In Roermond, an experienced native son takes the seat

After a ten-month vacancy (another fairly lengthy one, which unavoidably gave rise to theories of episcopal disagreements reaching as far as the Vatican itself), the Diocese of Roermond has a bishop again. Stepping into the shoes  of Frans Wiertz, who led the diocese for 24 years is Father Harrie Smeets, 57, until now the dean of Venray.

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^The cathedral chapter of Roermond upon the appointment of Dean Smeets to that body in 2015. The new bishop of Roermond can be seen to the right of then-Bishop Frans Wiertz.

BisdomRoermondLocatieThe Diocese of Roermond coincides with the province of Limburg and is located in the south-east of the Netherlands, wedged in between Belgium and Germany, bordering the Dutch (arch)dioceses of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Utrecht, Hasselt and Liège in Belgium and Aachen and Münster in Germany. It shares much of its history with its neighbours, as it was first established in 1559 from territories belonging to Cologne and Liège. It was suppressed under Napoleon and re-established in 1840, again from Cologne and Liège. it has been a full diocese since 1853. The  Catholic history, however, goes far further back, as the diocese also includes the city of Maastricht, which was the seat of a diocese as far back as 530.

The new bishop will be assisted in his work by the longest-seated auxiliary bishop in the Netehrlands, Msgr. Everard de Jong currently in Rome to participate in the Synod of Bishops.

Bishop-elect Smeets will be the tenth bishop of Roermond since 1853. He has served as area dean of Venray, tbe northernmost of Roermond’s thirteen deaneries, since 2004. He has been a priest for more than 25 years and a member of the cathedral chapter since 2015. As such played a part in his own appointment, although one may wonder if the office of bishops is something that any good priest willingly seeks. Until 2011, Bishop-elect Smeets offered televised Masses, which were broadcast on national television live, 14 times. Leo Fijen, TV presenter and head of religious/spiritual programming for broadcaster KRO/NCRV, knows Fr. Smeets well and describes him thus:

“A priest from Limburg, a man of these times, a teacher who speaks the language of the young, a manager willing to make decisions, but also a man seeking God and doing what this pope considers important: opening the doors of the church and seeking out Christ in the neighbours outside the church.”

The exact time and date of Bishop Smeets’ consecration remains to be announced.

Photo credit: Bisdom Roermond

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Tweeting the Synod

Today the Synod of Bishops will convene for the first session of their fifteenth ordinary general assembly on “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment”, which will run until the 28th of October. In the past, the daily deliberations and individual contributions of delegates were summarised and published by the Holy See press office, but this is no longer the case. An unwise decision, in my opinion, as it makes the entire process a secretive one. As outsiders, all we will have are rumours and the eventual final document. During the previous Synod we have seen what damage rumours can do, especially when they are neither confirmed nor denied in any clear way..

twitterThat said, there is always social media, and a number of Synod delegates are enthousiastic (or less so) users of those media. Below, I present a short (probably incomplete) list of delegates who use Twitter. It is mostly western prelates using the medium, with English being the dominant language. Other languages used are Italian, French, Spanish, German and Maltese.

  1. Pope Francis (obviously). As pope he convenes the Synod and acts as its president, although he delegates that duty to four delegate presidents. Pope Francis will not be commenting on the Synod proceedings, but offer prayers and short items to reflect on spiritually.
  2. Archbishop Charles Scicluna. Archbishop of Malta. One of three members of the Commission for Disputes.
  3. Bishop Robert Barron. Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles and CEO of Word On Fire.
  4. Bishop Frank Caggiano. Bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
  5. Archbishop José Gómez. Archbishop of Los Angeles.
  6. Archbishop Leo Cushley. Archbishop of Edinburgh.
  7. Archbishop Eamon Martin. Archbishop of Armagh.
  8. Archbishop Anthony Fisher. Archbishop of Sydney.
  9. Leonardo Cardinal Sandri. Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.
  10. Robert Cardinal Sarah. Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
  11. Kevin Cardinal Farrell. Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.
  12. Peter Cardinal Turkson. Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
  13. Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi. President of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
  14. Gérald Cardinal Lacroix. Archbishop of Québec.
  15. Daniel Cardinal Sturla Berhouet. Archbishop of Montevideo.
  16. Blase Cardinal Cupich. Archbishop of Chicago.
  17. Carlos Cardinal Aguiar Retes. Archbishop of Mexico City.
  18. Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia. President of the Pontifical Academy for Life,
  19. Archbishop Peter Comensoli. Archbishop of Melbourne.
  20. Father Antonio Spadaro. Member of the Vatican Media Committee.
  21. Christoph Cardinal Schönborn. Archbishop of Vienna.
  22. Wilfrid Cardinal Napier. Archbishop of Durban.
  23. Luis Cardinal Tagle. Archbishop of Manila.
  24. Vincent Cardinal Nichols. Archbishop of Westminster.
  25. Carlos Cardinal Osoro Sierra. Archbishop of Madrid.

KLqGjJTk_400x400Not all of the prelates above use their accounts equally often or in the same way. For example, Cardinal Tagle only posts links to his ‘The Word Exposed’ Youtube catechesis talks, Cardinals Sturla Berhouet and Farrell mostly retweet, Archbishop Fisher hasn’t tweeted since February of 2017, and most use Twitter as a one-way channel. Among those who do respond to what their followers say are Cardinal Napier, Archbishop Comensoli (his Twitter profile picture at left) and Bishop Barron.

Other delegates, such  as Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput and Passau’s Bishop Stefan Oster, are active on Facebook, while Belgian Bishop Jean Kockerols keeps the youth of his country up to speed via a blog.

Several delegates have already shared their arrival in Rome, and it is these (such as Archbishop Comensoli and Bishop Barron) who will perhaps offer the best idea of what goes on in the coming weeks. That said, all we will get are glimpses, and no tweeting delegate will share what goes on in the debates. So, in this age of social media and high-speed communication, the Synod of Bishops remains firmly behind closed doors.

 

At the Synod, an agenda point inserts itself

The relationship between Church and young people is at the forefront of the minds of many a bishop heading to Rome next month. Not just because the Synod of Bishops will be discussing the topic of youth and vocation, but also because said relationship – at least between young people and certain representatives of the Church – has not always been smooth, to say the least. For two bishops this has been reason to stay at home: Msgr. Rob Mutsaerts because he doesn’t believe this is the right time to discuss the Synod topic, and American Cardinal Joseph Tobin because he feels he should not be away from his Archdiocese of Newark in such troubling times.

Among the bishops who are going, however, the concerns expressed by the aforementioned prelates are equally present.

everard de jongBishop Everard de Jong, who will be taking Bishop Mutsaerts’ place at the Synod has said that he will be supporting the latter’s statement:  “I will probably start with saying something about the importance of a safe environment.” In the mere four minutes alloted to him Bishop de Jong also intends to address the question of how young people may be taught to discern their vocation, and break the Catholic hesitance to speak about God and faith, he told Katholiek Nieuwsblad.

“Too long have we been silent; as Catholics we failed to speak explicitly about God and the sacraments. Young people therefore know little to nothing about this. But I haven’t written out my text completely, and I only have four minutes of speaking time. So I doubt if I can address all of that.”

bischof-oster-passau-124~_v-img__16__9__xl_-d31c35f8186ebeb80b0cd843a7c267a0e0c81647Bishop Stefan Oster, one of three German delegates to the Synod, goes a step further, saying before Katholisch.de that the bishops can’t avoid discussing the abuse crisis at the Synod. They must do three things, he says: listen to young people, take further measures of prevention, and credibly present the teachings of the Church. Bishop Oster says that cancelling the Synod  because of the abuse crisis is not an option, as the topics of young people are even more important now. In the meantime, the abuse crisis has also had its influence on the daily interactions between priests and young people, perhaps inadvertently causing division. When he is asked to take a selfie with someone, to cite an example, Bishop Oster finds himself wondering, “do I dare put my arm around a young person’s shoulder?”

“Not the right time” – +Mutsaerts stays at home

Mgr. drs. R.G.L.M. Mutsaerts

Less than a week after his participation in the Synod of Bishops assembly on youth and vocation was confirmed by the Holy See, Bishop Rob Mutsaerts announces that he will not go. The auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch was the first choice of the bishops’ conference to take part in the three-week meeting in Rome as their delegate. As the brief statement from the bishops states:

“[Bishop Mutsaerts] informed Pope Francis that he does not think it is the right time to hold a synod on youth, considering the studies and the news about sexual abuse which came out in, among other places, America. He therefore chooses not to take part.”

The Dutch Bishops’ Conference respects the choice, but also states that the Synod is “a chance and an opportunity to address this in the context of the topic and discuss it with bishops from all countries of the world.”

The inability or – in this case – unwillingness of a chosen delegate to take part in the Synod has been foreseen in the preparations. In addition to one or more delegates, every bishops’ conference also chooses one or more substitutes to take over from a delegate if the need arises. The Dutch bishops have appointed Bishop Everard de Jong as subsistute for Bishop Mutsaerts, and the auxiliary bishop of Roermond will now travel to Rome instead.

de jong synod

For Bishop de Jong this will be the second Synod in which he takes part. In 2012 he participated in the Synod Assembly on the new evangelisation (first from left in the picture at right), where he emphasised the importance of the role of the Holy Spirit, proper spiritual formation and a courageous pro-life attitude

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New wave of abuse in the Church in the Netherlands? Not quite, but the need for vigilance remains

New revelations about sexual abuse, with the knowledge of a significant number of bishops no less, in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands? If certain headlines are to be believed, that is indeed the case. Reality, however, disagrees somewhat.

eindrapport%20commissie%20DeetmanIt all started with this article in major daily NRC. In it, reporter Joep Dohmen lists which bishops were in some way involved (peripherally or directly) in abuse cases between 18945 and 2010. At the bottom of his article he lists his sources, two of which are the report of the Deetman Commission and the commission collecting claims of abuse in the Church. Both are the result of the independent investigation which was commissioned by the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and the Conference of Dutch Religious in 2010. The third source is a study by NRC itself.

This, together with the dates mentioned, already shows that the news is not new. The majority of cases took place decades ago, and the 20 bishops listed by Mr. Dohmen are all no longer active (in fact, 14 of them are deceased). All of the cases mentioned have been known at least since 2011.

Having all the facts straight can only be good, and the article in NRC at least serves as a good reminder for the Church to keep working for the victims and to do everything to prevent future abuse of minors and vulnerable adults in the Church, and to see that the perpetrators are punished, if at all possible (after all, the law can do little against deceased persons, and is in many cases often limited by the statute of limitations). However, the NRC article has been labelled by some as populist. This in part because some of the facts presented are not necessarily the whole story. For example, the accusations against Bishop Jo Gijsen (bishop of Roermond from 1972 to 1993) have been challenged in court, with the judge determining that the evidence against the bishop was accepted all too readily and does not hold up in a court of law, and there are cases in which a bishop accepted the appointment of a bishop from another diocese without having been informed about his background.

That said, all of the above does not take anything away from the serious nature of sexual abuse, be it in the Church or elsewhere. No longer does any bishop have the excuse of claiming he couldn’t have known, or resort to simply transferring an abusive priest. Any bishop caught doing that should rightly be charged with aiding an abuser, and be punished accordingly.

However, this is the luxury of hindsight. As former spokesman of the bishops’ conference Jan-Willem Wits states in his excellent commentary on the article, such was the simple and painful reality:

“What I personally do not believe, and yet somehow read in the NRC pieces, is that bishops were a sort of leaders of a virtual criminal organisation which consciously closed its eyes to priests who could not control themselves. Of course the fear of a damaged reputation will have played its part, but I have seen a lot of shame and a lot of naivety. Especially the transferring of priests with abuse in their genes has, in hindsight, been unbelievably stupid and actually unforgivable. Now we know that the chance of recidivism is so very great that, even with therapy, let along after apologies and confession, it is only a matter of time for the bomb to blow.”

Hindsight is 20/20, they say. No one can change the past. But it can – and must – be a lesson. Lets hope that the lesson is being received.

Three weeks before the Synod, the list is out

Few surprises in the list of participants in next month’s Synod of Bishops on youth of vocation, which was published on Saturday. As is par of the course for such assemblies, the bulk of the delegates is elected by their own bishops’ conferences and the heads of the Curia departments. The pope chooses a number of delegates himself, as well as representatives from other churches and church communities and experts on the topic of the Synod.

kockerolsAs announced earlier, the Dutch and Belgian bishops have each chosen an auxiliary bishop from among them to go to Rome: Bishops Rob Mutsaerts and Jean Kockerols (pictured) respectively. A second Belgian bishop was chosen by Pope Francis, however, As in the previous Synod on marriage and family, Ghent’s Bishop Luc Van Looy will also take part in the proceedings. It will probably be his last major role on the world stage, as he will reach the age of 77 at the end of this month, and, on papal request, his retirement has already been postponed by two years. Pope Francis also chose a second Benelux bishop, who is not a member of any bishops’ conference. Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, who also serves as president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU, the COMECE.

The German bishops’ conference, being rather larger than those of Belgium or the Netherlands, have elected three bishops to represent them: Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, Bishop Felix Genn of Münster and Bishop Johannes Wübbe, auxiliary of Osnabrück.

The Nordic bishops have chosen the bishop of Reykjavik, Msgr. David Tencer.

With two exceptions, all the cardinals in Pope Francis’ own selection of delegates are ones he created himself. Some have chosen to see this as Francis ‘stacking the deck’, but that is a nonsensical conclusion. Of course the pope sees potential in these cardinals, and wants to make use of their abilities, or he wouldn’t have made them cardinals in the first place.

 

 

On abuse, the pope calls the bishops to Rome

synodIn February of next year, Pope Francis will receive the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences to discuss the “protection of minors”, as today’s press communique states. It is obvious that this announcement, originally proposed by the Council of Cardinals who concluded their 26th meeting today*, comes in the wake of, and is a reaction to, the events of the past weeks.

Some think that February’s meeting, which has not been identified as an Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, as the participation of conference presidents only suggests. comes rather late. After all, the crisis is happening now, but it would be foolish to think it will be gone when the new year rolls around. The current crisis was triggered by investigations by a grand jury in the American state of Pennsylvania, but at this time, the attorneys general of six more states have either already subpoenaed dioceses in their states, have announced that they will do so, or, in some cases, dioceses themselves have invited AG’s to study their paperwork. This, and similar procedures in other countries, including Germany, assure that the abuse history of the Church will be with us for a long time to come. Things will not have blown over by the time the bishops meet in Rome.

That said, the Church, from the Pope on down, does not have the luxury to sit back and do nothing until February. Too many high ranking prelates, including the pope himself, have been implicated or somehow included in accusations of silencing victims, hiding abusers, and not reporting crimes. The crisis has by now, rightly or wrongly, involved so many people, and high ranking ones at that, that proper action has become not only unavoidable, but extremely necessary.  And continued silence is not that proper action.

Finally, as some have rightly pointed out, while the prevention of abuse of minors  and the identification and punishment of perpetrators remains high on the list of priorities, the current crisis in the Church is not only about that. The victims have not solely been minors. In the case of Archbishop McCarrick, they were seminarians, so young adults, and the abuse was later covered up by other priests and bishops. It is to be hoped that February’s assembly will recognise and discuss that aspect too.

DSC_2699_31481e79b67ab70c5ca711c62299f166While Pope Francis is free to appoint other delegates to the assembly, and he would be wise to do so, the presidents of the bishops’ conferences are expressly invited, or, if you will, summoned. There are 114 Roman-rite conferences in the Church, and a further 21 of Eastern rites. The presidents of these are elected by the members of each conference, and they need not be a cardinal or archbishop (metropolitan or not). The president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference is the bishop of Rotterdam, Msgr. Hans van den Hende (pictured), while the Belgian bishops, on the other hand, are headed by Cardinal Jozef De Kesel, and the Germans by Cardinal Reinhard Marx. The Nordic Bishops’ Conference then, made up of bishops from five countries, have the bishop of Copenhagen, Msgr. Czeslaw Kozon, as their president. It is unknown if bishops from dioceses which do not belong to a conference, such as Luxembourg, will be invited as well.

*And not on Monday, as I wrote earlier. Thanks for the correction sent by e-mail, David Cheney of Catholic Hierarchy!

**A detailed investigation of several years has revealed, media suggest, almost 4,000 victims of abuse over the course of 6 decades. The official report is to be published in two weeks time.

Photo credit: [2] KN/Jan Peeters