An archbishop’s first tempest

de keselLess then two months in, Archbishop Jozef De Kesel weathered his first true storm these past few days, as his comments about the freedom of Catholic hospitals to refuse performing euthanasia led to strong criticism, even from politicians.

In an interview last Saturday, the archbishop was asked what he thought about freedom of choice in matters of abortion and euthanasia. He answered:

“I can understand that someone with a secular view of life has no problems with it. But it is not evident from my faith. I think I am allowed to say that, and what’s more: I also think that we have the right, on an institutional level, to decide not to do it. I am thinking, for example, of our hospitals. You are not free to choose if there is only one option.”

Critics then accused Archbishop De Kesel of disregarding the law in Belgium and urging others, namely Catholic hospitals, to do the same. But others, among them politicians, lawyers and legal experts, soon countered that no such thing was the case. They pointed out that the law does not create a right to be euthanised or have an abortion performed. Institutions, parliamentary documents indicate, are free to refuse such life-ending measures within their walls. However, their obligation to offer all the necessary medical care available does include the option of referral to other institutions or persons who do offers euthanasia or abortion. This is problematic from a Catholic point of view, but that is not what the hubbub was about. Archbishop De Kesel was correct in his statement that institutions should be free to make the choice to not end the lives of their patients.

Even before his appointment to Brussels, Archbishop De Kesel has been criticised for his perceived lack of support for the Catholic doctrines regarding the sanctity of all life. At his installation, there were protesters in front of the cathedral emphasising just this.*

Some said that the archbishop should have used the occasion to say that no Catholic institution can offer to end a life, be it unborn or elderly (or otherwise deemed unsuited to live). And unequivocal statements like that remain necessary, especially in a society where euthanasia and abortion are considered normal medical procedures and even part of a person’s rights. On the other hand, it will not always be effective to do so. The interview in question focusses on the person of the archbishop, and his experiences and thoughts, rather than official Catholic teaching. Of course the latter gets a look in, and a bishop can’t go and deny or ignore it when it does, and Archbishop De Kesel doesn’t. He sheds his personal light on it, not that of the official magisterium. And more often than not, these two overlap (about priestly celibacy, for example, he says: “I am not opposed to celibacy. I think it can be very useful, and personally I have never had the idea that I was a loser or that I missed something because I am celibate. Married people also miss all kinds of things. It is simply a matter of choice”).

Of course, bishops and priests (and lay Catholics, for that matter) must take care not to keep the pendulum on the side of personal experiences and thoughts alone. In the end, a bishop has the duty to teach and communicate the faith that has been taught and communicated to him, regardless of what he personally thinks of it.

In the context of this question, it is clear that the Church opposes the killing of people, no matter the situation. That includes abortion and euthanasia. Persons or institutions calling themselves Catholic are obliged to uphold this. Archbishop De Kesel has said that they should be free to do so, and the law supports this. The Church does not oblige non-Catholics to follow her teachings (although she greatly hopes and desires for them do so).

Archbishop Jozef De Kesel is in the spotlight, now that he is the primus inter pares of the Belgian Church, and that can be both positive and negative. He is experiencing much the same things as his predecessor, Archbishop Léonard, when he took up the job.

*This makes me wonder: why are we always looking at prelates and other Church officials to vocally defend life, when it is clear what the Church teaches? Why only them and not us? Are we less Catholic? Are we somehow less obliged to uphold the sanctity of life? I think that if we take our own responsibility (and not just in these matters either) in defending our faith, we would soon discover the bishops and priests, that we now look towards with expectation, at our side.

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Merry Christmas

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

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Oh, come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant!
Oh, come ye, oh come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him,
Born the King of angels!

Christ is born, 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, and every day in the hearts of people everywhere in the world. May today herald His arrival in your heart!

The problems with Archbishop De Kesel’s wish for women deacons

de keselNot unexpectedly, Archbishop Jozef De Kesel of Brussels today again repeated his support for female deacons in the Catholic Church. His comments come after a promise to try and work towards giving women more responsibility in the Church. Regarding the latter he is of course fully in line with Pope Francis, who not only wants to increase the role of women, but of laity in general in the Church.

But when it comes to the ordination of women, be it to the diaconate or the priesthood, the matter is quite different. It is clear that it is impossible for the Church to ordain women to the priesthood, and I will not discuss that here.

On the Facebook page of the press office of the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, which has reported on these comments from the new archbishop, I left the following commentary (in Dutch, but in an English translation here):

“It can certainly be discussed. But I do not think it is possible. Why would only ordained persons be able to play an important role in the Church? Pope France emphasises that (non-ordained) lay people should be given and take on more responsibility. Yet we keep seeing people, both men and women, who consider ordination as the greatest good, and even a right.

And then there is the question of the nature of the diaconate: it is the first grade of the priesthood, which is not possible for women. Even just because of this, a female diaconate would be essentially different from that of men. Similar names do not remove the differences. I think it is healthier not to hide the differences, but work within the possibilities for men and women towards a Church in which everyone can take their responsibilities, without considering ordination as a prize or right.”

Photo credit: photo news

Pope Adrian VI comes home

Almost a year ago, I wrote about plans to erect a statue for the only Dutch Pope, Adrian VI, in the city where he was born: Utrecht. Out of 60 proposals, the design by Anno Dijkstra was chosen unanimously. It depicts the Pope, who held the see of Saint Peter for less than two years, as a simple pilgrim, wearing a cap and staff. The roughly life-sized bronze statue stands in front of the ‘Paushuize’, the house that Adrian had built for his retirement which never came.

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Pope Adrian VI is depicted according the simple life style he maintained while in Rome. In many ways, Adrian was not unlike our current Pope Francis: wary of luxury and aware of the pressing need for reforms in the Curia and the Church. Unlike Francis, Adrian was never popular among the Romans, who considered his frugality and reform-mindedness was too excessive. The Dutch Pope never had the chance to accomplish his desired reforms, passing away eighteen months after his election.

The statue, testimony to an unknown part of Dutch history, was revealed by the mayor of Utrecht. Also present, I have since found out, were Cardinal Wim Eijk and Bishop Herman Woorts. It is good to have an official representation of the Church at such an event: Adrian VI was a son of Utrecht, but also a Pope of the Catholic Church.

Photo credit: RTV Utrecht

Seriousness and joy, two bedfellows in the Year of Mercy – Archbishop De Kesel’s installation homily

Last Saturday, Msgr. Jozef De Kesel was installed as the 24th Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, at the Cathedral of St. Rumbold. Attending were, among others, the Belgian king and queen, all other Belgian bishops (including Archbishop De Kesel’s two predecessors, Archbishop Léonard and Cardinal Danneels), as well as Cardinal Wim Eijk from the Netherlands and Bishop Gérard Coliche from France. In his homily, the new archbishop looked at the readings of the third Sunday of Advent, and kept close to the theme of the Holy Year of Mercy. In the spirit of Pope Francis, he called for a Church that goes out into the world, to confront “our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.”

Read my translation of the homily, which was given in both French and Dutch, below.

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“Dear friends,

The Scripture readings we have just heard are the reading for the third Sunday of Advent. They are words that are being read today and tomorrow everywhere in the world, wherever Christians come together on the Sunday. They prepare us for Christmas. But they do give us mixed feelings. On the one hand we have John’s call for conversion. That we do not miss He who is coming. For He is coming, he says, “to clear his threshing floor”. Not exactly a comforting message. Words that point out the seriousness of the situation and our responsibility.

But at the same time there is also the call to joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” he says. Of old this Sunday has also been called this: Sunday Gaudete! And Saint Paul adds, “Have no anxiety …  the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds. The Prophet Zephaniah shares the same call for joy. They seem unlikely bedfellows: the seriousness and responsibility that John emphasises and the call to joy and happiness. But it is these two which brings us together today: great responsibility, but also great joy.

Yes, the words of John are binding. He calls to conversion. Yet when those who have just been baptised ask him, “What should we do?”, his response is surprising. He asks for nothing extraordinary or sensational. Share what you have. They should not give everything, but what they have. If you have more clothing than you need, then give to those who do not have enough. The same applies to food: share what you have more of than you need. And to the tax collectors he does not say to cease their work. He simply says, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed”. Beware of corruption. And the soldiers who come to him, he does not ask to desert. He simply asks them: do what you do properly, without abusing your position and without the use of arbitrary violence. Never forget that you are human like everyone else. What John asks requires string commitment. That is true. But he does not ask anything extravagant. A baptised person does not keep a distance from others. We are to return to the responsibility and solidarity that we share with all men, regardless of their religion of belief.

But why be baptised? Why be Christian? The liturgy of this Sunday gives us the answer, and it too is astonishing. It is the joy that makes me a believer. It is not out of necessity or because I feel obligated. I am a Christian in freedom and love. We are known and loved by God. This is the heart of our faith. This joy and all love is therefore a call to fidelity and conversion.

This is the heart of Christianity. Not in the first place a doctrine or morality. But the certainty that we, frail and temporary people, are known and loved by God. It can hardly be imagined. But how, if this is true, can we not rejoice? Of course this does not answer all questions or solve every problem. But we know from experience how much this makes us happy, gives meaning and direction to our existence: that we are known, appreciated and loved by other people. That we are not nobody. Exactly that is the joy of the Gospel: to know that we are not only by those who are near to use, but by God Himself, the Creator and source of all that exists. Known and loved and radically accepted. Not without reason did Pope Francis call his first Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel”. And not without reason did he, last Tuesday in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, at the start of the great jubilee, open the door, the door of God’s mercy. Like we will do tomorrow here, and in Brussels and in Nivelles and in all cathedrals and jubilee churches in the entire world.

No, God is not an indifferent God. No arbitrary power, only concerned with Himself. We people are worth everything to Him. That is why He ask that one thing: that we are also not indifferent to each other. Especially not to those who stand at the side and do not matter, the poor and vulnerable, and the countless who are fleeing from war and violence. That we respect all life, no matter how small and vulnerable. Respect for the religious and philosophical convictions of every man. Respect and care for the planet we inhabit. We are also responsible for future generations. This world can be a hard place. This is what the Gospel asks from us: that we do not became hard and indifferent, insensitive and merciless. Because that is our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.

This is the Gospel that the Church proclaims. The Gospel of God’s tenderness. And this is not just rhetoric. He is committed to the very end. And His Son, Jesus Christ, became one of us, vulnerable and defenseless as a child of men. A miracle of humanity. A love to which there is only one answer: to love in our turn. We appreciate and respect each other. Proclaiming the mercy of God and calling for respect and love, that is the mission of the Church. This is the place it searches out in our pluralistic and modern society. Nothing more, and nothing less. In a secularised culture, she can and must make her voice heard. And so much more than a religious fundamentalism that at this time constitutes a very real threat.

Not a Church that looks inward, but a Church that shares in the joys and sufferings of the world. Sympathetic to the plight of humans, of any kind. This was the message of the Second Vatican Council. Last Tuesday, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, it was exactly fifty years since the closing of the Ecumenical Council. The Constitution on the Church in the world begins with these impressive and moving words: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

This is the vocation that the Church has received from God. To that we want to dedicate our best forces at the task entrusted to me today. I with you, and you with me. As we heard from John: no extravagant or spectacular projects. But a search for a consistent experience of the Gospel. And with that one certainty: that we are known and loved by God. That is our joy and faith today.

+Jozef De Kesel
Mechelen, 12 December 2015″

Opening day – Holy Door opens in Groningen

Without doubt the first time in history: a Holy Door in my own cathedral, the church I attend. Bishop Gerard de Korte was one of countless bishops opening Holy Doors in their cathedrals or other churches (all other Dutch bishops opened at least one today). As a ceremony it was unfamiliar and logical: Prayer, a reading from the Papal bull, Misericordiae vultus, and a procession to the Holy Door while singing the hymn for the Holy Year of Mercy. By the time I rounded the corner of the cathedral, the bishop had already opened the door.

The Holy Door, which is usually unused and closed, serving as an emergency exit at best, is located between the main entrance and the door to the parish hall. Within the cathedral it opens onto the right aisle at the pieta. In a fitting coincidence, the stained glass window above it shows the crucifixion, the greatest act of mercy of all.

Having witnessed the ceremony at my own church this morning, and new seeing photos on social media of bishops doing the same at churches across the world gives a wonderful sense of unity: we really do have a Church unlimited by human boundaries. Jesus is everywhere, as is His mercy.

I posted a few photos on my Facebook page, and I’ll share some of these here.

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^About an hour before the opening of the Holy Door, the outside decorations were being installed.

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^Decorated but closed.

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^The faithful gathered beside the cathedral, ready for the short procession to the front.

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^Bishop de Korte begins with prayer.

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^The Holy Door is open, the Holy Year of Mercy has begun in our diocese.

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^First in: The Word of God