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Serious and solemn faces this morning in St. Peter’s Basilica – solemn for Mass and serious in the face of the duties lying ahead for the participants in the Synod, among them Cardinal Wim Eijk (sixth from the left, next to Italian Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco).
The actual discussions will start tomorrow, but as ever, the Synod really began at the source and the summit: Jesus Christ in the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist.
In his brief homily, Pope Francis reminded all present about what the Synod participants are to do (or, as the case may be, not do):
“We too, in the Synod of Bishops, are called to work for the Lord’s vineyard. Synod Assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent… They are meant to better nurture and tend the Lord’s vineyard, to help realize his dream, his loving plan for his people. In this case the Lord is asking us to care for the family, which has been from the beginning an integral part of his loving plan for humanity.
We are all sinners and can also be tempted to “take over” the vineyard, because of that greed which is always present in us human beings. God’s dream always clashes with the hypocrisy of some of his servants. We can “thwart” God’s dream if we fail to let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us that wisdom which surpasses knowledge, and enables us to work generously with authentic freedom and humble creativity.
My Synod brothers, to do a good job of nurturing and tending the vineyard, our hearts and our minds must be kept in Jesus Christ by “the peace of God which passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7). In this way our thoughts and plans will correspond to God’s dream: to form a holy people who are his own and produce the fruits of the kingdom of God (cf. Mt 21:43).”
In the time during and following Pentecost, the dioceses in Northwestern Europe generally get new priests, as seminarians are ordained during this time in which the Church remembers and celebrates the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the Apostles and His continuing work in the Church today.
The ordinations are spread out across the entire month of June, with the first batch having taken place last weekend. On 6 June, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck ordained Fathers Marius Schmitz (30) and Christoph Werecki (28) for the Diocese of Essen, and on Sunday the 7th the vast majority followed, with 5 new priests in Aachen, 4 in Berlin, 1 in Dresden-Meiβen, 1 in Erfurt, 3 in Hamburg, 2 in Münster, 2 in Osnabrück, 5 in Paderborn and also 5 in Würzburg. Additionally, 6 transitional deacons were ordained in München und Freising, as well as 2 permanent deacons in Trier.
On Monday the 9th, the first of a number of ordinations in the Netherlands took place, of Father Ton Jongstra in ‘s Hertogenbosch. He was ordained for the Focolare movement. On Saturday, 14 June, 2 new priests will be ordained for Haarlem-Amsterdam and 1 for Roermond. On the same day, in Würzburg, two Franciscan priests will be ordained. On 21 June, one priest will be ordained for Utrecht.
Lastly, on the 22nd, 2 new priests will be ordained for Mechelen-Brussels, one transitional deacon for Bruges on the 25th, and a final new priest for Ghent on the 29th
All in all, we’re looking at 41 new priests, 7 transitional deacons and 2 permanent deacons in the dioceses of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. The youngest priest is 25-year-old Fr. Johannes van Voorst tot Voorst, to be ordained for the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam; most senior is 63-year-old Fr. Joost Baneke, Archdiocese of Utrecht. The average age is 33 for the priests and 34 for the deacons.
Most new priests and deacons come from the dioceses for which they are ordained, but some have come from abroad. Fr. Alberto Gatto (Berlin) comes from Italy, Fr. Przemyslaw Kostorz (Dresdem-Meiβen) from Poland, Fr. Mario Agius (Haarlem-Amsterdam) from Malta, Fr. Jules Lawson (Hamburg) from Togo, Fr. Jiji Vattapparambil (Münster) from India, and Fr. Alejandro Vergara Herrera (Roermond) from Chile.
Below an overview of names, dates and the like of the latest influx of men who will administer that most necessary of services to the faithful: the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Diocese of Essen: Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck ordains Fathers Marius Schmitz (30) and Christoph Werecki (28).
Diocese of Aachen: Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff ordains Fathers Matthias Goldammer (27), David Grüntjens (26), Achim Köhler (40), Michael Marx (30) and Andreas Züll (38).
Archdiocese of Berlin: Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki ordains Fathers Alberto Gatto (40), Bernhard Holl (33), Johannes Rödiger (33) and Raphael Weichlein (31).
Diocese of Dresden- Meiβen: Bishop Heiner Koch ordains Father Przemyslaw Kostorz (27).
Diocese of Erfurt: Bishop Reinhard Hauke ordains Father Andreas Kruse (44).
Diocese of Fulda: Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen ordains Father Markus Agricola.
^Archdiocese of Hamburg: Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke ordains Fathers Heiko Kiehn (33), Roland Keiss (29) and Jules Lawson (47).
Archdiocese of München und Freising: Reinhard Cardinal Marx ordains transitional Deacons Alois Emslander (29), Johannes Kappauf (28), Manuel Kleinhans (30), Michael Maurer (28), Martin Reichert (26) and Simon Ruderer (30).
Diocese of Münster: Bishop Felix Genn ordains Fathers Jiji Vattapparambil (35) and Thomas Berger (38).
Diocese of Osnabrück: Bishop Franz-Josef Bode ordains Fathers Hermann Prinz (44) and Kruse Thevarajah (29).
Archdiocese of Paderborn: Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker ordains Fathers Christof Graf (28), Markus Hanke (41), Stefan Kendzorra (29), Tobias Kiene (28) and Raphael Steden (26).
Diocese of Trier: Bishop Stephan Ackermann ordains permanent Deacons Hans Georg Bach (59) and Michael Kremer (51).
Diocese of Würzburg: Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann ordains Fathers Andreas Hartung (31), Sebastian Krems (38), Paul Reder (42), Michael Schmitt (31) and Simon Schrott (29).
Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch/Focolare movement: Bishop Jan van Burgsteden ordains Father Ton Jongstra (56).
Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam: Bishop Jan Hendriks ordains Fathers Johannes van Voorst tot Voorst (25) and Mario Agius (31).
Diocese of Roermond: Bishop Frans Wiertz ordains Father Alejandro Vergara Herrera (34).
Diocese of Würzburg/ Franciscans: Bishop Firedhelm Hoffman ordains Fathers Martin Koch (33) and Konrad Schlattmann (28).
Archdiocese of Utrecht: Wim Cardinal Eijk ordains Father Joost Baneke (63).
Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels: Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard ordains Fathers Gaëtan Parein (37) and Denis Broers (54).
Diocese of Bruges: Bishop Jozef De Kesel ordains transitional Deacon Matthias Noë (24).
Diocese of Ghent: Bishop Luc Van Looy ordains Father Herbert Vandersmissen (32).
Photo credit:  ordinations in Aachen, Andreas Steindl,  new priests of Hamburg, K. Erbe
Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp wrote a message for the feast of Pentecost, discussing the seeming opposition between the Spirit and the institute of the Church. Of course, there is no opposition, but the Holy Spirit works in the Church and the Church needs to be continuously open to His workings. Not an easy task…
“The Pope and the Holy Spirit: do they get along? It seem a superfluous question. But much ink has been spent and battle has been done, but in and outside the Church, about that topic. For some the Holy Spirit is invisible where the Pope is. For others the Pope is invisible where the Holy Spirit is. Institute and charisma, durability and renewal, shepherding and prophecy: they are so easily put in opposition to one another. Yet the story of Pentecost begins in the house where the Apostles are. They are among the first to receive the Spirit for the mission that the Lord has entrusted to them.
I thought of Pentecost when I was in St. Peter’s Square for the canonisation of Pope John XXII and John Paul II. In his homily, Pope Francis said about these Popes that they “cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church in keeping with her pristine features, those features which the saints have given her throughout the centuries. Let us not forget that it is the saints who give direction and growth to the Church. In convening the Council, Saint John XXIII showed an exquisite openness to the Holy Spirit. He let himself be led and he was for the Church a pastor, a servant-leader [guida-guidata], guided by the Holy Spirit. This was his great service to the Church; for this reason I like to think of him as the the pope of openness to the Holy Spirit.”
This is the work of the Holy Spirit: to continuously reveal the original features of the Church. That is what Jesus promised His disciples, shortly before his departure: “the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you” (John 14:26). The memory of the Church and Christians is short, especially concerning the heart of the Gospel and the witness of Jesus. The Holy Spirit doe snot have an easy task in continuously reminding the Church of the word and example of Jesus. You have to be the Holy Spirit to not get sick of it!
During this time of Pentecost we pray for “openness to the Holy Spirit”. We ask that the Holy Spirit may renew our Church community, bring her closer to the times, reveal her original features. We pray for all those who carry responsibility in the Church community: that they, as shepherds, let themselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. And especially: we thank the Holy Spirit that He hasn’t given up our Church community, despite our short memory. Perhaps because of that the Holy Spirit is as light as air and as fire: to be able to get along with us!
+ Johan Bonny
Bishop of Antwerp”
As Germany’s youngest ordinary came into his own, he outlined the goals and direction of the Church in the Diocese of Passau. Bishop Stefan Oster was consecrated on Saturday by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, metropolitan of the province of which Passau is a part, and Bishop Wilhelm Schraml, the retired bishop of Passau, and Archbishop Alois Kothgasser, retired ordinary of Salzburg in Austria, who Bishop Oster succeeded as professor of dogmatics at Benediktbeuern Abbey. The passage below comes from the new bishop’s closing remarks, at the end of the Mass at Passau’s cathedral of St. Stephen.
“In these biographical notes, something is visible of what in my opinion is central to the direction of our Church in the future. In the first and foremost place it is about relationship. In the very first place a living, deep and supporting relationship with Christ. Be confident that that really exists, that it is not just a matter of thoughts and words, but that the encounter with the Lord really and concrete fulfills, supports, transforms and in the deepest sense of the word can save and sanctify a life.
This is the miracle: the encounter of Jesus with us already exists in all of us, most especially in all who are baptised. The Lord is already there in each and everyone one of us. And that is why we, as Church, are already a community of encounter and witness, even before we do something. But the Holy Spirit likes us to work with Him. That is why all of us, who already belong to Christ, are also called to put this encounter into practice, to deepen it and also to help one another to enter more deeply into this encounter and to open up to one another again – and so to bring our Church in Passau and everywhere else to love in His power. We are called to be witnesses to each other of the presence of Jesus in our lives: in word and action. Another assignment for the future is also that we really open one another up to make new spaces for encounter and communication of faith, in which we can honestly and openly ask, seek, worship God and also give witness. We need this space, because in it the sacraments can once again be new nourishment and a new wellspring for us. We need them because, for example, they allow us not to leave the central mystery of the Eucharist as a 45-minute visit to the Church behind us, but actually the source and summit of our Christian life, as the last Council tells us.
I am also convinced that we do not have to let ourselves be divided into camps, standing against one another in the end. Of course there are more conservative and more liberal Christians, but we must be careful not to become a cliché and a caricature for the other. So I want to invite us: let’s maintain the dialogue and share the way. Let’s not demonise each other, because the other is seemingly part of the other camp. Let’s trust each other, and acknowledge that the other is also honestly seeking God – and for exactly that reason considers certain things especially important.
In the liturgy booklet you have seen that my motto is: “The victory of truth is love”. We sometimes find in our Church that some insist perhaps too much on the truth, and then sometimes succumb to the temptation of thinking that honest compassion for the neighbour is secondary, only an option when everything is formally correct. And we also see the opposite, a great multiplicity of affection for the neighbour or even the demand for this gift, but with little concern for the truth, given the great variety of situations in life. Dear sisters and brothers, both lead to marginalisation: truth without love remains abstract and ultimately betrays the one who, as Truth, is at the same time Love personified. And the other way around: Love without truth often does not even deserve the name Love, because it ultimately leads to arbitrariness. The united middle road, truth lived as love and vice versa: Love which testifies of the truth, this middle road leads to victory and has a Christian name: holiness.
Of course, holiness is a very big word, but don’t you think that holiness has, in the first place, to do with your or mine ability? It’s not a sort of competition sport in prayer or spiritual exercises. Holiness grows in the hearts of all people who always open themselves anew to the love of God, who allow themselves to be really touched and transformed by it. Holiness grows in who honestly seek Jesus, love Him and let themselves be loved by Him. Holiness is then God’s will for all of us, not just for bishop or all so-called ‘professional’ Christians. It is rather that the bishop, the priest, the deacon and all men and women who are called to the service of the Church, also have this vocation, as they help others to discover ever deeper that they are also called to holiness, to the deepest belonging to Christ.
Dear sisters and brothers, everywhere where this mystery of holiness shines out anew in one or more people, there the Church begins to grow anew, there people are being touched by a presence,which works more than a mere assembly of people could. There people are attracted and meaningful, encouraging, yes, life-changing encounter with the Lord take place. And then a prophecy is fulfilled, which the Prophet Zechariah spoke in the Old Testament, before the Messianic era (Zech. 8:23): “In those days,” we read there, “In those days, ten men from nations of every language will take a Jew by the sleeve and say: We want to go with you, since we have learnt that God is with you.” We, the Church of Passau and of course also beyond, we are these Jews. For we live in the time in which the Messiah, the lion of Judah, has already been seen, is already known. We are people who are related to Him, who carry His name. Let us then learn anew to know and love one another, so that the people also come to us and say, “We want to go with you, since we have learnt that God is with you.””
Below is the full text of the homily that Pietro Cardinal Parolin gave yesterday at the consecration of Archbishop Bert van Megen, in the cathedral of Roermond. He gave his homily in English, but since there is no video of this that I could find, I have translated the text from the Dutch translation back to English. Here’s hoping the general intention of it remained intact.
“Your Excellencies, honoured guests, dear Monsignor Bert and family, dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
It’s a special joy to me to preside over the consecration of Monsignor Hubertus van Megen, who has been named by our Holy Father as titular archbishop of Novaliciana and to Apostolic Nuncio of Sudan. On the occasion of this joyful event, Pope Francis asked me to share his heartfelt greetings as well as his communion with all present here. It is a time of great joy for all of us who have come together here in this cathedral today, but for you, dear Monsignor Bert, it is a time of gratitude for all the blessing which God has granted you over the years. Today you are surrounded by your parents and family, your friends and your brothers, the priests of this local Church of Roermond. This Church first raised you in the faith, you were ordained a priest for here and here you spent the first years of your priestly ministry. You also bring to the joy of this day the years of studying in Rome and your considerable experience in the diplomatic service of the Holy See, most recently in Zambia and Malawi. You are now called to return all of this to God and serve Him and new way and with greater responsibility. Today you will be consecrated to be a successor of the Apostles, a herald of the Gospel and a shepherd of Christ’s flock, with the special duty of representing the vicar of Christ in his concern for the Church in the entire world, yes, in his care for the entire human family.
The rich symbolism of the rite of consecration eloquently speaks of the continuity of the Church’s faith and life throughout the centuries. Through the imposition of hands and the invoking of the Holy Spirit you will be welcomed to the College of Bishops. This college succeeds in all ages the Apostle to whom the Lord Jesus entrusted the care of His flock. So you, Monsignor Bert, will become a link in a living chain which goes back uninterrupted to Jesus Himself, and will continue to the end of times, according to His promise. It will be your duty to preach the Gospel of salvation integrally, to take care of strengthening the Church community in faith and, by the celebration of the sacraments, to work for the distribution of the Kingdom of Christ in truth and life, holiness and mercy, love and peace.
“Do you love me?”, “Feed my lambs”; “Look after my sheep” (Joh. 21:15-17). Jesus’ words to the Apostle Peter in today’s Gospel are especially applicable to someone who, like Monsignor van Megen, is called to be both bishop and Papal Nuncio. These words remind us that the task of the bishop, his ministry, must first and foremost be based on his personal love for Jesus Christ and his personal relationship with the Good Shepherd. Every day Jesus asks the bishops again, “Do you love me?” In essence this questions is of course also directed to every Christian; each one of us is called to know and love the Lord. During this time of Easter we have contemplated how every one of has died in Baptism and risen to a new life in Christ, how we received the gift of His Holy Spirit and a call to share in the mission of the Church.
But the Lord’s question – “Do you love me?” – is directed in a special way to those who are also called to shepherd His flock with apostolic authority. It is meaningful that the new bishop receives the ring during the rite of consecration, the symbol of His unconditional love for the Lord and His Church, before receiving the crosier, the symbol of his pastoral authority. Pope Francis reminded us that it is the shepherd’s task to go before the flock as its guide, but also to walk with the flock as a disciple, to listen to its voice and sense where the Holy Spirit, the source of every gift and mission, wants to lead it. “For you I a a shepherd,” Saint Augustine said, “but with you I a a Christian” (Serm. 340:1). To be a loyal shepherd requires those virtues that Saint Paul presents in the first reading today: integrity following from a personal conversion, honest and frank witness to the truth and self-sacrifice in service to all, faithful and non-faithful (cf 2 Kor. 4:1-2;5-7).
If all this is true for every bishop, it is all the more true for the bishop who is also a Nuncio, a personal representative of the Successor of Peter, the rock on whom the Lord built His Church (cf. Matt. 16:18). As a concrete sign of the communion of the local Churches with the Holy See in Rome, the ministry of the Apostolic Nuncio is exercised in a manifestly universal sense: in service to the mission of the Church, he is called to promote the unity in mind and heart of the bishops with the Pope, to confirm his brothers in loyalty to the Gospel and the mission of the Church and to foster a spirit of authentic ecclesiastical community in every aspect of the life of the local Churches. He is also called to everywhere encourage those seeds of justice and peace, which are the leaven of God’s Kingdom. For as we know, the Church is the sign and sacrament of a new mankind, reconciled and renewed in Christ.
Dear Monsignor Bert, in the exercise of your own episcopal ministry you are sent as a representative of the Holy Father to Sudan, a country that is dear to him, a country that has suffered greatly in recent years from violence and civil unrest. In unity with the bishops of that country, you will be called to proclaim, in word and example, a Gospel of reconciliation, forgiveness and mercy. In a special way you will also be called to support the Christian community in Sudan, a small flock which nonetheless is very dear to God. Confirm the in their faith and in their loyalty to the great commandment of loving God and the neighbour. In this way you will perform your mission which you receive today: by making, “as a servant for Jesus’ sake”, the glory of God visible as it is revealed in the crucified and risen Lord (cf. 2 Kor. 4:5-7), and by encouraging your brothers and sisters to trust in His victory over the powers of sin and death.
Now that you are preparing for your consecration and your new responsibilities, know that you can count on the mercy that this sacrament hold, on the confidence and prayers of the Holy Father and on our own prayer, friendship and support. We commend you and your ministry to the protection of Saint Josephine Bakhita, a great daughter of Sudan and an excellent witness to the power of God’s mercy to redeem and transform even the most difficult situations. May the Risen Lord always support you in His love and bear rich fruits from the ministry that is about to be entrusted to you. Amen.”
All photos: Bisdom Roermond
An example of the 140,000 prayer cards that the Diocese of Roermond is printing and distributing for the canonisation of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. While various parishes, especially named for one of the two new saints, will mark the occasion, there is no Church province-wide celebration of next Sunday’s unique event. Whereas the canonisations will be shown in a number of cinemas in neighbouring countries, no Dutch cinema chain has been approached to do so. The general impression among the bishops seems to be that there is little interest among Dutch Catholics. To which I have to wonder: if there is nothing being organised, how can interest be measured…
Anyway, the event will at least be broadcast live on television and via livestream in the Netherlands, and both the state and Church have sent representatives to Rome. The secretary of foreign affairs, Mr. Frans Timmermans will be there on behalf of the government, while the bishops have delegated Bishop Everard de Jong. Some feigned indignation was presented about Cardinal Eijk not going because of other obligations, but that has turned out to be a non-issue in the media. The Cardinal did send out the following letter to the parishes of the Archdiocese of Utrecht:
“On this Second Sunday of Easter Pope Francis will canonise two of his predecessors: the Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. Two new saints who are in addition well-known persons for many faithful of today: in this case, it makes the example of saints especially powerful. The 27th of April of this year is therefore all the more a joyful day for the entire Catholic Church.
The Italian Pope John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli) was Pope from 1958 to 1963. A period of only five years, but in that time he was able to do an achieve much. For example, he announced, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Second Vatican Council, which took place from 1962 to 1965. With it, he tried to bring the Church ‘up to date’ under the famous motto of aggiornamento. As Church, we still gratefully reap the fruits of this Council. In 2012, for example, we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of this Council in the Dutch Church.
John XXII’s nickname was ‘the good Pope’, in part because of his warm personality, his evangelical humility and his great sense of humour. Many faithful still remember him fondly, but others do so as well, because he appealed “to all people of good will.”. He managed to win over many people, even important Communists at the height of the Cold War. His Encyclical Pacem in Terris – published less than two months before his death – is considered to be his most important; in it he explains that peace on earth must be rooted in truth, justice, love and freedom.
The Polish Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) was Pope from 1978 to 2005. He became most known for being a great evangeliser: he travelled tirelessly across the globe to proclaim the Gospel and in 1984 he was the founder of the World Youth Days, which gather millions of young people to celebrate the faith.
His pontificate contributed to a large extent to the fall of Communist rule in the former eastern bloc, including his native Poland. He became increasingly ill in his final year, but continued holding the office of Peter. That he remained in office despite his debilitating illness and was not afraid to appear in public, is a witness to the inviolable dignity of man, which remains under all circumstances, and he so encouraged many people suffering from disease and physical handicaps. Until the end his help and support was the Blessed Virgin Mary, for whom Pope John Paul II cherished a livelong devotion. During his funerals pilgrims asked for his immediate canonisation with the cry of “Santo Subito!” – and less than ten years later that time has come.
Hopefully Pope John XIII and John Paul II can be a source of inspiration and encouragement in faith and life to even more people because of their canonisation.
Hopefully they can continue to contribute to an increasing unity of all Christians and all humanity by their words and deeds during their earthly life and also by their prayer now in heaven.
On this Second Sunday of Easter (also declared by Pope John Paul II in 2000 as Divine Mercy Sunday) united in prayer with the many pilgrims who have travelled to Rome – also from the Netherlands – for this double canonisation. We may have faith in the intercession of these two new saints, also and especially for a blessed future for the Church in our country and our entire world.”
In the meantime, in Rome, the logistics are impressive, as Vatican Radio reports. With hundreds of busses and dozens of chartered airplanes coming in from Poland alone, 2,500 volunteers are working to provide the thousands of pilgrims with four million free bottles of water, 150,000 liturgy booklets and 1,000 portable toilets. Seventeen video screens throughout the city will allow most visitors – who will be gathered from St. Peter’s Square all the way to the banks of the River Tiber – to follow the canonisation.
And one of them will be the Pope emeritus, as was confirmed today. So, two Popes being canonised by another Pope, while a fourth Pope is in attendance. Certainly, one for the history books.
A short personal note from Bishop Antoon Hurkmans of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, in which he encourages us to seek “open encounters” with people, especially those outside the Church.
In a few days Holy Week begins. A “holy time” during which I am happy to meet you through this short letter. I wish you a week full of bountiful mercy and a Blessed Easter.
Allow me to accompany my Easter wishes with a thought.
Personally, my experience is that open encounters are live-giving. You, as priest, deacon, pastoral worker, pastoral assistant, as faithful, as man and woman, are called to encounter one another. Pope Francis ask to find opportunities to encounter people ‘on the periphery’ in Church and society. Our work is often about many official meetings and about organisation. That is hard. For that reason it would be good for us to regularly seek an open encounter with someone. To give concrete expression to our being faithful.
An open encounter
Simplicity, humility, openness. These are important requirements for an open encounter. Give the other first place. To be there for the other. To listen to the other. To very much leave the other free. This places a major demand to the person seeking such an encounter. To not immediately come to the other with a message or with plans. Meet the other from the starting point of prayer. It gives depth. Remain in God. Remain in love. So prepared, go to the other and the rest will follow. The man or woman across from you will often be the first to speak about disappointment, about pain pressing on the heart. He or she will speak about “the others” who make so many mistakes. Sometimes that is all. But you can often hear the hope that lives in the heart. When you can listen deeply, you also hear the desire for repairing broken threads of life.
People who experience that they can be at home with us, will feel that there is room for their life history. When they in turn – who knows when – meet us in Church, they will be able to open up to God who waits for them. They can then experience that they can be a child of God. That God is a merciful Father. That Jesus gives His life on the Cross out of love for all people. To repair the broken threads of life. That the Holy Spirit has lived in them since their Baptism and Confirmation. That Jesus strengthens them at the altar. They will, when the time is there, begin to surmise that God is indeed as great that He made His Son rise from the dead. Step by step, they will open up to the Resurrection and to life after death.
In our time it is more than ever necessary that we present the faith to our fellow men and women with simplicity, humility, along the road of open encounters. By living it ourselves and making witness of it.
I sincerely wish for you to be able to give priority, amid all the work, to open encounters. It will do you good.
I warmly wish you all a Blessed Easter.”
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the desert to be put to the test by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was hungry, and the tester came and said to him, ‘If you are Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves.’
But he replied, ‘Scripture says: Human beings live not on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
The devil then took him to the holy city and set him on the parapet of the Temple. ‘If you are Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down; for scripture says: He has given his angels orders about you, and they will carry you in their arms in case you trip over a stone.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Scripture also says: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’
Next, taking him to a very high mountain, the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. And he said to him, ‘I will give you all these, if you fall at my feet and do me homage.’
Then Jesus replied, ‘Away with you, Satan! For scripture says: The Lord your God is the one to whom you must do homage, him alone you must serve.’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels appeared and looked after him.”
It is striking to see how factually the Evangelist presents what are some very frightening and supernatural realities. The way in which the devil appears in this text, not to mention Jesus’ curt and sober responses to him, reflect our own reality, even though we often turn a blind eye to it. The devil is real, and he is out to tempt us with power and control, all in return for one small action: falling at his feet and worshipping him. What’s the harm if we look at all we get in return? Surely worship is harmless enough if we are better off for it?
Exactly how ‘harmless’ such a thing is, we learn if we look at Jesus’ responses. 1: There is far more to ourselves than what the devil offers us. Instead of satisfying our physical hunger, we need more than that to live. 2: Trust in God is absolute. 3: Only God is worthy of our homage, and that worthiness is absolute.
Also of interest is the situation in which Christ confronts the Tempter. After a 40-day fast, hungry and alone. Fasting removes those things from our lives which block us from God. We are thrown back on the essentials, on our true self, so to speak. The upside of this is that there is very little left between ourselves and God, but the same goes – and this is a definitive downside – for us and the evil one. We drop our defenses to speed up the connection, one might say, but we must always be aware of exactly what or Who we connect to. In order to that we need what Christ hands us in this Gospel passage: an awareness of what we need to live, trust in God and knowledge of Him, so that we know that we should worship Him alone.
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.
Cardinal Eijk just can’t win. In an interview for the Reformatorisch Dagblad, which was published yesterday, he explained that the Council of Trent is still current. The statements of that Council, which aimed to put an end to certain practices which had caused the Reformation, but also wanted to emphasise the content of the faith and the consequences thereof in daily life for those who professed it, has not been scrapped in any way in the centuries after. What was said there still goes.
Protestant faith leaders in the Netherlands are none too happy with the cardinal’s clear and open explanation. The chair of the Protestant National Synod claimed that Cardinal Eijk “would give the faithful a burn-out some day”. “The claim that the church is always right is not in line with the Bible”, Gerrit de Fijter said. Well, that’s right, if you have a Protestant understanding of what a church is. The Catholic definition of the Church, the body of Christ which enjoys the promised inspiration of the Holy Spirit, can make certain dogmatic statements (which is not the same as saying she’s always right…). Former head of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, Bas Plaisier (who himself is not too concerned with ecumenical respect for other churches) “does not understand what the cardinal is doing”, calling the statements “formal and hard”. Even Catholic professor Marcel Poorthuis had his reservations. While agreeing that Cardinal Eijk is correct in his statements about the Council and the heresies it addresses, he puts Pope emeritus Benedict XVI opposite to the cardinal, referring to the retired Pope’s statement that Martin Luther was a man of the Church. He even goes so far as to say that he expects Luther to be rehabilitated by the Church.
Cardinal Eijk called the Council of Trent a sign of the Catholic Church’s “capacity to purify herself” from errors and sinful practices. Examples of these are “the trade in offices, the unbiblical understanding of the priesthood en the lack of discipline in monasteries. In that regard, Trent has put things in order. The Council has also been very fruitful. When all the decrees had been implemented this led to a restoration of order in the Church.” The Council also delineated certain truths of the faith, which are still unchanged and valid.
The cardinal relates the anathemas that the Council issued to the Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians, which says, “Anyone who preaches to you a gospel other than the one you were first given is to be under God’s curse” (1:9). “If someone does not share the faith of the Church in the Eucharist,” the cardinal explained, “he can’t receive it either. This curse or anathema essentially means you are blocked from receiving the sacraments, and in that sense it is still applicable.” But, the cardinal continues, these anathemas apply to people who refuse the truths of the Church “in full knowledge, aware of the truth and with free will”. “In a way that is a theoretical question. There are many people who have an incorrect image of the Catholic Church because they were raised that way, or they have another idea of God. You can not directly blame someone for that. You can therefore not understand the anathemas of Trent as being eternally damning for someone. God is the judge; you can and may not make that judgement as a human being.”
A clear explanation of what the Council taught about those who do not adhere to what they know to be the truth of the faith. Does this mean, as the critics I mentioned and quoted above assume, that modern Protestants are damned by the Catholic Church? No, it does not, because to be damned you must know and be aware that the Catholic Church teaches the truth and decide freely to not follow that truth. Clearly, that is not what most Protestants do: they do not believe that the Catholic Church teaches truth. If they did, why remain Protestant? Are they damned by the Council? No. Can they receive all the sacraments? Also no, but for different reason: the sacraments are also a profession of faith and an expression of the desire to belong to the community of faithful that is Christ’s Body. If you don’t share that faith, well…
Yes, all this may not be nice to hear, but it is certainly worthy of being taken seriously and read carefully before being commented on. But, seeing the cardinal as the big bully is perhaps the easier and more comfortable way…
In ecumenical relations with other church communities there is one thing that must always be at the centre: the truth. The truth that the Church, or any other community, claims, must not be hidden for the sake of “being nice to each other”. Cardinal Eijk’s explanation is not a nice one, but it is true. It is what the Catholic Church continues to profess and uphold as truth. Ecumenism is a good thing, but it can never be a reason to ignore who we are and what we hod to be true.