A different perspective – the numbers behind the refugee crisis

The refugee crisis dominates headlines at the moment, and so do the opinions, as these are wont to do. There are positive opinions, that we must offer aid, shelter refugees and find solutions for the immediate need and despair we see, and these have a bigger share than I would have expected. But there are also negative ones, rooted in fear that we are welcoming terrorists, that strange cultures, religions and ideologies will come to dominate and irrevocably change our own culture and religions (or lack thereof).


In countries around us, especially in Germany and Austria, the Church has been on the frontline in welcoming refugees and speaking out for their basic human needs. The bishops of these countries have been vocal on this topic, and one bishop, Archbishop Stephan Burger of Freiburg im Breisgau, recently outlined the basics behind the refugee crisis and the numbers that we must keep in mind before making sweeping statements on either side of the argument:

erzbischof_stephan_burger_q“The great number of refugees which come to us in Germany, and the numerous crisis hotspots of this world are showing us very clearly now: We are standing before a critical point on world history. The different parts of the world are increasingly intertwined with one another and ecological fragile. For the future this includes both great dangers and significant opportunities. We must acknowledge that, despite and perhaps because of the great diversity of cultures and ways of life, we are a global community. And so we also carry responsibility for this community.

Today there are nearly 60 million people are fleeing. Behind this flight lies distress, despair, lack of perspective, tragedies.

However, the frequently heard idea, that the majority of refugees are en route to Europe, does not agree with reality. We must be careful not to look at the world from a European perspective. The 28 countries of the European Union at present house less than four per cent of the total number of refugees and displaced persons in the world. regarding this it is often forgotten that about three quarters of these people, as internally displaced persons, do not even make it across their own borders – let alone to Europe. We should not lose sight of their special need. For the Kurds of northern Iraq, for example, this means that out of every four inhabitant, one is displaced. In every village, in every city in this region there now live refugees. The civil war in Syria has by now caused more than four million people to flee. Additionally there are 7.6 million interior displaced persons in the country itself.

The moving images of refugee boats in the Mediterranean urge us to ask how we can rescue people in peril on the sea and guarantee them a life in security and dignity. The question about the complex reasons why thousands of people leave their homes, is not being asked enough.

Many of the desperate refugees are fleeing from the horror of a bloody war or the terror of despots. Others are called “economic refugees”: they want to escape a life of poverty and misery, which is partly caused by the political decisions of Industrial countries and emerging markets. For example, the traditional land rights of indigenous farmers are being overridden by the rights of investors. Unfair trade agreements disrupt the livelihood of local manufacturers. International corporations are plundering the resources of Africa – without any notable benefits for the local population.

We are convinced that there is a need for more legal and secure routes to Europe. We are aware that, also in Germany, the capacity to take care of refugees is not limitless. Therefore, there is a need for a European and global effort to comprehensively address the causes of poverty and flight. The topic must remain at the top of the agenda of world politics.  The reason for the increase in refugee movements in the European Union does not come from Africa, by the way, but is in the first place an expression of political and economical problems in the Balkans and also in continuing violence in the Middle East and in Afghanistan. Africans formed, in the first six months of this year, just 19 per cent of asylum seekers in the European Union – and it was similar a year earlier.

That there has now been a dramatic global increase to the aforementioned 60 million refugees, can in the first place be explained by the significant rise in forced internal migration as a result of war and violence. The truly grave humanitarian problems regarding refugees are to be found primarily in fragile states. Seen globally, cross-border flight occurred for 86 per cent in equally poor areas adjacent to crisis areas – such as in Lebanon, Kurdistan, Jordan and Kenya, in Chad and in northern Cameroon.

Both latter states especially show the results of violence, which has been ongoing for many months now, of the terrorist network “Boko Haram”. Most reports from this region that we hear in Germany are mostly about terror attacks and abductions. That the situation has also caused a wave of refugees is little known. Some 190,000 people have fled to Cameroon, Chad and Niger following terrorist actions. Additionally, there are some 100,000 internally displaced refugees in Cameroon, who had to flee from “Boko Haram” attacks.

Partner organisations of MISEREOR report that family members of refugees were killed by terrorists before their eyes. They speak about how combatants of “Boko Haram” came to their villages, plundered and then burnt their houses. Many families were separated; especially women and children desperately need protection.

In Germany, it is also a challenge to humanely house and care for refugees – especially with an eye on the coming winter. Certainly, more effort is needed. But we must not forget the people in those countries in the world who are not nearly as wealthy and have to offer protection and nourishment to far more refugees.”

Achievement unlocked – “One of Us” breaks the 1 million mark

one_of_us_logoThe European Citizen’s Initiative “One of Us“, which aims to collect 1 million signatures to block the financing of activities which require the destruction of human embryos, just reached its goal today.

With 1 million signatories from at least seven member states of the European Union, the Initiative organisers will now be heard by the European Commission and the European Parliament, before the Commission will formulate a response. The achieved goal is therefore not a guarantee that the EU will be taking steps to protect human life at all stages, but a chance for “One of Us” to be heard.

As part of the regulations for a European Citizen’s Initiative, a set number of signatures must be collected in every member state. This goal must be reached in seven states for the Initiative to be valid. “One of Us” reached that goal in Austria (almost 31,000 signatures), Germany (over 74,000), Spain (almost 62,000), France (almost 84,000), Hungary (almost 50,000), Italy (almost 360,000), Lithuania (over 9,000), the Netherlands (over 23,000), Poland (almost 160,000), Romania (almost 66,000) and Slovakia (almost 22,000). That’s 11 countries, while Portugal will most likely reach its goal in the next weeks.

 “One of Us” has until 1 November to collect signatures and has stated the desire to collect 1,500,000 in total.

Haven’t  signed yet? Do so here.

A big pebble in a small pond – looking back at Bishop Gijsen

gijsenBishop Joannes Gijsen, who passed away at the age of 80 today, has left a mark on the Church in the Netherlands. Virtually all elements of his service led to comments, criticism, questions and, also, admiration and support. From his appointment in 1972 to his sudden retirement in 1993, his troubled time as ordinary of Roermond and his efforts to maintain a form of Catholic education in the Netherlands, his surprise appointment to Reykjavik and the comparisons between life there and back home (which often saw the Dutch situation in a bad light); Bishop Gijsen made his share of ripples in the pond of the Church.

But in the very first place, Bishop Gijsen must be understood as a man of faith, Asked if he ever experienced any doubt about his faith, he said in an interview in 2007: “True doubt? No, never! I am convinced that the Roman Catholic faith holds the fullness of all knowledge of God and man.”

He lived his life as a bishop that way, as he illustrated in that same interview:

“We’re all priests of the Catholic Church, and especially a bishop has responsibility for the entire Church. You must be able to be deployed anywhere. Of course, it is something else if you can’t because of health or something. But if you’re healthy, you can never say “no”.”

“If, somewhere in northern Iceland, there are a few Catholics who are interested in the Catholic faith, you must be able to offer it to them. Our Lord didn’t say: I want to convert the entire world in one go. He went to backward little Palestine and walked around there for three years, if not less. He reached only a few people. But that nonetheless became the foundation of the faith that reached the entire world.”

Joannes Baptist Matthijs Gijsen was born on 7 October 1937 in Oeffelt, a village in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, just on the border with the Diocese of Roermond. He was ordained for that latter diocese in 1957, by Bishop Joseph Lemmens. Although he spent some time in the parish, he was mainly a teacher at the seminaries in Kerkrade and Maastricht, and a student of theology and Church history in Münster and Bonn. In 1972, he was appointed as the 22nd bishop of Roermond, a move that was quite controversial, as the new bishop was known as conservative and his appointment as one imposed from Rome. Reflecting the latter, Bishop Gijsen was consecrated by Pope Paul VI in Rome, with the archbishops of Utrecht and Armagh serving as co-consecrators. Cardinal Alfrink, the archbishop of Utrecht, would have preferred a consecration in Roermond as a first step towards reconciliation, but was evidently overruled. Bishop Gijsen was installed at St. Christopher’s Cathedral in Roermond on 4 March 1972.

As bishop, he modernised the diocese in the line of the Second Vatican Council,determined as he was to put the Council’s documents into practice. In that sense, Bishop Gijsen was not so much a man of the “spirit of Vatican II”, but of the true Council. As a former teacher himself, he worked to maintain some form of true Catholic education in his diocese, with mixed results.

mgrgijsenoverledenBishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary of Haarlem-Amsterdam, today describes Bishop Gijsen as follows:

“He was a bishop with a vision, not conservative in the sense that he wanted to return to the time before the Second Vatican Council. On the contrary, with heart and soul he wanted to be a bishop who stood in and for that council and wanted to put it into practice. He wanted to be loyal to the Pope and the Church. He wanted “to prepare the way for the Lord”, as his motto was. That moved him, among others, to start a seminary at Rolduc, which has formed some 175 priests, including five of today’s bishops (among them Msgr. J. Punt and myself). As Pope Paul VI hoped and expressed, that little plant has borne fruit for the entire country.”

Above: Bishop Gijsen, third from left, pictured with Bishops Punt (second from right) and Hendriks (far right) and several other priests educated at Rolduc, photographed in May of this year.

In January of 1993, Bishop Gijsen suddenly and unexpectedly retired as bishop of Roermond. He moved to Austria to become the rector of a convent. Although rumours abounded about the reasons, the bishop would later explain:

“I have never had Crohn’s Disease, and I have always enjoyed the support of the Vatican. I can deny rumours of that nature without a doubt. I left because the doctor told me: “If you stay for one more year, you’ll either have a stomach perforation or an intestinal disease from which you will not recover, or you’ll have an aneurysm or a stroke. There is no way you’ll be able to keep this up. You must stop now!” That was the reason why I quit so suddenly. It was sudden for me as well. Agreed, the danger of a collapse was also caused by the developments and the experiences of those twenty years [as bishop in Roermond]. But it was mostly exhaustion.”

Three years of recovery followed, after which Bishop Gijsen relayed his renewed availability to Rome. At that time, the Diocese of Reykjavik in Iceland had been vacant for more than two years, so Bishop Gijsen was sent to the see where his great uncle Bishop Meulenberg had served in the 1930s. He was initially sent to be Apostolic Administrator, but in 1996 he was appointment as diocesan bishop.

Where Roermond represented a time of struggle and management, Reykjavik was by far the more enjoyable of Bishop Gijsen’s appointments. In 2006, he spoke in an interview about his appreciation for the country and the Icelandic people:

“I encountered much understanding. Seen from Rome, Iceland, land of the Vikings, seems a barren and terrifying place. But it most certainly is not. Consider, for one, the weather: here in the city, in the shadow of the mountains, the temperature rarely drops below -5°C. […] From the very start I liked it here. I am very pleased with this place. Life at 66 degrees north is not that different from life in he Netherlands, at 53 degrees. But life is much more organised.”

In 2007, Bishop Gijsen returned home to the Diocese of Roermond and to his family. He moved in with one of his sisters in Sittard, and took on the pastoral care of a small convent. He shunned the media since then, devoting himself, no doubt, to his books and whoever came for a visit.

Looking back on his own life, something he was not too keen to do, Bishop Gijsen said, in the same 2007 interview quoted above:

“I have always tried to simply think along the same line as the Church. I have mainly tried to act on the basis of the Second Vatican Council, because that was our duty, especially for a bishop. I have done so with my abilities and with my inabilities and with the abilities of the people around me, and with their inabilities. We shouldn’t want to judge the result of that this soon. I think we should wait a while. I think you should never want to be your own judge, so I am not going to judge my own life; I’ll leave that to history.”

Today, many priests and bishops have been influenced in one way or another by Bishop Gijsen. As Bishop Hendriks said above, some 175 priests were educated at the seminary he started, but Bishop Gijsen also ordained and consecrated several bishops. In 1983, he ordained the future bishop Everard de Jong, and in 1985, the future Cardinal Wim Eijk. He also consecrated his own auxiliary bishops, Alphons Castermans in 1982, and Joannes ter Schure in 1984. The latter would become bishop of the neighbouring Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch almost exactly two months later.

Of course, Bishop Gijsen suffered his share of criticism, and he was not afraid to offer it himself. Shortly before his appointment as bishop of Roermond, he accused the Dutch bishops of having “set the faithful adrift” following the disastrous pastoral council of Noordwijkerhout. He went his own way, and this in part was reason for Blessed Pope John Paul II to call a Special Synod on the Netherlands in 1980.


^Bishop Gijsen, right, with Pope John Paul II, during the latter’s visit to the Netherlands in 1985.

Most serious in his later years were several accusations that surfaced regarding sexual abuse, both in Roermond and in Reykjavik. While no accusations were deemed inadmissible in court, they do point towards serious mismanagement on the part of Bishop Gijsen.

Bishop Joannes Gijsen was not perfect. He had his flaws, but he was driven by an honest desire to be of service and to do what was needed. For that, especially during the 1970s and 80s, we should laud him.

The funeral is planned for 29 June, at 10:30 in the morning, from St. Christopher’s Cathedral in Roermond. On the eve of the funeral, there will be a vigil Mass for the late bishop at the Carmelite convent chapel in Sittard.

Photo credit: [1] Bisdom Roermond, [2] arsacal.nl, [3] Dagblad De Limburger

Cardinal watch: Cardinal Husar turns 80

husarIn the last such event before the sede vacante begins, Ukrainian Lubomyr Cardinal Husar marks his 80th birthday today, and as such can not take part in the conclave.

Born in Lviv, which at the time was a Polish city, in 1933, young Lubomyr’s childhood was marked by the violence of World War II. In 1944, this caused his parents to flee to the west. After some years in Salzburg in Austria, the family emigrated to the United States in 1949. A year later, Lubomyr started studying at the Ukrainian Catholic St. Basil College Seminary in Stamford, Connecticut. After time at the Catholic University of America and Fordham University, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1958. Fr. Husar was a priest for the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Stamford, which covers parts of New York and New England.

From his ordination until 1969, Fr. Husar taught at the seminary where he himself was educated, and he was a parish priest from 1966 to 1969. In that latter year, he went to Rome to study theology at the Pontifical Urbaniana University. Now a doctor of theology, he entered the Studity monastery at Grottaferrata in Italy in 1972, and two years later, he became the superior there.

Fr. Husar’s consecration to bishop in 1977, to go with his new task as Archimandrite of all the Studite monks in Europe and America, from 1978 onwards, caused a bit if a stir, since the Pope had not given his apostolic mandate, something that Roman Canon Law required, but the Law of the Eastern Churches did not.

In 1995, as his homeland reopened its borders to the rest of the world, Bishop Husar was elected as Exarch of Kiev and Vysshorod. Upon his return to the Ukraine, he relinquished his American citizenship. In 1996, he was appointed as auxiliary bishop of Lviv, and in 2001, as that see had fallen vacant, Eparch Husar was elected as Major Archbishop of Lviv. In that same year, he was created a cardinal, with Santa Sofia a Via Boccea as his title church. With Ignace Daoud, Cardinal Husar was the only Eastern Catholic to participate in the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.

In 2005, the see of Lviv was moved to Kiev, and Cardinal Husar became Major Archbishop of that city. In 2011, failing eyesight caused him to retire, although he had performed the Ukrainian Catholic liturgy from memory when his sight had gotten too bad.

As Major Archbishop of Kiev, Cardinal Husar received an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of America, and he was decorated by the President of Ukraine “for his outstanding personal contribution in spiritual revival of the Ukrainian nation, longstanding church work, and to mark his 75th birthday”.

Cardinal Husar was a member of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, the Pontifical Council for Culture, and the Special Council for Europe of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.

There are now 117 cardinal electors who are allowed to participate in next month’s conclave.

Photo credit: Edmond Fountain/St Petersburg Times

Prayer services and Mass – Ghent’s vicar general gets it

“There are … good reasons to now invite the Christians, in our country and in our time, to the Eucharist in one of the places where it is celebrated, and to not diminish or negate that invitation by offering a Sunday prayer service at the same time in a location that i more nearby.”

So says Msgr. Paul Van Puyenbroeck, the vicar general of the Diocese of Ghent in Belgium. He is answering one of the questions that assorted priests and laity have posed, following the example of priests in Austria. They are wondering why there can’t be prayer services on Sunday when there is no priest available, and while Msgr. Van Puyenbroeck acknowledges that such a service can take place in such circumstances, he also warns against them becoming substitutes for the celebration of the Eucharist.

“They are a rich addition, next to the Eucharist, in the broad palette of the liturgy. But they are not intended or presented as an alternative for the Sunday Eucharist. This could be misleading, just like Communion in a prayer service can be misleading.”

Looks like this priest gets it, and understands where to be careful. In the past, prayer services were too eagerly organised in the absence of a priest, and now many faithful prefer going to their own church, even if the next church over hosts a Holy Mass.

While prayer, solitary or in a communal service, is a very valuable basis for and habit in our faith indeed, it should also be understood for what it is. The sacrifice of Christ, which is made present again in the Eucharist, is of a whole other order of magnitude, and should be presented and understood as such. The Lord’s sacrifice on the cross, by which He won our salvation can not be diminished and presented for less than it is. If we have to travel a bit further for it, so be it. It is always worth it.

For all or many – Pope Benedict enters the debate

Pope Benedict and Archbishop Zollitsch, during the former's visit to Germany last year.

In a fairly unprecedented move, Pope Benedict XVI interfered in the affairs of a local bishops’ conference earlier this month, when he wrote a letter (translation) to the German Bishops’ Conference via Archbishop Robert Zollitsch (and through them also to the other bishops of the entire German speaking area).

Like other conferences, the bishops of Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein are  working on a new translation of the Roman Missal. Whereas the new English translation was launched last Advent, there are still many other languages awaiting new translations.

The issue that divides the German bishops and that prompted the pope to write a five-page letter, revolves around two words in the Eucharistic Prayer. The Latin, from which all translations are made, has the words “pro multis” to indicate for whom Jesus suffered and died. In the translations of the 1960s and 70s, this was rendered as “for all”, out of a wish to interpret the words in a way that would do most justice to the original. Or so translators thought. The Holy Father now indicates that this line of thought has since fallen out of favour and argues strongly against interpretative translations. Interpreting Scripture is one of the main tasks of the Church, but this should happen in the churches, by the bishops and the priests, not by the translators. Bishops and priests can react quickly and specifically to the needs to their specific faithful, whereas translations usually remain the same for years on end. Translation of Scripture and the canon of the Mass should therefore remain as literal as possible. “Pro multis”, then, should be translated as “for many”.

The letter goes into some detail about the questions that this change may give rise to, and also about the theological backgrounds of each choice. Although specifically directed at the German situation, the same arguments can and will be made in other countries, including the Netherlands, which still await a new translation.

Photo credit: Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images

“A desperate push” – Holy Father corrects disobedient priests

Popes rarely correct specific groups of people during high-profile events, instead opting for private audiences or similar occasions. Pope Benedict XVI chose to do otherwise today,in his homily at the Chrism Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. His intended audience? The priests from Austria, Belgium and other countries who have launched a ‘call to disobedience’ to the Church and her teachings:

“Recently a group of priests from a European country issued a summons to disobedience, and at the same time gave concrete examples of the forms this disobedience might take, even to the point of disregarding definitive decisions of the Church’s Magisterium, such as the question of women’s ordination, for which Blessed Pope John Paul II stated irrevocably that the Church has received no authority from the Lord. Is disobedience a path of renewal for the Church? We would like to believe that the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the Church, that they are convinced that the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures, in order to open up new paths and to bring the Church up to date. But is disobedience really a way to do this? Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?

But let us not oversimplify matters. Surely Christ himself corrected human traditions which threatened to stifle the word and the will of God? Indeed he did, so as to rekindle obedience to the true will of God, to his ever enduring word. His concern was for true obedience, as opposed to human caprice. Nor must we forget: he was the Son, possessed of singular authority and responsibility to reveal the authentic will of God, so as to open up the path for God’s word to the world of the nations. And finally: he lived out his task with obedience and humility all the way to the Cross, and so gave credibility to his mission. Not my will, but thine be done: these words reveal to us the Son, in his humility and his divinity, and they show us the true path.”

Thank you, Holy Father.

Photo credit: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images