“A life of Advent” – Bishop Wiertz opens the Year of Consecrated Life

On the first Sunday of Advent – which is tomorrow, so happy new year – the Year of Consecrated Life begins in the Church. Although in the Netherlands the presence of religious communities varies per area – from virtually none in the north, to numerous in the south – it is good to remember that they are there, often hidden from view, praying and working for all of us and for the Lord.

Bishop Frans Wiertz opened the Year in the Diocese of Roermond (which is home to some 900 religious) and spoke the following homily.

wiertz

“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.” With these words Pope Francis opens his apostolic letter Evangelii Gaudium, which has already impressed so many people.

A central element of the words of the Pope is the message that it is Jesus Christ who can fill our hearts with joy. Not a temporary joy or cheap sense of fun, but deep joy which we shall feel through the personal encounter with Christ. The desire for that encounter is something that we may experience once more in the coming weeks. Advent is a time of expectation, a time of hope; a prophetic time too, which lets us look forward to the encounter with the Christ child. “But in my trust in you do not put me to shame,” the Psalm of this first Sunday of Advent tells us. In those words the hope and expectation already resound, which we also hear in the words of Pope Francis when he says that “with Christ joy is constantly born anew”. Every year we experience this expectant time again, in which we go from dark to light. Towards joy.

At the same time we may perhaps consider Advent to be a metaphor for everyone who dedicates his or her life to the service of the Kingdom of God: sisters, brothers, monks and nuns lead a life of Advent. A life in hopeful and prophetic expectation of the encounter with Christ. A life on the way to the light. And therefore by definition a life of joy.

“Where there are consecrated religious, there is joy,” Pope Francis says in the preparatory texts for the Year of Consecrated Life that we open today. With that he does not mean, of course, that every religious per definition leads a joyful life. Because in a sense a consecrated life is choosing a voluntary martyrdom. Your choice for life in a religious community is a radical one. You deny yourselves much: married life, a family, a career in society. In some parts of the world religious even live in very difficult circumstances. These are certainly not to be envious about.

And yet they choose to continue that life. Because they want to life according to the Gospel with the people around them, and so manifest something of the coming joy of the Kingdom of God. I am grateful that there are always people, also in our part of the world, who decide to dedicate their life completely to God.

Our society doesn’t always understand this. Perhaps it can’t be understood when you are not looking forward to God in your own life. When you can’t live from the hope of the coming joy of the encounter with Christ. When you can’t live in Advent. That is why I have great respect for those who do make that choice. Especially for young people who today – against all trends – choose a life that is completely dedicated to God.

In the Gospel of today we are called to be vigilant. This can be interpreted in all sorts of ways. In the context of this celebration I would say: Let us be vigilant that we do not lose the charism of the religious life in our diocese and beyond.  The Church needs religious. Throughout the centuries the renewal and the renewed evangelical zest has always been initiated out of religious movements. This will also have to happen now. Whether they will be new movements, foreign religious establishing themselves among us, or perhaps a revival of classical orders and congregations, that is something the future will show.

But it is our task together to create such a climate in which religious life remains possible. A climate in which people can choose a life in Advent, in imitation of Christ and towards the encounter with Him. I invite you to be open to initiatives which allow the joy of the Gospel to be constantly born anew, as the Pope says.

A logo has been designed for the Year of Consecrated Life which includes three words: Gospel – prophecy – hope. Life the Gospel, be prophetic and keep for us the hope, so that many will experience the hope you carry in your hearts. Amen.

+ Frans Wiertz
Bishop of Roermond”

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The road to full humanity – Bishop Hanke’s Advent letter

In his letter for Advent, Eichstätt’s Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke delves into the Incarnation, and specifically how the Incarnation of the Son of God also shows the way to our own incarnation. In other words, how we can become fully human according the plan of the Creator.

hanke“Dear sisters and brothers!

Anticipation for the birth

A married couple expecting a child prepares for the event. The pregnant woman takes medical advice and denies herself a number of things. Long before the due date, the hospital bag is packed. Everything is guided by joy. Family and friends are also full of expectation. With the first Sunday of Advent, this week, a time of joyful expectation begins also for us. We prepare ourselves for the feast of the birth of the Lord. God becomes man in Jesus Christ!

The incarnation of God is a permanent invitation

The incarnation of God is not simply history, but a permanent invitation from God to us, here and now, to start on His way of becoming human. The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Church in the World, explains the meaning of the incarnation of the Son of God for our humanity: “For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. […] The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”[1]

Humanity as personhood in crisis

A look at the Son of God become man and His way as a man shows a need for a way of becoming man. It seems as if man of today has become a question himself,  as if his recognition as human, as a person with value, is in crisis.

Worldwide crisis of humanity

Despite progress, the accumulation of knowledge and growing global awareness of the unity of humanity, the dignity of people is trampled in many parts of the world. Economic and political power interests, or even fanatical religion will be their own end. Man in his dignity is left behind. At present we experience this dramatically in conflicts and hostilities. Millions of people are on the run, minorities are threatened. We think first of all of Syria and Iraq, where our Christian sisters and brothers suffer the hardships of persecution.

But the crisis of humanity is also visible around us:

Crisis of human dignity: debates on assisted suicide

We are in the middle of the debates about assisted suicide. Here the fear for unbearable suffering, the financial burden on relatives and loneliness are used as arguments to legalise assisted suicide. Even someone who is “religiously unatuned” and is not able to understand the inviolability of human life, which is rooted in the image of God, can see the danger in that. The legality of euthanasia can lead to sick people being subtly or openly forced to finally die. This trend is already clearly visible when it is indicated, always outright, how high the costs of caring for the dying is. In reality palliative care has already advanced so much that it can respond to existing fears without assisting in suicide: even in severe cases, doctors can provide a painless [2].

Identity crisis of people: Theory of gender

In another area the crisis of humanity is also visible. The ideas of “gender” are in opposition to a Biblical-Christian image of humanity. This constructed theory postulates that being man and woman is interchangeable in all areas of life. Upbringing and cultural conditions primarily shape the gender roles of man and woman. These are considered to be cultural stereotypes that need to be overcome. Under the gentle-sounding term of gender diversity many claim that there aren’t any objective genders like men and women. Instead they propagate a gender diversity with many gender-identities. The individual can choose his gender himself.

This view of humanity is surprising in a time in which many are concerned with protecting creation. They advocate preserving the ecological balance, which can only be lauded. They are convinced that the structured order of creation serves the whole.

On the other hand many on society suffer from disorientation and confusion when the nature of man and the meaning of the human person is at stake.

God created humanity as man and woman

At the beginning of Holy Scripture we read, “God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. […] God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good” (Gen. 1: 27,31).

Let us, as baptised, not be discouraged in our witness to humanity. Let us make the Word of the God and the guidance of the Church our own. The holy Pope John Paul II has left us a valuable legacy in the form of the message of the beauty of humanity, which the Creator desired as maleness and femaleness. In his catechesis which became known as the”Theology of the Body” he explains the order of Creation as an expression of the love of the Creator, for man is desired and loved by God for his own sake.

Their physical difference already shows that man and woman are ordered towards one another. This mutual orderedness once again reveals that, in order to be fully human, we need unity with a personal opposite. The highest form of this personal union is the mutual gift, the reciprocal giving of man and woman in the loving bond of marriage [3]. This mutual giving is at the same time, of course, also a reciprocal receiving and accepting of the other.  As each partner is accepted for his own sake, he will find himself through his self-giving. From this discovery of himself he is once again able to give himself anew and more deeply: this self-giving becomes a new source of life [4].

From the manger shines the light of true humanity

Dear sisters and brothers, Christmas touches many people, also today. The deepest reason is that God confirms and renews this order of love through the incarnation of the Son. From the manger and through the life of Christ shines the light of true humanity. The many people who are no longer deeply rooted in religious practice obviously also feel this.

Let us allow Christ to invite us to His way of becoming man, in order to become man ourselves. We, the baptised, can then give witness of how fulfilling the way of becoming man according to God’s order of creation and in the Spirit of Jesus is.

Encounter as the key to incarnation

The key to our own incarnation lies in encounter. Only in my opposite do I recognise myself and can I become the man according to God’s plan. In the reaction of the other I see my own “I” reflected, which I would not have been able to see otherwise. Encounter is therefore essential.

Three manifestations of human encounter can play a special role on the road to our incarnation. In a certain way they can also be understood as answers to the three symptoms of the crisis of humanity outlined above.

Incarnation in hospitality

Conversation with family members and friends, when I take them time for it, is one such encounter which can contribute to the formation of my own “I”, my own incarnation. Because of the reciprocity of encounter the same is of course also true for those who encounter me. There where we express hospitality and accept the stranger in Christian charity, an additional aspect is added. In the encounter with the stranger elements can be revealed which remain hidden in an exchange with people I already know. The hospitality towards refugees as a step in my own incarnation can then also be a first answer to the inhumanity in the world, which is shown in persecution and repression.

Incarnation in friendship

A second way of personal encounter is friendship. The essential characteristic of friendship as a human encounter is the personal attachment to one person. Precisely the friendship with Christ gives us the strength for such a deep personal connection. In friendship we learn to exceed ourselves and go beyond our urge for self-realisation. The acceptance of a friend for his own sake is the essence of friendship. True and lasting friendships are also a remedy for the desire for legalised suicide, which is in essence nothing but a cry of desperation.

Incarnation in marriage

The mutual acceptance of the other for his own sake finds its highest form in marriage. The personal bond of friendship is in the marriage between a man and a woman once more exclusively directed at one single partner. Through their reciprocal commitment and simultaneous acceptance of the other for their own sake, the partners encourage each other in their self-discovery and incarnation.

The marriage partners living in mutual love and commitment strengthen each other not only mutually, but also give direction to people who are still looking for the fullness of humanity in the spreading identity crisis.

All of you, who are travelling from the manger as roadside communities, as families, circles of friends, communities, parishes and organisations, the Triune God blesses, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Eichstätt, on the feast of Saint Elisabeth of Thuringia, 19 november 2014.

Yours,

Gregor Maria Hanke OSB
Bishop of Eichstätt”


(1) Gaudium et Spes, 22.
(2) Cf. Gisela Klinkhammer, Mit großer Sorgfalt und klinischer Erfahrung, in: Deutsches Ärzteblatt 111 (38) , 19 September 2014, 1552f.
(3) Cf. Theology of the Body (TOB) 14,4; quoted in: John Paul II, Human Love in God’s Plan of Salvation. A Theology of the Body (republished by Norbert und Renate Martin), second revised edition, Kisslegg 2008, 161.
(4) Cf. TOB 17,6.

The lost sheep – Bishop Bonny’s letter for Advent

Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp has also devoted his letter for Advent to the topic of loneliness , or rather, to the slightly broader topic of the lost sheep. It seems that the Francis effect is quite visible in this year’s batch of Advent letters…

johan-bonny“In the spring I visited a kindergarten. The three classes had prepared a play for my visit. The performed the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). Two teachers and a dozen toddlers crawled around on hands and feet, dressed like sheep. They had a real sheepskin or a white cloth on their backs. One teacher was the shepherd: she wore a heavy cloak and had a staff in her hand. Another teacher was the lost sheep, that first got lost and was then kindly returned to the stable by the shepherd. I watch and was fascinated and touched. When the first group had performed the parable, the teacher asked a new group of children to play the sheep. “And who wants to be the lost sheep?” All hands went up in the air at the same, “Me, me, me, Miss!” The toddlers pushed and shoved to be allowed to be the lost sheep! I thought, how many hands will be raised when you are thirty or fifty years older? Who of you will then be the lost sheep, not in a play, but in real life?

In real life no one raises their hand to be the “lost sheep”. By the way, you don’t  see the “lost sheep”, it is hidden in society or in the city. Someone who has been really hurt, abandoned or disadvantaged, doesn’t flaunt it. In real life, “lost sheep” have a tough sense of survival. They can survive for a long time in their loneliness. You must literally go out to find them, like the shepherd in the Gospel. And that can take a long time. During Advent, the liturgy asks our attention for the small and forgotten people around us. This does indeed require some searching, since you can easily live in our cities and towns without encountering a “lost sheep”. The preparation for Christmas starts with this kind of searching. Who will join in the searching?

This searching comes from the heart of the Gospel. On a certain day Jesus said of himself that “the Son of man has come to seek out and save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). And when He speaks of the shepherd joyfully carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders (Luke 15:5), He is talking about Himself. There would have been no Christmas if God had not come looking for the “lost sheep”. Jesus would not have been born in a stable, had He not come looking for people on the periphery of society. Advent comes from the Latin verb advenit, “He is coming!” For God this also means “He is searching”. May He also come and find me, in my comfortable home or in my fearful hideout?

In a real nativity scene there should be at least two sheep from the flock mentioned in the Christmas story (Luke 2:6-14). They are not hidden. They are the first sheep of the flock that Jesus gathers around Him as the Good Shepherd. They have found the warm stable where He awaits them. How many people in these coming weeks will not stop for a while at a nativity scene, feeling the homesickness of a “lost sheep” that may stand and be seen? Simply because lost or broken strands join each other for a while around the nativity scene.

I wish you a good Advent: “He is searching!” Not in play, but in reality.”

+ Johan Bonny
Bishop of Antwerp

The Catholic Church is still the biggest club around

A report by the Social Planning Office of the Netherlands revealed that the Catholic Church is still the biggest “club” in the country, with 4 million members, but it probably won’t be for long. The continuously growing ANWB (the Royal Dutch Touring Club), which supports all forms of travel and is responsible for road and traffic signage, now has 3.9 million members.

While they are mere numbers that say nothing about the actual involvement of and support given by members (which is rather significantly lower than 4 million in the case of the Church), it is interesting to see. The Netherlands is often considered to be a staunchly secularist country, and when faith in this country is discussed, the assumption is that the vast majority of Dutch Christians are Protestants. That is actually not true. The Protestant Church comes in at number three, with 1.7 million members, less than half that of the Catholic Church. However, I think it’s a reasonably safe bet that the percentage of active members is higher among Protestants, as adherence to those church communities is frequently a strongly cultural one.

The other “clubs” in the top 10 are the KNVB (Royal Dutch Football Association) with 1.2 members; the FNV (Federation Dutch Labour Movement, a trade union), also with 1.2 members; the KWF (Queen Wilhelmina Fund, a foundation for the fight against cancer) with 970,000 members; the Woonbond (a national association of house tenants) with 945,000 members; the World Wildlife Fund with 870,000 members; Natuurmonumenten (an association for the protection of nature) with 730,000 members; and the Vereniging Eigen Huis (a consumers’ organisation for home owners) with 700,000 members.

God wants to break through our loneliness – Bishop de Korte’s letter for Advent

Like previous years, Bishop Gerard de Korte is among the first to publish his Advent letter to the faithful of his diocese. Below my translation. In the letter, the bishop tackles the issue of loneliness, and thus creates a coincidental link with Pope Francis’ speech at the European Parliament today, in which he identified loneliness as “one of the most common diseases in Europe today”. More about that speech later. First, the bishop:

mgr_de_Korte3“Late last year the media reported a macabre find in a house in Rotterdam. The remains of a woman were found. She had been dead for more than ten years and no one had missed her. Her daughter had rung the doorbell once or twice on Mother’s Day. But no one opened the door, and the daughter concluded that the closed door meant that she was still not welcome. Ten years dead in a house and no one notices. Symbol of groundless loneliness.

Of course, this is an extreme example. But we all know that loneliness is a major problem in our society. Many elderly people lead a lonely existence. When I was a parish priest in Utrecht, I visited elderly people who received visitors twice a week. They were home alone for the rest of the time. In Nestor, the magazine for the Catholic Union of the Elderly, I read last year that 200,000 elderly spent the Christmas days alone.

But loneliness is not only an issue for elderly people in our society. More than a few young people also struggle with loneliness. And there are plenty of couples who are physically together but spiritually lonely because they can no longer share the most essential things of life. In the end, many a philosopher states, every person is lonely to a certain extent. At heart, everyone remains hidden for the other. At the same time people try to break through that existential loneliness by searching mutual commitment, friendship and love.

God looks for us

In the coming weeks of Advent we prepare for the feast of Christmas. Christmas is a feast of connection; of light and desire for peace. The Christmas tree is decorated and good food is purchased. Family and friends are invited, perhaps also to chase away our loneliness. Because as human beings we realise that we can only be happy in connection with others.

Many Catholic families also have a nativity scene. Christmas is, after all, about the birth of Christ. Christmas makes clear that God wants to break through our loneliness. That is told clearly in Luke’s Gospel of Christmas, with singing angels and worshipping shepherds. The Gospel of John is a bit more abstract and theological: the Word has become flesh and has lived among us. But both evangelists say the same thing with different words: In Jesus, God comes looking for us. In Jesus, God reveals His love for us and He shows us that that love is the meaning of our lives.

Is Christ welcome?

The big question for each of us is: do I accept God’s offer? Can Christ really come into my life? Is there room for Jesus in my inn? Do I really want to life in friendship with Jesus? Several Christian thinkers have been said to have made this remark: “If Christ had been born a Thousand times in the stable in Bethlehem, but not in our heart, His birth was pointless”. In these words I hear the statement of John the Baptist: “He (=Christ) must increase; I must decrease”. And I also think of the nearly mystical words of the Apostle Paul: “I do not live, but Christ lives in me”.

Here we touch upon the core of our Christian existence. Christian life requires conversion, a transformation. My own “I” must become increasingly like Christ. In other words: I must become more like a Christophorus, a Christ-bearer. When we truly follow Christ, we will be praying people who place God in the heart of our lives. We will not remain imprisoned in self-interest but manifest charity. In the case of an argument, we will not harden ourselves, but really choose forgiveness and reconciliation. We will be mild and merciful for each other and thus reflect God’s mildness and mercy. I wish you a fruitful time of Advent on the road to Christmas.

Groningen, 25 November 2014

+ Msgr. Gerard de Korte”

As the rumours continue, Cardinal Sarah comes to the CDW

cardinal_robertsarahThe first ripple of an expected major shake-up of the Curia arrived today, as Pope Francis appointed a new prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacrament, the dicastery that oversees all expressions of worship in the Church, most importantly the liturgy, as well as the sacraments. He is Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Guinean prelate who was once one of the youngest bishops ever, as St. Pope John Paul II appointed him Archbishop of Conakry at the age of just 34 in 1979.

Cardinal Sarah follows in the footsteps of Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, wh returned to his native Spain as Archbishop of Valencia in August, but perhaps even more so in those of Cardinal Francis Arinze, who led the Congregation from 2002 to 2008. Cardinal Sarah is the second African to lead this office since it was created as the Sacred Congregation of Rites in 1588.

Cardinal Sarah previously led the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum”, which coordinates the Church’s efforts in aid and charity, and which is expected to be merged with various other dicasteries soon. Pope Benedict XVI made him a cardinal in 2010. Before that, Cardinal Sarah was the Archbishop of Conakry in Guinea from 1979 to 2001 and Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples from 2001 to 2010.

The appointment of Cardinal Sarah is unavoidably notable in the light of the Synod of Bishops and the impression of Pope Francis’ priorities. Cardinal Sarah, like many of his African colleagues, has little time for deviations of the Church’s  teaching nor, especially important in his new function, for the western tendency for liturgical experimentation.

For the Congregation for Divine Worship, or CDW for short, this means the start of a new era in leadership. After the departure of Cardinal Cañizares, the Congregation also saw two of its undersecretaries, British Father Anthony Ward and Spanish Msgr. Juan Miguel Ferrer Grenesche, resign, leaving only the secretary, English Archbishop Arthur Roche. Pope Francis did appoint a new undersecretary, Italian Fr. Corrado Maggioni, earlier this month, and with Cardinal Sarah the Congregation seems to be off to a new and refreshed start.

Cardinal Sarah is a hands-on kind of man, and in his previous duties for “Cor Unum” he frequently travelled to those places where the Church’s aid was most needed. In the photo below he is seen visiting the Philippines after Typhoon Yolanda hit last year. The upcoming papal visit, by the way, was in part inspired by the same disaster.

sarah

Cardinal Sarah’s name was not among those most frequently mentioned for the CDW top spot. Many were the fears that the position would go to Archbishop Piero Marini, erstwhile MC for St. John Paul II and the first years of Benedict XVI and generally considered rather a liberal. It just goes to show that the eyes and focus of Pope Francis are elsewhere, on the world’s peripheries, and the young and growing Church of Africa may yet harbour more surprises.

Cardinal Lehmann’s reluctant look back at the Limburg affair

lehmannIn an interview for the Frankfurter Algemeine, Karl Cardinal Lehmann, the bishop of Mainz and the most senior of Germany’s active bishops, talks about various topics – the Second Vatican Council, Helmut Kohl, ecumenism, his upcoming retirement (expected for May of 2016), but standing out is his reluctant assessment of the Limburg affair, the financial mismanagement which led to the forced retirement of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst.

“I don’t much like addressing the topic of Limburg any longer. But we should consider what we can learn from it. The impact of Limburg is always very close. I’ll give you an example. It’s about the construction of a house for the church community in Worms. The word “Limburg” is thrown about immediately, or signs with the texts “Limburg is everywhere” appear. The whole situation escalated in Limburg since they waited far too long with giving an explanation.”

It turns out that Cardinal Lehmann and the other bishops offered their help to Bishop Tebartz-van Elst, but that he did not take it.

“From the start I told Bishop Tebartz, “It’s not easy for you. You have a charismatic predecessor, Franz Kamphaus, and people don’t get used to a successor very quickly. We will help you where we can. Come and ask.” But he hasn’t asked us anything.”

“As president of the Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Zollitsch had asked Bishop Tebartz twice in the standing council – that is the meeting of the bishops without the auxiliary bishops – if he could tell us something about the allegations which had been raised in Limburg. Bishop Tebartz twice had 20 or 25 minutes to explain the situation. And there, I am sorry to say, he avoided all the difficult questions. When the request was then made to publish an official statement for him, some of us said, “I can’t do that, since I don’t really know what’s going on in Limburg.” Had Bishop Tebartz been more collegial and open, he would have gotten more support from us. I’m sorry.”

It is clear that serious mistakes and errors of judgement lie at the root of the mess in Limburg, but it is sad to see that hands extended in help were ignored. The removal of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst was the only possible choice in such a situation, I’d think.