Breaking the seal of confession?

E03a-photo-e1480059351589A Belgian priest of the Diocese of Bruges is being sued for not acting on information shared with him in a confession. The case has the potential of becoming a precedent on how society and law deals with the seal of confession, as well as the professional secrecy as it exists in medical professions, and also highlights once more what confession actually is.

The case: a man confided in a confession over the telephone (which, under certain circumstances, such as immediate duress, can count as a confession) that he had suicidal thoughts. He later acted on those thoughts and ended his own life. The wife of the man now sues the priest for never having informed anyone of what he learned in the confession. The problem is that the priest couldn’t. The seal of confession is absolute. He could have urged the penitent to seek professional help, even offered forms of help himself, be it the help he could offer himself or relaying the help of others. But that is just about the end of it.

The paradox in this case is that suicide in itself, sad and disturbing as it is, is not a crime under Belgian law, so not acting on the suicidal thoughts of a person can not be considered cooperation in a crime, and the priest can’t be accused of negligence in that regard.

There is some uncertainty, however, if the confession in which the priest learned about the suicidal thoughts of the penitent actually was a confession. A confession, by definition, involves a sin which can be be forgiven. Suicidal thoughts are not in themselves a sin, especially since they are most often caused by factors, mental or otherwise, outside of a person’s control. All the same, the man could have been convinced that his thoughts were sinful, and this would be enough for a valid confession. But if that was not the case, the priest would have been free to offer his help or inform others, with the man’s consent, of the situation and the help needed.

Also, if the suicidal thoughts were shared in a confession of other sins, the seal of confession would obviously also apply: it affects the entirety of the confession, not just the sins, but also whatever pastoral advice or personal thoughts are being relayed. The priest in that case simply lacks the freedom to divulge what he learns. This protects the integrity and freedom of the sacrament and the penitent.

Confession is not just a pastoral conversation or personal meeting with a priest. According the Catholic teaching it is the intensely personal presentation of one’s wins to God, and asking His forgiveness. The priest who hears the conversations is not really a party in this: he is a tool to hear the confession and relay advice or penitence according to his own formation, inspiration and understanding, but these ultimately derive from God. Everyone must be free to stand before God and open themselves up to Him, which is why they must first be aware of the freedom to ask for and receive the sacrament of confession. In many cases this involves the certainty that what they share is shared in complete confidence, just like when one would share medical problems with their doctor. It is so intensely personal, and, quite frankly, completely a matter between man and God.

If the case outlined above included a true confession, the priest could do nothing else but keep the information to himself and do his best to convince the man to seek and accept help. He had no freedom to ask others for that help on the man’s behalf, as this would involve breaking the seal of confession. But, as publicist Mark Van de Voorde writes here, “in cases of great evil which fall under criminal law, such as sexual abuse and murder, the penitence also includes that the perpetrator must report himself to the police. Every confessor is obliged to point this out to the penitent, stating that forgiveness of sins is not possible otherwise.” A priest is not completely powerless before a penitent unwilling to seek help.

It will be interesting to see what the judge rules in this case. If the priest is convicted it will set a precedent for any future case involving the sacrament of confession as well as doctor-patient confidentiality and information shared confidentially shared with one’s lawyer. All are protected under Belgian law (as they are in many other European countries).

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Seminary too small? Close or merge it, says Rome

DSC_0034Through Archbishop Jorge Carlos Patrón Wong, Rome has revealed a minimal number of seminarians that a seminary needs to be “a veritable training community”, La Croix reports. The most recent Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, the document outlining the guidelines for the formation of future priests, did urge that seminaries need to be of sufficient size to function as a community in which priestly formations could flourish and develop, it refrained from mentioning an actual number. Last Monday, in a  meeting with the bishops of France, Archbishop Patrón Wong, the secretary for seminaries of the of the Congregation for Clergy, reiterated this guideline, but left it to Bishop Jérôme Beau, auxiliary bishop of Paris, to state a minimum number of 17 to 20.

While Bishop Beau conceivably arrived at this number from a French perspective (in that country, only fifteen of the thirty-two seminaries reach the minimum of seventeen seminarians), it could have repercussions for other countries as well.

The Vatican guidelines make no demands about numbers, merely inviting bishops’ conferences to “consider” a minumum number for seminaries to remain open, and Archbishop Patrón Wong seemingly expressed his personal opinion that seminaries who do not manage to reach that number should be closed or merged.

Should the Congregation for Clergy move from an urging to a demand, what would the consequences for the Dutch dioceses and seminaries be? A question that is especially interesting considering the question that flares up every now and then of whether the Dutch seminaries shouldn’t merge anyway.

There are currently seven seminaries and other places for the training of future deacons and priests in the Netherlands: The Ariënsinstituut in Utrecht, St. Willibrord seminary in Heiloo (Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam), Vronesteyn in Voorburg, (Diocese of Rotterdam), Bovendonk in Hoeven (Diocese of Breda), St. John’s Centre (Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch) and Rolduc (Diocese of Roermond), as well as two seminaries of the Neocatechumenal Way, in Cadier en Keer (Roermond) and Nieuwe Niedorp (Haarlem-Amsterdam). Most of these already cooperate closely, with teaching staff working at several seminaries and seminarians from various dioceses living and working in one place. Bovendonk caters especially to late vocations, offering a curriculum for students that is compatible with their day jobs.

Of these seminaries there is only one which would be able to continue independently, and that is Rolduc, and then only if we combine the numbers of the diocesan seminary with that of the Neocatechumenal Way seminary, which makes sense since they already share facilities. Together, they have some 40 seminarians from 17 different countries. Only four of these hail from the Diocese of Roermond itself, while others were invited from India and Sri Lanka by Bishop Frans Wiertz. The Neocatechumenal Way seminary in Nieuwe Niedorp has 16 seminarians, just below the minimum suggested. Rotterdam’s Vronesteyn seminary has 13 students, 8 of whom study at Bovendonk and three in Utrecht. Only five seminarians live at Vronesteyn. Utrecht’s Ariënstituut has 10 students, and Haarlem-Amsterdam’s St. Willibrord seminary has 8, with one young man in a year of orientation for a future entrance. The St. John’s Centre does not offer current numbers on their website.

Merging the existing seminaries into one or two larger ones is an idea that has been floated in the past, with some staff in favour and others opposed. Merging all seminaries into one would result in a community of at least 87 seminarians. More realistically, the Neocatechumenal Way would not be involved in a merger, thus creating a seminary of between 40 and 50 seminarians. Perhaps more likely, if a merger would ever happen in the foreseeable future, there will be two seminaries with student numbers somewhere in the 20s for both.

But this is theory. For it to become reality, something more than a directive from Rome is needed. A merger would present its share of logistical and ideological problems as well, the resolution of which could initially be more divisive than unifying.

 

Photo credit: [1] Eglise.catholique.fr

A rapid retirement for Bishop Wiertz

IMgr. F.J.M. Wiertzn a circular letter to be read out in the parishes of his diocese next Sunday, Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond informs the faithful that he has asked Pope Francis to be allowed to retire on his 75th birthday on 2 December. ND.nl broke the news this morning. Normally, the request for retirement is sent upon reaching that age, and then it can take months or even years before the retirement is accepted.

The Holy Father responded positively to the bishop’s request. In addition to retiring immediately, Bishop Wiertz has also asked not to be appointed as apostolic administrator for the period between his retirement and the installation of a new bishop.

In his monthly column, Bishop Wiertz asks for prayer:

“I speak from experience when I say that it is very important for a new Church leader to know that he is supported by the prayer of many.

That is why I wish to urge you to pray in the coming months for the Church in our diocese, and for a good shepherd, teacher and manager.”

The bishop, who has headed the southeastern diocese since 1993, has been struggling with health issues for some time now. His eyesight has been progressively failing, as he revealed in May of 2016.

In February of this year, a poll held among priests of the Diocese of Roermond revealed that the new bishop should be a man in the line of Pope Francis: communicative, no stranger to social media, and able to be strong and inspirational in his policies.

Bishop Wiertz was the oldest serving bishop of the Netherlands, and also the most senior in terms of years served. His 24 years in office is the longest period since that of wartime Bishop Jozef Lemmens, who served from 1932 to 1957.

In his retirement, Bishop Wiertz has decided to take up residence in Maastricht, the city where he was parish priest from 197 to 1985. Maastricht oncde also hosted to oldest cathedral in what is now the Netherlands, and is today also a titular see (currently vacant).

Here follows the full text of the circular letter:

“Brothers and sisters,

“Jesus Christ is the same: heri, hodie, cras.” Thus writes the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews: “yesterday, today and forever.” (Heb. 13:8).

The world is changing, the times are changing and the Church is naturally also changing. But our mission remains the same: to proclaim Christ in every era and carry His Gospel to the ends of the earth.

It is now more than 24 years since Pope Saint John Paul II appointed me as bishop of Roermond. In the past years I have tried to proclaim Christ in this office. I have said before that that is a mission which requires more people. One man alone does not possess all the talents needed to fulfill the office of bishop.

Luckily I can say that I have had the support in all those years of the immediate coworkers in the diocese, in the staff, the chapter, the advisory councils, the seminary, the colleges of priests and deacons, of the pastoral workers and catechists and the many volunteers in parish councils, work groups and parishes. All of them – all of you – have helped me in word and deed to fulfill the office of bishop through liturgy, catechesis, charity and pastoral care. I thank you all.

I especially thank my auxiliary bishop Everard de Jong and vicar general Msgr. Hub Schnackers and their immediate predecessors in those offices, with whom I have worked in great kindness and friendship. My thanks to all who – each in their own way – have worked to proclaimed Christ is immeasurable. The Church in the Diocese of Roermond, as we know it today, is due in large part to them.

I am obviously aware of my limitations, sins and shortcomings. I realise that, over the course of the years, there have been people, also among you, who have been hurt because of what I did. For that, I wish to appeal to your gift of forgiveness.

Recently, Pope Francis once again called upon all bishops to present their resignation when they rech the age of 75. Since I hope to reach that age on 2 December, I have presented my resignation to the pope several months ago, and I have already received a positive response from him.

In my letter of resignation I also asked the pope not to appoint me as administrator of our diocese after 2 December. This because of my greatly reduced vision. This means that I will really finish my episcopal activities on 2 December.

In canon 412 and 413, canon law allows a bishops who is prevented from fulfilling his pastoral duties to let the chapter appoint a temporary administrator. He will govern the diocese in my name until a new bishop has been appointed.

On Saturday 9 December I will bid my farewell in a celebration of thanksgiving in St. Christopher’s cathedral, and subsequently at a reception in De Oranjerie in Roermond. I have been able to fulfill the office of bishop with great joy. There have definitely been difficult times, but I can look back in great gratitude on the almost quarter of a century in which I could be your bishop and could walk through the times with you. They have been happy years.

I will bid you farewell in the certainty that Christ remains the same as He was, as He is and as He will be in the future: the Son of the living God, our Saviour, on whom we can establish all our hopes, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

On this occasion I gladly ask for your prayer for a good successor on the seat of Roermond. On the intercession of Our Lady Star of the Sea, who is so loved in our entire diocese, I wish you salvation and blessings. In my new place of residence in Maastricht I hope to be united with you in prayer for some years.

I wish you all well. Adieu, adieë, until before God.

Roermond, 4 october 2017
on the feast day of Saint Francis,

+ Frans Wiertz,
bishop of Roermond”

Pope appoints Dutch bishop as member of Church’s highest court

jan_hendriksYesterday Pope Francis appointed five new members of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest court of law of the Catholic Church. In addition to three cardinals and an archbishop, one of the new members is Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam. He is also the only new member who does not reside in Rome or has been a member of the Signatura before. He will exercise his new duties in addition to his current ones.

Bishop Hendriks is a canon lawyer, having various legal functions in a number of dioceses, and he is also a consultor of the Congregation for the Clergy.

In his blog he descibes the duties of the Apostolic Signatura:

“The Apostolic Signatura is the ‘supreme court’ of the Catholic Church and judges, among other things, certain forms of appeal against judgements of the Roman Rota and appeals against certain decisions of policy (administrative disputes). […] The Signatura generally judges if the decisionmaking process has been correct.”

The other members appointed along with Bishop Hendriks are Cardinals Agostino Vallini (Vicar General emeritus of Rome and Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal from 2004 to 2008), Edoardo Menichelli (Archbishop emeritus of Acona-Osimo and former secretary of the Prefect), Raymond Burke (Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal from 2008 to 2014) and Archbishop Frans Daneels (Secretary emerotis of the Supreme Tribunal).

Blog relaunch, and a request

Summer is ending, so blogging can be expected to pick up again (and I am well aware that I am nowhere near the blogging frequency of earlier years). On the one hand that is good, as it means that there are other parts of life that demand my time and attention (hint: marriage is good one). On the other, it leaves my readers wanting for things to read. And I still think I have some things to say, even when the blogging world, not least the Catholic blogging world, has changed over the years. I still intend to write about Catholic topics (local and international) as they develop, and in that sense it is hard to predict when I will write about what. Still, write I hope to do.

While life on the whole is good, there are always concerns and worries. Lately, finances have been a bit tight, which is why, to borrow a phrase, the tin cup rattles once more.

Bills need paying, food wants a place on the table… And my writing may perhaps contribute to those practical purposes. Hence my humble request for your kind donations. In return I will write, inform, hopefully inspire… and I will remember you in my prayers, at Mass and in the privacy of my home (and perhaps also in the spontaneous prayerful exclamations that slip out in times of need or surprise).

This little button (or its brother in the right side bar) will take you to the right place to donate whatever amount you please.

My thanks is great.

Another inside impression – Bishop Aerts on ‘baby bishops’ school’.

As a follow-up on my blog post of 15 September, Bishop Lode Aerts, appointed to the Diocese of Bruges in October of last year, looks back with enthusiasm on his participation in the “baby bishops’ school”.

A colourful company

They were eight busy days in Rome for the 120 new bishops. And what colourful company! Imagine: the new bishop of Gibraltar [Carmelo Zammit] works for 25,000 Catholics, the new auxiliary bishop of Toronto [Robert Kasun]  for 2 million. In Peru, the new bishop of Caravelí [Reinhold Nann] works with 15 generally young priests. In German Munich his new colleague [auxiliary Rupert Graf zu Stolberg] has more than 400 in active service. Some bishops have been sent to very rural dioceses. The expansive French Diocese of Limoges [Pierre-Antoine Bozo], for example, has not a single urban centre. Elsewhere, the bishops reside in great cities such a New York or the Mexican industrial city of Monterrey, [auxiliaries Heriberto Pérez and Oscar Tamez Villareal] with 4 million inhabitants. There are also worlds of difference in the area of caritas. The Polish [Arch]diocese of Czestochowa [auxiliary Andrzej Przybylski] receives throngs of pilgrims, but has no immigrants at all. The Latin bishop of Beirut [Cesar Essayan], with his small community of Catholics, tries to do something for the two million Syrian refugees and the one million Palestinians in the camps, while the population of Lebanon numbers barely 4 million!

Regardless of how different the situations are, the challenges seems to be the same everywhere: how to become Christians in our modern culture?\

Among the many conferences, this was best expressed by the witness of Cardinal Cardozo from Venezuela [the archbishop of Mérida]. He quoted abundantly from the homilies and writings of his former colleague and friend, the then-Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio. How to be a Christian? How to be a good bishop? Long before he became Pope Francis, the answer often resounded in his homilies; “This is how you become a Christian or bishop: through the joy of the Gospel.” Or: “By descending into the needs of yourself and of the other. By being touched by the other.” And… “through the authenticity of your way of life.”

2017.09 met paus Franciscus 2

Cordial and relaxed

That idea about way of living was not limited to words. It was tangible during the course. The atmosphere was especially cordial and relaxed, even though the program was often very full. We started at 7:30 in the morning and did not stop until 10:30 in the evening. The participation of Secretary of State Parolin and many other cardinals did not detract from the simplicity and fraternity. On the contrary, there was always a great sense of solidarity in the conference hall and in the refectory, in the chapel and in the garden, in the transfers by bus and the discussions in language groups. Some called it a Francis effect. All the same, the cordial reception by the pope on the final day was in that line.

Completely himself and with a joke, Pope Francis bade us farewell:

“God was already present in your dioceses when you arrived and will still be there when you are gone.”

25 years in, Bishop Hofmann leaves the seat of Würzburg

ba5a6005As announced by the Nuncio yesterday, the retirement of Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann will begin today. The bishop of Würzburg, who celebrated his 75th birthday in May, has been at the helm of the diocese for 13 years.

The announcement of the upcoming retirement was made on Sunday when the bishop and diocese celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop. Before coming to Würzburg in 2004, Bishop Hofmann served as an auxiliary bishop of Cologne for 12 years.

The silver jubilee of his ordination as bishop was thus also an opportunity to thank Msgr. Hofmann for his service. Numerous bishops from Germany and abroad had come to concelebrate, among them Cardinals Reinhard Marx and Friedrich Wetter, from Munich both, Archbishop Piero Marini, and Archbishop Jean-Claude Périsset, the previous nuncio to Germany, Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich from Luxembourg, Bishop John Ndimbo from Mbinga in Tanzania and Bishop Bernardo Johannes Bahlmann from Óbidos in Brazil, both partner dioceses of Würzburg.

In contrast with the expressions of appreciation and gratitude for his work, from brother bishops as well as the local Lutheran bishop and the president of the Bavarian parliament, Bishop Hofmann rather more critical in his homily. Looking back on the past 25 years, he noted how the problems in society had not improved. “On the contrary, the problems became more acute and new challenges have arisen”. Examples mentioned by the bishop were the cries in the world leading to increasing streams of refugees, the increase in religiously motivated extremism, and the ethical challenges of genetic research. How can this be compatible with God’s love for us? Referring to his motto, “Ave crux, spes unica“, Bishop Hofmann said, “What may seem to us as the ultimate humiliation, is for Jesus the rising and entrance into the glory of the Father. This belief shakes us up and presupposes knowledge of the fullness of our salvation.”

In a recent interview for the Tagespost, Bishop Hofmann looked ahead to his retirement, saying:

“I am aware that I am taking a step back. I will not interfere in how my successor executes his office. I have decided that for myself. My predecessor, Bishop Scheele, did the same thing. But I am willing to help out when I am asked, for examples with confirmations. I will continue living in Würzburg.”

Said interview also contains a number of comments from Bishop Hofmann on a number of topics, comments which show that, in many respects, this is a bishop with his head screwed on right.

On same-sex marriage, promoted in Germany by the “Ehe für alle” (marriage for all) initiative, he says:

“The so-called “Ehe für alle” is, in my opinion, a catastrophe for society. Marriage is a God-willed union of man and woman, which is open to the generation of new life. An “Ehe für alle” is therefore impossible according to Catholic understanding.  Pointing this out is not remotely the same as attacking or discriminating homosexual people”.\

About the presence of Muslim immigrants (and often second- and third-generation Muslims) in German society, which in the basis remains a Christian society:

“It should be clear: when Muslims come to us and want to live here, they must accept our social rules. But for me as a Christian, the Islam is not a challenge. It is rather the failing of Christianity that we should fear. We must speak with Muslims on equal footing. We must make it clear to them that basic civilian advances such as the Charter of the United Nations of the Basic Law of Germany are based on Christian ethics. We must inform them that their freedom and wellbeing also depend on the continued existence of that Christian foundation.”

The shortage of priests is also felt in Würzburg. The number of young men knocking on seminary doors is small. Bishop Hofmann points out several reasons for this.

“These days, young men often no longer come from a Christian family. When God is not mentioned at home, when there is no prayer, it is difficult to arrive at the thought to go this path. Secondly, young people have a fear of commitment. This can also be seen with marriage. People no longer want to commit themselves to one person for their entire lives. That obviously makes celibacy a major hurdle, which many cannot overcome, although they may certainly be suitable for the priesthood. And then there is the great pressure of expectation on the priest from the community. Many priests experience this. Young people then wonder if they want to do that to themselves.”

Another hot-button topic is the question of ordaining women to the priesthood. Bishop Hofmann has something to say about that, and about celibacy and the ordination of married men, too.

“The ordination of women is not possible. The priest, after all, represents Christ and must therefore be a man. The Church has no leeway there. This is a different question than that of celibacy. I consider celibacy to be a very important concept. In it, the Church makes clear that she is not a great worldly concern, but is built on a different foundation. But there have always been married priests as well in our Church, for example in the Uniate churches or converts. It is therefore possible to discuss the question of the viri probati. But this discussion should not be held in such a way that one speaks ill of celibacy and considers it superfluous. It can only be about ordaining proven men, for example deacons, who have shown themselves capable of ecclesiastical service as married men. Such a step can only be made in unity with the word Church. The pope is certainly open to thinking in this direction, but at the same time he is not one who wants to rip the Church from her foundations.”

The Church in Germany is among the richest in the world. In the past, Pope Benedict XVI, himself a German, has been very critical about the wealth of the Church. Bishop Hofmann says:

“Pope Benedict was completely right. In Germany, we are a rich Church. But in the face of the needs of the world I often wonder myself if all the reserves that we are building are justified, or if we shouldn’t give that money to the poor and hungry.”

Finally, Bishop Hofmann greatly respects the retired pope, and the way that he is sometimes discussed is a discgrace.

“Pope Benedict is one of the greatest theologians to have occupied the seat of Peter. He has given the world so much that is positive and important, in word and deed. It is a tragedy that we haven’t always positively accepted this in Germany. But I am convinced that in 20, 30 years Pope Benedict will find new listeners as a Doctor of the Church of the modern age.”

232px-Karte_Bistum_WürzburgWürzburg is the second diocese, after Hildesheim, to fall vacant after a brief spell in which every German diocese had a bishop at its head. When the retirement of Bishop Hofmann begins, at noon today, auxiliary bishop Ulrich Boom will be in charge until the cathedral chapter has chosen an administrator to oversee current affairs until a new bishop has been appointed. Würzburg is the northernmost diocese in Bavaria and a part of the Church province of Bamberg.

Photo credit: Markus Hauck (POW)