“A loaded statement, but true”

In a TV interview on the abuse crisis last night, Adrianus Cardinal Simonis used the well-known but very painful statement “Wir haben es nicht gewußt” – We did not know of it – to refer to the bishops at the time. Cardinal Simonis has been a bishop for 39 years, first in Rotterdam and then in Utrecht. His consecration in 1971 coincided with the tail end of the era which spawned most of the abuse reports that are only now coming to light.

The cardinal followed his statement by saying that “it is a loaded term. But it is true.”

I’m not going to ponder the question of whether or not the bishops knew anything about what crimes some priests and religious committed. That’s not a very interesting question to me right now, and one that may be answered by the bishops and people close to them alone, really.

In stating the lack of knowledge of the bishops in these words – used as an excuse for the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust –  Cardinal Simonis puts himself and his brother bishops in a very vulnerable position. Certainly politically it is not a wise thing to say. It will rightly lead to questions of why the bishops did not know and if they should have known. But from a Christian standpoint it may have been the best thing to say.

In his letter to the Irish Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI emphasis the vital importance of honesty, openness and clarity. That is what the cardinal is doing here. Instead of finding excuses and explanations for why they did not know – reasons which of course did come to the fore in the course of the interview – he starts with this simple statement: we did not know. No excuses, just the sad and painful fact which is then virtually impossible to deny or go back on. And it shouldn’t be denied, of course.

But why the choice for such a loaded expression which is unavoidably connected to atrocities and often used in the past by people who did know? In my opinion, it may simply be shock value. Not in a negative way, but the cardinal must have consciously decided to use the German phrase, knowing full well that no one would forget or ignore it. That places the bishops’ lack of knowledge in the forefront of the discussion, at least for a little while. Perhaps that refers back to the honesty that the pope emphasises: “Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives. This must arise, first and foremost, from your own self-examination, inner purification and spiritual renewal” (Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, 11).

Complete honesty, effectively impressed upon the common conscience of the people, is only the first step on repairing the damage done. Painful, certainly. Inappropriate, perhaps. Laudable in its honesty, absolutely.

Banned or not? A clarification from the censor

I had decided to not spend a lot of time on the work of the two censors who are working to investigate the songs used in the liturgy, but I think that it always helps to give some clarity on an issue which at least keeps certain Dutch Catholics occupied.

It’s always nice to see one’s own opinions confirmed by people in the know. Following Bishop Hurkmans of ‘s Hertogenbosch, Auxiliary Bishop Herman Woorts wrote a letter to the parish councils and emeritus priests in the Archdiocese of Utrecht to clarify the work of the censors of liturgical music. And since a bishop’s words rightly carry more weight than those of a random blogger, here is Bishop Woorts’ letter.


Brothers and sisters in Christ,

As Church we are a celebrating community. When we celebrate the liturgy there is frequent singing, both by choirs and the entire gathered assembly. A lot of time, care and attention is devoted to the music and songs in our churches, because we worship God with them, it feeds our faith and binds us together as a faith community. We are blessed with a wealth of songs, old and new, in Latin, Dutch or another language.

In service to the celebrations in our parishes and in other places where the faithful meet for the liturgy, publishers Gooi en Sticht and Berne Heeswijk publish booklets. It is the duty of the bishops in whose dioceses these publishers are located to make sure that the contents are in agreement with our Catholic faith and the liturgy of the Church. If the content is approved, they give their ‘imprimatur’ so that the booklets can be printed and distributed.

In order to be able to give their imprimatur, the bishops of Utrecht and ‘s Hertogenbosch (the dioceses in which the aforementioned publishers are located) have both appointed a ‘censor’. For the archdiocese I have been appointed as censor for the booklets from Gooi en Sticht. A censor must examine if the texts come from the altar missal, if the readings from Holy Scripture are printed in the prescribed translation and if songs and texts on the back are in concord with faith and morals.

The content of the songs is considered: are they theologically sound, in agreement with our Catholic faith? The suitability for the liturgy is considered (both in general and specifically for the Sunday in question). And the text os considered to see whether it clearly expresses what we confess and celebrate in our faith, and if it doesn’t cause confusion. All this will lead to the finding that a song is or is not suited for inclusion in aforementioned liturgy booklets. The finding that a song is or not suite for the liturgy is not dictated by personal preferences. The identity of the author also does not play a part.

Sadly, several media have reported that certain songs – from a specific author or not – have been declared forbidden or placed on an index. This is not the case. The censor is not appointed or able to do that. The suitability for the publications is per song the basis for the advice to the bishop to give his imprimatur. Some newspapers list specific songs which are said to have been rejected. These lists also included songs which have been approved for the liturgy or which have been included although they are not preferred. These media also named songs which were not forbidden, but which do await further scrutiny, since they require discussion before a verdict can be done about their suitability.

These media reports cause responses from people who are disappointed because something they hold dear is now said to be forbidden, but also from people who welcome a thorough consideration of the contents of the songs, because certainly not all songs are considered suitable by all.

We know there is or can be disagreement on the choice of what can and can not be included in the liturgy booklets. Convictions, visions, experience and emotions all play their part in that. I hope that this letter will give you some insight in the censor’s tasks and his methods. For every song the question is whether or not it is suitable for the Sundays for which the booklets are considered.


+H.W. Woorts

Diocesan vicar for the liturgy and censor for the Archdiocese


It’s not a letter that says much, really, but considering that it was written to comfort people and explain what is actually happening, it does its job. Unlike Father Cor Mennen, the other censor, and somewhat like Bishop Hurkmans, Bishop Woorts simply wants to explain and focusses on the importance of discussion. Of course, if you’re going to change things it is good to have the people who are going to be affected by that change on your side. But I hope that, if the difficult decisions need to be made – if, for example, some popular songs from Huub Oosterhuis are no longer allowed – , the bishops are able and willing to take these decisions. It will cause protests, yes, many people will be unhappy, but more important is the liturgy. It is an organic whole and can’t contain elements that deny part or all of the liturgy or the faith. Also important to realise in that respect is that the liturgy is educational: it teaches us about our faith, especially when our active (and receptive, as Father Z emphasises in his analysis of Bishop Marc Aillet’s talk) participation opens our heart and brings us into the mystery of God. Just as the liturgy is focussed on and about Him, so should the music contained in the liturgy be. Not that a song can’t have texts about the community off faithful or shared celebration, but if, as Father Mennen said, the songs could be just as easily an introduction to a birthday party, it has lost its liturgical focus.