Back to square one for the monks on Schiermonnikoog

A – hopefully temporary – setback for the four Cistercian monks on Schiermonnikoog, as they decided to abandon their building plans for a new monastery. Initially, as I wrote before, the plans for a low building with a single light tower was met with approval by the island’s inhabitants. The monks cite “serious and harmful division” caused by the plans as the reason to abandon them.

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^A impression of the monastery according to the now abandoned plans

Since their arrival in early 2015, the monks have expressed no greater wish than to be able to live in peace with the population of Schiermonnikoog. Over the course of the past years they have endeavoured to introduce themselves to the people and be as open as possible about their plans. That is why the building plans were not even formal yet when the monks abandoned them just before Easter.

The criticism against the plans focussed on the ease with which the monks were seemingly able to formalise their plans – Schiermonnikoog is a national park, so having building plans approved can be a lengthy and bureaucratic process – as well as the height of the tower, planned to rise some 14 meters above the dunes in an area otherwise marked by holiday homes. Somewhat more surprising, the monks were also criticised for the luxury of their planned accomodations…

The change of plans does not mean that the monks plan to leave the island. Soon they will be looking at alternate plans – and possibly an alternate location on the Island as well.

Happy 100th to Bishop Ernst

ernstThe fifth-oldest bishop of the world today marks his 100th birthday. Bishop Huub Ernst was bishop of Breda from 1967 to 1992, and apostolic administrator of the same diocese from 1992 to 1994.

In 2016 the bishop marked the 75th anniversary of his priestly ordination, at which tike he reflected:

“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.””

This grateful and simple approach to his priestly ministry is also reflected in the bishop’s episcopal motto: a simple “Shalom“.

Bishop Ernst marks his birthday in private. On 4 April he was visited by Bishop Hans van den Hende, president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, on behalf of the other bishops. Bishop van den Hende was bishop of Breda from 2007 to 2011, after first serving as coadjutor bishop under Bishop Ernst’s successor, Bishop Muskens. Bishop Ernst was one of the co-consecrators of Bishop van den Hende in 2006.

In exile? – A motto for the new bishop

Now that a new bishop for Groningen-Leeuwarden has finally been appointed, a period of  months begins until his consecration. Set for 3 June at St. Joseph’s cathedral, Msgr. Ron van den Hout will be the first bishop consecrated there since 1999, and only the second one ever. The new bishops’ predecessor, Msgr. de Korte, was already a bishop when appointed to the northern diocese in 2008, so he was only installed as ordinary. It is not yet known who the consecrating bishops will be, but I would not be surprised if Bishop Gerard de Korte would serve as chief consecrator. Bishop-elect van den Hout not only succeeds him as bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden, but also served as his vicar general in ‘s-Hertogenbosch for a year. The bishop who initially appointed Msgr. van den Hout as his vicar general, Msgr. Antoon Hurkmans, could also be invited to travel north from Rome to be one of the two co-consecrators.

f035fdc6-a42b-4ea3-ac5c-e1382f1d2d97Following his presentation at the diocesan offices yesterday, Msgr. van den Hout revealed the motto he has chosen to grace his coat of arms (still to be designed): In exilio spes (Hope in exile). At first glance perhaps a reflection of his being sent far away from home, to a diocese with significantly fewer Catholics (noting the contrast with his home diocese, the bishop-elect said, “I know that there are few religious, there is no Catholic university, there are no guilds”), the true reason is different. Msgr. van den Hout explains:

“One of the Eucharistic prayers says, “Confirm your Church in exile. Make her one in love and faith” [literal translation from the Dutch text – MV]. In my lectures the topic of exile was frequently addressed. In exegesis, the time of the Persian and the exile has been given more attention.

Difficult times are Always a phase in salvation history. Israel survived the exile because it was willing to seek out God once again.”

His soon-to-be brother bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam, sheds some more light on the motto:

“With it, he, as an exegete, links to a topic which is close to his heart, as well as to the words of Pope Francis during the last Ad limina visit. The Pope compared the situation of the Church in our country with that of the exile of the Jewish people: there can be a tendency to look back to a glorious past, but the mission – which the prophets then pointed out to the Jewish people – is to look ahead, to seek out God and work towards the future with confidence and perseverence.”

Upon the news of Bishop-elect Van den Hout’s appointment, which was, perhaps unavoidably leaked several hours in advance, the Bishops’ Conference welcomed him into their ranks. Via conference president Bishop Hans van den Hende, they assured him of their prayers, especially in the weeks towards his consecration and installation.

In a letter to the priests and pastoral workers of his diocese, Bishop Gerard de Korte reacted with sadness and joy to the new mission of his vicar general, writing:

naamloos“Pope Francis’ choice means a great sacrifice for our Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In the past year I have gotten to know Ron as a jovial priest of Brabant.

Through the appointment of Dr. Van den Hout as new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden I lose a reliable and hard-working coworker. But I get him back as a colleague in the bishops’ conference.

I congratulate the faithful of my old diocese with the new bishop, and hope and expect that they will greet him warmly.”

Photo credit: [1] Bisdom Groningen-Leeuwarden, [2] Ramon Mangold

No April Fool – 13 months in, the vacancy ends

End of a long sede vacante

It took thirteen months, an almost unprecented long time, but the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden will soon have a bishop again. The Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Aldo Cavalli, had already stated that the name would be known before Easter. With tomorrow being the fifth Sunday of Lent, he was cutting it a bit close. The long time between bishops gave rise to some speculation and rumours, which I wrote about here. These speculations will undoubtedly continue now that there is a new bishop. Many will choose to see the selection, which was ultimately made by Pope Francis, in political terms: the new bishop is either a man in the vein of the Holy Father, which means he is a pastoral figure with an eye for the people instead of the law; or he fits the mold of Cardinal Eijk, which means he is a dogmatic, a stickler for rules. Reality, as often, is more nuanced.

20170330_sHertogenbosch_Bisschoppen_©RamonMangold_03The new bishop

The new bishop comes from the south, and thus, in a way, makes the opposite move than his predecessor, who went from Groningen-Leeuwarden to ‘s-Hertogenbosch. From that later see comes its vicar general, Msgr. Ron van den Hout, to take over the reins of this country’s most northern diocese.

Bishop-elect Van den Hout is 52, not extraordinarily young or old when compared with his predecessors. He has been vicar general of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch since 2012. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1993, studied in Rome and Nijmegen, and most recently taught Bible studies at three seminaries, in addition to serving as temporary pastor in the Bommelerwaard region, in the north of the diocese.

The Diocese

The new bisdom inherits a diocese wich, in some ways, is a work in progress. In the eight years (from 2008 to 2016) that Msgr. de Korte was ordinary, the diocese underwent a process of change which saw the number of parish decrease from 84 to 19. While the previous bishop made it policy to maintain the old parishes as communities in the new larger parishes, it is up to the new bishop to see the process to its conclusion and his choice to keep Bishop de Korte’s vision intact or adapt it as he sees fit. With one parish, which includes the cathedral in Groningen, exempt from the mergers, only two new parishes are awaiting establishment,  while a third is already merged, but will see one more old parish join at a later date. The entire process is expected to be concluded by 1 January 2018.

In the years that Bishop de Korte led the diocese, the number of religious establishments within its boundaries tripled. A relatively large increase, in absolute numbers it is perhaps somewhat less impressive: from one to three. In addition to the shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed in Warfhuizen, which is under the care of hermit Father Hugo, the Holy Ghost Fathers have established themselves in Heerenveen, while the Cistercians from Sion Abbey are working to build a monastery on the island of Schiermonnikoog. Bishop de Korte actively encouraged this trend, and his successor could do worse than do likewise.

The Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden is one of the two youngest in the Netherlands, having been established in 1955, it is the second largest in size, and the smallest by number of Catholics (a little over 100,000, of whom some 10% attend a Mass or celebration over the course of one weekend)*. It covers the three northern provinces of the Netherlands (Fryslân, Groningen and Drenthe) as well as the northern third of the province of Flevoland. Its population varies from traditionally left-wing in the former Communist stronghold of eastern Groningen, to traditionally Catholic along the German border from the southeastern tip of Groningen to the south of Drenthe. Major cities are few, but include the university city of Groningen, which is also home to the cathedral of St. Joseph and the diocesan offices (relocated there by then-Bishop Willem Eijk, bishop from 1999 to 2008). Catholic faithful are clustered in various places, but in general the parish, especially in the countryside, are expansive. Coupled with a relative low number of priests this means that clergy has to be able and willing to travel.

Bishop van den Hout Will be the fifth bishop of the Groningen-Leeuwarden. Two of his predecessors are still active: Cardinal Willem Eijk as archbishop of Utrecht, and Msgr. Gerard de Korte as bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Bishop Hans van den Hende of Rotterdam is a former priest and vicar general of the diocese, and his immediate predecessor, Msgr. Ad van Luyn, was born in Groningen.

In the past eleven months, since the installation of Bishop de Korte in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the diocese has been run by diocesan administrator Fr. Peter Wellen, vicar general under the previous bishop, and general delegate Fr. Arjen Bultsma, formerly the episcopal vicar for Fryslân and the Noordoostpolder.

Reactions

Bishop-elect van den Hout was informed about his appointment last week, and accepted it on Wednesday. His initial reaction was hesitant, but he realised that it was “something that had come his way, and I was obliged to cooperate gladly”.

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^The new bishop, at left, receives a welcome present from diocesan administrator Fr. Peter Wellen.

As for the future, the new bishop sees himself as a man of the parish. “The life of the Church must be realised in the parishes,” he said. “The faithful must take their baptism seriously, while the diocesan curia serves to support this.” As yet unfamiliar with his new diocese, the bishop-elect intends to start visiting the parishes soon after his consecration, which is scheduled for 3 June. Asked about his predecessors and how he compares to them, Msgr. van den Hout said that he simply wants to be himself, to be there for the people. He hasn’t taken up a position on how the diocese should be run, as this depends on the specific  local situation. He is curious and open about the Catholic life in the parishes of his new diocese, and will make any decisions based on what he finds.

More to come.

*Statistics date from 2008. The expectation is that the actual and current numbers are lower).

Photo credit: [1] Ramon Mangold, [2] Mark de Vries

Do not deny churches access to information about their membership, citizens urge government

afbeelding-site-sila_05-bijgesnedenA government intention to abolish the system that supplies municipal information about  church members to local parishes has led to the most successful Internet consultation yet. Following an appeal from the bishops, among others, 17,000 signatories when through the trouble of lodging their complaints against a possible abolishment of the SILA system, which automatically forwards municipalities’ information about the death or moving of parishioners (while keeping  this information confidential). This allows parishes to remain informed when members newly arrive or when parishioners die.

Responses mentioned the desire of parish groups to be able to continue visiting the eldery in care homes, but also of families who appreciated being welcomed in a new parish. There is also the fear of elderly faithful that the parish might loose track of them. The positive contribution of parishes to society, some said, is denied by politicians who wish to shut down this system as it exists now.

Government ministeries can use consultations about concepts for law proposals, ministerial regulations or general government decisions. The results may be used to adapt these proposals or decisions, but they are not binding.

SILA, short for Stichting Interkerkelijke Ledenadministratie, is used by seven churches and church communities, among them the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, and collects and manages information about the church affiliation of private citizens who are registered members of one of the seven churches who use SILA. Municipalities only register who is known by SILA, but can’t see to which church they belong. Any mutations in the status of these citizens, such as death or relocation, is forwarded to SILA, which does now the specific church affiliation and can send the relevant information to the correct church community. In reverse, SILA also informs municipalities about new church members or church members who wish to be removed from the database.

The decision to bar SILA from information from the basic registration of citizens is taken to streamline the way in which the registration functions, and is one of several measures to assure this. The repsonsible government department is the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, headed by Minister Ronald Plasterk. He is a member of the PvdA, which suffered a significant loss of seats in last week’s elections, and will therefore most likely be succeeded by a member of another party, with the PvdA relegated to an opposition role. What that means for the proposal and the results of the consultation, however, remains to be seen.

Bishop de Korte’s election advice – the problems of voting Catholic in the Netherlands

While bishops usually tend to avoid giving voting advice, at least when it comes to specific parties, Bishop Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch recently did do so on a personal title. In an interview with Katholiek Nieuwsblad he said,

bisschop-de-korte“As bishops we realise that you can’t say that, if you are Catholic, there is a single party to vote for. From a Catholic perspective, something can be said in favour of all parties.”

But the bishop makes one exception to this rule. Geert Wilders’ PVV, which has ideas which are “contrary to the Catholic idea about a just society. They way that they pit populations against one another, abandon the freedom the religion, attack the rule of law – “fake parliament”, “fake judges”… These are things that should make us very reserved.”

The PVV continues to score in the opinion polls, also among Catholics, and Bishop de Korte’s remarks have had their share of criticism. But while the bishop’s comments focussed on the positives to be found in irtually all parties, the criticism focussed on those elements in party’s programs which are incompatible with Catholic teaching. How, critics asked, could any Catholic in good conscience vote for a party which promotes anti-life measures such as abortion and euthanasia? As I mentioned in my recent article for The Catholic Herald, only two parties, both Christian, are pro-life: the Christian Union and the SGP, although it must be added that the PVV is at least hesitant about further liberalisation on these topics.

This is a valid criticism, and a Catholic vote must take the position of parties on these (and other) topics seriously. But Bishop de Korte is not saying that all positions of all parties, except those of the PVV, should be supported by Catholics. On the contrary, he merely acknowledges that all parties promote positive aspects which a Catholic can get behind, while, although he does not say so explicitly, they may also support things a Catholic should oppose. There is no clear black or white when it comes to casting a Catholic vote in these elections.

pvv-logo-560x190Why single out the PVV, then? Are their positions more abhorent than those of other parties? The tone of their way of doing politics is certainly not one we should promote, and their singling out of parts of the population and disrespect for the rule of law when it does not agree with their positions are indeed problematic. For Bishop de Korte these seem to be decisive factors. For others, like myself, the respect for life (both born and unborn) may be equally decisive, and in that context the left-wing parties such as GroenLinks and SP are just as undeserving of my vote. Singling out the PVV is too simplistic: no party is perfect, and when you say that  “something can be said in favour of all parties,” an honest reading wil also show that that includes the PVV.

Bishop de Korte gave a personal opinion, the reasoning of which I do not fully agree with, although I share his decision not to vote for the PVV. But that is my opinion. Others may reach another conclusion in good conscience, based on the priorities they focus on. As long as it impossible to cast a vote which is in full agreement with Catholic teaching, this is the situation we are stuck with.

“Share your faith!” – Bishop Wiertz’ letter for Lent

In what is most likely his last letter for Lent, Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond not only discusses a topic he has underlined before – that we are a part of the worldwide Church which is now on the receiving end of the mission – but also urges us to speak out about our deepest convictions as Catholics. Following the urging of Pope Francis, we must share the Good News, go out into the streets, share in order to multiply.

Mgr. F.J.M. Wiertz“Brothers and sisters,

The invention of social media gave a whole new meaning to the word ‘sharing’. Messages, photos and videos can be ‘shared’ with others via the Internet. An increasingly large number of people can take note of the message in this way. We could say that ‘sharing’ is the new ‘multiplying’. The more a message is shared, the more people can see and read it.

Sharing stories together in this way doesn’t happen on the Internet alone, of course. Every time we speak with people about what occupies our minds, we make others sharers of our experiences. We sometimes say, “What the heart thinks, the mouth speaks”.

On the occasion of the forty-day period of preparation for Easter, we can ask ourselves the question of how full of faith our heart is. How often do we speak about it with others? In other words: what do we do to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and so make sure that the Gospel is widely spread and multiplied?

That question doesn’t come out of nowhere. Christ Himself gave us the mission to spread His Good News across the entire world. We are by definition a missionary Church, a Church that goes out and shares the message which fills her heart.

And ‘the Church’, that is not only the priests or the members of the church board. It’s everyone who is baptised. It is our common mission to share our faith. We can only do so when we experience a personal connection to Jesus Christ; when we want to be His followers and honestly want to put that into practice. Each of us can so be missionary in very different ways.

For many people, the word mission evokes the image of missionaries who travelled to distant countries to proclaim the faith and do development work there. But the times have changed. Former mission territories have grown into mature young churches. We keep supporting them materially through campains like the Vastenactie. We do so in these weeks, and that is good. But in turn we in the west can learn much from their flourishing faith. We sometimes, then, speak about a reversed mission.

We are grateful to the world church which has been coming to our aid for some time. Foreign priests, seminarians and religious have come from their own familiar surroundings to our diocese. Like several missionary families, they have answered the call to serve the Lord and help us to share His Good News. They are an example to let a new missionary impetus grow in our parishes.

Happily, much is happening in practice. There are a fair number of volunteers who support and build up the parishes in numerous areas. Together with the priests, deacons and coworkers they take care of the future of the life of the Church in Limburg. By using their hands they show that they want to respond to the grace of their baptism and confirmation in an active way.

But a missionary Church makes a serious appeal to every Christian to share his or her faith. I know that we are often uncomfortable about that, and that many people sense a great reluctance about bearing witness of their faith all too openly.

It is as if a false sense of shame holds us back. There is no need for that. Isn’t it our deepest conviction? We shouldn’t walk away from that. For each of us as baptised Christians, it should be a matter of honour to address our common faith in God in our direct surroundings. Tell you children and grandchildren, your friends, neighbours and acquaintances that you believe.

As Church, we shouldn’t be closed in on ourselves. Pope Francis keep insisting on this. In one of his frequently quoted texts he claims to prefer “a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 49).

Those are clear words. The Pope invites us to go out; to literally and figuratively go out in into the street and speak or show in concrete acts what it means for us to follow Christ.

Obviously, every witness of faith must be authentic and come from the heart. In normal language, with respect for the opinions of the other and certainly not pushy. A missionary Church invites, cordially and mild.

Christ did not give us His Good News to keep it for ourselves, but to pass it on and share it with others. That is our missionary duty: sharing in order to multiply. What our heart is full off, our mouth is allowed to speak. Let us use this Lent to become conscious of that and invite others to share in that joy.

Roermond,

+ Frans Wiertz,
Bishop of Roermond”