Remembering Baptism – Archbishop Schick’s Letter for Lent

schickIt’s time again for bishops writing their faithful on the occasion of the season of Lent. I will share a selection of these letters here over the coming weeks. First of is Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg, who writes about Lent as the season of preparation for Baptism, or, as in the case of many faithful, a remembrance of our Baptism.

“Oh Blessedness of being baptised”

Dear sisters and brothers!

In the liturgical year, Lent is the time in which the “joy of the Gospel” is to be renewed. We are invited to engage deeper into the imitation of Jesus. We will experience anew: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

The year 2015 will be celebrated as a “Year of Orders”. Pope Francis has set it is a “Year of the Vocation to Religious Life”. Additionally, in the Archdiocese of Bamberg we celebrate 1,000 years of religious life among us since the establishment of the Benedictine monastery on the Michaelsberg in the year 1015. In this year we will get to know above all the orders and other religious communities better, consider religious life, express our appreciation for the religious Christians and pray for and promote vocations for them.

But this can only be meaningful and successful when we strengthen the meaning and feeling of the vocation and consecration of all Christians. Not just the religious and the priests, but all Christians are called by Jesus Christ and consecrated by the Baptism of God. In the second reading from the First Letter of Peter we have heard: “It is the baptism corresponding to this water which saves you now — not the washing off of physical dirt but the pledge of a good conscience given to God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has entered heaven and is at God’s right hand, with angels, ruling forces and powers subject to him” (1 Pet. 3:21-22).

I have been baptised and consecrated to God

All Christians are consecrated to God through Jesus Christ, who in Baptism gave us a clear conscience and has inextricably linked us to Himself; in HIM, the Risen One, we have “life in full”, here in faith, hope and love, there in unending joy with all who are saved. All baptised are also called to cooperate in building the Kingdom of God, “the saving justice, the peace and the joy” (cf. Rom. 14:17). Pope Francis expressed this as follows: “This offering of self to God regards every Christian, because we are all consecrated to him in Baptism. We are all called to offer ourselves to the Father with Jesus and like Jesus, making a generous gift of our life, in the family, at work, in service to the Church, in works of mercy.”

Ik would ask you to think about your calling to Baptism and the consecration to God through Baptism in the time of Lent that lies before us.

Above all, Lent, the time of penance before Easter is in the Church dedicated to immediate preparation of the catechumens, who will receive the sacrament of Baptism at Easter. With the catechumens, those who have already been baptised will experience anew the gratitude and joy of their Baptism. In the Easter night, then, all baptised are called to solemnly renew their baptismal promises, a burning candle in their hand. Before all individual callings in the Church, who all have in common “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, over all, through all and within all” (cf. Eph. 4:5-6).

Baptism as a gift and a task

We are Christians since Jesus Christ has given us his irrevocable yes. It was His initiative – not of our making – to call us into his “wonderful communion”. In Baptism we say our yes to this calling and are consecrated to God.

Almost all of us were baptised as small children. Our parents and godparents spoke the yes of our Baptism on our behalf. This has been common in the Church, the family of Jesus Christ, since the beginning. Like the parents give their children everything what is important to themselves and what they consider valuable for life from the start, they also let their children receive the divine gift of Baptism immediately after birth. Over the course of life every Christian, independently and on their own responsibility, will then discover their calling to Christian life ever deeper and confirm his consecration to God. Our being Christians is never complete. Ever deeper we will “grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth” of God’s love for us (cf. Eph. 3:18-19). We will express this love ever more in our daily life through active love of God and neighbour. That is what are invited to do in every Lent.

Considering the baptismal promises

Dear sisters and brothers!

Baptism effects our belonging to Jesus Christ, our following and becoming similar to Him. At the beginning of Lent 2015 I would cordially invite you to think about your calling of Baptism and your consecration to God through Baptism. Suggestions for “remembering Baptism” can be found in our Gotteslob, n. 576. In the coming weeks, read the baptismal promises. Speak about your Baptism in your family and among your friends, in the parish council, youth group, society and seniors’ club. Ask yourself what it means for you to be called by and baptised in Jesus Christ. Read – or even better sing – the hymns in Gotteslob: “Ich bin getauft und Gott geweiht” (GL 491) or: „Fest soll mein Taufbund immer stehen” (GL 870). Think about what it means to answer the question “Do you believe?” every time with “I believe” and “Do you renounce?” with “I renounce”! A good confession should be a part of Lent: it can encourage the joy of being a Christian. The sacrament of Penance is called a “second Baptism” by theologians. It renews the grace of Baptism as it frees one from sin and makes a new start in one’s Christian life; put differently: the sacrament of Penance renews the vocation of following Christ and the consecration to God.

We Christians need more self-awareness, which makes us humble and modest, like true Christians. We find this self-awareness in the living encounter with Jesus Christ, who, through Baptism, “called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light”. This allows us to work zealously and firmly for the propagation of faith and to cooperate in the building of the Kingdom of God. Thus prepared, we can join joyfully in the celebration of Easter and renew our baptismal promises.

Baptism – Life in the Church

Baptism is always a calling to the Church, to a life in the mystical Body of Christ and to walking with the people of God towards Heaven. We can also better serve one another in the community of Christians with the gifts that each has received, and which also have an effect on the community. For that we regularly need spiritual support; the most important of which is the Sunday Eucharist. When attended the Eucharist is not possible, we should come together in a celebration of the Word of God or a prayer service, in which we hear God’s Word, pray and sing together. In our pastoral plan “Den Aufbruch wafen – heute!” from 2005 everything relevant for the celebration of the Eucharist is outlined on the pages 52 to 54. The daily morning, evening and table prayers are connected to the Eucharist. These should all be a matter of course for us. It is also important that we show ourselves publicly, in word and action, as Christians. That strengthens us and helps maintaining Christian standards and values in our society. The spirit of Jesus Christ is  indispensable for a good future and a good working relationship between us and the world.

 Blessed Lent

Dear brothers and sisters!

I wish you a blessed lent in the “Year of Orders” and in the “Year of the Vocation to Religious Life”. May the time of penance before Lent help us increase the joy of our Baptism, the joy of the community with Jesus Christ and the Gospel, the joy of the Church and the cooperation in the Kingdom of God. Pope Francis writes to us: “During the season of Lent, the Church issues two important invitations: to have a greater awareness of the redemptive work of Christ; and to live out one’s Baptism with deeper commitment.” Let us accept this double invitation.

May the good God therefore bless you, the + Father and the + Son and the + Holy Spirit.

Your Archbishop,

Dr. Ludwig Schick

Going green – Christians and the environment

VATICAN-RELIGION-POPE-CANONISATIONBefore summer we may expect Pope Francis’ second encyclical, and its topic will be the environment. For some reason the prospect of a green encyclical has a some Catholics all riled up. Apparently, it is not something the Church should be overly concerned with.

I do notice that this subject is quite politicised, especially in the United States, which is where most of the criticism comes from. It is a left-wing or liberal pet subject, it’s true, and that side of the political spectrum quite often clashes with Catholic faith, to be fair.

But concern for the environment is, in fact, quite Christian. Pope Francis touched upon the subject in his homily this morning, when he said:

It is our response to the ‘first creation’ of God. It is our responsibility! A Christian that does not care for creation, that does not make it grow, is a Christian who doesn’t care about the work of God; that work born from the love of God for us. And this is the first answer to the first creation: to care for Creation, to make it grow.”

The creation story in Genesis, which prompted the Holy Father to make these comments, is the clearest indication of our relation to the world we live in. Not as independent agents, even parasites, whose only effect on the natural world is destruction, as some would have it, but as integral parts of it with a clear duty.

God created us and the world we live in. These are not separate things. Humanity has a role to play in the world: we are to be stewards of it. A good steward is not afraid to use the world around him, but does so with responsibility, in the knowledge that, like him, his world is also a creation of God. He is not the master of it, but he has been given a duty, as we my deduce from Genesis chapter 1, verses 28 and 29:

“God blessed them, saying to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all the living creatures that move on earth.”

God also said, ‘Look, to you I give all the seed-bearing plants everywhere on the surface of the earth, and all the trees with seed-bearing fruit; this will be your food.””

There is no debate about man’s use of the world around him. Considering the human influence parasitic and undesirable  is therefore incompatible with Christian teaching. But looking at the larger context of creation as being a product of God given to man for his benefit, we must develop a responsibility. God’s creation is not ours to destroy or give back. It is for us to use and maintain.

In that context environmentalism is a thoroughly Christian concern, and it is no stranger a topic for an encyclical than, say, faith, charity, hope or love.

Paul and Francis – a selective reading of two Popes

Paul-VIIn this month’s edition of our diocesan magazine I came across an odd statement: Pope Francis has freed the Church from the strict doctrines regarding human sexuality and procreation as laid down by Pope Paul VI (pictured) in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. The same Pope Francis who has beatified Paul VI and repeatedly called him a courageous prophet, exactly for Humanae Vitae

Where do these claims come from? It isn’t the first time I’ve come across similar statements. Pope Francis is undoubtedly a people’s person, even more so than Saint John Paul II was, I suspect. But Pope Francis is also Catholic, and is unafraid of underlining even the unpopular teachings: he is staunchly opposed to abortion and euthanasia, continuously speaks of the dangers of sin and the devil, and, like I said above, is fully in line with the teachings of Blessed Pope Paul VI.

It is risky business to isolate Popes from one another. Humanae Vitae does not show us the full person of Paul VI, and today’s General Audiences don’t tell us everything about Francis. Both those parts of their teaching and person are important, but if we do not look any further, we run the risk of making such faulty and misleading statements as the one that opened this blog post.

In the case of Pope Francis, let his open personality be an invitiation to find out more about him and thus about the faith. His appreciation for Paul VI should likewise be reason to read Humanae Vitae anew. The papacy is no popularity contest, and nor does it revolve around superficial niceties. It is a teaching office, and sometimes that teaching reaches across the years, decades and centuries. And sometimes it is expanded or we look at it from a new perspective. In the case of Paul VI and Humanae Vitae, it is more than policy, more than old-fashioned opinions that need correcting. On the contrary, as Pope Francis has said, it is prophetic.

After Verviers, some thoughts about our relations with Muslims

L_ordinazione_episcopale_di_Jean_Pierre_Delville_vescovo_di_Liegi_11The fear of terrorism and the danger of returning Jihadists from Syria and Iraq seems to be slowly creeping northward, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Yesterday, Belgian police prevented a terrorist attack on police officers and installation in the town of Verviers, southwest of Liège, which saw several arrests made and two suspected terrorists killed. As chance would have it, the Bishop of Liège, Jean-Pierre Delville, was in Verviers as the police operation took place. Yesterday, he gave the following statement.

“The incident took place when I was visiting the mosque on the Rue de Hodimont in Verviers. The friendship shown by the Muslim community of Hodimont sharply contrasts with the aggression of those who betray Islam with their blind violence. War only leads to war. Only dialogue and encounter can lead to peace.”

It almost seems more than coincidental that Msgr. Delville was visiting a mosque, of all places, at that time. But it does put him in the perfect place to comment on how this terrorism also affects Muslim communities.

The reactions in Catholic circles on the increased fear of terrorism and the recent attacks, as far as I have seen in social media, is varied. Most reactions make a distinction between terror and Islam, but there are also those who link the two, considering violence an inherent element of Islam. I wouldn’t know that,as I am not overly familiar with that religion, but I can understand these sentiments as the violence and terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam is very visible these days. But that does not mean that those sentiments are correct. Following the Charlie Hebdo attack, I was struck by how quick many Muslims, including religious leaders, were to condemn it. We are on the same side against the evil that causes people to kill and destroy.

Islam is still something many in the west look upon warily. It is not something that is native to western Europe, and we don’t know a lot about it, in general. But what we do think to know and see, frightens us. Understandable as this is, it is not what we are asked to do as Christians. We are asked to follow the example of Jesus, who went to meet the people who did not share His teaching (or at least not yet).

There are those who do not like it when bishops visit mosques, as Msgr. Delville did, and to me it often seems as if they are afraid that he will come out “contaminated”, or that it is construed as an approval of Islam.

As Christians we do not share the faith of Muslims. Jesus did not share the thoughts and practices of the Pharisees, scribes and tax collectors, even condemned them, but he sat down and debated with them all the same. We must do the same: share what we have in common (and we do have things in common with Muslims) and meet the people and so allow them to meet Jesus through us.

This year’s saint – St. Dominic Savio

Like last year, I used Jennifer Fulwiler’s Saint’s Name Generator to select a patron saint for the blog for 2015. Last year St. Raymond of Peñafort,  the Dominican canonist from the 13th century, was randomly selected for me, and tis year I was given an entirely different saint: a 14-year-old boy from 19th century Italy.

SA010101On reading the life story of St. Dominic Savio one might be excused for thinking he is a Goody Two-Shoes, doing all the right things, respectful, pious, kind to the extreme and wise beyond his years. But when we are dealing with saints we are always invited to look beyond first impressions. And in this case we have the testimony of another saint, Saint John Bosco, who wrote a biography on his young pupil, to help us. And here we learn that St. Dominic Savio not only led an exemplary holy life – the reason for his canonisation in 1954 – but avoided becoming insufferable.

What does the life and example of St. Dominic Savio mean for a blogger? Perhaps that a life of prayer, the path to holiness that we are all called to, lies at the root of our Christian life. After all, in this way we feed our relationship with Christ, and although we may not advance along it as fast as St. Dominic Savio did, it can give is increasing certainty and faith in the Lord. And in that way we grow ever more towards our fulfillment as human beings, as God intended it when He created us.

That is why St. Dominic Savio has a place in the left side bar of this blog this year, as a reminder that we are nothing without Christ in our hearts.

The eyes of the Virgin

our_lady_of_guadalupe_4x6Today the Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of the Americas and celebrated there extensively today. The story of her image (pictured) on the tilma of St. Juan Diego, to whom she appeared in Mexico in 1531, is amazing enough (I recommend reading up on it), but personally I find the story of her eyes simply astounding.

It is said (although we should be careful with things that are “being said”) that the eyes of the image are in many aspects alive, even contracting under the influence of light (!). But the eyes also feature reflections.

eyesMost visible, even with the naked eye, is what looks to be the image of a bearded man. Other images are exceedingly tiny and, in the photos (one such at right) I’ve seen of them on the Internet, I can’t make much of them. But it is said that a total of thirteen people are reflected in the Virgin’s eyes, representing the people present when St. Juan Diego showed the miraculous image on his mantle to the bishop of Mexico at the time, Juan de Zumárraga.

Devotion and enthusiasm are good things, but they can influence objectivity, leading to wishful thinking. I don’t know if the eyes of Our Lady of Guadalupe indeed feature an astounding account of what happened on that day in 1531. The image itself seems amazing enough, both in materials used and in its history since the 16th century. So I am also not saying her eyes do not reflect anything. God has been known to achieve even more miraculous things, after all.

The story is a wonderful one, that much is certain. The scientific truths found are less clear (there is an awful lot of “it is being said that…” in the story), but they certainly point towards appealing possibilities.

In defense of the Middle Ages – not all violence, all the time…

In an article on the website of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts writes a piece about the barbaric acts perpetrated by ISIS in the Middle East, and he rightly condemns them. But we should not be too hasty in calling them medieval, although media and entertainment tend to do so (the bishop quotes actor Ving Rhames’ character from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, who warned he would get medieval on someone, to illustrate the use of the term medieval in movies!).

“I would IS returned to medieval values. A thousand years ago the Muslim world was a civilised one in which Islamic society was ahead of Christian Europe in medicine, science and astronomy, while Europe in turn was very civilised compared to the extremism and barbarism now going on in Syria. Certainly, there were fanatical splinter groups, but these never lasted long or were simply removed in the New World.”

Behaviour that we consider barbaric or uncivilised has more to do with the time of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Bishop Mutsaerts lists Inquisition, Puritanism, the Watergeuzen who tortured and killed the Holy Martyrs of Gorcum, Henry VIII who had his enemies decapitated, and witch trials. And it is exactly this period which laid much of the foundations of our own modern society. When seen like this, maybe the acts of ISIS aren’t too alien to us…

middle ages violence^The Middle Ages: not always like this…

And although modern science and education in Europe originated in the medieval Church, this Church was not immune to the new barbarism of later centuries, as Bishop Mutsaerts writes, “Copernicus was not persecuted in the 16th century, but Galileo in the 17th was…”

“We shouldn’t romanticise the Middle Ages or imagine them as a time of pastoral simplicity, courtliness and banquets (something that my hero Chesterton is somewhat inclined to). But to call modern despicable acts as “medieval” is misguided. It is more like a historical hangover from the Renaissance and the era of the Enlightenment. And it is fairly arrogant, considering the world in which we live now and the horrible events of the last century. What we consider uncivilised or barbaric should better be called “Baroque”, or perhaps even better “twentieth century”.

The Middle Ages, both in Europa and the Middle East, are a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. It is far richer, and also so very much different, than many imagine.