Even the numbers are impressive. Author Ton Crijnen spent an estimated 750 hours in conversation, spread over four years, with Cardinal Ad Simonis to create his biography of the retired Archbishop of Utrecht, which was published today. And the book shows the work put into it, clocking in at a whopping 591 pages.
Mr. Crijnen not only spoke at length with Cardinal Simonis, but also with 60 people who worked closely with (and sometimes against) the cardinal and who got to know him well. Among those who refused to speak with the author were two other cardinals: His successor in Utrecht, Wim Eijk, and his Belgian counterpart, Godfried Danneels. And then there were the additional hurdles of the archives of the Diocese of Rotterdam, where Cardinal Simonis was bishop from 1970 to 1983, not being accessible for research and the cardinal himself never keeping a diary or notes.
Cardinal Simonis speaks about numerous topics, a reflection of his 14 years as a priest, then 15 years as a bishop and finally 30 years as a cardinal. Some comments were published today on the website of the RKK, offering an interesting foretaste of the remainder of the book.
He speaks about his solid belief in the existence of hell:
“Not like a sea of fire, as Muhammad describes it, or like Dante’s lake of ice, but like a place where you are condemned to eternal loneliness. I doubt, by the way, if its population will be great, God is too merciful for that.”
About his won expectations regarding heaven and hell, he says:
“Although I hope I won’t end up in hell, I do think I need a time of purification after my death, before I am ready to meet the Lord face to face.”
When he was appointed as bishop of Rotterdam, Cardinal Simonis was often mentioned in one breath with Bishop Jo Gijsen, the bishop of Roermond as both were seen as the two conservative bishops forced upon the Dutch Church by Rome in the early 1970s. Cardinal Simonis knew Bishop Gijsen, who died in 2013, well, and was glad that he was not the only ‘Rome-oriented’ bishop.
“Although I did immediately think, knowing the straightforward mindset of Gijsen, “I hope this isn’t too much of a good thing.” I greatly admired his personality and completely agreed with his critical analysis of the situation in Church and society, but did think he expressed it sometimes too boldly.”
Cardinal Simonis never believed for a moment that Bishop Gijsen was guilty of sexual abuse. The complaints committee dealing with sexual abuse by clergy deemed two complaints against the bishop to be believable earlier this year.
In the run-up to the conclave that elected Pope Francis, Cardinal Simonis participated in the general congregations, although he did not stay in Rome to await the election of the new Pope. He did not have a great opinion of the proceedings, considering them to have been boring and sleep-inducing, because every cardinal wanted to have his say.
“Some, like Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, could hardly be heard. Based on what I heard there, I concluded that the actual conclave would take at least five days. Since my RyanAir return ticket would have expired by then, I decided not to wait for the result, but to fly back home. That was on 13 March.”
“When I heard who they had elected, I was stunned: Bergoglio! I had heard his name being mentioned during the preconclave, but I thought, he is 76 and is past his prime.”
“Why he was chosen? I think that the 19 South American cardinals agreed about his candidacy and then managed to convince their North American colleagues, so that Bergoglio got 30 or 40 votes in the first round of voting. That number was a magnet for the other cardinals, which ultimately led to his election.
Kardinaal Ad Simonis, kerkleider in de branding. Een biografie, is published by Valkhof Pers at a price of €39,50 (which is not much for a book this size).