2019: A look ahead

A new year, so a good time to look ahead to what 2019 may bring. The year will undoubtedly have its share of surprises, but there are always some things we can know for sure.

Among these is the inevitable progression of time, and thus the aging out of cardinals. In 2019, ten cardinals will celebrate their 80th birthday and so lose their right to participate in a conclave for the election of a new pope, as well as any duties they may have in the curia. The umber of cardinal-electors will drop from 124 to 114. Still a sufficient number, but Pope Francis has shown that he wants to keep the electors as close to their theoretical maximum of 120 (or over it, as the case is now), so a consistory may be in the books sometime towards the end of the year, or at the start of 2020.

The cardinals aging out are:

  • jrkruk_20130907_kard_stanislaw_dziwisz_wislica_img_3893b30 January: Alberto Cardinal Suárez Inda, archbishop emeritus of Morelia, Mexico
  • 11 March: Orlando Beltran Cardinal Quevedo, archbishop emeritus of Cotabato, Philippines
  • 8 April: Edwin Frederick Cardinal O’Brien, Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem
  • 27 April: Stanislaw Cardinal Dziwisz, archbishop emeritus of Kraków, Poland (pictured at right)
  • 31 July: John Cardinal Tong Hon, bishop emeritus and apostolic administrator of Hong Kong, China
  • 16 August: Seán Baptist Cardinal Brady, archbishop emeritus of Armagh, Northern Ireland
  • 7 October: Laurent Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya, archbishop emeritus of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • 11 October: Zenon Cardinal Grocholewski, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Catholic Education
  • 14 October: Edoardo Cardinal Menichelli, archbishop emeritus of Ancona-Osimo, Italy
  • 15 October: Telesphore Placidus Cardinal Toppo, archbishop emeritus of Ranchi, India

Who may replace these cardinals among the electors is guesswork, as Pope Francis has never felt bound to pick his cardinals from the traditional places. Still, the list above could give some hints and we may assume that the Holy Father will choose cardinals for countries who no longer have any. That said, possible candidates could be Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski of Kraków, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh and Archbishop Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa. Another source of new cardinals are the papal visits Pope Francis makes. He has made some of hosts cardinals in the past before. It may therefore be possible that we may see new cardinals from Panama, the Arabian peninsula, Morocco, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania (all confirmed visits), and perhaps Japan, Mozambique and Uganda (rumoured visits).

Closer to home, a number of dioceses will be looking forward to new bishops this year. In the Netherlands, the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam has just received a coadjutor bishop, although the sitting ordinary, Bishop Jos Punt, expects to remain in office until his 75th birthday in 2021. Health permitting, of course.

luc van looy gent - bisdom genrt_0In Belgium, Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent (pictured at left) has already had his retirement accepted. At 77, he completed a two-year extension to his mandate last year. He is to remain in office until the appointment and installation of his successor. Namur’s Bishop Remy Vancottem is, at 75, also past retirement age, so the southeastern diocese may see a new bishop before the year is out as well.

In Germany, Bishop Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg will turn 75 in June. Among the country’s auxiliary bishops, there is room in Freiburg im Breisgau where erstwhile auxiliary Bishop Michael Gerber was appointed to Fulda in December.

In the headline-making department, there is of course next month’s meeting of the heads of all the bishops’ conferences in Rome, to discuss a unified Church response to the abuse crisis. Among the participants will be Bishop Hans van den Hende for the Netherlands, Cardinal Jozef De Kesel for Belgium, Cardinal Reinhard Marx for Germany and Bishop Czeslaw Kozon for Scandinavia.

Currently gearing up in Panama, the World Youth Days will take place from 22 to 27 January. The first group of Dutch pilgrims have departed for the Central American country today, with more to follow. Among them will be Bishops Everard de Jong and Jan Hendriks. Bishop de Jong is again replacing Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, who has decided to stay at home as he is recovering from unplanned – and not further specified – surgery. Last year, Bishop Mutsaerts elected not to take part in the Synod assembly on youth and vocation in Rome. Bishop de Jong went in his stead.

cq5dam.thumbnail.cropped.750.422In October, the Synod of Bishops will gather again for a special assembly for the Pan-Amazonian region, to discuss the specific challenges for the Church there. The expectations are high, as many assume to what will be decided there, especially on the topic of married priests, will have global consequences. Participation in the special assembly is limited to bishops from the area, which means there is a minute Dutch link, at least when it comes to language, in the person of the bishop of Paramaribo, Msgr. Karel Choennie. Bishop Choennie is a member of the pre-synodal council preparing the special assembly in cooperation with Synod of Bishops’ general secretariat.

2019 will undoubtedly bring much to be discussed in (social) media, and there is still plenty being carried over from previous years. Keeping track of everything, let alone formulating thoughts and responses can sometimes be a challenge, but it’s probably a good idea to remember that not finding words or timely responses does not mean one does not care. There are many opinions, and many eloquent ones at that, to be found everywhere. And, perhaps more importantly, there are also answers to be found in the past. After all, what was true and good in the past remains true and good now. That is something to remember when we are confronted with questions and developments which seem to challenge our beliefs, understanding and even faith. We have a deposit of faith and exegesis to fall back on, and many of today’s questions and challenges are not new ones.

Photo credit: [1] Jarosław Roland Kruk / Wikipedia, licence: CC-BY-SA-3.0, [2] kerknet.be

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Head of the Dutch bishops meets the Pope – some speculations about how the Church fights abuse

Although no details have emerged about yesterday’s private audience of Bishop Hans van den Hende and Dr. Wim Deetman with Pope Francis, the mere names of the participants make it virtually impossible to not conclude that the abuse crisis must have been at the heart of the encounter.

DSC_2699_31481e79b67ab70c5ca711c62299f166Bishop van den Hende (at right) is the bishop of Rotterdam and the president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and, as such, will take part in February’s meeting in Rome with all the heads of the world’s bishops’ conference to discuss the abuse crisis and formulate a unified response. Dr. Deetman, former education minister and mayor of The Hague, headed the investigation into historical sexual abuse within the Catholic Church on behalf of the bishops and the Conference of Dutch Religious.

A recent study by the Dutch Broadcast Foundation (NOS) reveals that, in the seen years since the publication of the Deetman Commission’s conclusions, there have been 103 background checks on priests who were under consideration of being transferred or appointed in one of the Dutch dioceses. In one case a bishop blocked such a transfer or appointment because of past abuse claims against the priest involved. Similarly, a further 46 claims of “unacceptable behaviour” have been made since 2015, eight of which involved sexually unacceptable behaviour committed after the publication of the Deetman report. These all involved adults, not minors, and three of the claims are still under investigation. Two of the claims involve an unnamed religious movement which does not fall under the authority of a bishop and is also not a member of the Conference of Dutch Religious. An unidentified auxiliary bishop has informed the Vatican and the police about the movement and the claims against them, as well as his own bishop, who is keeping an eye on the developing situation.

Also interesting in light of the private audience is a letter sent to the participants in the meeting on “The Protection of Minors in the Church”, scheduled to take place from 21 to 24 February. The letter, issued by the organising committee consisting of Cardinals Cupich and Gracias, Archbishop Scicluna and Father Zollner, emphasised that “Absent a comprehensive and communal response, not only will we fail to bring healing to victim survivors, but the very credibility of the Church to carry on the mission of Christ will be in jeopardy throughout the world.” The authors urge the Conference presidents to reach out to and meet with victims before the meeting, something which the Dutch bishops, as well as bishops from other countries, have been doing over the last few years. In other countries, however, this is something new.* The letter concludes: “[E]ach of us needs to own this challenge, coming together in solidarity, humility, and penitence to repair the damage done, sharing a common commitment to transparency, and holding everyone in the Church accountable.”

As said, it will probably remain unknown what Bishop van den Hende and Dr. Deetman discussed with the Pope, unless one of them chooses to reveal something, but if the abuse crisis was discussed, perhaps the actions of the Dutch bishops, which can be an example of correct policies, not just for the Church, but for society as a whole, will influence the preparations of the February meeting in a constructive and positive way.

* A recent development from the Archdiocese of Cologne comes to mind, where a priest from Cameroon had been working among the French-speaking faithful. This despite the fact that he had been laicised in his home diocese. However, for his work abroad, his bishop is said to have issued letters confirming his good standing… The exact details remain unclear. The laicisation is aid to have taken place in 2013, and there is talk of an emeritus bishop of the Archdiocese of Bertoua having provided credentials to the former priest. The only living emeritus archbishop of that see is Belgian-born Roger Pirenne, who retired in 2009. Why credentials were seemingly issued by a retired bishop, instead of current Archbishop Joseph Atanga, remains unclear. It is clear, however, that the abuse issues is not yet being taken seriously in all parts of the world. Let’s hope that the February meeting can do something to change that.

Photo credit: KN/Jan Peeters

Now a C6, Pope’s advisory council sees three members go

cq5dam.thumbnail.cropped.750.422The decision was not unexpected, but it may have important repercussions for the future work of the Council of Cardinals as well as for Pope Francis’ efforts to reform the Curia. In September, the nine-member Council had requested the pope to reflect on “the work, structure and composition of the Council itself, also taking into account the advanced age of some members”, as today’s press release has it. At the time, I speculated that the most likely Council members to be let go were Cardinals George Pell, Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa and Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya. It turns out that I was right.

card_monsengwuThe three cardinals are all of advanced age, with Cardinal Pell being the youngest at 77. In fact, only for Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya would age have been the sole reason to be let go from the Council. In February, the 79-year-old Congolese prelate had a coadjutor archbishop appointed to assist him in his Archdiocese of Kinshasa. In November this coadjutor, Archbishop Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, took over as archbishop of Kinshasa and Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya retired. The letting go of Cardinals Pell and Errázuriz ,, although in part motivated by their age, is also coloured by their involvement in sexual abuse cases, with Cardinal Errázuriz playing a role in the abuse crisis in Chile and Cardinal Pell currently on trial in his native Australia.

The Council of Cardinals now consists of the following members:

  • Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa
  • Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, President of the Governorate of Vatican City State and the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State
  • Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay
  • Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of München und Freising and Coordinator of the Council for the Economy
  • Cardinal Séan O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston and President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors
  • Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State

The Council is assisted by Bishop Marcello Semeraro, bishop of Albano, as secretary, and Bishop-elect Marco Mellino as adjunct secretary (who is the sole Council member specifically appointed and made a bishop for that role (his consecration is scheduled for next Saturday, with Cardinal Parolin as main consecrator)).

While the above is significant but not unexpected, a further line in the press release states: “Given the phase of the Council’s work, the appointment of new members is not expected at present.” Should this be read as an indication that the work of the Council of Cardinals is nearing completion? The press release also notes that a new version of the Apostolic Constitution, provisionally titled Predicate evangelium, has been submitted to Pope Francis, which may be another hint that the work is closer to its end than its beginning. This document is expected to replace the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus, issued in 1988 by Pope Saint John Paul II, which outlines the current structure and duties of the Roman Curia. Pope Francis has of course already changed some aspects of Pastor Bonus, by merging dicasteries and creating new ones. A new Apostolic Constitution will not only outline the names and duties of the dicasteries, but also how they must function by themselves and in relation to the rest of the Roman Curia.

Photo credit: [1] Vatican Media, [2] CNS

At the Synod, an agenda point inserts itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

de jong synod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On abuse, the pope calls the bishops to Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: [2] KN/Jan Peeters