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They were 50,000 strong, coming from 26 dioceses in Germany and beyond, filling all of St. Peter’s Square for an encounter with Pope Francis yesterday. Young altar servers, accompanied by some of their bishops, on a pilgrimage to Rome. To their great surprise Pope Francis addressed them in German. In my translation:
“The words from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians that we heard, make us sit up and listen. The time is right, Paul says. God is serious now. What God has always told the people through the prophets He now shows us with a striking example. God explains us that He is a good father. And how does He do so? By the fact that He made His Son man. Through this concrete human being Jesus we can understand what God really means. He wants human beings, who are free but know themselves always to be secure as children of a good father.
To release this, God needs only a man. He needs a woman, a mother, to bring His Son into the world as a human being. That is the Virgin Mary, whom we honour with these Vespers tonight. She was completely free. In her freedom she has said yes. She has done what is good for all time. That is how she has served God and the people. Let’s keep her example in mind when we want to know what God expects from us as His children.”
After the Vespers, four altar servers asked questions to Pope Francis. The first question was about how young people could play a bigger part in the life of the Church, as suggested by the Holy Father in Evangelii Gaudium, and also what the Church expects from altar servers? The second server asked for advice in how to respond to friends who do not understand why anyone would want to be an altar server at the expense of other passtimes. Question three dealt with freedom, and how to experience, understand it in a life which has so many rules.
Pope Francis answered:
I thank you for this encounter on the occasion of your pilgrimage to Rome and I want to give you some food for thought related to the questions that your representatives have asked me.
You have asked me what you can do to contribute more in the Church and what the Christian community expects from you as altar servers. Let’s first remember that the world needs people who attest to others that God loves us and that He is our father. Everyone in society has the obligation to serve the common good by contributing to what is essential: food, clothing, medical care, education, information, the legal system, and so on. As disciples of the Lord we have an additional task, namely to be the “channels”, the lines which pass the love of Jesus on to others. And in this duty you, youth and young adults, have a special role: You are called to tell your contemporaries about Jesus – not just in the parishes or organisations, but especially outside them. That is a task which has been especially entrusted to you, because with your courage, your enthusiasm, your spontaneity and your sociability it is easier to reach the thoughts and hearts of those who have drifted away from the Lord. Many people of your age have an enormous desire for someone who tells them, with their lives, that Jesus knows us, loves us, forgives us, shares our problems and supports us with His mercy.
But in order to speak with others about Jesus, we must known and love Him, experience Him in prayer and in His Word. You have the advantage in that respect, because of your service in the liturgy, which allows you to be near to Jesus, the Word and the Bread of Life. Let me give you some advice: The Gospel reading you hear in the liturgy, read it again for yourselves, in silence, and apply it to your lives. And with the love of Christ, which you have received in Holy Communion, you will be able to put it into practice. The Lord calls each of you today to work in His field. He calls you to be happy players in His Church, willing to share with your friends what He has shared with your, especially His mercy.
I understand your problems of combining your service at the altar with your other activities, which are necessary for your human development and cultural formation. So you must organise a bit, plan things in a balanced way… but you are German, so that should be easy! Our life consists of time, and that time is a gift from God, so it must be used for good and fruitful things. Perhaps many young people waste too many hours with useless things: chatting on the Internet or on your mobile phone, but also with television programs. The products of technological progress, which should simplify life or increase its quality, are sometimes distractions from what is really important. Among the many things which are part of our daily routine, those that remind us of our Creator, who gives us life, who loves us and accompanies us on our journey through life, should have priority.
Because God has created us in His image we have also received from Him this great gift of freedom. But when we don’t use this freedom properly it can move us away from God, can let us lose that dignity which He has given us. That is why guidance, rules and regulations are necessary – both in society and also in the Church – to help us do the will of God and to live in this way according to our dignity as human beings and children of God. When freedom is not influenced by the Gospel it can turn into slavery, the slavery of sin. Adam and Eve, our first parents, moved away from the will of God and so fell into sin, and also into a bad use of freedom. Dear young friends, do not use your freedom wrongly! Do not waste your great dignity as children of God, which has been given to you. When you follow Jesus and His Gospel, your freedom will bloom like a flower and bear good and rich fruits. You will find true joy, since God wants us to be completely happy and fulfilled. Only when we immerse ourselves in the will of God, we can do what is good and be both the light of the world and the salt of the earth!
The Virgin Mary, who understood herself to be the “handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38), is your example in the service of God. She, our mother, will help you, young people full of hope and courage, to be workers for good and labourers for peace in the Church and in society.”
Last Saturday, as I shared on this blog, I went on pilgrimage to Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed. While it is impossible to share my personal experience with mere words, I think photos will do as well. I can, however, say, that this year’s pilgrimage did not disappoint in either surprises – a rain storm as we were just about halfway to the shrine – or devotion and familial comforts.
Anyway, some photos:
^Beginning with Mass at the Church of St. Boniface in Wehe-den Hoorn, Father Maurits Damsté takes care to give everyone present their share of holy water as the cathedral schola, which had travelled north for the occasion, sings the “Asperges me“. Just like our Baptism washed us clean of our sins, we pray that our confession of sins and the sacrifice of the Lord which we celebrate in Holy Mass will also wash us “whiter than snow”.
^The shrine containing the relics of several holy hermits – including St. Anthony Abbot and St. Gerlac – is being lifted onto the shoulders of four servers. During the Mass it stood before the altar, and for several years now, it has had pride of place in the procession.
^Assembling the procession line, which went rather easily this time around.
^For the first time, the procession was a sacramental one, as Fr. Maurits carried the Blessed Sacrament underneath a canopy upheld by four men. This is really having the Lord join us. This was also when the rain started to fall.
^Amid the windswept fields of northern Groningen – not to mention the rain and even rumblings of thunder – it is not always easy to maintain composure, especially when carrying big things which catch lots of the aforementioned wind and rain.
^Some evidence that your humble blogger also did his part. I’m the soaked person holding the pole with a statue of the Blessed Virgin, right behind the reliquary of the holy hermits.
^Big skies, tiny procession.
^The rain has stopped, but evidently did its thing.
^Arriving in Warfhuizen, home of Our Lady.
^Holy Hour in the mercy chapel. Father Maurits incenses the Blessed Sacrament in this image taken from behind the enclosure grille.
^Prayers. It has become traditional for faithful to individually ask for prayers for specific intentions (provided they are comfortable with doing so in public), which the entire congregation then takes up. It makes things quite personal and sometimes emotional.
^A blessing with the Blessed Sacrament. Perfect conclusion to procession, devotion and prayer.
Photo credit: [1-7, 9-12] Marjo Antonissen Steenvoorden,  Sander Zwezerijnen
Pilgrimage tomorrow. Not far, but it’s been far too long . I am looking forward to it.
Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed is no stranger on this blog. She’s permanently present in the side bar, and every now and then she appears in blog posts. Her shrine amid the fields of northern Groningen – what resident hermit Brother Hugo only half-jokingly refers to as the North Pole – is something of an oasis, a unique place of prayer and peace. Although the pilgrimage to it is short at almost 2 kilometers, the variation in wind, rain and sunlight makes for an effort that, for me, accompanies the spiritual effort of praying my way to the shrine.
The pilgrimage, which consists of Holy Mass in the parish church of nearby Wehe-den Hoorn, the procession and Holy Hour at the shrine in Warfhuizen, is unique, certainly in this part of the world, but no less among other devotional processions and pilgrimages. It is a blend of prayerful devotion and comfortable familiarity, of seriousness and familial humour. It is a remarkable phenomenon which participating faithful take seriously, and at the same time there are always surprises: non-cooperative weather conditions, a rather too top heavy processional cross, things that unexpectedly go missing… But it’s all part of the pilgrimage, just like the prayers and hymns, the sacrifice of the Mass and the physical effort. And in the end it all works out. Just not always as expected. But that’s how it works in a family too. No one is perfect, and no one needs to be before visiting Our Lady and her Son.
I’m travelling to Warfhuizen with a friend, but I have no plans for the return trip. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. I’ll see when that is.
Time to recharge for a bit tomorrow.
Just because I can, a news roundup from the Dutch dioceses. Let’s take a look at what’s been going on in the various corners of the Church province.
Led by Cardinal Eijk, some 100 faithful from the Archdiocese of Utrecht have been on pilgrimage to Rome this week. They visited various churches (Cardinal Eijk’s title church San Callisto, Saint Peter’s, the Church of the Frisians, Saint Mary Major (pictured) and Saint John Lateran), celebrated Mass at the tomb of Saint Peter, saw the sights and capped the trip off with today’s general audience with Pope Francis. Cardinal Eijk offered Mass every day in concelebration with the accompanying and some local priests.
In the Diocese of Breda, the Franciscan sisters in Bergen op Zoom celebrated the 175th anniversary of their diocesan congregation’s existence. They did so in the presence of Bishop Jan Liesen and other guests, and also used the day to reopen their chapel after a year of restoration work. As the congregation also has a thriving sister house in Indonesia, Bishop Michael Angkur of the Diocese of Bogor was also present. With his entourage, he visited other congregations (and some local sights) in the diocese as well.
Also in Breda, the pilgrims to the World Youth Day in Rio had their first reunion (pictured). They did so at Bovendonk seminary. The pilgrims looked back on the weeks in Suriname and in Rio de Janeiro, sharing their experiences with each other and with those who stayed at home to take part in WYD@Home.
The Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam bade farewell to its vicar general, Msgr. Martin de Groot (pictured at left with Bishop Jan Hendriks), after 50 years of service in the diocese. The farewell took place with a choral evensong in Amsterdam’s Basilica of St. Nicholas followed by a reception. In addition to the diocese’s Bishops Punt, Hendriks and Van Burgsteden, Rotterdam’s Bishop van den Hende and Utrecht’s auxiliary Bishop Hoogenboom were present, reflecting the wide-ranging duties that Msgr. de Groot performed in and beyond his diocese.
Also in Haarlem-Amsterdam, a unique appointment: the first female Magister Cantus (or, in this case, Magistra Cantus) of the Netherlands. On Sunday Ms. Sanne Nieuwenhuijsen will be installed as such by Bishop Punt. She will have responsibility for the music in the cathedral basilica of St. Bavo, the musical institute connected to it and the choirs. She has been conducting the cathedral choir since 2010.
Photo credit:  aartsbisdom.nl,  bisdombreda.nl,  Isabel Nabuurs
On Thursday, the “upper church” of the Belgian Marian shrine at Beauraing was elevated to the dignity of basilica minor. The building, built in addition to the original chapel built on the site after the Blessed Virgin appeared there to five children in 1932 and 1933, will henceforth carry the name of Basilica of Our Lady with the Golden Heart.
The importance of Beauraing as one of Belgium’s most important pilgrimage sites was reflected by the fact that seven bishops concelebrated the Mass with Bishop Rémy Vancottem, the ordinary of the Diocese of Namur, in which Beauraing is located. They were Cardinal Godfried Danneels (em. archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels) and Bishops Pierre Warin (aux. Namur), Aloys Jousten (em. Liège), Guy Harpigny (Tournai), Antoon Hurkmans (‘s Hertogenbosch, Netherlands), Gérard Coliche (aux. Lille, France) and Pierre Raffin (Metz, France).
The new basilica is unique in several aspects. It is very young for a basilica, as it was consecrated only in 1960, and it stands out in its concrete barrenness. There are no decorations and statues (ony very subdued Stations of the Cross). The architect of the building wanted all attention to be on the altar.
Evidently, the vitality of the devotion and the faith displayed here is strong enough to overrule the other unofficial requirements for a minor basilica: that it be of a certain age (usually understood to be in the range of centuries) and of an outstanding beauty.
Our Lady with the Golden Heart is the 28th minor basilica in Belgium, and the fourth in the Diocese of Namur.
Bishop Vancottem’s homily follows in my English translation below:
It is with joy that we are gathered in this in this upper church of the shrine of Beauraing, which was elevated to the status of basilica today.
When Mary appears to the children of Beauraing, it sometimes happens that she says nothing; but it is her attitude and her gestures that speak. Her smile. The arms that are opened. And how can we not be touched when she shows us her heart, as a heart of gold? A mother’s heart which is an expression of the tenderness and the love of the heart of God. A golden heart which reflects all the love of Jesus – Jesus, who, as the mouthpiece of God’s love for all people, goes to the extreme by dying on a cross -, and so one couldn’t give this basilica a better name than that of Our Lady with the Golden Heart. With this, the basilica does not replace the chapel that Mary requested from the children. In a sense, it is an extension of it, and an invitation to answer increasingly better to that other wish of Mary’s to come a pilgrimage here.
In the Gospel of the Annunciation we have just heard Mary pronouncing her “yes” to God. The Gospel ends with these words: “And the angel left her”, which indicates that Mary, according to the Gospel, received no further special revelations. She continued “her pilgrimage of faith” through the dark moments and hardships of life. “[T]he Blessed Virgin,” the Council states, “advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully persevered in her union with her Son unto the cross” (Lumen Gentium, 58).
For us, who are still on or pilgrimage in a world where our faith is often tested, the faith of Mary is an example. What was announced by the angel is impossible, humanly speaking. And yet the answer of Mary is a simple and clear: “You see before you the Lord’s servant, let it happen to me as you have said”. Mary trusts the Word of God and devotes her entire life to the service of the “Son of God”. This is typical of the “Gospel image” of the Virgin Mary: Her initial “yes” will develop into lifelong loyalty.
At the moment of her Son’s birth, faith was needed to recognise the promised Saviour in this child of Bethlehem.
- Of the many years of Jesus of Nazareth’s hidden life, the Evangelists only remembered the moment when Jesus was found in the temple. That was a moment of darkness in Mary’s faith. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”, Jesus tells His parents. But, the Gospel adds, “they did not understand what he meant. … His mother stored up all these things in her heart” (Luke 2: 48-51).
- Mary suffers the most radical test at the foot of the cross. She stands there, and it is there that she becomes the Mother of all the faithful. It is there that she receives her mother’s heart. It is there that we understand that we can entrust ourselves to her motherly protection.
How important it is to discover the mother of God. Our mother began her journey in faith, like us her children, through dark moments and the tests of life. Her “pilgrimage” is also ours. The “yes” of the Annunciation led Mary to the foot of the cross. But the cross has become a Glorious Cross, an elevated cross. The cross leads to the shining light of the resurrection.
Coming to Beauraing on pilgrimage, we meet Mary, but only to let her lead us to her Son. “Do you love my Son?” she asks. “Do you love me?””Pray, pray often, pray always.”
In this Year of Faith, in the heart of this Eucharist, she achieves for us, through her prayer, that we advance in faith in Jesus, her Son, died and risen, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Oh Mary, teach us to weather the tribulations of life, to utter a yes to God without equivocating, as you did at the Annunciation by the angel. Be our guide on the way that leads to God, through our yes that we repeat every day.”
The coming pastoral year will be especially dedicated to catechesis. The Catechesis Commission of the Bishops’ Conference will issue a document in early September about the pastoral course concerning the sacraments of Christian initiation. We will have the opportunity to discuss that further later.
I wish you all a good start of the pastoral year!
Photo credit:  Notre-Dame de Beauraing,  Tommy Scholtes