You will be a bishop in a fascinating, but also dramatic time. A time in which the world struggles to find solutions to immense economical, social and climatological problems. But she struggles without God.
The faith has evaporated in many hearts. The Church is marginalised. And yet, despite or perhaps because of it, her voice is needed. You will soon enough find that what you do or say as bishop is still relevant for many people. Especially when it contrasts with the feelings of the time, it is soon front page news. We are not that marginal, it would seem.
We also notice it in the sad inheritance of sexual abuse. I am truly happy that several victims, with whom we have had much contact, are present here today. For their sakes the Church rightly goes very far in opening up seventy years of Church history. We hope that this painful process brings some measure of healing to them and purification to the Church. And even if may sometimes feel somewhat unjust that society is so much more agitated about abuse in the Church that is often far in the past, instead of about abuse that widely occurs in society in our days, we must accept that. For many, there is honest disappointment that specifically the Church, as a moral institution, has forsaken here. In a time which seems to fail in finding a solid support anywhere, many, perhaps unconsciously, yet desire orientation and direction from the Church. Here we are not so marginalised either. It places on us a great responsibility to regain lost trust.
At the same time we, as shepherds, know all too well that the Church is always holy and sinful at the same time. The Lord, after all, does not work with spirits or superhumans, but with average weak people to bring others to God. That is how it has always been. When Jesus was in trouble, only one Apostle stayed loyal to under the Cross. His name was John. You were named after him and carry his sign, the eagle, in your coat of arms. It is fitting. For as long as I have known you, I have seen your persistent faith, your love for the Lord, and your natural modesty. Opposition, disappointment or problems will not quickly distance you from Christ. And these will definitely come. To ask Christ means also being willing to carry His Cross. Especially in this time that is essential for a shepherd who has to strengthen others in their faith. Certainly for a bishop. This is not a time of palm branches and plaudits.
When the Lord entrusts His Church to Peter, He doesn’t first ask about his degrees or ambitions, but inquires about his faith and his love. In the Gospel we heard, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?” He who loves the most, is the best suited to be a shepherd. Christ builds His Church not on human achievements and capabilities; not on marketing strategies or organisational models; not even primarily on moral strength and virtue. We see this so well in Peter, who failed so grossly in decisive moments. No, He builds on people who build on Him, who, despite brokenness and failure, expect all salvation and all life from Him.
I have said it before: you are not a Christian because you are so much better than others – the first Christians were recruited from among sinners, tax collectors and public women – but because your hope lies somewhere else; because you are aware that you need salvation and forgiveness, and that those are given you in Christ. As shepherds we are also under the Word, and we also need forgiveness. People can know that. It is our task to proclaim the Good News without fail, to keep the Church of Christ on the course of His will and law, but also, at the same time, to be with people in their struggle for growth in faith and fulfilling their lives. Together we go the way to heaven. As Augustine said so well, “I am a bishop for you, but a believer with you”. With you I place all my hope in the Christ, my God and my Saviour.
In that way our faith is unique. We have a Saviour. You don’t have to do it all by yourself. You can always get up again in His power. In His love you can always again be forgiven. You may always feed your soul with His Body and Blood. Of that you, Jan, are deeply aware. From our time in seminary, I remember that, shortly after my arrival, it was my turn to be acolyte. I had never been one and for years I had been estranged from the Church. I did not know what to do at all. You, and others too, tried to point me in the right direction with violent gestures and loud calls. Without much success, by the way. In the end I brought everything to the altar in one go, with the thought that it would at least all be there. By now I have made up arrears, and we not only share the knowledge of content and form, but also a deep respect for this great sacrament of God’s presence among people. In your coat of arms you, like your predecessor, included an image of the Host in the fire. A reference to the Miracle of Amsterdam in which this faith is confirmed and God, of this I am convinced, left His mark on this city, our diocese and our country.
Christ shows us who God really is. Through His words and His life, His death and resurrection. Without Him images of God can be distorted. We see this in fundamentalist Muslim movements, which commit acts of terror in the name of God. For them God is a sovereign ruler Who demands submission, and the intimate Christian relationship with God as ‘Abba, Father’ a blasphemy. But also in the Christianity of our time there is sometimes the trend to ignore this intimate relationship with God, and address Him as ‘the One’ or ‘the Eternal’. It is not wrong, but does not do justice to the way in which He wants to be known, and has revealed Himself in His Triune majesty as Father, Son and Spirit. There is no other God than He who has let Himself be known in Christ and has become flesh. When Philip asks Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father!”, he asks, surprised, “How can you asks this, Philip? I have been with you for so long. Who sees me, sees the Father. The Father and I are one”. Pope John Paul II said it once about Europe and the Church: “They will be trinitarian, or they will not be at all”.
This Triune God, Who has become man and crucified Love, we may bring into the world. A God who loves us, more than our heart can understand. A God who is near to us, through His Spirit, in word and sacrament, more than our minds can realise. From a young age, you have received and kept that faith, Jan, I once lost and found it again, and realise how much of an undeserved gift it is. I remember a conversation with a good friend, soon after I had found the faith. He did not believe, but without bitterness. He was a good man. We were amazed about each other. He asked, “How do you do that… believing? Believing in a God and a spiritual world, in resurrection and eternal life? Not to mention Church and sacrament.” I could only stammer that it was given to me as an inner certitude, and asked him in turn, “How do you do that… not believing?” Atheism is a faith as well, after all. Essentially in pointlessness and injustice. Like the philosopher and atheist Sartre once honestly and consequently wrote: “La vie c’est l’absurdité … life is absurd”. How can you believe in absurdity? I see that as a core duty of every bishop, yes, of the Church as a whole: to clear a way for people to God, with word and sacrament, and through Him also to each other. There can sometimes be so much in a person blocking the way to God: distorted images of God, mistakes of others, sometimes also of the Church. Mistakes of yourself. Charles de Foucault relates how he took his doubts and skepticism to a priest and discoursed to him about it. But the priest said, “first confess your sins”. Charles de Foucault writes then how he did so and that when he got up, most of his questions were gone.
You, Jan, have great gifts of head and heart to be a shepherd in this way and time, and a long experience in shepherding young people. It’ll all be useful in your new office. But the heart still remains God’s faith and God’s trust. That is why you took the words of Mary as motto: “Do what He will tell you to do…” She spoke it in mercy at the wedding of Cana. The Lord did not wish to reveal Himself with signs yet – “My time has not yet come,” He said – but Mary simply ignored it and activated His divine power with her limitless trust and her love for the people. She also wants to do so in our lives and our time. We share that special love for Mary as Mother of God and people, as Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix and Intercessor. It is a good day, like in Cana, to tell her about Church and world: Mother, so many no longer have any wine… they have no strength left, no hope, no joy… On her intercession the Lord will perform miracles, also in our time. May she protect and keep you in your new office. Amen.
+ Msgr. dr. Jozef M. Punt
Bishop of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam