Delegate to the Synod – Bishops choose their man

Mgr. drs. R.G.L.M. MutsaertsThe current holder of the youth portfolio, as well as his predecessor, in the Dutch Bishops’ Conference have, as expected, been chosen as delegate and substitute to October’s Synod of Bishops on youth and vocation. Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, was chosen by his fellow bishops in the spring, and the Synod secretariat has now confirmed it. That confirmation also means that we may soon see a first list of delegates, although, it being summer, the publication could also take a few more weeks. One name on that list will be that of the Belgian delegate, Bishop Jean Kockerols, auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels and former vice-president of COMECE.

Should Bishop Mutsaerts be unable to attend, his place will be taken by Bishop Everard de Jong, auxiliary bishop of Roermond, who held the youth portfolio before Bishop Mutsaerts.

Like most bishops’ conferences, the Dutch and Belgian bishops can both send a single delegate. Larger conferences, such as the German one, can choose more delegates.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

 

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Hidden dangers – Bishops of Belgium on decriminalising abortion

logo bc_0As Belgian politics are once more on the verge of discussing the topic of abortion and whether or not it should be decriminalised, the bishops of Belgium warn against the risks of doing so. Their concerns are not unrealistic, as recent developments in other countries have shown. The slippery slope of further liberalisation, actively sought out or not, is real, When abortion comes to be seen as a right, the room to disagree, to conscientiously object, starts to disappear. The bishops write that there are only ever losers in these cases, especially when abortion is considered as a normal procedure.

“In our country, abortion has been legalised under certain circumstances for quite some time now. Several proposal have now been presented to the Belgian parliament to completely depenalise abortion. Current practice will perhaps not change much because of it, but it is nonetheless a serious decision with a strong symbolic meaning. The opinions on the termination of pregnancy will fundamentally change. And the consequences are significant. Hence, we ask ourselves questions. These are questions which transcend ideological boundaries.

In a democracy the criminal code guarantees the protection of human dignity and the physical integrity of every person. Can this protection be disregarded when it is about human life developing before birth? The life that many people desire, which many protect and fight for, for which medicine makes the greatest progress, that precious life. Why should that life in its earliest beginnings not be protected as if it isn’t life yet?

Abortion will never become commonplace. Not even when it is removed from the criminal code. It will never become a normal ‘operation’. It will never happen gladly. There are only ever losers. Certainly, circumstances can make people desperate and hopeless. Exactly then man is so distraught en lonely. If the law would then only suggest that it is a normal operation, no justice is done to what those involved experience and go through. Why then look for advice or assistance? The requests themselves run the risk of not being taken seriously from the start. It will only increase the desperation and loneliness.

That is the danger we wish to point out: when abortion is removed from the criminal code, there is the risk that it becomes a normal medical intervention like any other. It is no longer an infraction in those cases provided for by the law. It becomes a right. Those questioning it or refusing abortion, will then have to justify themselves. And that is true for both the doctor and the woman involved. Even when the clause of freedom of conscience is maintained, it will be able to be invoked increasingly less. A medical intervention requires a medical decision, after all, and not so much a decision of conscience.

Our society increasingly struggles with everything that blocks our plans, with everything that disrupts our way of life. That goes for people who are old or sick, for people with physical disabilities, for the poor, strangers or refugees coming to us. It is also true for unborn life. In his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis says that this is all connected: “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away” (n. 120).”

Cardinal Jozef De Kesel and the bishops of Belgium

By acknowledging that abortion is never considered gladly, never becomes normal, and that those seeking it out are often desperate, seeing no other option, the bishops show the way in how to deal with such situations. Not by presenting abortion as just another medical operation, but by acknowledging the pain and loneliness felt by the people involved, and by finding new ways of alleviating that. Not by killing an innocent person, but by standing with the parent or parents (because too often the mother stands alone in these situations).

 

From Bruges, new auxiliary bishop for Mechelen-Brussels

One year after the death of Bishop Léon Lemmens, the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels receives a new auxilary bishop, the first such appointment under Cardinal Jozef De Kesel.

koenThe new bishop, appointed as episcopal vicar for Flemish Brabant and Mechelen, is Msgr. Koen Vanhoutte. The new bishop comes from the Diocese of Bruges, where Cardinal De Kesel was bishop before being appointed to Mechelen-Brussels in 2015. The bishop-elect has served as vicar general of Bruges since 2010, and has been diocesan administrator of that diocese twice: first, in 2010, between the forced retirement of Roger Vangheluwe and the appointment of then-Bishop De Kesel, and then, for the major part of 2016, between the departure of the De Kesel and the appointment of Bishop Lode Aerts.

He has been considered a likely candidate to succeed either Vangheluwe or De Kesel in Bruges, but evidently a position as auxiliary bishop was in the cards first.

Cardinal De Kesel obviously knows Msgr. Vanhoutte well, having appointed him as his vicar general when he came to Bruges in 2010. The cardinal writes:

“When I was appointed as bishop of Bruges, Koen Vanhoutte became my vicar general. I worked with him for several years. He has great experience in both formation and the management of a diocese. […] He is very dedicated person, a hard worker, with much faith and very concerned with people and the faith communities.”

The new auxiliary bishop will wrap up his duties in Bruges over the next month and move to Mechelen in July to join auxiliary bishops Jean Kockerols and Jean-Luc Hudsyn in the archdiocese. His consecration is scheduled for 2 September in St. Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen. Cardinal De Kesel will be the main consecrating bishop.

About his appointment, Msgr. Vanhoutte writes:

“When hearing about my appointment, God’s word to Abram spontaneously came into my mind: “Leave your country…”Not an easy thing, but when God asks it of me through His Church, I will gladly do it.”

As episcopal motto he chose “Veni sancti Spiritus” (“Come Holy Spirit”). The new bishop explains:

“Living in service in the spirit of the Gospel, in the mindset of Jesus, requires extra strength which the Spirit can give us. That is why I chose for my bishop’s motto the opening words of a hymn sung in the liturgy of Pentecost: “Come Holy Spirit, Veni, Sancti Spiritus”. It is good for the Church to invoke the Spirit, as a source of strength and renewal. That Spirit grants diverse gifts, but also makes us grow in unity and community.”

Bishop-elect Vanhoutte has been given the titular see of Thagora, in modern Algeria. He is the tenth titular bishop of that diocese, with Bishop Giuseppe Marciante, now of Cefalù and then an auxiliary bishop of Rome, as his immediate predecessor.

 

The Church grows, if slowly

baptismEaster is the time for Baptism, and every year, the Church rejoices in welcoming new faithful to her flock. Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad asked the seven Dutch dioceses how many Baptisms they added to the books at Easter this year. The number: at least 147.

The standout diocese is Rotterdam, with 80 new Catholics. They are followed by Haarlem-Amsterdam with 48, Groningen-Leeuwarden with 13 and Breda with 6. The Archdiocese of Utrecht and the Dioceses of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Roermond provided no exact numbers.

Like myself 11 years ago, the majority of new Catholics also received the sacraments of Confirmation and first Holy Communion. The number mentioned above does not, however, consist solely of newly baptised. Some people had aready been baptised in other church communities and now entered the Catholic Church.

For Belgium the number stands at 239, Kerknet reports. The numbers only refer to (young) adults becoming Catholic.

The thin line of hope – After Syria, Bishop Bonny reflects on Easter

In February, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp visited Syria. Visiting Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, he saw firsthand the destruction wrougth by years of war and also the incessant work of the churches to help the people caught in the middle. For Easter, he looks back on his journey:

Verwoestingen in Oost-Aleppo (2)

I took the photo above in Syria, in the destroyed eastern part of Aleppo. What do you see? A background and a foreground. Two opposed images. In the background only destruction: no doors, no windows, no roofs, no transport, no life. The bombardments and fighting was exceptionally heavy in the final months of 2016. All means were employed, even chemical weapons. Until all the houses and streets were destroyed and all inhabitants had left. But, in the foreground, there is a red round water tank, which the government has recently placed there. A truck comes to fill it every day. Next to the water tank there are four children. They come to collect water in recycled plastic bottles. They will bring it to their mother, somewhere in the ruins. They are two opposite images. The dead stones and the living water. The ruins and the children. An between them: the thin line of hope.

What is Easter about? About death and life. And about the thin line of hope.

The background of Easter is dark and cold. Jesus was nailed to the cross and has died. Friends placed his dead body in a tomb. The disciples have lost all faith and hope. For can anything good come from a grave? What they have gone through with Jesus will fade to memory. Leaving seems their only option. How many people today do not have those feelings! They look out over ruins or a tomb. Little is left of their former joy or friendship. Life of fate has hit them hard. The injustice or irreversibility of what has happened to them weighs heavily. The stone has covered the entrance of the tomb.

But, the foreground of Easter is different. It happens in the early hours. At dawn, the women go to the tomb. They see that the stone is rolled away The tomb is empty.

Jesus is not dead, He lives! He is not gone, He has risen!

Jesus has begun a new story. We celebrate that divine event at Easter. As a sign of Jesus’ resurrection we light the paschal candle and bless the waters of baptism. New Christians are baptised with that water in the Easter vigil. The priest also sprinkles the faithful with that water, not a little, but generously. Water belongs to Easter: fresh water, as a first sign of new life and hope. Are there ruins to clear in your life?

Do you fear the future? At Easter, let yourself by sprinkled with newly blessed baptismal water!

The fresh splash does good. It startled. It breaks through resignation. It makes barren ground soft and fertile.

The photo from Aleppo is my photo for Easter. I had it enlarged and it now stands on my desk. It is not a nice photo. No plus Easter bunny or yellow chick. No pretty creation or decoration. It is reality. When I bless the baptismal water at Easter and sprinkle the faithful with it, I will think of the red round water tank in Aleppo and the children next to it.

Hope does not begin again in a grand scale. Hope beings again small.

Hope begins again where we can collect fresh water to live on. Does that clear the ruins? Does it ensure the future? Not immediately and not by itself. But life is given a new opportunity. We can begin a new story. The thin line of hope appears again.

In the Easter Gospel the women are the first to arrive at the empty tomb. There, they are immediately given a task from the angel: “Go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you” (Mark 16:7). What lies in the heart of Galilee? Not a water tank, but a big lake full of water and fish. There Jesus awaits His disciples, as the Risen Lord.

There they can begin anew, with Him, as “fishers of men”.

What is my wish for you for Easter? That you may find the ‘living water’ and that you may share it, even if with a recycled bottle, like the children in the photo.

Looking ahead at a new year

Midway through the last month of the year, it is a good time to look ahead to the new year. 2018 will undoubtedly feature its share of Catholic news, developments and, not least, opinions in social media. Every year since the launch of this blog has had had more than a few surprises, so a look at the future can’t be anything but incomplete, but there are a few things which we know will happen.

Algermissen2The retirement and appointment of bishops is pretty easy to predict, as bishops are legally bound to offer their resignation when they reach the age of 75. Locally, there are currently three dioceses without a bishop: Roermond in the Netherlands, and Hildesheim and Würzburg in Germany. In 2018, two more will likely join these: in Fulda, Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen (at right) will celebrate his 75th on 15 February, and in Namur, Bishop Remy Vancottem will do likewise on 25 July. A third likely diocese to fall vacant in Ghent. Bishop Luc van Looy will turn 77 on 28 September. Upon his 75th birthday, the diocese made it known that Pope Francis had requested the bishop stay on for two more years, and that extension is up this year.

Other predictable events include the 80th birthdays of cardinals, the age at which they cease their duties in the Roman Curia and are no longer able to participate in a conclave. In 2018, six cardinals will mark this milestone:

  • Antonio Maria Cardinal Vegliò on 3 February
  • Paolo Cardinal Romeo on 20 February
  • Francesco Cardinal Coccopalmerio on 6 March
  • Manuel Cardinal Monteiro de Castro on 29 March
  • Pierre Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Nhơn on 1 April
  • Angelo Cardinal Amato on 8 June

Visita_de_Cardenal_Angelo_Amato_-_17792469768_(cropped)While all hold memberships in various dicasteries in the curia, two of these sit at the head of them: Cardinal Coccopalmerio is president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and Cardinal Amato (at left) is the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Nhơn remains active as archbishop of Hanoi. All will undoubtedly retire upon their 80th birthday, opening up some interesting positions in the curia. Barring any deaths, the number of cardinal electors will stand at 114 by mid-2018. Possibly not low enough for a new consistory by itself, but considering the fact that a further 10 ill age out in 2019, Pope Francis may decide to be proactive and call a consistory in autumn for the creation of anywhere between 6 and 16 new cardinals.

World-Meeting-of-Families-2018Speaking about the pope, he will, despite the fact that he has no love for travelling, visit several countries in 2018. In January, he will once again return to South America, visiting Peru and Chile. Ireland is on the schedule in August, when the Holy Father will attend the World Meeting of Families taking place in Dublin (logo at right). Visits not yet confirmed are to the Baltic countries in September and to Romania in December. A visit to India also remains an option, but as Pope Francis has just wrapped a visit to India’s neighbouring countries of Myanmar and Bangladesh, it may not be at the top of the list.

synod of bishopsIn the latter part of the year, all eyes will be on the Synod of Bishops again, this while the reverberations of the last two assemblies of that body are still being felt. The October 2018 Fifteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops while focus on “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment”. To this assembly, each bishops’ conference will elect one or more (depending on their size) delegates, while the Pope will also make a personal selection of delegates. One of these personal choices has already been made: Sérgio Cardinal Da Rocha, the archbishop of Brasília, was appointed as Relator General of next year’s assembly. He will outline the theme at the start of the assembly and summarise the delegates’ speeches so they can be condensed into concrete proposals.

Photo credit: [1] Bistum Fulda, [2] Fotos Presidencia El Salvador/Wikipedia

Breaking the seal of confession?

E03a-photo-e1480059351589A Belgian priest of the Diocese of Bruges is being sued for not acting on information shared with him in a confession. The case has the potential of becoming a precedent on how society and law deals with the seal of confession, as well as the professional secrecy as it exists in medical professions, and also highlights once more what confession actually is.

The case: a man confided in a confession over the telephone (which, under certain circumstances, such as immediate duress, can count as a confession) that he had suicidal thoughts. He later acted on those thoughts and ended his own life. The wife of the man now sues the priest for never having informed anyone of what he learned in the confession. The problem is that the priest couldn’t. The seal of confession is absolute. He could have urged the penitent to seek professional help, even offered forms of help himself, be it the help he could offer himself or relaying the help of others. But that is just about the end of it.

The paradox in this case is that suicide in itself, sad and disturbing as it is, is not a crime under Belgian law, so not acting on the suicidal thoughts of a person can not be considered cooperation in a crime, and the priest can’t be accused of negligence in that regard.

There is some uncertainty, however, if the confession in which the priest learned about the suicidal thoughts of the penitent actually was a confession. A confession, by definition, involves a sin which can be be forgiven. Suicidal thoughts are not in themselves a sin, especially since they are most often caused by factors, mental or otherwise, outside of a person’s control. All the same, the man could have been convinced that his thoughts were sinful, and this would be enough for a valid confession. But if that was not the case, the priest would have been free to offer his help or inform others, with the man’s consent, of the situation and the help needed.

Also, if the suicidal thoughts were shared in a confession of other sins, the seal of confession would obviously also apply: it affects the entirety of the confession, not just the sins, but also whatever pastoral advice or personal thoughts are being relayed. The priest in that case simply lacks the freedom to divulge what he learns. This protects the integrity and freedom of the sacrament and the penitent.

Confession is not just a pastoral conversation or personal meeting with a priest. According the Catholic teaching it is the intensely personal presentation of one’s wins to God, and asking His forgiveness. The priest who hears the conversations is not really a party in this: he is a tool to hear the confession and relay advice or penitence according to his own formation, inspiration and understanding, but these ultimately derive from God. Everyone must be free to stand before God and open themselves up to Him, which is why they must first be aware of the freedom to ask for and receive the sacrament of confession. In many cases this involves the certainty that what they share is shared in complete confidence, just like when one would share medical problems with their doctor. It is so intensely personal, and, quite frankly, completely a matter between man and God.

If the case outlined above included a true confession, the priest could do nothing else but keep the information to himself and do his best to convince the man to seek and accept help. He had no freedom to ask others for that help on the man’s behalf, as this would involve breaking the seal of confession. But, as publicist Mark Van de Voorde writes here, “in cases of great evil which fall under criminal law, such as sexual abuse and murder, the penitence also includes that the perpetrator must report himself to the police. Every confessor is obliged to point this out to the penitent, stating that forgiveness of sins is not possible otherwise.” A priest is not completely powerless before a penitent unwilling to seek help.

It will be interesting to see what the judge rules in this case. If the priest is convicted it will set a precedent for any future case involving the sacrament of confession as well as doctor-patient confidentiality and information shared confidentially shared with one’s lawyer. All are protected under Belgian law (as they are in many other European countries).