Bishop Bluyssen in hospital

bluyssen86-year-old Bishop Johannes Bluyssen – emeritus ordinary of ‘s Hertogenbosch and the sole surviving Dutch Council father – has spent the past few days in hospital, suffering from undisclosed heart problems. He has already been moved out of intensive care, where he was admitted with breathing problems and severe fatigue. Happily, the news broke today that things have quite improved, and from one of the priests of the cathedral we hear that Msgr. Bluyssen may return to his home at ‘s Hertogenbosch’s St. John’s seminary on Sunday.

In the meantime, as the third-oldest bishop of our little country is not out of the woods yet, let’s call on the intercession of St. John of God, patron saint of heart patients, for the bishop’s increasing and continuing wellbeing.

Prep for the end times – a good Advent

90_20_14---Three-Advent-Candles_webAnd just like that, Advent is upon once more. And just like that other great penitential season, Lent, Advent equally aims to prevent us for one of the Church’s great times: the Incarnation of our Lord, the birth of the most fragile and treasured of human beings, a tiny baby boy named Jesus, the Christ.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 524) teaches us that Advent not only prepares us for the memorial of Christ’s first coming, but also renews in us the desire for His eventual second coming. And with that we have hit upon one of the most difficult precepts of our faith. We may accept the idea that Christ will return someday, but very often we take solace in the knowledge that that event may be very far away indeed. And, besides that, we have no clear way of knowing what it will be like, even though the Bible’s last book, the Revelation of John, offers us images and prophesies regarding it.

And we are an imaginative people. Truths of the faith become easier to grasp if we can understand what they were, are or will be like. But somehow we also know that the second coming may not be something in the line of Hollywood’s disaster flicks.

Still, it will happen. Our Lord has said so, after all (Matt. 24: 30-31). And it is good to prepare for this event, even though we know “neither day nor hour” (Matt. 25:13). Should we then be despondent and fearful? Not in the least, but we should take it seriously. How? For starters, we can take a good look at our faith and its expressions. Are they the foundations of our lives, or an aside reserved for the Sunday? How do we pray, how do we attend Mass? Are we attentive and charitable? Do we try to accept teachings without our egos getting in the way? And are we always willing to better ourselves?

Plenty of food for thought for Advent. But let’s not let it get us down. For we know what is coming. As the heartwrenching hymn Rorate Caeli, which we will hear once more this Advent, goes in its last verse:

Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,
my salvation shall not tarry:
why wilt thou waste away in sadness?
why hath sorrow seized thee?
Fear not, for I will save thee:
for I am the Lord thy God,
the Holy One of Israel, thy Redeemer.

“On the edge, but not marginal” – Fr. Radcliffe on the “official Church”

The website of the Dutch Dominicans – usually something of a hotbed of liberal thought and vague spirituality of the 1960s – features a short interview with English Dominican Timothy Radcliffe, Master of the Order from 1992 to 2001. The interview is presented in the context of issues between parishes and dioceses, most recently the student chaplaincy in Tilburg. Fr. Radcliffe has some interesting things to say about the hierarchy and its role in the Church, a topic that never fails to raise hackles in the “spirit of Vatican II” camp.

My translation follows here, with some thoughts of mine added in red.

TR: “There is often much talk about the “official Church”. I don’t like those words, because it makes “them” official and “us” unofficial. But as Dominicans we are just as official as anyone else. The very same goes for the words “the institutional Church”. The Order is also an institution, The Tablet is an institution, your website is an institution. The Church is alive when she creates many institutions. I resist those words, because it marginalises us. I don’t believe at all that I am marginal. I hope I’m on the edge, if you know what I mean, but I’m not marginal.”

So what are you?

TR: “We marginalise ourselves when we discuss the institutional or official Church. We must claim the centre. The same, by the way, goes for the magisterium, the teaching authority. The historian Eamon Duffy says that it consists of Christians who teach, and there are many of those: from the Pope to parents who teach their children. Some do well, others don’t, but it’s all part of the magisterium.” [Fr. Radcliffe seems to limit the magisterium merely to the act of teaching. The magisterium is also – firstly, even – a body that has the specific role to teach and defend teachings (and thus the faith) in the Church. It is therefore more than a person teaching something.  The things that need to be taught are well defined and define the identity of the magisterium, which then does not stand or fall by the abilities of individual members.]

So religious and parishioners should do as they please? [A favourite desire in liberal circles…]

TR: “Authority exists when authority is given. Not just to the faithful and their questions, but also to the Vatican. I should try my best to understand what the Vatican is saying, even if they don’t listen to me [Ah! Authorities do not need to listen to me in order to speak authoritatively]. By that I refuse to be marginalised. You see, playing victim is so easy, but it is so negative and also extremely boring [The relics of the 1960s in the Church are good examples of this]. You should refuse to play the victim game.”

In the Dutch Church and in society that game is very popular.

TR: “It’s a dangerous game. When you make yourself the victim, you are bringing yourself down. It is repressive.”

So how do you call the official Church?

TR: “The hierarchy. And that is like the chassis of a car: it keeps everything together, but it is not the engine, or the tyres of the steering wheel [I think it is a steering wheel as well, with Christ doing the actual steering, but that’s just me…]. A car’s dynamics do not come for the chassis. We need the hierarchy like we need a chassis. But we shouldn’t blame the chassis for not being dynamic. Dynamics should come from us, the religious and lay groups [And it all depends on what you consider dynamic. If it’s just a matter of doing stuff, many in the Church are quite dynamic]. When you’re driving you don’t often think about the chassis. You think about where you want to go and you are happy about your journey. If we would think about our chassis all the time that we were underway, we wouldn’t get far.”

But there is rather an obsession with the chassis.

TR: “The Dominican Herbert McCabe said: the world is interested in the Church, we should be more interested in the Gospel. I think that we would be far happier if we wouldn’t be talking about the Church all the time, and if we would be passionate about the Gospel.”

While I have my questions about some points in the interview, I fully agree with the final answer. Without the Gospel we have little hope of achieving anything. The Gospel should always be what propels us to do things, and it should shine through in those things.That goes for blogs as well, my own not excluded. While the hierarchy is a regular feature in my blog, it should be seen in the context of the Gospel, of proclamation of the Word of God. That is the new evangelisation.

A Catholic – so automatically universal – consistory

A last look back at Saturday’s consistory that, according the pope’s own indications, was an attempt to better reflect the international nature of the Church. As the photo above, showing new Cardinal John Onaiyekan with Nigerian pilgrims, indicates, it was an affair that brought together “a variety of faces” from across the world, from Africa to Asia, and from South America to the Middle East.

In his address, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the Church’s Catholicity, stating that this constitutive element of her identity indicates that the Church is for all people.

“[T]he universality of the Church flows from the universality of God’s unique plan of salvation for the world. This universal character emerges clearly on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit fills the first Christian community with his presence, so that the Gospel may spread to all nations, causing the one People of God to grow in all peoples. From its origins, then, the Church is oriented kat’holon, it embraces the whole universe. The Apostles bear witness to Christ, addressing people from all over the world, and each of their hearers understands them as if they were speaking his native language (cf. Acts 2:7-8). From that day, in the “power of the Holy Spirit”, according to Jesus’ promise, the Church proclaims the dead and risen Lord “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Church’s universal mission does not arise from below, but descends from above, from the Holy Spirit: from the beginning it seeks to express itself in every culture so as to form the one People of God. Rather than beginning as a local community that slowly grows and spreads outwards, it is like yeast oriented towards a universal horizon, towards the whole: universality is inscribed within it.”

My translation of the address is here.

An elegant and intriguing theological exploration of the word “Catholic”, it deserves no less attention than the tears of Cardinal Luis Tagle, the most popular among this consistory’s batch, not least because his many media activities.

Photo credit: CNS photo/Paul Haring

Blasphemy to be legalised?

A bit of a misleading title, but with a hint of truth in it. Although there is a law in the Netherlands, that prohibits blasphemy or the use of God’s name in vain, it has not actually been used since the 1960s. It’s a dead law which does not look to be resurrected anytime soon, so politicians from the Socialist Party and the liberal Democrats 66 are now out to have it struck from the criminal code.

Although the initiators of the plan show an expected but disturbing disregard for religious sensibilities (“It’s something for the enthusiast who believes in it,” one of them said), is this really something to get up in arms about? I would say it is.

The State Council has said that the freedom of expression does not mean that this law should be struck, but it also doesn’t mean that blasphemy should remain illegal. The freedom that many will cite in this context is quite neutral on the matter.

Striking a dead law from the code sends a message. The existence of the law does no longer have any effect or consequence, but the fact that it exists also sends a message. And what message do we want to send out?

Maintaining a law that forbids the use of blasphemous words, even if it is not upheld, tells us that we have certain standards in our use of language. Some utterances are contrary to those standards and should therefore not be promoted. Striking the law in question would in essence communicate the message that we no longer hold to these standards. We are free to use any words we please, and that trumps any concerns, insult or characteristics of civilisation.

As Catholics we shouldn’t be too thin-skinned; we may not like certain words and utterances, but the correct response is not to hide from them. Rather, we must intelligently counter the underlying reasons that people have for using them. The existence of a dead law, a hint of standards which were once actively pursued, but today still underlie our society, can be a form of support in our efforts to maintain this civility, this intelligent defense.

For all of us, Christian or not, the law that forbids the use of blasphemous words is a reminder that it once mattered how we said things, how we related to one another, even – especially – when we disagreed. That is something worth remembering in our daily conduct. Striking the law, and so stating that it should be okay to blaspheme and curse, is the polar opposite of that..

A second Red Dawn rises

While fog hides the view from my window, a red dawn rises over Rome as Pope Benedict XVI gets ready to create six new members of the College of Cardinals. Who are these princes of the Churches again, in the smallest crop since the 1977 consistory which, among others, saw one Joseph Ratzinger made a cardinal?

Archbishop James Michael Harvey was, until yesterday, the Prefect of the Papal Household. As was announced earlier, he was moved yesterday to become Archpriest of the Papal Basilica of St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls. In many eyes, this is a classic promotion out of the limelight for Cardinal-designate Harvey’s role in the Vatileaks case. Under his watch, papal documents were stolen and published, with the archbishop defending the convicted papal butler Paolo Gabriele before his actions became clear. While he was never even implicated, it is said that Archbishop Harvey submitted his resignation to the pope after Gabriele’s arrest. While prefects of the Household are usually eventually made cardinals, this happens when they were past retirement age. Cardinal-designate Harvey is 63.

As archpriest of a papal basilica, he has certain custodial and liturgical functions (which are worthy in their own right), but very few, if any, well-defined duties in the Roman Curia.

Cardinal Harvey will be a Cardinal-Deacon.

Patriarch Béchara Pierre Raï is the head of the Maronite Catholic Church of the Middle East, especially Lebanon. His three predecessor were also cardinals, so his creation is not a surprise.  And perhaps the pope’s recent visit to Lebanon also played a role in cementing his nomination. Patriarch Raï is 72 and will be made a Cardinal-Bishop by virtue of his position at the head of a Catholic Church in union with Rome. He will not be given a title church, as he is outside the hierarchy of the Latin Church, but not outside the world Church.

Archbishop Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal also heads a separate Church in union with Rome, the Syro-Malankar Church of India. He will be the youngest cardinal of all, and will be the first archbishop of Trivandrum to be made a cardinal. During the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelisation his bearded presence was already much noticed. Cardinal Thottunkal will be a Cardinal-Priest.

Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan is the much-respected archbishop of Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. Most recently, he unequivocally spoke against the terrorist actions of Boko Haram in the north of Nigeria, while at the same time seeking relations with Muslims in Nigeria. He is also strongly against a proposed division of the country into a Christian south and a Muslim north. Nigeria’s old capital, Lagos, is also headed by a cardinal, but the value of the western country in the Church is surely reflected by this appointment if a second one, who will be a Cardinal-Priest.

Archbishop Jesús Rubén Salazar Gómez is the archbishop of Bogotá, capital of Colombia, a nation which, considering its Catholic population, was long overdue for the appointment of a second cardinal. Clearly pro-life, Cardinal-designate Salazar Gómez will also be a Cardinal-Priest.

Archbishop Luis Antonio Gokim Tagle, is the rising star of the Church in Asia. Heading the major Archdiocese of Manila in the Philippines, Cardinal-designate Tagle will be the second-youngest cardinal of the bunch. He has his critics, but in general he is enormously popular, not least because of his use of social media. Affectionately referred to as “Archbishop Chito”, Cardinal-designate Tagle is a very welcome addition to the Asian part of the College. He, too, will be a Cardinal-Priest.

With the elevation of this international group, the first since 1924 to include no Europeans, the group of cardinals who are eligible to vote in a conclave reaches 120.

As for today’s ceremony, which will be conducted according to the exact same norms as this year’s previous one, it can be viewed via the Vatican Player, while the booklet for the celebration may be found here. Things are set to get rolling at 11am local time, which is 10am GMT.

Cardinal watch: Cardinal Martino turns 80

One day before the admission of six new members to the group of cardinal electors, the number of that group drops with one to 114. Renato Raffaele Martino reached the age of 80 today and has thus became ineligible to vote in a future conclave.

Hailing from the southern Italian town of Salerno, Renato Martino entered the Holy See’s diplomatic service in 1962, five years after his ordination to the priesthood. He earned a doctorate in canon law in that time. Fr. Martino served in various countries, among them Nicaragua, the Philippines, Lebanon, Canada and Brazil.

In 1980, he was consecrated to bishop and made titular archbishop of Segermes in modern Tunisia. Archbishop Martino was sent to head the diplomatic missions in Thailand, and Laos. In 1981, he also became such in Singapore in addition to his other positions. Brunei and Malaysia followed in 1983.

In 1986, he was reassigned to the high-profile position of Permanent Observer to the United Nations. In his time at the UN in New York, Archbishop Martino was an outspoken critic of the American invasion of Iraq in 1991. Another important call, related to his future functions in Rome, was his call for a safe heaven to be created for Tutsi refugees in Rwanda, to prevent the death of 30,000 people.

Archbishop Martino would continue in this position until 2002, when he was recalled to Rome to become president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. With that position came the red hat, and Cardinal Martino was created in 2003, in Blessed John Paul II’s last consistory. He became cardinal deacon of San Francesco di Paolo ai Monti. As head of Justice and Peace, Cardinal Martino intervened, to no avail, on behalf of Terri Schiavo, in the widely-covered case of her euthanasia. He also spoke out against the death sentence against Saddam Hussein and called for a international peace conference for the Middle East. He was once again openly against American interventions in Iraq. Later, he was involved in peace conferences between Israel and Palestinians, and likened Gaza to a “huge concentration camp”. In another example of his strongly pro-life position, Cardinal Martino  urged Catholics to stop donating to Amnesty International when that organisation decided to advocate abortion in 2007.

From 2006 until his retirement in 2009, Cardinal Martino was also the president of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.

Following his retirement, Cardinal Martino remained a member of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of People, the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum” the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See and the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State. His pro-life attitude was rewarded in 2009 with the awarding of the title of Honorary President of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute in Rome. In 2011, in his last major diplomatic endeavours, Cardinal Martino visited Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, where he met with Aung San Suu Kyi.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Papal attack on the Nativity ox and ass

Animals at the birth of Christ, a comforting image of Christ amid all of Creation.

I have to admit finding it quite funny that the Holy Father has a new book out and all that the media generally talk about are his unconscionable attack on two helpless animals’ presence in the Nativity scene.

Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives is the third and final volume in Pope Benedict XVI’s series of books on Jesus Christ. It is, like its predecessors, a personal study into Christ’s life and person. The historical Jesus is a subject that the pope treats extensively, and so is it as well with the Nativity stories we find in the Gospels. And from that historical perspective, there is no reason to say that an ox or ass were present in the stable where Jesus was born. And, in addition, the angels probably did not sing either when the announced the Good News to the shepherds.

Is the pope then saying that we should remove all oxen and asses, as well as any angels which show an unhistorical tendency to start singing, from our Nativity scenes? Of course not. While we may not have a historical basis for these details, they do have their function. Christ came to all Creation, and was a part of it as a man. Song is an ancient way of communicating joy, and the arrival of God-become-man is certainly a reason for joy.

And the ox and ass or the singing angels are not the focus of the Nativity scenes in our homes and churches. Christ is, and everything around Him focusses our attention on Him. So another function of the ass and ox becomes clear.

So, no, the Holy Father is not telling us to get rid of the poor animals. They’ll be in the great Nativity scene in St. Peter’s square, even without us having any documents to prove their presence at the birth of our Saviour.

Intolerable tolerance

In order to mark the 1150th anniversary of the arrival of Saints Cyril and Method in Great Moravia (encompassing the modern Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and parts of Germany, Poland, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Ukraine), Slovakia has decided to mint a special memorial 2 Euro coin depicting the two ‘Apostles to the Slavs’ in 2013. A lofty memorial of an event which lay at the basis of Slavic culture in central Europe and beyond.

Saints Cyril and Method came to bring the Christian faith to people who had not yet heard it. Their faith dictated who they were and what they did and said. To ignore that part of the persons is negligent and a falsification of history.

But that is precisely what the European Commission and several member states of the European Union (of which Slovakia is a member) now wants. The crosses on the saints’ clothing and the aureolas indicating their sainthood have been identified as possibly insulting or disturbing some citizens of the Union. By the grace of policy makers, only the double Byzantine cross, which also serves as Slovakia’s national symbol, was allowed to remain.

The Slovakian bishops’ conference has rightly stated that this is a lack of respect for Europe’s Christian traditions. A spokesperson wondered if Europe is a state of rights or a totalitarian system dictating which attributes are tolerated.

This is only one example in a series of Europe curtailing the display of identity and the free exercise of religion. The reasons given, that some unknown person may take offense at the symbols shown, are unreasonable in the extreme. I may say that a lack of Christian symbols offends me. Will the EU take that into account? Will they remove other symbols, statements, images, actions or whatever if they perhaps offend me? The banner of tolerance is used as a tool of intolerance.

This unreasonable fear of any display of religion, even in imagery that has a solid basis in history, is nothing but the complete denial of Europe’s own identity and history. Sts. Method and Cyril were Christians and we remember them for bringing the Christian faith to parts of Europe , so why on earth should we not remember them for who they were? Christian missionaries, not empty vessels to be filled with the identity that modern Europe dictates.

Maranatha – A Catholic future for Tilburg’s students

In 2009 I had the privilege of being a guest at the Maranatha church in Tilburg, Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch. This church is the home of the student chaplaincy in that city and as such hosts the activities of several student bodies. A priest is appointed for the pastoral care of students and staff of nearby Tilburg University.

The students and priest during my visit were perfectly hospitable to me and the other guests. There was food, there was conversation, there was interest in one another. There was only one problem. Only after my visit had concluded did I realise I had in fact been in a Catholic church.

While merriment and nourishment that was on offer are not alien to Catholics (on the contrary), there was little else to indicate the Catholic identity of church and even the priest. The interior of the church, picture at left,  was a rectangular space marked by bare stone, concrete and bricks. There was an altar table of sorts, but no visible tabernacle, or any other indication of the presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The priest, Fr. Hub Lenders, was dressed in his casuals, perfectly fine for the warm summer weather of that day, but perfectly unsuitable to indicate the fact that he was a priest and as such available for pastoral care and distributing the sacraments. If I was told he was the caretaker of the church, I would have also believed it.

This is a situation which is, sadly, not unique to the Maranatha church. There is still a major lack of identity in many Dutch churches and priests. And the results are easily understood, and in evidence at the Maranatha church: the Catholic identity is watered down in order to befit communion with the local Protestant communities. Ecumenical services in which a cracker is shared with anyone who wants to, whether they are Catholic or even religious or not, and the condoning of same-sex relations, abortion, euthanasia and many other things which society promotes, but which are at odds with Catholic teaching, were the result. For many of the students and staff attending services at the church there was virtually no clear difference between Catholic and Protestant, religious and irreligious. The message being communicated was that the only thing that matters was goodwill. While there are always exceptions, I do think this was generally the rule.

But the diocese is finally ready to change things, using the retirement of Fr. Lenders as an excuse. It has appointed Fr. Michiel Peeters (picture at right) as his successor; a young priest with experience abroad and also a Dutch blogger at the critical and active blog Voorhof.net. While Fr. Peeters intends the maintain the church community’s ‘living room’ atmosphere, he is also tasked with bringing it back in line with the diocese and the world Church and her teachings and faith. This requires an accurate presentation and communication of what that faith is. Ecumenical ‘table prayers’ are out, a proper licit Mass in is.

Of course there are protests, as there usually always are when things change ofter a long time. And now, like often, these protests flow from a lack of knowledge about the faith of the Church and an almost Protestant understanding of what faith and church are. And while we share much with our Protestant brothers and sisters, this is not one of those things.

For the students of Tilburg and the Maranatha church this means a renewed introduction to the Catholic faith and the Catholic understanding of what the Church is: in the first place sacramental and educational, and from that flows her outreach to the world, Catholic or not.

Photo credit: [1] Baasjochem/Flickr, [2] Peter de Koning/Brabants Centrum