Both Scripture readings which we have just heard, are the same as during the ordination to bishop on 12 February 1994. I chose the first reading because the letter of St. Paul to his disciple Timothy provides my motto: “Collabora Evangelio“; do your part for the Gospel. And the second because the Lord assigned me, through the Church and by means of the ordination to bishop, to go with the Diocese of Rotterdam – with all the faithful, laity, pastoral workers, deacons and priests – and to strive for fruit that lasts.
Working together for the Gospel. I had already chosen this text as a guide for my ordination to the priesthood and this choice was certainly influenced by the Second Vatican Council, during which I studied theology in Italy. My ordination took place in the year in which the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, 21 November 1964) was written. Here the Council emphases the Church as people of God, in which all the members are called to share in the mission of the Church and every disciple of Christ has his share in the witness of the Gospel, and in which the sacred ministers have a special duty to proclaim, minister the sacraments and lead (LG 10).
A year later the Council completed its vision on the Church with the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the world of our time (Gaudium et Spes, 7 December 1965), in which the Council Father developed the intense connection of the Church with humanity and its history, her solidarity with the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of today (N. 1). Next to the internal character of community, this Constitution underlines the external dimension of the Church. She should constantly enter into dialogue with the world wherein she lives, “scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics” (GS 4). This dialogue is not limited to the theologians and the shepherds of the Church, the Council says, but “with the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire People of God, […] to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine word, so that revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage” (GS 44). The people of God must “labor to decipher authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose in the happenings, needs and desires in which this People has a part along with other men of our age” (GS 11).
So, according to the Council, this dialogue is an intrinsic part of the ‘collabora‘ of the people of God for the Gospel. In his first encyclical, Ecclesiam suam, Pope Paul VI describes the mission of the Church in this time (6 August 1964) and he says that three recommendations are essential for that: development of the self-knowledge of the Church, self-criticism and self-renewal, and the dialogue of the Church with the world. This last one, the dialogue, must take place both internally and externally. It is a direct consequence of the salvific dialogue between God and man, from one generation to the next. The Church can not become closed in upon itself (N. 80). She can’t exclude anyone from the dialogue (n. 98). She shows respect for the dignity and the freedom of every human person (N. 81). “Our dialogue, therefore, presupposes that there exists in us a state of mind which we wish to communicate and to foster in those around us. It is the state of mind which characterizes the man who realizes the seriousness of the apostolic mission and who sees his own salvation as inseparable from the salvation of others. His constant endeavor is to get everyone talking about the message which it has been given to him to communicate” (N. 80). This dialogue demands, says the pope, four characteristics: clarity, meekness, mutual confidence and the prudence of a teacher. “In a dialogue conducted with this kind of foresight, truth is wedded to charity and understanding to love” (N. 81-82).
The Church vision of the Second Vatican Council and of Pope Paul VI continues to be an inspiration for the experience and expression of my priesthood, first within the Salesian Congregation, then as bishop of Rotterdam. I then consciously chose not only for the motto, but also for the contents of the episcopal coat of arms: the symbols of the four evangelists, who all contributed their share to the authentic written transmission of the Gospel. In only adopted the order of the second interpretation of the four winged creatures from the Apocalyps; these also indicate the four holy feasts of the salvation of God’s Son: (descending) the incarnation and the sacrifice on the Cross, and (ascending) the resurrection and the ascension up to heaven. Thus the coat of arms not only refers to the transmission, but also the essential content of the Gospel: the person of Christ.
Working for the Gospel means working for and with Christ, always meaning to proclaim Him as the Saviour of mankind, as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). Pope John Paul II invites us for that in his Apostolic Letter ‘Novo Millennio Inuente‘ (6 January 2001): “Ultimately, it has its centre in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfilment in the heavenly Jerusalem” The task the pope gave us for our time, is: to once again start from Christ. “No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you!“(NMI 29).
In his first encyclical ‘Deus Caritas Est‘ (25 December 2006), Pope Benedict XVI also underlines the central position of Christ in the faith of our Church. “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”(DCE 1).
Both popes repeat the assignment of Christ to His disciples: to remain in His love and go out to bring forth fruits of love.
Choosing Christ is choosing love, the core of the Gospel: To love God with all your heart and your neighbour like yourself (Mt. 22: 34-40). This indivisible double commandment “love is now no longer a mere “command”; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us” (DCE 1). “This is my command, that you love one another, like I have loved you”. The imitation of Christ is for every disciple “the path along which his life and love must move” (DCE 12). Love is the only way that does not come to a dead end. It is th decisive criterium for our cooperation for the Gospel, the only measure by which the value of every human life is decided by Christ: “What did you do for Me, when you met Me in the hungry, thirsty, naked man, in the stranger, the sick, the prisoner?” (Matt. 25). Starting from Christ means not passing by the injured man ion the side of our life’s road, but giving him our mercy without interest (Luke 10), means seeing beyond our own interest and giving precedence to the needs of another. The word that St. Paul uses for cooperation includes both effort and suffering. True love is giving yourself in imitation of Christ: “No greater love is there than that of one who gives his life for his friends.”
Collabora Evangelio: when I made my introductory rounds, seventeen years ago, in the diocese, I already pointed out that this motto is a demanding task for me as a bishop, but also an invitation for all the faithful to share their contribution in the effort/suffering for the Gospel. The disciples of Christ life and work in the knowledge that the journey keeps going on that along the way every one is asked for his or her share in the cooperation for the Gospel. This requires a continuous vigilance and awareness of our responsibility to transmit the Gospel in an understandable way and believably exemplify it from generation to generation, like Lois, the grandmother, and Eunice, the mother of Timothy, who are praised by St. Paul for their sincere faith” (2 Tim 1:5), by which we understand that, as followers of Christ, we are committed for life, know no pensions and certainly no retirement. The double command of love knows no terms, for we always have our neighbours around us.
Following Christ is going the way of love. It is not the way of least resistance. But Christ is with us on the road, He guides us and goes before us to the Father’s house. The Holy Spirit is our Helper, to continuously discern what the Gospel asks of us, to strengthen us in our efforts for the Gospel.
The patron saint of our diocese, Saint Lawrence, urges us not to shrink back for the consequences of following Christ, just like he did not shrink back from giving his life for the Gospel: “the night is not dark for me, everything becomes bright in the Light”. In the light of Christ we continue our journey, in faith, hope and love.
+ A.H. van Luyn s.d.b.
Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Rotterdam