The thin line between fear and charity

It’s a thin line that separates feelings when we are confronted with news report after news report about the latest terrorist attack committed in the name of Islam: the thin line between hate of everything Muslim and Christian compassion with the innocent – be they Muslim or otherwise –  and condemnation of violence. Emotionally, the choice for the former seems easy and is frequently made, also in Catholic social media: Islam is a threat and Muslims are, by definition, not to be trusted and should be refused intry into western countries.

Bishop Gerard de Korte, in an article about his blessing of 150 bicycles for refugees, has strong words about terrorism – perhaps his strongest yet – and equally about our Christian duty to help those in need, regardless of their background.

“The Gospel of Christ unequivocally calls us to generous assistance to people in need. I don’t think there can be any negotiating about that. He who is our Lord has Himself been a homeless refugee. And in the face of refugees we can discover Christ Himself. But as Christians we should not be naive. There is an Islamic civil war happening in the world today. Through a toxic mixture of social and economic slighting and feelings of humiliation a number of Muslims has been religiously radicalised and become extremely violent. Through terror they not only want to establish an imaginery Islamic dream empire, but also destabilise western society with fear. Our government has the duty to eliminate terrorists as best as possible before they can sow death and destruction. In the meantime Christians especially remain called to offer a helping hand to well-intentioned people in need, including those from Muslim countries.”

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^Bishop de Korte blessing bikes in the cathedral of St. John in Den Bosch.

Extreme choices – to either hate all or deny that there’s anything wrong –  are rarely the right ones. Bishop de Korte rightly reminds us that terrorism must be fought, but not to the detriment of those who need our help. As Christians, we are not in the business of blaming people for the misdeeds of others.

Photo credit: MIVA

Dutch Prime Minister meets Pope Francis

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte had a private audience with Pope Francis today. The 20-minute meeting took place not in the Apostolic Palace, as such meetings normally do, but in a small backroom of the Paul VI Hall. Things always have to be different with the Dutch, I suppose.

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While the timing of the meeting, relatively soon after a personal meeting of the Dutch royal family with the Holy Father in late April, had led to some speculation about a papal visit to the Netherlands, it was fairly standard. The two men discussed youth unemployment in Europe, the wars in the Middle East and the refugee crisis. The prime minister said he was impressed by Pope Francis’ simplicity, and called him “a man with authority”.

The Pope gave the prime minister a tablet with peace symbols and copies of three papal documents (one would imagine including Amoris laetitia and Laudato si’).

Mr. Rutte also met with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin and the Secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Gallagher.

And the papal visit? “That’s up to the bishops,” Mr. Rutte commented.

Photo credit: ANP

Generational shift as Bishops’ Conference gets new leadership

mgr_van_den_hendeAs expected the Dutch bishop’s conference today elected a new president after Cardinal Eijk announced, earlier this year, that he would not be available for a second term at the head of the conference. His successor is Bishop Hans van den Hende (pictured at left), ordinary of Rotterdam and in the past vicar general under Cardinal Eijk when the latter was bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. This is the second time that the presidency goes to a bishop of Rotterdam, after Bishop Ad van Luyn’s 3-year term from 2008 to 2011.

liesenThe president is part of the permanent council of the bishops’ conference, together with the vice president and a third member. This council prepares the monthly meetings of the bishops. The vice president was until today Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond, but health reasons, which he so openly discussed recently in Lourdes, force him to step back as well. He is succeeded by the bishop of Breda, Jan Liesen (at right). The third member of the permanent council, Haarlem-Amsterdam’s Bishop Jos Punt also steps back, and he is succeeded by the new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Gerard de Korte.

The new permanent council represents a generational shift: the average age of the members drops from 68 to 56. Bishops Van den Hende and Liesen, aged 52 and 55, are even among the three youngest members of the conference. Bishop de Korte is the only council member who has been a bishop for more than a decade.

Bishop van den Hende is the sixth president of the bishops’ conference since it was established in 1966.  The first three presidents were the archbishops of Utrecht: Cardinals Alfrink (1966-1975), Willebrands (1976-1983) and Simonis (1983-2008). They were followed by Bishop van Luyn (2008-2011) and Cardinal Eijk (2011-2016).

All three are elected for a five-year term.

  • Hans van den Hende is 52, the youngest member of the bishops’ conference, but has been a bishop for almost ten years now. A priest of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, he was appointed as coadjutor bishop of Breda 2006, succeeded Bishop Muskens as ordinary in 2007. In 2011 he was moved one diocese over and has been the bishop of Rotterdam since then. In the bishops’ conference he holds the portfolio for ecumenism.
  • Jan Liesen, 55, was a priest of the Diocese of Roermond when he was appointed as one of two new auxiliary bishops of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 2010. Less than a year later he was appointed to succeed Bishop van den Hende in Breda. In the bishops’ conference he holds the portfolio for liturgy and Bible.
  • Gerard de Korte, 61 since yesterday, was a priest of the Archdiocese of Utrecht and auxiliary bishop of that same archdiocese from 20o1 to 2008. In that latter year he was appointed to succeed Wim Eijk as bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. Earlier this year, he was tapped as the new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In the bishops’ conference he holds the portfolios for Church and the elderly, Church and society and women and Church.

Bishop Ernst marks 75 years of priesthood

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He is the nestor of the Dutch episcopate, and at 99 years of age Msgr. Huub Ernst is the 8th oldest bishop in the world today. Last Tuesday he marked the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, with a solemn Mass in the cathedral of St. Anthony* in Breda, the same church were he offered his first Mass in 1941. As the retired bishop of Breda is confined to a motorised wheelchair, he concelebrated the Mass, which was offered by Breda’s current bishop, Msgr. Jan Liesen. They were joined by Bishop Hans van den Hende, bishop of Breda from 2007 to 2011, as well as the current and retired vicars general of the diocese.

Bishop Ernst was one of two priests ordained by Bishop Petrus Hopmans on 7 June 1941. After two years working in the parish he was called to a life of study, education and management. He was vicar general under Bishop Gerard de Vet (bishop of Breda from 1962 to 1967) and succeeded him upon his untimely death. Bishop Ernst, considered a progressive (but not so much that the liberal 8 May Movement did not succeed in alienating him) but also a wise and well-spoken theologian, would remain in office until 1992, followed by an uncommonly long two and a half years as apostolic administrator, until Martinus Muskens was appointed as his successor in late 1994.

After his retirement, Bishop Ernst remained available for certain important events. Not only did he consecrate Bishop Muskens in 1994, but he was also one of the co-consecrators of Muskens’ successor, Hans van den Hende, in 2006. Bishop Ernst has lived long enough to see three bishops succeed him and survived his immediate successor. In 2007 he condemned the proposal of the Dominicans to have lay people be given the possibility to offer Mass as “incorrect, senseless and not the right solution”. In 2010 he was called to testify in a sexual abuse case, claiming that important information was withheld from him when he was asked to appoint a Salesian priest who would later abuse again, after which Bishop Ernst fired him.

While Bishop Ernst is one of the oldest living bishops, he is even higher on the list of most senior bishops by ordination to the priesthood. Only four living bishops were ordained before Bishop Ernst, and among them is another bishop from the Dutch language area. He is Belgian-born Bishop Jan Van Cauwelaert. Now at the age of 102, this Antwerp-born prelate of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was vicar apostolic and later bishop of Inongo, now in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

About his current life, Bishop Ernst said:

“When I had to end my duties because of my age, I experienced that, while possessing a clear mind, I was definitely losing my physical strength. I concluded from that that my task would now be to stand in my own life for what I looked for in the offices. Experiencing this, I said, “Chaplain again, invisibly present. Without this being expressed amid the others who believe. The images I carry with me from my time in the chaplaincy express the relationship in which we live. It is a life of gratitude.””

*It wasn’t the cathedral back then, although it had been between 1853 and 1876, and has been again since 2001.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

Small miracles – In Lourdes, Bishop Wiertz gets personal

Visiting Lourdes with faithful from his diocese last week, Roermond’s Bishop Frans Wiertz related a personal story about his deteriorating eyesight. The 73-year-old bishop, the most senior of the active bishops in the Netherlands, has been suffering from an increasing loss of his sight for a while now. And, as he puts it, “it will not get better”.

Perhaps Lourdes was the perfect place to share such a personal experience of a physical ailment. Here, where the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous, thousands of pilgrims come every year to seek healing from what ails them, and the diocesan pilgrimage led by Bishop Wiertz (together with Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, recently retired from ‘s-Hertogenbosch) was no different.

Bishop Wiertz gives no indication that it prevents him from doing his duties as bishop. As he explains, it forces him to focus more on listening instead of watching, and each word he reads requires more time, so perhaps he has to take things a little bit slower. But he has an auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Everard de Jong, at his side to lead the Diocese of Roermond with its 1 million faithful. For now, we need not expect yet another round of bishop appointments.

The full text of Bishop Wiertz’s homily follows below:

“You may have noticed this week that I always read my text with a little light. That is because I can no longer see very well. I will turn 74 this year and even bishops are not safe from all sort of old age ailments. But you need not feel sorry for me: I am in good health for my age. Except for those eyes. Sight is failing. And it will not get better.

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A while ago this bothered me, as I have to read, and read out, much. And in my free time I like to read books: novels, history, theology. I manage with those lights, but I’m not as fast as I used to be. That is no disaster, but it is a nuisance. Until I discovered something a few months ago. Since I have to read more slowly, I also read with more attention. Every word becomes clearer, so to speak. It sticks more and I reflect on its meaning more.

Walking around here in Lourdes, I wonder if this eye problem does not also have a deeper meaning. I may see a little less, but I also got something in return. A more intense awareness of the meaning of words. And in conversation listening becomes more important than looking.

God lets us have new experiences before we realise it ourselves. I do not mean to say that all illnesses or physical defects are a good thing. Not at all. Over the course of the years I have spoken to more than enough people who really suffer. My ailment is like nothing in comparison. But I have also learned from these sick and handicapped people – here in Lourdes, but also in the parishes where I have worked – that there is only one way to overcome suffering: by going through it. And at the same time look for support with God.

Luckily, nowadays doctors can do a lot to cure people are make physical suffering more bearable. But the best way to learn and accept your situation is through prayer. “Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray,” we heard in the first reading. It doesn’t make you better in the literal sense of the word, but it can help you feel better.

God heals in a different way. He helps you discover things in your illness of handicap, things you weren’t aware of before. Call them small miracles who help you every day to handle life.

Many people know Lourdes because of the great miracles. But in all the years that I have been coming here I have never seen those. I did witness many small miracles. People who can handle things again after a pilgrimage. People who find out, here in Lourdes, that they can still do a lot of things themselves. Like me with my more intense readings and more intensive listening. A small miracle. It is nothing compared to the miracle Jesus performs for the royal official in the Gospel. His son lives again even before he realises it himself. And why? What did he do? Nothing more than taking Jesus’ word for it. We can have faith in Jesus, that all that we experience in our lives has meaning. Even when we do not see it ourselves.

That is why we can look for the small positive things that cheer us up. Small things which help us through the day, who make us able able to handle things for a while. The smile of someone we know. A kind word. The good care of volunteers. The fact that we are making such a beautiful trip together. These are small miracles that God gives us. Winks from heaven, which He uses to show us that He thinks of us and grants everyone healing in His very own way.

You will shortly recieve the laying on of hands. You may experience that as a sign that God is with you, that He gives you strength and helps you. Perhaps in a way that you haven’t thought of yourself. Let us always be open to God, who walks His own paths in healing, but never leaves us.

Amen.”

Photo credit: Organisatie Limburgse Bedevaarten

The bishop’s agenda – Bishop de Korte’s homily

Bishop Gerard de Korte has the habit of not writing out his homilies. He usually makes somes notes, but for the most part he speaks from memory. His homily during his installation Mass as bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, yesterday, was no different. But, contrary to past occasions, the bishop’s notes were published, and they’re complete enough to reconstruct the lengthy homily that ended in a welcoming applausse from the full cathedral basilica.

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The bishop begins by reflecting on the person whose feast it was yesterday: the Apostle who was chosen to replace Judas, St. Matthias. An important criterium in his election was his being a witness of Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1: 21-22). And since a bishop is a successor of the Apostles, his first task is to be a witness of the resurrected Lord. The Church is a community around the living Christ, the bishop said, so let us live with Christ and His Gospel as our basis.

Of course, there was occasion to look back, first to Bishop Bekkers, who was buried from St. John’s basilica exactly fifty years before Bishop de Korte’s installation. He remains a symbol for many Catholics of a loving, mild and hospitable Church. But also to Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, the now retired bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Bishop de Korte thanked him for his work as parish priest, seminary rector, vicar general and bishop.

Then, a look to the future. Bishop de Korte’s takes up the call of Bishop Hurkmans to defeat all division in the diocese. Tolerance is a virtue, there is room for different emphases and spiritualities in the Catholic house, and, most importantly, if Christ has chosen us, who are we to not accept each other?

As ever, Bishop de Korte has a realistic eye for the Church in our times. Yes, there are few young people, yes, the Church is vulnerable, yes, in many ways these are the years of truth. Like he said in his letter with that title from January 2015, Catholics must take their responsibility. Priests, deacons, pastoral workers, religious and all the baptised.

The bishop extended a specific invitation to the religious in his new diocese, asking them to work with the diocese, to reinforce and support each other.

Ever with an eye for ecumenism, Bishop de Korte siad he wants to continue working for better ecumenical relations in his new diocese. To not only celebrate, but also learn and serve together and so bear witness together of the risen Lord.

Taking a page from Pope Francis’ book, the bishop desires a Church which is open to the needs of the world, that joins all spiritual forces to realise more global justice and the protection of Mother Earth.

In closing, the bishop directs the attention to Mary, to whom there is a strong devotion in the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Mary continuously refers to Christ (Do what He tells you to). Mary is also the mother of the faithful, a source of comfort, an example of the love for God and the neighbour. Let’s follow her example.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

“Farewell diocese” – Bishop de Korte says goodbye

While the Mass for his installation as bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch has begun, here is my translation of Bishop Gerard de Korte’s final message to the faithful of Groningen-Leeuwarden, the diocese he leaves behind:

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“On Monday 29 February, around 10:30, the Papal Nuncio, Msgr. Aldo Cavalli, rang and asked if he could come to Groningen that day. He wanted to discuss an “important topic”. I knew then that it would be about the succession of Bishop Hurkmans of Den Bosch. And my intuition was confirmed that afternoon. The Nuncio told me that Pope Francis had appointed me as the new bishop of Den Bishop. The news led to some necessary chaos, both for me as for many faithful in our diocese.

In september of 2008 I was installed in the cathedral as bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. Despite all sorts of great and small concerns – when is our earthly life ever without clouds? – I look back on the years behind me with gratitude. A few years ago, the downsizing of the diocesan offices caused many concerns. Especially the letting go of several respected employees, solely for economic reasons, was a difficult but also necessary decision.

A lot has happened in the past years. Almost automatically, I recall the merger of parishes and caritas groups. After a long period of preparation and a broad consultation of pastoral teams and parish councils, the decision was made in autumn of 2011 to merge the 80 parishes into some 20 new parishes. This process must be completed on 1 January 2018. Starting point is the vision to combine administrative upscaling with pastoral downsizing. In the large diocese of the north we must try and maintain as many of the 80 faith communities as possible. In my letter “The years of truth” (January 2015) I made a distinction between church building and faith community. When it is no longer possible to maintain a church building, but the local faith community is still (relatively…) alive, the faithful can choose to continue coming together for the liturgy and other activities. The core thought here is: keeping the Church as close to the faithful as possible.

By now, I have moved to ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Moving is an exercise in the art of letting go. I have to say goodbye to a nice house, a great team of coworkers and so many other good people. In recent days I have spoken of an Abrahamic experience. Like the father of our faith I must leave the good and familiar country and go into the unknown in the hope that it will be good to be there as well. By the way, I am confident that I will soon find a true home again in Den Bosch.

You will go on as Catholics of the north. A small but conscious minority. I gladly repeat the call from my letter “The years of truth”: Catholics, take your responsibility. You are called to manifest the faith of your baptism. Pope Francis urges Catholics not to remain hidden in the sacristy or church building. Vital faith communities are missionary communities with open doors. All things being equal, we gather in out church buildings for the celebration of the Eucharist and other forms of liturgy. This feeds our soul and gives us the strength to give form to the imitation of Christ in our daily lives. Pope Francis frequently speaks of a Church which looks towards all of society. A Church that prefers to be dirty because she has spent too much time in the streets, instead of sick because she has been inside too much.

Finally, I would invite you to pray for each other. Hopefully you are willing to pray for the success of my new mission in the south. My task will not always be easy, but much is possible in the power of God’s Spirit. In the south I pray for wisdom for Pope Francis and all who are preparing the appointment of a new bishop. I hope for a new bishop who will work for a warm and hospitable Church around Christ as our living Lord. I wish you all the best and God’s  blessing. Continue on the path of faith, hope and especially love “trusting in Christ”.

+ Msgr. Dr. Gerard De Korte”

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold