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While it’s not really a letter for Advent, the timing of this message from Bishop Manfred Grothe, Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Limburg, is not coincidental. In it he looks back on the past year, an eventful one for the diocese, which is still in a sort of transitional period following the resignation of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst and the financial drama that led to that.
“Dear sisters and brothers in the Diocese of Limburg,
After the start of the new liturgical year we are in the time of Advent, in which we prepare for the coming of the Lord. For many people it is a time, both professionally and privately, to look back on the past month and to use the weeks before Christmas to re-orient themselves: Where do I stand? What are my goals for the coming year?
As Christians in the Diocese of Limburg we look back on eventful and challenging months. Much has happened – although not everything has always been visible for everyone – and as Apostolic Administrator I was able to go part of the way with you. For that I thank you from my heart. I have above all used the time to first hear and get to know the diocese, its administration, commissions, consulting bodies and communities.
Things have quieted down in the Diocese of Limburg, and the headlines of the media have gone. Together we have started on a path of reorganisation and we have already taken important steps. Various bodies have had the courage for self-reflection and correction. Much has become clearer and more visible, but much also still needs time. I am confident that we can make a new start together, that trust will be renewed. In that context I especially think of the men and women who have withdrawn from recent confrontations and also risked an open debate. I wish that our diocese draws ever more together and regains a healthy self-awareness and self-confidence. From the joy of faith we can draw the strength to witness to the people of the loving closeness of the living God.
In the new year we will continue the reorganisation of the diocese’s financial management. With an eye on canon law the diocesan financial council will be installed with a new staff. The goal in this is a clear and unambiguous division of responsibility in the administration of the diocesan council and its authority and control. By employing external personnel a greater independence will be achieved while maintaining the duties of the financial council.
In addition the statute of the see will be revised, in cooperation with the relevant bodies, and the organisation’s management will be reorganised. Greater differentiation of assets and the path of transparency will be consistently continued. Already in July of 2014 the diocese published the assets and financial commitments of the Diocese of Limburg, the cathedral chapter and the school organisation.
In the coming months the thoughts and opinions of volunteer and paid staff, which was collected between September and the end of November, will also be evaluated. This evaluation will be an great additional help for me to process what happened and to learn from it. Today I can already thank all who made use of the option of making a phone call. There have been more than 100 calls. These reports have made it possible for me to get an idea of your thoughts and feelings and to understand better how you have experienced the past year. It is encouraging to me that the majority of callers have reported by name.
Nine new parishes will be established on 1 January 2015. Together with the 14 ‘new type parishes’ already existing half of the 45 new parishes has then been established.
The ‘new type parishes’ are past the stadium of planning and prognosis and already in many ways a concrete reality and a first answer to the changes and challenges of Church life. Together with the diocese, its curia and synod, I want to continue in this way. The process as a whole should not be reversed and stopped. But the questions from the people in the parishes and communities are heard and easily understood. That is why we will continue with the visits to the communities. I can understand the concerns related to such a process of change and I also see many hurdles which must be overcome in dialogue and together. We must develop the steps to allow faith and community life to be lived strongly and with new impulses, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. That will certainly be a challenge since Church and lived faith will get a new face and will also be realised in a different shape and form. In addition to the geographical reorganisation of the diocese, perspectives must also be developed in the coming year that demonstrate how pastoral care in the ‘new type parishes’ may be realised and succeed.
A special working group with representatives from several departments of the diocese has worked intensively to find a use for the building complex on the Domberg in Limburg. The complex was built as a house for the bishop of Limburg and will in principle also be used as such. We want to use the coming months to open up and de-mythologise the house. There will therefore be guided tours for employees as well as for groups from the Diocese of Limburg. The buildings are planned to be used for conferences and meetings of various organisations. In addition, it can host exhibitions, theological and other events. In this way we want to include the bishop’s house in the plans for the Diocese of Limburg. The private areas will be excluded from the opening, with respect for their private use.
In September Bishop emeritus Dr. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst left the Diocese of Limburg and moved into a private house in Regensburg. Until now there has not been a new assignment connected to this. I would have much preferred an official farewell, in whatever form. This has not been possible to date, for various reasons, but remains an option for the diocese. In the weeks until Christmas and the end of the year I invite all to accompany the bishop emeritus in prayer and ask God’s blessing for his future, which remains uncertain. Equally uncertain for now is when the election of a new bishop will be initiated by the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. The Holy Father wants me to remain as Apostolic Administrator in the Diocese of Limburg for a while longer and prepare for a new beginning while the see remains vacant. In the first half of the year I am allowed to fill the two empty places in the cathedral chapter and so complete the chapter for the election.
Dear sisters and brothers, the tasks that lie before us are complex and yet I see with gratitude that we have taken many steps in the past months. That gives me confidence. I invite everyone to continue on this path with magnanimity and mutual respect for the other. Not only our diocese, but also our society is faced with great challenges in the new year. We are discussing assisted dying and as Christians we have the duty to always and ever anew make the dignity of people in all phases of life visible. We provide a vital service to society. We also can’t lose sight of people at the edge of society and those who have fled to our country and look for help in their often indescribable need. That was made clear to me during a brief visit to the Burbach refugee centre. As Church of Limburg we will therefore continue to commit ourselves to a “culture of hospitality for refugees” and use our financial and human resources to give our neighbours not just a home, but also a piece of homeland.
I wish you a blessed time of Advent and a Christmas rich in mercy, and a blessed new year. God has become man. Let’s celebrate that with confidence and faith in God and show the people around us what that means for us.
Limburg, on the third Sunday of Advent
+Auxiliary Bishop Manred Grothe
Apostolic Administrator “
In more than a few dioceses in Europe, bishops and parish councils are forced to make choices about which Church buildings to maintain and which to close. The reasons are generally financial and logistical and call for local faith communities to merge, to join one another in remaining local Churches. The pain and even anger that this process causes, despite its frequent necessity, becomes clear in this plea from the community of the church of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Beverwijk, Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam. For four years, they have been fighting the parish council and the diocese, guarding their church to prevent it from being closed.
I understand their pain. The place which has been the home of a community for decades, where people have worshipped, married, were buried from, prayed, celebrated, grieved… Losing that can’t be easy. But that does not mean, if we are in such a situation, that we should become closed in. The impression I get from this video is that the people of this community put their local community first: they are members of their local community first, faithful of the diocese, the greater Church in the world second. But as Catholics we profess no bond to a localised place, although we have our local duties, tasks and relations. We profess to be followers of Jesus Christ, who is everywhere where two or more people are gathered in His name. Our brothers and sisters are everywhere, not just in our immediate vicinity. In the case of this community, it seems that their walls have become so high that it has become impossible to look over them from within.
Again, while I understand the pain, the community members present themselves as a very angry bunch. I don’t know the reasons for the parish council and the diocese to want to close this church, but I would have my reservations at the community’s promise to pay for the upkeep of the building. They may be able to do so now, but they all seem to be quite elderly. Will this community still be able to maintain their building in ten years time?
It is to be hoped that, despite their high walls and anger, the ears of this community will still listen. And the same goes for the diocese and parish council as well, of course. But for now, it seems it is more important to speak (or even shout) than to listen.
On this feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, a photo of the shrine she is the patron of: Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed in Warfhuizen.
The chapel recently gained a new addition in the form of a confessional, to the left of the statue of the Virgin, that may be used by visiting priests. The statue itself is now adorned with the heart that I wrote about earlier. It took about five weeks for the money to be raised through generous donations and the heart pierced with swords was installed and blessed in June.
Som other new additions and developments over the past year include a relic of St. Philomena, acquired through the generous offices of an unnamed Italian monsignor; French and English versions of the Fraternity website (the latter be your humble blogger); the official installation of two young (17 and 18) officials of the fraternity; renewed and increased social media activities and of course a rainy annual procession.
Far north among windy fields she may be, but even there the Blessed Virgin continues to lead people to her Son.
When it comes to bishops, the foremost issue in the minds of many in Germany is that of finances. That’s certainly so for Cardinal Rainer Woelki as he prepares to move from Berlin to Cologne. In what has been presented as his farewell interview in Berlin, the cardinal was asked about his new living arrangements. Exchanging a rented house for an episcopal palace, he said:
“The Bishop’s House in Cologne is a giant box from the 1950s. It was built for an archbishop who lives there with a court, with religious sisters and a secretary. For me the house is far too big. To have to live there is no reason for pleasure. I have had a wall built where in the past the religious sisters used to live, in order to create a somewhat separate living space. That way another apartment is created on the other side.”
You can house a refugee family there.
“That has been suggested. I will consider these and other ideas with my staff in Cologne this autumn.”
While refurbishing and restoration work has been ongoing, reporters were invited to come and take a look at Cardinal Woelki’s living arrangements in the building which also houses several offices of the archdiocese. In the Aachener Zeitung we find a lighthearted report, which starts with considering the cardinal’s bathtub: “The bathtub, always the bathtub. It is white, a bit creme-coloured, quite a small bathtub. [The cardinal] himself is quite tall, but this is the one he wanted,” said Achim Schmitz, head of the construction office.
^The central square of the seminary of the Archdiocese of Cologne. Cardinal Woelki will live in an apartment behind these buildings.
The name of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, whose allegedly luxury bathroom was part of the problems that led to his leaving the Diocese of Limburg for a rented home in Regensburg, surrounds these considerations. So when it became clear that Cardinal Woelki will have a swimming pool in his basement, expectations of unwarranted luxury appeared. But reality is far more sober. The pool was built in the 1950s for the adjacent seminary and today it is being used for swimming classes by local schools, and to teach a group of Muslim women how to swim.
Still, the renovation is not cheap at 1.45 million euros (1.9 million dollars). But financial director Hermann-Josef Schon is quick to explain that these costs cover long-overdue work as the building has not seen any renovation in 25 years and it covers such necessary things as heating, electricity and water.
So while Cologne is known to be one of Germany’s richest dioceses, little beyond the necessary will go to the daily needs of its new archbishop. Cardinal Woelki is pleased to have what he needs and little more. He will run his own household, without a secretary, housekeeper and only a modest bathtub.
Photo credit:  dpa,  wdr
The old debate about the number of seminaries in the Netherlands was restarted this week as the rectors of two of them – Fathers Jan Vries of Rolduc (Diocese of Roermond) and Gerard Bruggink (pictured at right) of the Tiltenberg (D. of Haarlem-Amsterdam) – both suggested that the Church in this country would be better served by having a single seminary for the entire Province, instead of the six that exist now.
Every Dutch diocese, except for Groningen-Leeuwarden, maintains its own seminary, although there is cooperation to a certain extent: professors and teachers often work at more than one seminary, and the one in the Diocese of Breda, Bovendonk, is specifically geared towards seminarians who begin their studies and formation later in life, next to a job. Groningen-Leeuwarden and Rotterdam send their seminarians, for their entire study or part of it, to Haarlem-Amsterdan, Utrecht or Bovendonk. In addition to this, the Neocatechumenal Way maintains two seminaries in the Netherlands and sends its students for several courses to either Rolduc or the Tiltenberg.
All in all, there are 76 fulltime seminarians studying at the several seminaries in the Netherlands, of whom 49 come from abroad. They are generally part of the Neocatechumenal Way. There are also another 11 parttime seminarians, who study next to their day job.
Most seminary rectors are in favour of merging the existing seminaries into one or two. Father Patrick Kuipers of the recently re-established Ariëns Institute (seminary building pictured at left), Archdiocese of Utrecht, says, “Personally, I am very much in favour of it. I think that the group of seminarians in the Netherlands is too small to be spread out over five or six institutes.” He thinks a group of 25 would be ideal, because that would form a true community. Father Norbert Schnell, of Bovendonk, relates that German colleagues say that 20 seminarians is the minimum required.
Fr. Bruggink wonders if it is even possible to maintain two seminarians, one according to the proper seminary model in which all education taking place in-house, and another following the convict model, in which some or all academic training takes place at a university of polytechnic. “I am very much in favour of maintaining the seminary format, if need be next to the convict form. Intellectual, pastoral and personal formation together with spiritual formation in one house, in one whole, is, I think, necessary for the future. I think that young people are attracted to that instead of the current fragmentation.”
There are practical considerations which all boil down to one thing: can the Dutch Church continue to support these five or six separate institutes into the future? The financial side of this is not the least, as the Church is not supported in any way but by the faithful. It is they who, ultimately need to support whatever structure of seminary education the bishops wish to maintain.
And, as all seminary rectors stress, it is with the bishops that the ball lies. Fr. Kuipers says, “I discussed it several times with Cardinal Eijk, who is responsible in the bishops’ conference for the seminaries. But that is all. The question is to what extent the bishops can let go of their own seminaries.” Fr. Vries of Rolduc simlarly states, “We can toss ideas about, but it’s the bishops who must hold the talks.”
Odd one out among the rectors is Fr. Filip De Rycke of the St. John’s Centre in Den Bosch. He admits that “sharing” teachers is a burden on people and that a larger group of students is better. But he also looks to Flanders, where all dioceses, apart from Bruges, joined forces. There is no outpouring of vocations there either, he states.
Deciding in favour of only one or two seminaries for the Church in the Netherlands would, in my opinion, have positive effects in several areas. It would allow for the formation of true communities which in turn would attract more prospective seminarians, and resources may be bundled: financially and in manpower (thus eliminating the concern that Fr. De Rycke mentions). Expertise is more effective when concentrated and communities form their members when they can actually be communities.
I hope that this question is picked up by the bishops, and that they are able to look at the bigger picture of the future of the Church in the Netherlands. We need priests and priests need the best formation and education on offer.
On behalf of the hermitage and shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed, a unique place of prayer and spiritual care, I am sharing the following message that the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed placed on its Facebook page today It would be fantastic if even one reader of this blog would be able and willing to contribute to the sole contemplative religious establishment in the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. There is no place where the motherly care of the Mother of God does not read, not even what Brother Hugo, the hermit of the place, calls “the North Pole”.
“We ask your attention for the following. Our Lady of Warfhuizen still lacks the heart with seven swords which is so characteristic … for a “Mother of Sorrows.”
As confraternity we think that is unacceptable, but we are a penniless organisation, so simply ordering one is something we can’t do. Now, in Naples we found one which would be ideal. It costs €430 [$595 – MV], an amount of money that we think should be possible to collect if all loyal devotees of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed would contribute a small amount.
Hence this call: help us give Mary a heart and donate a contribution on bank account NL45TRIO0198535724, in the name of “Broederschap O.L.V. vd Besloten Tuin in Glimmen, the Netherlands, quoting HART VOOR MARIA.”
If it is easier, donations may also be made via my PayPal account in the left sidebar. Do state with your donation that it is intended for the heart of Mary. I will make sure your donation is passed on to the confraternity.
For more information on Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed, the shrine, pilgrimages, the confraternity and what makes it unique, go here. The website is available in Dutch, French and English, and in the near future, additional languages will be added.
Some may wonder, why spend such a large amount of money on what is a piece of decoration? An answer to that question would have to include the fact that we spend money on what and who we love, and that nothing in the shrine is simply an object (from the lights on the ceiling to the brooms in the cupboard, everything has a function). The heart pierced with seven swords reflects the essence of who Mary is as the Mother of Sorrows. In the first place it refers to the passage from the Gospel of Luke:
“Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Look, he is destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is opposed – and a sword will pierce your soul too - so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.'” (2:34-35)
Tradition later expanded this piercing of Mary’s soul into the seven sorrows:
The prophecy of Simeon quoted above
- The flight into Egypt
- The loss of the Child Jesus at the Temple
- Mary meeting Jesus on the way to Calvary
- Jesus’ death on the Cross
- The piercing of Jesus’ side, and Mary receiving His body in her lap
- The body of Jesus being placed in the tomb
These experiences, terrible for any mother, show us how Our Lady of Sorrows can be a comfort and example to people who suffer, as she does at Warfhuizen. The heart with seven swords shows us who she is for us, an identity given her because of her unique role in salvation history and Jesus’ life on earth.
The shrine at Warfhuizen continues to attract increasing numbers of pilgrims from all over the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and beyond. It is a small and intimate place, but rich in symbolism, comfort and prayer. You can help complete it further.
Breaking and unexpected news today as the Archdiocese of Utrecht announces that, after a four-year hiatus, it will once more be housing its own seminary within the borders of the archdiocese. In 2010, the Ariënskonvikt in the city of Utrecht closed its doors as part of a wider financial reform started by Archbishop Wim Eijk (at the time, he called it one of the hardest decisions he had to make as bishop). The seminarians of the archdiocese moved to the seminary of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam, and in Utrecht the former vice rector of the seminary Fr. Patrick Kuipers, continued to manage the affairs of seminarians and conducting projects related to vocations and formation.
Now, the seminarians are to come home to Utrecht, back to the old house they vacated four years ago, which now lies next door to the Faculty of Catholic Theology, which moved to the inner city a few years ago. Seminarians will receive their academic formation there. Fr. Kuipers will be the rector of the newly established institution.
There are several reasons for the return to Utrecht, of which the improved financial situation of the archdiocese if the most important. There is also a slow increase in seminarians, which, together with the limited space available, means that the new seminary is only open to seminarians from the archdiocese. In the past, Utrecht was also home to seminarians from the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. Another reason to return to Utrecht was the peripheral location of the Tiltenberg, the seminary of Haarlem-Amsterdam, as seen from the archdiocese. The seminarians would be travelling long distances from there to the parishes in which they learned the trade, so to speak.
The Archdiocese of Utrecht currently has eight seminarians, who will all be housed in Utrecht,. These will be joined by four religious of congregation of the Misioneros de Cristo Maestro who will form their own community. Before he came to Utrecht, Cardinal Eijk established contacts with this congregation with an eye on establishing a community in the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, where he was bishop at the time.
Reports that the Vatican would make a statement regarding Limburg’s Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst started breaking this morning, to the effect that he will not be returning to his diocese.
Awaiting the official statement, which Domradio has announced to be commenting on at noon, we can only guess at the details. We can, however safely assume that the heart of the decision will be either that Bishop Tebartz-van Elst has indeed mismanaged the funds of the Diocese of Limburg, especially those related to the reconstruction and rebuilding efforts of the diocesan complex, which includes his own apartment (and it is likely that his lies under oath about his traveling to India will also play a part in it), or that the atmosphere in Limburg and Germany as a whole is such that his return is unwise. With the amount of hostility against his person, warranted or not, his work as ordinary of a diocese would have been almost impossibly difficult.
There are also reports that the bishop’s mental health has suffered in the past months, which can also be a determining factor in this decision.
If Bishop Tebartz-van Elst will indeed not return, the Diocese of Limburg is the sixth diocese in Germany to fall vacant.
This is the text of the decision as released by the Holy See today, in my translation:
Regarding the administration of the Diocese of Limburg, in Germany, the Congregation for Bishops has studied in detail the report of the Commission, that was established according to the desires of the bishop and the cathedral chapter, to investigate in detail the responsibilities regarding the construction of the Diocesan Centre “St. Nicholas”.
Given that a situation exists in the Diocese of Limburg which prevents the fruitful exercise of the episcopal office by Monsignor Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the Holy See has accepted the resignation as offered by the bishop on 20 october 2013 and has appointed an Apostolic Administrator in the person of Monsignor Manfred Grothe.
The outgoing bishop, Msgr. Tebartz-van Elst, will be given other duties in due time.
The Holy Father asks the clergy and the faithful of the Diocese of Limburg to accept the decision of the Holy See willingly, and strive for a return to a climate of compassion and reconciliation.
The full report of the German bishops on this matter is set for publication at 3:30 this afternoon.
The new Apostolic Administrator of Limburg, who will work in conjunction with Bishop Thomas Löhr, auxiliary bishop of the diocese, and Msgr. Wolfgang Rösch, the vicar general appointed as Bishop Tebartz-van Elst began his leave of absence, is Bishop Manfred Grothe (pictured). He is the senior auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Paderborn, which borders Limburg to the north. He led the bishops’ investigation into the whole affair.
Paderborn’s Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker sees the appointment of Bishop Grothe as a “great sign of confidence” from Pope Francis. He said, “I am certain that Auxiliary Bishop Grothe will be a good companion for the Church of Limburg on the road they start today. His decades-long experience, his great knowledge and above his factual nature, which is yet directed towards the people, make him ideal for the task before him.”
It is interesting to note that the Holy See does not expound much on the reasons for accepting Bishop Tebartz-van Elst’s resignation. But what it does say is interesting. The communique does refer to the investigation conducted by the German Bishops’ Conference and studied by the Congregation for Bishops, but merely notes that “a situation exists in the Diocese of Limburg which prevents the fruitful exercise of the episcopal office by Monsignor Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst”. These are very factual statements. Regardless of whether or not the bishops concluded that Bishop Tebartz-van Elst has made grave mistakes, it is by now virtually impossible to be a diocesan ordinary. This is as much due to the situation created by himself (of which only the lying under oath is proven and admitted, which is serious enough), as to how he has been portrayed in the media. In many cases this portrayal has been objetive and necessary, but in a fair number of cases it has not. The words of support from, for example, Cardinal Lehmann, but also those of Cardinal Müller and Archbishop Gänswein, should therefore not automatically be construed as an error of judgement on their part, but, together with the Holy See statement, as an acknowledgement of the fact that Bishop Tebartz-van Elst’s resignation will not be solely due to what he did or did not do wrong.
The full report from the bishops’ commission, published this afternoon, is a lengthy tome, and while I am able to make a working translation of short German texts, this, I have to be honest, is a whole different animal. Summaries and analyses of what exactly went wrong are therefore better left to others. The fact remains that things went seriously wrong and while the intentions of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst may have been good and honest, the execution of the entire construction project most certainly was not. It is, however, good to remember that he inherited this whole affair to a certain extent, as the initial plans, with a number of inherent financial miscalculations, were drawn up by the cathedral chapter in 2004, a full three years before Bishop Tebartz-van Elst was appointed as ordinary of Limburg. But he did authorise new plans and their execution, and made sure that he was the sole responsible party.
In a very ill-advised move, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst has now issued a statement denying a number of conclusions from the commission’s report, stating that he was, from the very start, dedicated to ensure “quality and sustainability”, especially in the context of unfortunate experiences with other construction projects in the diocese. In my opinion, this is a counterproductive and unwise move. For the Diocese of Limburg and its faithful, and also for its former bishop, a period of trial and uncertainty has ended. As Bishop Manfred Grothe indicated, now is a time to look ahead. Bishop Tebartz-van Elst may consider his intentions to have been righteous and his efforts to have been all he could do, the fact remains that things went wrong, or so the commission concludes. In denying these conclusions, the bishop is not only fighting the commission and his brother bishops, but also the opinion of the world. And that last one is a difficult opponent, which can not be changed or defeated by full-on assault and denial. It only becomes stronger. The bishop had better chosen another approach, of penance and regret, instead of this. Nothing good will come from it.
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.
From 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.
Brussels’ 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).”
Archbishop 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.
Bishop 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.
Antwerp’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.
Reykjavík’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!”
Lastly, 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.