When faiths meet – Refugees as missionaries

In an interview looking ahead to the 100th Catholic Day in Leipzig, which begins on 25 May, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki offers a thought-provoking answer to the question if the Muslim faith of many refugees forms a challenge to the Christian faith of the Catholic volunteers aiding them. The archbishop of Cologne says:

woelki32“I see it in many volunteers in our parishes, who work with and for refugees. When the refugees ask them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you helping us?” – it is for many an impulse to think anew about their own faith and consider more deeply what motivates them to do what they do. One could say that the refugees are, in this sense, missionaries.”

Full century – in Ambon, Bishop Sol passes away

Yesterday, the eve of his 100th Easter, Bishop André Sol, the sixth-oldest bishop in the world and the oldest Dutch bishop, returned to the Father.

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Bishop Andreas Petrus Cornelius Sol was the last surviving Dutch-born prelate to have participated in the Second Vatican Council, taking part in the third and fourth sessions. A priest of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, he was ordained in 1940, travelling, after the war ended in 1945, to the Catholic Kai Islands in the Moluccas in what was then the Dutch East Indies. In 1963 he was appointed as Coadjutor Bishop of the Diocese of Amboina, and in 1965 he succeeded Bishop Jacobus Grent, also a Dutchman, as the second bishop of that diocese. Bishop Sol retired in 1994.

Bishop Sol remained in Ambon after his retirement. In 2004 he had to flee sectarian violence in the city, but he returned later and died yesterday in the city that became his home. He leaves behind an extensive library attached to the cathedral of Amboina, as well as the Ambon Adoption Project, which has allowed thousands of children in the Mollucas to receive an education through sponsorships from financial adoption parents in the Netherlands since its inception in 1980.

The courage of Easter – Archbishop Koch’s message

1900163306“How confidently can we live, as God is at our side on the difficult paths of life! How confidently can we pray: the good God hears and understands us! How hopefully can we commit ourselves to people, as God gives us strength in all challenges! How expectantly can we die, as the Crucified One does not abandon us in death!

Do we as Christians really live such an alternative, renewed life style? Does our life differ from that of those who can not or do not want to believe in the Resurrection? Do we really conform to the Easter message? Do we really rely on the presence of God in our lives? Without the courage to rely on God and live in an Easter-ly way, we can not experience the Ressurected One in our lives. Experiences can only gather those who “let go”. We can leave the graves of our unbelief and our inertia when the stone from our graves has also been rolled away. The people in our society need no witness more than that of faithful Christians who dare, with the resurrected Christ, to shape their lives every day and always direct their lives anew towards the message of Easter.”

Archbishop Heiner Koch,
Easter letter to the faithful of the Archdiocese of Berlin

The good death of Good Friday

“And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:37-39)

Christ crucified

The cry of Jesus is that of every crucified person through the ages, everyone who has been abandoned or humiliated, the cry of the martyr and the prophet, of those vilified and unjustly condemned, of those in exile or in prison.  It is the cry of human desperation that leads, however, to the victory of faith which transforms death into eternal life.  “I will tell of your name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (Ps 22:22).

Jesus dies on the cross.  Is it the death of God?  No, it is the most solemn celebration of the witness of faith.

The twentieth century has been defined as the century of martyrs.  Examples such as Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein express an immense light.  Today too, the Body of Christ is crucified in many parts of the world.  The martyrs of the twenty-first century are true apostles of the modern world.

In this great darkness the faith is kindled: “Truly, this man was the Son of God!”, because he who dies in this way, turning the desperation of death into hope for life, cannot be a mere man.

The Crucified One is a total offering.
He has held back nothing, not a shred of his clothing, not a drop of his blood, not even his own Mother.
He has given everything: “Consummatum est”.
When one no longer has anything left to give because he has given everything, then he is able to offer true gifts.
Stripped, naked, overcome with wounds, with thirst due to abandonment, with insults:
It is no longer the image of a man.
To give everything: this is charity.
Where what is mine ends, paradise begins.
(Don Primo Mazzolari)

From the Via Crucis meditations (12th station) written by Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, prayed in Rome on Good Friday 2016.

Palm Sunday – The inevitability of the Passion

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It’s Palm Sunday, which means Holy Week has begun. In the Gospel reading at Mass we heard the entire Easter narrative, from the Last Supper to Jesus’ entombment – we’ll go over the same events in the course of this week, especially from Thursday onwards. But today we especially marked Jesus’ joyful entrance in Jerusalem:

“Jesus proceeded on his journey up to Jerusalem. As he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples. He said, “Go into the village opposite you, and as you enter it you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it here. And if anyone should ask you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you will answer, ‘The Master has need of it.’”
So those who had been sent went off  and found everything just as he had told them. And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them,  “Why are you untying this colt?” They answered, “The Master has need of it.”
So they brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks over the colt, and helped Jesus to mount. As he rode along, the people were spreading their cloaks on the road; and now as he was approaching the slope of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of his disciples
began to praise God aloud with joy for all the mighty deeds they had seen.
They proclaimed: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He said in reply, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!””

Gospel of Luke 19:28-40

This is the reading we heard at the start of Mass. In many places, the faithful then processed into Church, carrying palm branches, so recreating the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem. It’s more than symbolism, of course, as Jesus is not just symbolically with us, but in a very real way: it is good to remember that every now and then in the way we behave around Him. If only we wouldn’t change our mind so quickly as the people in Jerusalem did in those faithful days leading up to His Passion. From “Hossanah” to “Crucify Him!” just like that…

The text from the Gospel of Luke above has a distinct sense of things falling into place. Jesus seems to know exactly what needs to be done, as well as what otherwise complete strangers will say and do. Later on, as Jesus prays on the Mount of Olives, we find out more about this inevitability: He ask that this cup be taken from Him, but “not my will, but yours be done”. Jesus knows what needs to be done, and also why: to redeem the people of God, to take all their pain and suffering upon His shoulders, so that they don’t  have to, and accept all the consequences… He is to do what they, we, can’t. What was our death now becomes His. The events we read above seem to prefigure that: it is inevitable that a colt be found, that the owner be told the Master needs it (and that he accepts it), and even the praise is unavoidable. The Pharisees who complain about it are told that if the disciples don’t praise God, the stones will: For what is about to happen, God deserves praise which can’t  be stopped.

Strangely enough, we read nothing here about the people of Jerusalem cheering and waving palm fronds: it is the disciples who are doing the praising and spreading their cloaks on the ground before the colt on which Jesus rides. In the other Gospels, especially in those of John and Matthew, we do read about people coming out of the city to meet and accompany Him. By focussing solely on the disciples, Luke emphasises the contrast between them and Jerusalem: there is a sense of hostility in the city already. The first thing we encounter there are Pharisees almost ordering that Jesus tell His disciples off for their joy. There is jubilation and praise, certainly, but all is not as happy as it seems. The coming days will show exactly how hostile things will become…

Photo credit: Catholic News Agency

The problem of secrecy – whose choice is it?

One third of known abuse cases have been settled out of court and in secret, an investigation by Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad reveals. Church authorities, mostly religious congregations, paid out 10.6 million euros in compensation for these 342 cases*.

The foundation the commission advised to be established has now processed 703 cases of sexual abuse by clergy and other representatives of the Church, while some 200 are still awaiting completion. 21.3 million euros in compensation have been paid in acknowledgement of these cases.

Settlement agreements which were agreed upon through a mediator, some 210 in total, included the commitment for both parties not to express themselves negatively about each other where it concerns the settlement or the abuse in question. These settlements were used by a handful of religious congregations which ran schools and boarding schools, among them the Salesians.  While mediation and settlements, in addition or instead of the standard channels of meeting, conversation, acknowledgement and financial compensation, have always been options, the secrecy clause is problematic.

When it comes to how the Church deals with abuse, secrecy should be avoided at all cost. In order to resolve the crisis and acknowledge the sins committed and damage done to the victims, the first step must always be transparancy. Secret settlements are hardly the way to do it.

However, we must also wonder how these came about? Where they suggested by the congregations in question, or was there a wish from the victims to remain anonymous and avoid possible unwanted media attention? If there is a wish for the latter, that must certainly be acknowledged. The victims should have the first say in how their case is handled. So, secret settlements are not automatically a bad thing. As it seems now, however, from comments from the mediators themselves, the secrecy clause was included on the request of the religious congregations themselves, which was not their decision to make.

Were secret settlements out of court the smart thing to do? Probably not, even if there was a wish from the victims to do it like this (which, it seems now, there generally was not). It was not up to the congregations to choose secrecy. When faced with a choice between secrecy and transparency, the first and immediate choice must always be the latter.

Many victims signed the agreement, with the secrecy clause embedded within it, as the end result of professional mediation between them and the congregations in question. Did they all read it carefully? Perhaps not. But their signature did make the agreement legally binding, making it exceedingly difficult for them to now voice their disagreements.

As before, the fear for a tarnished reputation seems to have played its part… But that never leads to a solution, to a future where we can say that sexual abuse by clergy, and it effects in too many innocent victims, lies in the past. The Church can be, and in many ways already is, an example for other parts of society, but not when secrecy remains a part of her actions.

In a press release issued today, the Catholic Church in the Netherlands addressed this issue, once more underlining that mediation and settlement have been options from the beginning (and again, these are not problematic, but secrecy is):

“Complaints against deceased and/or about lapsed cases of sexual abuse could be lodged with the Meldpunt Seksueel Misbruik RKK until 1 May 2015. Claimants could choose to have their case processed by the complaints commissions and speak openly, in the presence of Church representatives, about the sexual abuse they suffered and the consequences of it in their lives. After the claim is deemed justified, victims can request compensation from the compensation commission. In the course of the process victims can also choose an alternative, such as mediation or a settlement.

The Meldpunt Seksueel Misbruik, which falls under the independent Stichting Beheer & Toezicht for cases of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands, will report on the claims processed and the compensations awarded, as well as mediations and settlements, in the annual report over 2015. This report will be completed in the first week of April and will be published on the website of the Meldpunt. The Meldpunt will, as it has done in previous years, communicatie openly and transparently.

The Meldpunt takes the aspect of confidentiality into accounty. In a report from April 2014 the board of Beheer & Toezicht explains why confidentiality in all cases is so important: it lowers the threshold for victims, accused and Church authorities; plausibility is of primary importance in processing the case; the defendants are deceased in most cases and can no longer defend themselves.

The complaints commissions expects that all cases will be completed by 1 September 2016, as the Meldpunt Seksueel Misbruik RKK reported in a press relase of 30 November 2015.”

*The accuracy of these numbers as presented by NRC have been called into question. If the actual number of settlements with a secrecy of clause is smaller than suggested, that can only be good, but it does not remove the need for openness that I emphasise above. Again, settlements out of court and mediation are no need for concern, and the advice of the Deetman Commission specifically acknowledges and supports it (contrary to what the authors of the NRC claim, and which I shared in an earlier version of this blog post). Imposed secrecy by anyone else than the victims is a problem, however.

 

How God left the Netherlands – or is it the other way around?

Lots of news on social media today about the latest edition of the five-yearly poll on the faith of the Dutch. In short, the trend is as expected: fewer people who call themselves Christians, who believe in the existence of God, or go to any church. At the same time, and this is perhaps surprising, fewer people call themselves generally spiritual (this despite the apparently steady popularity of vaguely spiritual magazines, websites and television programs).

Among Catholics the trend is largely similar to the overal picture: fewer people remain members of the Catholic Church, and of those who do, fewer are active in the Church. Some numbers: 13% believes in the existence of heaven, and 17% in a personal God. Only one-third of the Dutch Catholics prays every day and less than half believe that Jesus is the Son of God or was sent by Him (in comparison, among Protestants 77% believes that Christ is God). Disconcerting numbers, to be sure. These are essential elements of the Christian faith, but apparently there are many Catholics who see no apparent problem in denying them and continuing to consider themselves Christian.

Does the root of the problem lie in a serious failure of the Church to communicate the faith? Perhaps in part: the Church has become marginalised over the past decades, by forces outside of her control, but also by a creeping fear of being too visibly Christian in society. Many Catholic communities, in my opinion, are content to keep their faith indoors, and when they do make it visible, it is in the form of charitable and social activities, which are laudable in their own right, but not exclusive to churches and faith communities. Another element, I think, is the extreme individualism prevalent in Dutch society. Certainly, society is still social, but when it comes to religion, the general idea is that people have to make up their own minds, and that means figuring it all out for themselves. For those many people who call themselves atheist, agnostic or vaguely spiritual, the decision to become Christian would be a personal one and one that must not be influenced by what others say, or else the individual’s freedom becomes curtailed. Others see religion is essentially curtailing freedom, but they are often blind to the fact that any life philosophy, including their own, is equally or even more curtailing. The moment one makes a choice or a decision, other options become impossible, and so the freedom to choose it has vanished. Lastly, an increasing number of people see no need to believe in God. They get along fine in society, and even if they don’t, they do not see how faith will change any of that. The value and need for faith is invisible, and so is the distinction between the various religions. What does it matter if you are Catholic or Protestant, Jew of Buddhist, if it works for you and it all boils down to being nice to each other? Here lies perhaps the hardest challenge for us: how to show the value of faith.

There is, however, always hope. Catholics under 40 are generally more orthodox in faith and practice, and that is a new trend. New and young Catholics do not want mere general sentiments of being nice. They can get that anywhere. They want a solid body of faith and philosophy, teaching and action. And the Catholic Church has that aplenty. It’s a shame that that is too often hidden.

Should we be overly worried about these developments? Of course, we are talking about increasing numbers of people who do not know about the truth of their existence. That is a concern. But God does not depend on popularity. He does not abandon His people, not even in the Netherlands. Let these numbers be an incentive for us, as Catholics, not to hide behind the doors of our churces, to take the faith out into the Streets, show its value and invite others in.

Three years of Pope Francis – years of continuity of rupture?

Pope-Francis

^Three years ago tomorrow, the world’s first look at Pope Francis

Tomorrow marks the third anniversary of the election of Pope Francis. Time flies. And of course, countless commentators are picking their high and low points from these past years.  And it amazes me how much opposition the Holy Father still faces, especially in online Catholic media. And I know, that can’t be taken as an accurate reflection of the Catholic world as a whole, but this is communication, and there volume sometimes matters as much as accuracy and perhaps more than representation. It’s not nice, but there you have it.

In these comments, and not just those that specifically aim to give an overview of this pontificate, an artificial opposition between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis is strikingly noticable. Pope Benedict said, this, taught that, and now Pope Francis says something else and teaches another thing, so the commentary goes. The implication being that what Pope Francis is saying, doing and emphasising is somehow contrary to the things Pope Benedict focussed on, and some even go so far as to call the current pontiff a heretic because of this preceived discrepancy. A careful reader of what Pope Francis says (and yes, I admit, a careful reading of his remarks, especially the off-the-cuff ones, can be a challenge), knows that this is not the case. Not only are the two pontiffs in agreement with each other when it comes to the content of the faith, the differences in their focus is also not as large as some would have us think.

A fair few number of people lament the fact that Pope Francis emphasises mercy, care for the poor and creation and the economic inequality that seems an innate element of western capitalist societies. These are not really Catholic topics, they say, and the Pope should devote more time and focus on catechesis, liturgy, prayer, truth as revealed to us in the Gospels. But do these things suddenly no longer matter or exist, just because this Pope speaks about them less or in another way than his predecessor? Of course not. The Catholic Church consists of more than just the Pope, and we all share the same responsibility as he does: to proclaim the faith and defend it, to teach it, celebrate it properly and let it shine through in every part of our being and lives. Maybe we should talk less about what the Pope should say and say and do some things ourselves.

Sure, one may prefer one Pope over the other, but just because ‘your Pope’ has passed away or retired, his teachings have not. St. John Paul II’s teachings about the family and Pope Benedict XVI’s words about liturgy and truth remain as valid and valuable as Pope Francis’ attention to mercy and the environment. The different topics and emphases should not automatically be considered as contrary, but as in continuity. Pope Francis does not suddenly disregared his predecessors’ teachings simply because he speaks about something else. Neither should we.

Thoughts about the next bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

Apparently there are people who look to me to predict who the new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden will be. Well, surprisingly, I don’t know. I am not privy to the deliberations of the seven-priest cathedral chapter of the diocese, let alone the thoughts of the other bishops, the nuncio or the Pope.

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Bishops de Korte and Hurkmans in Den Bosch, on Saturday. Behind them Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts.

But we can make guesses, for whatever that is worth. To do so, we can first take a look at the recent history of bishop appointments in the Netherlands. While auxiliary bishops are virtually always chosen from among priests and therefore need to be consecrated as bishops first, ordinaries – bishops who lead a diocese – rarely are. It is more usual for a new ordinary to be transferred from another diocese, as happened with Bishop de Korte on Saturday, or an auxiliary bishop being chosen. This happened, for example, when Bishop Jan Liesen was picked for the Diocese of Breda in 2011. He was auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch before that.

There are currently five auxiliary bishops in the Netherlands. In order of precedence they are:

  • Bishop Everard de Jong, 57, Titular Bishop of Cariana and Auxiliary Bishop of Roermond
  • Bishop Theodorus Hoogenboom, 55, Titular Bishop of Bistue and Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht
  • Bishop Herman Woorts, 52, Titular Bishop of Giufi Salaria and Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht
  • Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, 57, Titular Bishop of Uccula and Auxiliary Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch
  • Bishop Jan Hendriks, 61, Titular Bishop of Arsacal and Auxiliary Bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam

dejong_hulpbisschop_0Of these, Bishop de Jong (at left) may have the best cards. A bishop for 17 years, he was allegedly in the running to succeed then-Bishop Eijk in Groningen-Leeuwarden back in 2008. Ultimately that appointment went to Bishop de Korte, but his time may now have come. Coming from a large diocese, he has relatively little experience with the process of parish mergers and consolidations as it is taking place in Groningen-Leeuwarden. This could speak against him.

Of the other four, most attention has been on Bishop Mutsaerts. Seen as the opposite of Bishop de Korte in several ways, many assume that he will be removed to another diocese fairly soon. The likely choice is, of course, Groningen-Leeuwarden. In how far there is a basis in fact for this assumption remains to be seen. It is said that Bishops Mutsaerts and De Korte get on fine personally, and the latter would see the advantage of having an auxiliary bishop at his side as he familiarises himself with his new diocese.

Bishops Hoogenboom, Woorts and Hendriks are possible choices to come to Groningen, but at the moment none really stands out as being more likely than the others. When it comes to the communication and opennes of Bishop de Korte, Bishop Hendriks perhaps comes closest. For the cathedral chapter he could be an option if they want to see the line of Bishop de Korte continue. The auxiliary bishops of Utrecht are reputed to be more in line with Cardinal Eijk.

Of the other ordinaries in the Netherlands two are certainly too old to be transferred to another diocese: Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam is 70 and Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond 73. With the mandatory retirement age of bishops set at 75, they can safely assume that they will remain in their dioceses. Another ordinary who will not be appointed is of course Cardinal Wim Eijk, the archbishop of Utrecht. He was the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden from 1999 to 2008 and as a rule bishops do not return for a second shift, so to speak (although canon law does not preclude it). A return would be seen as a demotion anyway, what with Eijk being an archbishop and cardinal.

bishop van den hendeThis leaves only two other ordinaries to be considered: Rotterdam’s Hans van den Hende (at right) and Breda’s Jan Liesen. Bishop van den Hende is a native of Groningen-Leeuwarden, serving as its vicar general before being appointed as coadjutor bishop of Breda in 2006. If he was to come home, it would mean his third appointment as ordinary, after Breda and Rotterdam. While not impossible, it is quite unlikely. And with only four years as bishop of Breda and almost five years and counting in Rotterdam, he may be excused for wanting to stay in one place for a while longer. That’s better for his diocese, too.

Bishop Jan Liesen has been in Breda since 2011 and before that he was auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch for a year and change. There is nothing really excluding him as an option for Groningen-Leeuwarden, except for his short time in Breda. Stability must be considered: it is probably not a good idea for the diocese to start looking for its third bishop in les than ten years.

So, in my expert opinion (ahem…), if the new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden is to be picked from among the other bishops of the Netherlands, Bishop Everard de Jong and Jan Hendriks have the best odds, with Bishops Liesen, Hoogenboom and Woorts as possible runners-up.

Pope Francis’ second Dutch appointment, which will certainly not happen before the end of May, and perhaps, as Bishop de Korte suggested, not before the year’s final months, could be a surprise. A priest native to Groningen-Leeuwarden may be a bridge too far just yet, but whatever will happen, it should be an interesting couple of months before us.

Photo credit: [1] Chris Korsten