Every year, the inner city of Utrecht is the site of a procession in honour of the man who first built a church there – Saint Willibrord. Initially begun as an initiative by local faithful after the ancient law forbidding Catholic processions north of the great rivers was silently abrogated, it is now organised by the city parish and has come to represent not just Utrecht, but the entire country of the Netherlands, of which St. Willibrord is the patron. As such, the procession sees the participation of the archbishop of Utrecht, the auxiliary bishops and other clergy, seminarians, as well as representatives of other Christians churches and church communities. For this year’s edition, however, the archbishop, Cardinal Wim Eijk, has sought to limit the ecumenical aspect and no longer allows clergy of other denominations to participate in the procession as official respresentatives of their church or community. They remain welcome to participate, but not in any official capacity. The measure is said to have been taken to strenghen the Catholic identity of the event, and to avoid an undescribed sense of confusion among the faithful.
This has obviously led to much disappointment and misunderstanding. Cardinal Eijk is once again seen as the bishop who wants to smother all signs of ecumenism and Christian cooperation in general, and of course, he is presented as the kind of bishop that Pope Francis is diametrically opposed to.
In general, I can understand the disappointment (not least because the procession was intended to be open to other Christians from its inception), if not the thoughts about what the cardinal does and does not want, or what the Pope thinks of him. But one thing struck me in the comments I have read.
Saint Willibrord, some critics say, came to bring the Christian faith to this country, not just a single denomination, so a procession in his honour must be a general Christian one too. This is nonsense in so far that Willibrord was Catholic. He did not bring a general Christian faith consisting of the generalities that unite the Catholic, Orthodox and the countless Protestant groups, but the faith as it was communicated and understood by the Catholic Church, in unity with the Pope. Of course, in his time there were no Protestants yet. They came later, when men like Luther and Calvin broke away from the Catholic Church. But that means that they also broke away from the faith that St. Willibrord had and brought to the people in what would later become the Netherlands.
St. Willibrord was Catholic, not Protestant and not some sort of ‘generally Christian’. A procession bearing his name and carrying his relics not only honours him, but also his faith which became our faith.
Does this mean the procession can’t have an ecumenical element. Not at all. I think it is good if members of other Christian churches and church communities take part. But we must not make the mistake of thinking that St. Willibrord intended to bring anything other than the Catholic faith. The unspoken assumption in the comment I mentioned above does suggest that mistake. Strengthening the Catholic identity of the procession, underlining the Catholicity of the St. Willibrord and his faith, is a good reminder of what we are called to. But I am not sure if excluding the participation of non-Catholic Christians in any official capacity is the way to do it.
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