25 years after the pope came to visit

Pope John Paul II with Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus

Twenty-five years ago today, Pope John Paul II set foot on Dutch soil, for the start of a papal visit that has gone down in history as rather disgraceful. Interest among Dutch Catholics was low and many of those who did pay attention to the visit, did so to protest against the Church. It was the start of the notorious 8 May movement of liberal ‘Catholics’ who thought (and still think) that the faith is something we all make for ourselves, that individualism is the holy grail (if you’ll pardon the pun) of personal fulfillment. The fruits of what’s mistakenly called the ‘fruits of Vatican II’ became painfully visible, and we are still recovering from that.

De Telegraaf has a short article that looks back on this visit. In it, Cardinal Simonis, at the time the archbishop of Utrecht and not yet a cardinal, says: “‘Interesting’. Those were the words of Pope John Paul II after his visit. I apologised for the cold reception. The Netherlands was the worst papal visit ever. He reacted very sportsmanlike.”

The cardinal says the reason for the failure was that everyone wanted to enter into discussion with the pope. “The elderly wanted to discuss getting old. The young wanted this, the gay people wanted that. But that’s what bishops are for. The pope is not a superbishop.”

The end of the four-day visit was a relief. “There had been death threats. Also to me. I spent ten days under police protection.”

“It was a failure. There was no enthusiasm but antipathy. And the unavoidable dose of Dutch antipapism.”

And how about a visit from the current pope?

“Oh no, please not. That would not be wise. The pope has other matters to attend to now.”

“Apart from a shepherd, this pope is an intellectual. He has better uses for his time. Besides, he is 83 years old. You shouldn’t do that to the man at that age. The Dutch are also rather stubborn and headstrong, so there is a great risk that Pope Benedict XVI will be received the same way.”

I don’t fully agree with the cardinal about that last part, but I do think a papal visit would be very unwise. There is very little to gain by it, no matter how much I would personally like it. To an extent, the antipapist trends that developed around the 1985 visit have died down. The 8 May movement no longer exists and its supporters are overwhelmingly elderly. But there is still a lot of antipathy, and society as a whole is not very pro-Catholic, let alone pro-pope. While protests won’t be as vocal from the Catholics, I fear they’ll be all the more vocal from the secular camp.

The state of the Church in the Netherlands is, as my bishop put it in a different context, fragile but hopeful. It does not yet warrant the pope coming here. Instead, for the foreseeable future, it is more proper if we (ideally represented by our bishops) go to him when needed.

So, when’s that ad limina visit? Scandinavia and England and Wales have recently been, Belgium is in Rome now, so I would not be surprised if it’s coming up soon.

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