Of conference presidents

In Belgium, the bishops, meeting at Grimbergen Abbey, have elected their new president. Unsurprisingly, it is Archbishop Jozef De Kesel. It is customary for the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels to be elected as president. In fact, since the Bishops’ Conference of Belgium was established in the late 1950s, the country’s one archbishop has aways been chosen to head the conference. As vice-president the bishops selected Bishop Guy Harpigny of Tournai and Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp. With secretary general Herman Cosijns they are the bishops’ conference’s permanent council. The conference consists of the ordinaries and auxiliary bishops of the Belgian Church province, and has eleven members.

16%2001%2026%20Permanente%20raad%20-%20Conseil%20permanent_1

^Msgr. Cosijns, Bishop Harpigny, Archbishop De Kesel and Bishop Bonny.

In the Netherlands, the Dutch bishops are also looking ahead to the election of their new president, later this year. Cardinal Wim Eijk is concluding his term, which began in June of 2011. The cardinal issued a press statement today, saying he will not be available to serve a second term. That means that, whoever the new president will be, the Dutch Bishops’ Conference will, for the second time, be headed by someone else than the archbishop of Utrecht. The first time was from 2008 to 2011, when Rotterdam’s Bishop Ad van Luyn held the office.

As reasons for his ineligibility, Cardinal Eijk gives two reasons. The first is that he has been suffering from a painful joint disorder, which sometimes causes him to have trouble walking. This is not the first time that health issues have plagued the cardinal. Shortly after his appointment as bishop of Groningen in 1999, a nervous condition affecting his face had him in recovery for several months. The second reason given in the statement is the cardinal’s desire to be able to spend more time in and for the Archdiocese of Utrecht, especially pastorally. The challenges of continuing secularisation are specifically cited as something that Cardinal Eijk wants to give as much attention to as possible. The press statement further hints at a further reason: the stress of the  past five years, when the sexual abuse crisis especially demanded much time and attention.

This is not the first time that Cardinal Eijk, as archbishop of Utrecht, is not up for election. It also happened in 2008, when he was just appointed as archbishop and wanted to spend the time on familiarising himself with his new duties.

img

^The Dutch Bishops’ Conference in its current composition, photographed in Rome during their Ad Limina visit in 2013.

Photo credit: [1] IPID, [2] RKKerk.nl

Coming and going – Looking ahead at 2016

A new year, so time for a look at what 2016 may bring in the field of new bishop appointments. As ever, reality may turn out different, but we may make some assumptions.

???????????????????????????????????In the Netherlands, to begin with, a new bishop will arrive in the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Bishop Antoon Hurkmans (right) has already has his resignation on health grounds accepted and it shouldn’t take more than a few more months for his successor in the country’s largest diocese (in numbers at least) to be named. Will it be current Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts? Who’s  to say.

lehmannIn Germany, three prelates are expected to retire this year. First of all the long-serving Bishop of Mainz, Cardinal Karl Lehmann (left), who will reach the age of 80 in May. Losing his voting rights in the conclave and his memberships in the Curia, his retirement is expected to follow around the same time. The Diocese has already announced that Cardinal Lehmann will continue to live in his current home, while the former abode of Cardinal Volk, bishop of Mainz from 1962 to 1982. Cardinal Lehmann has headed Mainz since 1983.

14_03_GrotheIn Limburg we may finally expect the arrival of a new bishop. Administrator Bishop Manfred Grothe (right) will be 77 in April and has already retired as auxiliary bishop of Paderborn. In March, it will be two  years since Bishop Tebartz-van Elst was made to retire, and according to Bishop Grothe, the time is just about ready for his successor to be named.

3079_4_WeihbischofJaschke2013_Foto_ErbeIn the Archdiocese of Hamburg, the last auxiliary bishop, Hans-Jochen Jaschke (left) will reach the age of 75 in September. This may mean that Archbishop Stefan Heße will be requesting one or more new auxiliary bishops from Rome, either this or next year.

van looyIn Belgium then, Ghent’s Bishop Luc Van Looy (right) will turn 75 in September. The Salesian, who became president of Caritas Europe and was among Pope Francis’ personal choices to attend the Synod of Bishops last year, has been bishop of Ghent since 2003.

frans daneelsIn Rome, another Belgian bishop will reach the retirement age in April, Archbishop Frans Daneels (left), secretary of the Apostolic Signatura and a Norbertine priest, may return to Averbode Abbey in Belgium, where he made his profession in 1961.

There are also a number of vacant dioceses which we may assume to be filled in 2016. In Germany these are, in addition to the aforementioned Diocese of Limburg, Aachen, where Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff retired from in December, and Dresden-Meißen, vacant since Bishop Heiner Koch was appointed to Berlin in June.

vacant dioceses germany

^Map showing the three currently vacant dioceses in Germany. From left to right: Aachen, Limburg and Dresden-Meißen.

In Belgium, the Diocese of Bruges is vacant, following the appointment of Jozef De Kesel as archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels. The name of Bishop Léon Lemmens, auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels, has been mentioned as a successor in Bruges.

Two circumscriptions which have been vacant for  number of years, and which are expected to remain so for the foreseeable future, are the Territorial Prelature of Trondheim in Norway, vacant since 2009, and the Military Ordinariate of the Netherlands, vacant since 1993. Bishops Bernt Eidsvig of Oslo and Jozef Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam continue to act as Apostolic Administrators of the respective bodies.

An archbishop’s first tempest

de keselLess then two months in, Archbishop Jozef De Kesel weathered his first true storm these past few days, as his comments about the freedom of Catholic hospitals to refuse performing euthanasia led to strong criticism, even from politicians.

In an interview last Saturday, the archbishop was asked what he thought about freedom of choice in matters of abortion and euthanasia. He answered:

“I can understand that someone with a secular view of life has no problems with it. But it is not evident from my faith. I think I am allowed to say that, and what’s more: I also think that we have the right, on an institutional level, to decide not to do it. I am thinking, for example, of our hospitals. You are not free to choose if there is only one option.”

Critics then accused Archbishop De Kesel of disregarding the law in Belgium and urging others, namely Catholic hospitals, to do the same. But others, among them politicians, lawyers and legal experts, soon countered that no such thing was the case. They pointed out that the law does not create a right to be euthanised or have an abortion performed. Institutions, parliamentary documents indicate, are free to refuse such life-ending measures within their walls. However, their obligation to offer all the necessary medical care available does include the option of referral to other institutions or persons who do offers euthanasia or abortion. This is problematic from a Catholic point of view, but that is not what the hubbub was about. Archbishop De Kesel was correct in his statement that institutions should be free to make the choice to not end the lives of their patients.

Even before his appointment to Brussels, Archbishop De Kesel has been criticised for his perceived lack of support for the Catholic doctrines regarding the sanctity of all life. At his installation, there were protesters in front of the cathedral emphasising just this.*

Some said that the archbishop should have used the occasion to say that no Catholic institution can offer to end a life, be it unborn or elderly (or otherwise deemed unsuited to live). And unequivocal statements like that remain necessary, especially in a society where euthanasia and abortion are considered normal medical procedures and even part of a person’s rights. On the other hand, it will not always be effective to do so. The interview in question focusses on the person of the archbishop, and his experiences and thoughts, rather than official Catholic teaching. Of course the latter gets a look in, and a bishop can’t go and deny or ignore it when it does, and Archbishop De Kesel doesn’t. He sheds his personal light on it, not that of the official magisterium. And more often than not, these two overlap (about priestly celibacy, for example, he says: “I am not opposed to celibacy. I think it can be very useful, and personally I have never had the idea that I was a loser or that I missed something because I am celibate. Married people also miss all kinds of things. It is simply a matter of choice”).

Of course, bishops and priests (and lay Catholics, for that matter) must take care not to keep the pendulum on the side of personal experiences and thoughts alone. In the end, a bishop has the duty to teach and communicate the faith that has been taught and communicated to him, regardless of what he personally thinks of it.

In the context of this question, it is clear that the Church opposes the killing of people, no matter the situation. That includes abortion and euthanasia. Persons or institutions calling themselves Catholic are obliged to uphold this. Archbishop De Kesel has said that they should be free to do so, and the law supports this. The Church does not oblige non-Catholics to follow her teachings (although she greatly hopes and desires for them do so).

Archbishop Jozef De Kesel is in the spotlight, now that he is the primus inter pares of the Belgian Church, and that can be both positive and negative. He is experiencing much the same things as his predecessor, Archbishop Léonard, when he took up the job.

*This makes me wonder: why are we always looking at prelates and other Church officials to vocally defend life, when it is clear what the Church teaches? Why only them and not us? Are we less Catholic? Are we somehow less obliged to uphold the sanctity of life? I think that if we take our own responsibility (and not just in these matters either) in defending our faith, we would soon discover the bishops and priests, that we now look towards with expectation, at our side.

The problems with Archbishop De Kesel’s wish for women deacons

de keselNot unexpectedly, Archbishop Jozef De Kesel of Brussels today again repeated his support for female deacons in the Catholic Church. His comments come after a promise to try and work towards giving women more responsibility in the Church. Regarding the latter he is of course fully in line with Pope Francis, who not only wants to increase the role of women, but of laity in general in the Church.

But when it comes to the ordination of women, be it to the diaconate or the priesthood, the matter is quite different. It is clear that it is impossible for the Church to ordain women to the priesthood, and I will not discuss that here.

On the Facebook page of the press office of the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, which has reported on these comments from the new archbishop, I left the following commentary (in Dutch, but in an English translation here):

“It can certainly be discussed. But I do not think it is possible. Why would only ordained persons be able to play an important role in the Church? Pope France emphasises that (non-ordained) lay people should be given and take on more responsibility. Yet we keep seeing people, both men and women, who consider ordination as the greatest good, and even a right.

And then there is the question of the nature of the diaconate: it is the first grade of the priesthood, which is not possible for women. Even just because of this, a female diaconate would be essentially different from that of men. Similar names do not remove the differences. I think it is healthier not to hide the differences, but work within the possibilities for men and women towards a Church in which everyone can take their responsibilities, without considering ordination as a prize or right.”

Photo credit: photo news

Seriousness and joy, two bedfellows in the Year of Mercy – Archbishop De Kesel’s installation homily

Last Saturday, Msgr. Jozef De Kesel was installed as the 24th Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, at the Cathedral of St. Rumbold. Attending were, among others, the Belgian king and queen, all other Belgian bishops (including Archbishop De Kesel’s two predecessors, Archbishop Léonard and Cardinal Danneels), as well as Cardinal Wim Eijk from the Netherlands and Bishop Gérard Coliche from France. In his homily, the new archbishop looked at the readings of the third Sunday of Advent, and kept close to the theme of the Holy Year of Mercy. In the spirit of Pope Francis, he called for a Church that goes out into the world, to confront “our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.”

Read my translation of the homily, which was given in both French and Dutch, below.

12348027_1519573191703090_3620166911912104879_n

“Dear friends,

The Scripture readings we have just heard are the reading for the third Sunday of Advent. They are words that are being read today and tomorrow everywhere in the world, wherever Christians come together on the Sunday. They prepare us for Christmas. But they do give us mixed feelings. On the one hand we have John’s call for conversion. That we do not miss He who is coming. For He is coming, he says, “to clear his threshing floor”. Not exactly a comforting message. Words that point out the seriousness of the situation and our responsibility.

But at the same time there is also the call to joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” he says. Of old this Sunday has also been called this: Sunday Gaudete! And Saint Paul adds, “Have no anxiety …  the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds. The Prophet Zephaniah shares the same call for joy. They seem unlikely bedfellows: the seriousness and responsibility that John emphasises and the call to joy and happiness. But it is these two which brings us together today: great responsibility, but also great joy.

Yes, the words of John are binding. He calls to conversion. Yet when those who have just been baptised ask him, “What should we do?”, his response is surprising. He asks for nothing extraordinary or sensational. Share what you have. They should not give everything, but what they have. If you have more clothing than you need, then give to those who do not have enough. The same applies to food: share what you have more of than you need. And to the tax collectors he does not say to cease their work. He simply says, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed”. Beware of corruption. And the soldiers who come to him, he does not ask to desert. He simply asks them: do what you do properly, without abusing your position and without the use of arbitrary violence. Never forget that you are human like everyone else. What John asks requires string commitment. That is true. But he does not ask anything extravagant. A baptised person does not keep a distance from others. We are to return to the responsibility and solidarity that we share with all men, regardless of their religion of belief.

But why be baptised? Why be Christian? The liturgy of this Sunday gives us the answer, and it too is astonishing. It is the joy that makes me a believer. It is not out of necessity or because I feel obligated. I am a Christian in freedom and love. We are known and loved by God. This is the heart of our faith. This joy and all love is therefore a call to fidelity and conversion.

This is the heart of Christianity. Not in the first place a doctrine or morality. But the certainty that we, frail and temporary people, are known and loved by God. It can hardly be imagined. But how, if this is true, can we not rejoice? Of course this does not answer all questions or solve every problem. But we know from experience how much this makes us happy, gives meaning and direction to our existence: that we are known, appreciated and loved by other people. That we are not nobody. Exactly that is the joy of the Gospel: to know that we are not only by those who are near to use, but by God Himself, the Creator and source of all that exists. Known and loved and radically accepted. Not without reason did Pope Francis call his first Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel”. And not without reason did he, last Tuesday in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, at the start of the great jubilee, open the door, the door of God’s mercy. Like we will do tomorrow here, and in Brussels and in Nivelles and in all cathedrals and jubilee churches in the entire world.

No, God is not an indifferent God. No arbitrary power, only concerned with Himself. We people are worth everything to Him. That is why He ask that one thing: that we are also not indifferent to each other. Especially not to those who stand at the side and do not matter, the poor and vulnerable, and the countless who are fleeing from war and violence. That we respect all life, no matter how small and vulnerable. Respect for the religious and philosophical convictions of every man. Respect and care for the planet we inhabit. We are also responsible for future generations. This world can be a hard place. This is what the Gospel asks from us: that we do not became hard and indifferent, insensitive and merciless. Because that is our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.

This is the Gospel that the Church proclaims. The Gospel of God’s tenderness. And this is not just rhetoric. He is committed to the very end. And His Son, Jesus Christ, became one of us, vulnerable and defenseless as a child of men. A miracle of humanity. A love to which there is only one answer: to love in our turn. We appreciate and respect each other. Proclaiming the mercy of God and calling for respect and love, that is the mission of the Church. This is the place it searches out in our pluralistic and modern society. Nothing more, and nothing less. In a secularised culture, she can and must make her voice heard. And so much more than a religious fundamentalism that at this time constitutes a very real threat.

Not a Church that looks inward, but a Church that shares in the joys and sufferings of the world. Sympathetic to the plight of humans, of any kind. This was the message of the Second Vatican Council. Last Tuesday, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, it was exactly fifty years since the closing of the Ecumenical Council. The Constitution on the Church in the world begins with these impressive and moving words: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

This is the vocation that the Church has received from God. To that we want to dedicate our best forces at the task entrusted to me today. I with you, and you with me. As we heard from John: no extravagant or spectacular projects. But a search for a consistent experience of the Gospel. And with that one certainty: that we are known and loved by God. That is our joy and faith today.

+Jozef De Kesel
Mechelen, 12 December 2015″

Archbishop Léonard’s farewell, part one

On Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard bade his first of four farewells to the archdiocese he led for six years. He did so as Mechelen’s cathedral of St. Rumbold, for the vicariate of Mechelen and Flemish Brabant, in the presence of priests, faithful, auxiliary Bishop Léon Lemmens and his predecessor, Cardinal Godfried Danneels. In his homily, the translation of which follows below, the archbishop looked back on the past years and his own efforts in shepherding the faithful of Mechelen-Brussels “towards the heart of our faith, the person of Jesus Christ Himself”.

foto_1448821587

“Dear brother priests,

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am very happy to be able to say goodbye to you on this first Sunday of Advent. For, as you may perhaps know, I took my episcopal motto from the prayer at the heart of this liturgical time: “Yes, come Lord Jesus!”. Of course, the second coming of Jesus in glory will be preceded by terrible tests; a bit like everyone’s arrival into eternal life will be preceded by the narrow passage of our death. That is why we do not give in to fear, but recover and rise again, for our salvation is at hand.

In the six years that I was bishop among you, I tried to lead you to the heart of our faith, namely the person of Jesus Himself, true man and true God, crucified to bear all our pain and resurrected so that we down here could already have a taste of a life which continues past death. I have tried to raise you up “on high”, to the Lord, true my teaching and especially through the celebration of the liturgy in a way worthy of the Lord and which could teach our hearts most deeply. That is why I wanted to meet you all in the field, in the 15 deaneries of our vicariate of Flemish Brabant and Mechelen. I was touched by the warm welcome that I received everywhere and by the wealth of what is happening in numerous parishes. For that I thank you from my heart.

At this time you are working hard on the restructuring of the parishes. That operation is necessary, but sometimes also a but painful or disconcerting, as, by the way, is the case with every ‘operation’. But this restructuring is only a means. As my successor has said at the press conference for his appointment: the essence lies elsewhere, the essence is the blazing flame of love, the spiritual, yes, even prophetic elan which must inspire the structures. This inspiration can only be received as a grace, through prayer and adoration, because it is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

When I met you during my pastoral visits, I was full of admiration for the engagement of so many lay people, so many consecrated persons, and a great number of very well-formed deacons. But you will understand that I will express my special gratitude, first and foremost to my auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Lemmens, and his coworkers, on whom I could count, and finally to all my brother priests. I was very pleased with you engagement, you availability for all people. I when I met brothers who experienced difficulties or about whom I had heard bad words, I tried as best as I could to give them a new chance, by given them my trust, every time anew.

The best gift I could give you, dear brothers, at the end of my episcopacy, seemed to me to be the assurance of succession: young brothers who are able to continue your pastoral task, even along new ways. This year our archdiocese has 55 seminarians: 20 in the familiar diocesan program, 20 in the Redemptoris Mater seminary and 15 in the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles. Among these future priests there are – I admit – only eight fully Flemish. That is progress compared to the past. But among our seminarians of foreign descent there are several who are trying their best to be properly bilingual, so that can also work in Flanders. I entrust these future priests to your good care and your prayer. For they are bearers of hope, of that hope about which the prophet Jeremiah says, “Look, the days are coming when I shall fulfil the promise I made to the House of Israel and the House of Judah.” But what interests us here today is especially everything that can contribute to the happiness of our diocese, and especially of our beloved vicariate of Flemish Brabant and Mechelen. Thanks to all of you that you are willing to contribute to that happiness, in a great community of the heart with my successor!”

André-Joseph Léonard”

The three other occasions to bid farewell to Archbishop Léonard will be at the cathedral of St. Michael and Gudula in Brussels on 5 December, the national basilica in Koekelberg on the morning of 6 December and the Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude in Nivelles in the afternoon of that same day.

Photo credit: Phk/KerkNet

Holy Doors in dioceses – a handy list

12852504-The-famous-Holy-Door-at-St-Peter-s-Basilica-in-Vatican-Rome-Italy-Stock-PhotoAs part of the Holy Year of Mercy, which will begin next month, Pope Francis has  called for so-called Holy Doors, not just in Saint Peter’s and the three other Papal Basilicas, but in every cathedral or other important church and shrine in the world.

As he himself explains in the Papal bull Misericordiae vultus (n. 14):

The practice of pilgrimage has a special place in the Holy Year, because it represents the journey each of us makes in this life. Life itself is a pilgrimage, and the human being is a viator, a pilgrim travelling along the road, making his way to the desired destination. Similarly, to reach the Holy Door in Rome or in any other place in the world, everyone, each according to his or her ability, will have to make a pilgrimage. This will be a sign that mercy is also a goal to reach and requires dedication and sacrifice. May pilgrimage be an impetus to conversion: by crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us.”

In the sidebar at left I have made a link to a page listing the Holy Doors in Northwestern Europe, in the dioceses of the Netherlands, Flanders, Luxembourg, Germany and the Nordic countries. The list is far from complete, as dioceses have only begun to announce the locations of Holy Doors in the past few weeks. But as more dioceses announce it, the list will continue to be expanded.

Photo: The Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica.