A new bishop for Bruges

The new bishop of Bruges comes from the neighbouring Diocese of Ghent. He has been the dean of Ghent for only about a month. Bishop-elect Lodewijk, Lode for short, Aerts will succeed Jozef De Kesel, the bishop who was appointed to the Belgian capital last year.

aertsAt 57, the new bishop will be the youngest of the Belgian bishops. A priest since 1984, he is a doctor of theology, taught at the diocesan seminary and was responsible for the youth work, education and formation in Ghent. Earlier this year he was appointed as the dean of Ghent, one of the ten new deaneries created in that diocese.

In Bruges, Bishop-elect Aerts will be the 27th bishop since the diocese was created in 1559 (although in Napoleonic times it was part of Ghent for a while). He succeeds Jozef De Kesel, who was bishop of Bruges for five years. Before that, Bruges was headed by Roger Vangheluwe for 26 years. He was forced to step down after he admitted to sexually abusing a family member.

This appointment may be considered one of the list files worked on by retired Nuncio to Belgium, Archbishop Giacinto Berloco.

The official announcement of the new appointment was made in Brussels, as Belgian bishop appointments usually are, by Archbishop De Kesel, and the new bishop later travelled to Bruges to meet the staff of the diocesan offices. The consecration of Bishop Aerts is scheduled for 4 December in Bruges’ Cathedral of St. Saviour. The names of the three consecrating bishops have not been announced, but it is a safe bet that Archbishop De Kesel and Ghent’s Bishop Luc van Looy, who may be retired by that time, will be among them.


At the press conference in Brussels, Archbishop De Kesel listed some of Bishop-elect Aerts’ talents:

“He is theologically well-educated. But he also understands the art of communicating this in an understandable way. He is an enthusiastic speaker and possesses an excellent pen.”

He added that, while this is not sufficient to be a bishop, “it is very valuable.” Archbishop De Kesel also spoke about the new bishop’s approach to the relation between Church and society:

“He knows very well that the past lies behind us and that we, including the Church, live in a secular pluralistic society. But exacty then it is so important to know what matters. To make a distinction between what is really important for the future and what are ultimately always rearguard battles.”

The archbishop typified Bishop-elect Aerts as “a good man, not too conceited, with a big heart and very approachable.”


The new bishop himself, then, spoke about his vision of the Church: “The Church is no one-man business, but a people: people who feel adressed by God and through their unity bear witness that God is love.”

“I also see this in myself. In order to speak credibly about God, I could do nothing by myself. My words needed the support of fellow faithful who, together with me, put the trust in God into practice. Without their friendship, their humanity, their efforts and their confidence it was not possible.”

Some more quotes to get an idea of what the new bishop of Bruges considers important in his life and work as a Catholic, a priest and a bishop:

“It is not good that Christians impose themselves. But they also should not be ashamed. As far as I am concerned, the faith is the best that ever happened to me. It is the experience of God accepting me for who I am, that I need not pretend to be better than I am before Him, that He accompanies me though life and that His hand will never let me go.”

“It is my greatest joy to notice that this trust lets other people bloom and makes them free and independent. To share this faith, I want to take on the duties of a bishop.”

Photo credit: [2] IPID, [3] Kur Desplenter

Bishop Ernst marks 75 years of priesthood


He is the nestor of the Dutch episcopate, and at 99 years of age Msgr. Huub Ernst is the 8th oldest bishop in the world today. Last Tuesday he marked the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, with a solemn Mass in the cathedral of St. Anthony* in Breda, the same church were he offered his first Mass in 1941. As the retired bishop of Breda is confined to a motorised wheelchair, he concelebrated the Mass, which was offered by Breda’s current bishop, Msgr. Jan Liesen. They were joined by Bishop Hans van den Hende, bishop of Breda from 2007 to 2011, as well as the current and retired vicars general of the diocese.

Bishop Ernst was one of two priests ordained by Bishop Petrus Hopmans on 7 June 1941. After two years working in the parish he was called to a life of study, education and management. He was vicar general under Bishop Gerard de Vet (bishop of Breda from 1962 to 1967) and succeeded him upon his untimely death. Bishop Ernst, considered a progressive (but not so much that the liberal 8 May Movement did not succeed in alienating him) but also a wise and well-spoken theologian, would remain in office until 1992, followed by an uncommonly long two and a half years as apostolic administrator, until Martinus Muskens was appointed as his successor in late 1994.

After his retirement, Bishop Ernst remained available for certain important events. Not only did he consecrate Bishop Muskens in 1994, but he was also one of the co-consecrators of Muskens’ successor, Hans van den Hende, in 2006. Bishop Ernst has lived long enough to see three bishops succeed him and survived his immediate successor. In 2007 he condemned the proposal of the Dominicans to have lay people be given the possibility to offer Mass as “incorrect, senseless and not the right solution”. In 2010 he was called to testify in a sexual abuse case, claiming that important information was withheld from him when he was asked to appoint a Salesian priest who would later abuse again, after which Bishop Ernst fired him.

While Bishop Ernst is one of the oldest living bishops, he is even higher on the list of most senior bishops by ordination to the priesthood. Only four living bishops were ordained before Bishop Ernst, and among them is another bishop from the Dutch language area. He is Belgian-born Bishop Jan Van Cauwelaert. Now at the age of 102, this Antwerp-born prelate of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was vicar apostolic and later bishop of Inongo, now in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

About his current life, Bishop Ernst said:

“When I had to end my duties because of my age, I experienced that, while possessing a clear mind, I was definitely losing my physical strength. I concluded from that that my task would now be to stand in my own life for what I looked for in the offices. Experiencing this, I said, “Chaplain again, invisibly present. Without this being expressed amid the others who believe. The images I carry with me from my time in the chaplaincy express the relationship in which we live. It is a life of gratitude.””

*It wasn’t the cathedral back then, although it had been between 1853 and 1876, and has been again since 2001.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

For clarity – Pope Francis and female deacons

deacon ordinationPope Francis’ recent suggestion that a commission should be formed to study the form and fucntion of female deacons in the early Church (with, one would think, an eye on their possible re-introduction into the life of the Church today) has led to much enthusiasm and outrage, both for all the wrong reasons.

The papal comments came as an answer to the question if the permanent diaconate could not be open to men and women alike. It being a spontaneous question-and-answer session, the Holy Father obviously did not have all the necessary information at the ready, so he chose to share what he recalled from conversations with a Syrian theologian he used to meet in Rome, well before he became Pope.

And those recollections immediately point out some of the problems in equating male and theoretical female deacons. The latter’s role was found in sensitive and private situations between women: baptism, which at that time was performed by full immersion, but also cases in which a woman would have to present the physical evidence of an abusive husband! The differences with the duties of a male deacon – who has financial and charitable responsibilities, as well as clearly-defined duties in the liturgy of the Mass – are clear.

A 2002 study by the International Theological Commission, summarised here, also states this, and further reaffirms the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders – the grades of deacon, priest and bishop. A deacon is, at least in theory, able to be ordained as priest and bishop. The Church only has the authority to ordain men, not women (as Pope Francis has pointed out more than once), so in regard to the sacrament, female deacons are not possible.

Many of the duties of a deacon can be performed perfectly well by a woman. In fact, as Father Dwight Longenecker points out, in many parishes, women are already in charge of finances and run the charitable efforts of the community. You don’t need to be ordained for that. Pope Francis is not wrong when he started his answer with the half-joke that the female deacons of the Church are the religious sisters.

That leaves the duties for which ordination is a prerequisite: the liturgy of Holy Mass, such as, for example, reading the Gospel and giving the homily. Here, the deacon or priest does not do anything for himself: he performs the duties of proclamation and teaching of Christ. He is an alter Christus. The Church teaches that this is no act or show, but a sacramental reality, which we are asked to acknowledge in faith.

Some have chosen to see Pope Francis willingness to look into this matter as evidence that he wants female deacons, which is a ridiculous conclusion to draw. By that reasoning, Pope St. John Paul II wanted the same thing when he asked to International Theological Commission to study the matter…

Pope Francis said he wants clarification in this matter, and a conclusion along the lines of the 2002 study is no less a clarification than one that says, yes, there can be female deacons. But, it has to be said, all signs indicate that we should not expect the latter conclusion to be drawn.

An end in sight? Taking responsibility for and compensating victims of sexual abuse

In the past five years, the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, in the form of her various dioceses and religious congregations, processed a total of 3,656 reports of sexual abuse by clergy and other representatives of the Church, paying out almost 21 million euros in 699 of those cases. The expectation is that the final compensations will be awarded in 2017, which will be the end of the abuse crisis which broke in 2010 and mainly revolved around abuse which took place between 1945 and 1980.

The largest total amounts were paid out by the (Arch)dioceses of Utrecht, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Haarlem-Amsterdam and Roermond, as well as the Brothers CMM (which tops the list with 1,885,000 euros paid out in 64 cases).

Of the 3,656 initial reports of sexual abuse, roughly half (1,815) became actual cases (some of the initial claimants either never pressed charges or later withdrew them), and of these, 699 have resulted in a financial compensation in some form (out of 820 requests received – some of these are still to be processed and will receive a compensation in the future). This number does not include the cases which were settled in private between the parties involved, or those that were settled with the help of an independent mediator. In a significant number of cases, victims never requested financial compensation.

The annual report of the Meldpunt for sexual abuse in the Church, from which these statistics come, emphasises that secrecy in these settlements is standard. Several weeks ago, there was some consternation about Church entities requiring victims to remain silent about the settlement and the nature of the abuse they suffered. Evidence about perpetrators which becomes known through settlements can and is being used as supporting evidence in other cases, and the Meldpunt has frequently reminded Church institutions and victims’ groups of the need to inform them of settlements made, for that purpose. The Brothers CMM, the Salesians, the Brothers of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, the Brothers FIC and the Brothers of Charity have settled the largest number of reports and cases. This does not indicate any form of secrecy of protection of reputation, unless the secrecy clause was imposed against the victims’ wishes. If that has happened, they were free to settle a case outside the available channels provided by the Church, as some have done. If there were institutions who enforced secrecy, these should have a long hard think about their conduct…

It is clear that the damage done by abusive priests, religious and other Church workers has been great. The Church’s response has been likewise. In many cases the abusers are deceased, so this response must necessarily be given by their current representatives, even when those are innocent themselves. And it has been given willingly in most cases, in a structered and legal way. This approach has sometimes clashed with the inherently emotional nature of the acts and their lifelong effects on the victims. The Church has been accused of being clinical, slow and bureaucratic in dealing with abuse, and perhaps she has sometimes failed in being sufficiently open and pastoral towards victims. But she has taken responsibility, albeit too late in more than a few cases: abuse should never have been denied and hidden in the first place.

The fact remains that in many parts of society this is exactly what continues happening now. The Catholic Church has a reputation of being a haven for abusers, and as painful and wrong as that may be, it is something we must live with for now. The Church has accepted this burden and carries it, with an eye first on the victims and their rights and needs. That is something that other sectors of society could learn from. Sexual abuse of minors has happened and continues to happen, in families, schools, hospitals and other care facilities, sports clubs… Are the victims of that abuse heard? Do those people and institutions also take their responsibility, regardless of their reputation?

The problem of secrecy – whose choice is it?

One third of known abuse cases have been settled out of court and in secret, an investigation by Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad reveals. Church authorities, mostly religious congregations, paid out 10.6 million euros in compensation for these 342 cases*.

The foundation the commission advised to be established has now processed 703 cases of sexual abuse by clergy and other representatives of the Church, while some 200 are still awaiting completion. 21.3 million euros in compensation have been paid in acknowledgement of these cases.

Settlement agreements which were agreed upon through a mediator, some 210 in total, included the commitment for both parties not to express themselves negatively about each other where it concerns the settlement or the abuse in question. These settlements were used by a handful of religious congregations which ran schools and boarding schools, among them the Salesians.  While mediation and settlements, in addition or instead of the standard channels of meeting, conversation, acknowledgement and financial compensation, have always been options, the secrecy clause is problematic.

When it comes to how the Church deals with abuse, secrecy should be avoided at all cost. In order to resolve the crisis and acknowledge the sins committed and damage done to the victims, the first step must always be transparancy. Secret settlements are hardly the way to do it.

However, we must also wonder how these came about? Where they suggested by the congregations in question, or was there a wish from the victims to remain anonymous and avoid possible unwanted media attention? If there is a wish for the latter, that must certainly be acknowledged. The victims should have the first say in how their case is handled. So, secret settlements are not automatically a bad thing. As it seems now, however, from comments from the mediators themselves, the secrecy clause was included on the request of the religious congregations themselves, which was not their decision to make.

Were secret settlements out of court the smart thing to do? Probably not, even if there was a wish from the victims to do it like this (which, it seems now, there generally was not). It was not up to the congregations to choose secrecy. When faced with a choice between secrecy and transparency, the first and immediate choice must always be the latter.

Many victims signed the agreement, with the secrecy clause embedded within it, as the end result of professional mediation between them and the congregations in question. Did they all read it carefully? Perhaps not. But their signature did make the agreement legally binding, making it exceedingly difficult for them to now voice their disagreements.

As before, the fear for a tarnished reputation seems to have played its part… But that never leads to a solution, to a future where we can say that sexual abuse by clergy, and it effects in too many innocent victims, lies in the past. The Church can be, and in many ways already is, an example for other parts of society, but not when secrecy remains a part of her actions.

In a press release issued today, the Catholic Church in the Netherlands addressed this issue, once more underlining that mediation and settlement have been options from the beginning (and again, these are not problematic, but secrecy is):

“Complaints against deceased and/or about lapsed cases of sexual abuse could be lodged with the Meldpunt Seksueel Misbruik RKK until 1 May 2015. Claimants could choose to have their case processed by the complaints commissions and speak openly, in the presence of Church representatives, about the sexual abuse they suffered and the consequences of it in their lives. After the claim is deemed justified, victims can request compensation from the compensation commission. In the course of the process victims can also choose an alternative, such as mediation or a settlement.

The Meldpunt Seksueel Misbruik, which falls under the independent Stichting Beheer & Toezicht for cases of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands, will report on the claims processed and the compensations awarded, as well as mediations and settlements, in the annual report over 2015. This report will be completed in the first week of April and will be published on the website of the Meldpunt. The Meldpunt will, as it has done in previous years, communicatie openly and transparently.

The Meldpunt takes the aspect of confidentiality into accounty. In a report from April 2014 the board of Beheer & Toezicht explains why confidentiality in all cases is so important: it lowers the threshold for victims, accused and Church authorities; plausibility is of primary importance in processing the case; the defendants are deceased in most cases and can no longer defend themselves.

The complaints commissions expects that all cases will be completed by 1 September 2016, as the Meldpunt Seksueel Misbruik RKK reported in a press relase of 30 November 2015.”

*The accuracy of these numbers as presented by NRC have been called into question. If the actual number of settlements with a secrecy of clause is smaller than suggested, that can only be good, but it does not remove the need for openness that I emphasise above. Again, settlements out of court and mediation are no need for concern, and the advice of the Deetman Commission specifically acknowledges and supports it (contrary to what the authors of the NRC claim, and which I shared in an earlier version of this blog post). Imposed secrecy by anyone else than the victims is a problem, however.


In surprising move, Bishop de Korte goes south

It was one of the more unexpected choices, and for the new bishop the change will be big in several ways: he goes from the north to the south of the country, from a diocese with few Catholics to one with many, from a part of the country where people are fairly down to earth, to one where the Dutch concept of ‘gezelligheid’ has a natural home and where people are sometimes brutally honest. It will be interesting to see what bishop and diocese bring each other.

Mgr. Hurkmans en Mgr. de Korte
Bishop Hurkmans and his successor, Bishop de Korte

The new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch is 60-year-old Gerard de Korte, until today the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. And this scribe’s bishop at that. In yesterday’s blog post I already characterised Bishop de Korte as a popular shepherd. He is personable, interested, with a keen sense of the hearts and minds of other people. That makes him well suited to represent the Catholic Church in relations with other Christians, a talent he has made one of the focal points of his mission. In Groningen-Leeuwarden, such ecumenical effort is a necessity and a value. How it will take shape in ‘s-Hertogenbosch will be very interesting to see.

In a message leaked prematurely via Twitter, Bishop Hurkmans congratulated Bishop de Korte, and expresses a few wishes to him and the faithful of ‘s-Hertogenbosch:

bisschop Hurkmans“I wish very much that you, as a society, may live in confidence with the new bishop. You and I, we, live in a time of many and great changes. Especially now it is good to stand on the solid ground the faith offers us. God is our Creator and Father. He wanted all of us and included us in His plan of love.

Secondly, I wish for you all that you may remain hopeful with the new bishop. Evil and death are in the way of us all. They supplant hope. Jesus Christ broke the power of sin and opened the way to life. We celebrate this in the Eucharist and from it we draw hope every time. With that, as a new community around Christ, we can be a sign of hope in our society.

Lastly, I wish for the new bishop and you all to remain in love. That this may be the basis of your life. The Holy Spirit lives in us. He plants love in us and continuously strengthens the divine life. This makes love bloom in us. Love can reinforce our community. Love will let us live for each other in the Church and in the world.

Remaining in faith, hope and love is more than guaranteed when we participate in unity in a healthy life of the Church. I gladly wish Msgr. Gerard de Korte people who say yes to their vocation to the priesthood, the diaconate and the religious life, people who will work with him in the life of the Church, people who make the Church present in the world. People who support him in his prayer and proclamation, on being close to people and managing the diocese.”

Bishop Hurmans, now bishop emeritus, closes with a word of gratitude, despite beginning his letter by saying that he has said enough about his retirement.

“I thank you all for the faith, the hope and the love which I was able to keep among you. I hope to be able to be a witness of that in a simple way, trusting in the Sweet Mother of Den Bosch and living from the Holy Eucharist, until my death.”

duzijn jellema ordinationBishop de Korte has been the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden since 2008. Before that, from 2001 to 2008, he was auxiliary bishop of Utrecht, where he also worked as a priest since his ordination in 1987. He is a historian and served as seminary rector before his appointment as bishop. In Groningen-Leeuwarden he was a bishop on the road, travelling to every corner and sharing the major celebrations of Easter and Christmas between the cathedral in Groningen and the church of St. Boniface in Leeuwarden. Ordinations were also shared between the two cities: those of deacons, as pictured at left, in Leeuwarden, and priests in Groningen. He leaves a diocese in the midst of the greatest reorganisation in recent history: the reduction of its 84 parishes to 19. May the vacancy of the seat in St. Joseph’s cathedral in Groningen be a short one.

In my blog, Bishop de Korte has made frequent appearances, and translations of his writing may be found via the tag cloud in the left sidebar. Just click on the tag ‘Bishop Gerard de Korte’.

Despite the appointment coming before Easter, Bishop de Korte will mark the Church’s  greatest week in Groningen-Leeuwarden. His installation in ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Evangelist will follow on 14 May.

In hindsight, this was perhaps the most Franciscan option in the Netherlands. Bishop de Korte fits the profile of what Pope Francis wants in a bishop (although other bishops are often unfairly depicted as being in opposition to the Holy Father): an open communicator, close to the people, a shepherd who smells like the sheep. These qualities may go a long way in resolving the polarisation that plagues parts of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In recent years more than one community has broken with the diocese, and the person and approach of Bishop de Korte, a man of dialogue and a strong voice against hate and distrust, may go a long way in setting them back on a course towards reconciliation.

Bishop de Korte at an interfaith meeting against hate and racism in 2014.

 In his new diocese, Bishop de Korte will undoubtedly continue to stress the importance of catechesis. Back in 2012 he said, “It may sound dramatic, but I sometimes feel that only a great catechetical offensive can secure Catholicism in our country. Without it, the strength of our faith seems to continue to weaken and Catholics become more and more religious humanists for whom important aspects of classic Catholicism have become unfamiliar.” Other emphases of his new task will be ecumenism, religious life and active Catholic communities.

de korte eijkIn the Dutch Bishops’ Conference this appointment does not change much, although several commentators have chosen to see it as a blow for Cardinal Eijk, outgoing president and predecessor of Bishop de Korte in Groningen. The two prelates have not always seen eye to eye, and they have clashed on occasion, although how much actual truth there is behind the rumours will probably remain guesswork. In the conference, Bishop de Korte retains his one voice, and continues to hold the portfolios that formulate Church relations with the elderly, women and society. Actual change will only occur when a new bishop is appointed for Groningen-Leeuwarden, and perhaps not even then: if the new ordinary up north is one of the current auxiliary bishops in the country, the composition of the bishops’ conference remains the same as it is now.

Now, we could make the assumption that Cardinal Eijk would have liked to see a bishop in ‘s-Hertogenbosch who was more in line with himself, but that is guesswork. And besides, as I have pointed out before, the cardinal and the bishop may have different personalities and talents, their policies (for example, about the closing of churches and merging of parishes) are not always all that different.

In recent years, Bishop de Korte has appeared as the voice of the bishops’ conference, especially in the wake of the abuse crisis. This will not change, I imagine, even if the crisis has abated somewhat. Although the bishops in general remain hesitant to embrace the resources of the media, Bishop de Korte is the one whose face and name appears most frequently. He is a blogger on the diocesan website, writes books and articles and even appears on television every now and then. This is something that he should continue to do so: he is well-liked by many in and outside the Church, and knows how to communicate to both. And that is a value we need in our Church today.

More to come.

Photo credit: [1] ANP RAMON MANGOLD, [2] Roy Lazet, [3] Leeuwarder Courant, [4], ANP, [5] edited by author

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