On his 87th birthday, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI will undoubtedly mark today quietly with friends, family and music. May it be a happy day for him!
Over the past weekend, the news of the “plausible” abuse by Bishop Gijsen has obviously dominated Catholic news in the Netherlands. For some it was reason for renewed attacks against the Catholic Church, but what struck me most were the thought and feelings of those who had known Bishop Gijsen, who had entered seminary when he was bishop, who have him to thank for setting the first step towards finding their vocation. Those that I read all expressed feelings of confusion, of feeling lost. And that is what abuse, being a complete destruction of the bonds of trust and responsibility, does. It leaves victims stranded, alone, trying to build themselves up again and, too often, in the face of disbelief and accusations of lying.
Below, find my translation of the homily that Bishop Franz Wiertz gave on Monday, in a Mass of penance and reconciliation at Maastricht’s Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady.
“It is Holy Week. For Christians this is a week during which they not only follow Christ in His suffering, but especially look at themselves in this light and question themselves about the why of this death of the cross. The first confessions of faith, which we find in the Acts of the Apostles and also in the First Letter to the Corinthians, indicate the why of the cross very clearly: “Died for our sins”. In order to expiate our sins the Lord died on the cross. This makes us fall silent and we prefer not to hear these words. We don’t like being told that we are people who are not spotless and thus guilty.
Perhaps we think it is a bit strange that the new Pope, when he was asked, “Who are you, Jorge Bergoglio? What do you say about yourself?”, answered, “I am a simply sinful human being.” That means that the Pope does not want to present himself smugly as a perfect person, but as a human being in whose life guilt and sin are also a reality. We struggle with this fact. It throws us back on ourselves.
It is not without reason that guilt and sin are topics which are addressed in many ways in modern literature. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, devotes his play “The Flies” to the freedom of man and the responsibility that comes with it. But also to the feelings of guilt which are the result of choices made. The protagonist can’t live with these feelings of guilt. He tries to suppress them. Every attempt to chase them away is a stroke in the air. The flies return.
You can only come to terms with feelings of guilt by acknowledging them. Not by suppressing them. And certainly not by explaining away what happened. He who acknowledges guilt, will certainly also ask himself, “Who did I hurt? Who is the victim of the evil I have done? How can I repair what happened?”
Handling guilt is not easy for a person. It is more than a stain on one’s reputation. Guilt questions one’s own integrity. In response one attacks the evil of other with strong condemnations. Like David did when the Prophet Nathan told him the story of the rich man who prepared the poor man’s lamb for dinner. David suppressed how he had abused his own power and took the wife of Uriah for his own. How he then tried to hide his tracks by having Uriah die in battle.
Difficulty to accept our own guilt which is the consequence of the acts of her members, and taking responsibility for it, is also difficult for our own Church. Even this week we in the Netherlands and in our diocese were painfully confronted with the fact that a bishop, priests and religious abused their power and undermined their mission. They caused scandal, by actions that do not stand up to daylight: abuse of children and young people. There is nothing worse.
For decades it was denied or suppressed. Now that the true extent has become known, the shame is great. Parents entrusted their children to people of the Church, thinking that there was no safer place than that. Children entrusted themselves to people of the Church and they were abused. Their stories were often not believed.
Although this is also a social phenomenon, that can never be an excuse for people of the Church. Although it happened half a century ago, we experience it as an original sin which is almost impossible to atone for. But we must carry it with us. The Church also does not want to be reminded of the stains in her own reputation, and she frequently made the mistake of David by condemning the mistakes of people with great harshness and without mercy. Why did the Church respond like that? Is it shame? Is it fear of loss of prestige? Loss of face? Did they want to protect the institution more than the hurting victims?
It hurts to be confronted with these sinister and dark sides of the Church. We want to acknowledge that Church authorities and Church members have caused grave scandal and that they have been guilty of grievous acts. In that context the words “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” have perhaps been used too quickly. Since the extent of the abuse became known these concepts were for the victims like a red cloth for a bull. It angered them, because it was misguidedly used to avoid acknowledgement of the facts and to avoid to take responsibility.
This misguided use of the word “forgiveness” should never have happened, because it is a special word and it is a special phenomenon when forgiveness and reconciliation happens between people. But it should always be remembered that forgiveness and reconciliation confer no rights. They can only be received as an undeserved gift.
It always presumes a completely honest acknowledgement of one’s own guilt, without fleeing for the responsibility for what was done in the lives of people. Family members and partners of the victims must certainly not be forgotten in that. Forgiveness is only possible where it is preceded by the acknowledgment of guilt. Acknowledging guilt before the victim and for us a Church also acknowledgement of guilt before God. The forgiveness has a chance and there can be a future again. People can set off on the journey together again. Then they can find each other again as people and appreciate each other for what we can give each other.
May the time come that victims can give their trust to the Church and to people of the Church and forgive them for what was done to them. The Church must wait for that and in the meantime must continuously prove herself to be worthy of it. For now, we work hard together on a “road to reconciliation”. Amen.”
Photo credit: ANP
“I will take the children of Israel from among the nations
to which they have come,
and gather them from all sides to bring them back to their land.
I will make them one nation upon the land,
in the mountains of Israel,
and there shall be one prince for them all.
Never again shall they be two nations,
and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms.”
Ezekiel 37: 21-22
With the news yesterday (both the Pope’s apology and the news about Bishop Gijsen) opinions pop up. Everyone has something to say about what it all means, and how other people are wrong about it. It gets depressing sometimes.
The Word of God often offers inspiration, a new view on things, but also comfort. So today, as I looked for some of that comfort on the readings of today. The first two verses of the first reading, from the Book of Ezekiel, are a potent reminder that in God no division can last. God brings His people back to their own land, to Himself. He unites them again.
If only we would hear Him.
It’s hardly inconceivable anymore, but somehow it is still hard to believe accusations of sexual abuse against a generally well-respected bishop. And when the bishop denies and seems to be supported in that denial by the competent authorities, that is a relief. Just so in this case, but there’s preciously little room for such denial anymore.
A week after the death of Bishop Joannes Gijsen, formerly of Roermond, the institute charged with deciding if an accusation is founded or unfounded reopened the case against him. The bishops was accused of multiple cases of sexual abuse in the time late 1950s and early 1960s, when the future bishop was a young priest. The claims of two victims have now been deemed plausible, it was revealed today. In the first case there are accusations of forced oral sex and attempted or actual rape; while the second revolves around a single instance of improper touching. The complaints commission have decided that the cases of touching are plausible, whereas the (attempted) rape and oral sex can not be proven (which is not to say they didn’t take place, the commission stressed).
Instrumental in this decision was the appearance of a second complaint and the defence of the bishop, which was deemed highly implausible. In his defence, Bishop Gijsen claimed not to know the victim, while he was known to have regularly visited the victim and his family and to have received letters from the victim’s father.
As Bishop Gijsen is no longer alive, there is little that can be done, even if his crimes were not subject to the statute of limitations. Bishop Frans Wiertz, who succeeded Bishop Gijsen in 1993, apologised to the victims and expressed his regret and sorrow. When the complaints were first expressed, Bishop Wiertz immediately notified the relevant authorities and advised the victims to do the same. But even when having done what is possible this late, a feeling of powerlessness remains.
Sexual abuse, however long ago, does not simply go away. It lasts for the victims, and no less for all who have known them or the perpetrator. And when the latter is a priest or bishop, a moral example (even in hindsight), who turns out to have lied about what he did, that is all the worse.
“I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests, quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests, to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children. The Church is aware of this damage, it is personal, moral damage carried out by men of the Church, and we will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, we have to be even stronger. Because you cannot interfere with children…”
Pope Francis, 11 April 2014
Words that are more than just an apology, but an example to so many institutions, agencies and government the world over, where child abuse still occurs and in shockingly large numbers, but where perpetrators generally get away with it…
Compared with another passage the Pope spoke today, in a meeting with italy’s Pro-Life Movement, we can see that the above apology, and the efforts of the Holy See and the Church to combat sexual abuse of minors, is a logical consequence of what the Church teaches about the dignity of all human life.
“The strongest opposition to any direct attack on life must therefore be reiterated, especially on innocent and defenseless life, and the unborn child in the womb is the most concrete example of innocence. Let us remember the words of the Second Vatican Council: From the moment of its conception, life must be guarded with the greatest care while abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.” (Gaudium et Spes, 51)
Msgr. Klaus Metzl called it the most beautiful day of the year so far, and well he might. The Diocese of Passau, located where Germany meets Austria and the Czech Republic, had been without a bishop for 18 months, so the appointment of a new shepherd on Friday was indeed what both he and the faithful had “waited, hoped and prayed for”.
In october of 2012, Bishop Wilhelm Schraml retired after almost eleven years at the helm of the almost 1300-year-old diocese, but stayed on for one more year as Apostolic Administrator, after which Msgr. Metzl took over.
And now the choice has fallen on Bishop-elect Stefan Oster to be the 85th bishop of Passau. The new bishop is a member of the Salesians of Don Bosco (an order which boasts an additional 124 bishops and cardinals among its members) and will be the youngest ordinary of Germany upon his consecration on 24 May. There are five German bishops younger than him, but they are all auxiliaries.
The appointment of Bishop-elect Oster has been welcomed almost everywhere, which seems to be generally due to his unassuming yet communicative personality. A former journalist, the 48-year-old future bishop never held positions of power, either within or outside the Salesians. The fact that he was chosen must therefore be due to his person qualities, or, as the case may be, those which he exhibited in his life before joining the Salesians, when he was a journalist, student of philosophy, history and religion in Germany and the UK, and ultimately theology before ordained in 2001. After an award-winning dissertation at the University of Augsburg, he joined the future bishop of Regensburg, Rudolf Voderholzer, in Trier. In recent years he has been mainly active as a teacher. And he also juggles.
A trained dogmatist, Bishop-elect Oster has the ingredients for a long and fruitful occupation of the see that was first established by Saint Boniface: communication, an unassuming and fraternal personality and theological acumen.
The number of vacant dioceses in Germany is now back to five – Erfurt, Freiburg im Breisgau, Cologne, Limburg and Hamburg.
Photo credit: DPA
An exemplary icon of steadfast dedication to those in need is no more. Father Frans van der Lugt was abducted, shot and killed this morning in Homs, Syria, the city and country that was his home for more than four decades. The Dutch Jesuit priest did not think of leaving his home and the community he was a part of – consisting not only of the few Christians in the city, but also, especially in later years, of his Muslim neighbours in the widest sense – as civil war engulfed Syria and cut off the part of Homs where Fr. Frans lived from the rest of the world.
Thousands of people in this pocket continue to struggle with hunger and poverty, something that Fr. Frans tried to alleviate in the ways he could. He brought the attention of the wider world to their plight and managed to get what little food there was – some of which he grew – out to the families who needed it.
In February, he illustrated the situation to a Dutch journalist as follows: “In the morning we eat a few olives. We cut vegetables out from between street tiles and make soup out of it in the afternoon and in the evening we see what’s left.”
A month earlier, he made the following emergency call:
“I am speaking to you from the old and besieged city of Homs. One of our greatest problems is hunger. There is nothing to eat. There is nothing worse than to see people in the streets looking for something to eat for their children.”
Do you think that the world will do something or will everyone watch while we die?
“That is impossible. It is impossible that we suffer while the world does nothing. Not only the world has to do something, but we all have to as well. Otherwise we will die. We do not want to die from pain and hunger.”
Father Frans did not see the world stop watching and doing nothing. He took but one side, the side of the people and their needs to live. That was not a side of guns and bombs, violence and war, but of faith, community and fraternal love. He was fighting the people’s hunger and insanity that comes with it, as well as the world’s impotence in doing anything about it. For that he apparently had to die.
“It was sharp…”
“We visited the Pope.”
“…white balance was right…”
“We visited the Pope.”
“…and we visited the Pope.”
“We pressed the button.”
“We had more time than we thought.”
“45 minutes. We could ask everything we wanted, all the questions.”
“Yes. And he said to us…”
“Find your treasure, he said, find your treasure.”
“Tesoro, find your treasure.”
“Yes. That’s a clear mission, isn’t it?”
“Oh man, mission. We visited the Pope.”
The reaction of the two young cameramen as they had just returned from the interview with Pope Francis is an example of their enthusiasm and the unprecedented feat that they and the three other interviewers managed to perform. Broadcast on Belgian television yesterday evening, below follows the transcript and translation of the interview as shown. The full report is well worth a look, even if it is in Dutch, with the questions asked in English and the Pope responding in Italian.
“Thanks for accepting our request. But why did you accept it?”
“When I sense that a young man or woman has a certain restlessness, I think it is my duty to serve that young person. To do some service to that restlessness. That restlessness is like a seed that grows and in due time bears fruit. At this time I feel that I can do you a valuable service by listening to your restlessness.”
“Er… I have the second question..”
“Ah, you.” (laughter)
“Everyone in this word is trying to be happy, but we were wondering: are you happy, and why?”
“Absolutely. (smiles) I am most certainly happy. I have a certain inner quietness, a great peace, a great happiness. That also comes with age. Of course, problems appear in everyone’s path, but my happiness does not disappear because of those problems.”
“In many ways you show us great love to poor and to wounded people. Why is this so important for you?”
“Yes… Because (Pope Francis accidentally slips into English here, before continuing in Italian…), because that is the heart of the Gospel. I believe. I believe in God, in Jesus and the Gospel. The poor are at the heart of the Gospel. I heard that someone, two months ago, said, because of my focus on the poor, that this Pope is a communist. But that’s wrong. It is a commandment from the Gospel, not from communism. The Gospel is about poverty outside of ideology. That is why I think the poor are at the heart of the Gospel. It’s what it says.”
“I don’t believe in God, but your acts and ideas inspire me. So, do you maybe have a message for all, for us, for the young Christians, to people who don’t believe, or have another belief, or believe in a different way?”
“I think that you have to find authenticity in your way of speaking. I… My authenticity is that I speak as an equal. We are all brothers, believers or not, of one faith or another, Jews or Muslims, we are all equal. Man is the centre. [...] In this moment in history, man is pushed out of the centre. He has been pushed to the periphery. In the centre, money and power rule, at least in this moment. In a world in which money and power are first and foremost important… young people have been chased out. Young people no longer want children. Families are becoming smaller, families don’t want children. The elderly are pushed aside. Many elderly die because of a sort of hidden euthanasia, because no one cares for them and they die. And now the young are chased out. For example, in Italy, youth unemployment of people under the age of 25 is at almost 50%. We are part of a culture of disposability. If it contributes nothing to globalisation, it is thrown away. The elderly, children, young people. During my years of service, now as Pope and before that in Buenos Aires, I spoke with many young politicians. That pleased me, because regardless of their political preferences, they spoke a new language, introduced a new music. A new music, a new style of doing politics. That gives me hope.”
“When I read the newspaper, or I look around, I sometimes doubt if the human race is capable of taking care of this world and of the human race itself. Do your recognise this doubt?”
“I ask myself two questions about that. Where is God? And where is man? And I also ask myself now: where are you, 21st century man? A question of… And it also reminds me of that other question: God, where are you? When man finds himself, he seeks God. Perhaps he won’t find God, but he sets out on a path of honesty, seeking out truth, a path of goodness and beauty. It is a long road. Some people don’t find Him during their life. They don’t find Him consciously, but they are so real, so honest about themselves, so good and such lovers of beauty, that in the end they have a very mature and competent personality and meet God in all His grace.”
“We are all humans, and we make mistakes. What did your mistakes teach you?”
“I have made mistakes (laughs), and I still make them. They say man is the only animal that falls in the same well twice. In my life I have learned, and I still do, that mistakes are the best teachers. They teach you a lot. I don’t dare to say that I always learnt my lesson. Sometimes I didn’t, because I am very stubborn (laughs). That’s hard to change. But I learned from many mistakes and that has been good.
“Does he have a concrete example about himself, that he made a mistake himself?”
“No problem, I will say it. I wrote it in a book, so it is public knowledge. For example, I became a superior when I was very young. I made many mistakes against authoritarianism. I was too authoritarian. I was 36 years old. I learned then that you have to enter into dialogue and have to listen to what others think. That did not mean I had changed for good. The road is long. I learned much from my authoritarian behaviour when I was that young. That is how I slowly learned to make fewer mistakes. But I still make them. (laughs)
“I do have my fears. What makes you afraid?”
“Myself. (laughs) Fears? In the Gospel Jesus continuously repeats: Be not afraid, be not afraid. Why does He repeat that so often? Because He knows that fear is “normal”. We are afraid of life, of challenges. We also know fears before God. Everyone is afraid. Everyone. So you don’t have to worry. You should ask yourself why you are afraid, before God, before yourself. You should learn to delineate your fear, because there is good and bad fear. Good fear is like prudence, a careful attitude. Bad fear is fear that limits you. It makes you small. It paralyses you, prevents you from doing things. You must lose that fear.
“Last question. The terrible last question”. (laughs)
“Do you have a question for us?”
“My question is certainly not original. It comes from the Gospel. But after hearing all your questions, I think this is the right question at this time.
Where is your treasure? Where does your heart rest? In what treasure does your heart rest? Because that treasure will define your life. The heart is linked to that treasure, which we all possess. Power, money, pride… so many things. Or… goodness, beauty, the will to do good. It can be so many things. Where is your treasure? That is my question. But you must answer it for yourselves, alone. At home.
“Thank you very much. Please pray for me.”
This transcription and translation was based on the questions asked in English and the subtitled responses by the Pope. His answers as given above are therefore translations of translations, with the latter being edited translations to fit a television screen (the art of subtitling comes with a number of demands which are alien to translating for websites). I am fully aware that this is not ideal, but it is what it is.
The photo that Pope Francis is seen signing at the end of the video, as featured on the Verse Vis Facebook page.
Breaking and unexpected news today as the Archdiocese of Utrecht announces that, after a four-year hiatus, it will once more be housing its own seminary within the borders of the archdiocese. In 2010, the Ariënskonvikt in the city of Utrecht closed its doors as part of a wider financial reform started by Archbishop Wim Eijk (at the time, he called it one of the hardest decisions he had to make as bishop). The seminarians of the archdiocese moved to the seminary of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam, and in Utrecht the former vice rector of the seminary Fr. Patrick Kuipers, continued to manage the affairs of seminarians and conducting projects related to vocations and formation.
Now, the seminarians are to come home to Utrecht, back to the old house they vacated four years ago, which now lies next door to the Faculty of Catholic Theology, which moved to the inner city a few years ago. Seminarians will receive their academic formation there. Fr. Kuipers will be the rector of the newly established institution.
There are several reasons for the return to Utrecht, of which the improved financial situation of the archdiocese if the most important. There is also a slow increase in seminarians, which, together with the limited space available, means that the new seminary is only open to seminarians from the archdiocese. In the past, Utrecht was also home to seminarians from the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. Another reason to return to Utrecht was the peripheral location of the Tiltenberg, the seminary of Haarlem-Amsterdam, as seen from the archdiocese. The seminarians would be travelling long distances from there to the parishes in which they learned the trade, so to speak.
The Archdiocese of Utrecht currently has eight seminarians, who will all be housed in Utrecht,. These will be joined by four religious of congregation of the Misioneros de Cristo Maestro who will form their own community. Before he came to Utrecht, Cardinal Eijk established contacts with this congregation with an eye on establishing a community in the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, where he was bishop at the time.
It seemed like an April Fools’ joke at first, but if it is, it is impressive in its preparation, scope and execution. Five young Catholics of the Belgian youth collective Verse Vis asked to and succeeded in interviewing Pope Francis and had the entire question and answer session recorded for later broadcast. And they did it all via the shortest route possible, directly from them to the Pope. And the Holy Father responded enthusiastically. As he explained in a short bit of footage released earlier, he feels obliged to help a young person when he or she comes to him with questions.
A press conference later today will give more information… or make us all look like fools.
Despite the date, the course of today removed all doubt that this was some elaborate joke. Both Belgian and Dutch broadcasters have plans to broadcast the interview on television, and a photo appeared just now of the young interviewers posing with Pope Francis and Ghent’s Bishop Luc van Looy:
More reports and comments from various media are appearing on the group’s own website, linked above. From these we learn, for example, how the interview became a reality: Inspired by the World Youth Days in Rio last summer, the group, which endeavours to communicate the faith to young people in an appealing way, shared their idea to interview the Pope with Bishop van Looy, who promptly sent a fax to the Vatican and received a response with permission for the interview. The group then prepared a number of questions, both personal and general. The actual contents of the interview, which was more like a conversation than a Q&A session, remain under wraps until the Thursday evening broadcast of Belgian news program ‘Koppen’. Pope Francis was friendly, comforting and cordial and gave his interviewers a message of hope for the future: to find the treasure in their hearts and cherish that for the rest of their lives.