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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.
“When he went out after this, he noticed a tax collector, Levi by name, sitting at the tax office, and said to him, ‘Follow me.’
And leaving everything Levi got up and followed him. In his honour Levi held a great reception in his house, and with them at table was a large gathering of tax collectors and others. The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples and said, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’
Jesus said to them in reply, ‘It is not those that are well who need the doctor, but the sick. I have come to call not the upright but sinners to repentance.’”
Jesus calls everyone to follow Him, but in the Gospels we see Him pointing out specific people and presents them with the choice very directly. Apparently, He does not need to have to interact much with people before asking – telling, even - them.. He sees the tax collector at work, and knows enough. This is a man He wants to be seen with.
The world doesn’t understand that, as we see in the reaction of the Pharisees. Why choose to be with these people, these sinners who are spat out by the rest of decent society? But dividing society in wanted and unwanted people is an artificial construct. After all, society is made up by all people, rich and poor, holy and sinful, good and evil. Jesus choose to become a part of this multifaceted society in order to heal it. And just like when our body is sick, we try to heal the parts that affect us adversely, not cut them off. Jesus does the same. He does not cut out the unwanted elements of society, but tries to change them for the better.
Human society, the combined body of all our interactions and relations is not an accident. It flows from our nature as human beings created by God. And as such it is wanted and has a purpose or destination in God. Christ came to put us on the right path to that destination, by healing us from our sins and ills. And he does so first in the ways of society: in the form of a social gathering. He eats and drinks with the tax collectors. We can only imagine what they talked about, but it would be a safe bet to assume that Jesus won Himself a place in the hearts of the sinners He ate with.
We are called to imitate Jesus and introduce Him to the people around us. A good way to start is simply through society, as Jesus did. Not by expounding about the evilness of their ways or pouring boatloads of information about God and faith on them. That can wait, and will come naturally when the time, and everyone involved, is ready. That is the start of evangelisation.
As 185 cardinals are planning to attend the consistory for the creation of new cardinals on 22 February and, more importantly, the preceding days in which the College of Cardinals will be employed for it most significant use: to function as an advisory body for the Pope on, in this case, topics related to the reform of the Curia and the upcoming Synod on the family, 14 archbishops and one bishop are planning to travel to the Eternal City for their inclusion into the College.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols poses in the purple of a bishop for the last time, shortly before flying to Rome for the consistory.
Archbishop Leopoldo Brenes Solórzano, clad in jeans and a sports jacket, says his goodbyes at the airport of Managua.
Archbishop Loris Capovilla, who, at 98, will be the oldest cardinal ever, has asked Pope Francis to allow him not to come to Rome for the consistory. Stating that his strength is greatly diminished and feeling uncomfortable at meeting so many people, the former personal secretary of Blessed Pope John XXIII will receive the red hat at the church of Sotto il Monte, birthplace of John XXIII, a few days after the consistory. The last time a cardinal was not present at the consistory in which he was created was in 1998, when Cardinal Alberto Bovone, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, received the red hat at the Gemelli hospital. He would succumb to the illness which had confined him there a few months later. Blessed Pope John XXIII, by the way, also wasn’t in Rome when he was made a cardinal in 1953. Then the Papal Nuncio to France, he received the regalia from the French head of state, a privilege no longer in use.
Per the Vatican website, the rite for the creation of the new cardinals will be unchanged from those of Pope Benedict XVI’s last two consisteries. It all starts with a greeting, prayer and a reading of the following text from the Gospel of Mark:
They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem; Jesus was walking on ahead of them; they were in a daze, and those who followed were apprehensive. Once more taking the Twelve aside he began to tell them what was going to happen to him, ‘Now we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man is about to be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the gentiles, who will mock him and spit at him and scourge him and put him to death; and after three days he will rise again.’
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached him. ‘Master,’ they said to him, ‘We want you to do us a favour.’
He said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’
They said to him, ‘Allow us to sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.’
But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I shall drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I shall be baptised?’
They replied, ‘We can.’
Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I shall drink you shall drink, and with the baptism with which I shall be baptised you shall be baptised, but as for seats at my right hand or my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted.’
When the other ten heard this they began to feel indignant with James and John, so Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that among the gentiles those they call their rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. Among you this is not to happen. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all. For the Son of man himself came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (10:32-45).
The first of the new cardinals, in this case Cardinal-designate Pietro Parolin will address the Pope on behalf of all, after which the Pope officially names the new cardinals. From that point onwards, they are officially created as cardinals. The new cardinals will then speak the profession of faith and oath of fidelity.
Each new cardinal then approaches the Pope to receive the biretta, the ring and the bull of his creation which also names his deaconry or title church. The kiss of peace follows, and the rite ends with the Our Father.
Photo credit:  The Papal Visit on Facebook,  ANSA/PAOLO MAGNI/DRN
“The death of Msgr. Bluyssen has affected me deeply. He was the bishop who ordained me a deacon and a priest. At my consecration as bishop he was one of the concelebrants. My appreciation for him is great. For seventeen, he was bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch with all the beauty, but also with all the difficulties that this office brings with it. His kindness, tranquility and wisdom have helped him in his task. As bishop emeritus he continued to follow and sympathise greatly with the Church, the diocese of Den Bosch. In addition, he loved to study, wrote books and celebrated life with family and friends. Of course, like many others, Msgr. Bluyssen suffered through developments in the Church, but he was able to see them in a larger perspective. I will also miss the paternal presence of Msgr. Bluyssen at diocesan celebrations, which he always tried to attend. I am confident that Msgr. Bluyssen is now with the Lord, together with Mary and the saints. After all, like we do, he believed in a God of the living, and not in a God of the dead.”
Words from Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, second successor of Bishop Johannes Willem Maria Bluyssen, who died peacefully in his sleep on Thursday morning, as his heart surrendered after a life of 87 years in the service of the Church.
Bishop Jan Bluyssen hailed from Nijmegen and was ordained in 1950 by Bishop Willem Mutsaerts, and served as a parochial vicar in Veghel before studying spirituality in Rome. Returning to the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, he taught at the diocesan seminary in Haaren and also became spiritual director there. On 28 October 1961, Blessed Pope John XXIII appointed him as auxiliary bishop of the diocese, serving with Bishop Willem Bekkers, the ordinary. Bishop Bluyssen was made the first and to date only titular bishop of the see of Aëtus in modern Greece. After the unexpected death of Bishop Bekkers, Bishop Bluyssen was appointed to succeed him in October of 1966. The photo above shows the bishop shortly after his appointment, returning from a post-conciliar meeting in Rome. Bishop Bluyssen served until he offered his resignation for health reasons in 1983. This was granted on 1 March 1984.
Bishop Jan Bluyssen was the last surviving Dutch Council Father. Towards the end of the Second Vatican Council, he attended several sessions and was involved in several post-conciliar meetings on the liturgy. Bishop Bluyssen was the last bishop to be consecrated in the pre-conciliar rites. It is then perhaps paradoxical that he is considered a member of the more progressive wing of the Dutch bishops in the 1960s and 70s, who did most to change the liturgy and the Church in the Netherlands as a whole.
As a bishop, Bluyssen was continuously affected by health problems surround his heart, which ultimately led to his early retirement in 1984. Following his retirement, Bishop Bluyssen devoted himself to writing, of which his memoirs, Gebroken Wit (Broke White), published in 1995, are most notable.
The years of Bishop Bluyssen’s episcopate were turbulent ones in the entire Dutch Church. The Second Vatican Council had started an unintended chain reaction in which everything was questioned, from the way parishes should function to how the liturgy should be celebrated, even to what the Church and faithful should teach and believe. Bishop Bluyssen was often allied with the more progressive movements, questioning much with them and trying to put the new thoughts into practice. In the seventeen years that he was ordinary, Bishop Bluyssen closed the seminary in Haaren and saw the number of active priests, as well as new seminarians, drop dramatically. Bishop Bluyssen made sure that things remained quiet in his diocese in the time surrounding the special Synod on the Dutch Church that Pope John Paul II convened in 1980. Partly in response to these developments was the appointment of his successor, Bishop Jan ter Schure, who was generally far more conservative and in line with Rome.
Bishop Bluyssen was deeply conscious of his own limitations and failings. This sense of reality, his esteem for people as carriers of the faith and his own modesty made him hugely popular, both during and after his time as ordinary of ‘s Hertogenbosch. The more formal and serious side of being a bishop, which Bishop Bluyssen described as “being bound to the Gospel, bound through loyalty to Christ, whose task I am called to perform … which comes to me via and through the Church”, was coupled with his being a positive and winsome conversationalist.
With the death of Bishop Jans Bluyssen the Dutch Church has lost a good man, a true man, with good and bad sides, a man of faith and a man of the people. Despite his failing health, he remained a integral part of his erstwhile diocese, for far longer than the 17 years he served as its bishop.
On Tuesday, the bishop will lie in state in the bishop’s house, where faithful may visit on Tuesday evening, and Wednesday afternoon and evening. A Vespers for the repose of Bishop Bluyssen will be offered on Wednesday evening at 7 at the cathedral basilica of St. John. His funeral will take place on Thursday from the same church, starting at 11.
Photo credit:  Paul Kriele,  Peter van Zoest/ANP Historisch Archief, ANP,  Wim Jellema/wimjellema.nl
Sad news today, as reports come in that Bishop Johannes Bluyssen has traded the temporal for the eternal today. He was 87.
Bishop Bluyssen was auxiliary bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch from 1961 to 1966 and ordinary of the same diocese from 1966 to 1984.
The beloved bishop remained an honoured guest at all major diocesan events, especially ordinations.
Although the bishop was frail of health, his passing came as a surprise for all. More information about funeral arrangements, as well as a proper obituary on this blog, will follow later.
Bishop Joannes Gijsen, who passed away at the age of 80 today, has left a mark on the Church in the Netherlands. Virtually all elements of his service led to comments, criticism, questions and, also, admiration and support. From his appointment in 1972 to his sudden retirement in 1993, his troubled time as ordinary of Roermond and his efforts to maintain a form of Catholic education in the Netherlands, his surprise appointment to Reykjavik and the comparisons between life there and back home (which often saw the Dutch situation in a bad light); Bishop Gijsen made his share of ripples in the pond of the Church.
But in the very first place, Bishop Gijsen must be understood as a man of faith, Asked if he ever experienced any doubt about his faith, he said in an interview in 2007: “True doubt? No, never! I am convinced that the Roman Catholic faith holds the fullness of all knowledge of God and man.”
He lived his life as a bishop that way, as he illustrated in that same interview:
“We’re all priests of the Catholic Church, and especially a bishop has responsibility for the entire Church. You must be able to be deployed anywhere. Of course, it is something else if you can’t because of health or something. But if you’re healthy, you can never say “no”.”
“If, somewhere in northern Iceland, there are a few Catholics who are interested in the Catholic faith, you must be able to offer it to them. Our Lord didn’t say: I want to convert the entire world in one go. He went to backward little Palestine and walked around there for three years, if not less. He reached only a few people. But that nonetheless became the foundation of the faith that reached the entire world.”
Joannes Baptist Matthijs Gijsen was born on 7 October 1937 in Oeffelt, a village in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, just on the border with the Diocese of Roermond. He was ordained for that latter diocese in 1957, by Bishop Joseph Lemmens. Although he spent some time in the parish, he was mainly a teacher at the seminaries in Kerkrade and Maastricht, and a student of theology and Church history in Münster and Bonn. In 1972, he was appointed as the 22nd bishop of Roermond, a move that was quite controversial, as the new bishop was known as conservative and his appointment as one imposed from Rome. Reflecting the latter, Bishop Gijsen was consecrated by Pope Paul VI in Rome, with the archbishops of Utrecht and Armagh serving as co-consecrators. Cardinal Alfrink, the archbishop of Utrecht, would have preferred a consecration in Roermond as a first step towards reconciliation, but was evidently overruled. Bishop Gijsen was installed at St. Christopher’s Cathedral in Roermond on 4 March 1972.
As bishop, he modernised the diocese in the line of the Second Vatican Council,determined as he was to put the Council’s documents into practice. In that sense, Bishop Gijsen was not so much a man of the “spirit of Vatican II”, but of the true Council. As a former teacher himself, he worked to maintain some form of true Catholic education in his diocese, with mixed results.
Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary of Haarlem-Amsterdam, today describes Bishop Gijsen as follows:
“He was a bishop with a vision, not conservative in the sense that he wanted to return to the time before the Second Vatican Council. On the contrary, with heart and soul he wanted to be a bishop who stood in and for that council and wanted to put it into practice. He wanted to be loyal to the Pope and the Church. He wanted “to prepare the way for the Lord”, as his motto was. That moved him, among others, to start a seminary at Rolduc, which has formed some 175 priests, including five of today’s bishops (among them Msgr. J. Punt and myself). As Pope Paul VI hoped and expressed, that little plant has borne fruit for the entire country.”
Above: Bishop Gijsen, third from left, pictured with Bishops Punt (second from right) and Hendriks (far right) and several other priests educated at Rolduc, photographed in May of this year.
In January of 1993, Bishop Gijsen suddenly and unexpectedly retired as bishop of Roermond. He moved to Austria to become the rector of a convent. Although rumours abounded about the reasons, the bishop would later explain:
“I have never had Crohn’s Disease, and I have always enjoyed the support of the Vatican. I can deny rumours of that nature without a doubt. I left because the doctor told me: “If you stay for one more year, you’ll either have a stomach perforation or an intestinal disease from which you will not recover, or you’ll have an aneurysm or a stroke. There is no way you’ll be able to keep this up. You must stop now!” That was the reason why I quit so suddenly. It was sudden for me as well. Agreed, the danger of a collapse was also caused by the developments and the experiences of those twenty years [as bishop in Roermond]. But it was mostly exhaustion.”
Three years of recovery followed, after which Bishop Gijsen relayed his renewed availability to Rome. At that time, the Diocese of Reykjavik in Iceland had been vacant for more than two years, so Bishop Gijsen was sent to the see where his great uncle Bishop Meulenberg had served in the 1930s. He was initially sent to be Apostolic Administrator, but in 1996 he was appointment as diocesan bishop.
Where Roermond represented a time of struggle and management, Reykjavik was by far the more enjoyable of Bishop Gijsen’s appointments. In 2006, he spoke in an interview about his appreciation for the country and the Icelandic people:
“I encountered much understanding. Seen from Rome, Iceland, land of the Vikings, seems a barren and terrifying place. But it most certainly is not. Consider, for one, the weather: here in the city, in the shadow of the mountains, the temperature rarely drops below -5°C. [...] From the very start I liked it here. I am very pleased with this place. Life at 66 degrees north is not that different from life in he Netherlands, at 53 degrees. But life is much more organised.”
In 2007, Bishop Gijsen returned home to the Diocese of Roermond and to his family. He moved in with one of his sisters in Sittard, and took on the pastoral care of a small convent. He shunned the media since then, devoting himself, no doubt, to his books and whoever came for a visit.
Looking back on his own life, something he was not too keen to do, Bishop Gijsen said, in the same 2007 interview quoted above:
“I have always tried to simply think along the same line as the Church. I have mainly tried to act on the basis of the Second Vatican Council, because that was our duty, especially for a bishop. I have done so with my abilities and with my inabilities and with the abilities of the people around me, and with their inabilities. We shouldn’t want to judge the result of that this soon. I think we should wait a while. I think you should never want to be your own judge, so I am not going to judge my own life; I’ll leave that to history.”
Today, many priests and bishops have been influenced in one way or another by Bishop Gijsen. As Bishop Hendriks said above, some 175 priests were educated at the seminary he started, but Bishop Gijsen also ordained and consecrated several bishops. In 1983, he ordained the future bishop Everard de Jong, and in 1985, the future Cardinal Wim Eijk. He also consecrated his own auxiliary bishops, Alphons Castermans in 1982, and Joannes ter Schure in 1984. The latter would become bishop of the neighbouring Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch almost exactly two months later.
Of course, Bishop Gijsen suffered his share of criticism, and he was not afraid to offer it himself. Shortly before his appointment as bishop of Roermond, he accused the Dutch bishops of having “set the faithful adrift” following the disastrous pastoral council of Noordwijkerhout. He went his own way, and this in part was reason for Blessed Pope John Paul II to call a Special Synod on the Netherlands in 1980.
^Bishop Gijsen, right, with Pope John Paul II, during the latter’s visit to the Netherlands in 1985.
Most serious in his later years were several accusations that surfaced regarding sexual abuse, both in Roermond and in Reykjavik. While no accusations were deemed inadmissible in court, they do point towards serious mismanagement on the part of Bishop Gijsen.
Bishop Joannes Gijsen was not perfect. He had his flaws, but he was driven by an honest desire to be of service and to do what was needed. For that, especially during the 1970s and 80s, we should laud him.
The funeral is planned for 29 June, at 10:30 in the morning, from St. Christopher’s Cathedral in Roermond. On the eve of the funeral, there will be a vigil Mass for the late bishop at the Carmelite convent chapel in Sittard.
Photo credit:  Bisdom Roermond,  arsacal.nl,  Dagblad De Limburger
After a string of new appointments, news from Passau reports the passing of Bishop Franz Xaver Eder, bishop emeritus of that diocese, on Thursday. Bishop Eder was 87, and died from a heart failure. He spent his final weeks in a Passau hospital. The diocesan website reports that he passed away “well-prepared after having received the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick”.
Bishop Eder was bishop of Passau from 1984 to 2001, after having served as its auxiliary and coadjutor since 1977. He has been lying in state since yesterday in the chapel of St. Lambert of Passau’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral. His funeral Mass is planned for Tuesday and will be led by the retired archbishop of München und Freising, Friedrich Cardinal Wetter.
“God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but the Spirit of power and love and self-control,” from the Second Letter to Timothy (1:7) was Bishop Eder’s motto, and “that is how he knew himself to be sent to the people,” Bishop Wilhem Schraml, apostolic administrator of Passau, said in a first reaction.
It was Bishop Eder’s wish that little be spent of wreaths and the like, but that donations be made to a fund he established to aid children and families in need.
The Diocese of Passau itself awaits the appointment of a new ordinary, as Bishop Wilhelm Schraml retired in October.
Photo credit: Dionys Asenkerschbaumer
These days this blog certainly gives the impression of being preoccupied with death. But, then again, death is part of life, and when it encroaches we can benefit by acknowledging it. So, with that, in mind, onwards to another post about a death in the local Catholic family.
Last night a life ended that was greatly animated by concern for others, both abroad and at home. Also a life that was not without its critics, who accused it of being perhaps too generally spiritual as opposed to Catholic, and on some topics far too liberal. But that criticism did not leave its mark. Silence, care and simply doing what needed doing did.
Bishop Martinus Petrus Maria Muskens passed away last night at the age of 77. The final years of his life were marked by ever decreasing health and mobility, although he was able to attend several major celebrations within the Diocese of Breda, including the 50th anniversary of his own ordination to the priesthood. Bishop Muskens is survived by his own predecessor, Bishop Huub Ernst, and two of his predecessors, Bishop Hans van den Hende and Jan Liesen, as bishops of Breda.
Bishop Muskens, whose first name was usually shortened to ‘Tiny’, started his life in the Church as a priest of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch in 1962. His study of missiology at Nijmegen led him to Indonesia, where he worked for eight years as director of the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference’s documentation centre. In 1978, Father Muskens went to Rome, to become rector of the Dutch College and teach Church history at two international colleges. One of his most noted efforts there was the restoration of the Church of Saints Michael and Magnus, better known as the Church of the Frisians. Today this church is the home base for Dutch pilgrims and officials in Rome. In 1994, Pope John Paul II appointed him as the ninth bishop of Breda. Bishop Muskens was consecrated by his predecessor, Bishop Huub Ernst, which marked his first permanent return to the Netherlands since he left for Indonesia. Marking his international and interfaith outlook that would come to the fore in later years, Bishop Muskens chose the simple word “Shalom”, Peace, as his motto.
Following two minor strokes in 2001, Bishop Muskens decided to request a coadjutor and an early retirement. These were both granted in 2006, in the form of Bishop Hans van den Hende, and in 2007, when Bishop Muskens joined the Benedictine community in Teteringen, where he was simply known as “Brother Martinus”. Shortly afterwards, a chance collision with a cyclist led to him breaking his hip. He never walked again without the aid of a cane, and at major celebrations he was usually present in choir or in a pew at the front of the church.
In his years as bishop of Breda, Msgr. Muskens was perhaps the most visible bishop in the media. Several of his statements and convictions caused ripples in society and also within the Church. He was, for example, in favour of abolishing mandatory celibacy for priests, and suggested the use of condoms as a lesser evil. He was also in favour of female deacons. On the other hand, other acts and statements made him quite popular in society. He said that a homeless person should be allowed to steal a bread if that meant survival, and at another occasion he slept in a doorway to underline the plight of homeless people. This social engagement gave him the nickname I used in this blog post’s title: the Red Bishop.
His experience in dealing with Islam was also visible in his work as bishop. He suggested that the Dutch national holiday of the second day of Pentecost be traded for a holiday to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid, since the former lacks any theological basis. He also suggested we address God also with the name Allah. On the other hand, he was also critical of Islam. The dialogue between Christians and Muslims has no future, he said in 2007, as long as countries in the Middle East continue to forbid the construction of churches.
Like him or not, there is no denying that Bishop Tiny Muskens was a character, and he knew it. He knew the importance of sometimes shaking up set morals and convictions. As such, he leaves some big shoes to fill, but I’ll go as far as to say that we could use someone to fill them.
Journalist Arjan Broers, who wrote three books with and about the bishop, characterises Bishop Muskens in the epilogue to one of those books:
“In this book, you won’t read how all sorts of people feel at ease with Muskens, because they don t need to pretend with him. You will neither read how people often felt visibly uncomfortable with him. Not out of awe for His Excellency, but because he is so hard to fathom.
You will not read how Muskens can pester people [...]. You won’t read how he can act like a tank, by walking into a Church institution in Rome, bishop’s cross on his chest like an imposing identification, and keep on walking and asking until he gets what he wants. And you’ll neither read how, at other times, he accepts how things are without a fight.”
A tank, a man with a mission he simply had to see through, Bishop Muskens got away with it and did what he understood as the right thing. And he simply did it, without much words, as he was perfectly at ease with silence. Silence just because it’s silent.
The Requiem Mass and funeral will take place on 23 April in the Cathedral of St. Anthony in Breda. Bishop Muskens will be laid to rest in the family grave in his native Elshout.
Photo credit: R. Mangold