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Two days ago I wrote about the three weeks that Bishop Jos Punt lived as a hermit in Spain. Yesterday saw the publication of a short interview with the bishop on the diocesan website. I have created an English translation of the interview as well.
An interesting read from a bishop who tried to hear God as clearly as possible.
Photo credit: Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam
“In the silence I could hear His voice better and I tried to engage in conversation with Him. A few times I felt a sort of answer, nothing spectacular, no lightning bolts, but I felt He was with me. I submitted my questions and concerns to Him.”
He has remained fairly quiet about it, but Bishop Jos Punt spent most of February in a small cave in the Spanish wilderness, surviving on fruit, bread and cereal, keeping warm with army fatigues and a sleeping bag and losing 7 kilos in the process. Two weeks ago he returned to the daily affairs of his Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam. His original intention was to eat far less and return a week later, but fatigue and age (the bishop is 67) meant that that was perhaps too ambitious.
Bishop Punt has for years been perhaps the most visibly spiritually-minded of the Dutch bishops. His devotion to the Blessed Virgin, as well as the story of his return to the faith after a youth dabbling with esoteric movements and trends – coupled with a tendency to get somewhat too apocalyptic at times, in my opinion – , are no secrets. In that light, his decision to spend a month in a cave, far away from the chaos of modern society and the commitments of a diocesan bishop, should come as no surprise.
The search for God in the silence is not something for hermits and monastics alone. Since we are all called to find and follow God, it makes sense to go where He may most easily be found: in the silence, where noise and chaos will not overwhelm His voice, which is never forceful and never shouts to be heard.
Photo credit: Louis Runhaar/RKK
Pope Benedict this morning ended his Lenten retreat. In a short address, he thanked Cardinal Ravasi for leading the retreat, as well as the other participants for being a “community of prayerful listening”. Below an excerpt of the address:
“The art of believing, the art of praying” was the theme. I was reminded of the fact that the medieval theologians translated the word “Logos” not only as “Verbum”, but also as “ars”: “Verbum” and “ars” are interchangeable. For the medieval theologians, it was only with the two words together that the whole meaning of the word “Logos” appeared. The “Logos” is not just a mathematical reason: the “Logos” has a heart, the “Logos” is also love. The truth is beautiful and the true and beautiful go together: beauty is the seal of truth.
And yet, starting from the Psalms and from our everyday experience, you have also strongly emphasized that the “very good” of the sixth day – expressed by the Creator – is permanently contradicted by the evil of this world, by suffering, by corruption. It’s almost as if wickedness wills permanently to spoil creation, to contradict God and make its truth and its beauty unrecognizable. In a world so marked even by evil, the “Logos,” the eternal beauty and the eternal “art”, must appear as a “caput cruentatum.” The incarnate Son, the incarnate “Logos” is crowned with a crown of thorns and nevertheless is just that: in this suffering figure of the Son of God we begin to see the deepest beauty of our Creator and Redeemer; in the silence of the “dark night” we can, nevertheless, hear the Word. And believing is nothing other than, in the darkness of the world, touching the hand of God, and in this way, in silence, hearing the Word, seeing love.
The Holy Father also thanked Cardinal Ravasi personally, in a letter. Among other things, he wrote that the theme chosen by the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture was particularly helpful in this time of silence and prayer: “We have been able to tap into the source of plenty and pure water that is God’s Word … from the Book of Psalms, the place par excellence where the Word of the Bible becomes prayer.” In closing, Pope Benedict XVI told Cardinal Ravasi that “the Lord will know to reward you for this effort”, a wish that gains special significance in the light of the coming conclave, in which Cardinal Ravasi will vote. Many outside the conclave consider him papabile, a likely successor of Pope Benedict XVI on the Chair of St. Peter.
But luckily that choice ultimately lies in the hands of 116 electors and most importantly, the Holy Spirit. Let’s pray for a fruitful final six days of this papacy, blessing and guidance or the cardinals in the conclave, and also for the new Pope, whoever he may be.
Every year at the start of Lent, the Pope and the Roman Curia go on a weeklong retreat. They don’t go anywhere, but remain at the Vatican in prayer and reflection, and all appointments and regular duties are postponed. Every retreat is led by a prelate personally chosen by the Holy Father, and this year the honour fell to the President of the Pontifical of Council of Culture, and a papabile himself, Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi (pictured at left, with the Holy Father in the background, in the seclusion of retreat).
What makes this retreat different is that Cardinal Ravasi not only offers reflections on the prayer of the Psalms to the prelates on retreat, but also to all the faithful. He has been tweeting short quotes and Vatican Radio has been posting summaries of his talks.
These days, leading up to the conclave, it is very interesting to be able to read and reflect on the theological thoughts of one of the cardinal electors, but, perhaps more importantly, it also offers us a guide through this important season of the Church year. A week in, it is perhaps good to ask: “How is your Lent going?”
Cardinal Ravasi’s tweets may offer us a hint of where to start. Short as they are, they can not offer very deep and detailed reflections, but they may point the way, so to speak. Let’s take a look at some and use them to reflect on our own life in the faith. I have put some tweets together, since they clearly form one line of thought.
“1st Meditation: breathe, think, struggle, love: the verbs of prayer. Prayer is not just emotion, it must be reason and will, reflection and passion, truth and action. Not just “speaking about” God, but “speaking to” God, in a dialogue in which we look lovingly at each other in the eye.”
“The longest of the Psalms (Ps 119) invites us to listen to the divine Word present in the Bible. In the verses of Ps 119 we can hear the love for this Word which shines even in the darkness of existence.”
“3rd Meditation: The song of the twofold sun: the Creator God. Psalm 19. The high and impressive silences of the starry heavens are symbolically broken by the song of faith. Biblical faith does not see space as a neutral thing, but as an epiphanic horizon, where God is present. Authentic ascesis is not only negation, it is also harmony between bodiliness and interiority; renouncing and practice for genuine fullness. The word of God irradiates its splendour in the horizon of the conscience, melting our coldness and spreading light and hope. Before creation in its richness, we can raise our thanksgiving to God for our existence and for so many marvels.”
“Our journey becomes a real pilgrimage towards the “meeting tent”, the sanctuary in its sacred culmination. The divine Person is there, manifesting himself, speaking and embracing the faithful. “As an eagle watching its nest, flying over its offspring, the Lord unfolded his wings, took him and raised him up” (Dt 32).”
“The great gestures of God’s love: creation; exodus from Egypt, sign of liberation and hope for a people experience of the desert guided by a pastor who protects from every natural and historical danger, and the journey towards freedom. We consider the Lord as an ally, a strong and loving companion on our journey.”
“Son of God, priest and just: these three features of the messianic figure at the centre of the psalms we meditate. The prophets criticised the prevarications of power and indifference in the face of injustice. God is the advocate for the undefended, the “father of the poor and defender of widows” (Ps 68,6). Before us shines the face of the Messiah, the Christ of God.”
As Dutch fans are getting ready for the first match of their national team at the Euro 2012 football championship tonight, Father Paul Vlaar, formerly of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam and currently of the Military Ordinariate of the Netherlands, announces his plans to organise once again a ‘football Mass’, this time on 17 June, and again in Obdam, where he still assists on the weekends. The choir will be dressed in orange, the colour of the Dutch football team, and parishioners are also asked to come in ‘appropriate dress´, which will, undoubtedly, be totally inappropriate for a celebration of Mass.
The last time Fr. Vlaar did something similar, during the 2010 World Cup, he was temporarily relieved of his duties in the parish and sent on a retreat to reflect. Now, it seems, he has learned preciously little.
Bishop Jos Punt has said that he is aware of the plans, but wants to collect some more information before issuing a response. The bishop is also apostolic administrator of the military ordinariate and as such remains Fr. Vlaar’s bishop. Thursday last he installed Fr. Vlaar in the ordinariate, at which occasion the bishop was not informed about any plans for an ‘orange Mass’.
Fr. Vlaar remains silent, apparently as part of an agreement with the Ministry of Defence to observe a media silence.
Holy Mass is the celebration and memorial of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and the moment when He comes nearest to us. It is dictated by the Lord Himself, as a reflection of the divine liturgy as reflected in the rich liturgical tradition of the Church, and not by the priorities of people. The celebration of a football competition has other suitable times and places. Our Lord’s sacrifice can not be made subservient to something trivial like this. If it is, Mass becomes a celebration of nothing more than people and community, of how nice it is to be together, to cheer our team on and have a jolly good time.
Two days ago, as his Lenten retreat had just wrapped up, Pope Benedict XVI visited the Roman parish of San Giovanni Battista de La Salle. He celebrated Mass there and afterwards met with the faithful of the parish, which is part of the pope’s own diocese. The children had been getting creative in the run-up towards the Holy Father’s visit, as the photo below shows…
Just something light-hearted to close the day.
Photo credit: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images
Had my plans worked out, I would have left for a few days’ retreat today. Sadly, things didn’t work out, but I have no doubt the future will hold ample opportunity to go.
I would have travelled south to the Franciscans in the town of Megen. The retreat would have been a simple one, aimed at exploring vocations. At the moment, I am quite ready for any kind of retreat, but this one specifically appealed to me, because of a question that any (future) seminarian or priest may ask himself: will I be a secular or religious priest?
The term ‘secular priest’ may seem like a paradox, but it simply indicates a priest who lives ‘in the world’, ie. works in a parish among the people. ‘Religious priests’ have made vows, are monks or friars, and usually live in communities. Of course, it’s not always as clear-cut as this. Religious priests may also work in parishes, and secular priests may live in communities. But essentially the difference is in the religious vows.
Either option is, I believe, one that requires a conscious choice. The secular priesthood may be the default form, at least in the Netherlands, but it need not be.
Discerning any vocation includes an analysis of who you are and what makes you tick, and what your relation to God is. If done well – there’s no guarantee – you will get a clearer idea of what your vocation is; is it to the pastoral care of parishioners and administring the sacraments, to increase people’s faith in size and depth? Or is it a contemplative life of prayer and study, or manual labour and education, or any combination of these and more, underpinned by the sacraments received and passed on?
A visit to a community of religious priests (although not all the brothers at Megen are priests) is, in my opinion, an essential addition to this discernment. Thinking and praying is all well and good, but a hands-on experience of the subject, however fleeting, would certainly do no harm.
I don’t know what I’ll be, say, ten years from now. I hope and pray that I may one day be ordained, and that’s as far as I’m willing to go right now. The rest will reveal itself in due course.