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“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.
“Then John’s disciples came to him and said, ‘Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?’
Jesus replied, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is still with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
The image of marriage is not unusual when Jesus speaks about Himself and those who follow Him. Here it is related to the practice of fasting, one of the essential things we do during Lent. From the question of John’s disciples we can gather that the followers of Jesus were the odd ones out: they were the only ones not fasting. This already shows us that being a follower of Jesus makes you stand out from the crowd. His ways are not necessarily the ways of the world.
Jesus’ reply to their question tells us that He takes up a very special place: He essentially says that He is the reason that His followers do not fast; the deciding factor in the question of whether or not we should fast and make ourselves ready and able to meet the Lord is He. By saying that His followers do not need to fast, since the bridegroom is with them, Jesus indicates that they are already face to face with the Lord. Once you’re there, there is little need to prepare.
Jesus is with them now, and that fact trumps all reasons for fasting, for preparation. But Jesus says something more. There will come a time when He will not be among them, and then His followers will fast. But why fast after what you were fasting for already happened? That’s pointless. But they will not be fasting after the fact. Jesus has another reason for them to fast: this encounter with God will not be the last. He will return, they will meet again, and that does require preparation.
The same is true for us. We too have met Jesus: in His Word, in the sacraments (especially in our Baptism and in the Eucharist), and in those around us. But we still need to fast, because we will come face to face with Jesus some day. He asks us to make that choice to meet Him. He asks us to allow us to be transformed by Him. Lent is the time in which we try and be open to that, to give Him the reins, so to speak.
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.
“He said, ‘The Son of man is destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death, and to be raised up on the third day.’
Then, speaking to all, he said, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, will save it. What benefit is it to anyone to win the whole world and forfeit or lose his very self?”
A rather gloomy prediction of the future we hear today in our reading of the Gospel. Jesus gives a clear image of what His immediate future will hold; an image of pain and suffering, but certainly also of hope. His ressurection on the third day would have reminded his audience of the prophecies regarding the Messiah, even if most did not yet realise that the Messiah was the one telling them this. The rejection that Jesus foretells is by the hand of “the elders and chief priests and scribes”, the very leaders of the religious establishment and community. These are usually the ones that are trusted to do what is right, but their future betrayal of the ultimate truth that is God shows how deeply the salvation the Messiah brings is needed. This is more than the personal sins of individuals, but extends into the very heart of civilisation. Christ’s sacrifice will bring healing to all of society, to its individual members and to the relationships that unite them.
Christ does not only speak about Himself here, but also about us. The decision to follow Him is a big one, and just like His sacrifice and salvation, it reaches down to the very roots of our humanity and society. We must renounce ourselves, which means that we mustachieve a balance between respecting and making use of what has been given to us by God as His creation, and denying what distracts us from Him and His desire to brings us to Him. In other words, do not put yourself first, but always look at yourself as a being created by and wished by God. We must look at ourselves with His eyes, not our own. That is why Jesus speaks about losing our life “for His sake”. Just losing our lives is a shameful waste without any merit. But losing our lives for Him (in other words: handing over our lives to Him) is essentially the opposite of losing it. God gave us life, and He did not do so by accident. He has given us our very self, which is far more than the mere fact of being alive. Life has a greater meaning than that.
We are asked to lose our lives for God, which means we acknowledge the fact that our life, or being, was not ours in the first place. God will not take it and then ignore us. He will accept our very being and lead it on the path to fulfillment, to reach our full potential. And that path is hard. Jesus is the first to go that path, to show us the way. His death and resurrection foreshadows what he asks us to do. To die for ourselves and be reborn in God.
Be careful not to parade your uprightness in public to attract attention; otherwise you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win human admiration. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
‘And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
‘When you are fasting, do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they go about looking unsightly to let people know they are fasting. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put scent on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.”
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
What better way to start the great season of Lent with some very direct instructions from the Lord Himself? In this passage, Jesus outlines the three main elements of Lent: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These three are interlinked, as each one bleeds into the others and makes the others more fruitful. That is why it is important that we do not just pick one or two to focus on during Lent.
The general tone of the Gospel passage above is one of modesty and secrecy. Jesus basically tells us not to show off. The reason for this is that we do not fast, pray or give alms for ourselves; we do it for God and our neighbour. The benefit of our actions is theirs. Once we do it for the benefit of our own public image and social standing, the result of Lent will be strictly negative: we become concerned only with ourselves and ignore those around us. We become islands, egotistical human beings who only act for our own benefit, no matter the cost for others.
Christ also links such behaviour directly to our “reward from our Father in heaven”. Prayer, almsgiving and fasting all have their reward in this passage. Jesus mentions it multiple times. He does not say what that reward will be, but we can gather from this that it is directly related to our actions.
Every action has a result or a consequence. When deciding to do something, we are often aware of that consequence, and the same goes for when we decide not to do something. This is a truth independent of our motivations. When we focus solely on ourselves, the consequence will be that we lose sight of others and become egotistical. When we focus on others and on God, the result will be that we grow in our relations with people and with God, and are able to flourish as human beings. We are, after all, not created as solitary creatures. From the very beginning, God created humans as beings in relation to all of Creation and ultimately in relation with each other and with Himself.
Our Lent must be secretive insofar that it must not become a goal in itself. If we make a show of how prayerful, how generous and how hungry we are, we are only seeking adoration for ourselves. Lent is a means to an end, and that end is what matters. God matters, our neighbour matters, and our relationship with both matters. God calls us to Him, and when we say yes to His invitation, we must prepare ourselves to meet Him. And that means striving for the holiness with which He created us in the beginning, a holiness which must not remain locked up in our hearts, but must be set free to create the links that will make all of Creation holy.
Art credit: “The prayer in secret”, by Alexandre Bida.
The Diocese of Trier has come with some sort of explanation for Bishop Stephan Ackermann’s confusing comments on the Church’s moral teaching, which I wrote about before. The response comes in a response to a long letter by Austrian student Victoria Fender (pictured). In it, she expresses her concern for Bishop Ackermann’s reasoning, stating that while reality is one thing, a bishop has a duty to share and promote the Church’s ideal of Christian marriage and sexuality, not give in to what society thinks it is today (and maybe something else altogether tomorrow). And, she adds, there is a very real desire among young people for this countercultural teaching, if only they heard about it.
Part of the response to Ms. Fender’s letter goes as follows:
As Ms. Fender writes, she is personally very enthused by the message of the Gospel and is generally respected for her witness of faith and life by her fellow students. One can only rejoice about that. The responses to the Synod survey have also clearly indicated that the great majority of Catholics shares the basic values of what the Church teaches about marriage and sexuality: lifelong fidelity, openness to the transmission of life, respect for one’s partner… But it also an undeniable truth that every person’s life needs a very personal development to come nearer and nearer to the goal of Christian truth. This way is not always linear.
All nice and true, but the fact that different people come to the truth in different ways does of course not mean that the truth is different for everyone. Marriage is still marriage. Human sexuality still has the same nature and purpose. The letter continues…
In his service a bishop is both teacher and pastor. In her letter, Ms. Fender herself referred to the words of Jesus about the Good Shepherd. For a bishop that means that he is also responsible for those who do not particularly live up to the ideals of Christian morality. Should he, like the Good Shepherd, also not go after the sheep that got lost, to show it, in the mercy of Christ, the way to full community? In his words, Pope Francis reminds us time and again not to discourage people, but to help them to discover the beauty of the faith, so that they can grow in that faith. Bishop Ackermann is committed to this task. In more than a few responses that have come to us in the last few days, this is perceived gratefully.
To me, this sounds like a classic mistake. Of course, bishops and priests (and all faithful) should do their best to find the lost sheep and bring them back to the herd. But we can’t do so by telling those sheep that they were right to get lost or purposely leaving the herd. We can’t change the truth in order to bring them back. Rather, we should show them ever more clearly the beauty of that truth, of the faith, not adapt it to what some think it should be. A bishop has the duty to shepherd and teach, but also to communicate the faith and make sure it is represented truthfully. By saying, as Bishop Ackermann did, that homosexuality is not intrinsically disordered, that contraception is not a problem because it is hard to understand, or that the indissolubility of marriage is no longer valid, he basically admits that the truth that the Church has been teaching for centuries is not set, that it can be changed according to the wishes of the people. That is not good shepherding, that is confirming people in their error, that is telling sheep to get lost and stay away because they think it is best for them.
A bishop should teach the truth, lead people to that truth and show the fullness and beauty of that truth. Even when it is difficult or when people need time to understand and achieve it. That last part is only human, and we should give people all the time and support they need. Telling them that it takes too long, so it must be wrong, is the road to disaster.
Someone pointed out to me that bishops are teachers, so we must let them teach. But what if we find problems with their teaching? Should we not ask for clarification, or even share our concerns. Ms. Fender did the best thing anyone can do. She sent a letter to the bishop, pointing out what she found hard to understand about what he taught. It is a shame that the response is quite unsatisfactory.
Earlier this week, representatives of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (the Curia dicastery for all religious orders and groups) visited the Netherlands for meetings with the religious superiors, the Conference of Dutch Religious and the bishops. The delegation consisted of the Congregation’s secretary Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo (pictured), and office manager Daniela Leggio.
Archbishop Rodríguez Carballo addressed the gather superiors of the Netherlands on Tuesday and appealed for a religious ‘refoundation’. He called for careful discernment of vocations, good Christian formation (with special attention for affectivity and sexuality), and a “creative loyalty”. What would the religious founders do hic et nunc? An answer to that question includes an appeal to radicality. The archbishop spoke of a threefold choice that needs to be made in regards to the aforementioned refoundation: the choice to put Christ at the heart of things, to discern between primary and secondary aspects of religious life, and a missionary existence.
The religious superiors also took the opportunity to ask questions. Dr. Leggio answered one of the questions, about the refoundation of religious life, with a counter-question: She said that everyone should ass him- or herself the question of what his or her duty in the here and now was. She said that many questions in the Netherlands revolved around rights: what is allowed and what isn’t? But those questions miss the mark: legal regulations are intended to give direction to life. Rules must be at the service of living the charism of all those various Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
On Wednesday the delegation met with a group of bishops and representatives of the Conference of Dutch Religious. Participating bishops were Frans Wiertz (Vice-President of the Bishops’ Conference and bishop of Roermond), Jan van Burgsteden (auxiliary bishop emeritus of Haarlem-Amsterdam), Jan Liesen (bishop of Breda), Theodorus Hoogenboom (auxiliary bishop of Utrecht) and Jan Hendriks (auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam). Bishop van Burgsteden, member of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, is the sole active religious member of the Bishops’ Conference, and holds the portfolios for Religious and Secular Institutes and New Movements. Bishop Hendriks writes that the bishops and the delegation discussed questions about the contacts between bishops and religious institutes.
And, in the margins of the meeting the Congregation also give permission for the establishment of new Benedictine convent in the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam. The convent of Mary, Temple of the Holy Spirit is a daughter house of the abbey of abbey of Sant’Angelo in Pontano, Italy, and has already been housing fourteen sisters since last May. The convent is located right next to the parish church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Aalsmeer. The formal canonical establishment of the convent will take place some time in the future, now that the road has been cleared by the Congregation’s permission.
In the countries around us the results of the Synod of Bishops questionnaire have been published and they show a worrying image. While the data differs slightly per country, the general trend seems to be that Catholic faithful in general do not agree with Catholic teaching about sexuality and gender. In Germany the bishops have said that the faithful considering same-sex marriage a matter of justice and equality. Celibacy for priests is equally considered outdated and should be abolished.
This points to a serious problem: the Church in these countries has not succeeded in communicating her teachings very well, and where it has, it has done so according to the stereotype of the Church who forbids everything. Catholic teaching about sexuality is rooted in a profound understanding of human nature, according to his being created by God who has created man with a purpose.
This teaching, founded in that of Jesus Christ and unchanged (if developed) since then, is one that often exists at direct angles with society. Society in the west teaches something radically different than the Church: sexuality is a commodity, gender is self made, free choice trumps all. In essence, it says that the human being is the sole interpreter of who he or she is or can be. The Church, on the other hand, teaches that the human being is called to something greater in all aspects of his being. God calls him to Himself and shows us the way in His Son. That means that we are not limited by what we think, feel or know ourselves, but also that we should take our nature seriously. And that latter part is where we struggle. With those around us who tell us something different, but also with ourselves.
It is certainly easy to go along with what society tells us about sexuality. It is easy, comforting, uplifting even to fight for the happiness of others in love and marriage. It is a measure of control and seeming self-knowledge to decide on our own sexuality and practices. But God tells us something different. He says that we are called to look beyond ourselves, to listen to what He tells us and how He created us.
And that is something that must be communicated well. Until now, it hasn’t. The keyword in this communication is love. We must communicate, teach, inform with love. The love of the Father for us, but also our love for our neighbours and for ourselves. That love can’t be withdrawn when we or others stumble or decide to go another path. We are, after all, people with free will. That is how God created us and that is what we must respect.
What sort of love must we show to others and ourselves? In essence it is the love of the Father, and the best analogy I can think of is the love of parents for their children. Parents want what is best for their children, even when the children disagree. The children know that their parents love them, even when they sometimes forbid them things or correct them. We must emulate that love when we share the teachings of the Church on these very personal and sensitive matters.
Don’t turn anyone away.
Be honest and open. People deserve no less.
Love the person, not their actions.
Condemn actions, not persons.
Lead by example.
People will still disagree when we do, of course. But we are called to share and spread the faith, and to do so fully. Faith without love is nothing.
The comments by Cardinal Eijk on the Council of Trent continue to cause a stir, chiefly in Protestant circles, but also among Catholics. Accusations that Trent was centuries ago and that times have changed are mostly heard, but these ignore that the cardinal was not speaking about current affairs. He spoke out of the assumption – which is the general Catholic one - that the dogmatic statements of a Council remain so, even as time passes. The implementation and even need of specific statements may change, and so there are texts which came out of Trent which are interesting, but no longer of much use beyond the theoretical study of them.
Cardinal Eijk spoke about the validity of – especially – the anathemas decreed at Trent, aimed at those who wilfully, freely and in full knowledge that they were doing so proclaimed untruths, even heresies, against the faith as taught by the Church. He also emphasised that people who today have a different image of God or understanding of the faith can’t be blamed for that: upbringing and tradition are not a reason to declare anyone cursed in the sight of God. That judgement, as the cardinal also said, lies with God anyway. The Church here on earth, however, can and should underline the faith she teaches and point out when someone is in error. That is what Trent did: she emphasised the truths of the faith and put an end to certain practices which were in contradiction to that, such as the trade in indulgences.
But that is not the level on which the debate is taking place. There is no discussion about the reason, mistakes or truths about what the Church teaches or what was decided and done at the Council of Trent. This was what Cardinal Eijk was talking about, but his critics focus on something else altogether: the tone.
Today the secretary of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, Arjan Plaisier, wrote an open letter to Cardinal Eijk asking him certain questions about his comments. Below are these questions, translated into English:
“Firstly: Is it in order to let tradition speak in such a way, outside the context of any ecumenical conversation or encounter? Does it fit in a time when much has taken place in the field of ecumenism, to make such a statement “about you, without you”? Isn’t this a denial of an ecumenical history which we have gone through together? Does this not block any further dialogue about fundamental faith topics which we can have, unilaterally or in the context of the Council of Churches?”
The progress of ecumenical relations does not take place in changing teachings or traditions (the latter word will have a rather different meaning for Catholics and Protestants anyway). Ecumenism is relational, a tool for increased understanding, not of abandoning truths. Whether the cardinal’s comments would block any further dialogue is not up to him. It is up to our ecumenical partners, who deserve to know what the Church teaches, in plain sight, not hidden under a blanket of “being nice to each other”. Sure, we should strive for cordial relations, but that can not be the final goal of ecumenism. It should be noted, in this context, that Cardinal Eijk has stated that he is fully behind ecumenism and agrees with Pope Francis on this topic.
The letter continues:
“Secondly: Do you have the opinion that the fundamental differences that exist between the Church of Rome and the Protestants, still need to be condemned in terms of “cursed” and “banned”?”
The cardinal never said anything of the kind. There are differences, and these must be addressed and named, but modern Protestants and the faith the proclaim are not addressed by Trent.
“Paul addressed that curse to the proclamation of a different Gospel, namely different than the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Crucified. Various dialogues between Rome and the Reformation have concluded that we recognise and acknowledge each other in this Gospel. That recognition has everything to do what the patient and honest efforts to better understand each other in this. Fundamental differences remain, especially concerning ecclesiology. But is it in order, especially in light of the recognition mentioned above, to speak about these differences in the language of “cursing”? How, by the way, is this related to the mutual recognition of the others Baptism?”
The fact is that the various Protestant churches have different teachings about certain matters related to the Gospel than the Catholic Church has. Does this mean that they follow a different Gospel? No, but there are differences. Acknowledging that both the Protestant churches and the Catholic Church follow Christ does not change anything about that. And once more, the anathemas of Trent, as the cardinal has said, do not automatically refer to modern Protestants and certainly not to persons. The Gospel text from St. Paul was not presented by Cardinal Eijk as a reason to curse anyone, but merely as a possible motivation for the work of the Council of Trent. What mutual recognition of Baptism has to do with that, is anyone’s guess. Recognising that the Church and the Protestant communities use the same valid means of Baptism is no reason to assume that they are the same in everything.
Secretary Plaisier invites Cardinal Eijk to discuss this further in a future meeting. Perhaps that would be a good opportunity to explain a few things. About Catholic tradition, the meaning of Councils, ecumenism, anathemas, identity and truth. This would be good, because the criticism has generally not yet transcended the level of emotion: it is not nice what the cardinal has said, so therefore we are hurt. That is an injustice to the cardinal and certainly also to the churches and faith of the critics themselves
Photo credit:  ANP