Prayer, charity and the sacraments – Bishop Hoogmarten’s letter for Lent

In his letter for Lent, published on 27 February, Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt outlines the main ingredients for a fruitful Lent: prayer, charity and the sacraments (especially the sacrament of Confession (which is certainly not limited to general celebrations)).

11-Mgr-Hoogmartens“Dear brothers and sisters,

On 1 March it will be Ash Wednesday. That day’s liturgy reminds us that we – with our qualities and flaws – are all mortal people. We will be invited to reflect on our finiteness: “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return”. The liturgy also provides another formula for the imposition of the ashes: “Repent and believe in the Gospel”. Lent is indeed a time of repentance and internalisation, and a special time of sharing and solidarity. Lent must become a time of strength. With this letter I want to invite and urge you to this.

In the first place, Lent asks us to focus on prayer. For many people today, that is not easy. And yet, many are looking for the inner peace that can only be received through prayer, and so from God. Of course the liturgical assembly is also an important form of prayer: there, we pray with others out of the rich tradition of the Church. But for a Christian, personal prayer is also very important. That can be done by praying a simple prayer, or by reflecting on a few psalms, like Jesus did. Praying can also be done without words, in front of a candle or an icon, or by simply repeating, “Lord, have mercy”. A prayerful heart makes us – with the words of our theme for the year – not wanderers, but pilgrims.

Lent also requires us to have more attention for our love of our neighbour. It can’t be that a Christian would only say, “Lord, Lord” and not concern himself with his neighbour, the sick or people with problems around him. Lent asks us to live more soberly and have an eye for people in need or poverty. The Lenten campaign Broederlijk Delen helps us to realise that concern on a worldwide scale.  But at the same time that wider world is also very close. As Christians we – even more than others – should dare to contact the stranger in our neighbourhood. Wasn’t the great Moses of the burning bush a stranger himself once, looking for a new country out of Egypt? Originally, the entire people of God were a people on the run.

Lent also invites us to greater loyalty to the sacraments in which we are reborn. For lent, I especially invite you to join in faith in the celebration of the Eucharist, that is with a heart for all the gestures, words and prayers which bring us together there. A faithful participation in a penitantial service is also part of the experience of Lent. At the World Youth Days – like last summer in Krakow – I noticed that this service especially touches young people. It is certainly useful to take part in a penitential service at the end of Lent, in a general confession somewhere in your federation or deanery. It opens for us the path to God’s mery. Without that – as Pope Francis taught us in the Year of Mercy – we can not live as Christians and as Church.

Dear brothers and sisters, I gladly wish you a good Lent. He teaches us to first seek the Kingdom and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33). Everything else will be given to us.

Wishing you a blessed Lent.

+ Patrick Hoogmartens, bishop of Hasselt”

False truth – Cardinal Burke’s non-banishment to Guam

c4xamg0xaaa0zi6I am rather surprised that articles like this one, which explains why American Cardinal Raymond Burke has been dispatched to the Pacific island of Guam, are even necessary. The cardinal has of course been on the receiving end of much criticism because of his outspoken orthodoxy, his questions regarding the writings of Pope Francis and of course his part in the dubia published by him and three other cardinals. But, although some of his critics would like to pretend it to be true, his recent departure for Guam is nothing like a Stalinesque banishment to Siberia.

Reality is far different. As one of the Church’s highest-raking experts on legal matters (he was Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura from 2008 to 2014), he is on a two-week mission to lead the investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse against Archbishop Anthony Apuron of Agaña, the archdiocese covering all of Guam. Cardinal Burke has not been given any permanent appointment in the archdiocese, so he is in no way being sent far away from Rome and the Holy Father (besides, his frequent travels assure he’s probably rarely at home). Agaña doesn’t need any new appointments in the wake of the allegations against Archbishop Apuron anyway: in June of last year all his duties were taken over by Archbishop Savio HonTai-Fai, the Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of People, who now serves as Apostolic Administrator of the archdiocese; and in October erstwhile auxiliary Bishop Michael Byrnes of Detroit was appointed as Coadjutor Archbishop, undoubtedly set to succeed Archbishop Apuron once most of the dust has settled, partly by the efforts of Cardinal Burke.

Disagreeing with Cardinal Burke is one thing (and I don’t think his approach is the right one in all matters), misrepresenting the truth is another. Guam can be a testcase of how the Church under Pope Francis deals accusations of sexual abuse against a high-raking prelate, and a necessary one too. Our personal opinions and need to mock must take backseat to that.

Photo credit: Junno Arocho Esteves (@arochoju) on Twitter.

God and our freedom according to Jesus Sirach

Today’s first reading at Mass summarises, for me, quite clearly the esteem God has for our freedom. The text comes from the Old Testament book of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus.

“If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;
if you trust in God, you too shall live;
he has set before you fire and water
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.
Immense is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power, and all-seeing.
The eyes of God are on those who fear him;
he understands man’s every deed.
No one does he command to act unjustly,
to none does he give license to sin.”

Sir 15:15-20

While the text does not shy away from emphasising the consequences of (not) trusting in God, it does not claim that God demands that trust. God created man as a being with full freedom, including the freedom to choose his own path: “whichever he chooses shall be given him”. This freedom also influences how we should treat other people, especially people who have made different choices than we have. We can’t force anyone to adopt our choices.

But there is a catch: refraining from imposing our choices on others does not mean  that all choices are equal or equally good for people. The passage from Sirach also reminds us that God is aware of us and knows what we need, what is best for us. He does not say that anyone is free to act unjustly or to sin. While anyone is free to be unjust or to sin, these choices are not by definition good ones. God’s wisdom and care for us should inform our process of deciding what to do.

As in many other occasions, God is like a parent to us. A good parent respects their child’s freedom, even encourages the development of their capacity to think and act for themselves. But at the same time a parent knows what is best for their child, and while their well-informed and carefully made choices must be respected, because they are the choices of free human beings, a parent will sometimes advise against them. In those cases, it is good to include our parents’ advice in our choosing.

It is no different with God. He knows us, understands why we do what we do, but His wisdom is also immense. It is good to listen to what he has to say to us about justice and sin, and take it seriously. After all, how free are we if we don’t have all the information we need?

Not only fishers, but also fish

“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

fishers-of-menA line from today’s Gospel reading (Matt. 4:12-23), and a very familiar one at that. Jesus comes to the shores of the Sea of Galilee at the very beginning of His public life, and calls local fishermen to follow Him. He promises the first two of them, Simon and Andrew, that they will no longer catch fish, but people.

In today’s liturgy, this Gospel passage is coupled with the Old Testament text from Isaiah (8:23-9:3), which is quoted in Matthew’s Gospel. The prophet writes, “upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom / a light has shone”.

Whereas regular fishermen remove their prey from the latter’s proper environment, thus condemning them to death, the fishers of men are obviously not tasked to do so: rather than take them out of the environment they live in, with the conditions necessary for living, a fisher of men promises something greater. To quote Isaiah again: “You have brought them abundant joy / and great rejoicing”.

Jesus’ call to His followers to become fishers of men can also be read as a call to all of us. If we want to follow Him, we must and will also fish for people, taking them out a “land of gloom” and bring them to “abundant joy” and “great rejoicing”. But what if we can’t? What if we find ourselves stuck in situations which form a land of gloom for us? We may try our best to follow Christ, but we all know that that does not mean we have no obstacles on our path, no problems, difficulties, even tragedy.

Maybe we sometimes find ourselves to be the fish in need of a net to lift us up, instead of the fisherman looking for people to help. Hopefully there are fishermen around us to help their fellow fishermen up when we need it.

Necessary clarification- of Amoris laetitia or of Tradition?

I am becoming increasingly convinced that Amoris laetitia itself does not need a clarification, but the Tradition in a way does. It is much like what Cardinal Müller has long been saying: the Apostolic Exhortation must be read in the context of the entire Tradition of the Church. Without the Biblical foundation, as well as the various interpretations, declarations and conclusions drawn by scholars and Popes over the centuries, Amoris laetitia, and especially the leeway it seems to create for people living in irregular situations to receive the sacraments (and especially Holy Communion), is bound to be interpreted incorrectly. And it is, as judged by the various and differing, even opposing, policies drawn up by bishops and conferences on the basis of what they read in it.

Just yesterday, the two bishops of Malta, one of them a canon lawyer, wrote that people who feel at peace with God, despite living in objectively irregular situations, can not be denied Communion. Other bishops, for example those of Poland, have been consistently saying that they can not. Four cardinals asked for clarification about Amoris laetitia and earlier papal documents about marriage and family, citing the existence of obvious confusion regarding their implementation and magisterial status. They have still received no answer, and it is clearly very unlikely that they will ever receive one. Perhaps Pope Francis believes that Amoris laetitia is clear enough – if it is read correctly, ie., as Cardinal Müller has been saying, within the context of the Tradition. If a bishop or bishops’ conference does that, there need not be any questions about the status or validity of earlier magisterial documents by previous Popes.

But instead of documents, bishops first look at people, and that is understandable and right. They have a mission to care for their faithful, and the law is ever at the service of the people and the faith. But is is a necessary service, not one that should be done away with in difficult circumstances. For the understanding and interpretation of magisterial teachings, of which Amoris laetitia is one, knowledge of what came before is indispensable. Not to safeguard the law for itself, but to be able to add to the string of signposts leading to God. A single signpost on a long road with many crossings and side roads is useless. There should always be more, if only to show us if we are still on the right track after a while.

There are always exceptions to rules, because life – and faith too – is too big to be caught on paper. Jesus also had an eye for that. He came to fulfill the law, and not to change on iota (Matthew 5:18-19), but always reached out to those who failed in keeping those laws. That is also our mission as Christians: to uphold the law, but stand with people who did or could not keep it, regardless of their reasons. Amoris laetitia does just that: it upholds the law because it is part of Tradition, and it invites us to stand with people who failed. And that is where we can always grow and develop more: not in changing laws, but in creatively helping people. Perhaps the hardest task. But also the most Christian.

Hopes and realities – Bishop Bode’s Communion utopia

bode_purpur_240Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück has been making some minor headlines with his comments about opening up the reception of the sacrament of Holy Communion to non-Catholic spouses of Catholic faithful. In an article by the Evangelischer Pressedienst, his words are reflected thus:

“The Catholic bishop of Osnabrück, Franz Josef Bode, is hoping for an approach towards a joint Last Supper by Catholic and Lutheran spouses. It is a personal concern for him “to find on our part a resolution for marriages of different confessions”, Bode tells epd. Many Protestants have in fact received Communion with their Catholic spouses. “We must give a foundation to what we often already have in practice.”

He considers it “no utopia”, that joint Communion could be achieved in this specific case in 2017, the bishop claims. The Eucharist or Holy Communion is a sacrament in the Catholic Church, of which only members can partake. In the Lutheran church all the faithful are invited to the Last Supper.”

Nice as the bishop’s hopes are, reality is more problematic. There are reasons that the Catholic Church teaches that only Catholics, and ones in a state of grace at that, can receive Communion. It is not just a matter of feelings, emotions, or belonging. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has plenty to say about the Eucharist and Communion (in paragraphs 1322 to 1419), but a quote from St. Justin, mentioned in paragraph 1355, indicates the problem in this particular case:

“No one may take part in [the Eucharist] unless he believes that what we teach is true, has received baptism for the forgiveness of sins and new birth, and lives in keeping with what Christ taught”.

The Eucharist is a reality outside ourselves, and Christ gives Himself in it to draw us into that – His – reality. He asks, needs, our willingness to do that, for we are created with the freedom and dignity to make our own choices. If we come forward to receive Him, we must be willing to confess our faith in the reality of the Eucharist, which the Church safeguards and teaches, and to be a part of the community of followers of Christ that He established and invited to follow Him: the Church.

If we belong to a community which does not (or not completely) confess that faith, or which has removed itself from the Church, these are obstacles that prevent us from receiving Communion. It would be a lie to ourselves and those around us, and – significantly – to God. The fact that our husband or wife is Catholic changes nothing about that. Instead of receiving Communion as non-Catholics, we should first move towards a common understanding of what Communion is and a shared membership in that community into which Christ invites us.

Practice does not dictate teaching. It can influence it, shed new light on it, lead to a better understanding of it, but something is not automatically allowed or good because everyone is doing it. If that were the case, Christ would have no reason to become man among us. Bishop Bode’s hope could be realised by affirming the foundation of our practice (or lack thereof), not by affirming the practice by giving it a foundation.

2016, a look back

Another year nears its end, the seventh of this blog, which is always a good opportunity to look back, especially at what has appeared here in the blog over the course of 2016. I have grouped things loosely in various categories, so as to give an impression of cohesion.

francisPope Francis at work

In Rome, and despite turning 80 this year, Pope Francis kept up the pace, introducing several changes, expected and unexpected. First, in January, he issued a decree which opened the rite of foot washing on Maundy Thursday also for women. I reflected on it here.

On Ash Wednesday, the Holy Father sent out 1,000 missionaries of mercy, among them 13 Dutch priests, as part of the ongoing Holy Year of Mercy.

Pope Francis commented on the question of female deacons, which led to much debate, at least in Catholic social media. I also shared my thoughts.

A smaller debate revolved around an instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, approved by the Pope, about Christian burial.

The reform of the Curia also continued, first with the creation of the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life and the appoinment of Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell as its first prefect; and then with the creation of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, for which the Pope picked Cardinal Peter Turkson as head.

Cardinals of St. LouisPope Francis also added to the College of Cardinals, as he called his third consistory, choosing seventeen new cardinals from all over the world.

Towards the end of the year, and following the end of the Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter about the absolution from the sin of abortion, a faculty now extended to all priests.

The Pope abroad

Pope Francis made several visits abroad this year. To Cuba and Mexico, to Greece, to Armenia, to Poland, to Georgia and Azerbaijan, but the last one received the most attention here. For two days, Pope Francis put ecumenism in the spotlight during his visit to Sweden. Announced in January as a one-day visit, a second day was added in June. In October, the Nordic bishops previewed the visit in a pastoral letter, which I published in English.

The abuse crisis

Still here, and unlikely to go completely away in the next years or decades, the abuse crisis continues to haunt the Church. in February there were shocked reactions to comments made by a prelate during a conference on how bishops should handle abuse allegations. I tried to add some context here. In the Netherlands there was indignation when it became clear that a significant number of abuse cases settled out of court included a secrecy clause, preventing victims from speaking negatively about the Church institutions under whose care they suffered abuse. In April, the annual statistics of abuse cases processed and compensation paid out were released.

Amoris laetitia

In April Amoris laetitia was released, the Post-Synodal Exhortation that was the fruit of the two Synod of Bishops assemblies on the family. Cardinal Eijk, the Dutch delegate to the assemblies, offered his initial thoughts about the document, followed by many other bishops.

4cardinalsWhile the document was broadly lauded, an ambuguous footnote led to much discussion. In November, four cardinals publised a list of dubia they presented to the Pope, but which received no answer. Citing the clear uncertainty about certain parts of Amoris laetitia, visible in the wide range of conclusions drawn, the cardinals respectfully asked for clarification, which they will most likely not be getting, at least not in the standard way.

The local churches

There were many more and varied events in local churches in the Netherlands and beyond. Theirs is a very general category, aiming to showcase some of the more important and interesting developments in 2016.

In January, the Belgian bishops elected then-Archbishop Jozef De Kesel as their new president. At the same time, Cardinal Wim Eijk announced that he would not be available for a second term as president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference. In June, Bishop Hans van den Hende was chosen to succeed him.

bisschop HurkmansBishop Antoon Hurkmans retired as Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and in January he sent his final message to the faithful of his diocese, asking for unity with the new bishop. In April, rumours started floating that the bishops had suggested Bishop Hurkmans as new rector of the Church of the Frisians in Rome.

The Dioceses of Rotterdam and Groningen-Leeuwarden celebrated the 60th anniversary of their establishment.

On Schiermonnikoog, the Cistercian monks, formerly of Sion Abbey, found a location for their new monastery.

The Dutch and Belgian bishops announced a new translation of the Lord’s Prayera new translation of the Lord’s Prayer, to be introduced on the first Sunday of Advent.

church-498525_960_720A photograph of the cathedral of Groningen-Leeuwarden started appearing across the globe as a stock photo in articles about the Catholic Church. It continues to do so, as I saw it appear, some time last week, in an advert for a concert by a Dutch singer.

Speaking in Lourdes in May, Roermond’s Bishop Frans Wiertz spoke open-heartedly about his deteriorating Eyesight.

In June, Fr. Hermann Scheipers passed away. The 102-year-old priest was the last survivor of Dachau concentration camp’s priest barracks.

In that same month, the nestor of the Dutch bishops marked the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. Bishop Huub Ernst is 99 and currently the sixth-oldest bishop in the world.

In Belgium, the new Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels closed down the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles, erected by his predecessor, to the surprise of many.

Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt received a personal message and blessing from Pope Francis on the occasion of the 18th Coronation Feasts held in Hasselt in the summer.

willibrordprocessie%202014%2006%20img_9175The annual procession in honour of St. Willibrord in Utrecht was criticised this year after the archbishop chose to limit its ecumenical aspect. I shared some thoughts here.

In Norway, Trondheim completed and consecrated a new cathedral. English Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was sent to represent the Holy Father at the event.

The retired archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, André-Joseph Léonard, was heard from again when a new book featured his thoughts about never having been made a cardinal, unlike his immediate predecessors and, it turned out at about the time of the book’s publication, is successor.

At the end of the year, Berlin was hit by terrorism as a truck plowed through a Christmas market, killing 12 and wounding numerous others. Archbishop Heiner Koch offered a poetic reflection.

The Dutch Church abroad

In foreign media, the Catholic Church in the Netherlands also made a few headlines.

naamloosIn September, Cardinal Eijk was invited to speak at the annual assembly of the Canadian bishops, sharing his experiences and thoughts concerning the legalisation of assisted suicide. In the wake of that meeting, he also floated the idea that the Pope could write an encyclical on the errors of gender ideology.

in Rome, 2,000 Dutch pilgrims were met by Pope Francis, who spoke to them about being channels of mercy.

The new Dutch translation of the Our Father also sparked fears in some quarters that the bishops were leading everyone into heresy, leading to many faithful revolting against the new text. The truth was somewhat less exciting.

Equally overexcited was the report of empty parishes and starving priests in the Netherlands. I provided some necessary details here.

In Dutch

While my blog is written in English, there have also been three blog posts in Dutch. All three were translations of texts which were especially interesting or important. The first was my translation of the joint declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, an important milestone in ecumenical relations between the Catholic and the Russian Orthodox Churches.

IMG_7842Then there was the headline-making address by Cardinal Robert Sarah at the Sacra Liturgia Conference in London, in which the cardinal invited priests to start celebrating ad orientem again. But the text contained much more than that, and remains well worth reading.

Lastly, I provided translations of all the papal addresses and homilies during the Holy Father’s visit to Sweden. I kept the post at the top of the blog for a while, as a reflection of its importance for Dutch-speaking Christians as well.

A thank you

Twice in 2016 I asked my readers to contribute financially to the blog. In both instances several of you came through, using the PayPal button in the sidebar to donate. My gratitude to you remains.

2016 in appointments

Obituary

As every year, there is also death. Notewrothy this year were the following:

  • 26 March: Bishop Andreas Sol, 100, Bishop emeritus of Amboina.
  • 31 March: Georges-Marie-Martin Cardinal Cottier, 93, Cardinal-Priest of Santi Domenico e Sisto, Pro-Theologian emeritus of the Prefecture of the Papal Household.
  • 16 May: Giovanni Cardinal Coppa, 90, Cardinal-Deacon of San Lino, Apostolic Nuncio emeritus to the Czech Republic.
  • 26 May: Loris Cardinal Capovilla, 100, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Archbishop-Prelate emeritus of Loreto.
  • 9 July: Silvano Cardinal Piovanelli, 92, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria della Grazie a Via Trionfale, Archbishop emeritus of Firenze.
  • 2 August: Franciszek Cardinal Macharski, 89, Cardinal-Priest of San Giovanni a Porta Latina, Archbishop emeritus of Kraków.
  • 18 August: Bishop Jan Van Cauwelaert, 102, Bishop emeritus of Inongo.
  • 13 November: Bishop Aloysius Zichem, 83, Bishop emeritus of Paramaribo.
  • 21 November: Bishop Maximilian Ziegelbauer, 93, Auxiliary Bishop emeritus of Augsburg.
  • 14 December: Paulo Cardinal Arns, Cardinal-Priest of Sant’Antonio da Padova in Via Tuscolana, Archbishop emeritus of São Paulo, Protopriest of the College of Cardinals.