In Roermond, an experienced native son takes the seat

After a ten-month vacancy (another fairly lengthy one, which unavoidably gave rise to theories of episcopal disagreements reaching as far as the Vatican itself), the Diocese of Roermond has a bishop again. Stepping into the shoes  of Frans Wiertz, who led the diocese for 24 years is Father Harrie Smeets, 57, until now the dean of Venray.

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^The cathedral chapter of Roermond upon the appointment of Dean Smeets to that body in 2015. The new bishop of Roermond can be seen to the right of then-Bishop Frans Wiertz.

BisdomRoermondLocatieThe Diocese of Roermond coincides with the province of Limburg and is located in the south-east of the Netherlands, wedged in between Belgium and Germany, bordering the Dutch (arch)dioceses of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Utrecht, Hasselt and Liège in Belgium and Aachen and Münster in Germany. It shares much of its history with its neighbours, as it was first established in 1559 from territories belonging to Cologne and Liège. It was suppressed under Napoleon and re-established in 1840, again from Cologne and Liège. it has been a full diocese since 1853. The  Catholic history, however, goes far further back, as the diocese also includes the city of Maastricht, which was the seat of a diocese as far back as 530.

The new bishop will be assisted in his work by the longest-seated auxiliary bishop in the Netehrlands, Msgr. Everard de Jong currently in Rome to participate in the Synod of Bishops.

Bishop-elect Smeets will be the tenth bishop of Roermond since 1853. He has served as area dean of Venray, tbe northernmost of Roermond’s thirteen deaneries, since 2004. He has been a priest for more than 25 years and a member of the cathedral chapter since 2015. As such played a part in his own appointment, although one may wonder if the office of bishops is something that any good priest willingly seeks. Until 2011, Bishop-elect Smeets offered televised Masses, which were broadcast on national television live, 14 times. Leo Fijen, TV presenter and head of religious/spiritual programming for broadcaster KRO/NCRV, knows Fr. Smeets well and describes him thus:

“A priest from Limburg, a man of these times, a teacher who speaks the language of the young, a manager willing to make decisions, but also a man seeking God and doing what this pope considers important: opening the doors of the church and seeking out Christ in the neighbours outside the church.”

The exact time and date of Bishop Smeets’ consecration remains to be announced.

Photo credit: Bisdom Roermond

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“Not the right time” – +Mutsaerts stays at home

Mgr. drs. R.G.L.M. Mutsaerts

Less than a week after his participation in the Synod of Bishops assembly on youth and vocation was confirmed by the Holy See, Bishop Rob Mutsaerts announces that he will not go. The auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch was the first choice of the bishops’ conference to take part in the three-week meeting in Rome as their delegate. As the brief statement from the bishops states:

“[Bishop Mutsaerts] informed Pope Francis that he does not think it is the right time to hold a synod on youth, considering the studies and the news about sexual abuse which came out in, among other places, America. He therefore chooses not to take part.”

The Dutch Bishops’ Conference respects the choice, but also states that the Synod is “a chance and an opportunity to address this in the context of the topic and discuss it with bishops from all countries of the world.”

The inability or – in this case – unwillingness of a chosen delegate to take part in the Synod has been foreseen in the preparations. In addition to one or more delegates, every bishops’ conference also chooses one or more substitutes to take over from a delegate if the need arises. The Dutch bishops have appointed Bishop Everard de Jong as subsistute for Bishop Mutsaerts, and the auxiliary bishop of Roermond will now travel to Rome instead.

de jong synod

For Bishop de Jong this will be the second Synod in which he takes part. In 2012 he participated in the Synod Assembly on the new evangelisation (first from left in the picture at right), where he emphasised the importance of the role of the Holy Spirit, proper spiritual formation and a courageous pro-life attitude

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New wave of abuse in the Church in the Netherlands? Not quite, but the need for vigilance remains

New revelations about sexual abuse, with the knowledge of a significant number of bishops no less, in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands? If certain headlines are to be believed, that is indeed the case. Reality, however, disagrees somewhat.

eindrapport%20commissie%20DeetmanIt all started with this article in major daily NRC. In it, reporter Joep Dohmen lists which bishops were in some way involved (peripherally or directly) in abuse cases between 18945 and 2010. At the bottom of his article he lists his sources, two of which are the report of the Deetman Commission and the commission collecting claims of abuse in the Church. Both are the result of the independent investigation which was commissioned by the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and the Conference of Dutch Religious in 2010. The third source is a study by NRC itself.

This, together with the dates mentioned, already shows that the news is not new. The majority of cases took place decades ago, and the 20 bishops listed by Mr. Dohmen are all no longer active (in fact, 14 of them are deceased). All of the cases mentioned have been known at least since 2011.

Having all the facts straight can only be good, and the article in NRC at least serves as a good reminder for the Church to keep working for the victims and to do everything to prevent future abuse of minors and vulnerable adults in the Church, and to see that the perpetrators are punished, if at all possible (after all, the law can do little against deceased persons, and is in many cases often limited by the statute of limitations). However, the NRC article has been labelled by some as populist. This in part because some of the facts presented are not necessarily the whole story. For example, the accusations against Bishop Jo Gijsen (bishop of Roermond from 1972 to 1993) have been challenged in court, with the judge determining that the evidence against the bishop was accepted all too readily and does not hold up in a court of law, and there are cases in which a bishop accepted the appointment of a bishop from another diocese without having been informed about his background.

That said, all of the above does not take anything away from the serious nature of sexual abuse, be it in the Church or elsewhere. No longer does any bishop have the excuse of claiming he couldn’t have known, or resort to simply transferring an abusive priest. Any bishop caught doing that should rightly be charged with aiding an abuser, and be punished accordingly.

However, this is the luxury of hindsight. As former spokesman of the bishops’ conference Jan-Willem Wits states in his excellent commentary on the article, such was the simple and painful reality:

“What I personally do not believe, and yet somehow read in the NRC pieces, is that bishops were a sort of leaders of a virtual criminal organisation which consciously closed its eyes to priests who could not control themselves. Of course the fear of a damaged reputation will have played its part, but I have seen a lot of shame and a lot of naivety. Especially the transferring of priests with abuse in their genes has, in hindsight, been unbelievably stupid and actually unforgivable. Now we know that the chance of recidivism is so very great that, even with therapy, let along after apologies and confession, it is only a matter of time for the bomb to blow.”

Hindsight is 20/20, they say. No one can change the past. But it can – and must – be a lesson. Lets hope that the lesson is being received.

In deep shame, remembering what is good – Bishop de Korte urges “joyful faith” in “days of crisis”

downloadFollowing his earlier comments on the latest revelations about past abuse in the Catholic Church, and in light of the impact this has had on Catholics, also in the Netherlands, Bishop Gerard de Korte has written a letter to the faithful of his diocese. But its message is just as pertinent for Catholics in other dioceses and even other countries.

Without wanting to diminish the suffering of the victims – the bishop describes how he has personally been in touch with a number of them – the letter reminds the reader of what is being done today to fight abuse, despite the failures of the past, and asks to remember of the good the Church still offers. It is good to remember, in my opinion, that there is no distinction between ‘the Church’ and the faithful in the pews. They – we – are the Church, and Bishop de Korte’s letter must be read in that light, so that it does not become a bishop’s call to not leave him and his priests, but an invitation to work together as God’s Church in the world.

“Brothers and sisters,

In the past weeks our Church has frequently been negatively in the news. There was the news about sexual abuse of minors in the United States. And on the highest level of our Church our good pope is accused of not having responded adequately to signs of abuse.

Altogether, the recent news reports are for many cause for pain and sadness. Several victims of sexual abuse who have I have spoken with in the past, have contacted me and told me that their pain is resurfacing because of the news. More than a few faithful in the parish are experiencing sadness with so many negative reports.

In recent history, religious, priests and bishops have been unfaithful to their vocation. They have committed crimes and seriously damaged the lives of people. Their behaviour did not bring people to God, but, in many cases, tested or even extinguished the faith in the hearts of people. This is a reason for deep shame.

In the Netherlands, the sexual abuse of minors was revealed in 2010. From that moment on, the Dutch bishops have been intensively involved in ding justice to the victims of the abuse. They have done their utmost, and will continue to do so, to purify and renew the Church.

All the recommendations of the Deetman commission, which investigated the sexual abuse of minors in our Church, have been followed. A great number of measures have been taken recognise victims and, at the same time, to prevent new victims being made. Of course, constant vigilance is needed, but I am strongly convinced that our Church in the Netherlands is a safer place than it was in the past, especially also for children and young people.

In these days of crisis our bond with the Church is being tested. May I ask you, especially now that it is difficult, to remain faithful? Now that we are going through an exceptionally difficult time for the Church, no one can be missed.

There are countless good things happening in the faith communities of our parishes. Things that can give us courage and hope. I think of celebrating God’s love together, as made visible in Jesus Christ. I’ll also mention all kinds of activities in the fields of communicating the faith and catechesis. And in the last place I gladly emphasise all sorts of charity and other forms of service, within and without the parishes. I think not only of the care for the elderly and the lonely, but also of efforts towards peace, justice and the maintenance of God’s creation.

The Church of our country and most especially of our own Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch only has a future if many take the faith of their baptism seriously.

In these dark days, let us stay close to Christ and His Gospel, also by being close to all who are struggling. In these times we need Catholics who, despite everything, live their faith joyfully.

Thank you to all the faithful, priests, deacons, pastoral workers and all other baptised who form their faith in loyal perseverance.

Let us, inspired by the Holy Spirit, make our friendship with Christ visible in today’s world.

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte”
Photo credit: ANP / Ramon Mangold

After McCarrick, Viganò and Francis, Dutch bishops comment

It took some time for the Dutch bishops to comment on what I have seen being called ‘the summer of scandal’: the revelation of past abuse and cover-ups in dioceses in Pennsylvania, accusations of similar cover-ups as far as the Vatican and the pope himself, and the silence that remains a too-frequently employed answer. Of course, as none of the developments involves the Catholic Church in the Netherlands in particular, and considering that we have been through a coupe of years of revelations and their fallout in recent years, it is in some way understandable that the bishops have kept their silence. After all, what else could they say that they haven’t been saying already? On the other hand, the abuse and accusations have been making headlines, also in Dutch media, and as Pope Francis remains highly popular inside and outside the Church, faithful in the Netherlands have been looking for answers and explanations, even if they are the same as those given a coupe of years ago.

bisschop-de-korteBishop Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch was the first to comment directly on the letter by Archbishop Viganò and the steps taken by Pope Francis to combat sexual abuse and to promote openness in the Church concerning that issue. Last week he stated for Nieuwsuur:

“I think the debate is about how to deal with bishops who have consciously kept things secret and are guilty of abuse themselves. Bishop obviously can’t do that themselves. Someone above them, in this case the pope, must take those measures.”

Bishop de Korte admitted that it would be good if the pope displayed more decisiveness:

“He has already done some in a number of cases. But he could perhaps do a bit more. And I also think that many Catholics hope that he will do so in the near future.”

jan_hendriksIn his blog, Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary of Haarlem-Amsterdam, shares his thoughts about recent developments, following his summer vacation pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Francis de Sales. Describing the cases of former Cardinal McCarrick and the testimony of  Archbishop Viganò, the bishop states:

“It is clear that I am not able to judge this and that is not my task anyway. I condemn every form of sexual abuse: justice must be done to victims, who have been done great harm by people who, as clerics, must stand for a completely different morality. We must continue making clear that we want to and must stand on the side of the victims. Obviously, this is not only true for people who have been the victim of the actions of representatives of the Catholic Church, but thought must also be given to proper procedures for people who have been the victim of abuse in youth care, families, schools or other parts of society. In that regards the Catholic Church is a clearly definable worldwide ‘organisation’ and things work differently for sport clubs, youth movements, schools or youth care.”

Bishop Hendriks continues by emphasising that recent investigations in both the Netherlands and the United States have revealed few abuse cases from recent years. Most were committed decades ago. This, the bishop says, could be due to improved procedures to fight abuse and help victims in the Church. He also adds that, in his experience, the reactions to accusations of abuse are sometimes exaggerated, leading to acceptance of accusations which turn out to not always be true.

“Personally, I see an advantage in clear procedures – also for the judging of abuse of office by bishops – which can establish a proper and public jurisprudence. A bishop who systematically fails to uphold celibacy, can not remain in office. How else can he proclaim the ‘Gospel of the family’?

In closing, Bishop Hendriks looks to the future, saying:

“We must expect that the topic of abuse will demand our attention for years to come. Country by country, abuse in the Catholic Church will have to be dealt with, and we haven’t gone through to all countries yet… I hope and pray that it may lead to something good, in any case to a greater awareness of the problem of sexual abuse an a more adequate means to preventing abuse, fighting and condemning it and supporting the victims.”

Delegate to the Synod – Bishops choose their man

Mgr. drs. R.G.L.M. MutsaertsThe current holder of the youth portfolio, as well as his predecessor, in the Dutch Bishops’ Conference have, as expected, been chosen as delegate and substitute to October’s Synod of Bishops on youth and vocation. Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, was chosen by his fellow bishops in the spring, and the Synod secretariat has now confirmed it. That confirmation also means that we may soon see a first list of delegates, although, it being summer, the publication could also take a few more weeks. One name on that list will be that of the Belgian delegate, Bishop Jean Kockerols, auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels and former vice-president of COMECE.

Should Bishop Mutsaerts be unable to attend, his place will be taken by Bishop Everard de Jong, auxiliary bishop of Roermond, who held the youth portfolio before Bishop Mutsaerts.

Like most bishops’ conferences, the Dutch and Belgian bishops can both send a single delegate. Larger conferences, such as the German one, can choose more delegates.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

 

835 years after his death, Saint Hathebrand comes home

It may not look like it today, but the northern part of what is now the Netherlands, especially the provinces of Groningen and Fryslân, were once a monastic heartland. Much of the land reclaimed from the sea was the result of the work by monks or promoted by them. They established massive monastic complexes, of which the town of Aduard is perhaps among the best known.

One of the monasteries was Oldeklooster (which simply means ‘old monastery’) near the village of Feldwerd, near the shores of the Dollard sea arm. This was established by a man named Hathebrand (although the second ‘h’ in his name is sometimes omitted). Hathebrand’s monastery housed both male and female religious and, after a difficult first start, which, the story goes, even included one or more attempts on the life of its founder, the monastery flourished. Hathebrand went on to establish two more monasteries: Merehusen in East Frisia (now northwest Germany) and Thesinge or Germania in the vicinity of the city of Groningen. According to monastic records, Hathebrand died on 30 July 1183.

In 1594 the fortunes of the monasteries turned. The city of Groningen, which controlled much of the lands surrounding it, fell to the forces of the Dutch republic and quickly became Protestant. The Catholic faith became illegal and the monasteries fell empty. Over time, they turned into ruins which were later demolished. In the countryside of Groningen, there is very little that remains of the once ubiquitous religious foundations.

The remains of Hathebrand, by then deemed a saint, were moved to the Catholic south, ending up in Antwerp. While the north forgot about him, in what is now Belgium he was venerated as a saint and helper in need.  The Belgian town of Mortsel still has a street named after him. The relics of Saint Hathebrand found a final resting place in the church of Kortrijk-Dutsel. And there the story ends. Until recently.

In the words of reporter Reinder Smith, writing for RTV Noord:

“He had stopped hoping. Edze de Boer from Uithuizermeeden is almost 92 years old, and has been looking for Saint Hathebrand for more than fifty years. Last March he received a letter from the parish council of Kortrijk-Dutsel.

[…]

“De Boer was born in Katmis near Holwierde and knew from his youth the stories that there had been a monastery on this dwelling mound. He started to study the history, and so learned that the physical remains of Hathebrand had ended up in Belgium.”

[…]

“Former teacher De Boer had already visited [Kortrijk-Dutsel] in 2002, but the relic could not be found then. But the board of the church of St. Catherine kept looking and after 16 years a small chest appeared from the back of a closet, with in it, among other things, a part of the bones of St. Hathebrand.”

Today, those few remains returned home. Not to Hathebrand’s monastery, which is long gone, but to the dwelling mound of Feldwerd, and then to the church of Krewerd, for a public presentation, including a look back on Mr. de Boer’s search for the long-lost saint, medieval organ music, an address on the rediscovery of the saints following the restoration of medieval churches and the related study of medieval church interiors, and a brief word by Catholic priest Fr. Arjen Jellema.

Saint Hathebrand’s return is a temporary one, however. After a brief visit to his native lands, Hathebrand will return to Belgium.