The black veil of the queen

Yesterday the Dutch royal couple, King Willem Alexander and Queen Máxima, together with their three daughters, had a private audience with Pope Francis. Details of the 15-minute meeting remain confidential and it is said that the king requested no photos be published of it. But one photo did emerge today via L’Osservatore Romano, a standard picture of the royal family posing with the Holy Father (who seemingly continues to fail in hiding his lack of enthusiasm for such staged photographs).

Pope Francis meets with royal Dutch family

Almost every single media report of the meeting I have read mentions the fact that Queen Máxima wears a black veil because she is the wife of a non-Catholic monarch, and were he Catholic, she would have the right to wear white in the presence of the Pope. But that is not true.

The privilège du blanc is accorded to a number of Catholic queens and princesses (and one duchess) who can choose to exercise this privilege (they are not bound by it). All other royal and noble ladies, and other heads of state, are expected to hold to the protocol of wearing a long black dress with sleeves and a high collar and a black mantilla (although other colours are on the increase in addition to black, but etiquette dictates the above). The privilege is granted by the Pope to specific royal families on his discretion. He last did so in 2013, when the Holy See press office confirmed that Monaco’s Princess Charlene was within her right to wear white in accordance with the privilege, which was never before accorded to Monegasque princesses.

Currently there are only seven ladies who can make use of the privilège du blanc: Queen Sofia of Spain, Queen Paola of the Belgians, Grand Duchess Maria Teresa of Luxembourg, Princess Charlene of Monaco, Queen Mathilde of the Belgians, Queen Letizia of Spain and Princess Marina of Naples. The list used to be longer, and included the empress of Austria-Hungary, the queens of Bavaria, France, Italy, Poland and Portugal, the grand duchess of Lithuania and several German princesses. Many of these states, all traditionally Catholic,  have since become republics and the privilège du blanc does not extend to presidents, prime ministers or their wives.

So the Dutch queen wearing black is not simply due the fact that her husband happens to be a Protestant.

Photo credit: EPA/OSSERVATORE ROMANO

An ‘existential document’- Cardinal Eijk present Amoris laetitia

Per the request of Pope Francis, bishops’ conferences everywhere officially presented his Post-Synodal Exhortation Amoris laetitia today. In the Netherlands, Cardinal Wim Eijk, president of the conference and two-time participant in the Synod of Bishops assemblies that are now concluded with this document, did the local honours here. Below is my translation of his remarks:

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^Cardinal Eijk with Patrizia, Massimo and Davide Paloni at the presentation of Amoris laetita this afternoon. The cardinal attended both Synod assemblies, and the Paloni’s, including little Davide, participated in the second. (photo credit: KN/Jan Peeters)

“Today is an important day in the pontificate of Pope Francis. Today is the crowning moment of an extensive journey which he began soon after the start of his pontificate: a journey with the goal of starting a process of reflection in the Church regarding pastoral care in the fields of marriage and family. There are different reasons for that: the Christian vision on marriage and family is understood, accepted and practised less and less in a world which is getting increasingly secularised. This is manifested most clearly in the western world, where secularisation has advanced so much that in many places, and especially in western Europe, Christians have become a minority. But a secularisation trend is manifest everywhere in the world under the influence of social media, albeit not to the same extent in all places and in some parts of the world only in certain circles. Partly because of distrust towards institutions and the reluctance to make definitive choices for life, certainly in western Europe a minority of Catholics enters into sacramental marriage. In addition, there are fewer people who get married civilly and the choice for simply living together is generally made. On the other hand we see many people who have chosen marriage and get stuck in it and – often after a painful process for both – divorce.

The openness of marriage to receiving and raising children, as the teaching of the Church upholds on Biblical basis, is also no longer seen as an essential value of marriage. Other relationships than that between man and woman are increasingly treated as equivalent to marriage, either de facto or by law. Under the influence of gender theory, the differences between the genders are generally no longer traced to the biological differences between man and woman, but seen as a personal and autonomous choice.

The pressing question with all these developments is: how can the Church find ways of pastoral care and proclamation to present her teachings about marriage and family in such a way that it is understood better and reaches more people? Ways by which she can also help couples and families to live according to God’s intentions. In order to find answers to these questions Pope Francis started this aforementioned journey of reflection. This journey included two assemblies of the Synod of Bishops. An Extraordinary Assembly, in which the presidents of the bishops’ conferences of the entire world Church took part and which took place in October 2014. Subsequently an Ordinary Assembly took place in October of 2015, in which bishops who were selected by the conferences they belonged to took part. I attended the Extraordinary Synod in 2014 as president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference. In 2015 I attended the Ordinary Synod as elected representative of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference.

For both Synods, Pope Francis appointed a number of Synod fathers of his own choosing. He also invited married couples to witness of the way in which they put the Catholic vision of marriage and family into practice. He also invited a Dutch couple for the last Synod, Massimo and Patrizia Paloni. They attended with their youngest child, Davide. They will speak later.

It should be clear that this was a major journey, requiring a lot of work, when we realise that a preparatory document, the Lineamenta, was written for both Synods by the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. A worldwide consultation was held about it. Based on this a working instrument, an Instrumentum laboris, was created for both Synods. Both Synods recorded the result of their deliberations, each in their own final document. The final documents were the Synod fathers’ advice to the Pope.

Today we witness the conclusion of this major journey, with the publication of the so-called Post-Synodal Exhortation, with the title Amoris laetitia (The joy of love). In it Pope Francis presents his final conclusions about the Synod’s discussions. Regarding the journey’s length and the importance of the topic for the Church we can comfortably charactise the publication of this Post-Synodal Exhortation as a decisive moment in the pontificate of Pope Francis.

As before he surprised Church and world with this publication, in several ways. Personally, I had to re-arrange my agenda for this week to prepare this presentation of this document of 325 paragraphs and almost one hundred closely-printed pages. It will take some time before one has absorbed the complete and rich content. The Pope himself advises not to read the Exhortation hurriedly, but study it and take it in in peace.

Also surprising is the character of the document. I would qualify the Post-Synodal Exhortation as ‘a Church document with a notably existential character’. This is something we are used to with Pope Francis, you will say, but here, at least, it is even more notable than in his other publications. Of course in the first place Pope Francis presents the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church regarding marriage and family. He also devotes plenty of space to the difficulties that people experience in understanding, applying and upholding those teachings.

Pope Francis is aware that this does not always involve resistance to the teachings of the Church. The choice for a civil marriage alone or cohabitation alone is often not motivated by a rejection of Christian marriage, but also by cultural and contingent situations: prevailing distrust towards institutions in general, the difficulties many have in accepting a specific state of life and obligations for the rest of their lives, problems finding work, finding permanent employment or assuring themselves of an adequate income, because of which they consider marriage a “luxury” (n. 294).

Regarding so-called irregular situations, that is to say situations in which people are in a relationshop which is not, or not in all aspects, in accord with the demands of Church teachings, the Pope urges all who work in pastoral care to approach these people with great mercy. Without letting go of Church teachings or compromising them, but by accompanying and being close to these people with a lot of love and patience. People in irregular situations should not be excluded from Church activities, but be integrated as much as possible. It is essential, according to the Pope, that priests and others who work in marriage care try and make the best possible ‘discernment’. He understands this as the constant effort to illuminate the concrete reality of life, the situations and relationships in which people live, with the Word of God. And he also recommends that they look for the openness that may be present in people in irregular situations, to yet shape their relationship according the teachings of the Church.

The Exhortation has nine solid chapters. It is of course no surprise that Pope Francis describes the Biblical vision on marriage and family in the first chapter “in light of the Word”. In the second chapter he comprehensively discusses modern reality and the current challenges of the family. The Pope emphasises in Chapter III that amidst all modern difficulties for the family, we must look towards Jesus, who will fulfill God’s plan with us, and so (re)discover the vocation of the family. In short, this chapter present a summary of Church teachings regarding marriage and family. Chapter IV continues this line with an exposition on marital love, based on the canticle of love written by the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13:4-7; n. 90). In Chapter V, “Love made fruitful”, the Pope emphasises that conjugal love presumes an openness to new life. In Chapter VI, “Some pastoral perspectives”, the Pope discusses the need to find new ways for marriage and family care, limiting himself to several general starting points. He sees the development of more practical initiatives as a task for the various bishops’ conferences, parishes and communities. Chapter VII is about the raising of children and Chapter VIII about the accompaniment of fragile relationships. The final Chapter IX, about the spirituality of marriage and family, is emblematic for the existential character of the document, as it points out some ways to develop a solid faith life in the family, as well giving common and personal prayer an established place in it.

I want to address one other topic seperately, which has played a major role during both Synods, and this is the question of whether people who are divorced and civilly remarried can receive Communion. In the Post-Synodal Exhortation, Pope Francis addresses this topic in two places, but he does not speak of people who are divorced and civilly remarried, but more broadly about people who are divorced and live in a new relationship. These people, the Pope says, should not have the feeling that they are excommunicated (n. 243 and 199). It is important to emphasise that he is not saying anything new here. Excommunication is an ecclesiastical punishment which someone can legally incur automatically, which can be legally declared after having been incurred or which can be imposed by verdict after serious misbehaviour or crimes. The situations in which this happens are limited: they includes a limited number of situations, and the situation of people who are divorced and have begun a new relationship is not among these. But nowhere in the Exhortation does the Pope say that they can receive Communion. Regarding people who are divorced and in a new relationship, this means that the traditional praxis, that they can not receive Communion, and which was formulated as follows by Pope John Paul II in Familiaris consortio in 1981 remains current:

“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.” (n. 84)

In Chapter VIII of the Exhortation Pope Francis answers the question of what the Church could offer people in these situations, and says what has been mentioned above: people working in pastoral care must accompany these people and consider how they can be involved in the life of the Church as much as possible. It is important to realise here that God’s mercy is not only received by means of the sacraments, but also by listening to and reading the Word of God and through prayer.

As mentioned, this papal document has the title Amoris laetitia, the “joy of love”. It is our duty as Church to promote and protect that joy, convinced that that joy is beneficial for married couples and families as well as for us as society. It is therefore our duty to be close to married couples and families and accompany them according to our abilities with our prayer and pastoral care, especially when they carry the heavy and painful burden of a marriage or family life that is broken. With this Exhortation the Pope urges us to do so.

Pope Francis concludes his Exhortation with a prayer to the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph):

“Holy Family of Nazareth,
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.””

Looking ahead to Amoris laetitia

Today will see the publication of the long-awaited Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris laetitia, on love in the family. It will undoubtedly tackle all the hot-button topics discussed during and in between the two Synod of Bishops gatherings in 2014 and 2015: the question of divoreced and remarried faithful, certainly, but in the first place it will deal with the family and its role in society. As the title suggests, the starting point of Pope Francis’ tome will be love.

The text aims to collect and summarise all the disparate contributions from the Synod fathers and other participants from across the globe. Their thoughts and concerns vary with the places they come from, and what is a chief concern in Europe may be insignificant in Asia, or vice versa. The Exhortation will not and can not provide clear cut solutions that can be applied the same way in every country and community.

So what can we expect from Amoris laetitia? It will be in continuity with established Catholic doctrine. St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is said to have been a major influence. Pope Francis will not change any teachings about marriage, family and the sacraments, and this should be no surprise, really. The Holy Father has been quite clear on those topics. While doctrine will be featured in the text, it will play second fiddle to pastoral care. That is what drives Pope Francis and his ministry in the Church. While the two are equally needed and supplement one another, doctrine must be at the service of pastoral care: without the solid ground of doctrine, pastoral care is inherently dishonest and therefore the opposite of mercy (to link to the Holy Year of Mercy – it is no accident that Amoris laetitia sees the light of day in this year). This is the open Church that Pope Francis wants: a Church that goes out into the streets and gets dirty.

The Exhortation will be lengthy, and Pope Francis has drafted specific reading suggestions for the bishops of the world, as well as a guideline on how they should present the text, asking for press conferences to be called at noon, as the text becomes officially available. This already indicates that the real work of the Exhortation, after the Synods and the drafting, must take place in the dioceses and faith communities. Pastoral care, so emphasised by Pope Francis, has its home there, and from there it must find its way into society.

There will be criticism, in part fueled by the image people have of Pope Francis and his supposed agenda. Such motivation is nothing but a dead end: let’s read Amoris laetitia with an open mind, aware of its roots in the faith and teachings of the Catholic Church, in the person of Jesus Christ, and with an eye on the future and the world we live in. That is where we must make the faith bloom, through our families and our witness of the love that comes from the Lord, and reflects His divine and truine love.

Müller’s mission – What rules have got to do with it

His is an unenviable task. With the faithful inspired by a charismatic Pope to show and share God’s  mercy in their lives, Cardinal Gerhard Müller has to remind us of the less enticing but equally important parts of being a Catholic.

naamloosIn a recent interview, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith once more commented on the hot topic of whether divorced and remarried faithful can receive Communion, a topic that is as misunderstood as it is debated.

“The Pope continuously says that it is not about Holy Communion alone, but about the integration into the life of the Church, of which the final step in a  process of conversion and clarification can be Communion under the generally applicable conditions. A second marriage or second partner when the lawful spouse is still alive is, according to the Catholic interpretation of the words of Jesus, not possible. The Pope and all of us, however, absolutely want to avoid that people, also those in ambiguous marriage bonds, “drift away” from the Church as a salvific community. There are other – theologically valuable and legitimate – forms of participation in the life of the Church. Community with God and the Church does not solely consist of the physical reception of Holy Communion.”

Of course, these words have triggered much commentary, and a significant part of that commentary has been not only negative, but missing the point as well. Many wonder how this is merciful, or say that Jesus would allow divorced and remarried person to receive Him. The latter is quite presumptuous, while the former missunderstands what mercy is.

As Catholics we have the duty to be merciful to others, to open our hearts to the humanity of everyone, regardless of their situation. As Catholics we are also asked to listen to and make Christ’s words our own. Christ refused no one: he spoke and ate with the greatest sinners: from tax collectors to adulterers. In His mercy, which we are asked to make our own, he saw them as persons and listened to their stories, questions and concerns. He also taught them, admonished them when needed and invited them to follow Him, and said that he did not come to abolish the law, but to complete it (Matthew 5:17).

Law and mercy are equal parts of Christ’s message. We have frequently heard that mercy is the greatest of these, which means that it should play the greater role in our dealing with people. The objective law, however, remains as a collection of signposts along the way on which we follow Christ. It is one of the missions of the Church to maintain these signposts, and she has made it the primary task of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, currently headed by Cardinal Müller. That too is a mission of mercy, of which truth and honesty are integral parts.

The question of the indissolubility of marriage, of who can and can not receive Communion, are serious ones and need consideration beyond the emotional. In the pastoral situation on the ground mercy must be enacted towards everyone, but mercy is so much more than avoiding what’s difficult or seems unkind. It is no less merciful to clarify and explain than it is to open our doors to all.

Photo credit: dpa

Pope in the air – on understanding papal communication

Ah, the joy of papal in-flight press conferences. They are not his invention, but under Pope Francis they’ve become something both looked forward to and feared by many. His most recent one, on the return flight from Mexico, was no exception.

Vatican Pope Zika

When it comes to communication, Pope Francis’ preference seems to lie with the verbal variety. In conversations, homilies and speeches he relies on animation, vocal emphasis, gestures and spontaneous interjections to get his message across. This makes him a fascinating voice to listen to, but in writing, I find, he is more of a challenge. There are exceptions, such as his encyclicals Lumen Fidei and Laudato si’ or the Bull Misericordiae vultus, which are intended to be read rather than heard. But when we read his daily homilies, transcripts of interviews and speeches (certainly the ones he gives without preparation), something gets lost, something that is there in forms of communication other than speech.

Pope Francis commented on a variety of topics on his flight back to Rome last Thursday, including some which were bound to get journalists writing: sexual abuse, immigration, the meeting with Patriarch Kirill, politics (Mexican, Italian, American), abortion, divorce, forgiveness… And in a transcription, especially a translated one (such as here), we can see traces of the interjections but the non-verbal communication is completely absent, of course. And a significant part of the message is lost as a result. This is something to keep in mind when reading what the Pope has said.

Some commenters state that Popes do not issue authoritative magisterial teaching in airplane interviews, and they are right. But they are not right in automatically disregarding such interviews as meaningless for that reason. Pope Francis has not changed any part of the doctrine of the Catholic Church, and he never intended to. We should not read his comments as such. We should read (or, to get the full message, hear) them as an effort by the Holy Father to explain something, to teach about what the Church teaches and how she acts or speaks in certain situations or on certain topics.

It is important to also have this in the back of our heads when listening to the Pope in a press conference. The Pope does. His comments are made on the presumption that Church teaching is given. It is not made or changed in the interview, but underlies whatever is being said. And of course the comments can be debated, criticised, applauded or even ignored. They should, however, never be made out to be something they are not: doctrinal statements. The Pope has other channels for those.

Photo credit: Alessandro Di Meo/Pool Photo via AP

Discordant voice? Confusion about what bishops should do when confronted with abuse

Msgr. Tony Anatrella’s statement – “Bishops are not obliged in all cases to report allegations of sexual abuse to the authorities” – has led to shocked headlines and articles in the media. And it is not hard to see why. Isn’t this exactly what the Catholic Church has done in the past and what it continues to be accused of doing? Keeping the facts hidden to protect her own image? Well, yes and no.

AP3063773_LancioGrandeYes, it is true that image was often the first thing that needed protection, instead of the victims of an abusive priest, or so many in the Church thought and acted upon. And no, this is not really what Msgr. Anatrella, speaking at the regular course for new bishops in the Vatican (a previous meeting pictured), said.

He added something to the above statement: “It is up to the victims and their families to do so”. And that is true: the victim decides what should be done, not in the first place the bishop. If a victim, for example, wishes that no legal proceedings take place (and this has happened), a bishop can (and should) urge for the wisest course of action, but has to abide with the victim’s wishes. This is a consequence of the primary concern that needs to be given to this victim, a concern urged for by Pope Francis, his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and many prelates and bishops’ conferences.

As John Allen points out, Msgr. Anatrella’s speech could have been much better if it did not only focus on canon law and psychotherapy, but also on the interactions between Church and state authorities in these matters: what can and must a bishop do or not do when confronted with such terrible crimes against the dignity of a person? Not just with the means at his disposal as a shepherd in the Church, but also as a person living in a modern society.

And there lies the rub: in our modern western societies (at least most of them) reporting allegations to the police is the surest and safest way to see justice being done. In many countries this is not a given. Police forces and judicial systems are not always just and safe, but corrupt or tainted by political, social and religious ideologies which are not necessarily sympathetic to the Christian churches and faithful.

As Father Lombardi pointed out yesterday, Msgr. Anatrella said nothing new. And the fact that his statements were published as part of the proceedings of the entire course does not mean that there is a new Vatican policy on dealing with sexual abuse. But Msgr. Anatrella could have phrased things differently, emphasised the continuity of his statements with those of the Popes in recent years and suggested that, all things being equal, legal proceedings are a necessity towards justice, as long as the victim desires it.

Affairs like these do muddle the issue and give false impressions of the Church’s resolve to prevent the past from repeating itself. The will is there – as is clear from what Pope Francis and other prelates have said in multiple occasions – but the execution sometimes lacks. However, I do not expect any bishops to have come away from this course with the idea that they don’t have to act when someone approaches them with the terrible news that they have suffered abuse in the one place they should have been nothing but safe.

Photo credit: Vatican Radio

Sent out into the world for mercy

logoWednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent (yes, it’s almost Lent already), and in this Holy Year of Mercy it is also the day of another notable event: the day on which more than one thousand special “missionaries of mercy” are sent out by the Pope into the world, to manifest God’s mercy in a specific way, by their ability to forgive the most grave of sins, which are usually beholden to bishops or the Pope alone.

Earlier, we already learned that all priests in the world have been given to authority to forgive the sin of abortion (normally residing with the bishop, all Dutch priests have had this faculty already). Archbishop Rino Fisichella, who is the chief organiser of the events of the Holy Year, outlines the five sins which can only be forgiven by the special missionaries of mercy. These are:

  • Desecration of the Eucharist
  • Breaking the seal of confession
  • Consecrating a bishop without papal approval
  • Sexual contacts by a priest and the person he has those contacts with
  • Violent actions against the Pope

Of course, some of these are more likely to happen than others, but they all touch upon the core values of our faith and Church: the sanctity of sacraments, the unity of the Church and the seriousness of vows and promises. By making the forgiveness for such sins more easily available, Pope Francis wants to emphasise that, even in such serious matters, mercy comes first (with the caveat that true mercy always incorporates justice).

12647487_441962256013964_8703646690579720740_n13 priests from the Netherlands and 33 from Belgium (11 from Flanders, 22 from Wallonia) will be appointed as missionaries of mercy. One of the Dutch priests is Fr. Johannes van Voorst, of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam (one of seven from that diocese; the other six come from the Diocese of Roermond). Fr. Johannes (seen above offering Mass at St. Paul Outside the Walls today) will be going to Rome to receive his mandate, together with some 700 of his brother priests (the remaining 350 or so will receive their mandate at home). His adventures in Rome can be followed via his Facebook page, where he also posts in English.

After receiving their mission, the names of the missionaries will be made known, so that they can be at the disposal of the faithful in the country.