2016, a look back

Another year nears its end, the seventh of this blog, which is always a good opportunity to look back, especially at what has appeared here in the blog over the course of 2016. I have grouped things loosely in various categories, so as to give an impression of cohesion.

francisPope Francis at work

In Rome, and despite turning 80 this year, Pope Francis kept up the pace, introducing several changes, expected and unexpected. First, in January, he issued a decree which opened the rite of foot washing on Maundy Thursday also for women. I reflected on it here.

On Ash Wednesday, the Holy Father sent out 1,000 missionaries of mercy, among them 13 Dutch priests, as part of the ongoing Holy Year of Mercy.

Pope Francis commented on the question of female deacons, which led to much debate, at least in Catholic social media. I also shared my thoughts.

A smaller debate revolved around an instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, approved by the Pope, about Christian burial.

The reform of the Curia also continued, first with the creation of the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life and the appoinment of Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell as its first prefect; and then with the creation of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, for which the Pope picked Cardinal Peter Turkson as head.

Cardinals of St. LouisPope Francis also added to the College of Cardinals, as he called his third consistory, choosing seventeen new cardinals from all over the world.

Towards the end of the year, and following the end of the Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter about the absolution from the sin of abortion, a faculty now extended to all priests.

The Pope abroad

Pope Francis made several visits abroad this year. To Cuba and Mexico, to Greece, to Armenia, to Poland, to Georgia and Azerbaijan, but the last one received the most attention here. For two days, Pope Francis put ecumenism in the spotlight during his visit to Sweden. Announced in January as a one-day visit, a second day was added in June. In October, the Nordic bishops previewed the visit in a pastoral letter, which I published in English.

The abuse crisis

Still here, and unlikely to go completely away in the next years or decades, the abuse crisis continues to haunt the Church. in February there were shocked reactions to comments made by a prelate during a conference on how bishops should handle abuse allegations. I tried to add some context here. In the Netherlands there was indignation when it became clear that a significant number of abuse cases settled out of court included a secrecy clause, preventing victims from speaking negatively about the Church institutions under whose care they suffered abuse. In April, the annual statistics of abuse cases processed and compensation paid out were released.

Amoris laetitia

In April Amoris laetitia was released, the Post-Synodal Exhortation that was the fruit of the two Synod of Bishops assemblies on the family. Cardinal Eijk, the Dutch delegate to the assemblies, offered his initial thoughts about the document, followed by many other bishops.

4cardinalsWhile the document was broadly lauded, an ambuguous footnote led to much discussion. In November, four cardinals publised a list of dubia they presented to the Pope, but which received no answer. Citing the clear uncertainty about certain parts of Amoris laetitia, visible in the wide range of conclusions drawn, the cardinals respectfully asked for clarification, which they will most likely not be getting, at least not in the standard way.

The local churches

There were many more and varied events in local churches in the Netherlands and beyond. Theirs is a very general category, aiming to showcase some of the more important and interesting developments in 2016.

In January, the Belgian bishops elected then-Archbishop Jozef De Kesel as their new president. At the same time, Cardinal Wim Eijk announced that he would not be available for a second term as president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference. In June, Bishop Hans van den Hende was chosen to succeed him.

bisschop HurkmansBishop Antoon Hurkmans retired as Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and in January he sent his final message to the faithful of his diocese, asking for unity with the new bishop. In April, rumours started floating that the bishops had suggested Bishop Hurkmans as new rector of the Church of the Frisians in Rome.

The Dioceses of Rotterdam and Groningen-Leeuwarden celebrated the 60th anniversary of their establishment.

On Schiermonnikoog, the Cistercian monks, formerly of Sion Abbey, found a location for their new monastery.

The Dutch and Belgian bishops announced a new translation of the Lord’s Prayera new translation of the Lord’s Prayer, to be introduced on the first Sunday of Advent.

church-498525_960_720A photograph of the cathedral of Groningen-Leeuwarden started appearing across the globe as a stock photo in articles about the Catholic Church. It continues to do so, as I saw it appear, some time last week, in an advert for a concert by a Dutch singer.

Speaking in Lourdes in May, Roermond’s Bishop Frans Wiertz spoke open-heartedly about his deteriorating Eyesight.

In June, Fr. Hermann Scheipers passed away. The 102-year-old priest was the last survivor of Dachau concentration camp’s priest barracks.

In that same month, the nestor of the Dutch bishops marked the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. Bishop Huub Ernst is 99 and currently the sixth-oldest bishop in the world.

In Belgium, the new Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels closed down the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles, erected by his predecessor, to the surprise of many.

Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt received a personal message and blessing from Pope Francis on the occasion of the 18th Coronation Feasts held in Hasselt in the summer.

willibrordprocessie%202014%2006%20img_9175The annual procession in honour of St. Willibrord in Utrecht was criticised this year after the archbishop chose to limit its ecumenical aspect. I shared some thoughts here.

In Norway, Trondheim completed and consecrated a new cathedral. English Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was sent to represent the Holy Father at the event.

The retired archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, André-Joseph Léonard, was heard from again when a new book featured his thoughts about never having been made a cardinal, unlike his immediate predecessors and, it turned out at about the time of the book’s publication, is successor.

At the end of the year, Berlin was hit by terrorism as a truck plowed through a Christmas market, killing 12 and wounding numerous others. Archbishop Heiner Koch offered a poetic reflection.

The Dutch Church abroad

In foreign media, the Catholic Church in the Netherlands also made a few headlines.

naamloosIn September, Cardinal Eijk was invited to speak at the annual assembly of the Canadian bishops, sharing his experiences and thoughts concerning the legalisation of assisted suicide. In the wake of that meeting, he also floated the idea that the Pope could write an encyclical on the errors of gender ideology.

in Rome, 2,000 Dutch pilgrims were met by Pope Francis, who spoke to them about being channels of mercy.

The new Dutch translation of the Our Father also sparked fears in some quarters that the bishops were leading everyone into heresy, leading to many faithful revolting against the new text. The truth was somewhat less exciting.

Equally overexcited was the report of empty parishes and starving priests in the Netherlands. I provided some necessary details here.

In Dutch

While my blog is written in English, there have also been three blog posts in Dutch. All three were translations of texts which were especially interesting or important. The first was my translation of the joint declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, an important milestone in ecumenical relations between the Catholic and the Russian Orthodox Churches.

IMG_7842Then there was the headline-making address by Cardinal Robert Sarah at the Sacra Liturgia Conference in London, in which the cardinal invited priests to start celebrating ad orientem again. But the text contained much more than that, and remains well worth reading.

Lastly, I provided translations of all the papal addresses and homilies during the Holy Father’s visit to Sweden. I kept the post at the top of the blog for a while, as a reflection of its importance for Dutch-speaking Christians as well.

A thank you

Twice in 2016 I asked my readers to contribute financially to the blog. In both instances several of you came through, using the PayPal button in the sidebar to donate. My gratitude to you remains.

2016 in appointments

Obituary

As every year, there is also death. Notewrothy this year were the following:

  • 26 March: Bishop Andreas Sol, 100, Bishop emeritus of Amboina.
  • 31 March: Georges-Marie-Martin Cardinal Cottier, 93, Cardinal-Priest of Santi Domenico e Sisto, Pro-Theologian emeritus of the Prefecture of the Papal Household.
  • 16 May: Giovanni Cardinal Coppa, 90, Cardinal-Deacon of San Lino, Apostolic Nuncio emeritus to the Czech Republic.
  • 26 May: Loris Cardinal Capovilla, 100, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Archbishop-Prelate emeritus of Loreto.
  • 9 July: Silvano Cardinal Piovanelli, 92, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria della Grazie a Via Trionfale, Archbishop emeritus of Firenze.
  • 2 August: Franciszek Cardinal Macharski, 89, Cardinal-Priest of San Giovanni a Porta Latina, Archbishop emeritus of Kraków.
  • 18 August: Bishop Jan Van Cauwelaert, 102, Bishop emeritus of Inongo.
  • 13 November: Bishop Aloysius Zichem, 83, Bishop emeritus of Paramaribo.
  • 21 November: Bishop Maximilian Ziegelbauer, 93, Auxiliary Bishop emeritus of Augsburg.
  • 14 December: Paulo Cardinal Arns, Cardinal-Priest of Sant’Antonio da Padova in Via Tuscolana, Archbishop emeritus of São Paulo, Protopriest of the College of Cardinals.

For the sin of abortion, Papal letter gives priests power to absolve and lift excommunication

In his Apostolic Letter Misericordia et misera, published today, Pope Francis looks back on the Holy Year of Mercy, which ended yesterday, and announces some special decisions made for that year, which he wishes to continue. Among these is the faculty of all priests to absolve penitents from the sin of abortion. While this faculty was already given to priests of various countries, including the Netherlands, by local bishops, it is now a worldwide step. It is hoped, like it was when the Pope first announced it at the start of the Holy Year, that this makes it easier for people who performed an abortion or had one performed to come forward and receive the Lord’s forgiveness.

Abortion, as the Pope also emphasises in his Letter, remains a grave sin, and that means that there is a little more involved than only absolution. Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam and a doctor in canon law, explains things in a blog post today and refers to various canons from the Code of Canon Law:

jan_hendriks“There is an excommunication attached to the committing of an abortion (c. 1398). The Pope does not expressly mention this. He only speaks about ‘absolving’, freeing from sin. Being freed from the excommunication is a requirement for receiving absolution and being freed from sin. Therefore, the words of the Pope implicitly include for all priests the faculty to lift the excommunication.

So a priest can absolve for abortion and this faculty can, in principle, be exercised everywhere in the world (unless a local bishop or vicar would, in particular cases, deny this (c. 967, par.2), but that will not happen often).

The Pope once again emphases both the serious nature of the sin of abortion and the need to approach those who have committed abortion with love: there is no sin that can destroy the mercy of God!”

There has been some criticism against the papal letter for its lack of clarity in this matter. Bishop Hendriks’ explanation would indicate that the ability to absolve the sin includes the faculty to lift the automatically incurred excommunication. A penitent person who’s sin has been forgiven in the sacrament of Confession, is therefore automatically free to participate in the life of the Church again, as he or she is no longer excommunicated.

After death, no changes from Rome – some thoughts about the CDF Instruction

cemeteryAd resurgendum cum Christo is nothing new. Today’s Instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presents no new teachings or policies regarding the burial of the dead. Rather, it aims to underline why the Church prefers burial over cremation in a time when cremation is on the rise. In short, burial confirms faith in the resurrection of the body, shows the dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person, and it corresponds to the respect owed to the body as an temple of the Holy Spirit. Also significant in this Holy Year of Mercy: burying the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy.

Has the Church been opposed to cremation, and does it continue to be, then? Not at all. Objectively, cremation does not “negate the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body” (n. 4). Like with burial, the Church asks that the ashes be placed in a sacred place, such as a cemetery or other area set aside by compentent Church authorities. Like the buried body, the ashes of the deceased should be similarly included in the prayers of the living and are deserving of continuous respect. Their location helps to assure that.

The most interesting part of the Instruction, in my opinion, is that these considerations and requirements aim to prevent any form of superstition (paragraph 7 mentions pantheism, naturalism and nihilism as reasons to not allow the scattering of ashes “in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way”).

We are created in the image of God, in body and spirit. Through Baptism our bodies have become home to the Holy Spirit. Human beings have an innate dignity which flows directly from our created nature. This dignity does not stop at death. Our bodies continue to be deserving of respect. In life we have shown our faith through our actions and words. In death we remain able to show our faith in the bodily ressurection in which Christ went before us. Physical life may end at death, but the two are not separate. In our modern western society we have grown used to keeping death out of sight (which probably accounts for how easily we allow such horrors like abortion and euthanasia), but life and death are integral to our existence and our faith, as Ad resurgendum cum Christo underlines in its second paragraph:

“Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning. The Christian vision of death receives privileged expression in the liturgy of the Church: “Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended, and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven” [Roman Missal, Preface I for the Dead]. By death the soul is separated from the body, but in the resurrection God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul. In our own day also, the Church is called to proclaim her faith in the resurrection: “The confidence of Christians is the resurrection of the dead; believing this we live” [Tertullian, De Resurrectione carnis, 1,1].”

Photo credit: Inge Verdurmen

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.

Pope in the air – on understanding papal communication

Ah, the joy of papal in-flight press conferences. They are not his invention, but under Pope Francis they’ve become something both looked forward to and feared by many. His most recent one, on the return flight from Mexico, was no exception.

Vatican Pope Zika

When it comes to communication, Pope Francis’ preference seems to lie with the verbal variety. In conversations, homilies and speeches he relies on animation, vocal emphasis, gestures and spontaneous interjections to get his message across. This makes him a fascinating voice to listen to, but in writing, I find, he is more of a challenge. There are exceptions, such as his encyclicals Lumen Fidei and Laudato si’ or the Bull Misericordiae vultus, which are intended to be read rather than heard. But when we read his daily homilies, transcripts of interviews and speeches (certainly the ones he gives without preparation), something gets lost, something that is there in forms of communication other than speech.

Pope Francis commented on a variety of topics on his flight back to Rome last Thursday, including some which were bound to get journalists writing: sexual abuse, immigration, the meeting with Patriarch Kirill, politics (Mexican, Italian, American), abortion, divorce, forgiveness… And in a transcription, especially a translated one (such as here), we can see traces of the interjections but the non-verbal communication is completely absent, of course. And a significant part of the message is lost as a result. This is something to keep in mind when reading what the Pope has said.

Some commenters state that Popes do not issue authoritative magisterial teaching in airplane interviews, and they are right. But they are not right in automatically disregarding such interviews as meaningless for that reason. Pope Francis has not changed any part of the doctrine of the Catholic Church, and he never intended to. We should not read his comments as such. We should read (or, to get the full message, hear) them as an effort by the Holy Father to explain something, to teach about what the Church teaches and how she acts or speaks in certain situations or on certain topics.

It is important to also have this in the back of our heads when listening to the Pope in a press conference. The Pope does. His comments are made on the presumption that Church teaching is given. It is not made or changed in the interview, but underlies whatever is being said. And of course the comments can be debated, criticised, applauded or even ignored. They should, however, never be made out to be something they are not: doctrinal statements. The Pope has other channels for those.

Photo credit: Alessandro Di Meo/Pool Photo via AP

Sent out into the world for mercy

logoWednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent (yes, it’s almost Lent already), and in this Holy Year of Mercy it is also the day of another notable event: the day on which more than one thousand special “missionaries of mercy” are sent out by the Pope into the world, to manifest God’s mercy in a specific way, by their ability to forgive the most grave of sins, which are usually beholden to bishops or the Pope alone.

Earlier, we already learned that all priests in the world have been given to authority to forgive the sin of abortion (normally residing with the bishop, all Dutch priests have had this faculty already). Archbishop Rino Fisichella, who is the chief organiser of the events of the Holy Year, outlines the five sins which can only be forgiven by the special missionaries of mercy. These are:

  • Desecration of the Eucharist
  • Breaking the seal of confession
  • Consecrating a bishop without papal approval
  • Sexual contacts by a priest and the person he has those contacts with
  • Violent actions against the Pope

Of course, some of these are more likely to happen than others, but they all touch upon the core values of our faith and Church: the sanctity of sacraments, the unity of the Church and the seriousness of vows and promises. By making the forgiveness for such sins more easily available, Pope Francis wants to emphasise that, even in such serious matters, mercy comes first (with the caveat that true mercy always incorporates justice).

12647487_441962256013964_8703646690579720740_n13 priests from the Netherlands and 33 from Belgium (11 from Flanders, 22 from Wallonia) will be appointed as missionaries of mercy. One of the Dutch priests is Fr. Johannes van Voorst, of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam (one of seven from that diocese; the other six come from the Diocese of Roermond). Fr. Johannes (seen above offering Mass at St. Paul Outside the Walls today) will be going to Rome to receive his mandate, together with some 700 of his brother priests (the remaining 350 or so will receive their mandate at home). His adventures in Rome can be followed via his Facebook page, where he also posts in English.

After receiving their mission, the names of the missionaries will be made known, so that they can be at the disposal of the faithful in the country.

An archbishop’s first tempest

de keselLess then two months in, Archbishop Jozef De Kesel weathered his first true storm these past few days, as his comments about the freedom of Catholic hospitals to refuse performing euthanasia led to strong criticism, even from politicians.

In an interview last Saturday, the archbishop was asked what he thought about freedom of choice in matters of abortion and euthanasia. He answered:

“I can understand that someone with a secular view of life has no problems with it. But it is not evident from my faith. I think I am allowed to say that, and what’s more: I also think that we have the right, on an institutional level, to decide not to do it. I am thinking, for example, of our hospitals. You are not free to choose if there is only one option.”

Critics then accused Archbishop De Kesel of disregarding the law in Belgium and urging others, namely Catholic hospitals, to do the same. But others, among them politicians, lawyers and legal experts, soon countered that no such thing was the case. They pointed out that the law does not create a right to be euthanised or have an abortion performed. Institutions, parliamentary documents indicate, are free to refuse such life-ending measures within their walls. However, their obligation to offer all the necessary medical care available does include the option of referral to other institutions or persons who do offers euthanasia or abortion. This is problematic from a Catholic point of view, but that is not what the hubbub was about. Archbishop De Kesel was correct in his statement that institutions should be free to make the choice to not end the lives of their patients.

Even before his appointment to Brussels, Archbishop De Kesel has been criticised for his perceived lack of support for the Catholic doctrines regarding the sanctity of all life. At his installation, there were protesters in front of the cathedral emphasising just this.*

Some said that the archbishop should have used the occasion to say that no Catholic institution can offer to end a life, be it unborn or elderly (or otherwise deemed unsuited to live). And unequivocal statements like that remain necessary, especially in a society where euthanasia and abortion are considered normal medical procedures and even part of a person’s rights. On the other hand, it will not always be effective to do so. The interview in question focusses on the person of the archbishop, and his experiences and thoughts, rather than official Catholic teaching. Of course the latter gets a look in, and a bishop can’t go and deny or ignore it when it does, and Archbishop De Kesel doesn’t. He sheds his personal light on it, not that of the official magisterium. And more often than not, these two overlap (about priestly celibacy, for example, he says: “I am not opposed to celibacy. I think it can be very useful, and personally I have never had the idea that I was a loser or that I missed something because I am celibate. Married people also miss all kinds of things. It is simply a matter of choice”).

Of course, bishops and priests (and lay Catholics, for that matter) must take care not to keep the pendulum on the side of personal experiences and thoughts alone. In the end, a bishop has the duty to teach and communicate the faith that has been taught and communicated to him, regardless of what he personally thinks of it.

In the context of this question, it is clear that the Church opposes the killing of people, no matter the situation. That includes abortion and euthanasia. Persons or institutions calling themselves Catholic are obliged to uphold this. Archbishop De Kesel has said that they should be free to do so, and the law supports this. The Church does not oblige non-Catholics to follow her teachings (although she greatly hopes and desires for them do so).

Archbishop Jozef De Kesel is in the spotlight, now that he is the primus inter pares of the Belgian Church, and that can be both positive and negative. He is experiencing much the same things as his predecessor, Archbishop Léonard, when he took up the job.

*This makes me wonder: why are we always looking at prelates and other Church officials to vocally defend life, when it is clear what the Church teaches? Why only them and not us? Are we less Catholic? Are we somehow less obliged to uphold the sanctity of life? I think that if we take our own responsibility (and not just in these matters either) in defending our faith, we would soon discover the bishops and priests, that we now look towards with expectation, at our side.