Late answer to early vocation

A vocation story from Steven de Koning, deacon in the diocese of Breda, who will be ordained later this month. To quote Fr. Dwight: Chust for nice. 

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Steven de Koning's ordination to the diaconate

On 23 January 2010 Bishop van den Hende will ordain Steven de Koning to the priesthood. Steven de Koning looks back at his vocation as a late answer to an early vocation. 

As priest he wants to be a mediator of faith and faith experiences and be near to people with questions on their path through life. He clarifies: “In our time many people have lost their awe for Holiness. Throughs, through sacraments, conversation and also silence I want to give room to the Holy in their life, let it speak. In silence we can experience that questions are not always answered and that can hurt. The pain and the unanswered questions invite us to be part of life.” Steven de Koning also experienced that pain and those questions in his own life. “My youngest brother has become a widower twice. Both his first and second wife died young. That makes you ask why.” 

Vocation 

My work as a lawyer for the government assumed a makeable world, but in moments like that you find that we don’t know so much, that life is a mystery. I see life more as a gift from God. Life is filled with God’s presence and He invites us to enter into a relationship with Him. That awreness has become more profound throughout my life and has led to my late answer. I have long wondered if I had a vocation. Wasn’t it just a psychological urge? At a certain point I dared to trust that presence of God and His calling.” 

Postponed choice 

Steven comes from a Catholic family from Breda. He ws born in 1953. At twelve years of age he had his first experience of a vocation. “My father’s family included several religious, among them a Marist father. At twelve I had a certain interest for the priesthood. An ‘ambassador’ from the Marists came to visit, and it turned out I was to go to the seminary in Lievelde. That scared me away.” In that time too, society had many questions about mandatory celibacy and the future of the priesthood. That made the choice for priesthood more difficult. He postponed the decision and postponement turned into cancellation. Steven de Koning went to studt law and had a good career as a lawyer with the Departments of Culture, Recreation and Social Work, as well as Justice. 

Dormant desire 

Steven de Koning always felt close to the Church. He freely admits that, as a student, he didn’t go to Church weekly. In The Hague, the self-evidence of the Catholic faith was broken. “I came in contact with Protestants and andere religions. The urge for development in my own faith grew because of that. I became a volunteer in my own parish, took part in catechetical groups, first as participant, later as group leader. In the mid-1990s my employer gave me a chance to reorient myself, because of internal reorganisations. That awake the dormant desire to be a priest. Around 2000 I had various indications that God really did call me. 

God still calls 

A Protestant friend gave me a novena candle. I lit it at Ascension. In my parish at Pentecost that year, I picked up a copy of the diocesan magazine of Rotterdam, which had an article entitled God still calls. It was about men who were called to be priests at a later age. That deeply touched me. I went to find out the origins of the novena candle and ended up in the Vredeskerk in Amsterdam. The priest of that parish invited me to take part in a discussion group about vocations, which he had just created. That was for me a safe place, far away from The Hague, to think about my answer,” Steven smiles. “After a year I decided to study theology at the Catholic Theological University in Utrecht. I had a great time studying there and still have many friends from there.” 

Coming to Breda 

In 2002 Steven de Koning left The Hague and moved to Nijmegen. His youngest brother had become a widower and Steven would be taking care for his three young children. Steven continued his studies and became actief in the Heilig Landstichting parish. The priest there heard of his vocation and encouraged him to get in touch with Bishop Muskens. A meeting with the bishop led to a “heartfelt welcome as seminarian for the diocese”.  Steven contacts then-recot Ham. He was admitted to the seminary Bovendonk where he continued his studies in 2005. 

Bovendonk 

Steven felt at home at Bovendonk and speaks with much appreciation about Rector Ham and the other teachers. “They and Rector Ham especially made it clear to me that studying theology is not the some as becoming a priest. A re-experienced my vocation and strengthened my answer. I increasignyl experience it as a surrender and want to witness more to my faith.” 

Steven de Koning works in the region of Oost-Zeeuws-Vlaanderen. After his ordination he’ll continue to the first responsible for Clinge, Graauw and Nieuw-Namen. On 24 January 2010, at 10:30, he will celebrate his first Holy Mass in the basilica of St. Willibrord in Hulst.

Papal New Year’s Address 2010

Pope Benedict XVI adressed the international diplomatic corps to the Holy See today, in what is the traditional New Year’s address. Essentially it is a case of the Holy Father addressing the world, and as such it is equably applicable to diplomats and other faithful alike.

He speaks about taking care of the environment through care for human life, since creation is one and indivisible. Respect for human life is intricatly connected to respect for creation as a whole. The pope also dispenses specific admonishments to governments and businesses, such as the battle against narcotics, immigration issues, the Christian identity of Europe and Gender issues.

This is the man the pope wants to be on the world stage in 2010, and he asks all of us to join and support him in that.

A link to the text on the Vatican website is mentioned above, and a Dutch translation is here.

Dirty games

Picture this situation:

Two people have a disagreement. One party makes her opinions public on the Internet, the other decides to keep things private. It leads to a petition, requests for official mediation and, for the aforementioned party at least, a lawyer.

Said lawyer makes the request for mediation, that her client has sent to the other party, public on her blog, just like said party has previously done with her reactions to the disagreement.

News media pick it up, a logical result.

I wonder if anyone else thinks this goes beyond considered measures to try and find a solution for the disagreement…

It’s a very dirty game that’s going on.

[For some readers the identity of the parties won’t be a mystery, but I think the identities do not matter. It’s about the case, not the people.]

A new Catholic elite?

 The Geert Grote University in Deventer, a small private academic institution named after the founder of the Devotio Moderna in the Middle Ages, announced today that it is going to establish a trust fund to encourage the development of a ‘Dutch Catholic intellectual elite’. The trust fund will be named for 16th century noblewoman Anna of Twickelo who willed a major part of her inheritance to be used for the establishment of a Catholic university in Deventer. That never happened for various reasons, until the Geert Grote University was established in 2006.

University chairman Jeroen Buve says, “The Geert Grote University wants to achieve the rise of Catholic academics that can make a difference. The enormous silence of the Dutch Catholics must come to an end. This trust can help.” Buve emphasises the importance of intellectual leadership that does not hide its Catholic identity. “Catholic leadership could have prevented the credit crunch. That is not a matter of intelligence, but of intellect. An intellectual does not fly a plane into the Twin Towers, an act that intelligent people were capable of.”

As a part of a general trend among Catholics, I am all for a Catholic elite which is truly Catholic. A well-educated social group, which can defend and explain the teachings of the Church to a signifcantly secular audience, both within and without the Church. And is the latter, the audience outside the Church, that is hardest to reach. In recent years, Catholics may have been rediscovering the gift of speech, but it has almost exclusively been speech among themselves. In order for the Church to do more than simply maintain herself, she must be a visible and audible presence in society as a whole. Can an elite help in that? Perhaps, as long as it does not remain limited to itself, to study and publication for a small audience. That too has its merits, certainly, but not when it coems to reaching out. The people must step forward, capable, knowledgeable and comfortable in their faith. A tall order, perhaps, but not as ultimately tall as sitting back and doing nothing except for talking amongst ourselves.

Links:

Snowblasted

  

The front of the cathedral, snowblasted during the night.  

The combination of snow, wind and freezing temperatures made being outside a chore this morning. The attendance at Mass was subsequently lower than usual and the walk towards the cathedral something like an obstacle course. Still, it was very much doable, although I wouldn’t want to have been outside the city, where motorways saw moving snowdunes and stalled cars. Decidedly un-Dutch circumstances.  

  

NASA’s Terra sattellite shows that december really was colder in the northern hemisphere than usual, compared to the average temperatures between 2000 and 2008. The culprit is apparently something called the Arctic Oscillation. That has to do with the pressure difference between the mid-latitudes (temperate areas such as southern Canada and central Europe) and the Arctic which is smaller than usual, allowing cold air to creep southward and warmer air north.  

The image also counters the thoughtless suggestion that one cold winter proves that there is no global climate change: the Greenland ice cap is quite a lot warmer than normal. Fun things may ensue if that melts.  

NASA Earth Observatory image by Kevin Ward, based on data provided by the NASA Earth Observations (NEO) Project.

A cardinal bids his farewell

Yesterday, today and tomorrow, Godfried Cardinal Danneels, archbishop of Mechlin-Brussels and primate of the Belgian Church Province, bids his official farewell. At 76 years of age, it is time for him to retire. There is no successor yet, but the general expectation is that it won’t be long until Rome names one, and that that will coincide with the official acceptance of the cardinal’s resignation by the pope. Here is the homily he deliver today in Brussels.

It is a very eloquent piece of writing that even touches upon some of the points raised by Msgr. Marini on adoration and liturgy.

 “There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven”, Ecclesiastes says (Ecl. 3,1). There is a time to speak and a time to be silent, a time to start and a time to go. Shepherds come and shepherds go. But there is one Shepherd who continues to take care of you: “the great Shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13,20). And He, He remains: the Christ.

And that Shepherd should the be the focus of today. Jesus. With the author of the Letter to the Hebrews I say: “all you who are holy brothers and share the same heavenly call should turn your minds to Jesus, the apostle and the high priest of our profession of faith.”(Heb. 3,1)

Lift your eyes to Jesus

There is much that can frighten us when we look ahead: the crisis, the Church in the tempest, far fewer people and means and many who search and do not find the way. May I ask you, brothers and sisters, to keep looking towards Jesus? As the Gospel says: He sleeps in the bow of the ship of the Church in the tempest. And we keep saying: “’Master, do you not care? We are lost!” But we know the answer: “Why are you so frightened?” yes, why are we frightened? Fear is the only thing the Lord will blame us for. Not that we did not work enough, or planned or organised enough. But that we had no trust and no faith. That we did not look at Him; that we did not notice and believe that He was there among us. That He was there in the smallest and poorest among us and saw us with their eyes. He was also there in His Word that ceaselessly sounded in the liturgy. Clearly audible. But He is especially among us in the gift of His Body and His Blood. Yes, more, deeper and longer there than anywhere.

Lift yours eyes to Jesus, especially in Eucharistic adoration. I already asked you this at All Souls in 2006. I do it again today, the last time as archbishop. Grant me this.

Love the Church

Another thing: ‘Love the Church.’ I have served her wholeheartedly my entire life. A bishop is married to the Church. That is why he wears a ring. Love the Church! Certainly, she has her wrinkles, no wonder after 2,000 years. The Song of Songs already says: “I am black but lovely… Take no notice of my dark colouring, it is the sun that has burnt me… My mother’s sons made me look after the vineyards” (Songs 1,5-6) To see the Church as she really is – both divine and human – you need faith, that clear vision that can penetrate into the depths; that sees what can’t be seen. For the Church keeps within her an unfathomable mystery. She has something of the darkness and something of the light, sunlight and shadow both come over her. I like to repeat after Saint Augustine: “When I speak of the Church, I can’t stop.” And every time we discover a blemish in her, we must – after a moment of pain – be able to say: “but perhaps that spot on her skin is actually mine, it clings to my skin.” She is my mother and all mothers grow old. But precisely because of that do we appreciate our mother more: she is, after all, mine.

We received everything from the Church: the Scriptures and the sacraments, all the beauty of the liturgy, the tender pastoral care that many have received. We received Mary and all the saints and numerous brothers and sisters in the same faith. The strength of the Church lies in the liturgy. When the liturgy is celebrated beautifully and prayerfully, she creates an image of the Church as she really is: austere and grand at the same time, divine and human. The liturgy is the strongest form of evangelisation we have. No one escapes her mysterious charms. It could be that, in the times to come and the winter of indifference, the liturgy becomes the prime fireplace where we can warm ourselves on the Gospel.

Not of the world, but in the world

Something else. Many of our contemporaries barely know anything of the Gospel. Even its vocabulary is unfamiliar to them. The language is alien. We are almost back at the early days of the Church: a handful of people in a sea of unbelief and indifference. Perhaps more still an ocean of ignorance. What to do? Start to develop a healthy Christian sense of self-awareness. That is not pretense or pride: it is simply standing behind the truth. How can anyone follow us if we are mere shades? No one follows shadow images. To show and confess our identity – without issues and arrogance. We belong to Christ and the Gospel. To dare to be ourselves. It is allowed. It is even mandatory. Because “if the trumpet sounds a call which is unrecognisable, who is going to get ready for the attack?”(1 Cor. 14,8) St. Paul already wrote. Dare to be radically evangelical, and show it without issues.

But more is required. We must dare to take full part in the culture around us: in her science, her knowledge, her progress, the fabulous development of her technology, the modern thinking of modern man, in her art and culture, in the latest sensibilities. Certainly, we need the gift of discernment – not everything on the market is in good condition, after all. But how can one discern, when one does not know anything or wants to know anything?

Christians live on the edge of a knife: the are in the world, but do not belong to the world. That paradox cuts right through their hearts; it crucifies them. Just as it has also crucified Jesus, suspended high between heaven and earth. That is us as well: crucified, hanging between heaven and earth. But exactly there, on that intersection, the resurrection and the new life springs from. Should we start calling out loudly? Sometimes, yes: that is called speaking the language of the prophet. But Isaiah said of Jesus – the servant – “his voice is not heard in the street…” The most important thing has happened, in the silence of the cross. For the silence also speaks.

Speak clearly. But we must seek and find the gift not to sound arrogant, all-knowing or superior when we speak. Speak to serve, not to rule. Speak like Jesus spoke: “He felt sorry for them”. The lay there “like sheep without a shepherd.”(Matt. 9,36) Compassion is suffering with. To like to see people as they are, not as we would prefer them to be.

Perhaps also this: We Christians have a lot to do and we do a lot for the world: we fight for justice, solidarity, for food and for creation… But there is something unique to us: to bring forgiveness and reconciliation into the world. Here and elsewhere. To work towards reconciliation between all those colours, races and languages. In that respect our nation has become a laboratory. To be able to live together we need law and order, of course. But the problems won’t be solved without the service of reconciliation and forgiveness. He who gives lets another live indeed. He is as someone who gives birth, But he who for-gives is someone who raise a dead person.

Looking back at thirty years of shepherdhood among you, what can I say? I see what I have done and have not done. I know my successes and failures, the chances taken and missed, my talents and my flaws, my good and my bad. What to say? This. Maybe this: what the young priest from the novel by Georges Bernanos, ‘Journal d’un curé de campagne, whispered just before he died: “Tout est grâce”. All is grace… Yes. “All is grace”. Is it a coincidence that these were also the words of Saint Teresia of Lisieux? Tout est grâce. All is grace. Thank God with me.

+ Godfried Cardinal DANNEELS,
Archbishop of Mechlin-Brussels