Following the example of some other bishops, Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam shares some of his thoughts on and experiences of the ad limina visit in a letter to the faithful of his diocese:
Brothers and sisters,
Returned from Rome after the ad limina visit, I felt the need to share some experiences with you about this remarkable week, on which I look back with inspiration and gratitude. With auxiliary bishop Msgr. J. Hendriks and emeritus auxiliary bishop Msgr. J. van Burgsteden s.s.s. we and the other Dutch bishops were, in the first place, on a pilgrimage to the graves of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Together we celebrated the Eucharist in those special places, and also in the other great basilicas of Rome. We have prayed for the unity between the world Church and our Dutch Church, and for all who work in it and do their very best.
The week started with a high point: the meeting with Pope Francis. This was friendly and fraternal and the Pope urged us not to be discouraged by the problems of secularisation in the Netherlands. Instead of giving an address, he invited us to have a conversation. The current situation in the Netherlands places us before new challenges and according to the Pope we must find new pastoral ways to confront them. The Church has a missionary task, not only the bishops, but also the parishes, the entire faith community and every individual faithful. Our time demands a clear witness. The Pope also emphasised that caritas and diakonia can be ways for young people to find faith in Christ. Because, as people are no longer as open to God Himself, they may well be to their neighbours. In the neighbour they will eventually discover the face of Christ. Of course, the issue of church closings was also mentioned. In our diocese that is only a limited issue. The Pope did expressly call the bishops to sympathise well with the feelings of those involved in all necessary reorganisations.
Another topic was the problem of sexual abuse and the care for victims. The Pope proved to be very pleased with the way the bishops in the Netherlands addressed this. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has given a temporary approval to the guidelines which the bishops have established to prevent sexual abuse in the future.
As in many other speeches and conversations, the Pope also emphasised to us the need of making the Sacrament of Penance and reconciliation accessible. Worldwide the number of confessions is on the increase, because the Pope continuously speaks about the need to reconcile ourselves with God and the other. No one can do without mercy, and in order to be merciful to others we must first be willing to receive it ourselves. The Church has a wonderful sacrament for that and people must be guided pastorally towards it in a new way. Mercy and seeing the person next to you as “image of God Himself” are terms that the Pope continuously repeats.
Finally, the Pope also asked us a sort of question of conscience. Where do you yourself, as bishops, find the strength, your hope and joy amid all the concerns and problems? The Gospel must always be visible as the Good News of forgiveness, salvation and redemption. He urged us to always quench our thirst from that and communicate it to others. The Church, the Pope indicated, grows from an authentically experienced faith and through honest attraction. She is being sent to awaken and plant faith, hope and love in people.
In the days that followed we heard much of what the Pope had said in our meeting with the Congregations and Councils. In more than a dozen meetings a great variety of topics was discussed. From youth to marriage and family, to the role of the bishops in social media. And also the issue of church closing and the pastoral approach to people who do not fully live according to the teachings of the Church. Interesting conversations which also showed how the Church approaches these topics worldwide.
Time and again we were asked to continue in the way we have, but with patience and always in open and positive communication with the faithful.
Finally we were able to inform the Pope that he is very popular in the Netherlands because of the way he acts. He told us to make use of that. At an earlier occasion I spoke with the Pope about a possible visit to the Netherlands. He seemed very interested. With the other bishops we have agreed to consider the possibilities.
On our website you can read in detail what we discussed and experienced in Rome. There are also many photos which paint a good picture of the relaxed atmosphere we enjoyed there together (www.bisdomhaarlem-amsterdam.nl).
In the new year we will certainly begin to work on the results of this ad limina visit, and first discuss it on the various levels of our diocese. Hopefully this will culminate in a real diocesan pilgrimage to Rome in 2015. You are all invited to take part in that, and information about it will be available via your parish in the course of January. It would be wonderful if we could be united then, as a diocese praying, celebrating and witnessing our faith, with young and old, around our Pope Francis.
Towards the feast of the Incarnation I wish you, also on behalf of both auxiliary bishops, a blessed continuation of Advent and a very blessed Christmas.
+ Jozef M. Punt
Bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam