which maintains their faith and brings them to an encounter with Christ. Sound education and an open mind! That is how the Good News continues to be spread.

You know very well that the future and vitality of the Church in the Netherlands depends also on the vocations to the priesthood and religious life! It is urgently needed that an attractive vocations ministry be set up, and the road towards human and spiritual maturity of seminarians be guided, so that they can experience a personal relationship with the Lord which is the foundation of their priestly life! Let us also feel the urgency to pray to the Lord of the harvest! The rediscovery of prayer in many forms, and especially in Eucharistic adoration, is a source of hope for the Church to grow and take root. How important and essential it is that you are close to your priests, available to support them and lead them when they need it! Like fathers, take the time to welcome them and listen to them when they ask for it. And also do not forget to find those among them who do not come; some of them have sadly forgotten their obligations. In a  very special way, I want to express my sympathy and assurance of my prayer to everyone who is a victim of sexual abuse, and to their families; I ask you to continue supporting them on their painful road to healing, which they are travelling bravely. Be considerate in responding to the desire of Christ, the Good Shepherd, have the intention to protect and increase the love for the neighbour and the unity, in everything and among everyone.

Lastly, I want to thank you for the signs of vitality with the Lord has blessed the Church in the Netherlands, in that context which is not always easy. May He encourage and strengthen you in your delicate work of leading your communities on the road of faith and unity, truth and love. Be assured that the priests, religious and laity are under the protection of the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church. I gladly impart to you my Apostolic Blessing as a sign of peace and spiritual joy, and ask you in fraternity not to forget to pray for me!

Catholic TV station RKK supplies the following footage of the bishops meeting with Pope Francis, Cardinal Eijk’s address, and the end of the meeting.

Photo credit: Bisdom Roermond on Facebook

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.

pauspetitieIn the runup to the first ad limina visit of the Dutch bishops in nine years, one of the more successful initiatives by lay faithful has been the so-called ‘Pauspetitie‘ on Facebook. Probably best translated in English as ‘Popetition’, it aims to collect the wishes, hopes and desires of lay faithful across the Netherlands, asking readers the question, “What do you want to tell Pope Francis?”

The range of questions, reflecting the page’s rapid popularity, is great, but can generally be divided in two major categories, both of which are somewhat concerning.

First there is the popularity of Pope Francis. Of course, there is nothing wrong with faithful loving their Holy Father. But it seems that for many, Pope Francis is the great reformer who will do away with all the hard parts of being Catholic. No matter that he speaks more than any Pope before him about such topics as the Devil, the radical following of Christ in poverty and Confession, and has authorised the excommunication of an Australian priest who was very publicly in favour of same-sex marriage and non-mandatory celibacy for priests, Pope Francis is seen by many as a great teddy bear who will make being Catholic easier for all of us by allowing women priests, abolishing celibacy, allowing everyone, Catholic or not, to receive Communion… you name it. Reality is different, but that doesn’t change the image that people have of him. Related to that is the thought that the popes before him, even the very popular Blessed John Paul II were somehow wrong, and bad popes.

Second there are the wishes that the Church change her doctrine and dogmas, elements of the faith which can not be changed, independent of what people think of Pope Francis. This indicates a serious lack of knowledge of their faith on the part of many. Catechesis in the past decades has been sorely lacking, as the number of people who simply do not recognise the nature of faith and religion is – perhaps shockingly – great.

In both these points, and perhaps inherent to personal wishes and hopes, is the fact reflected that personal opinion and desire takes precedence over the thoughts and teaching of the Church, which is the teaching of Christ. In essence, we may say that many people who profess to be Catholic do not follow Christ as much as themselves and the society they live in. Even when confronted with the Biblical basis of any of the ‘hard’ teachings of the Church, these people are not swayed.

People simply no longer know what the Church they are part of is: the community of faithful established by God through His Son, led by St. Peter and his successors in unity with the other Apostles and their successors, in other words: the Pope and the bishops. This Church is tasked to share the faith in Christ, but als to safeguard it. Christ, after all, is the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow (Heb. 13:8), and so is His message, both the appealing parts and the difficult ones. Faith is not dependent on society or people. The Pope, be he Benedict or Francis, is not the one who decides what the faith is, and so he will not be able to change it to fit the wishes of the faithful. Rather, the faithful are called to change to fit the wishes of the source of the faith, God. And He makes us able to do that, by following Him through His Church and the shepherds He has given us.

So what do we do when we find an aspect of the faith hard to accept or understand? We don’t demand it be changed to make it easier for us. Rather, we try to reach a level of acceptance or understanding. And most of all, we try to gain some trust and faith in the Church and Her shepherds, for that is the same as trust in the Lord. Does that mean we shouldn’t think, or express hopes and wishes? Of course not. Thinking is required to be faithful, and hopes and wishes motivate us to grow in faith. There is much to improve in the Church, but the faith, the very heart of the Church, is not among those. How that faith is communicated, taught and shared, however, is. But when we are asked to hear, learn and accept what is being shared, we should try to do just that and not cling desperately to our own personal convictions. We must allow ourselves to be transformed by the Lord. And the first obstacle to be removed for that transformation is ourselves.

Does all this what I’ve written above make the Popetition something wrong or bad? No, it doesn’t. It invites people to hope and share, to be open to one another and hopefully to the Church and the faith. Perhaps all the hopes and wishes shared there can be an inspiration to many to change what can be changed at the local level, in parishes, homes, schools and other communities where the faith must be kept alive. Pope Francis is not going to be able to change the goings-on in the parish. The bishop sometimes is, but we, the faithful as well as the local clergy, always are. If we reignite the faith our communities in the light of Christ and in union with His Church, we put hope into practice.

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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The above means that I have the right to be recognised as the author of both the original blog posts, as well as any translations I make. Everyone is free to share my content, but with credit in the form of my name or a link to my blog.

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Over the years, my blog posts have been picked up by various other blogs, websites and media outlets.

A complete list would be prohibitively long, so I'll limit myself to mentioning The Anchoress, Anton de Wit, Bisdom Haarlem-Amsterdam, The Break/SQPN, Caritas in Veritate, Catholic Culture, The Catholic Herald, EWTN, Fr. Ray Blake's Blog, Fr. Z's Blog, The Hermeneutic of Continuity, Katholiek Gezin, Katholiek.nl, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter, New Liturgical Movement, NOS, Protect the Pope, Reformatorisch Dagblad, The Remnant, RKS Ariëns, Rorate Caeli, The Spectator, Vatican Insider, Voorhof and Whispers in the Loggia.

All links to, quotations of and use as source material of my blog posts is greatly appreciated. It's what I blog for: to further awareness and knowledge in a positive critical spirit. Credits are equally liked, of course.

Blog posts have also been used as sources for various Wikipedia articles, among them those on Archbishop Pierre-Marie Carré, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, Archbishop Sergio Utleg and Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki.

Latest translations added:

IN PROGRESS

[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.

15 May: [English] Ane Hähnig - Interview with Michael Triegel.

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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