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During their November meeting, which took place last Tuesday, the Dutch bishops decided what to do with the questionnaire that the Synod of Bishops had sent round in preparation for next year’s Extraordinary Synod on the family. Rather than polling all faithful they will be limiting themselves to the parishes and their pastoral teams. “Those who deal with the various situations regarding relationships, families and family forms in daily pastoral reality, paint the best picture of the situation in the Dutch parishes,” the bishops said in a statement released today. The questions which ask for statistics and percentages will be answered by the Secretariat of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands.
The questionnaire as it was released in Dutch via the website Katholiek.nl will not be sent on to Rome by the bishops.
The reasons to do it like this are easily understood and supported: there is the question of time (the answers need to be back in Rome by the end of January), so efficiency is needed, and the nature of questions requires a level of knowledge that many regular faithful do not have (nor should they, in most cases, be expected to). I also had to pass on some questions because I simply had no way of providing a useful answer.
In most Dutch parishes, as in the dioceses, contact between pastoral teams and faithful is easily achieved and priests will have a good knowledge of the makeup of their parishes. That means that they will be able to answer the questions accurately, and that individual faithful can approach their priest if they have concerns about what he should write in his answers to certain questions.
I just finished answering the questions in the questionnaire sent by the Synod of Bishops to the world’s bishops. Or, at least I tried to. The poll is available in Dutch via this link.
Some questions were not that hard and quite fun to answer, while others were, well… virtually impossible to answer. I suppose that’s the result of compiling questions aimed at a very broad selection of people, ranging from lay unmarried faithful, via celibate priests with a pastoral responsibility to married couples with children. Add to that the great variety of cultural backgrounds and societies that faithful are a part of, and you are bound to come across questions which you can only answer with an honest “I don t know”, or something along the lines of “I’m sure my parish priest knows, but I sure don’t”. Still, I would assume I’m not the only one answering the questions (if you haven’t done so, go, do your bit), so what I missed others will add.
Secular media have presented the questionnaire as being about “homosexuals and contraception”, but, as often, that is a gross misrepresentation. The questions do touch upon those subjects, but their focus is greater: the pastoral care for families, in which marriage and the raising of children are an integral part. The Church’s teachings on sexuality, as well as the conflicting developments in society on these topics are related to that, and so appear in the questions as well.
The Church needs governance from above, but also knowledge of the situation “on the ground”. This poll is a first step to try and achieve that, in conjunction with the contributions of the bishops participating in next year’s Extraordinary General Assembly on “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”.
A remarkable initiative from the Synod of Bishops – newly tasked to spearhead Pope Francis’ reforms under its new Secretary General, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri (right) - will have many wondering (some with much hope, undoubtedly), if the Church has finally discovered democracy.
In a letter (via this link, scroll one age down) to the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences, Archbishop Baldisseri asked for an attached poll to be held among the parishes and deaneries, asking the Church’s faithful about many hot-button topics, as a quick review of the questionnaire reveals.
The poll should not be considered as an attempt by the Vatican to find out what the faithful want the Church to teach and believe, but rather how the teachings – especially those about the family, marriage, sexuality, children – take root in the smallest cells of the Catholic world: the parishes and other faith communities. In a way, this is democracy, in that the voice of all faithful is listened to, and in another way it is not, since that voice will not dictate teachings and faith. It can, however, and this may well be the intention the Synod of Bishops has, have influence on how these teachings and faith are communicated, promoted and accepted.
The unique effort is part of the preparation for the upcoming assembly of the Synod, on the “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” The bishops are asked to return the answers to the Synod by the end of January.
It seems that the Synod of Bishops has become the first curial body to undergo Pope Francis’ expected and announced reforms. Following the appointment of its new General Secretary, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri in September, Pope Francis fairly soon afterwards announced the first major assembly of the Synod: an Extraordinary General Assembly titled “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”.
Scheduled to take place from 5 to 19 November of next year, the assembly is styled ’extraordinary’ to signify the pressing urgency that Pope Francis attaches to the subject. Unlike the general assemblies, there will be no process of selecting participating clergy: the presidents of the world’s bishops conferences, the heads of the Eastern Churches, the heads of the Curia offices in Rome and three members of religious institutes are the designated participants by canon law. The participants from continental northwestern Europe will therefore be Wim Cardinal Eijk from the Netherlands, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard from Belgium, Bishop Anders Arborelius from Scandinavia, and whoever the future president of the German Bishops’ Conference will be.
Today, Pope Francis selected the Relator General and the Special Secretary for the Extraordinary Assembly, which is only the third such gathering since the Synod of Bishops was created in 1965. The Relator General opens the assembly and gathers the conclusions and results for the final message and ultimately the Post-Synodal Exhortation that Pope Francis will write. This task will be performed by Péter Cardinal Erdö, the archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences. The Special Secretary, who records the proceedings of the Synod, is Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte (pictured) of Chieti-Vasto. He is also a member of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation.
With the next assembly on the horizon we are still expecting the final act of the previous one. The Ordinary General Assembly on The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith closed in October of last year and the assumption then was that Pope Benedict XVI would publish its Post-Synodal Exhortation some time in 2014. Now that he has retired, and Pope Francis has begun his papacy, it will be the latter’s task to publish it. In June, he told the General Secretariat of the Synod that he would be writing much of the document in August and that it would be ready for publication before the end of the Year of Faith, on 24 November of this year.
In the days after the funeral of Bishop Jan Bluyssen, last Thursday, I’ve been reading a fair amount of criticism on how the Mass was performed. It was not in line with how the late bishop would have wanted it, some say. The large number of representatives of Church and state, the guild members in their folkloristic costumes, the clerics in cardinal red and bishop’s purple… all this are not becoming a bishop who was close to the people, who was loath to portray himself as lording it over the laity, who was, for many, a man among men, trying his best to serve the Lord and His Church as a bishop.
It should be noted here, that the funeral Mass was offered according to the liturgy of the Church. Attending bishops and other clergy were there to pay their respects to Bishop Bluyssen and they did so as prelates of the Church, which is not a 9-to-5 job, but, in lieu of their ordination, their identity. Bishop Bluyssen would have worn his liturgical clothing for the very same reason.
^Bishops attending the funeral Mass of Bishop Bluyssen. Clockwise from the top: Frans Wiertz (Roermond), Gerard de Korte (Groningen-Leeuwarden), Everard de Jong (aux. Roermond), Theodorus Hoogenboom (aux. Utrecht) and Joseph Lescrauwaet (aux. em. of Haarlem-Amsterdam). Behind them Cardinal Simonis.
Funerals are important. They are the final moment in which friends and family can bid farewell to a loved one, and a time to mourn that person. In that light, it is understandable that people feel ill at ease when a funeral seems to be about something else than the person being mourned. But when the funeral takes place from a Church, when the deceased (and hopefully his or her family and friends) are Catholic, there is an important element to the funeral that secular ceremonies lack. It is a Mass, so the first and most important focus is on Christ, and the deceased is seen and remembered in His light.
What does that mean for the Catholic Church funeral Mass? Is mourning and remembering out of the question? Certainly not, but there are two things we need to consider: death is not the end, and those left behind are not powerless in the face of death.
A person’s life on earth has ended, but we believe that the soul is immortal and will return to its Creator, barring any obstacles. Prayer is the most powerful tool we have to make sure those obstacles are removed or diminished, and that is where we, those left behind come in. Our prayer is an act of love for the person we miss.
The funeral Mass is a Mass. That means that it is primarily the remembrance and actualisation of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, the single most redemptive event in our entire history. Christ defeated death by rising after three days. Our loved one who has passed away follows our Lord in death, in the hope of one day rising with Him. Here, our prayer comes in again.
Catholic funerals, then, are not first and foremost a remembrance or even a celebration of the life that has ended. It is our sending off the deceased into the hands of the One who defeated death once and for all, and the start of our duty of prayer towards him or her.
The funeral Mass should be considered, planned and discussed out of its identity as a Mass. All other elements, such as eulogies and music, must be measured against this. And then, sometimes, the conclusion must be made (by the person who is responsible for the liturgy of the Mass: the priest) that some things are not suitable for Mass, but can be more suitable for a separate occasion before or after the Mass.
The Mass is the Mass is the Mass: we leave our beloved in the hands of the Lord and help him or her with our prayers, in the faithful hope of being reunited one day, as we follow the example of the first to rise from the dead: Jesus Christ. This transcends any personal preferences or opinions. Jesus can’t be left out of the equation. In the end, a person’s life comes to fullness in the light of the Lord, and there is no better memory than entrusting him to that light and expecting a future reunion.
^ Bishop Hurkmans incenses the coffin and mortal remains of Bishop Bluyssen, just like the offerings to the Lord, and the Word we receive from Him, are incensed during the Mass.
Photo credit: Ramon Mangold
Bold headlines in the news yesterday. A brief selection from the ones I came across: “Pope wants to unite religions against gay marriage“, “Pope: Homosexuals destroy human nature“, “Pope: Gay marriage bad for future of family” and “Pope considers gay marriage threat to world peace“.
What was the reason for this flood of headlines? Pope Benedict XVI’s annual Christmas address to the Roman Curia, often considered to be the Holy Father’s ‘State of the Church’ address. In it, he looks back on the past year, summarising some of the high points and expounding on the general trends and topics that he considers significant. This year, the pope spoke about his visits to Cuba, Mexico and Lebanon, the International Meeting of Families in Milan, the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelisation and the Year of Faith. The bulk of the text, however, is a reflection of gender and the family, and how the understanding of both is interconnected and how they have changed in recent years. Rather than the male and female nature of humanity as a God-given reality, gender is now treated as something we can decide for our own. ”Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will,” the Holy Father writes.
A second topic is that of the dialogue between religions and what form it should take, and a third issue is that of the proclamation of the Good News. Especially the latter passages can be considered good food for meditation and prayerful reflection.
Upon reading the text, something which I strongly suggest you do (be it in English via the link above, or in Dutch) you will find that not once does the pope raise the topic of homosexuality or marriage, or any combination of both. The headlines I mentioned above are therefore strongly deceptive, the product of willful ignorance, laziness or suggestive reporting.
This is a very serious issue. When the media so easily chooses pandering to what they perceive the masses should think about a topic, in this case the pope, over reporting what was actually said and done, they have become unreliable sources, little better than paparazzi and gossip magazines. The text of the address in question was available online on the very same day it was read out, in seven languages no less, and although it requires some concentration, it is not a difficult one to understand. There is really no excuse for reporting these untruths. Sadly, many readers will accept what these media write without question, assuming they write what is true.
It is up to as, as Catholics faithful to the Church and the magisterium, to correct these wrongs, because, quite simply, no one else will. That is why I worked hard to present a Dutch translation so soon, and publish it quite visible on Facebook on Twitter. The truth not only deserves, but also must be known. What the media failed to do yesterday not only hurts us and the Church, but also the truth.
More than two years ago, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, then of Denver, suggested in a different context that we should not rely on what the secular media tell us if we can read what the pope himself actually said. That is no less true in this case.
Opening the thirteenth general congregation on Tuesday morning, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic read a special message from the 90-year-old bishop of Fengxiang in China, Msgr. Lucas Ly Jingfeng, who wrote:
“Most Reverend and Excellent Fathers of the XIII Assembly of the Synod,
I would like to congratulate you, who could participate at the Synod and give homage to the Sepulcher of Saint Peter. I am very sad that you could not listen to any of the voices of the Chinese Church. Wishing to share at least some words with you, and above all with our Pope Benedict XVI, I am sending this brief message. I would like to say that our Church in China, in particular the laity, has always maintained up to today piety, faithfulness, sincerity and devotion to the first Christians, even while undergoing fifty years of persecutions. I would also like to add that I pray intensely and constantly to God the Omnipotent so that our piety, our faithfulness, our sincerity and our devotion may turn around tepidness, unfaithfulness and the secularization that have arisen abroad because of an openness and freedom without reins. In the Year of the Faith, in your synodal discussions you can see how our faith in China could be maintained unfailingly until today. And as the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tse said: “Just as calamity generates prosperity, thus in weakness calamity hides itself”. In the Church outside of China, tepidity, unfaithfulness and secularization of the faithful has spread to much of the clergy. Instead, in the Chinese Church the laity is more pious than the clergy. Could not perhaps piety, faithfulness, sincerity and the devotion of the Christian laity shake up the external clergy? I was very moved by the lament by Pope Benedict XVI: “As we know, in vast areas of the earth faith risks being extinguished, like a flame that is no longer fed. We are facing a profound crisis of faith, a loss of the religious sense that constitutes the greatest challenge to the Church today. The renewal of faith must therefore take priority in the commitment of the entire Church in our time” (Speech by the Holy Father Benedict XVI to the participants of the plenary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, January 27th 2012). However, I believe that our faith as Chinese Christians could console the Pope. I will not mention politics, which is always transeunte.
A loving and heartfelt message from the Church in China.
Following this, interventions continued, by 22 Synod fathers and 7 auditors in the morning sessions. The first speaker was Telesphore Cardinal Toppo, archbishop of Ranchi in India, who pulled few punches in his call towards religious congregation to become missionary again:
“I would like to make a humble appeal to the religious orders to become missionary again! In the history of evangelization, all the religious orders led by the Holy Spirit have done outstanding and marvelous work. Can we say the same of the Religious Congregations today? Could it be that they have begun working like Multinationals, doing very good and necessary work to meet the material needs of humanity, but have forgotten that the primary purpose of their founding was to bring the kerygma, the Gospel, to a lost world? We must appreciate many Youth Groups and new Ecclesial Movements who are taking up the challenge. But, in my opinion this Synod must appeal to the Religious men and women to explicitly and directly take up the work of evangelization and transmission of faith in collaboration with the local bishops! I would also like to call upon the Sacred Congregation for Consecrated life to be pro active in promoting the sensus ecclesiae among all religious.”
Bishop Joseph Zziwa of Kiyinda-Mityana in Uganda called for the Church to fight for the return of religious education in schools, identifying the problem as follows:
“[I]n some countries, in recent years, catechesis or teaching religion has been sidelined or removed from the education system even in Catholic-founded Schools or institutions of learning. The situation is aggravated in public institutions where there are no programs of catechesis or Christian religious education at all for our Catholic students. Religious education is considered to be a private matter, to be attended to only in the church or at home.”
This is certainly the situation in the west, not least here in the Netherlands.
A topic that some noted seemed to be missing from the Synod deliberations, was touched upon by Archbishop Geraldo Lyrio Rocha, of Mariana in Brazil, when he said:
“As the liturgy is the special place where the presence of the Gospel is alive and therefore the privileged place for education in the faith, or rather “the permanent holy mystagogy of the Church”, this must appear in the very manner in which it is celebrated. The fascinating and contagious beauty of the mystery hidden in rites and symbols must be capable of being expressed in all its strength for the liturgy to truly evangelize. Therefore the new evangelization depends to a great extent on the capacity to make the liturgy the source of spiritual life. Probably our most demanding task and the greatest challenge is to succeed in ensuring that our liturgical celebrations are ever more beautiful and transparent in their divine beauty, source of new and renewing strength that brings joy and hope to the Christian, in order to live in Christ and in the love of the Lord.”
Without the liturgy, the earthly reflection of the divine worship of God, we are unable to know and relate to our heavenly Father, let alone let others come to know Him.
Archbishop Ignatius Suharyo Hardjoatmodjo, of Jakarta in Indonesia, shares a personal anecdote to illustrate that evangelisation is sometimes as simple as leading by example:
“I would like to share with you a simple experience I had during my visit to a parish where I met a local catechist. I asked him, “How many catechumens do you have?” I was surprised to hear that he had more than ninety catechumens. It was quite a lot. I asked him further, “Have you ever asked your catechumens why they wish to be baptized into the Catholic Church?” He answered, “Many of them said that they were touched by the way Catholics pray during public events such as wedding feasts or funeral services”. The prayers are so touching to their hearts, because in those occasions the invocations and benedictions are delivered in their vernacular mother tongue so that they readily understand the content, whereas before they usually heard prayers recited in a foreign language, as Muslims pray in Arabic.”
One of the auditors, experts in various fields, who offered an intervention, was Mikhail Fateev of a St. Petersburg, Russia, television channel. He pointed at that, i the necessary ecumenical outreach in Russia people are less interested in meeting ‘fellow Christians’ than ‘Catholic Christians’:
“[I]n search for unity we should not reject or forget our Catholic identity. The people are more ready to speak with us as exactly with the Catholics, not as with “common Christians”. We could see this after a meeting organized by the lay Catholics in one of the largest bookstores of Saint Petersburg. The event attracted much interest in media. So we decided to start a series of public meetings and discussions on Catholic Church, its faith and traditions. We, Catholics, went out to meet the people and were met with a great interest!”
Something to keep in mind in our own ecumenical efforts: our own identity is the first step towards commonality.
At the start of the afternoon session, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone spoke and announced a delegation to Syria to express the Holy See’s solidarity with the Syrian people, their spiritual closeness to the Christians there, and to encourage an agreement to resolve the ongoing civil war. The delegation is set to leave for Damascus next week, and will consist of Laurent Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya (Archbishop of Kinshasa), Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran (President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue), Timothy Cardinal Dolan (Archbishop of New York), Bishop Fabio Suescun Mutis (Military Ordinar of Colombia), Bishop Joseph Nguyen Nang (Bishop of Phat Diem), Archbishop Dominique Mamberti (Secretary for Relations with States) and Msgr. Alberto Ortega (official of the Secretariat of State).
Nine interventions followed in the course of the fourteenth general congregation, including one by Bishop Everard de Jong (pictured, far left), the single Dutch delegate to the Synod. He spoke about the importance of prayer, especially to the Holy Spirit, in the new evangelisation. “It was Pentecost that started the first evangelization, and we need a new Pentecost,” he said, suggesting also that the Holy Father introduce Benedictine prayers at the end of Mass, as was standard in the past, or perhaps a constant novena to the Holy Spirit.
“We do not only have to present the gospel and the catechism, but have to promote the spiritual exercises, in which we confront people with the Jesus of the gospels and the Church, and help them to compare the influence of His Spirit in their lives with the outcomes of a more hedonistic way of life (cfr. Ga. 5:29-23). Thus they will be led to the knowledge and recognition of the objective truth of their human nature, its deepest desires, and God in their conscience. In this way they will discover St. Peter and his successors, and the church (Cf. Bl. John Henry Card. Newman (1801-1890). This means we should give priests and religious a better spiritual formation, in order to be spiritual directors, to be real spiritual fathers and mothers.”
Bishop de Jong also spoke about family and life:
“Families are essential in the transmission of the gospel. In this context our society does not know sin anymore. Still, sin has its influence on the openness to the gospel-message. Pornography, sexuality outside marriage of man and woman, contraception, abortion, will close the heart. Who, indeed, can say yes to God, the giver of life in abundance, if he or she, consciously or unconsciously, says no to human life? This means that the Church should courageously promote the gospel of life, including the theology of the body, natural family planning, and at the same time announce the very merciful God.”
After the interventions from the Synod fathers, six fraternal delegates and one special guest also offered their thoughts, among them Brother Alois, the prior of Taizé, who spoke about the need for communion as a fruitful basis for hope and faith.
Photo credit:  Wilson Dias/ABr,  Lidy Peters/RKK