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.