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Bishop Joannes Gijsen, who passed away at the age of 80 today, has left a mark on the Church in the Netherlands. Virtually all elements of his service led to comments, criticism, questions and, also, admiration and support. From his appointment in 1972 to his sudden retirement in 1993, his troubled time as ordinary of Roermond and his efforts to maintain a form of Catholic education in the Netherlands, his surprise appointment to Reykjavik and the comparisons between life there and back home (which often saw the Dutch situation in a bad light); Bishop Gijsen made his share of ripples in the pond of the Church.
But in the very first place, Bishop Gijsen must be understood as a man of faith, Asked if he ever experienced any doubt about his faith, he said in an interview in 2007: “True doubt? No, never! I am convinced that the Roman Catholic faith holds the fullness of all knowledge of God and man.”
He lived his life as a bishop that way, as he illustrated in that same interview:
“We’re all priests of the Catholic Church, and especially a bishop has responsibility for the entire Church. You must be able to be deployed anywhere. Of course, it is something else if you can’t because of health or something. But if you’re healthy, you can never say “no”.”
“If, somewhere in northern Iceland, there are a few Catholics who are interested in the Catholic faith, you must be able to offer it to them. Our Lord didn’t say: I want to convert the entire world in one go. He went to backward little Palestine and walked around there for three years, if not less. He reached only a few people. But that nonetheless became the foundation of the faith that reached the entire world.”
Joannes Baptist Matthijs Gijsen was born on 7 October 1937 in Oeffelt, a village in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, just on the border with the Diocese of Roermond. He was ordained for that latter diocese in 1957, by Bishop Joseph Lemmens. Although he spent some time in the parish, he was mainly a teacher at the seminaries in Kerkrade and Maastricht, and a student of theology and Church history in Münster and Bonn. In 1972, he was appointed as the 22nd bishop of Roermond, a move that was quite controversial, as the new bishop was known as conservative and his appointment as one imposed from Rome. Reflecting the latter, Bishop Gijsen was consecrated by Pope Paul VI in Rome, with the archbishops of Utrecht and Armagh serving as co-consecrators. Cardinal Alfrink, the archbishop of Utrecht, would have preferred a consecration in Roermond as a first step towards reconciliation, but was evidently overruled. Bishop Gijsen was installed at St. Christopher’s Cathedral in Roermond on 4 March 1972.
As bishop, he modernised the diocese in the line of the Second Vatican Council,determined as he was to put the Council’s documents into practice. In that sense, Bishop Gijsen was not so much a man of the “spirit of Vatican II”, but of the true Council. As a former teacher himself, he worked to maintain some form of true Catholic education in his diocese, with mixed results.
Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary of Haarlem-Amsterdam, today describes Bishop Gijsen as follows:
“He was a bishop with a vision, not conservative in the sense that he wanted to return to the time before the Second Vatican Council. On the contrary, with heart and soul he wanted to be a bishop who stood in and for that council and wanted to put it into practice. He wanted to be loyal to the Pope and the Church. He wanted “to prepare the way for the Lord”, as his motto was. That moved him, among others, to start a seminary at Rolduc, which has formed some 175 priests, including five of today’s bishops (among them Msgr. J. Punt and myself). As Pope Paul VI hoped and expressed, that little plant has borne fruit for the entire country.”
Above: Bishop Gijsen, third from left, pictured with Bishops Punt (second from right) and Hendriks (far right) and several other priests educated at Rolduc, photographed in May of this year.
In January of 1993, Bishop Gijsen suddenly and unexpectedly retired as bishop of Roermond. He moved to Austria to become the rector of a convent. Although rumours abounded about the reasons, the bishop would later explain:
“I have never had Crohn’s Disease, and I have always enjoyed the support of the Vatican. I can deny rumours of that nature without a doubt. I left because the doctor told me: “If you stay for one more year, you’ll either have a stomach perforation or an intestinal disease from which you will not recover, or you’ll have an aneurysm or a stroke. There is no way you’ll be able to keep this up. You must stop now!” That was the reason why I quit so suddenly. It was sudden for me as well. Agreed, the danger of a collapse was also caused by the developments and the experiences of those twenty years [as bishop in Roermond]. But it was mostly exhaustion.”
Three years of recovery followed, after which Bishop Gijsen relayed his renewed availability to Rome. At that time, the Diocese of Reykjavik in Iceland had been vacant for more than two years, so Bishop Gijsen was sent to the see where his great uncle Bishop Meulenberg had served in the 1930s. He was initially sent to be Apostolic Administrator, but in 1996 he was appointment as diocesan bishop.
Where Roermond represented a time of struggle and management, Reykjavik was by far the more enjoyable of Bishop Gijsen’s appointments. In 2006, he spoke in an interview about his appreciation for the country and the Icelandic people:
“I encountered much understanding. Seen from Rome, Iceland, land of the Vikings, seems a barren and terrifying place. But it most certainly is not. Consider, for one, the weather: here in the city, in the shadow of the mountains, the temperature rarely drops below -5°C. [...] From the very start I liked it here. I am very pleased with this place. Life at 66 degrees north is not that different from life in he Netherlands, at 53 degrees. But life is much more organised.”
In 2007, Bishop Gijsen returned home to the Diocese of Roermond and to his family. He moved in with one of his sisters in Sittard, and took on the pastoral care of a small convent. He shunned the media since then, devoting himself, no doubt, to his books and whoever came for a visit.
Looking back on his own life, something he was not too keen to do, Bishop Gijsen said, in the same 2007 interview quoted above:
“I have always tried to simply think along the same line as the Church. I have mainly tried to act on the basis of the Second Vatican Council, because that was our duty, especially for a bishop. I have done so with my abilities and with my inabilities and with the abilities of the people around me, and with their inabilities. We shouldn’t want to judge the result of that this soon. I think we should wait a while. I think you should never want to be your own judge, so I am not going to judge my own life; I’ll leave that to history.”
Today, many priests and bishops have been influenced in one way or another by Bishop Gijsen. As Bishop Hendriks said above, some 175 priests were educated at the seminary he started, but Bishop Gijsen also ordained and consecrated several bishops. In 1983, he ordained the future bishop Everard de Jong, and in 1985, the future Cardinal Wim Eijk. He also consecrated his own auxiliary bishops, Alphons Castermans in 1982, and Joannes ter Schure in 1984. The latter would become bishop of the neighbouring Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch almost exactly two months later.
Of course, Bishop Gijsen suffered his share of criticism, and he was not afraid to offer it himself. Shortly before his appointment as bishop of Roermond, he accused the Dutch bishops of having “set the faithful adrift” following the disastrous pastoral council of Noordwijkerhout. He went his own way, and this in part was reason for Blessed Pope John Paul II to call a Special Synod on the Netherlands in 1980.
^Bishop Gijsen, right, with Pope John Paul II, during the latter’s visit to the Netherlands in 1985.
Most serious in his later years were several accusations that surfaced regarding sexual abuse, both in Roermond and in Reykjavik. While no accusations were deemed inadmissible in court, they do point towards serious mismanagement on the part of Bishop Gijsen.
Bishop Joannes Gijsen was not perfect. He had his flaws, but he was driven by an honest desire to be of service and to do what was needed. For that, especially during the 1970s and 80s, we should laud him.
The funeral is planned for 29 June, at 10:30 in the morning, from St. Christopher’s Cathedral in Roermond. On the eve of the funeral, there will be a vigil Mass for the late bishop at the Carmelite convent chapel in Sittard.
Photo credit:  Bisdom Roermond,  arsacal.nl,  Dagblad De Limburger
On the Italian Zenit today, an interview with Ad Cardinal Simonis, emeritus Archbishop of Utrecht, on the post-conciliar period in the Netherlands. The title, In Olanda c’è stata una sbagliata interpretazione del Concilio (‘In Holland there was a wrong interpretation of the Council’) leaves little doubt about the gist of the interview.
Once the voice of orthodoxy at the pastoral council of Noordwijkerhout, the cardinal now looks back and summarises what went wrong:
“Yes, it’s true: there has been a wrong interpretation of the Council. Not reading the documents, but merely arguing, based on the so-called “spirit of the Council”, that is: anything goes, everything can change.”
Cardinal Simonis, who studied in Rome during the years of the Second Vatican Council, offers a misleadingly simple solution: “Catechesis, catechesis, catechesis,” especially for the youth. That is a sentiment that the bishops today share, but which has yet to reach anything approaching its full potential.
It is a bleak but accurate picture the cardinal paints: the Dutch, Catholics included, generally do not know the concept of sin, hence the virtual disappearance of the sacrament of Confession over the course of the recent decades. The cardinal’s message to Dutch seminarians is an urgent one:
“I tell them that they should first learn to think and reflect. And then to pray, pray, pray. Prayer is important, and it must be the foundation of human life, but in Holland we do not pray because we do not believe in a personal God but only in a vague entity.”
The cardinal concludes the interview with a reflection on his 27 years as cardinal, in which he tried to maintain “the spirit of service to the Church and the Lord”.
“I tried to live in this spirit as a cardinal for 27 years. Now I’m an old cardinal, I turned 80 and I can not elect the Pope, but I can still be elected! (Bursts into laughter) But do not worry, that will not happen!”
I think the cardinal is pretty realistic, but that does not mean there are no signs of hope. There are, but these must be cared for and cultivated. A first step towards that is indicated by the following quote from the interview:
“The truth is that in the Netherlands we need a total conversion.”
Having just watched the press conference about the final report of the Deetman committee, I am letting the words and number sink in. I took some notes as Mr. Deetman elaborated on the conclusions of the 18-month investigation, and I will use those to compose this blog post. For readers who want a more thorough explanation: you can download a summary in English here. The complete report, consisting of two hefty books, can be purchased from the publisher or in bookstores.
The title of this post can be considered the main conclusion that the committee drew, the question of “what has happened in society that led to such outbursts of violence?” Said violence included the sexual abuse in Catholic institutions, but also much more beyond. That, I believe, is the question that society should ask itself, and which this report can hopefully help in finding a solution for.
Anyway, on the points of the conclusion which I jotted down:
Mr. Deetman started by expressing his surprise at finding that the structure of the Church was and is fragmented, despite impressions. Bishop, dioceses, orders and superiors often acted alone, keeping problems to themselves and trying to find solutions internally. The capacity to solve said problems was small or non-existent. The bishops had the topic of sexual abuse on the agenda since the late 1940s, but efforts to find solutions ceased at the onset of the Second Vatican Council and certainly at the Pastoral Council. Many other things that needed answers led to the abuse question being buried and forgotten. Only in the 1980s, when women’s movements drew attention to the abuse of women, did the sexual abuse of minors return to the agenda of the bishops. This led to the creation of the Hulp & Recht agency, the first in the world of its kind.
The issue of cultural silence, the statement that people simply did not know, can not be upheld. People, including the Catholic laity, did know, but didn’t act on it, and when they did, the focus was on the perpetrators. Mr. Deetman explains that this was fed by canon law, which as an internal legal body is focused on the the identity and behaviour of those within the Church. Victims were left out in the cold for various reasons, including the fact that talking about sexuality was a taboo and the concept of a person with authority committing such things was, frankly, not believed.
Returning to the aforementioned pastoral council, this gave the impression that the Church’s teaching about celibacy would change soon. All the priests contacted by the Deetman committee, who became priests in this time, said they did so with the expectation that they would soon not be required to live celibate anymore.
Of a survey among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the committee drew the following conclusions, although it stresses that the numbers should be treated extremely careful and that the margins are intentionally large.
- 1 in every 10 Dutch people aged 40 and older (which is 9.7% of the population) has been at one time sexually approached by someone from outside the family before they were 18.
- This number is slightly higher among Catholics, but that is not because of the religion. Cultural, social, economic and other factors also play a part.
- The chance of sexual harassment is twice as high within confined relationships of authority, such as schools and daycare centres. This, again, is not limited to Catholic institutions, but also occurs elsewhere.
- 1 in every 2 to 300 people have some experience with sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, in our outside specific institutions. The chance of such is higher in boarding schools. The reason: Failed supervision.
- The total number of abused people, who were minors at the time and spent at least a part of their youth in boarding schools, is 10 to 20,000. In total, the number is in the several tens of thousands. The abuse has a wide range, from mild and without physical contact to involving penetration. The severity and the consequences are therefore equally divergent. There were about 1,000 serious cases within boarding schools, and several thousand outside it.
The question of whether celibacy plays a role in whether or not a man is likely to abuse a minor can be answered with a no. There is no evidence that celibacy leads to abuse. But Deetman stressed there that this is not a fact. The committee has simply been unable to find evidence for it, which does not mean it does not exist. Despite that, there have been several cases of sexuality out of need. If celibacy had been voluntary, a number of cases would not have happened.
And then, the final question: and now?
The work of the committee, Deetman said, was to a certain extent sad and frustrating, since it deals with an incomplete past which we can do nothing about. We can’t change the facts.
As for practical measures to prevent such horrible crimes happening again, the committee advised the bishops and the religious conference to appoint a single portfolio holder for the abuse question: a person who can keep an eye on things and be a recognisable go-to person and coordinator of the Church’s response to future developments. Archbishop Eijk has assured Mr. Deetman that there will a group of four people, including at least one bishop, to hold that portfolio.
One of the things this group will need to focus on is the continuing contact with victims. In the past, there have been meetings between bishops or superiors and victims from which the victims came back severely disappointed, while the bishop or superior thought it was a good conversation. Compensation, help, a listening ear and conversation, this is what is needed in the future. Human relations need to be restored, which include understanding and listening.
Later today, as I wrote in the previous post, the bishops and the religious conference will offer a reaction to all of the above.
Photo credit:  Antoin Peeters,  NRC/screenshot NOS
Four-and-a-half years into his retirement as Archbishop of Utrecht, Adrianus Johannes Cardinal Simonis – Ad in conversation – reaches another milestone today: his 80th birthday. A respectable age for anyone, of course, as the Psalmist acknowledges: “The span of our life is seventy years — eighty for those who are strong” (90:10a), but for a cardinal it is something of a further step back from the intricacies of the Curia, locally and in Rome. Upon reaching his 80th birthday, a cardinal can no longer vote in a conclave, to elect a new pope.
Luckily, it would seem that Pope Benedict XVI is still in reasonably good health for a man his age (even if the rumours of his suffering arthritis in his legs are true), so a conclave is still in the semi-distant future. I would be surprised, therefore, if Cardinal Simonis still harboured any hopes of participating in another one.
As the Psalmist continues about the years of our life: “their whole extent is anxiety and trouble, they are over in a moment and we are gone” (90:10b), Cardinal Simonis certainly had his share of anxiety and trouble. Ordained a priest in 1957, the dentist’s son from Lisse first made Catholic headlines at the Pastoral Council of Noordwijkerhout, where the young priest, then in his late thirties, was a voice for orthodoxy and thus soon placed by many in the camp of the bad guys. Rome, however, thought otherwise, as Father Simonis was appointed to be the second bishop of Rotterdam. His appointment there, as well as that of Bishop Gijsen to Roermond in 1972, is often considered to have been Pope Paul VI’s response to the new liberalism in the Dutch Catholic Church, especially considering that the name of Fr. Simonis appeared on none of the ternae supplied to Rome.
Bishop Simonis would remain in Rotterdam for 13 years, until 1983, when he was appointed to be Coadjutor Archbishop of Utrecht under Cardinal Willebrands. At the end of that year, on 3 December Archbishop Simonis succeeded the cardinal, who continued for six more years as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
As Utrecht’s archbishop, Msgr. Simonis was the principal host of Blessed Pope John Paul II during his cold reception in the Netherlands in 1985. Because of the hostility of many Dutch Catholics towards the bishops and especially Rome, personified in the pope, Archbishop Simonis was put under police protection for ten days. His elevation to the College of Cardinals in the consistory of 25 May 1985 is often seen as a way to strengthen the archbishop in his difficult position.
That difficult position did get easier over the years, as the climate in the Church mellowed, and Cardinal Simonis moved from being a voice of orthodoxy to one speaking for all Catholics, something that he considered to be an important attribute for all bishops.
In April of 2007, Cardinal Simonis retired and took up residence in a Focolare community in Nieuwkuijk. But even after his retirement, the cardinal remained a well-known face of the Church. His name appeared several times concerning abuse cases under his jurisdiction in the archdiocese, as well as ill-advised comments on national television. In recent year, many seemed to prefer to depict him as an evil genius, but the worst accusation that may, in my opinion, be brought against Cardinal Simonis is a naive attitude.
As shown by his motto, Ut cognoscant te, Cardinal Simonis is driven by the desire to let people know Christ, doing so as a humble and friendly prelate who tends to first see the good in people.
The paths of the cardinal and I have crossed several times, although we never formally met. As chief celebrant at the Catholic Youth Day of, I think, 2007, during the installation of Bishop de Korte, and most recently in Spain during the World Youth Days, a constant was the cardinal’s health. In the years immediately following his retirement, his figure turned ever more stooped, but that seems to have reversed itself in later years. The quiet life seems to have done Cardinal Simonis good.
But now, as the Dutch Church Province is left without a cardinal elector, eyes turn to Cardinal Simonis’ successor in Utrecht, Archbishop Wim Eijk. With a consistory rumoured to be scheduled for this time next year, he is now among the chief candidates for the red hat, considering the fact that Pope Benedict tends not to appoint new cardinals in a country which still has an elector.
We will see how that turns out, but in the mean time, the only suitable way to wrap up this post, is with a heartfelt birthday wish to Cardinal Ad Simonis: ad multos annos!
 NRC Handelsblad / Rien Zilvold
 Bisdom Den Bosch
 Ramon Mangold
While still seeming to pondering what they exactly believe, the liberal Mariënburg group of ‘concerned’ Catholics managed to come to some form of action. Early last month, they sent a letter to the Dutch Bishops’ Conference proposing local pastoral councils to get the bishops back in touch with the regular faithful. That letter has now been answered by the president of the conference, Archbishop Wim Eijk.
“The bishops hold the position that there are sufficient fora in the Dutch Church province and the Dutch dioceses which maintain good and intense contact with the faithful of the various dioceses. We think of the regular meetings of members of pastoral teams and workers in categorical pastoral care in the deaneries or vicariates, the Diocesan Pastoral Councils and of course the contacts that the bishops and their vicars have during their regular visits to the parishes. An extra pastoral council, the bishops expect, will not have any additional value.
“We have also discussed your point that the German Bishops’ Conference recently started a similar initiative to what you propose in your letter. We believe that this comparison is inaccurate. The German Catholic community, for one, is many times larger that the Dutch one. The Dutch Church province is characterised by the many very short lines between the curia of dioceses, deaneries or vicariates and the parishes.
We thank you for your letter containing your proposal, which we consider to be a sincere sign of your concern for the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, but for the aforementioned reasons, we will not be adopting your proposal.”
The Dutch Church province has a short history with the kind of pastoral councils that Mariënburg proposed, the most infamous being the Pastoral Council held in Noordwijkerhout between 1968 and 1970. That council, organised by the bishops’ conference in response to the Second Vatican Council, brought the abolition of priestly celibacy and various other liberal pet topics perilously close.Pope Paul VI warned against the developments in this council and, in 1980, Blessed Pope John Paul II convened a Special Synod to return the conference to unity and bring them back in line with the world Church. The appointment of orthodox bishops such as Simonis in Rotterdam (1970) and Gijssen in Roermond (1972) was a direct response to the Noordwijkerhout Council.
The Mariënburg society being a manifestation of the exact same sentiments that were put into words (and almost became reality) there, their proposed councils (leading to a National Council in 2014 or 2015) runs the high risk of being the same threat to internal and external unity that Noordwijkerhout was. It was only because of the appointments by Pope Paul VI and the prudent actions of the then newly-elected Pope John Paul II, who announced a Special Synod only six months after his election to the papacy, that worse was prevented. I don’t blame the current bishops for not wanting a repeat exercise…
And besides, the Catholic Church does not run on democratic principles, and nor should it. After all, we don’t derive our authority from a mandate of the masses, but from the once founder of the Church, Jesus Christ. And that’s just the way it works.
Photo credit: Ger Dijkstra & Zonen