Once again, west goes to east – Heinrich Timmerevers is the new bishop of Dresden-Meißen

After a 10-month vacancy, and just before it hosts the biggest national Catholic event of the year, the 100th Katholikentag, the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen has a new bishop. He is 63-year-old Heinrich Timmerevers, until today one of the five auxiliary bishops of Münster, where he was regional bishop for the diocese’s northern exclave of Oldenburg and Vechta. The news was announced today at noon in Rome and Vechta, where the bishop currently resides.

Weihbischof_TimmereversHeinrich Timmerevers was born in the small town of Garrel, southwest of Oldenburg, as second of six children in a farmer’s family, and attended school in nearby Cloppenburg, where he graduated in 1972. he studied theology and philosophy in Münster, where he also entered the seminary. For a short time he studied in Freiburg, but returned to Münster for his graduation in 1977. In 1997 and 1978 he attended a spirituality course of the Focolare movement, which he got to know in seminary, in Rome.

Bishop Reinhard Lettmann of Münster ordained Heinrich Timmervers in 1980. Until 1984 he worked as a priest in Visbek, not far from his native Garrel. He then became subregent of the Collegium Borromaeum, Münster’s diocesan seminary and was attached to the cathedral of St. Paul. In 1990 he returned to Visbek. He represented the kfd, the Catholic Women’s Community in the Oldenburg pastoral area.

In 2001, Pope John Paul II appointed Fr. Heinrich Timmerevers as an auxiliary bishop of Münster, with the titular see of Tulana. At the same time, Bishop Lettmann appointed him as episcopal representative in Vechta for the entire northern area of the diocese. Bishop Lettmann, together with then-auxiliary Bishop Werner Thissen (later archbishop of Hamburg, now retired) and retiring auxiliary Bishop Max Georg Freiherr von Twickel (now deceased), consecrated him on 2 September 2001. Bishop Timmerevers chose the German phrase “Suchet, wo Christus ist” as his episcopal motto. In 2002, the new bishop joined the cathedral chapter.

In the German Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Timmerevers is a member of the commission for vocations and Church ministry and the commission for Adveniat, the German bishops’ charity arm for Latin America. In the past he was a member of the youth commission. Since 2012, Bishop Timmerevers is also a chaplain for the Order of Malta.

220px-Karte_Bistum_Dresden-MeissenBishop Timmerevers will be the ninth bishop of Dresden-Meißen since the diocese restoration in 1921. The diocese is located in eastern Germany along the Czech border, covering most of the state of Saxony and small parts of Thuringia and is part of the Church Province of Berlin, togetehr with the Diocese of Görlitz and the Archdiocese of Berlin. With the appointment of Bishop Timmerevers, all these sees are filled again. In Germany, the dioceses of Aachen and Limburg now remain vacant.

The website of the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen, which went offline for a few hours following the announcement of the new bishop, features a letter of Bishop Timmerevers to his new flock:

“Dear sisters and brothers,

Today Pope Francis appointed me as new bishop of Dresden-Meißen. In the past week, Dean Klemens Ullmann informed me of the election by the cathedral chapter. It moved and pleased me greatly, but also worried me inside. I took several days until I was able to accept with all my heart this vocation and the renewed calling of Jesus to follow Him.

But I am willing and will leave my Oldenburger homeland, to come to you in the diocese. I am supported by the word addressed to Abraham (Gen. 12:1): “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you”. I gladly accept this new calling and mission in the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen. I look forward to the people living there, to the many encounters and conversations. I also look forward to being Church together with you. I came as a learner to you and want to learn new things.

The Catholic Church in your diocese exists in a situation of diaspora and has kept the faith in difficult times. This impresses me greatly. I look forward to the challenges that await me, and will be happy to have you show me your country.

I rejoice in serving the people in the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen from now on, to strengthen the Christians, to build up the Church and make her present in the world. For these tasks I pray for God’s blessing and for your active support.

Yours,

+Heinrich Timmerevers”

The black veil of the queen

Yesterday the Dutch royal couple, King Willem Alexander and Queen Máxima, together with their three daughters, had a private audience with Pope Francis. Details of the 15-minute meeting remain confidential and it is said that the king requested no photos be published of it. But one photo did emerge today via L’Osservatore Romano, a standard picture of the royal family posing with the Holy Father (who seemingly continues to fail in hiding his lack of enthusiasm for such staged photographs).

Pope Francis meets with royal Dutch family

Almost every single media report of the meeting I have read mentions the fact that Queen Máxima wears a black veil because she is the wife of a non-Catholic monarch, and were he Catholic, she would have the right to wear white in the presence of the Pope. But that is not true.

The privilège du blanc is accorded to a number of Catholic queens and princesses (and one duchess) who can choose to exercise this privilege (they are not bound by it). All other royal and noble ladies, and other heads of state, are expected to hold to the protocol of wearing a long black dress with sleeves and a high collar and a black mantilla (although other colours are on the increase in addition to black, but etiquette dictates the above). The privilege is granted by the Pope to specific royal families on his discretion. He last did so in 2013, when the Holy See press office confirmed that Monaco’s Princess Charlene was within her right to wear white in accordance with the privilege, which was never before accorded to Monegasque princesses.

Currently there are only seven ladies who can make use of the privilège du blanc: Queen Sofia of Spain, Queen Paola of the Belgians, Grand Duchess Maria Teresa of Luxembourg, Princess Charlene of Monaco, Queen Mathilde of the Belgians, Queen Letizia of Spain and Princess Marina of Naples. The list used to be longer, and included the empress of Austria-Hungary, the queens of Bavaria, France, Italy, Poland and Portugal, the grand duchess of Lithuania and several German princesses. Many of these states, all traditionally Catholic,  have since become republics and the privilège du blanc does not extend to presidents, prime ministers or their wives.

So the Dutch queen wearing black is not simply due the fact that her husband happens to be a Protestant.

Photo credit: EPA/OSSERVATORE ROMANO

Ready for launch – a new translation of the Lord’s Prayer

prayerThe Dutch and Flemish bishops announced today that the new translation of the Lord’s Prayer, drafted over the past couple of years as a first step to come to a completely new translation of the Roman Missal, will enter into effect on 27 November of this year, the start of Advent. In August of 2014 the new translation was already presented, and I discussed the changes at that time in this blog post.

The two bishops’ conferences each delegated a member to sit ona joint commission preparing the new translation. For the Netherlands that is Bishop Jan Liesen of Breda, and for Belgium it is Archbishop Jozef De Kesel of Mechelen-Brussels. Both prelates have released explanatory notes announcing the change: Bishop Liesen back in 2014, and Archbishop De Kesel today.

The translation itself, as I have outlined in the blog post I linked to above, is not extremely different from the existing texts, although the differences will certainly be noticeable when it comes into use, and could be considered an amalgamation of both. A noteworthy change is the translation of the word tentationem, temptation in English. In his note, Archbishop De Kesel discusses the new translation of this word:

de kesel“Until now this word has been translated as “bekoring” [temptation]. The Greek has peirasmos. This can be translated as both “bekoring” and “beproeving” [ordeal/test]. Most often this is translated as “beproeving”. So “beproeving” is the more concordant translation of the Greek basis. Translating it as “bekoring”, furthermore, presents a theological problem. “Bekoren” means to incite to evil. In Scripture this is said of the devil, not of God. God does not try and encourage man to commit evil. In that sense it is not God who tempts us, as the Letter of James (1:13) explicitly says. James responds here to an incorrect understanding of temptation or testing. It is not God, but, “when a man is tempted, it is always because he is being drawn away by the lure of his own passions”.

Yet it is an undeniable Biblical concept that God can test someone’s faith. For example, Abraham was tested, and so Jesus was tested also. “Thereupon, the Spirit sent him out into the desert:  and in the desert he spent forty days and forty nights, tempted by the devil” (Mark 1:12-13). The wording is striking and to the point: it is the Spirit who sends Jesus to the desert to be tested for forty days by Satan. The Spirit of God does not lure us into doing evil and tests us in that way, but He can bring us into situations in which our faith is being tested. These are situations in which we are presented with the unavoidable choice: for God and thus against evil, or for evil and thus against God. Only in and through the testing you know whether or not you really believe in God. Whether you, like Abraham, trust Him unconditionally, even in the darkest hour. This is also the meaning of the forty years in the desert. As Deuteronomy 8:2 says: “the Lord thy God led thee through the desert, testing thee by hard discipline, to know the dispositions of thy heart”.

Hence the meaning of the final prayer in the Our Father. We do not ask God not to tempt us. He doesn’t. But we do ask Him not to test us beyond our abilities. And this is not just any test. It is about whether or not, when it really matters, we do not deny our vocation as Christians. That, as happened to Simon Peter, we would say, when things get dangerous, “No, I do not know Him.” That is what we ask God earnestly in the last prayer of the Our Father: do not lead us to that ordeal.”

Bishop Liesen explains the process by which the new translation was arrived at:

liesen“Although the Altar Missal for the Dutch Church Province of 1979 included an ecumenical text of the Lord’s Prayer, the Netherlands and Flanders did not succeed in realising a joint translation of the Our Father as part of the liturgy renewal following the Second Vatican Council. All attempts came to naught. […]

The current review of the translation of the Order of Mass on behalf of the Dutch and Flemish bishops was seen by the joint commission as a unique opportunity to realise a joint text of the Lord’s Prayer for the entire Dutch language area. Following the Second Vatican Council new translations of the Our Father had already been realised and introduced in other language areas. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments made it known that, as part of the review of the Missale Romanum, a joint Dutch text of the Lord’s Prayer was diserable.

Starting point in achieving a new translation was to stay as close as possible to the familiar Flemish and Dutch texts and therefore maintain what is the same in both translations. Attention also had to be paid to the source text and understandability and the ecumanical translations also had to be consulted. The joint commission entrusted the task of developing a proposal in this sense to a Dutch and a Flemish exegete, who quickly presented a result which was adopted in full by the commission.”

So it took fifty years for an attempt to create a new translation of the Lord’s Prayer to succeed, and now it was only a matter of months. I suppose that shows how the polemics and pasionate differences of opinions following the Second Vatican Council have finally settled into a situation where bishops can agree on said translation. I say ‘bishops’ for a reason, since the general tone of the reaction I see on social media is one of disregard, mockery even, coupled with, in some cases, the decision to stick with the old familiar text. There are definitively parallels to be drawn with the introduction of the new English translation of the Missal in 2010. It’ll be interesting to see how the new translation will be accepted come Advent.

Some thoughts about Amoris laetitia, doctrine, mercy and Communion

While it is far from the main point of Amoris laetitia or the Synod of Bishops assemblies that preceeded it, the question of whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion is one that has kept people occupied both during and after the publication of the Post-Synodal Exhortation. That is in part due to the fact that Amoris laetitia does not give a clear answer*, although Pope Francis has indicated that he does not aim to change Church teaching with his text. And current Church teaching is that people whose first married is considered valid and who are in a relation with someone else are objectively adulterous and thus can not receive Holy Communion. Of course, the bare words of the law do not – and can not – take the specific situation of every couple into account, and are therefore necessarily general.

Amoris laetitia instead discusses the pastoral approach to people in such situations, and this is the place where the specifics of an individual relationship, marriage, divorce and second marriage can be discussed and interpreted. That still does not mean that the law can be changed there, but it is the place where understanding can be given, different ways in which a person can be a part of the life of the Church (a major focus of the Exhortation) and also where solutions to normalise their situation (called ‘irregular’ in Church legalese) can be found.

I have seen many comments which interpret the legal considerations as some form of punishment for people failing in marriage. This is of course not so. The law deals with factual situations, not with the reasons for the existence of those facts (although these can be taken into account when a court is asked for an opinion or verdict in a specific case).

In the end, and I have said this before, Jesus Himself gave the perfect summary of how to relate to people who, for whatever reason, failed to live up to the ideal. In the Gospel of John, chapter 8, we read of Jesus’ encounter with a woman caught in adultery. After an episode in which He confronts the scribes and Pharisees with their own hypocricy, the Lord tells the woman that he will not condemn her (mercy, the pastoral approach), but also that she should not sin from then on (the law). The law is clear, but never asks for the condemnation of people.  Jesus forgives our past mistakes, but also asks us not to make the same mistakes again. And in the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics it is clear that this means that we should not condemn the people concerned, but welcome them into our Church communities. But at the same time it is clear that they can’t continue in their objectively sinful state (just like the woman in the Gospel can’t continue sleeping around with other men). What exactly can and must change in each specific situation is a matter for the pastoral sphere, where the law provides a framework.

And here Pope Francis’ sadness, expressed during Saturday’s flight back from Lesbos, at how too many people only focus on this specific question, becomes understandable. The context of the mistakes made is not inconsequential; their causes lie elsewhere and affect the entire edifice of marriage and family. It is about more than Communion (which no one has a right to, anyway): it is about broken families, divorce, adultery, economic uncertainty, unwillingness or inability to get married, falling birth rates… Yes, access to the sacraments, or lack thereof, is one of the consequences of these crises, but we should not make the mistake of considering it the only one.

Yes, there is a development of doctrine, as many have said. Not of its roots, which lie in the Gospels and the Tradition of the Church, the bedrock on which the faith grows, but in the application, the choices we make which result in the tree of faith bearing much fruit. We need both, roots and fruit.

*And no, that infamous footnote 351 is no clear answer either, as it mentions sacraments, of which there are seven, and not Holy Communion to the exlucion of the other six.

The obligation of compassion – On Lesbos and St. Benedict Joseph Labre

Pope Francis is visiting Lesbos today, one of the vocal points of the European refugee crisis: here and on other Mediterrenean islands, people from the Middle East arrive in small boats, often extorted by ruthless traffickers for the privilege, on the run from war, violence and poverty in their homelands. Their future? Uncertainty, strange societies, crowded camps and, at worst, a forced return to where they came from.

naamloosIt is perhaps no coincidence that today is also the feast day of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre. Born in France in the 18th century, he had the streets of Rome for his home. Often denying himself what he needed, his concerns for his fellow homeless caused him to share his food and even cure the sick in body and mind. In 1783 he died in a hospice, only 39 years old.

Many of the refugees may find themselves in similar situations. Just like St. Benedict Joseph Labre was rejected by the Trappists, the Carthusians and the Cistercians and so began his years wandering the streets, refugees are met with the same indifference, contempt even. To them, their future may not seem so different from that of today’s saint: moving from one place to the next, nowhere at home. They may have a physical roof over their heads in refugee camps and asylum centres, but mentally they may feel homeless.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre, while not having enough to eat for himself, nor a dry place to sleep, still found the will and the means to care for others who had it even worse than he. Can we do less? Can we turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, even if we may not like them, distrust them, want them to be somewhere else than in our backyard?

St. Benedict Joseph Labre spent his days in cathedrals and churches, in prayer and adoration. Before God, he learned that mercy and compassion are not dictated by our own situation in life, that we are all called to help, to accept people, not reject them, even at the cost of our own perceived wellbeing. And yes, of course there may be risks in acceptance. Rejection is always the safer option if we want to avoid burdens or challenges. But when comparing risks to the inherent human dignity of everyone, it should be clear where the priority must lie.

Pope Francis’ visit will be a clear example of our obligation to care for others. That obligation does not go away, becomes even greater perhaps, when we hide those others in camps on the edge of our world.

A Roman retirement for Bishop Hurkmans?

4ae8de7b-b9ab-4df9-938a-0a0b20ae4a22Strong rumours appeared yesterday that Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, retiring from the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, will not be returning to his hometown of Someren, as he previously announced. Instead, his retirement will be spent in the eternal city, Rome, where he will become the new rector of the Church of the Frisians.

The church of Saints Michael and Magnus, as it is officially known, is a 12th century church adjacent to Saint Peter’s Square. While just outside the borders of Vatican City, it is an extraterritorial possession of that country. It was restored as the national church of the Dutch in Rome in 1989, largely because of efforts by the late Msgr. Tiny Muskens, later bishop of Breda.

Bishop Hurkmans will succeed Dominican Father Tiemen Brouwer, who has been responsible for the church since 2007.

The presence of Frisian Christians in Rome can be traced back to the ninth century. All inhabitants of the coastal areas (reaching quite far inland at times) of what is now the Netherlands, northern Germany and southwestern Denmark were considered Frisian at that time. The current church was built in 1141, but only 5 years later Pope Eugene III took the perpetual right of the Frisians to use the church away from them. In 1910, the later Cardinal Jan de Jong, who was then studying in Rome, made a pilgrimage to the church and found that all knowledge of the Frisian history of the church seemed forgotten. In 1989, the head of the Dutch College, Msgr. Muskens, succeeded in making the church a Dutch centre in Rome. In 2005 this was made official, and the church became a parish church in its own right.

EDIT: Bishop Hurkmans was put forward as rector of the Church of the Frisians by the Dutch Bishops’ Conference. This suggestion now lies with the Vicariate of Rome to accept or refuse.

The news has not been officially confirmed yet, so treat it as as rumour for now. Chances are that we will get said confirmation on or shortly before 14 May, when Bishop Hurkman’s successor in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Msgr. Gerard de Korte, is installed.

Bishops on Amoris laetitia

While there will be a precious few who have already carefully studied all of Amoris laetitia, the vast majority of us, so soon after its publication, won’t have. But that does not mean that there are no opinions (some ultra-orthodox channels have gone beyond themselves in pointing out how dangerous the Exhortation and Pope Francis are for us poor Catholics… but such irresponsible agenda-driven writing is another story altogether).

The bishops of the world have had a head start in reading the text, albeit a small one, as Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia tweeted this as late as last Wednesday:

I will share some of the thoughts and opinions of local bishops in this post, which may be a guide in looking at the actual text as we read it, taking our time as Pope Francis suggested, for ourselves. Some excerpts from their various commentaries:

dekorte2Bishop Gerard de Korte, bishop-elect of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Apostolic Administrator of Groningen-Leeuwarden: “As far as I can see the Pope tries, in the first place, to be a pastoral teacher. … In Amoris laetitia Francis pleads for an inclusive Church. The Pope does not want to build walls, but bridges. People who have failed in relationships are also a part of the Church and must be able to continue with their lives. Wise pastors can, in the privacy of pastoral encounter, support failing people and help them, so that they can continue with the journey of their lives. It is about continuous dialogue with people who, even when they have fallen short, are and remain God’s creatures.”

5a9cb713fa77e634993fee309c99be46_b9478b025386639ff26f12b5fc4db73dBishop Jan Hendriks, Auxiliary Bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam: “The Exhortation has a very strong pastoral spirit. The text breathes understanding and love for all people. Nothing is being rationalised or denied, no new doors are opened that were closed, but throughout the entire document there is a warm, ‘inclusive’ spirit: you belong, even when the situation you are in is not perfect. Besides, we are all people “on our way”. Developing what’s good and involving people where possible is the starting point of the ‘divine pedagogy’ that the document intends to promote. Teaching remains teaching, but what matters here is the approach of people and that is open, warm and pastoral.”

hesseArchbishop Stefan Heße, Archbishop of Hamburg: “The Pope is aware of the realities of life of the people of today. In the past decades this reality has changed more than in the centuries before. On the other hand, Francis makes clear: we do not reject our ideals. But we must consider anew how people can live according to them. We must succeed in building a stable bridge between ideal and reality. The Pope consciously made no new regulations. He rather wants to provide the means to promote the formation of people’s conscience.”

Dr. Heiner Koch, Erzbischof von BerlinArchbishop Heiner Koch, Archbishop of Berlin: “I see this text as a great invitation to the local Churches, to commit ourselves even more to marriage and family, in marriage preparation, the guidance of married couples, but also in the attention to remarried divorcees and single parents. … Pope Francis rejects any “cold bureaurcratic morality” and describes all pastoral care as “merciful love”, which is “ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and above all integrate” (n. 312).

150608kutschkeMsgr. Andreas Kutschke, Diocesan Administrator of Dresden-Meißen: “The text reminds us that the loving God cares for every person and wants him to grow towards Him. That is our good news to the whole of society. The actions of the Church regarding marriage and family must always direct themselves to that. The challenges of the Gospel should not be concealed, but addressed in a timely and comprehensible manner. That is the tone of this multilayered text.”

archbishop ludwig schickArchbishop Ludwig Schick, Archbishop of Bamberg: “The Pope shows himself a realist in Amoris laetitia. He knows that marriage and family need special attention in Church and society today, so that they can really be lasting communities of love. That is why, in addition to the fundamental statements, based on the Bible and the Tradition of the Church, about the beauty, richness, value and necessity of marriage, it is important for the Pope that marriage preparation and the guidance of families gets a closer look. State and society, employers, associations and individuals are encouraged to support marriage and family more and give them the necessary assistance.”

van looyBishop Luc Van Looy, Bishop of Ghent: “Amoris laetitia is in the first place a pastoral and not a doctrinal document. This means that it departs from reality as it exists in all its complexity and diversity. That reality is listened to, and not in the first place condemned. The good that is present must be promoted and given the chance to grow. A pastoral approach means: walking together (synodal) in joy (laetitia), but also in difficult times and crises that people go through in relationships and the raising of children. This must happen with sensitivity, with a lot of respect, tactfully and patiently, in dialogue and without preconceptions. Secondly, this pastoral approach is an inclusive approach. This means that no one is excluded. That is the baseline, if you will, of the entire document, which can be summarised in the key words in the title of the important eighth chapter: Accompanying, discerning and integrating. The Church must do all to let people, in whatever situation they find themselves, be part of the community. That returns like a refrain.”

22a4937a8468aea098eebd462e1106edBishop Rudolf Voderholzer, Bishop of Regensburg: “Amoris laetitia is an attractive and inviting text, a hymn on God-given love. It contains neither generalisations nor blanket solutions. I hope very much that chapters two and three, which recall in a new and fresh way the Biblical and doctrinal basis of conjugal love, will be read and internalised. Of course the Holy Father especially takes those situations into account, in which people are threatening to fail or have failed to achieve the ideal. It is the wish of the Church, the Pope says, “to help each family to discover the best way to overcome any obstacles it encounters” (AL 200).”

foto_1386335339Bishop Frans Wiertz, Bishop of Roermond: “In his text, the Pope wants to emphasise mercy. Although nothing changes in the ideal of marriages and the rules surrounding receiving the sacraments, the Pope invites everyone in the Church to find ways in which no one will have to feel excluded. These words of the Pope are important for many Catholics, as they want to clarify that the ideal of a good life can always only be achieved via a way which knows imperfections in reality. Although no one can afford to accept broken or unwanted situations, at the same no one is excluded or treated second-rate because of the situation in which they find themselves.”

woelki32Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki, Archbishop of Cologne: “It is above all important for Pope Francis that the Church is close to people, that she avoids every appearance of idealistic exagerration, indifferentiated judgement, loveless condemnation or even exclusion. This attitude of closeness, a “humble realism” and mercy remains in tension with the fact that the Church is always ‘Mater et Magistra’, mother and teacher, which does not witthold the people anything that the Creator has wanted in Creation and taught through Christ.”

Geburtstag_bischof_konrad_zdarsa_2009-11-06Bishop Konrad Zdarsa, Bishop of Augsburg: “In the introduction, the Holy Father recommends not to read it hastily. That is why I will not be commenting in haste. Read those sections that are important to you in your situation, relate to them in all peace in your family, consider them also carefully in your parish communities and pastoral councils.”

An ‘existential document’- Cardinal Eijk present Amoris laetitia

Per the request of Pope Francis, bishops’ conferences everywhere officially presented his Post-Synodal Exhortation Amoris laetitia today. In the Netherlands, Cardinal Wim Eijk, president of the conference and two-time participant in the Synod of Bishops assemblies that are now concluded with this document, did the local honours here. Below is my translation of his remarks:

Cfh8fObWcAELPUc.jpg

^Cardinal Eijk with Patrizia, Massimo and Davide Paloni at the presentation of Amoris laetita this afternoon. The cardinal attended both Synod assemblies, and the Paloni’s, including little Davide, participated in the second. (photo credit: KN/Jan Peeters)

“Today is an important day in the pontificate of Pope Francis. Today is the crowning moment of an extensive journey which he began soon after the start of his pontificate: a journey with the goal of starting a process of reflection in the Church regarding pastoral care in the fields of marriage and family. There are different reasons for that: the Christian vision on marriage and family is understood, accepted and practised less and less in a world which is getting increasingly secularised. This is manifested most clearly in the western world, where secularisation has advanced so much that in many places, and especially in western Europe, Christians have become a minority. But a secularisation trend is manifest everywhere in the world under the influence of social media, albeit not to the same extent in all places and in some parts of the world only in certain circles. Partly because of distrust towards institutions and the reluctance to make definitive choices for life, certainly in western Europe a minority of Catholics enters into sacramental marriage. In addition, there are fewer people who get married civilly and the choice for simply living together is generally made. On the other hand we see many people who have chosen marriage and get stuck in it and – often after a painful process for both – divorce.

The openness of marriage to receiving and raising children, as the teaching of the Church upholds on Biblical basis, is also no longer seen as an essential value of marriage. Other relationships than that between man and woman are increasingly treated as equivalent to marriage, either de facto or by law. Under the influence of gender theory, the differences between the genders are generally no longer traced to the biological differences between man and woman, but seen as a personal and autonomous choice.

The pressing question with all these developments is: how can the Church find ways of pastoral care and proclamation to present her teachings about marriage and family in such a way that it is understood better and reaches more people? Ways by which she can also help couples and families to live according to God’s intentions. In order to find answers to these questions Pope Francis started this aforementioned journey of reflection. This journey included two assemblies of the Synod of Bishops. An Extraordinary Assembly, in which the presidents of the bishops’ conferences of the entire world Church took part and which took place in October 2014. Subsequently an Ordinary Assembly took place in October of 2015, in which bishops who were selected by the conferences they belonged to took part. I attended the Extraordinary Synod in 2014 as president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference. In 2015 I attended the Ordinary Synod as elected representative of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference.

For both Synods, Pope Francis appointed a number of Synod fathers of his own choosing. He also invited married couples to witness of the way in which they put the Catholic vision of marriage and family into practice. He also invited a Dutch couple for the last Synod, Massimo and Patrizia Paloni. They attended with their youngest child, Davide. They will speak later.

It should be clear that this was a major journey, requiring a lot of work, when we realise that a preparatory document, the Lineamenta, was written for both Synods by the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. A worldwide consultation was held about it. Based on this a working instrument, an Instrumentum laboris, was created for both Synods. Both Synods recorded the result of their deliberations, each in their own final document. The final documents were the Synod fathers’ advice to the Pope.

Today we witness the conclusion of this major journey, with the publication of the so-called Post-Synodal Exhortation, with the title Amoris laetitia (The joy of love). In it Pope Francis presents his final conclusions about the Synod’s discussions. Regarding the journey’s length and the importance of the topic for the Church we can comfortably charactise the publication of this Post-Synodal Exhortation as a decisive moment in the pontificate of Pope Francis.

As before he surprised Church and world with this publication, in several ways. Personally, I had to re-arrange my agenda for this week to prepare this presentation of this document of 325 paragraphs and almost one hundred closely-printed pages. It will take some time before one has absorbed the complete and rich content. The Pope himself advises not to read the Exhortation hurriedly, but study it and take it in in peace.

Also surprising is the character of the document. I would qualify the Post-Synodal Exhortation as ‘a Church document with a notably existential character’. This is something we are used to with Pope Francis, you will say, but here, at least, it is even more notable than in his other publications. Of course in the first place Pope Francis presents the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church regarding marriage and family. He also devotes plenty of space to the difficulties that people experience in understanding, applying and upholding those teachings.

Pope Francis is aware that this does not always involve resistance to the teachings of the Church. The choice for a civil marriage alone or cohabitation alone is often not motivated by a rejection of Christian marriage, but also by cultural and contingent situations: prevailing distrust towards institutions in general, the difficulties many have in accepting a specific state of life and obligations for the rest of their lives, problems finding work, finding permanent employment or assuring themselves of an adequate income, because of which they consider marriage a “luxury” (n. 294).

Regarding so-called irregular situations, that is to say situations in which people are in a relationshop which is not, or not in all aspects, in accord with the demands of Church teachings, the Pope urges all who work in pastoral care to approach these people with great mercy. Without letting go of Church teachings or compromising them, but by accompanying and being close to these people with a lot of love and patience. People in irregular situations should not be excluded from Church activities, but be integrated as much as possible. It is essential, according to the Pope, that priests and others who work in marriage care try and make the best possible ‘discernment’. He understands this as the constant effort to illuminate the concrete reality of life, the situations and relationships in which people live, with the Word of God. And he also recommends that they look for the openness that may be present in people in irregular situations, to yet shape their relationship according the teachings of the Church.

The Exhortation has nine solid chapters. It is of course no surprise that Pope Francis describes the Biblical vision on marriage and family in the first chapter “in light of the Word”. In the second chapter he comprehensively discusses modern reality and the current challenges of the family. The Pope emphasises in Chapter III that amidst all modern difficulties for the family, we must look towards Jesus, who will fulfill God’s plan with us, and so (re)discover the vocation of the family. In short, this chapter present a summary of Church teachings regarding marriage and family. Chapter IV continues this line with an exposition on marital love, based on the canticle of love written by the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13:4-7; n. 90). In Chapter V, “Love made fruitful”, the Pope emphasises that conjugal love presumes an openness to new life. In Chapter VI, “Some pastoral perspectives”, the Pope discusses the need to find new ways for marriage and family care, limiting himself to several general starting points. He sees the development of more practical initiatives as a task for the various bishops’ conferences, parishes and communities. Chapter VII is about the raising of children and Chapter VIII about the accompaniment of fragile relationships. The final Chapter IX, about the spirituality of marriage and family, is emblematic for the existential character of the document, as it points out some ways to develop a solid faith life in the family, as well giving common and personal prayer an established place in it.

I want to address one other topic seperately, which has played a major role during both Synods, and this is the question of whether people who are divorced and civilly remarried can receive Communion. In the Post-Synodal Exhortation, Pope Francis addresses this topic in two places, but he does not speak of people who are divorced and civilly remarried, but more broadly about people who are divorced and live in a new relationship. These people, the Pope says, should not have the feeling that they are excommunicated (n. 243 and 199). It is important to emphasise that he is not saying anything new here. Excommunication is an ecclesiastical punishment which someone can legally incur automatically, which can be legally declared after having been incurred or which can be imposed by verdict after serious misbehaviour or crimes. The situations in which this happens are limited: they includes a limited number of situations, and the situation of people who are divorced and have begun a new relationship is not among these. But nowhere in the Exhortation does the Pope say that they can receive Communion. Regarding people who are divorced and in a new relationship, this means that the traditional praxis, that they can not receive Communion, and which was formulated as follows by Pope John Paul II in Familiaris consortio in 1981 remains current:

“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.” (n. 84)

In Chapter VIII of the Exhortation Pope Francis answers the question of what the Church could offer people in these situations, and says what has been mentioned above: people working in pastoral care must accompany these people and consider how they can be involved in the life of the Church as much as possible. It is important to realise here that God’s mercy is not only received by means of the sacraments, but also by listening to and reading the Word of God and through prayer.

As mentioned, this papal document has the title Amoris laetitia, the “joy of love”. It is our duty as Church to promote and protect that joy, convinced that that joy is beneficial for married couples and families as well as for us as society. It is therefore our duty to be close to married couples and families and accompany them according to our abilities with our prayer and pastoral care, especially when they carry the heavy and painful burden of a marriage or family life that is broken. With this Exhortation the Pope urges us to do so.

Pope Francis concludes his Exhortation with a prayer to the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph):

“Holy Family of Nazareth,
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.””

Francis to Lund – Pope or Reformation?

Pope Francis will make a one-day visit to Sweden in October, and while it is still more than six months away, details of the visit remain scarce. All we know for certain is that the Holy Father will take part in the opening of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Lund, together with the World Lutheran Federation, which was established in that city in 1947.

142434The president of the Scandinavian Bishops’ Conference, Copenhagen’s Bishop Czeslaw Kozon, noted yesterday that there is a desire among Catholics for a specific event with the Pope for them, and there have indeed been rumours that the Holy Father is to celebrate a Mass in either Lund or nearby Malmö. Bishop Kozon also observed that, despite all intents and purposes, the Pope will mostly be seen as the Pope, and not chiefly as a participant in the Reformation anniversary, “and people will be coming more for the Pope’s sake than for the sake of the Reformation”.

The papal visit, on 31 October, will be co-organised by the World Lutheran Federation, the Diocese of Stockholm and the Council of Churches of Sweden.

Photo credit: Peter Kristensen