God is inexhaustible love – Bishop de Korte’s letter for the Holy Year of Mercy

Perhaps in lieu of (or, as it may turn out, in addition to) his customary letter for Advent, Bishop Gerard de Korte has written a letter about the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy to the faithful of his diocese. In it, he writes about the importance of mercy as it is a fundamental element of the identity of God. He identifies two kinds of mercy – moral and social, and further divides the latter in three constituent elements or expressions: in our own lives, in the Church and in society. He concludes his letter by underlining the message of Pope Francis, as expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si’: that, by living mercy in these three contexts, we should work with others to build a society of mercy.

Read my translation below:


“Brothers and sisters,

On 8 December, a Marian feast and also the date of the end of the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago, the Year of Mercy will begin in our Church. It is an invitation to look critically at how our parishes function, but also at our own existence. How merciful and mild do we treat one another? Do we mostly see what’s alien and strange in the other and do we mindlessly ignore the good? Do I give someone who has done wrong a new chance? Am I really willing to help when someone is in need?

Shortly after his election as bishop of Rome, Pope Francis gave an interview that was published in a number of magazines of the Jesuit Order. The Pope called himself a sinner called by the Lord. He referred to a painting by Caravaggio, depicting the calling of Matthew. Apparently our Pope recognises himself strongly in Matthew. As a tax collector, a despised collaborator of the Roman occupiers, he is invited to experience forgiveness and a new start. Christ meets him with merciful love and calls him to follow Him. Pope Francis lives from this some merciful love of Christ.

Office holders in the Church are especially invited to take a look in the mirror. Pope Francis recently quoted from an address by Church father Ambrose: “Where there is mercy, there is Christ; where there is rigidity, there are only officials”. This is an incisive word which everyone with a pastoral assignment in our faith community must consider seriously. In this context I would like to refer to the book Patience with God by the Czech priest Tomas Halik. A great number of people, within and without our Church, are like Zacchaeus in the tree from the Gospel. They are curious but also like to keep a distance. To get in touch with them requires pastoral prudence and mildness on the part of our officials.

In this letter I would like to zoom in on the word mercy, which for many of our contemporaries is probably somewhat old-fashioned and outdated. What is mercy actually? Maybe the Latin word for mercy, misericordia, can help us. A person with misericordia has a heart (‘cor‘)  for people in distress (‘miseri‘):  sinner, the poor, the grieving, the sink and lonely people. The Hebrew word for mercy is not so much concerned with the heart, but with the intestines. A person with mercy is touched to the depths of his belly by the needs of the other.

God is a merciful God

In Holy Scripture we often hear about the mercy of God. Even until today the Exodus, the departure from slavery in Egypt and the arrival in the promised land, is for the Jewish people a central topic of faith.

God has seen the misery of His people in Egypt and had compassion with His people (Exodus 3). Elsewhere in the book of Exodus we read, “God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy” (cf. Exodus 34,6). For Israel the Lord is supportive mercy, making life possible.

The history of ancient Israel is a history of loyalty and infidelity. The decline of the Northern Kingdom in the 8th century and of Judah and Jerusalem in the 6th century BC has been interpreted by the Jewish people as punishment for sins. The people as bride have been unfaithful to the divine bridegroom. But punishment is never God’s final word. The prophet Hosea writes that God does not come in anger (cf. Hosea 11). In God, mercy is victorious over His justice[*]. Ultimately there is forgiveness and a merciful approach.

In the letter in which he announces the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis calls Christ the face of God’s mercy (‘misericordiae vultus‘). In Him God’s great love for man (‘humanitas dei‘) (Titus 3:4) has become visible. The great Protestant theologian Oepke Noordmans published a beautiful collection in 1946, with the title “Sinner and beggar”. In it, Noordmans touches upon the two most important dimensions of God’s mercy. Not only moral mercy but also social mercy. In Christ, God is full of merciful love for both sinners and beggars.

Moral and social mercy

God’s moral mercy is depicted most impressively, as far as I can see, in the parable of the Prodigal Son. A son demands his inheritance from his father, who yet lives, and wastes the money on all sorts of things that God has forbidden, In the end he literally ends up among the pigs. To Jewish ears this is even more dramatic than to us, since in Judaism pigs are, after all, unclean animals. In this situation, there occurs a reversal. The son memorises a confession of guilt and returns to his father. In the parable we read that the father is already looking for his son and, even before the confession has been spoken, he embraces him. Here we find what Saint Paul calls the justification of the Godless man. God is as “foolish” as the father in the parable. It is the foolishness of merciful love. God is inexhaustible love and gives his son a new chance, even when he has turned away from Him (cf. Luke 5:11 etc).

Social mercy is depicted sublimely in the parable on the Good Samaritan. A man is attacked by robbers and lies on the side of the road, half dead. Several people from the temple pass by, but they do not help. Then a stranger passes, a Samaritan who many Jews look upon with a certain amount of negative feelings. But this distrusted person acts. He becomes a neighbour to the person lying on the side of the road. He treats his wounds and lets him recover in an inn, on his costs. The Church fathers, theologians from the early Church, have seen Christ himself in the person of the Samaritan. He comes with His merciful love to everyone lying at the side of the road of life. Christ has gone the way  of mercy until the end. He lives for His Father and His neighbour until the cross. In this way, Christ shows that He has a heart for people in misery: the poor, sinners, people dedicated to death (cf. Luke 10:25 etc).

Is God merciful to all?

We are all temporary people. None of us here on earth has eternal life. Sooner or later death will come and take life away. In that context we could wonder what we can hope for. Are we like rockets burning up in space or can we look forward to returning home? Over the course of Church history this has been discussed both carefully and generously. Not the most insignificant theologians, such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, were in the more careful camp, with the Scripture passage in mind which says that “many are called, but few are chosen”. There was also another sound in the early Church. The theologian Origen was so filled with God’s love that he could not imagine that anyone could be lost. The Church, however, based on the witness of Scripture, has denied this vision. There are too many passages in Holy Scripture which leave open the possibility of being definitively lost.

In our time, however, our Church is generally  optimistic regarding salvation. God’s  desire to save does not exclude, but include human freedom. God’s hand is and remains extended to all. Only God knows who takes this hand. Not without reason do we pray, in one of our Eucharistic prayer, for those “whose faith only You have known.” God’s mercy maintains its primacy. Christ has, after all, died for all men. God is loyal and the cross and resurrection of Christ can be a source of hope for us all. In other words: God takes our responsibility seriously, but I hope that He takes His love even more seriously.

Culture of mercy

God’s mercy requires a human answer, a culture of mercy. Here we can discern at least three dimensions: personal, ecclesiastical and social. In our personal life we are called to love God and our neighbour. But we know that cracks continue to develop in relationships. People insult and hurt each other. The Gospel then calls us to forgiveness.  Scripture even suggests we should postpone our worship when there are fractures in how we relate to our fellows (cf. Matthew 5:24).  Forgiveness can always be unilateral. But both parties involved in a conflict are necessary for reconciliation. Christ does not only ask us for merciful love for our loved ones, but also for our enemies. We realise that this can only be realised in the power of God’s  Spirit, and even then often by trial and error.

Merciful faith community

In one of our prefaces the Church is called the mirror of God’s kindness. In our time we notice a crisis in the Church. Many contemporaries have become individualists because of higher education and prosperity. This individualism also has an effect in the attitude towards the Church. Many people do believe, but in an individualistic way and think they do not need the faith community. Added to that is the fact that the Church suffers from a negative image. More thana  few see the Church as institute that restricts freedom. Many think that the Church demands much and allows nothing.

As people of the Church we should not immediately get defensive. Criticism on our faith community invites us to critical reflection of ourselves. Do we really live the truth in love? Do we really care for and serve each other? A Christian community will not restrict people but promote their development into free children of God (cf. Romans 8:21).

We can see the Eucharist as the ultimate sacrament of God’s merciful love. Time and again the outpouring love of Christ is actualised and made present in the Eucharist. About Communion, Pope Francis has said words which are cause to think. According to him, Communion is not a reward for the a holy life, but a medicine to heal wounded people. The mercy of the Church also becomes visible in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, or confession. For many reasons this sacrament has almost been forgotten in our country. At the same time I hear that in some parishes especially young people are rediscovering this sacrament. I hope that the Year of Mercy can make a contribution to a further rediscovery of the sacrament of God’s  merciful love for people who fail.

Ecclesiastical mercy is of course also visible in all form of charity. Everywhere where Christians visit sick and prisoners, help people who are hungry or thirsty, cloth the naked or take in strangers, the ‘works of mercy’ become visible (cf. Matthew 25:31 etc).

Merciful society

After the Second World War Catholics took part in the rebuilding of a solid welfare state. After the crisis years of the 1930s and the horrors of the war, there was a broad desire among our people for the realisation of a security of existence. Catholic social thought, with the core notions of human dignity, solidarity, public good and subsidiarity, has inspired many in our Church to get to work enthusiastically. After all, although the Church is not of the world, it is for the world.

But in our days there is much talk of converting the welfare state into a participation state. Of course it is important that people are stimulated optimally to contribute to the building of society. But at the same time government should maintain special attention for the needs of the margins of society. Not without reason does Christian social thought call government a “shield for the weak”.

In June Pope Francis published his encyclical Laudato Si’. Here, the Pope ask attention for our earth as our common home. Catholics are asked to cooperate with other Christians, people of other faiths and all “people of good will”. The Pope urges us to join our religious and ethical forces to realise a more just and sustainable world. With a reference to St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun our Pope pleads for a new ecological spirituality in which our connection with the Creator not only leads to a mild and merciful relation with our fellow men, but also with other creatures.

In closing

We all live from the inexhaustible merciful love of our God, as has become visible in Jesus Christ. Let us in our turn, in the power of God’s Spirit, give form to this love in our relationships with each other, in our faith communities and in our society. In this way we can make an important contribution to the building of a “culture of mercy”.

Groningen, 22 November 2015
Solemnity of Christ, King of the Universe

+ Msgr. Dr. Gerard De Korte
Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden”

*As an aside, not to distract from the overall message of the bishop’s letter: I am sorry to see this line here in such a way, as if there is a conflict between mercy and justice, in which one should be victorious over the other. Mercy without justice is no mercy at all, as it is deceitful. How can be kind and merciful to others if we keep the truth from them? The truth and its consequences must be acknowledged and accepted in mercy, so that we can help others living in that truth, even if they sometimes fail (as we eventually all do).

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.

Inflating an aside – disagreements over a theoretical papal visit

“It is not impossible,” Pope Francis said about visiting the Netherlands. “And now that the Netherlands has an Argentine queen, who knows?”

hagrid meme

He may wish he had refrained from this aside in the interview with Straatnieuws, which was published last week. Because even this is reason for some to launch into diatribes about papal visits being blocked and bishops being less than keen to have the Holy Father come over.

Following the interview, the bishops’ conference released a statement to the effect that Pope Francis has always been and remains welcome, although there is, at this time, no official invitation. Early last year Cardinal Eijk, president of the conference, enquired with Pope Francis about a visit to the Netherlands, to which the Holy Father replied that he did not see a chance in the near future. The bishops acknowledged this in last week’s statement, and repeated that a visit remains possible, “if there is space in everyone’s agenda”. Earlier today, they once again stated something similar, adding that the Pope is aware that he is welcome and that the bishops remain in contact with Pope Francis about it.

Some have called this a pathetic response, and others have – once again – sent an open letter to the media to convince the Pope to come and visit after all. A visit that, they claim or at least suggest, the bishops do not want, but which the faithful desperately need.

Thus an image is drawn based on a faulty perception: the Pope’s comment in the interview is taken far too seriously (of course he is not going to say he doesn’t want to come and visit), and the bishops’ statement, coupled with the continued absence of any preparation for a papal visit, is seen as active opposition on the part of the local episcopate.

It would be wonderful if Pope Francis would make an apostolic journey to the Netherlands, but let’s be realistic. It’s not as if our country is significant when seen from Rome, nor will it feature high on the list of Pope Francis’ priorities. The financial  and logistical side, not unimportant, requires careful preparation. An open invitation or petition by itself is not going to do that. I don’t blame the bishops for being careful. To see that as a sign of opposition is delusional.

A papal visit should unite the faithful – bishops and laity -, not draw lines. At this moment, the latter is happening.

Ordination season – eleven deacons and a priest

The first half of November is ordination season in the Dutch dioceses, with this year one priest and eleven deacons (six transitional and five permanent) being ordained in five dioceses.

On 31 October, Bishop Frans Wiertz ordained Deacon Miguel Ángel Pascual Coello, for the Neocatechumenal Way in the Diocese of Roermond. He will be ordained to the priesthood next year.

Last Saturday, November 7th, Father Jochem van Velthoven was ordained Bishop Jan Liesen for the Diocese of Breda.

liesen van velthoven

^Newly-ordained Fr. van Velthoven with Bishop Jan Liesen (photo: J. Wouters)

In the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, retiring Bishop Antoon Hurkmans ordained five deacons: Hans Beks, Gideon van Meeteren, Henri Vermeulen, Rien van der Zanden and Pieter Zimmermann. Deacons Gideon and Pieter are transitional deacons.

deacons den bosch

^Five new deacons for ‘s -Hertogenbosch (photo: Wim Koopman)

On Sunday, Bishop Hans van den Hende ordained Deacon Boris Plavčić for Rotterdam. He is also a transitional deacon. Deacon Boris is of Croatian decent and speaks of the difference between Croatian and western European culture in an interview before his ordination: “The Netherlands and Croatia are two different cultures and I feel at home in both. When I am here in the Croatian parish, or in Bosnia where I grew up, I find that my vocation can shine, so to speak, through the way in which the faith is lived and shared there. I will be ordained for the Diocese of Rotterdam. Here you find the challenge to bring God where He does not automatically gets the time from people.”

Next weekend will see the last group of deacons being ordained, in the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam. They are: Paul Leferink, Jeroen Hoekstra, Jan-Jaap van Peperstraten and Mariusz Momot, with the latter two proceeding on to the priesthood next year.

Prayers for the newly-ordained, the soon-to-be ordained and all who may be called by the Lord to serve Him in the vineyard of His Church.

ernst van den hende 7-11-2015

^In closing, a very sweet photo of the oldest and youngest bishops of the Netherlands at the ordination of Fr. van Velthoven: 98-year-old Huub Ernst and 51-year-old Hans van den Hende. Both were bishops of Breda in the past. (Photo: J. Wouters)

For a world without poverty – Pope Francis grants interview to Dutch homeless newspaper vendor

Pope Francis is no stranger to giving interviews. No Pope before him has been so liberal in speaking with the press about himself and his wishes and hopes for the Church. Late last month he spoke for the first time with Dutch reporters, with the first among them being homeless street newspaper vendor Marc. Vaticanista Stijn Fens and former spokesman of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference Jan-Willem Wits had suggested and arranged the interview, and the fourth person present was Straatnieuws editor Frank Dries. Together, the four men headed to Rome in the wake of the Synod of Bishops, meeting with Pope Francis at Casa Santa Marta on 27 October.

francis interview stijn fens

^Marc, Pope Francis and Stijn Fens

51-year-old Marc sells Straatnieuws in Utrecht. Part of the proceeds of his sales are his to keep and as such he provides in his daily needs. Of his meeting with the Pope he says, “It was so brilliant that he made the time for me and he thanked me for making such a long journey to meet with him. He thought about my questions so calmly. He took me seriously, that was really great. He is such a kind, wise but also humorous man. We had a really good laugh!”

In the 40-minute interview, the Holy Father spoke about his youth and how he first encountered poverty as a child in Buenos Aires. Jesus was poor and homeless when he was born, he says, and the Church must continue fighting poverty and exclusion. The Pope is not bothered by some people getting tired of his pleas and even call him a communist because of it. “I know that these sentiments exist, but I don’t fear them. I have to continue proclaiming the truth and explain how things are.”

Pope Francis also hinted at the possibility of a visit to the Netherlands, but how serious that is remains to be seen. “it is not impossible,” he said. “And now that the Netherlands has an Argentine queen, who knows?”

Pope Franciscus meets street paper vendor Marc from Utrecht The

^Newspaper vendor Marc is greeted by Pope Francis

The interview will be published in today’s  edition of Straatnieuws, which is available in Utrecht, and can also be ordered here. Amsterdam street newspaper Z! will also carry the interview, and the International Network of Street Newspapers will distribute it to street newspapers in other countries as well.

Photo credit: [1] Frank Dries/Straatnieuws, [2] INSP News Service/Straatnieuws

For Groningen-Leeuwarden, a new religious community

holy ghost fathers logoSurprising and inspiring news yesterday, when the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden announced that it would entrust the parish of Saints Peter and Paul in south-central Friesland, which includes the city of Heerenveen, to the Holy Ghost Fathers. Three priests from this religious congregation will take care of the pastoral needs of the faithful there, with the first, Father Charles Eba’a C.S.Sp, arriving to succeed Father Anton de Vries as parish priest. The latter is currently recovering from heart surgery and retiring on age and health grounds. Fr. Eba’a, 43, will be joined on short notice by 70-year-old Father Leo Gottenbos C.SS.Sp. A third Holy Ghost Father, possibly also of African decent, will arrive in 2016, although no one has been named yet.

The Holy Ghost Fathers, or in full the Congregation of the Holy Spirit under the protection of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, were founded in 1703 in Paris by then-seminarian Claude Poullart des Places, and barely survived the French Revolution. Today, the congregation is dedicated to spreading the Good News and working with the poor and ministering in areas and situations “where the Church has difficulty in finding ministers”. The north of the Netherlands certainly qualifies in that respect.

charles eba'aFr. Charles Eba’a, pictured at right, originally comes from Cameroon and has worked in parishes in the Diocese of Rotterdam for the past ten years, most recently as parish priest in the parish federation of St. Mary Magdalen in the Southern part of the city of Rotterdam and adjacent towns. Fr. Leo Gottenbos returned in September from 40 years’ ministry in Brazil.

The initiative for their arrival was taken by the Holy Ghost fathers two years ago, when the province contact Bishop Gerard de Korte to see if an international community of three fathers could be established somewhere in the diocese. The parish in and around Heerenveen was selected because of the upcoming retirement of the parish priest, the focus on service and the planned function of the parish house as meeting place in the city. The community will the congregation’s fifth in the Netherlands.

The Holy Ghost Fathers will be the only religious community in the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, although a second one is planned: the coming of the Cistercians of Sion Abbey to Schiermonnikoog, which I wrote about before. A third religious establishment is the shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed, maintained by hermit Father Hugo, in Warfhuizen.

“An uphill marathon” – Cardinal Eijk after the Synod

Eijk%20synode%201%20klIn a press conference in Rome, snippets of which were released by Katholiek Nieuwsblad and rkkerk.nl, Cardinal Eijk spoke about the Synod of Bishops in which he participated as the sole Dutch Synod father, calling it an uphill marathon because of the workload and long days. Below I share some quotes, in which the cardinal comments on some of the issues that were widely reported, such as the alleged fighting between parties among the Synod fathers:

“It sometimes seemed as if we were contantly fighting, but that is not how I experienced it. The Pope had asked to speak in parresia, that is to say with great frankness, and that is what happened, both in the plenary meetings and in the smaller language groups. Regarding some questions it became clear that there were different visions, but there was room for that.”

About changes in the Church’s approach to marriage, Cardinal Eijk stated once again that the doctrine of the Church was not going to change. Marriage preparation, however, was much emphasised as a topic that the Church needed to develop.

“Pope Francis himself has said several times that he will not change the Church’s teachings and that that was not the goal of the Synod. The topic of the Synod is the pastoral care towards marriage and family. An important conclusion of this Synod is that the preparation for a religious marriage must be well developed. For example, in Italy there are extensive programs for marriage preparation, and in the Archdiocese of Utrecht, too, there is the intention of intensifying marriage preparation. Before people enter into a marriage in the Church, they must know well what this means. With a marriage according to her teaching, which is based on the words of Jesus himself, the Church asks much of spouses, but they can also rely on God giving them the required strength and mercy.”

And there it is again, the debate about Communion for divorced and remarried faithful…

“It is good to emphasise once again that divorced and remarried faithful do not need to be outside the Church. The Church is also there for them, and God’s grace also comes to them in different way than through Holy Communion. Hearing and reading the Word of God and prayer are sources of grace.”

The Synod is not perfect, and nothing it does carries magisterial weight. Only the Holy Father’s Apostolic Exhortation, if it appears, does. The cardinal summarised what the Synod did do:

“As Synod Fathers we are certainly not perfect, and in that sense the Synod is also not perfect. But the Pope is the guarantee of unity in the Church and as faithful we can rely on the Holy Spirit leading God’s Church. Although the doctrine of the Church will not change, there are certainly improvements possible concerning fruitful pastoral care regarding marriage and family.”

And finally, Cardinal Eijk had to face the question about that leaked letter from a group of cardinal to the Pope, in which they expressed their concerns about the new form of the Synod. Ultimately, the cardinal chose not provide and answer:

“I do not think that I should discuss my private correspondence with the Holy Father. So I will neither deny nor confirm that I signed that letter.”