For the Synod, faith, opennes and courage – Bishop Wiertz’ letter for Lent

In his letter for Lent, which was read out in the churches during the first Sunday of the penitential season, Bishop Frans Wiertz looks ahead to the Synod and outlines the right attitude of the faithful towards it.

Bisschop Wiertz“Brothers and sisters,

Every year in Lent we realise that we need moments of reflection and conversion in our life and in our relationship with God. They help us to be more open to God’s mercy and the Words He speaks to us. In this way we can experience those riches that God wants to give us.

In the Church there is a habit of paying special attention to a given topic over the course of the year. Pope Francis declared this year to be the “Year of Consecrated Life”. I already indicated this in my letter for Advent.

At the same time this year also has a special focus in the Synod on the family. This was held a few months ago in Rome and will be continued at the end of this year. In his message to the religious, Pope Francis writes, “I thank the Lord that the Year of Consecrated Life coincides with the Synod on the Family. Family life and consecrated life are both vocations which bring enrichment and blessings for all.”

At the end of the Synod, October last, Pope Francis urged the local Churches to think about the conclusions of the first Synod and let the issues mature. In our diocese we did so by sending the questionnaires, which are the basis of the upcoming Synod, to the parishes. The issues will also be discussed in the various advisory councils.

Now that the vision of Church and faithful on marriage and family have become such a clear topic of discussion, it is obvious that everyone has their own thoughts about it. At the same time we realise that marriage and family revolve around the merciful reality that God grants us and which we can’t invent ourselves. From that realisation Pope Francis made these issues the topic of Synods. Jointly, the bishops of the world Church can in this way manifest the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Looking for what is good and true in the faith is a process of the entire Church.

At the same time this search also and always takes place “with and under Peter”, as the Pope himself put it. Pope Francis emphasises both the importance of the input of all bishops – yes, even of all faithful – as well as the importance of his own presence as keeper of the faith and supreme shepherd of the Church.

In this sense our own thoughts and convictions regarding marriage and family are very valuable, but they are never the final words on the matter. What’s beautiful about the Catholic Church is exactly that we can experience the guidance of the Lord in the words spoken by Pope and bishops.

It may be expected that the Pope will collect the conclusions of this Synod in a so-called Apostolic Exhortation. This document will be a guide for how we deal with issues of marriage and family. No one can afford to take go separate ways in that. The divisions among the faithful which would be the result of that are by definition contrary to God’s will and will have disastrous consequences. After all, we find Him fully within the unity of the Church.

Many of the issues surrounding marriage and family, by the way, have to do with unity and division. At the same time it is somewhat improper to keep talking about the “issues” of marriage and family. We do a great injustice to marriage when we consider it as a source of problems.

Marriage and family are rather the regular way in which people fulfill their lives. The way in which they can be happy. And especially also the way in which they manifest God’s plan with humanity. It would be a grave injustice to consider marriage as a source of fighting and misfortune. What matters especially is the question of how we can respond to situations in which the intentions and convictions from the beginning do not become reality.

From us this requires an attitude of faith and trust in the word of God. And also openness and courage concerning the way which Pope and bishops show us. In that regard we can be convinced of one certainty: that way will be one in line with Tradition and according to the faith of all ages. At the same time a newness will be present which the Holy Spirit continuously grants His Church.

During Lent we want to keep our eyes fixed on God. We will see how beneficial it us to be free from our own desires and wishes. That will also be a good attitude towards the Synod: expecting in gratitude to God what is good for man. We may all be very involved with the process taking place in our Church. But it is a great mercy to have faith that the good Lord guides His Church. Through the Holy Spirit and through the successor of Peter He always remains close to His Church. Let us accept this mercy in faith and trust.

I gladly wish a you a fruitful and blessed Lent.

Roermond,

+ Frans Wiertz, Bishop of Roermond”

For Lent, the cardinal once more on church closings

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkIn his letter for Lent, Cardinal Eijk once again broaches the subject of church closings, the topic for which he has been criticised so strongly in recent months. Even now, there is a petition on its way to Rome to ask the Pope to stop the cardinal from closing all those churches – something which he is pertinently not doing: his prediction of hundreds of churches closing in the coming years is just that, a prediction and not policy.

In the letter, the cardinal writes:

“The secularisation I mentioned above is also becoming increasingly visible in our own Archdiocese of Utrecht, in part because many parish council are forced, because of greatly decreasing attendance and structural financial shortage, to close church buildings. Among the directly involved that is cause for deep emotions of sorrow. But also for me: every time I receive a parish council’s request to secularise a church building, I do so with a heavy heart.”

Like I and others have said time and again, it is not the cardinal deciding to close specific churches, but the parish councils who are responsible for those buildings. Despite this, various groups, including retired priests and pastoral workers in the archdiocese, continue in their accusations that the cardinal is wilfully closing churches and purging the archdiocese of all those who are critical of him. The difference between these groups and the cardinal is that the former are solely motivated by emotion, while Cardinal Eijk does acknowledge that emotion, but does not consider it the deciding factor in solving the existing problems. He continues:

“This has been cause for confusion and anger in more than a few people. But it is important not to persist in that anger. There is a danger than anger turns into bitterness,and bitterness is like a dungeon in which no light penetrates. It is important to remain open, to God and to fellow parishioners with whom we are the Church. That goes for churches that remain open for the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and also for villages and city suburbs which no longer have a church building. As Catholics we can come together there at other times, to be near to each other and deepen our faith through prayer, Scripture, catechesis. When a church building disappears, our faith and being Church in a village or suburb does not.”

This sound like an echo of what Bishop Gerard de Korte wrote earlier: living communities, even in places where there is no church building. The critical parties often make the mistake of limiting the Church to the celebration of Mass or the possession of a building of their own. But while Holy Mass is the most important treasure the Church has, it is by no means the only one. And the Church has never been confined to walls. No church in the world, not even Saint Peter’s in Rome, is the deciding factor in the continued existence of the Catholic Church.

Yes, closing churches is painful and emotional for all involved. But it should not be reason for accusations, but for renewed vigour in our faith life. If we want our communities to be alive and with a future, we must do our best to make sure they are. We don’t have the luxury of sitting and waiting for the bishop to fix things for our communities. As Catholics we must be active instead of passive, knowledgeable and open, charitable and willing to step over boundaries and look beyond our human limitations.

Nuncio Dupuy on the verge of retirement

dupuyIn four days, on 13 February, Archbishop André Dupuy will reach the age of 75, which means that the Apostolic Nuncio to the Netherlands will be sending his resignation letter to the Vatican, and the archbishop will wrap up his fairly short term of office in the Netherlands. He was appointed in December of 2011, a little more than three years ago. Unlike some of his previous postings – most notably Venezuela – Archbishop Dupuy’s  time in our country has been fairly quiet. He has not had to deal with any new bishops’ appointments, and his public appearances were mostly for festive occasions, such as the 125th anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral of Groningen in 2012. He also attended events surrounding the installation of King Willem-Alexander and the election of Pope Francis. In addition to his duties as papal representative in the Netherlands, Archbishop Dupuy has also been the permanent observer of the Holy See at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is, like the nunciature, based in The Hague.

The French prelate, whose time in office was the shortest since that of Archbishop John Gordon, who was Pro-Nuncio from 1976 to 1978, was the second Frenchman to be the Hoy See ambassador in the Netherlands. It is anyone’s guess who will succeed him, or when that successor will take office. There are very few vacant nunciatures in the world today, although two – to Honduras and to Madagascar, the Seychelles and Mauritius – have been empty for more than six months. Whether or not the representation to the Netherlands will have priority over these remains to be seen.

New travel companions – two ordinations in Groningen-Leeuwarden

ordination duzijn jellemaA festive day for the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden yesterday, as it gained two new priests. Father Diederik Duzijn and Arjen Jellema were ordained by Bishop Gerard de Korte in the cathedral of St. Joseph. It was the second ordination in two weeks time, following that of diocesan hermit Brother Hugo to the diaconate on 23 January.

In his homily, the bishop spoke about the well-known story of the disciples who travelled to Emmaus. Just like Christ who joined them as a stranger, the bishops said, priests are also called to join the faithful on their way, to both listen to their life stories and explain them in the light of the Gospel.

The bishop also referred to his recent letter about the future of the diocese and asked the new priests to aid the faithful in contributing to building thriving communities of faith. The sacramental priesthood, he noted, is intended to be in service to the entire people of God.

Father Diederik Duzijn is appointed to the parishes around Drachten in the southwest of Friesland, while Father Arjen Jellema will work in the parishes in the southern part of the city of Groningen and surrounding towns, as well as the student chaplaincy. Both priests will offer their first Masses today: Fr. Duzijn in Drachten and Fr. Jellema in the cathedral in Groningen.

For Family Synod 2, Cardinal Eijk returns to Rome

synod of bishopsThe first group of participants in coming autumn’s Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops has been ratified by Pope Francis. Unlike for last year’s assembly, which was an Extraordinary one, the majority of members for this edition are elected by the bishops’ conferences of the world. The presidents of the conferences do not automatically attend, unless, as in the case of the Dutch bishops, he is elected to do so.

liesenCardinal Wim Eijk, who today coincidentally had a private audience with Pope Francis, will once again participate like he did last year, but should he not be able to do so, the bishops have chosen Bishop Jan Liesen (at right) to be his replacement. Bishop Liesen is no stranger in Rome, as he was a member of the International Theological Commission for a number of years.

The list of participants published today is far from complete. Many bishops’ conferences, such as the German, have yet to elect one of their own to go to Rome in October. The Belgian bishops likewise haven’t chosen , but they will wait for the appointment of a new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and President of the bishops’ conference, sometime in or after May.

The compatibility of different approaches – two bishops against the tide of church closings

de korte eijkAgain, the rivalry between bishops seems to be rearing its head, if we are to believe the media. Earlier I wrote about Cardinal Eijk’s efforts in dealing with church closings and parish mergers, all in the context of decreasing participation and means, and today Bishop Gerard de Korte makes public his own efforts to handle the very same issues in his own diocese. And both approaches differ in some ways, but they are perhaps more similar and compatible than many want to see.

The plans of the two prelates can be summarised as follows:

Cardinal Eijk is merging parishes which will have a “Eucharistic centre”, a church building where there will be Holy Mass on every Sunday. Other churches in the new parish are on rotation when it comes to Mass, so to speak. In this way, the cardinal underlines the importance of the Mass on Sunday and the stability it provides for parish life.

Bishop de Korte aims at local communities. In his new parishes he wants the local communities, the remnants of separate parishes, to remain alive and viable, even if there is not always a Mass on Sundays. And if need be, they will also have to do without a church building of their own, although the bishop strives to keep every church in the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden open.

Bishop de Korte is perhaps much clearer about his desire for active local communities, but there is no indication that Cardinal Eijk disagrees, even if he does not spell it out. In the Archdiocese of Utrecht, local communities can and should also continue being active and living schools of faith, even if there is no regular Sunday Mass or even a church building. In that sense, the options are no different than what Bishop de Korte has outlined in a recent letter to the parishes of his diocese.

For neither bishop closing churches is policy or even a desire. Bishop de Korte has clearly said he wants to avoid it whenever possible, and Cardinal Eijk recently said something similar, even if he seems perhaps sometimes a bit more pessimistic.

But when local communities want to remain viable, there is one thing to remember. It does not happen automatically. As Bishop de Korte said, we all need to take our responsibility as Catholics and contribute to the life of our parish in whatever way we can.

Both bishops’ plans in response to the facts of decreasing means are more similar than different and, at the very least, compatible. Emphasising the importance of a regular Mass in a central place for the entire parish is important, as is the value of local communities where people live, learn and celebrate their faith together. Bishop de Korte identifies a point that is of paramount importance to make both his and Cardinal Eijk’s focus a success: strengthening Catholic identity and finding new people and means. We need to know who we are and what we believe in order to become living and attractive communities.

Doing more with less – how to face the challenge of church closings

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkI recently made my Dutch-language blogging debut over at Broodje Paap, and the subject of that first post – how to respond to necessary church closing and parish mergers – remains topical. Today, Cardinal Wim Eijk, target of much criticism and often seen as personally responsible for the decline of Catholic life in his Archdiocese of Utrecht – personally reacted on Radio 1 (a very welcome development in itself – we need to see and hear our bishops in the media more often).

In his radio interview, Cardinal Eijk laid out the facts that caused him to make disconcerting predictions of more than 90% of the Catholic churches in the archdiocese closing in the next 20 years. Some of his critics have presented this prediction as active policy on the cardinal’s part, but, as the cardinal said today, he doesn’t like it any more than we do. But we can’t close our eyes to the facts.

The Church in the Netherlands is, by and large, old. There are young people, of course, but in many churches and parishes, the elderly are in majority. This has an effect on finances and prospects for the future. With ever-decreasing financial contributions from the faithful, parishes and dioceses must look to savings and investments, and those can’t last forever. Some parishes – the cardinals expects that the vast majority – will at one point have to consider if they can afford the upkeep of all their church buildings, for example. Maintenance, electricity, heating… these are not free. It is unavoidable that churches will have to be closed, and this calls for new efforts on the part of the faithful.

And that, in my opinion, is what we must really focus on. Without denying or ignoring the pain of a community losing the church where they worshipped, got married, prayed, celebrated Mass, said goodbye to their loved ones, formed a community, this closing must in the end invite us to a renewal.

A renewal of faith, of active Catholic life, perhaps outside the familiar boundaries of church building and even parish or diocese. What form this can take, I don’t know, but when we limit ourselves to finger-pointing and anger, it will certainly take no form at all.

A first step in this process is communication, which is not only speaking, but also listening. The priests and bishops who find themselves in these situations must listen to and acknowledge the pain the faithful share with them, as well as their suggestions and ideas. And likewise the faithful must listen to and acknowledge the efforts of priests and bishops to make the best of a bad situation and ideally work with them to achieve that. It is important to remember that, as Catholics, we are all on the same side.

A second step, which is closely linked to the communication I outlined above, can be an openness to the faith that the Church wants to teach and share with us. Our faith is bigger than our own desires and opinions. We can’t allow ourselves to remain closed in by those, but we must be open to Christ, His teachings, His sacraments, His Church, whatever form it may take at this moment in time. Some things, after all, are more fundamental to our faith than others. Buildings and parishes boundaries do not make our faith, the person of Christ – and all He gives us through His Church and those He has appointed to minister to the faithful – does.

In the end, I don’t  think that church closing force us to become something new and unheard of. Rather, we are invited to return to the essence of our faith. That does not require that we do less, but rather more with fewer means. Each one of us needs to make an effort. Only looking to our priests and bishops to do something is irresponsible. We must all act, together, as Catholic Christians.

Our faith is positive. Let us remain so as well.