“Seeing with the eyes of the Lord” – Christmas message from the bishops of Utrecht

In their Christmas message, the archbishop and auxiliary bishops of Utrecht look back at the Holy Year of Mercy, urging us not to let the fruits of that Year go to waste. We should always try to look at others with Jesus’ eyes, as the logo if the Holy Year shows us.

Kardinaal%20Eijk%202012%20kapel%20RGB%204%20klein“At Christmas we celebrate that our God became visibly and tangibly among us in the Child of Bethlehem, our Lord Jesus Christ. Pope Francis has said about him, “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus, 1). The Holy Father wrote these words when he announced the Holy Year of Mercy on 11 April 2015. This Holy Year began with the opening of the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and subsequently with the opening of Holy Doors in all the world’s dioceses. In our Archdiocese of Utrecht, these were in Utrecht, Hengelo and Groenlo. The Holy Year is now ended, or perhaps we could say, whisked by. But we should be watchful that what the Holy Year of Mercy has brougth us, will not simply disappear. For this year has brought the Church – also in the Archdiocese of Utrecht – much that is good and encouraging.

mgr_%20hoogenboomAs bishops of the Archdiocese of Utrecht we are very grateful to the Pope for the past Holy Year of Mercy. Much has been received and shared in our parishes and establishments, in faith, hope and love. Much work has been done to make the Holy Year a reality in the liturgy, catechesis and charity. Both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy have been frequently highlighted and put into practice. People – young and old(er) – have received the sacrament of God’s mercy – the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, or Confession – and that is a source of great grace and joy.

One has confessed for the first time in his or her life, the other sometimes after many years. That confession could have taken place in the parish, during the World Youth Days in Krakow or during a pilgrimage, such as the one to Rome. As bishops we have emphasised to our priests, deacons and pastoral workers the importance of a good preparation for the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation for children, before they make their First Holy Communion.

woortsWe are very grateful to our priests, deacons, religions, pastoral workers, coworkers, catechsists and all our volunteers for all the good and blessed work they have done for the success of the Holy Year of Mercy!

A high point in this Holy Year was without a doubt the pilgrimage that we made with some 2,000 people from all dioceses of the Dutch Church province to Rome, the ´eternal city´. Among them were some 200 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Utrecht. That pilgrimage has deepened and enriched our faith and being Church. Especially noteworthy was the Eucharist celebrated on the ‘Dutch day’ (15 November) in St. Peter´s, followed by the welcome of Pope Francis and his address to the Dutch faithful. The Pope was happy and impressed by such a large and enthusiastic group of pilgrims from the Netherlands. He was moved when a Catholic refugee from Syria presented him with a booklet detailing what has been done in and by the Dutch dioceses and parishes for the reception of refugees.

As mentioned, the Holy Year is over. The Holy Doors are closed. But the door of God’s merciful love is not – that remains always open for us and all people! And from this love we Christians are and remain called to make God’s mercy tangible and visible, especially to those who are ignorant, helpless or poor. Our Lord Jesus keeps asking us to look, to see with His eyes.

logoIn the Eucharistic celebration on the Dutch day, Cardinal Eijk said, for that reason, that the logo of the Holy Year of Mercy, the logo that was especially designed in Rome for this Hole Year, should remain etched in our minds. After all, it is a striking logo that highlights so clearly that mercy is a key word for the Christian faith. This logo depicts Jesus carrying a man on his back. It is based on the parable told by Jesus in the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke (15:1-10). This parable speaks of the shepherd with a hundred sheep of which one gets lost. The shepherd leaves the 99 in the wilderness to search for that one lost sheep.

We could wonder: who would leave 99 sheep in the wilderness to look for that one lost sheep?! Isn’t that shepherd taking a lot of risks?! Shouldn’t he be leaving to sheep to its fate? The parable was told by Jesus in this way on purpose to show how far God will go to search for people who have strayed from His paths and save them. For that reason God became man in Christ and made Himself the sacrifice, through His suffering and the cross, that was needed to expiate our guilt and return us to God.

When we look at the logo closely the following becomes clear: Jesus has two eyes, and the person He carries on His back as well. But no matter how often we count those eyes, there are always three. The designer did this in purpose to make us think. It indicates that Jesus and the suffering person that He is carrying on His back and saves, share one eye together, so to speak. The logo expresses the following:

In the first place the logo invites us to look at our neighbours with the eyes of our Lord Jesus, that is: with His merciful and forgiving love. We shouldn;t certainly be concerned about moral shortcomings, but then especially about our own. When it comes to others who cause us harm, let us then consider them with Jesus’ eyes. Try, as it were, to share one eye with Him. This is the message of the logo of the Holy Year of Mercy: as the Lord looks at us with loving and merciful eyes, so look at your neighbours and be prepared to forgive them when they have done you wrong, and offer them new chances when they show remorse.

This is frequently the advice of a spiritual counsellor or confessor to someone who struggles with the people around him, especially because they find it difficult to forgive them their unpleasant traits and habits : “try to look at him or her with the eyes of Jesus”.

This is helpful. When we commit ourselves conscously to this and pray to the Lord to let us look at our neighbours with His eyes, He will not remain silent and comes to us with His grace.

There is a second layer to the logo, a second message. Jesus sharing one eye with that person in need shows that He looks in mercy at our need, our difficulties, our pain and our sorrow, with our eyes, as it were. He can do so with our eyes because He Himself became man and freely submitted Himself to the conditions of our lives, which – to put it mildly – are not always advantageous. He experienced this Himself too. Jesus makes our need, pain and sorrow His own and looks at it with our eyes. This means that Jesus makes our life His own and He can do so more than anyone.

Jesus making our lives His own, is something He also says in Matthew 25:

“Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).

And there is more: in this context the logo also invites us to look at our neighbours in need with Jesus’ eyes of mercy, and the sense of compassion, and really make their lives our own.

I happily wish you, your loved ones and all people of good will a blessed Christmas and God’s blessing for the new year 2017! A new year to look at each other and others, to see with the eyes of our Lord Jesus, of whom we celebrate at Christmas that He came among us through His incarnation.

With His eyes he continues to look at us, for us with His endlessly merciful love.

Utrecht, Christmas 2016

+Willem Jacobus Cardinal Eijk
Archbishop of Utrecht

Msgr. Th. C. M. Hoogenboom
Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht

Msgr. H. W. Woorts
Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht

In the Vortex, empty parishes and poor priests? Some nuances

A recent episode of Michael Voris’ The Vortex about the Catholic Church in the Netherlands has led to some questions about whether it is really true that more than 1,000 parishes will close  in the coming decade and Dutch priests will have to find jobs in the secular world, or even become tenants of the few remaining faithful in a secular wasteland. Or so the tone of the piece comes across.

As ever, there is some truth in the matter, but the situation is somewhat more nuanced than suggested. In this post I want to  highlight some ofhe intricacies of the situations.

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkIt is true that the number of parishes in the Netherlands is decreasing. And it has been for some time now. But it is inaccurate to claim that parishes are shutting down. Rather, parishes are merging with their neighbours to create larger parish clusters or megaparishes. This happens in most Dutch dioceses, and it is an organisational change, virtually always triggered by financial reasons and the lack of priests. The exact form that these mergers take differs per diocese. In Groningen-Leeuwarden, where I live, the parishes are merging, but with local faith communities continuing to come together, sometimes without a church building of their own. Or so the diocese, and especially our former bishop, Msgr. de Korte, hopes. Priests are tasked to travel in their parishes to minister to the faithful. In the Archdiocese of Utrecht, the new megaparishes have socalled Eucharistic centers assigned, churches where Holy Mass is celebrated every Sunday, while other churches in the parish will host Mass less frequently. I have compared the two approaches, as promoted by Cardinal Wim Eijk (at right) and Bishop Gerard de Korte, here.

aa%20Staatsiefoto%20Mgr_%20Wiertz%201_06KLEINThe idea that priests may need to find jobs comes from a speech made by Bishop Frans Wiertz (at left) of Roermond in October. Speaking at an annual meeting of the diocese, he discussed the current state of affairs in the Church in the Netherlands, comparing it with the Church in other countries.  He also spoke about the financial side and described how the network of institutionalised social support, by the government but also by the Church, is now reaching its financial limits. While it is a good thing to support anyone who needs it, that support can not continue forever, or become a right for all. Quoting the bishop:

“A parallel development has been going on in our Church, in contrast to all those countries I have visited. Earlier this year I asked a parish priest in Sri Lanka how he managed his livelihood, who took care of it. He said, “The people here are too poor, they can’t afford it. And the bishop? How would he have to do it? He can’t pay all the priests.” So I asked him how he earned his daily rice. He said, “I just work.” He was a teacher at a school. On the side. So parish priest and at the same time teacher at a school. He did that for forty hours a week. He taught English, history and of course religion.

Dear people, this was also the situation in our country until about 1960. There was no set salary for priests then. In one prosperous parish the priest received a higher salary and in the other parish, which had nothing, he had to survive of the gifts that the people brought him. In the Middle Ages the priest had a garden and he had to grow his own vegetables, and he sometimes had some cattle as well. There are stories of parishes where the chickens flew through the church.

Of course, I do not want to return to that situation.But I do want to say that, analogous to the state, the Church introduced social arrangements: roughly the same salary for all priests. They count on that too. Parish councils take care of it. A solidarity arrangement was introduced. The diocese receives money from parishes to help other parishes, for example when rebuilding and painting is needed and there is no money for it. That all functions, as long as not everyone calls upon it. But when it has become a right, and the rich parishes also want to receive those 20 percent – I don’t know how high those percentages are – from the diocese – from other parishes – it no longer works.

I am strongly convinced that we need another form of financing in twenty years. And that priests must all be missionary then, and willing to contribute to the costs of their livelihood. If it isn’t necessary, that is fine by me. I also do not want to invoke it, but when you, as a missionary, are not willing to give something yourself, what kind of missionary are you?

This is a vision of the future. I am not saying it will be reality. I also do not say it needs to come in a hurry. We have the time. I think it will take at least 20 years… The people in the parishes will have to maintain their own church and also the priests, it can’t automatically come from somewhere else. I think that this is a future which we must at least acknowledge.”

Bishop Wiertz was speaking from his heart, as a bishop on the verge of retirement, and his speech was in many ways that of a bishop taking stock of the Church he is about to leave in the hands of another. He was certainly not painting a depressing image, or outlining some new policy. Taking inspiration from the flourishing churches he encountered on his travels abroad (Bishop Wiertz visits one of the countries where his diocese sponsors missionary and charitable activities every year), he wants to encourage the Church in the Netherlands to move forward into the future from a current situation which is, indeed, not wholly positive or even encouraging. The Michael Voris program which inspired this blog post is not wrong when it notes that there are problems. Howver, that does not mean that there are faithless wastelands where church bells once tolled, or poor priests plowing windswept fields just yet. And even if there were… we have faith, hope and love. Even a mustard seed of either can grow into something great.

Seven months in, no sign of a new bishop yet

359px-Wapen_bisdom_Groningen-Leeuwarden_svgThere was some hope that October would see the appointment of a new bishop for the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, but as the month progresses, it seems increasingly likely that Bishop Gerard de Korte, who was transferred from Groningen-Leeuwarden to ‘s Hertogenbosch in March, was more accurate when he said that a new bishop would come before the end of the year. And the year still has more than two months to go.

A recent article in the Leeuwarder Courant claims to know where the problem lies: the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Aldo Cavalli, is faced with two contrasting ternae, which he has somehow to merge into one to send on to Rome. The first terna, a list of three names of possible candidates to succeed Bishop de Korte, was compiled by the cathedral chapter and consists, the article has it, of the names of three priests, all from outside the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. One of these is Fr. Ad van der Helm, former Dean of The Hague and currently parttime professor of Canon Law at the Catholic University of Louvain. The other terna comes from the bishops’ conference, and consists, it is said, of three currently serving auxiliary bishops, of whom Bishop Herman Woorts, auxiliary of Utrecht, has the best chances. He, the article states, is the preferred choice of Cardinal Eijk.

he-nuncio-aldo-cavalliIf the two lists show no overlap it would mean extra work for the Nuncio (pictured at right), who has to create a file on each candidate, add his own opinions and advice and then send it to the Congregation for Bishops. And the appointment of a new bishop would consequently take more time. The article mentioned above, however, chooses to see evidence of infighting among the bishops in it…

Cardinal Eijk, it is suggested, is blocking, or at least strongly opposed to, any of the candidates of the cathedral chapter. That is his right, but there is nothing he can change about it (and I suspect he is well aware of this). As a member of the bishops’ conference, the cardinal has a voice in creating the terna of the conference, but that is about where it all ends. He has no influence on the ultimate choice and can not block it. That choice lies with the Pope, who makes it based on the information provided by the Nuncio and the Congregation for Bishops, who in turn base themselves on their own investigations and the advice of the cathedral chapter and the other bishops of the Netherlands.

Why the cardinal is singled out to explain the choice of the bishops’ conference has probably more to do with his perceived influence than anything else. Cardinal Eijk is no longer the conference president, but just a member. The other members have equal influence in the process, and while some bishops will have similar preferences as the cardinal, others will not.

Besides, if, as the article claims, there are two ternae on the Nuncio’s desk, it is there were the slowdown lies, not with any perceived infighting or disagreements among bishops or cathedral chapter members.

Whoever our new bishop will be, be he a priest from The Hague or an auxiliary bishop from Utrecht, or someone else altogether, his appointment will be the end of a long and careful process in which many people have an advisory capacity. This process sometimes takes longer than expected, and the reason may lie either in the diocese in question, with the bishops’ conference or the Nuncio, or in Rome. Whatever the case may be, the vacancy of Groningen-Leeuwarden is close to becoming the longest in the last decade. Only Utrecht was without an archbishop for longer: 8 months in 2007.

What Willibrord brought – the ecumenism of a procession

willibrordprocessie%202014%2006%20img_9175Every year, the inner city of Utrecht is the site of a procession in honour of the man who first built a church there – Saint Willibrord. Initially begun as an initiative by local faithful after the ancient law forbidding Catholic processions north of the great rivers was silently abrogated, it is now organised by the city parish and has come to represent not just Utrecht, but the entire country of the Netherlands, of which St. Willibrord is the patron. As such, the procession sees the participation of the archbishop of Utrecht, the auxiliary bishops and other clergy, seminarians, as well as representatives of other Christians churches and church communities. For this year’s edition, however, the archbishop, Cardinal Wim Eijk, has sought to limit the ecumenical aspect and no longer allows clergy of other denominations to participate in the procession as official respresentatives of their church or community. They remain welcome to participate, but not in any official capacity. The measure is said to have been taken to strenghen the Catholic identity of the event, and to avoid an undescribed sense of confusion among the faithful.

This has obviously led to much disappointment and misunderstanding. Cardinal Eijk is once again seen as the bishop who wants to smother all signs of ecumenism and Christian cooperation in general, and of course, he is presented as the kind of bishop that Pope Francis is diametrically opposed to.

In general, I can understand the disappointment (not least because the procession was intended to be open to other Christians from its inception), if not the thoughts about what the cardinal does and does not want, or what the Pope thinks of him. But one thing struck me in the comments I have read.

Saint Willibrord, some critics say, came to bring the Christian faith to this country, not just a single denomination, so a procession in his honour must be a general Christian one too. This is nonsense in so far that Willibrord was Catholic. He did not bring a general Christian faith consisting of the generalities that unite the Catholic, Orthodox and the countless Protestant groups, but the faith as it was communicated and understood by the Catholic Church, in unity with the Pope. Of course, in his time there were no Protestants yet. They came later, when men like Luther and Calvin broke away from the Catholic Church. But that means that they also broke away from the faith that St. Willibrord had and brought to the people in what would later become the Netherlands.

St. Willibrord was Catholic, not Protestant and not some sort of ‘generally Christian’. A procession bearing his name and carrying his relics not only honours him, but also his faith which became our faith.

Does this mean the procession can’t have an ecumenical element. Not at all. I think it is good if members of other Christian churches and church communities take part. But we must not make the mistake of thinking that St. Willibrord intended to bring anything other than the Catholic faith. The unspoken assumption in the comment I mentioned above does suggest that mistake. Strengthening the Catholic identity of the procession, underlining the Catholicity of the St. Willibrord and his faith, is a good reminder of what we are called to. But I am not sure if excluding the participation of non-Catholic Christians in any official capacity is the way to do it.

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?

Thoughts about the next bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

Apparently there are people who look to me to predict who the new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden will be. Well, surprisingly, I don’t know. I am not privy to the deliberations of the seven-priest cathedral chapter of the diocese, let alone the thoughts of the other bishops, the nuncio or the Pope.

image-5792789
Bishops de Korte and Hurkmans in Den Bosch, on Saturday. Behind them Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts.

But we can make guesses, for whatever that is worth. To do so, we can first take a look at the recent history of bishop appointments in the Netherlands. While auxiliary bishops are virtually always chosen from among priests and therefore need to be consecrated as bishops first, ordinaries – bishops who lead a diocese – rarely are. It is more usual for a new ordinary to be transferred from another diocese, as happened with Bishop de Korte on Saturday, or an auxiliary bishop being chosen. This happened, for example, when Bishop Jan Liesen was picked for the Diocese of Breda in 2011. He was auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch before that.

There are currently five auxiliary bishops in the Netherlands. In order of precedence they are:

  • Bishop Everard de Jong, 57, Titular Bishop of Cariana and Auxiliary Bishop of Roermond
  • Bishop Theodorus Hoogenboom, 55, Titular Bishop of Bistue and Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht
  • Bishop Herman Woorts, 52, Titular Bishop of Giufi Salaria and Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht
  • Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, 57, Titular Bishop of Uccula and Auxiliary Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch
  • Bishop Jan Hendriks, 61, Titular Bishop of Arsacal and Auxiliary Bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam

dejong_hulpbisschop_0Of these, Bishop de Jong (at left) may have the best cards. A bishop for 17 years, he was allegedly in the running to succeed then-Bishop Eijk in Groningen-Leeuwarden back in 2008. Ultimately that appointment went to Bishop de Korte, but his time may now have come. Coming from a large diocese, he has relatively little experience with the process of parish mergers and consolidations as it is taking place in Groningen-Leeuwarden. This could speak against him.

Of the other four, most attention has been on Bishop Mutsaerts. Seen as the opposite of Bishop de Korte in several ways, many assume that he will be removed to another diocese fairly soon. The likely choice is, of course, Groningen-Leeuwarden. In how far there is a basis in fact for this assumption remains to be seen. It is said that Bishops Mutsaerts and De Korte get on fine personally, and the latter would see the advantage of having an auxiliary bishop at his side as he familiarises himself with his new diocese.

Bishops Hoogenboom, Woorts and Hendriks are possible choices to come to Groningen, but at the moment none really stands out as being more likely than the others. When it comes to the communication and opennes of Bishop de Korte, Bishop Hendriks perhaps comes closest. For the cathedral chapter he could be an option if they want to see the line of Bishop de Korte continue. The auxiliary bishops of Utrecht are reputed to be more in line with Cardinal Eijk.

Of the other ordinaries in the Netherlands two are certainly too old to be transferred to another diocese: Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam is 70 and Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond 73. With the mandatory retirement age of bishops set at 75, they can safely assume that they will remain in their dioceses. Another ordinary who will not be appointed is of course Cardinal Wim Eijk, the archbishop of Utrecht. He was the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden from 1999 to 2008 and as a rule bishops do not return for a second shift, so to speak (although canon law does not preclude it). A return would be seen as a demotion anyway, what with Eijk being an archbishop and cardinal.

bishop van den hendeThis leaves only two other ordinaries to be considered: Rotterdam’s Hans van den Hende (at right) and Breda’s Jan Liesen. Bishop van den Hende is a native of Groningen-Leeuwarden, serving as its vicar general before being appointed as coadjutor bishop of Breda in 2006. If he was to come home, it would mean his third appointment as ordinary, after Breda and Rotterdam. While not impossible, it is quite unlikely. And with only four years as bishop of Breda and almost five years and counting in Rotterdam, he may be excused for wanting to stay in one place for a while longer. That’s better for his diocese, too.

Bishop Jan Liesen has been in Breda since 2011 and before that he was auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch for a year and change. There is nothing really excluding him as an option for Groningen-Leeuwarden, except for his short time in Breda. Stability must be considered: it is probably not a good idea for the diocese to start looking for its third bishop in les than ten years.

So, in my expert opinion (ahem…), if the new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden is to be picked from among the other bishops of the Netherlands, Bishop Everard de Jong and Jan Hendriks have the best odds, with Bishops Liesen, Hoogenboom and Woorts as possible runners-up.

Pope Francis’ second Dutch appointment, which will certainly not happen before the end of May, and perhaps, as Bishop de Korte suggested, not before the year’s final months, could be a surprise. A priest native to Groningen-Leeuwarden may be a bridge too far just yet, but whatever will happen, it should be an interesting couple of months before us.

Photo credit: [1] Chris Korsten

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.

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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