Holding on to each other in a time of confusion – Bishop de Korte’s Christmas message

On Monday, following the annual Van Lanschot Christmas concert at the cathedral, Bishop Gerard de Korte presented his Christmas message. The bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch reflects on the state of our society and political world, saying that there is much to be grateful for, but also acknowledging feelings of insecurity which exist and which deserve a better answer than the ones provided by populist movements. In God’s coming down to humanity at Christmas, the bishop says, we find an example of what a just and loving society can look like.

bisschop-de-korte“Several weeks ago our queen opened the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science. With this, the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch advances in the academic march of civilisation.

The data institute researches the possibilities of ‘big data’, but also the moral implications of the enormous increase of information. During the presentations preceding the opening of the institute, the guests were presented with interesting examples of practical applications.

In recent decades the digital revolution has led to an enormous increase of avalaible data. One thing and another means, in theory, that decisions by doctors, bankers, companies and managers can be made with much greater precision.

Reflecting on these matter I encounter a paradox. In the media we continuously hear about fact-free discussion among our politicians. While more information becomes available, many a politician prefers not to speak on the basis of facts, but primarily on the basis of feelings and emotions. It is not about what is true, but about what feels true.

I recall that, during the American elections, most of the statements by the current president-elect about economical topics were revealed by economists to be partly or completely untrue. Once again, it became clear that data must always be interpreted, and that interests also always play a part.

Much to be grateful for

One of our daily newspapers recently published an interesting conversation with Swedish researcher Johan Norberg about his latest book, Progress. In that book, Norberg shows, with a multitude of data, how life has improved from one generation to the next. It goes well with the world when it comes to fighting poverty, life expectation and education.

Worldwide fewer people fall in the category of ‘extremely poor’, research by the World Bank shows. In 1970, 29 percent of the world’s population was malnourished. Today that is 11 percent. People born in 1960 died on average at the age of 52. Today the average person reaches his 70th birthday.

In our country life expectation rose from 73 to 81 in half a century. The Netherlands has one of the best healthcare systems, as we read recently, and when it comes to education our dear fatherland is high on many lists. Seen from history, we can say that the Netherlands is a good country to live in.

We have a high level of prosperity. We do not need to fear the sudden appearance of a police van in front of our house, taking us away without reason. We have an impressive constitution with many freedoms, a free press and an independent judiciary. In short, there are much data for which we can be grateful.

Despite all these material and immaterial achievements, the experience of the state of our country is a different one for many Dutchmen. Sociologists refers to our country as ‘extremely rich and deathly afraid’. There is a strong feeling of unease among a significant part of the population. More than a few people have feelings of fear and insecurity.

Time of unease

In part that is a result of western news services. Good news is boring news. But in general one could say that good whispers and evil shouts. In that regard I like to quote Pope Francis: one falling tree makes more noise that an entire forest growing. Our media enlarges problems and everything that is going well remains in the background. Watching the news, one could get the impression that our world is one great mess, but that is not true of course. There is much more going well than wrong in the world.

But I do not want to claim that these current feelings of unease in our society are fact-free. There is an accumulation of problems which rightly worry many people.

Accelerated globalisation of the last decades has made many uneasy. There are increasingly clear winners and losers of that globalisations. People hear about the excesses of worldwide capitalism, such as high bonusses and tax evasion. But at the same they fear for their own jobs or those of their children and grandchildren. The security of existence of an increasing number of countrymen is under pressure.

Our political landscape is rapidly splintering. Many people are worried about that. While there are great challenges this splintering threatens to limit the effectiveness of the government after next March’s elections.

Many of us are also worried about the pollution of the environment and climate change. In his impressive social encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis urges us to protect Mother Earth. Especially now we are facing the challenge to truly realise our stewardship.

A vague sense of insecurity also invokes much unease, especially because of attacks by Muslim terrorists. With their pointless violence against our citizens they try to destabilise our society and so play into the hands of unsavory forces in our own society.

Fear and the unease of the people is fed, not in the last place, by a spiritual crisis. Because of the last decades’ secularisation and dechristianisation many of our contemporaries lack a solid foundation. In a time of rapid transition they no longer have the ability of falling back on a solid faith in God.

All the concerns and problems lead to a coarsening of relationships in our society and sadly also to the rise of a poisonous populism. Poisonous because it divides people, undermines the trust in our fragile rule of law and especially because it shouts loudly, coarsely and without any nuance, without offering concrete solutions.

How to respond?

What response to this development is desirable? As bishop I want to mention a few things, based on the Catholic thought about the good and just society.

Let responsible administrators take the questions of populists seriously, for they are the questions of many citizens of our country. But these questions deserve a better answer than is being provided in populist circles. The threat to security of existence that is being felt requires a response. Our wealthy Netherlands must be able to safeguard the existence of every citizen, also materially.

Let us, as citizens of this good country, no longer push one another away, but keep looking for connections. No thinking in us and them, but inclusive thinking. Catholic thoughts aims to unite and is directed at sense of community and solidarity. Of course there are differences in vision and conflicts of interest. Many debates get stuck in rough language and shouting matches. Instead of providing arguments, personal attacks. The result is that the dignity of the neighbour is trampled underfoot. Let us then conduct social discourse on point, but also with respect and courtesy.

Our diocese’s recent policy note is titled Building together in trust. But that is not just a mission for our own diocese, but also for our society. An important aspect of this is that we acknowledge our responsibility for the whole. If we only serve our own (partial) interests, we will get a hard society in which the law of the jungle will be victorious. A just society, on the other hand, has an eye of the vulnerable and for the many people wo are threatened to be left behind.

Christmas: celebration of God’s solidarity

In a few days we will be celebrating Christmas. For Christians, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ. Even before the celebration of St. Nicholas, many shop windows in our city were decorated for Christmas. Santa Claus, green and lights everywhere. Retail knows well how to use Christmas to make the December revenu a success. Priests and preachers have traditionally questioned this development. Christmas is more than gold and glitter, more than good food and presents.

I will not be repeating this Church protest against commerce’s grip on Christmas tonight. Not only because I do not like waving my finger like an angry school teacher, but also because that protests is not very effective.

It makes little sense for a sour-faced bishop to speak about the degeneration of the Christmas thought. People, including believers, have a need for comfort and security, especially in the dark and cold month of December. A good meal and a thoughtful present can only serve to improve mutual solidarity.

But perhaps you will allow me to invite you not to stop at the exterior, but also search out the interior of Christmas.

At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the Emmanuel: God with us. In Christ, God bows down to the world. At Christmas, God says to you and me: man, I love you. In Christ, God’s love of humanity has become unequivocally visible. In Jesus, God wants to share all with us, including our fear of dying and death. Christmas is the feast of God’s solidarity and loyalty. With Him, we are safe.

In this period, we dispel the darkness of winter with lights and candles. Our God dispels our darkness with the light that is Christ. I sincerely wish that you will allow that divine Light into your lives.

It will allow the tempering of much unease and anger. Secure in God’s love, we are called to hold onto each other in this confusing time and life in solidarity with each other; to build together in trust and take our responsibility for the building up of our faith communities and society.

Out of that conviction I wish you a blessed feast of Christmas.

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte
Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch”

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

 

“It was night” – Archbishop Koch’s reflection after the terror attack

Trauergottesdienst in der GedächtniskircheOn Tuesday evening, the faiths of Berlin came together to commemorate the dead and wounded of the terror attack on the Christmas market adjacent to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche on Monday. In that church, itself a memorial to the dead of the Second World War, Archbishop Heiner Koch offered the following poetic reflection:

So speaks the Lord:
I dwell in a high and holy place,
but also with the contrite and lowly of spirit,
To revive the spirit of the lowly,
to revive the heart of the crushed.
I saw their ways,
but I will heal them.
I will lead them and restore full comfort to them
and to those who mourn for them
creating words of comfort.
Peace! Peace to those who are far and near,
says the Lord; and I will heal them. (from Isaiah 57)

It was night.
Last night here in Berlin.
The night of terror, of fear, of death, of despair, of powerlessness, of anger.
It was night.

It is night.
In Aleppo and in so many places in this world.
Night of powerlessness, of death, of hunger.
Night, in which I do not know what to do anymore.

It was night.
Back then in Bethlehem.
In the middle of the night God became man: Jesus.
A man of the night.
A number.
With no place in the town and soon to be on the run.
A God who became man in the night.
But since He became God in the middle of the night and told all those in the night, I will not leave you alone – not in life and not in death – a star shines in the night.
A star with the small hope in the continuous night, that the middle of the night is yet the beginning of the day.
A star which shows the way of travelling together, not to exclude, not to settle. Together they came from distant countries, with their life experiences, to the child in the manger.
We continue on the road in the night.
And will not let go of each other.

Thus the star became a star of blessing in the middle of the night.
Thus it became Christmas in the middle of the night.
Then in Bethlehem and hopefully and certainly also in Berlin.
Then and now.
In the middle of the night.

Earlier on Tuesday, Berlin’s St. Hedwig’s Cathedral hosted a moment of silent prayer, with organ music and a brief word from Archbishop Koch.

Photo credit: Michael Kappeler/dpa

“Divergent interpretations of possibly unclear passages” – Cardinal Eijk on the confusion about The Footnote

eijk synod

^Cardinal Eijk, fifth from the left in the second row, participates in a session of the Synod of Bishops.

Upon the publication of the official Dutch translation of Amoris laetitia, last Thursday (yes, a whopping nine months after the apostolic exhortation was released in Rome), Cardinal Wim Eijk, who participated in both sessions of the Synod of Bishops which resulted in the papal document, provided a brief quote about the topic that continues to keep pens writing and keyboard clicking: The Footnote which may or may not open the door to the sacraments for divorced and civilly remarried faithful. About the debate about Amoris laetitia the cardinal says,

“A downside is that various interpretations of the exhortation are circulating. Doctrine or longstanding practice in the Church is not changed by divergent interpretations of possibly unclear passages in a Church document.”

These various interpretations are, I believe, also the reason for the dubia presented by the Four Cardinals (Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra and Meisner) . They ask for clarification, stating that confusion exists. The fact that there are rather contrasting interpretations is enough to show that they are right.

Cardinal Eijk treads carefully, speaking about “possibly unclear passages”, but makes clear that the intepretations of a passage do not change anything in doctrine or Tradition. The compentent authority, in this case the Pope, is the only who can do that. As it looks now, he has no inclination to do so directly, which means that, for the foreseeable future, the confusion will continue.

Who knows, perhaps things will settle down in time, at which point clarifications will find more open minds. At this moment, as Cardinal Eijk indicates, and more than a few others with him, Amoris laetitia has not changed anything about the Church’s doctrine. How we approach that doctrine and put it into practice, however, is open to change, adaptation and, most importantly, improvement. And that, I believe, is what Pope Francis is aiming for.

In the Vortex, empty parishes and poor priests? Some nuances

A recent episode of Michael Voris’ The Vortex about the Catholic Church in the Netherlands has led to some questions about whether it is really true that more than 1,000 parishes will close  in the coming decade and Dutch priests will have to find jobs in the secular world, or even become tenants of the few remaining faithful in a secular wasteland. Or so the tone of the piece comes across.

As ever, there is some truth in the matter, but the situation is somewhat more nuanced than suggested. In this post I want to  highlight some ofhe intricacies of the situations.

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkIt is true that the number of parishes in the Netherlands is decreasing. And it has been for some time now. But it is inaccurate to claim that parishes are shutting down. Rather, parishes are merging with their neighbours to create larger parish clusters or megaparishes. This happens in most Dutch dioceses, and it is an organisational change, virtually always triggered by financial reasons and the lack of priests. The exact form that these mergers take differs per diocese. In Groningen-Leeuwarden, where I live, the parishes are merging, but with local faith communities continuing to come together, sometimes without a church building of their own. Or so the diocese, and especially our former bishop, Msgr. de Korte, hopes. Priests are tasked to travel in their parishes to minister to the faithful. In the Archdiocese of Utrecht, the new megaparishes have socalled Eucharistic centers assigned, churches where Holy Mass is celebrated every Sunday, while other churches in the parish will host Mass less frequently. I have compared the two approaches, as promoted by Cardinal Wim Eijk (at right) and Bishop Gerard de Korte, here.

aa%20Staatsiefoto%20Mgr_%20Wiertz%201_06KLEINThe idea that priests may need to find jobs comes from a speech made by Bishop Frans Wiertz (at left) of Roermond in October. Speaking at an annual meeting of the diocese, he discussed the current state of affairs in the Church in the Netherlands, comparing it with the Church in other countries.  He also spoke about the financial side and described how the network of institutionalised social support, by the government but also by the Church, is now reaching its financial limits. While it is a good thing to support anyone who needs it, that support can not continue forever, or become a right for all. Quoting the bishop:

“A parallel development has been going on in our Church, in contrast to all those countries I have visited. Earlier this year I asked a parish priest in Sri Lanka how he managed his livelihood, who took care of it. He said, “The people here are too poor, they can’t afford it. And the bishop? How would he have to do it? He can’t pay all the priests.” So I asked him how he earned his daily rice. He said, “I just work.” He was a teacher at a school. On the side. So parish priest and at the same time teacher at a school. He did that for forty hours a week. He taught English, history and of course religion.

Dear people, this was also the situation in our country until about 1960. There was no set salary for priests then. In one prosperous parish the priest received a higher salary and in the other parish, which had nothing, he had to survive of the gifts that the people brought him. In the Middle Ages the priest had a garden and he had to grow his own vegetables, and he sometimes had some cattle as well. There are stories of parishes where the chickens flew through the church.

Of course, I do not want to return to that situation.But I do want to say that, analogous to the state, the Church introduced social arrangements: roughly the same salary for all priests. They count on that too. Parish councils take care of it. A solidarity arrangement was introduced. The diocese receives money from parishes to help other parishes, for example when rebuilding and painting is needed and there is no money for it. That all functions, as long as not everyone calls upon it. But when it has become a right, and the rich parishes also want to receive those 20 percent – I don’t know how high those percentages are – from the diocese – from other parishes – it no longer works.

I am strongly convinced that we need another form of financing in twenty years. And that priests must all be missionary then, and willing to contribute to the costs of their livelihood. If it isn’t necessary, that is fine by me. I also do not want to invoke it, but when you, as a missionary, are not willing to give something yourself, what kind of missionary are you?

This is a vision of the future. I am not saying it will be reality. I also do not say it needs to come in a hurry. We have the time. I think it will take at least 20 years… The people in the parishes will have to maintain their own church and also the priests, it can’t automatically come from somewhere else. I think that this is a future which we must at least acknowledge.”

Bishop Wiertz was speaking from his heart, as a bishop on the verge of retirement, and his speech was in many ways that of a bishop taking stock of the Church he is about to leave in the hands of another. He was certainly not painting a depressing image, or outlining some new policy. Taking inspiration from the flourishing churches he encountered on his travels abroad (Bishop Wiertz visits one of the countries where his diocese sponsors missionary and charitable activities every year), he wants to encourage the Church in the Netherlands to move forward into the future from a current situation which is, indeed, not wholly positive or even encouraging. The Michael Voris program which inspired this blog post is not wrong when it notes that there are problems. Howver, that does not mean that there are faithless wastelands where church bells once tolled, or poor priests plowing windswept fields just yet. And even if there were… we have faith, hope and love. Even a mustard seed of either can grow into something great.

A new protopriest as Paul VI has one cardinal left

dompauloevaristoThe death of Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns at the age of 95 today leads to an interesting change in the College of Cardinals, albeit a ceremonial one with virtually no effect of the day-to-day affairs of that body.

Cardinal Arns was created a cardinal by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1973. His death leaves only one surviving cardinal, albeit a former cardinal, created by that Pope. He is the Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, created in the four-man consistory of 1977 (the blessed pope’s last one).

Cardinal Arns was also the most senior of the Cardinal-Priests, one of three classes of cardinals. This gave him the office of protopriest, which entailed certain duties following the election of a new Pope. The protopriest pronounces the formal prayer for the new Pope after the protodeacon has bestowed the pallium and before the Dean of the College of Cardinals presents the Ring of the Fisherman. That said, Cardinal Arns never exercised that duty as he was not present at the inauguration of Pope Francis, and Cardinal Danneels acted in his stead.

thai01211The new protopriest is Cardinal Michael Michai Kitbunchu, 87, retired archbishop of Bangkok and created in Pope Saint John Paul II’s second consistory in 1983 (the same consistory in which Cardinals Danneels and Meisner were created. Cardinal Kitbunchu is protopriest only because his name came before theirs on the official list).

Cardinal Paulo Evarista Arns was auxiliary bishop of São Paulo in Brazil from 1966 to 1970, and archbishop of that same see from 1970 to 1998. As cardinal he held the title church of Sant’Antonio da Padova in Via Tuscolana. He had been protopriest since 2012, the third Brazilian in that role after Cardinals Sales (2009-2012) and De Vasconcelos Motta (1977-1982). Cardinal Arns had been in hospital since the end of November for pneumonia. An obituary for the ‘cardinal of the people’ may be read here.

‘t Is the season… – Christmas giving

At Christmas we share with others, giving from what we have. Maybe this blog could also be the recipient of some kind donations this season.

dsc_0752x.jpg

With your donations I can continue bringing news, translations and opinions about the Catholic Church in the Netherlands and countries around it, as well as some of my personal reflections which may be of some benefit to others. You never know, right?

As we enter the eighth year of this blog, I remain grateful for the visits here and the sharing of my blog posts (with due credit, of course) in other media. I think it is important to provide an objective and positive voice about the faith, especially as it is lived in my part of the world, in the wider world.

Donors will obviously be remembered in my prayers.

Donations may be made via the PayPal button below (one is also always present in the left sidebar). In your donation, it is possible to make a specific request or purpose for the money.