The first bishop to do so, Bishop Gerard de Korte looks ahead to the upcoming ad limina visit in his regular contribution to Friesch Dagblad and the diocesan website. For those who know the bishop, his two main topics should come as no surprise: ecumenism and the speechlessness of the faithful have been at the heart of his work since his arrival in Groningen in 2008.
In the first week of December all Dutch bishops will go to Rome. We will visit the graves of the Apostles Peter and Paul, celebrate the Eucharist in several places and for a full week we will have numerous meetings with the closest collaborators of the Pope and with Pope Francis personally. This visit, which has been prepared intensively in the Netherlands over the past months, invites to mark time. Probing questions must be answered: what is the state of the Church today? What is the future of ecclesiastical life in our country? Very important as well is the question of what sort of leadership the Christian community needs today and tomorrow. In that context, you could consider all officials in the churches, but from my position I primarily think of the interpretation of the office of the bishop within the Roman Church.
For more than half a century our Dutch culture is characterised by great prosperity and an increasingly educated population. Partly because of this our society is marked by individualism, a deep desire for participation and democracy, and, not least, a rapid moral liberalisation. Christian faith communities in general and the Roman in particular must come to terms with this cultural state of affairs. Powerful individualisation has caused many parishes and faith communities to shrink. The Church in our country has become extremely vulnerable. Numerous families no longer succeed to socialise the younger generations into the Church. Even more tense, I think, is the crisis of content of the faith. Many Catholics, but other Christians as well, are speechless about the content of their faith and can no longer articulate very well what motivates them. The big question is how church officials in general and bishops especially should make policy today. In my opinion contextual leadership is the only fruitful way. One thing and another implies to me a substantively clear message centred on Christ in combination with a cordial attitude and openness to dialogue.
Encounter and cordiality
In the modern Netherlands, where self determination and assertiveness are important values, religious searchers are today scared off by ecclesiastical ritualism and legalism. Most faithful appreciate a faith community’s cordiality and inspiration in faith and do not think in terms of legal or illegal. When a Church official or ecclesiastical office does do the latter, they immediately are at a disadvantage in communication. In case of a conflict the vast majority expects both within and without the Church no one-sided disciplinary measures, but a two-sided dialogue.
Encounter and cordiality are indispensable to really reach people’s hearts. In that sense I consider Pope Francis’ actions to be an important example on how to approach people as bishop of the North. Christian faith is in the first place a relational faith. Christian truth, after all, is a person, Jesus Christ Himself. To come to faith requires process oriented thought. After a process of initiation people can ultimately make the leap of faith and find with Christ direction for the journey of life that we all make. A bishop has various duties. As a teacher he must protect the teaching of the Church that has been handed down, and at the same time he is a shepherd for his people. The combination of teacher and shepherd is not always easy. A teacher in the Church today is wise to shape that teaching pastorally, without denying the truth of the Christian faith. In that context no bishop will be able to avoid disciplinary measures every now and then. But this does require great pastoral wisdom and prudence.
Dutch culture’s profound individualisation does not leave the churches unaffected, on the contrary. Many young, but also older people no longer see any reason to be art of a parish of church community. There is a crisis of transmission on a broad front. Church leaders must therefore give priority to finding new forms of church building for the progression of the Gospel. Church life, after all, principally requires community building. When people experience their faith as separate atoms that means the end for the Christian community. In that context Church leadership, in my deepest conviction, also needs ecumenical involvement. As a hopefully vital minority Christians of different traditions are called to continue searching for more unity around the living Christ. I sincerely hope that bishops, but also officials in other Christian communities, will make a fundamental choice for that path.
It is hard not to read the bishop’s comment about pastoral leadership and disciplinary measures as a criticism of the actions of Cardinal Eijk and other bishops (notably Bishops Hurkmans and Mutsaerts) who have had to correct priests and other faithful in their dioceses over the past years. While he is of course right that pastoral wisdom and prudence are required assets for a bishop in such situations, there are also cases in which these have reached their limit and other steps need to be taken for the wellbeing of the faithful and the truth of the faith.
The balance between pastoral sensitivity and the need to defend the faith via stricter actions (between teacher and shepherd, as Bishop de Korte puts it) is one that will come increasingly to the fore everywhere, I think. Pope Francis has firmly placed the former at the heart of his papacy, leaving the latter to those working with him. We have seen that, I think, in the recent writings of Archbishop Müller about marriage, divorce and the sacraments. Rather than some form of tension between Pope and Curia, we should see this is the modus operandi of the Francis papacy.m
It is good to recall that the Dutch bishops will not only be meeting the Pope, but also the prefects and presidents of the dicasteries of the Curia.