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I was very happy to find this in the mail today: Sacred Liturgy: The Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church, edited by Dom Alcuin Reid. It is the product of last year’s Sacra Liturgia conference, which I wrote about a few times.
It is quite the hefty tome, clocking in at 446 pages. The book collects the contributions from a great variety of authors; Bishop Marc Aillet, Walter Cardinal Brandmüller, Raymond Cardinal Burke, Bishop Dominique Rey and Archbishop Alexander Sample, to name but a few. The topics are equally varied, covering a wide range of the liturgical landscape. Here too, a random selection to give some idea: liturgical music, new evangelisation, liturgy and monastic life, sacred architecture, the role of the bishop in liturgy, catechesis and formation. There are also the homilies given over the course of the conference, one by Cardinal Cañizares Llovera and the other by Cardinal Brandmüller.
I have not always found it easy to find such theological resources in my neck of the woods, so I consider this book a welcome resource for my own personal theological education, small and interrupted by necessary daily commitments as it may be. And as such, it may also have its influence on the blog.
The Trappist monks of Sion Abbey in Diepenveen, north of Deventer in the Archdiocese of Utrecht, are abandoning their abbey. Built in 1883 for a community of more than 100 monks, has become too big, housing only 12 Cistercian monks of the Strict Observance, Trappists for short. Maintenance costs for the buildings have become too high for the small community and, as Abbot Alberic Bruschke says, sharing it with other users is not possible, since it wouldn’t be a monastery any longer.
But where are the twelve monks going? They’re not dispersing over other monasteries in the Netherlands and abroad, I’m happy to read. Even happier is their decision to come about as far north as is possible while remaining on Dutch soil: to the island of Schiermonnikoog, off the coast of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. Abbot Alberic says: “A small, new beginning, in all simplicity, of a new life as monks. New and at the same time a restart in timeless continuity with our Cistercian tradition.”
The exact location and shape of the new foundation on the island is not yet known, but the choice of Schiermonnikoog is not random. In the local old dialect, the name of the island means ‘Island of the grey monks’, referring to the Cistercian monks who had come from the Claercamp monastery in Frisia. In the Middle Ages they established a grange on the island and were responsible for much of the early reclamation of land from the ever-shifting sand flats and sea to the south, between island and mainland. In 1580 that ended, as the Reformation took all possessions from the monastery, including Schiermonnikoog. But the monastic history of the island has always been recognised, and in 1961 a statue of a monk (pictured at right) was placed in the island’s only village.
Once the monks have moved to Schiermonnikoog, they will form only the second religious foundation in the diocese, after the hermitage of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed in Warfhuizen, which was established in 2001.
^Schiermonnikoog from the air, seen from the south west. Apart from the village, the entire island is a national park. It is some 18 kilometers in length and forever moves slowly eastward.
On behalf of the hermitage and shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed, a unique place of prayer and spiritual care, I am sharing the following message that the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed placed on its Facebook page today It would be fantastic if even one reader of this blog would be able and willing to contribute to the sole contemplative religious establishment in the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. There is no place where the motherly care of the Mother of God does not read, not even what Brother Hugo, the hermit of the place, calls “the North Pole”.
“We ask your attention for the following. Our Lady of Warfhuizen still lacks the heart with seven swords which is so characteristic … for a “Mother of Sorrows.”
As confraternity we think that is unacceptable, but we are a penniless organisation, so simply ordering one is something we can’t do. Now, in Naples we found one which would be ideal. It costs €430 [$595 - MV], an amount of money that we think should be possible to collect if all loyal devotees of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed would contribute a small amount.
Hence this call: help us give Mary a heart and donate a contribution on bank account NL45TRIO0198535724, in the name of “Broederschap O.L.V. vd Besloten Tuin in Glimmen, the Netherlands, quoting HART VOOR MARIA.”
If it is easier, donations may also be made via my PayPal account in the left sidebar. Do state with your donation that it is intended for the heart of Mary. I will make sure your donation is passed on to the confraternity.
For more information on Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed, the shrine, pilgrimages, the confraternity and what makes it unique, go here. The website is available in Dutch, French and English, and in the near future, additional languages will be added.
Some may wonder, why spend such a large amount of money on what is a piece of decoration? An answer to that question would have to include the fact that we spend money on what and who we love, and that nothing in the shrine is simply an object (from the lights on the ceiling to the brooms in the cupboard, everything has a function). The heart pierced with seven swords reflects the essence of who Mary is as the Mother of Sorrows. In the first place it refers to the passage from the Gospel of Luke:
“Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Look, he is destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is opposed – and a sword will pierce your soul too - so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.’” (2:34-35)
Tradition later expanded this piercing of Mary’s soul into the seven sorrows:
The prophecy of Simeon quoted above
- The flight into Egypt
- The loss of the Child Jesus at the Temple
- Mary meeting Jesus on the way to Calvary
- Jesus’ death on the Cross
- The piercing of Jesus’ side, and Mary receiving His body in her lap
- The body of Jesus being placed in the tomb
These experiences, terrible for any mother, show us how Our Lady of Sorrows can be a comfort and example to people who suffer, as she does at Warfhuizen. The heart with seven swords shows us who she is for us, an identity given her because of her unique role in salvation history and Jesus’ life on earth.
The shrine at Warfhuizen continues to attract increasing numbers of pilgrims from all over the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and beyond. It is a small and intimate place, but rich in symbolism, comfort and prayer. You can help complete it further.
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.
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.
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.
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