Looking ahead at the Amazon Synod, Bishop Bode hints at married priests

bode_purpur_240In a recent interview for a documentary broadcast on Monday in Germany, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück seemed rather ahead of events. The documentary discussed the future of the Church when there is a shortage of priests, and Bishop Bode spoke about the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, scheduled for next year. One of the expectations for that Synod is that it will discuss the option of ordaining married men to the priesthood, as the shortage of priests is also a problem in the Amazon, where settlements are often few and far between, and faithful sometimes have to make do with one Mass per year. Ordaining married men would, the supporters of the idea, say, alleviate that problem, as it makes more men available for ordination. If there will actually be more men presenting themselves at seminaries remains a good question, though.

What that idea in mind, Bishop Bode said that, if the Synod would decide in favour of ordaining married men, the German bishops would also ask for that option to be implemented in Germany. “If it is possible in principle,” he explained, “it should also be in situations where the need is different.”

The Catholic Church maintains that priests should live celibate lives. That is obviously incompatible with marriage, although married priests do exist in the Catholic Church. Usually these are former Protestant ministers who converted and later became priests. These are exceptions which take into account the specific situation of these men. The Church is not going to say they are no longer beholden to the obligations of marriage when she recognises the validity of their vocations to the priesthood. She takes marriage serious enough to prevent that. In such cases the Church is able to allow a dispensation from the law on celibacy, since it is not a divine law. Currently, she does so on a case-by-case basis, so there is no general law allowing dispensation from the obligation of priests to live celibate lives.

What Bishop Bode is hoping the Synod on the Amazon will allow is exactly such a general law, and he is not wrong when he says that if it can be done for a diocese in Brazil, it should also for one in Germany. But will it truly solve the problem? Maybe the bishop knows of throngs of married men wishing they could be priests, but I somehow doubt it. I think that the shortage of priests is tied to the shortage of active faithful and the lacking visibility of the Church. Bishops are struggling to counter these trends by merging parishes and giving parish priests responsibility for wide swathes of territory, but that is merely fighting the symptoms. The heart of the problem lies in clear teaching, visible charity and honest devotion. In the end, men must be attracted to the priesthood because of these, and not by the problems that will arise if they do not come.

 


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“Gaudete et exsultate” – A summary and some reflections on Chapter 1

Pope-Francis-writing-740x493As is characteristic of Pope Francis, his latest document, the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, is not “a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification”. Instead, the Holy Father has the practicality of daily life in mind: he simply wants to repropose the call to holiness “for our own time”.

In this post I will take a look at the first chapter of this new document. I will try to add some thoughts and connections of my own, as well as provide a summary for those who haven’t gotten around to reading the whole thing yet. I haven’t either, so what you read here very much is a collection of first impressions.

The first paragraph of the exhortation emphasises that the call to holiness lies at the heart of being a Christian. Too often it seems as if Christianity is just a system of rules and regulations, but, Pope Francis reminds us, “[The Lord] wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence,” for He created us for true life and happiness. That is the goal of following Christ. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI in paragraph 21, Pope Francis writes, “holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full.”

Holiness is not something to be achieved alone. On the contrary, there are countless numbers of saints that lead by example. They “may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord,” the Pope writes. In paragraph 5, he reminds us of a recent change he made to the reasons why a person can be declared to be a blessed or saint: when “a life is constantly offered for others, even until death”. The processes of beatification and canonisation recognise the heroic virtues, which people in the past, but also “our own mothers, grandmothers or other loved ones” consistently display to inspire and guide us on the path to holiness.

And holiness is not just a goal on the horizon, distant or otherwise. In paragraph 7, Pope Francis speaks of “the middle class of holiness”: parents, people who work hard for their loved ones, for the sick, our next-door neighbours who display God’s presence among us. It is these people who make real history.

Holiness also unites, especially when we look at the martyrs. People are persecuted or killed for their Christian faith, and the persecutors make no distinction between Catholics, Orthodox or Protestants. Theirs is a ecumenism of blood.

But these are just some factual statements, important as they may be. In Gaudete et exsultate, Pope Francis “would like to insist primarily on the call to holiness that the Lord addresses to each of us, the call that he also addresses, personally, to you: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44; cf. 1 Pet 1:16). The Exhortation should, then, be read as a personal letter to all of us. Paragraphs 14 to 18, under the header “For you too”, are essential reading in this regard. Each has their own way of achieving holiness, and while examples are good and helpful, they are not meant to simply be copied, “for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us.” We are tasked to find our own path, our own vocation in life, because that is what is attainable for us.

In paragraph 12, the Holy Father stresses the “genius of women” which is “seen in feminine styles of holiness”. While listing a number of important female saints, he returns again to the “middle class”: “all those unknown or forgotten women who, each in her own way, sustained and transformed families and communities by the power of their witness.”

Holiness, or the attempt at achieving it, is essential to the mission of a Christian in the world. That mission, which each of us has, is “to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.”

But what is that holiness, then? Pope Francis offers a deceptively simple answer: “[H]oliness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him. But it can also entail reproducing in our own lives various aspects of Jesus’ earthly life: his hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love.” We can incorporate these mysteries in our lives by contemplating them, he writes, quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola.

It is important to recall that saints, which we are called to be, are not perfect human beings. After all, only God is perfect. “Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect.” That is why we must look at “the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person”. We must also look at the totality of our own lives, not just dwell on individual mistakes or successes. Pope Francis encourages us to always listen to the Holy Spirit and the signs He gives us; we should ask in prayer what Jesus expects from us at every moment and for every decision we make.

Holiness requires an openness to God. “Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit,” we read in paragraph 24. If we don’t, our mission to speak the message of Jesus that God wants us to communicate to the world by our lives will fail.

Our striving for holiness is intimately connected to Christ. We must work with Him to build His Kingdom: this is thus a communal effort. We cannot seek one thing while avoiding another. “Everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission,” the Pope writes in paragraph 26.

What are the sort of activities that can help us on the path to holiness, then? As each path is different, it is impossible to provide a simple list, but the Holy Father does give some directions: “Anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead to holiness.” We must be committed, so that everything we do has evangelical meaning. But that “does not mean ignoring the need for moments of quiet, solitude and silence before God. Quite the contrary.” We live in a world of distractions, a world not filled with joy, but with discontent (the social media world is certainly no stranger to that). In moments of silence we are able to open ourselves to God, which, as we have read, is a prerequisite for starting on our path to holiness.

Paragraph 31 summarises the above well: “We need a spirit of holiness capable of filling both our solitude and our service, our personal life and our evangelizing efforts, so that every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing love in the Lord’s eyes. In this way, every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to growth in holiness.”

But that path can also be scary, as it seems to take us away from what is familiar. In paragraph 32, Pope Francis echoes a quote from Pope Benedict XVI, who said, “Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything.” Pope Francis writes the same about holiness: “Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.” This, as I have written above, is the heart of being a Christian: the path to holiness leads us to becoming the fullest version of ourselves.

In this first chapter, Pope Francis establishes that this is a personal letter to each of us. It explains that holiness lies at the heart of being a Christian, and that it precludes neither the contemplative nor the active sides of life: we should never choose one over the other, but both are required. With this text he also emphasises his own focus on spirituality: Christianity is a faith with its roots in the muck of daily life. Holiness is not something high and unattainable, no, it can become visible in the most mediocre things. Holiness has a middle class of hard work which is at least as important as the first class of theology and contemplation. I found the various references to the fullness of life which God has created us for especially striking. I think it is a beautiful invitation to find our own path to holiness and follow Christ every day.

I will look at Chapter 2 in the near future.


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The thin line of hope – After Syria, Bishop Bonny reflects on Easter

In February, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp visited Syria. Visiting Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, he saw firsthand the destruction wrougth by years of war and also the incessant work of the churches to help the people caught in the middle. For Easter, he looks back on his journey:

Verwoestingen in Oost-Aleppo (2)

I took the photo above in Syria, in the destroyed eastern part of Aleppo. What do you see? A background and a foreground. Two opposed images. In the background only destruction: no doors, no windows, no roofs, no transport, no life. The bombardments and fighting was exceptionally heavy in the final months of 2016. All means were employed, even chemical weapons. Until all the houses and streets were destroyed and all inhabitants had left. But, in the foreground, there is a red round water tank, which the government has recently placed there. A truck comes to fill it every day. Next to the water tank there are four children. They come to collect water in recycled plastic bottles. They will bring it to their mother, somewhere in the ruins. They are two opposite images. The dead stones and the living water. The ruins and the children. An between them: the thin line of hope.

What is Easter about? About death and life. And about the thin line of hope.

The background of Easter is dark and cold. Jesus was nailed to the cross and has died. Friends placed his dead body in a tomb. The disciples have lost all faith and hope. For can anything good come from a grave? What they have gone through with Jesus will fade to memory. Leaving seems their only option. How many people today do not have those feelings! They look out over ruins or a tomb. Little is left of their former joy or friendship. Life of fate has hit them hard. The injustice or irreversibility of what has happened to them weighs heavily. The stone has covered the entrance of the tomb.

But, the foreground of Easter is different. It happens in the early hours. At dawn, the women go to the tomb. They see that the stone is rolled away The tomb is empty.

Jesus is not dead, He lives! He is not gone, He has risen!

Jesus has begun a new story. We celebrate that divine event at Easter. As a sign of Jesus’ resurrection we light the paschal candle and bless the waters of baptism. New Christians are baptised with that water in the Easter vigil. The priest also sprinkles the faithful with that water, not a little, but generously. Water belongs to Easter: fresh water, as a first sign of new life and hope. Are there ruins to clear in your life?

Do you fear the future? At Easter, let yourself by sprinkled with newly blessed baptismal water!

The fresh splash does good. It startled. It breaks through resignation. It makes barren ground soft and fertile.

The photo from Aleppo is my photo for Easter. I had it enlarged and it now stands on my desk. It is not a nice photo. No plus Easter bunny or yellow chick. No pretty creation or decoration. It is reality. When I bless the baptismal water at Easter and sprinkle the faithful with it, I will think of the red round water tank in Aleppo and the children next to it.

Hope does not begin again in a grand scale. Hope beings again small.

Hope begins again where we can collect fresh water to live on. Does that clear the ruins? Does it ensure the future? Not immediately and not by itself. But life is given a new opportunity. We can begin a new story. The thin line of hope appears again.

In the Easter Gospel the women are the first to arrive at the empty tomb. There, they are immediately given a task from the angel: “Go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you” (Mark 16:7). What lies in the heart of Galilee? Not a water tank, but a big lake full of water and fish. There Jesus awaits His disciples, as the Risen Lord.

There they can begin anew, with Him, as “fishers of men”.

What is my wish for you for Easter? That you may find the ‘living water’ and that you may share it, even if with a recycled bottle, like the children in the photo.

Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again – Blessed Easter!

easter resurrection
“When the sabbath was over,
Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome
bought spices so that they might go and anoint him.
Very early when the sun had risen,
on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb.
They were saying to one another,
“Who will roll back the stone for us
from the entrance to the tomb?”
When they looked up,
they saw that the stone had been rolled back;
it was very large.
On entering the tomb they saw a young man
sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe,
and they were utterly amazed.
He said to them, “Do not be amazed!
You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified.
He has been raised; he is not here.
Behold the place where they laid him.
But go and tell his disciples and Peter,
‘He is going before you to Galilee;
there you will see him, as he told you.'””

Mark 16:1-7

Is the Pope’s fight against sexual abuse in the Church slipping away from him?

There has been an in-flight wedding, a preview on next year’s Synod of Bishops assembly on the Amazon and encounters with the peripheries of Church and society, but Pope Francis’ ongoing visit to Chile and Peru has been marred by an apparent slacking off in the fight against sexual abuse in the Church. Some have even claimed that we are back at square one.

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At the end of a meeting with survivors of sexual abuse in Iquique on 18 January, the Holy Father was asked about the case of Bishop Juan Barros. The bishop of Osorno, appointed by Pope Francis in 2015, continues to be accused of having been aware of  the abuse perpetrated by Fr. Fernando Karadima in the 1980s. Survivor groups, as well as lay faithful in the Diocese of Osorno and other Chilean dioceses, have consistently called for Bishop Barros not to be appointed (or, now that he has been, to be removed). During the papal visit, protesters continued to make their voices heard. Following the private meeting with abuse survivors, in which the pope talked, prayed and wept with them, he commented on the Barros case, “The day I’m presented with proof against Bishop Barros, I will see. There’s not a single proof against him, it’s all a calumny. Is that clear?”

This harsh comment has been almost universally condemned, not least by some of the pope’s closest collaborators in the fight against sexual abuse. Marie Collins, former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, tweeted on 20 January ,referring to Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean survivor of sexual abuse:

“In labelling [Juan Carlos Cruz] and his fellow Chilean survivors as guilty of slander the Pope has alligned himself with Cardinals Ezzati and Errazuriz, who, in an exchange of derogatory e-mails in 2015, conspired to block [Juan Carlos Cruz from] consideration for membership of the [Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors].”

42212019_401By claiming all accusations against Bishop Barros as slander or calumny, Pope Francis has indeed taking a major step back in how the Church relates to victims. Rather than listening to what they have to say, they are being silenced and ignored. Of course, this is what the Church has until recently been guilty of doing for decades, and what many parts of society still do to this day, when confronted with accusations of abuse. While it seems as yet unclear what role Bishop Barros may have played, the claims against Fr. Karadima at least are reliable. Karadima’s case was dismissed by the courts because the statute of limitations had expired, but the allegations were deemed nonetheless credible. The Vatican sentenced Fr. Karadima to a live of penance and prayer in 2011.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is headed by Cardinal Séan O’Malley. The archbishop of Boston also released comments about what the pope had said, saying:

“It is understandable that Pope Francis’ statements yesterday in Santiago, Chile were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator. Words that convey the message “if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed” abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile.”

Cardinal_OMalley1Very strong words condemning what Pope Francis said. The cardinal then continues his comments by underlining the Holy Father’s commitment to fighting clerical sexual abuse:

“Accompanying the Holy Father at numerous meetings with survivors I have witnessed his pain of knowing the depth and breadth of the wounds inflicted on those who were abused and that the process of recovery can take a lifetime. The Pope’s statements that there is no place in the life of the Church for those who would abuse children and that we must adhere to zero tolerance for these crimes are genuine and they are his commitment.”

There is an odd contrast here, between the pope’s apparent commitment to fighting abuse and the comment he made. That contrast is strengthened further by the continuing silence surrounding the new mandates of the members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. These were up for renewal over the course of last year (some in March, others in December), but no word has yet come out. In essence, the Commission now exists in a sort of limbo.

With the creation of the Commission, Pope Francis was off to a good start in this matter. For the first time, survivors had a say in how the Church should respond. Of course, that has since changed. New members were added, but two survivors chose to leave the Commission. In March it’ll be four years since its establishment, and that is too soon for the Commission to be forgotten, ignored or otherwise becoming irrelevant. Its work is too important.

Hopefully, these two developments, the pope’s accusation of calumny and the silence surrounding the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors are simply hiccups, and the commitment of the Catholic Church to combat sexual abuse of minors under her responsibility will continue to grow.

Photo credit: [1] Reuters, [2] Reuters / A. Bianchi, [3] Flickr/George Martell-Pilot New Media

A little prayer for Christmas

prayerA little prayer I whipped up this morning for my wife to use in her school’s Christmas celebration. As it was to be prayed before (and, it is hoped, with) an audience of teens who are generally only vaguely familiar with the act of prayer and the Christian faith as a whole, I chose to focus mostly on human kindness and charity instead of more difficult theological concepts such as the Incarnation. Still, Christmas can’t exist without God, the Light of the world, the Word become flesh, so even when celebrating with people unfamiliar with such things, it is no good to be so general as to ignore that world-changing event.

And, yes, there are traces of the well-known prayer of St. Francis in there.

“Lord God,

We celebrate Christmas. In the darkest time of the year we celebrate that it became Light. That Light enlightens our world and ourselves.

We see that there is much that is wrong, that people do things that harm others and the world. We, too, sometimes make mistakes.

We celebrate Christmas. A new beginning. The child in the manger shows us that beginning. Now, at the start of the Christmas holidays, in which we will also begin a whole new year, we want to ask You to keep lighting our way. So that we can bring peace where there are fights and arguments, joy where there is sorrow, hope where people no longer know where to go, light in the darkness.

And when we may find ourselves in darkness, may we also encounter people of light.

We celebrate Christmas.

Amen.”

Breaking the seal of confession?

E03a-photo-e1480059351589A Belgian priest of the Diocese of Bruges is being sued for not acting on information shared with him in a confession. The case has the potential of becoming a precedent on how society and law deals with the seal of confession, as well as the professional secrecy as it exists in medical professions, and also highlights once more what confession actually is.

The case: a man confided in a confession over the telephone (which, under certain circumstances, such as immediate duress, can count as a confession) that he had suicidal thoughts. He later acted on those thoughts and ended his own life. The wife of the man now sues the priest for never having informed anyone of what he learned in the confession. The problem is that the priest couldn’t. The seal of confession is absolute. He could have urged the penitent to seek professional help, even offered forms of help himself, be it the help he could offer himself or relaying the help of others. But that is just about the end of it.

The paradox in this case is that suicide in itself, sad and disturbing as it is, is not a crime under Belgian law, so not acting on the suicidal thoughts of a person can not be considered cooperation in a crime, and the priest can’t be accused of negligence in that regard.

There is some uncertainty, however, if the confession in which the priest learned about the suicidal thoughts of the penitent actually was a confession. A confession, by definition, involves a sin which can be be forgiven. Suicidal thoughts are not in themselves a sin, especially since they are most often caused by factors, mental or otherwise, outside of a person’s control. All the same, the man could have been convinced that his thoughts were sinful, and this would be enough for a valid confession. But if that was not the case, the priest would have been free to offer his help or inform others, with the man’s consent, of the situation and the help needed.

Also, if the suicidal thoughts were shared in a confession of other sins, the seal of confession would obviously also apply: it affects the entirety of the confession, not just the sins, but also whatever pastoral advice or personal thoughts are being relayed. The priest in that case simply lacks the freedom to divulge what he learns. This protects the integrity and freedom of the sacrament and the penitent.

Confession is not just a pastoral conversation or personal meeting with a priest. According the Catholic teaching it is the intensely personal presentation of one’s wins to God, and asking His forgiveness. The priest who hears the conversations is not really a party in this: he is a tool to hear the confession and relay advice or penitence according to his own formation, inspiration and understanding, but these ultimately derive from God. Everyone must be free to stand before God and open themselves up to Him, which is why they must first be aware of the freedom to ask for and receive the sacrament of confession. In many cases this involves the certainty that what they share is shared in complete confidence, just like when one would share medical problems with their doctor. It is so intensely personal, and, quite frankly, completely a matter between man and God.

If the case outlined above included a true confession, the priest could do nothing else but keep the information to himself and do his best to convince the man to seek and accept help. He had no freedom to ask others for that help on the man’s behalf, as this would involve breaking the seal of confession. But, as publicist Mark Van de Voorde writes here, “in cases of great evil which fall under criminal law, such as sexual abuse and murder, the penitence also includes that the perpetrator must report himself to the police. Every confessor is obliged to point this out to the penitent, stating that forgiveness of sins is not possible otherwise.” A priest is not completely powerless before a penitent unwilling to seek help.

It will be interesting to see what the judge rules in this case. If the priest is convicted it will set a precedent for any future case involving the sacrament of confession as well as doctor-patient confidentiality and information shared confidentially shared with one’s lawyer. All are protected under Belgian law (as they are in many other European countries).