Papal message for World Prayer Day for Vocations

The Vatican released Pope Benedict’s message for the 47th World Day of Prayer for Vocations, this year on 25 April. Like many of his recent messages, this one was written late last year, but released only now.

In it, the Holy Father addresses the role of priests and religious in fostering vocations among young people. Their life is an example and as such they have an obligation to live according to their calling. Read my translation of the message here or via the Translations tab above.

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Homily at the consecration of the new auxiliary bishops

The text of Archbishop Eijk’s homily at the consecration of auxiliary bishops Hoogenboom and Woorts was published today on the website of the Archdiocese of Utrecht. Here is my translation.    

Archbishop Eijk flanked by his new auxiliary bishops, Msgr. Theodorus Hoogenboom and Msgr. Herman Woorts

In today’s Gospel reading we witnessed the meeting of Jesus, the Risen Lord, with some of His disciples at the Sea of Galilee. At that occasion Jesus asked Peter three times: “Do you love me?” When Jesus asks the same question for the third time, it becomes painfully clear to Peter that he betrayed Jesus in the night of Gethsemane three times, before the cock’s crowing. That saddens him.    

The meeting with Jesus confronts Peter with his own weakness, insignificance and failure. That is always painful. But from Peter one thing must be mentioned: his love for Jesus is true and he is remorseful, as his sadness shows. And that is why Jesus fulfills the promise He made to Peter, when he changed His name from Simon to Peter: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church” (Matt. 16,18). Now Jesus truly appoints Peter as leader of the apostles and first pope, by saying: “Look after My sheep”.    

 And that is what Peter would do, until they bring him to the place where he does not want to be, as Jesus had predicted to him: the cross upon he too will die a martyr’s death under Emperor Nero in 64.    

Elsewhere in the New Testament, “look after my sheep” is also said to bishops and priests (1 Pet. 5, 2-4; Acts 20, 28), Looking after, shepherding means here that the pope, bishops and priests bring the people entrusted to their pastoral care to Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life, that they will feed them with God’s Word and the sacraments.    

Msgr. Hoogenboom and Msgr. Woorts: you too have been called by the Risen Lord to look after His sheep. When meeting candidates for confirmation, the bishop is always  asked, “How did you become a bishop, did you really want it?”    

There are no adverts on the Internet or in the newspapers for bishops. Not because advertising is expensive, but simply because you are not expected to apply for it. You are asked. Officially someone is bishop “through the mercy of God and the favour of the Holy See.” In the request from the Holy Father, the steward of Christ on Earth, to become auxiliary bishops of Utrecht, lies the voice of Christ for both of you. We are grateful to you both that you said ‘yes’ to the vocation of the priesthood and that you today say ‘yes’ to the vocation of the episcopate.    

What may you expect from the episcopate? I can assure you one thing, from my own experience: being a bishop is never boring! That may sound quite positive, but – to be honest – a bishop’s could sometimes be a bit more boring, as far as I am concerned. There have been very intense moments, not just for the apostle Peter and the other apostles, but for all their successors, the bishops all over the world.    

I am not telling you anything new. After all, you are both already part of the diocesan curia. You, Msgr. Hoogenboom, have been my vicar general since my appointment as Archbishop of Utrecht, now more than two years ago. And you, Msgr. Woorts, have been diocesan vicar of Utrecht and vicar for the policy sector liturgy since last February. You both have been working with merit in pastoral and official business in our diocese, and that in a period in which we have to make difficult decisions to make the archdiocese healthy again. You can only do that if you are not striving for the popularity prize. And neither of you is. That is why you both expressly chose the following text from the second letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians as today’s first reading: “It is not ourselves that we are proclaiming, but Christ Jesus as the Lord.” You do not work to improve your own image or popularity and falsify God’s Word, but you proclaim it openly.    

Like Peter, bishops can get into situation and be face with decisions that they had preferred to avoid. In that regard, you did not avoid your responsibility as vicar general and diocesan vicar in difficult circumstances. But what is necessary for God’s Church, for the shepherding of the flock, we should also do out of love for the Lord. Looking after the sheep, the pastoral care for the people entrusted to their care, also requires that the bishops make sure that there is enough wholesome and healthy grass in the field for the grazing; more so, they must make sure there even is a field for the grazing.    

Can a man take on such a difficult task? Like Peter all bishops are men with talents and weaknesses. It is often thought that the priesthood and the episcopate ask too much, especially considering celibacy and the limited access to modern society for Christ and His Gospel? As we saw, Peter gains next to forgiveness also a new spirit and a new life because of his encounter with Jesus, the Risen Lord. It is a St. Paul says: “But we hold this treasure in pots of earthenware, so that the immensity of the power is God’s and not our own.”    

For that power we pray during the laying on of hands and the prayer of consecration: the consecrating bishops pray that God may pour the Spirit of authority that He gave to His Son Jesus Christ and the apostles, also over you. We pray for the intercession of Saint Willibrord, the founder and patron saint of our archdiocese, that the Holy Spirit may abundantly bless and make fruitful your pastoral duties as auxiliary bishops. Amen.

Ash Wednesday

The sanctuary at the cathedral. The retable doors are closed to indicate that Lent has begun

My forehead now featuring a blackish smudge, I can say that Lent has truly begun. It feels as if Christmas was just a few weeks ago, but Lent actually isn’t particularly early this year. From now until Easter, the liturgy of the Mass will be sober. There won’t be any ‘alleluiah’ or Gloria, for example, and decorative elements are removed from the sanctuary as far as possible. All this to make the period of fasting and abstinence visible as something performed by the entire Church.

In the past, Lent used to be stricter than it is now. Now only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (like every Friday) are days of fasting. The rest of Lent holds no obligation to fast. Personally, I believe this has contributed to a diminished awareness of what Lent (and consequently Easter) is, so I’ll have none of it. Lent is a 40-day period of fasting and abstinence, with only the Sundays as breaks (the Sunday is by definition a feast day).

Easter is the high point of the liturgical year and a period of preparation, by consciously given things up and realigning oneself to God, seems far from unreasonable. Because Easter, the salvation by Christ, is quite something. It is all that Christianity is about. We can simply not afford to let it pass virtually unnoticed.

So my forehead smudge of ashes indicates my willingness to prepare myself, to give up some creature comforts and refocus myself on God. And I’ll do my very best to live up to that.

Some thoughts on same-sex marriage

On Facebook I joined a little group with the catchy title I bet I can find 1,000,000 people AGAINST same sex marriage! The accuracy of that claim is doubtful of course (the group has some 1,600 members as of the time of writing), but it was created in response to a group with a similar title that was in favour of same-sex marriage. A classic case of sloganeering, I would say.

Anyway, the identity of the group being what it may, I nonetheless joined it and that caused two people to ask me why I am against same-sex marriage. A valid question about a very unpopular position to take, and reason to explain a bit more in this blog. I intend to put the question in a slightly larger framework. I want to take a look at what marriage is and if that idea is in agreement with the modern concept of marriage. To find an answer I want to use my own thoughts about it, obviously, and also some Catholic resources. Yes, I am a Catholic and I support the Catholic ideas about marriage. Don’t say I didn’t warn you 😉

What is marriage?

The Code of Canon Law tells us this: “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized.” [Can. 1055 § 1]

There is a lot of information in these four lines. First of all, marriage is a covenant, a mutual agreement or contract, so to speak. It also involves a man and a woman who establish this agreement between themselves. Marriage is ordered to the good of the spouses, so they will benefit from it, and it will naturally include children and their education. Furthermore, although a human agreement, Christ has raised it to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized. I’ll come back to marriage being a sacrament, but going over these requirement we get a pretty clear picture.

We need a man and a woman who want to be married. Marriage can not be forced. The spouses must not be opposed to having children, because that would take away one of the defining elements of marriage. The inability to conceive or carry a child to term is different, of course, but I won’t go into that here.

The natural order which is alluded to in the above quote from the Code of Canon Law can be described as an order or set of laws which are innate to nature or creation. They were not later enforced on nature, but are a part of it. Of course, like nature, natural law finds its source in God, but He did not create it separately. The natural order becomes visible in the daily tendencies of nature: animals behave in a certain way, plants develop along certain lines in certain circumstances. In humans, and when applied to marriage, we see the natural order in the sexes. Man and woman complement each other, physically but also spiritually: ” This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” [Gen. 2, 23] and “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and they become one flesh” [Gen. 2, 24] (emphasis mine).

Marriage as a sacrament

 Marriage is also a sacrament. What does that mean? Wikipedia tells us that a sacrament is an “outward sign that conveys spiritual grace through Christ.” I have personally heard it defined as “a sign that achieves what it symbolises.” For example, the sacrament of Baptism uses the symbol of flowing water to indicate that we are cleansed from our sins and therefore it achieves that cleansing. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, the bread and wine are symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ and therefore they are the Body and Blood of Christ (but I won’t go into an analysis of the transubstantiation here).

The sacrament of marriage is executed by the spouses themselves (the priest serves as a witness to validate the covenant made). Through the symbols of the rings, for example, the contract is signed and that contract must then be consummated to make it binding. All very official, but that is a summary of this particular sacrament. It is clearly a true and binding contract if the requirements are all met. These requirements are indicated in Holy Scripture and communicated through Tradition. I have already some examples in the quotations above, but there are many more.

Although it is an act of free will from the spouses and they have full control over the closing of the covenant of marriage, it is a covenant made before God. He validates it through His witnesses (the priest and others). The concept of marriage is not human-made, although the execution, to a large extent, is.

Modern views of marriage

Modern society in the west obviously values marriage. Many people get married, and I read recently that an increasing number of people actually get married in churches again. So the idea of marriage as something more than a mere agreement is still present, but I am afraid it is present as a vague sense and not as a well-defined idea. In my opinion, a large number of people get married (if they get married at all) because it is expected of them, or they feel it would make for the most beautiful day of their life, or other reasons. But there is no clear sense of marriage as a covenant made before God, a concept created by Him and so outside of our decisive influence: we can’t change what marriage is, simply because we didn’t create it in the first place.

Marriage, for many people, is an agreement between two people who want to share their lives together. They love each other, they are compatible and they want to grow old together, and these are all very lofty sentiments. But the enormous increase in divorces over the past decades would seem to indicate that there is no longer a clear sense of ‘marriage is forever’. It is a covenant that can not be broken. Marriage is also no longer always by definition good for the spouses, or ordered towards having children. The idea of what marriage is has changed from the definition I outlined above.

Same-sex marriage, the sensible idea?

Taking modern society’s ideas of marriage, there is no problem for two men to get married, or two men. For them, too, it is an agreement between two people who love and each other and want to grow old together. But is that marriage? I would say no. Marriage is much more than that and, like I said, the sacrament has certain requirements that spouses need to fulfill in order for it to be a marriage.

You could argue that we then just need to change the definition of marriage, but, like I said, we can’t since we didn’t create it. It’s as impossible as changing the force of gravity or switching off the sun. Since same-sex marriage can never be marriage according to its basic definition, we shouldn’t call it such. In fact, a lot of marriages between men and women aren’t marriages anymore, for the same reasons.

I have heard people claim that the “homosexual lobby stole our sacrament!” An insensitive comment in these words, to be sure, but one with a core of truth. The old Christian concept of marriage has, over the years, been adopted and changed by an increasingly secular society. This has been a relatively gradual process and at its root lies a lack of knowledge and education for which the Church is just as much to blame as any ‘secular lobby’ you’d care to mention.

Conclusion

Why am I against same-sex marriage? Well, I think I’ve clarified it a bit: it is not marriage according to its original definition. The sacraments are means by which God communicates His grace to us. We don’t need all sacraments (some, such as marriage and Holy Orders, exclude each other), but we need the ones we do receive in their totality. We can’t choose the bits and pieces of the sacraments that we like. If two people wish to share a life together before God, they’ll get married in the fullness of that sacrament. If two people wish to share a life together just because they want and God is not included in the decision, they do not get married.

The natural order, which I mentioned above, also plays a part in this, of course. I won’t go into too much detail (this post is long enough as it is), but there is serious problem with anything that is not in agreement with this natural order. Issues like abortion, euthanasia and, indeed, homosexuality are not in agreement with the natural order and should be handled with care, so to speak.

Does that mean that I, or the Church, hate homosexuals? Not in the least. It was Gandhi who told us to love the sinner, but hate the sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it better than I can, and I’ll close this post with this (emphases mine):

2357: Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358: The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

2359: Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

For continued reading: Persona Humana, declaration on certain questions concerning sexual ethics, published in 1975 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may be interesting.

I realise this is a sensitive and emotional topic and that is why I want to stress that everyone is welcome to reply as long as they do not descend into personal attacks or impolite shouting. Debate is a good thing, but requires more than just emotion.

Settling the matter?

A very interesting development in the ongoing argument concerning Archbishop Eijk’s decision to fire a volunteer, Ms. Nelly Stienstra, from parish duties, after she had publically made him out to be a liar. As we know she then went public with her allegations, some true, others not, and her lawyer, Ms. Erica Schruer, followed suit by publishing a private letter to the archbishop on her blog. It now becomes clear that the archbishop forwarded the issue to Rome, where Archbishop Mauro Piacenza, secretary of the Congregation for the Clergy, concerned himself with clarifying matters. He sent a letter to Archbishop Eijk, dated 18 January, and that letter has now been released to the public. Here is the Dutch version, and the English translation is at the bottom of this post.

There is a press release from the archdiocese here, from which I highlight the second paragraph:

“Earlier this month, Archbishop Eijk had made an appointment to meet with Ms. Stienstra and her advisor, Ms. Schruer, to give her the opportunity to explain her vision and actions. But this meeting was cancelled by both ladies a few days in advance, because of “the archbishop’s comments in the media about Ms. Stienstra.” Ms. Stienstra requested mediation from Msgr. van Luyn or Msgr. de Korte. When asked about it, both said not to be willing. If mediation would prove to be not possible, Ms. Stienstra wanted to go to the diocesan office of litigation. The archdiocese points out that Stienstra’s advisor, Ms. Schruer, has depicted Archbishop Eijk in the past weeks as someone who lies and who follows a “culture of account settlement”. She has also suggested that Msgr. Eijk was unable to find co-consecrators for the consecration of this Saturday, a fact [sic] that he could use “when tendering his resignation on health grounds, because his work would have been made impossible, losing the logic of cause and effect out of sight – but that is a chronic problem with this patient.”

All the same, Msgr. Eijk was willing to have an open conversation, but that is now no longer an option. Putting the question to the diocesan litigation office is, following the letter from Msgr. Piacenza, now also pointless: Rome has already decided that Msgr. Eijk acted within his rights. The litigation office can’t judge that.”

The difference in attitude between the archbishop on the one hand and Ms. Stienstra and her advisor on the other is striking. Whereas the archbishop only went public to correct the allegations made against him or to communicate something factual, his opponents published every allegation, private communication and even dragged in other events (such as the consecration of the two auxiliary bishops, other issues in the archdiocese and Church province and even abroad) to take potshots at the archbishop.

I wonder what they’ll try next. To me it seems the matter is settled. It’s not a nice situation, but the archbishop was within his rights.

 

Congregation for the Clergy

From the Vatican, 18 January 2010

Most Reverend Excellency,

Concerning the question if your Excellency can prevent a lay person from performing the duties of lector during the Eucharist in the cathedral, the following:

According to can. 230, $2 of the Code of Canon Law, “Lay persons can fulfill the function of lector in liturgical actions by temporary designation…” the judgement of suitability for this appointment lies in the first place with the diocesan bishop and only subordinately to the priest who performs pastoral care for the community he is responsible for “under the authority of the diocesan bishop.” (can. 519).

Since, as can. 838, $1, says: “The direction of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church which resides in the Apostolic See and, according to the norm of law, the diocesan bishop.” The regulation of the holy liturgy is solely submitted to the authority of the Church. In a specific Church it is the diocesan bishop who, iure nativo, is repsonsible for the liturgy, he regulates is and at the ministry of the sacrament (cf. cann. 838 $1 and 4, 841).

Within the bounds of his own authority and in agreement with the regulations published by the Holy See, the bishop is allowed to establish norms for the liturgy, taking into account special circumstances and local needs. Clergy and faithful are bound to these norms, including any exempt institutes: “Within the limits of his competence, it pertains to the diocesan bishop in the Church entrusted to him to issue liturgical norms which bind everyone.” (Can 838, $4)

Since the faithful, “even in their own manner of acting, are always obliged to maintain communion with the Church” (209, $1) and “are bound to follow with Christian obedience those things which the sacred pastors, inasmuch as they represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or establish as rulers of the Church” (212, $1), is, seen in this perspective, he who incites a hostile attitude, in word and deed, to the bishop, clearly not suited for the role of lector in liturgical acts. The bishop can very well take comparable steps, since he “is bound to promote the common discipline of the whole Church and therefore to urge the observance of all ecclesiastical laws”(can. 392, $1) and “he is to exercise vigilance so that abuses do not creep into ecclesiastical discipline, especially regarding the ministry of the word, the celebration of the sacraments and sacramentals, the worship of God and the veneration of the saints…” (can. 392, $2).

Wishing your loyal pastoral care much fruitfulness,
In greatest regard,
Yours in the Lord,

+Mauro Piacenza
Tit. Archbishop of Vittoriana
Secretary

Photo reports of yesterday’s bishops consecration

Circumstances sadly prevented me from being in Leeuwarden today, but that does give me the opportunity to share some photos of yesterday’s consecration of Bishops Woorts and Hoogenboom, auxiliaries of the Archdiocese of Utrecht. 

Archbishop Eijk consecrates Bishop Woorts. At left is Bishop de Kok doing the same for Bishop Hoogenboom

 

More photos are here and here.