A civil war strikes close to home – On the death of Fr. Hamel

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After Brussels, Paris, Nice, Würzburg and München, all the news about new terrorist attacks is getting a bit much. Yesterday the name of another town was added to the list, although as places go, it does not exactly rank among the world’s major cities. But what happened in Saint-Étienne-de-Rouvray is a horror in a too-long list of horrors.

Father Jacques Hamel, 86, brutally murdered for, we can assume, the ‘crime’ of being a Catholic priest. His murderers already served their punishment by the guns of the police. A second hostage in critical condition in the hospital. France, if it still can after recent months, in shock, and many with her.

Of course, the murder of Fr. Hamel is not unique. Christians in the countries like Iraq and Syria live in fear of their lives every day, and with good reason. The rabid dogs of ISIS and likeminded radicals do not shy away from killing all those who they consider to be enemies of a fictitious brand of pure Islam – and Christians are at the top of their lists. This is, however, the first time that such a cold-blooded murder of a priest in the process of celebrating Mass has taken place in Europe. It only serves to further add to the feelings of fear and anger that already exist.

It is so easy to give in to those feelings. To wish death and destruction on people who are as deranged as the murderers of Fr. Hamel. But, of course, we are Christians. We are called to do better than that. To not give in to base feelings, to not in the first place think of how these horrors make us feel. In this case, our first duty should be with the victims – Fr. Hamel, the sisters and altar servers who were also held hostage, and, yes, all those who will siffer the backlash that will follow. And then, let us think of our role in that backlash. Will we allow ourselves to fear and hate the innocent who happen to share a faith (even in name alone) or cultural background with today’s killers? Our will we rise above it and make a distinction, not between Christians and Muslims, but between good and evil, between the way of God and the way of the devil?

Ultimately, the solution to the crisis in the Muslim world, which several people have already called a civil war within Islam, does not lie in more hate and fear, but neither does it lie solely with us. In the end, the Muslim world itself needs to find and implement the solution. We can help, but it can’t be enforced by us.

I am reminded of a blog post by Bishop Stefan Oster, which he wrote following the attack in Nice. The bishop of Passau began his text like this:

“After this act of terrorism – and after the ones in Paris, after Brussels, after Istanbul, after Madrid, after, after, after… After the atrocities committed by ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in all the continents of the world, after, after, after… When will the collective, the great common outcry from all the world’s peaceloving Muslims, who are truly devoted to their god, finally come, that they will no longer let their faith be abused by terorrists? When will the religious and political leaders of the Muslim world finally come together and declare to the world that Islam and terrorism are not compatible?  And when will such a great demonstration of peacefullness finally take place among us – by the great number of Muslims living in our country?”

As for us, let’s start with prayer for the repose of the soul of Father Jacques Hamel, may he rest in peace and see the Lord whom he served for so many years and live in His glory.

The first feast of St. Mary Magdalene – what it does and does not mean

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Penitent Magdalene by Guido Reni, c. 1635

It’s odd. Pope Francis recently promoted today’s celebration of Saint Mary Magdalene from a memorial to a feast, the same category as the celebrations of most of the Apostles, and almost all I read can be summarised as “Mary Magdalene is now finally an Apostle, so we will soon have women priests”. This is ignorant thinking, not hindered by a sense of history or an awareness of who St. Mary Magdalene is, and limiting her only to how she relates to her male contemporaries – oddly enough, something that proponents of the ordination of women would want to avoid.

The elevation of St. Mary Magdalene’s feast day is not a change in her person, but in her importance for us. She does not suddenly become someone else, but her existing identity and example is underlined more, equated with the examples offered by most other Apostles (except for Sts. Peter and Paul, whose days, being solemnities, are of an even higher rank), or important event in the Lord’s life.

On today’s feast, we would do a great injustice to St. Mary Magdalene and her special role in the life of the Church by making her nothing more than a female version of a male Apostle. As if she has nothing to say or offer by herself.

In today’s Italian edition of L’Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Robert Sarah expounds on two attitudes of St. Mary Magdalene, “which can help all Christians, men and women, to deepen our commitment as followers of Christ: adoration and mission.” Worth a read to get to know today’s saint, not as a female copy of a man, but as an important example, the Apostle to the Apostles, in her own right.

In closing, the elevation of today’s feast says nothing about the ordination of women or other impossibilities. Rather, it has much to say about what St. Mary Magdalene has to offer: unrelenting commitment to the Lord, even when He seems to be absent, and a burning desire to follow His word and share His Good News with the rest of the world (and, in doing so, sometimes giving others a needed kick in the rear to get them going).

The thin line between fear and charity

It’s a thin line that separates feelings when we are confronted with news report after news report about the latest terrorist attack committed in the name of Islam: the thin line between hate of everything Muslim and Christian compassion with the innocent – be they Muslim or otherwise –  and condemnation of violence. Emotionally, the choice for the former seems easy and is frequently made, also in Catholic social media: Islam is a threat and Muslims are, by definition, not to be trusted and should be refused intry into western countries.

Bishop Gerard de Korte, in an article about his blessing of 150 bicycles for refugees, has strong words about terrorism – perhaps his strongest yet – and equally about our Christian duty to help those in need, regardless of their background.

“The Gospel of Christ unequivocally calls us to generous assistance to people in need. I don’t think there can be any negotiating about that. He who is our Lord has Himself been a homeless refugee. And in the face of refugees we can discover Christ Himself. But as Christians we should not be naive. There is an Islamic civil war happening in the world today. Through a toxic mixture of social and economic slighting and feelings of humiliation a number of Muslims has been religiously radicalised and become extremely violent. Through terror they not only want to establish an imaginery Islamic dream empire, but also destabilise western society with fear. Our government has the duty to eliminate terrorists as best as possible before they can sow death and destruction. In the meantime Christians especially remain called to offer a helping hand to well-intentioned people in need, including those from Muslim countries.”

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^Bishop de Korte blessing bikes in the cathedral of St. John in Den Bosch.

Extreme choices – to either hate all or deny that there’s anything wrong –  are rarely the right ones. Bishop de Korte rightly reminds us that terrorism must be fought, but not to the detriment of those who need our help. As Christians, we are not in the business of blaming people for the misdeeds of others.

Photo credit: MIVA

More than just a headline – Pope Francis’ asks forgiveness

h=300Pope Francis is making headlines again, once more following an in-flight press conference on his return from a papal visit abroad, in this case to Armenia. The headlines generally follow one format: “Pope asks forgiveness from gays” or some variation thereof. While this is essentialy correct, the Holy Father’s complete answer is more nuanced and different from what more than a few readers will conclude from the headlines.

From the translation provided by the National Catholic Register comes the relevant part of the answer to a question about how the Church is said to have marginalised homosexual people in the past:

“I will repeat what I said on my first trip. I repeat what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: that they must not be discriminated against, that they must be respected and accompanied pastorally. One can condemn, but not for theological reasons, but for reasons of political behavior … Certain manifestations are a bit too offensive for others, no? … But these are things that have nothing to do with the problem. The problem is a person that has a condition, that has good will and who seeks God, who are we to judge? And we must accompany them well … this is what the catechism says, a clear catechism. Then there are traditions in some countries, in some cultures that have a different mentality on this problem. I think that the Church must not only ask forgiveness — like that “Marxist Cardinal” said (laughs) — must not only ask forgiveness to the gay person who is offended. But she must ask forgiveness to the poor too, to women who are exploited, to children who are exploited for labor. She must ask forgiveness for having blessed so many weapons. The Church must ask forgiveness for not behaving many times — when I say the Church, I mean Christians! The Church is holy, we are sinners! — Christians must ask forgiveness for having not accompanied so many choices, so many families …”

It is clear that Pope Francis said a whole lot more than that the Church must ask forgiveness. He starts from what the Catechisms says, and so places his comments within the larger doctrine of the Church: this is not something new that he is saying, but the Church has consistently taught that people should nto be discriminated against for their sexual orientation, that they must be respected as human beings and that the Church has an obligation to accompany them pastorally. In short, she is to treat them as she treats all human beings, starting from their innate dignity.

The Church has failed in this in the past, and sometimes still does, just like she did and does in regard to women and children who are exploited, or the victims of war and nationalism. For this, Pope Francis, says, the Church, meaning all Christians, must ask forgiveness, for it is contrary to what she is tasked with.

While the Church must always be open to accept all people regardless of gender, sexuality, race, occupation or whatever other characteristic, the story does not end there. The Church is more than just people and has a message to convey, a teaching, a relationship with a Person. And everything she does must stand in the light of the encounter with this Person, who is God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This includes how she relates to the people she welcomes.

A second interesting part of the Pope’s answer is that he says “one can condemn”. And what one can condemn is not people, but “political behaviour”, since “certain manifestations are a bit too offensive”. One can wonder what exactly is meant here, but I have seen some commenters see this as a condemnation of pride manifestations and similar. That may be so, but it could also be more general and refer to various sorts of behaviour stemming from one’s sexual orientation which could be offensive to others. The problem is then not so much about homosexuality, but consideration of the other’s thoughts and feelings. As Pope Francis says, this has little to do with the problem of marginalisation. One can disagree, even be offended, without pushing away the person one disagrees with or is offended by. Sure, it is hard, but, to mention a cliché, it is what Jesus would do. He did not shun his opponents. He entered into dialogue, challenged them to change their thoughts and behaviour, but never because he did not respect their human dignity (on the contrary even).

And then he repeats that earlier line, which caused so much debate: “The problem is a person that has a condition, that has good will and who seeks God, who are we to judge?” It is important to not make the same mistake as many people do with that line from the Gospel of Matthew (7:1), which is not simply a commandment not to judge, but rather a warning to remember that judgement goes two ways. Pope Francis describes a rather specific situation in which we should be careful not to judge: a person in some situation that is either objectively sinful or disordered, in this case someone who is homosexual, but who has the desire to do what is right and is seeking the Lord. The second part is important. Of course we should not refrain from judging actions committed by a similar person which are directed against his own or others’ wellbeing or his relationship with God, especially not when that person has no desire to do what is right or to find God. These latter conditions, good wil and seeking God, are frequently overlooked, and people are content with claiming that Pope Francis has said that we are not to judge homosexual people. Like he suggested before, the Church is not in the business of judging people, but actions. But, the Pope has insisted time and again, the Church, and therefore all Christians, are to accompany people who are of good will and seek God, not condemn and marginalise them. For, as Pope Francis also reminds us, we are all sinners, we all have our obstacles that sometimes make it hard to live according to the ideals the Church holds up.

In closing, Pope Francis’ answer is not revolutionary in that it contains any new teaching. It does, however, emphasise a different approach, a recognition of where we run the risk of failing to follow the example of Christ. Only then can ways be mended, and that, in the end, is what a Christian life is about.

Photo credit: Tiziana Fabi/Pool photo via AP

A desperate situation – mother leaves newborn child in ‘foundling room’

For the first time since its establishment in 2014, a so-called ‘foundling room’ run by the Stichting Beschermde Wieg (protected cradle foundation) was used in the city of Groningen last week. The foundation aims to assist mothers who, for whatever reason, can’t take care of their child and do not want, or are afraid or unable to contact official institutions, to safely leave their child in the hands of a volunteer and ultimately a foster family. There are foundling rooms in four cities in the Netherlands. They are small rooms with a bed, chair and information on a wall poster, and the one in Groningen was the first to be used. A volunteer is available within minutes for any assistance the mother may need or want. This volunteer is with the baby soon after the mother has left. After leaving her child, the mother can reclaim her child within six months if she changes her mind or the situation she is in.

The child, which was left behind last Thursday night and whose details remain confidential, has been checked up in a hospital and is now in the care of a foster family. The mother has left her information in a sealed enveloppe in the care of a notary, so that the child, once he or she has reached the age of 16, can know and perhaps contact his or her biological mother.

The foundation’s foundling rooms are illegal under Dutch law, and the police have the matter under investigation. In 2014, when the room was opened, a Groningen city councillor criticised it, stating that all efforts of the city are directed at preventing the abandonment of newborn children. Laudable as that is, the foundation’s website makes it clear that there are cases (usually extremely painful ones) in which a mother is not able to go to a hospital or another official institution to be taken care of, because of psychological issues, abuse or the threat of physical violence to herself or the child. In the Netherlands, some six newborn children are found every year in dumpsters, public toilets, shopping bags or other places. Only two of these six are generally found alive. While foundling rooms are not perfect, they ensure the safety of the child and hopefully also the mother (through the information provided to her there). In many cases in other countries, the foundation claims, this information, and the possibility for personal contact with a volunteer, results in the mother coming back on her decision to leave her child.

In a society where abortion is perceived as just a medical procedure and even a human right, the work of this foundation can only be lauded. Yes, leaving a newborn child is not to be taken lightly. But in situations in which a mother is unable to take care of her child, it is always to be preferred over leaving it somewhere in the cold or, even worse, killing the child through abortion.

For clarity – Pope Francis and female deacons

deacon ordinationPope Francis’ recent suggestion that a commission should be formed to study the form and fucntion of female deacons in the early Church (with, one would think, an eye on their possible re-introduction into the life of the Church today) has led to much enthusiasm and outrage, both for all the wrong reasons.

The papal comments came as an answer to the question if the permanent diaconate could not be open to men and women alike. It being a spontaneous question-and-answer session, the Holy Father obviously did not have all the necessary information at the ready, so he chose to share what he recalled from conversations with a Syrian theologian he used to meet in Rome, well before he became Pope.

And those recollections immediately point out some of the problems in equating male and theoretical female deacons. The latter’s role was found in sensitive and private situations between women: baptism, which at that time was performed by full immersion, but also cases in which a woman would have to present the physical evidence of an abusive husband! The differences with the duties of a male deacon – who has financial and charitable responsibilities, as well as clearly-defined duties in the liturgy of the Mass – are clear.

A 2002 study by the International Theological Commission, summarised here, also states this, and further reaffirms the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders – the grades of deacon, priest and bishop. A deacon is, at least in theory, able to be ordained as priest and bishop. The Church only has the authority to ordain men, not women (as Pope Francis has pointed out more than once), so in regard to the sacrament, female deacons are not possible.

Many of the duties of a deacon can be performed perfectly well by a woman. In fact, as Father Dwight Longenecker points out, in many parishes, women are already in charge of finances and run the charitable efforts of the community. You don’t need to be ordained for that. Pope Francis is not wrong when he started his answer with the half-joke that the female deacons of the Church are the religious sisters.

That leaves the duties for which ordination is a prerequisite: the liturgy of Holy Mass, such as, for example, reading the Gospel and giving the homily. Here, the deacon or priest does not do anything for himself: he performs the duties of proclamation and teaching of Christ. He is an alter Christus. The Church teaches that this is no act or show, but a sacramental reality, which we are asked to acknowledge in faith.

Some have chosen to see Pope Francis willingness to look into this matter as evidence that he wants female deacons, which is a ridiculous conclusion to draw. By that reasoning, Pope St. John Paul II wanted the same thing when he asked to International Theological Commission to study the matter…

Pope Francis said he wants clarification in this matter, and a conclusion along the lines of the 2002 study is no less a clarification than one that says, yes, there can be female deacons. But, it has to be said, all signs indicate that we should not expect the latter conclusion to be drawn.

More than just receiving – After Amoris laetitia, some thoughts on Communion and being Catholic

Communion-WafersAlmost a month since the publication of Amoris laetitia, it becomes untenable to claim that the notorious footnote 351 somehow opens the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. The debate is far from over, but over the course of the past weeks there have been an increasing number of authorities who explained that, no, this is not what the Pope intended to say. Cardinals Christoph Schönborn – named by Pope Francis to have given the right interpretation of the entire document -, Walter Brandmüller and Gerhard Müller are among these. The teaching on the subject as written down by Pope Saint John Paul II in Familiaris consortio remains current. And it couldn’t be any different, as Cardinal Burke also emphasised: an Apostolic Exhortation does not have the intention or authority to change doctrine.

I have been among those who have accussed Pope Francis of being unclear on this topic, but he isn’t really. It’s just that he never intended Amoris laetitia to give an authoritative solution, but to urge pastors and faithful to be creative and come up with solutions within the framework of the teachings of the Catholic Church. We must read the text with his emphases and focus, not our own.

Personally I find one of the clearest, and most often overlooked, points to be that the Catholic Church knows seven sacraments, of which the Eucharist is one. The footnote speaks only of ‘sacraments’, which in certain cases may be a help to couples who live in socalled irregular situations. This must, the Pope clearly indicates time and again, be decided on a case by case basis, conscious of the sensitive situation they might be in, and I can imagine that the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, Confession can all certainly get a look in in these decisions. The possible solution presented in footnote 351 is therefore of a greater scope than what the vast majority of commenters – on both sides of the issue – have been saying.

And here we find a major cause of the problem: apparently, so many people think, you’re not really a part of the Church unless you receive Holy Communion. And not only that, there exists a right to receive Communion. This is both blatantly untrue. Our Catholic identity is in the first place not based in Communion but in Baptism, and secondly it extends far further than the act of receiving (or, in too many cases, taking) Communion. Unless we realise that, we are doomed to remain focussed on the question of who can and can not receive and thus, who is and is not really a part of our Catholic community. Pope Francis is determined to fight this latter idea, and if we are to side with him in that fight, we must re-evaluate our ideas about Holy Communion.

But let no one think I consider Eucharist and Communion not really that important. The Eucharist is the most valuable treasure the Church has. It is Christ, and the Church physically gives Him to the people. There can be no greater gift. This dictates how we relate to this sacrament. An honest desire to receive Communion is a good thing: we desire to receive Christ, make Him a part of ourselves, or ourselves a part of Him (Communion is like eating, but also completely unlike eating).

However, the Eucharist also inspires us, enables us to be Catholic, live a Christian life. This is expressed in prayer, in charity, in the works of mercy (both spiritual and corporal) and in every part of our lives. Or it should be. The proper understanding and relation with Christ in the Eucharist is a necessity in making it work in us. I have compared it to medication (in a field hospital, if you will): if we don’t change our lives and avoid what makes us sick, no amount of pills is going to make us better.

Holy Communion is a gift, and we are asked to not only accept it but make it fruitful in us. And sometimes we can’t. The situation of a family in which one of the spouses was previously married, but who both have the responsibility for children born in that second relationship, is an example. It is an objective fact, in which accusations and responsibility play no part, that this couple lives in an irregular situation and therefore can not receive Communion. But our Catholic faith is greater than that, and by no means are these people excluded from the most holy. Even being in the presence of the Holy Eucharist can be a sanctifying event, which is why the Holy Father emphases the importance of Adoration. The sacrament of Confession, to which footnote 351 is also open, can be a powerful help for people in this situation, even when they can’t change their objectively sinful situation.

We must not downplay the value of Communion, but neither should we deny the power of the Eucharist and the inspiration and strength it gives us to live Christian lives, even if we can’t physically receive it. Prayer, Confession, charity, mercy, solidarity are all fruits of the eternal sacrifice of Christ which, ever new, comes to us through the Eucharist. Let us emphasise what we can, and not what we can’t.