“Room for the Risen One” -Looking back at the installation of bishop Timmerevers

On 27 August, Bishop Heinrich Timmerevers was installed as bishop of Dresden-Meißen. Here on the blog it went sort of unmarked because of the summer season, but here is the translation of the homily Bishop Timmervers gave on that day.

There are a few interesting comments to be found, not so much about the future direction he wishes to take in managing the diocese, but of a more theological nature. Comments about the centrality of the person of Jesus and our constant need to seek Him out, but also about what it means that we followed a resurrected Jesus, the need for vocations and recognising Jesus in the faces of the poor and needy.

160509-timmerevers-250“Dear sisters and brothers here in the cathedral and in the courtyard!
Dear fellow celebrants via the screens!

I.

The first encounters with faithful from our diocese took place during the Katholikentag in Leipzig. Various people often addressed me with the words, “Are you not our new bishop?” “Yes, I am!” We usually exchanged a few words and then I was often told, “We look forward to you very much!” – sometimes followed by the addition, “Hopefully you will stay a bit longer!” “That is what I’m expecting”, I answered.

Dear sisters and brothers! Since a few weeks my identity card includes the line ‘Schloßstrasse 24, 01067 Dresden’. I want to grow new roots here in the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen and make my home among you. The words I frequently heard – “We are happy with you!” – I gladly answer them now, “I am also happy you!”

II.

A person entering the cathedral is soon taken with the altar statue, created for this church by Anton Raphael Mengs in 1752. Christ, the crucified and risen one, is being taken up into heaven. It is an Ascension image.

In the reading we have just heard a part of the Letter from the Apostle Paul to the Colossians (3:1-4). They are the verses which we always hear on the feast of the Ascension of Christ: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.”

It seems a remarkable coincidence to me, that I chose my episcopal motto from these verses 15 years ago, and that it is now held up to use in the form of this great image. “Seek, where Christ is!”. “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” What is above is Christ. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, become man for us, crucified, died and buried, but then risen from the dead, He returns home to the Father. Through the Spirit, which He has poured out over the entire world, and which He continues to pour out, He is among us. This is the Jesus Christ with whom we are concerned, with whom Christians are concerned, He is the heart of our faith and life. This also seems a wonderful coincidence to me: Bishop Joachim chose the motto “Jesus in the centre”; Archbishop Heiner the motto “Rejoice always, the Lord is near!”. And I chose as motto: “Seek, where Christ is!” It is all about Him!

III.

Perhaps some would wonder, “Why should I seek Christ, what does that mean to me?” What it means to me, I have heard already in the first line of today’s reading: “You were raised with Christ!” One who is united to Christ through Baptism, has received a new life with Him, a life which does not end with death. Even more: the person baptised holds life within him, which today, now, gives us the strength and courage to face the challenges of life. Who seeks Jesus, finds direction for his life. Who seeks Jesus, finds clarity amid the many meanings presented by this world. Who seeks Jesus, finds with him the power of love, which conquers all division! Who seeks Jesus, finds a peace with Him, which the world can not give and no man can create! To quote Pope Benedict: “By relying on Jesus, you lose nothing, but gain everything!” You gain quality of life! How many of us, gathered here together, can say: It is worth seeking Jesus and entrusting yourself to Him!

IV.

Where do we find this Jesus Christ?

The statue of the Ascension in the cathedral provides an initial answer. The Church is the place of the risen, and indeed this, our Church, today, which constantly needs renewal and vitalisation through the Gospel. This Church, which has suffered under division since the Reformation, this Church, which every now and then can give a credible witness of love and mercy, this Church is the place of the Risen Lord! And in this Church the Lord is present in His Word, which is proclaimed and lived; He is present under the signs of bread and wine; He is present in the ministries of our Church. He is present when we come together in His name.

The faithful in the communities of the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen have, over the past years, been working with a process of exploration. What matters is to find ways in which as many people as possible in Saxony and eastern Thuringia can come to know and encounter Christ. I want to familiarise myself very soon with this process and I want – as soon as possible – to visit and get to know the responsible communities.  I agree with the basic conviction of this process: the Church is the space of the Risen, the parish as the home of the Risen, the community coming together, is a place of the Risen! And then, dear sisters and brothers, the responsible communities established in this process of exploration will also be places of the Risen.

Amid all the questions and searching, with their arguments, clarifications and decisions, which must be made for a new structure for the pastoral care, and in trying to be a living and inviting Church, we all share the responsibility together to give the Risen One space among us. How can this be experienced?

The abbot of a great religious order told me that, when he would visit the various monasteries of the community, he would ask two question and speak with the monks about them. The first question: “Are you in the peace of the Risen One?” And the second question: “Do you have vocations?”

Dear sisters and brothers, I invite you to ask yourself these questions: “Are you in the peace of the Risen One, and do you have vocations?” In thinking about what the future will brign for our communities, what matter is that we create room among us for the Risen One! Who approaches Him in thought, question, search and in word and deed, will experience His peace.

The second question, “Do you have vocations?”, is internally connected to the first one! The Risen One calls people to be priests, religious. the Church needs these vocations! The Risen One calls the baptised and confirmed to come together with their gifts and abilities and work together on building up the Church! In the peace of the Rison One we can be Church together and have an effect on the world!

V.

The Church does not exist only for herself: we have been placed in the world, we live in it and with our lives we witness to the Good News! “Seek where Christ is!” Christ Himself shows us an even greater horizon, where we we look for and can find Him. In the Gospel that we hae just heard (Matt. 25:31-40), Jesus speaks about the final judgement and presents to us what will be asked then. These questions make our lives today very concrete!

Jesus says something unimaginable, He identifies Himself with the suffering and needy of this world. Whoever seeks Him, finds Him in the hungry, the thirst, the homeless, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. He takes the suffering out of their anonymitym He gives them a face, His face! And so He can say, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me”.

Christ broadens our horizon! Being Church and being Christian is not realised by staring at heaven, Christians do not remain within the churches, however beautiful these are! Being Christian means not being satisfied with looking inward in sacristies and parish houses! In seeking Christ we arrive at those who – for whatever reason – are in need! That is where we are all called!

Dear sisters and brothers, I invite you to go with me. Let us seek where Christ is!

I rejoice in you!

Amen!”

To be an instrument of the Lord – Bishop van den Hende’s catechesis talk at WYD

World Youth Day 2016 is over, but here is a translation of the third catechesis given to the Dutch pilgrims over the course of the week-long event which saw several million young Catholics gathered in Kraków. This catechesis, which in its message mirrored the call by Pope Francis to young Catholics to get off the couch and act, was given by Rotterdam’s Bishop Hans van den Hende. Like during  previous editions, the bishop’s talk could count on an ovation at the end.

Bishop van den Hende speaks about the popular image of divine mercy and what it means to be an instrument of the Lord.

“Dear young people, I was just given the advice to put mercy into practice by not given you catechesis today. But Jesus’ message of mercy does not come in easy bite-size chunks and is not a matter of just swallowing it. A merciful attitude – in imitation of the Lord – is for us a matter of practice and therefore there is catechesis after all.

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1. Image of the merciful Jesus

The topic for this day is: Lord, make me an instrument of your mercy. When I was thinking about this beforehand, and this became even clearer these days, I had to think of the person of Jesus Himself. Especially the image of Jesus, such as here in the church of divine mercy.

Hyla%20blue%20largposter%20copyThe image of the divine mercy was created following the direction of Sister Faustina (1905-1938). In this image Jesus points at His heart, He looks at us and you a read and a white beam. It is an image of Jesus who gave His life out of boundless love for us. In the Gospels we can read in the passages about his passion and death on the cross about a soldier who stabbed his side with a spear, causing blood and water to flow (John 19:34). In the image of the divine mercy Jesus looks at us and He points at His heart. He shows that He wants to give everything for us, even His blood. He saves us. And the water reminds us of Baptism.

The person of Jesus has been on our minds for days. You see Him everywhere. The front of our pilgrims’ booklet even shows the two beams that are part of the image of divine mercy.  And we have also seen the image at the shrine of Sister Faustina here in Krakow. Yesterday when we welcomed the Pope, Pope Francis said that Jesus lives and is among us. That is what is most important about this World Youth Day. The Pope may take the initiative for the WYD, it is Jesus Himself who comes to us and is among us with all the gifts we need (Matt. 28:20b).

Pope Francis calls Jesus the face of God’s mercy (misericordiae vultus). In Jesus, the incarnate son of God, we can experience and hear how great the mercy of God is for us. We can look upon Him every day, whether in this image or a cross in your bedroom at home. Every day, you can take the step towards Him, to approach Him, to put your hope in Him and find your strength in Him. Not just on the day on which you have exams, or when things go bad, but you can come to Him every day anew.

Underneath the image of divine mercy, Holy Sister Faustina wrote in Polish: Jesus, I trust in you. In the great church of the shrine of Sister Faustina and the divine mercy, where we were last Tuesday, this sentence was whispered into a microphone several time: Jesus, I trust in you. That could perhaps be your first step, to consciously start each day by going to Jesus: I trust in you, it will be a good day with You, whatever may happen. We encounter the Father’s mercy in Jesus. His heart shows that His love for us is eternal. He is always willing to forgive. Many of you have received the sacrament of penance and reconciliation in these days. It is good to always conclude the confession of your sins with these words: I trust in you. We experience God’s mercy in the things Jesus doesd and says, solemnly put, the acts of the Lord. In the Gospel we read that Jesus heals people, consoles them, forgives people and puts them back on track with renewed courage. Jesus lets His heart speak and you can see and hear how great His mercy for us is. Look at Jesus, listen to Him, go to Him every day and say: Jesus, I trust in you. And perhaps you can take a further step and pray: Jesus, make my heart continously more like yours, that it may be involved with the things your heart is involved with: love, forgiveness, justice, solidarity, new life.

Santa-Faustina-2-760x747Sister Faustina, who only lived to the age of 33, wanted to share the message of God’s mercy. She said: this is so important, I cannot remain silent about this, I will tell this. She only went to school for three years, but she took up the pen and wrote. In the texts, Jesus calls her “His secretary of mercy’. She was an instrument of mercy. In order to make the limitless mercy of the Father known even more – for in he 1930s, like now, there was much crisis, threat of war, violence, discrimination and hate. Especially in a world of sin and evil God’s mercy must be announced. Sister Faustina wanted to do that, she wanted to be an instrument of mercy, a secretary of mercy.

2. To be an instrument of the Lord

When it comes to being an instrument of the Lord, we are part of a good tradition. In the history of our faith there are many who have answered that question with an eager yes. Yes, with your help. Think of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was asked as a young woman to be the mother of the Lord. At first she doesn’t know what to say: I don’t even have a husband, how can this be? But then she says, I can be an instrument of your plan with the world: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). In this way Mary consented to being the mother of Jesus. Another example of Saint Francis (1182-1226). Just now we prayed: make me an instrument of your peace. That prayer is attributed to Saint Francis, who had converted and was praying before a cross at a ruined chapel. He approached Jesus and said: Lord, what can I do for you? How can I be your instrument? And the Lord said, rebuild my house. Francis immediately went shopping, so to speak, collected all sorts of building supplies and repaired the chapel, making it wind and watertight. But then Francis found that it wasn’t about the church building as such, but about the people who were the Church, it was about the Church of Christ as the network of love in which there was indifference and unbelief, and such a gap between rich and poor. The prayer you prayed this morning deepens the question: what should I do? I want to be your instrument, Lord. So, in the great tradition of our faith there are always people who have the courage to be instruments of the Lord. Such as the Blessed Virgin in the Gospel and Brother Francis in the course of his life.

In his encyclical Lumen fidei, the Pope explains that it may sound a little clinical, a person as an instrument. As if you are a screwdriver, while we are people with a name and a heart. It ay sound as if you are just a cog in a great machine, and that it doesn’t really matter what you contribute. But the Pope says: do not let yourself be belittled, do not think that you are just a small part, but think of the Church as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-31) to which you belong. Not a finger can be missed, not an eye, not a toe, not an artery. The tone should then not be: I am just a part. No, you are (no matter how small) an instrument in the great work of God. You can do even the smallest task as a part of the greater whole of His body, the Church, close to Christ. However small your task is, you take part in the work of the Lord and in that no one can be missed.

 3. To be an instrument of the Lord: to accept or hesitate?

What do you do when the Lord ask you: do you want to be my instrument? Do you hesitate, do you accept? Do you ask for time to think? That is often the same as hesitating. In a shop the  shopkeeper knows very well that, when you say you want to think about it, you are probably going to buy it over the Internet.

When the Lord asks you to be His instrument, you may feel that you are too young, or not strong enough in your faith. But take a look in the Bible, you are not alone in that. Remember the prophet Jeremiah. When God asked him to be a prophet, Jeremiah answered, “I do not know how to speak. I am too young!” (Jer. 1:6). But the Lord said: It is me who is calling you, and when I call you it means that I will also give you the strength and talent to do it. And Jeremiah said: Lord, send me. Als remember the Apostle Peter, who hesitated at first. He saw the Lord and the abundant catch. But Peter did not say: “How wonderful”. No, he says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). And what about the Apostle Paul? He was at first a persecutor of Jesus and His disciples, and he looked on with arms crossed when Stephen the deacon was stoned (Acts 7:58). When Jesus calls him, Paul says, “I am the least of the apostles”, and considers himself as born abnormally (cf. 1 Cor. 15:8-9).

4. How good do you have to be to be an instrument of the Lord?

There are great examples of people who have said yes, and there are those who at first hesitated, such as Jeremiah, Peter and Paul. But in the end they did accept, for they found their strength in God. When we say to Jesus, “I trust in you,” we take the same step as Peter and Paul. Whether you are small or young, sinful or haven’t discovered many of your talents yet.

How good do you actually have to be in order to become an instrument? In the Gispel there are remarkable examples about this, such as the tax collector Levi, who works for the emperor and collects a major bonus for himself. This does not make one popular, as it is unfair. Jesus passes him and says, “Follow me”. The Pharisees wondered: How can Jesus call someone like that? A sinner, someone so untrustworthy! But Jesus says, “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners” (Luke 5:27,32; see also: Mark 2:13-17). If that isn’t mercy! Pope Francis also refers to this special calling, but in the Gospel of Matthew (9:9-13). He speaks of the tax collector Matthew, sitting at the customs post. The Lord sees him and says, “Follow me. Pope Francis applied this to himself, and his motto is ‘miserando atque eligendo’. This means as much as ‘being chosen by mercy’. The Lord did not come for the healthy, but for the sick to heal them (Matt. 9:12).

The Lord calling and needing you, that is what ultimately matters. It is the Lord who has a plan with you and who calls you and gives you the means in His mercy. So it’s not you being ready with all your talents and thinking, what’s keeping Him? No, the Lord Jesus sees us and calls us to accept His merciful love and accept Him as the basis of our lives, and in turn to be His instrument of mercy. When the Lord calls you, He also gives you the talent. He enables you to be His instrument of mercy. Jesus looks at you and calls you to accept mercy. Do not say that you are too busy or not suited to being an instrument of the Lord. That is no reason for saying no. At my ordination to the priesthood I also wondered, why me? But at the same time I thought, I am not worthy, I am not holy, but you called me (“non sum dignus neque sanctus tamen tu vocasti me“). When He calls and invites you, that is the basis for saying yes. So when Jesus asks you to be His instrument, have the courage to say yes. At the ordination of a deacon or priest, the ordinand says, “Yes, with the help of God’s grace”. Jesus calls and gives you His grace. He wants you to be His instrument and also gives you the tools to do it. Saying yes is very specific. In the first place it is prayer. Like Mary, like Peter and Paul. Going towards the Lord is the first step: here I am, what can I do for you, I know you have a plan for me, for you have called me since my first hour (cf. Jer. 1:5; Ps. 139; CCC 27).

5. Being an instrument of Christ: very specific

“Be merciful like your Father is merciful” is the theme of the WYD.

The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, takes centre stage today. Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me” (Matt. 25:31-46). To all these works of mercy you can think of people who have been an instrument of the Lord. Think for example of Saint Martin (ca. 316-397) who shared his cloak with a poor man on the side of the road. And think of Saint Elisabeth of Thuringia (1207-1231) who have bread to the hungry and nursed the sick. Putting the works of mercy from Matthew 25 into practice makes being an instrument of mercy very tangible.

But there is more in Chapter 25 of Matthew. Before speaking about the works of mercy, Jesus tells a parable, namely a parable that we should be vigilant (Matt. 25:1-13). You must use your eyes well to see what is needed, and your heart open for the Lord who comes. Or else you risk sitting ready with your talents, but never taking action. That is abit like the fire station with a closed oor, where nothing ever happens. So be vigilant, what do you see with the eyes of the Lord? In Matthew Chapter 25 Jesus tells another parable, namely that you must use the talrnts God has given you, struggles and all (Matt. 25:14-20). You werent given your talents to bury them in the ground in an attempt to never make mistakes. No, be vigilant, keep your eyes and heart open and use your talents. The you can get started on the works of mercy: comforting people, correcting and advicing people, bear annoyances. Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). Jesus says this to each of us.

6. Being an instrument of mercy, together with others who are instruments: as Church being one community of called, in service to the Lord.

You need not be able to do everything as instrument of mercy. The one may be able to listen well, and the other visits the sick without fear of infection. You need not be able to do everything, but choose what you are going to do. You are to be part of the Church, in which many are called and work.

You can be glad for the talents of others. And finally: encourage each other. Hunger and thirst, tears and loneliness remain. But get to work. Get up according to your calling and the talents that go with it. Hold on to each other. Jesus asks you to have confidence. And when you fall, ask to start anew in the light of God’s forgiving love. You are a human being according to God’s heart, with a name and a unique destiny. As an instrument of the Lord you have your own share in the mission of mercy that the Lord has entrusted to His Church.

I hope and pray that you will begin every day with looking towards the Lord, choose what you can do for Him, keep your trust in Him and support each other not to quit, because the mercy of the God is much to important and great for that. Thank you.”

In Germany, the numbers speak

numbersThe Catholic Church in Germany has published its annual statistics overview over 2015, and for the first time in several years there is a positive development to be noted when compared to the previous year. It remains to be seen if this development continues into the future, but it does begs the questions if this is the result of something like a Francis Effect, or of some other recent trend in the Church or the world. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, commenting on the numbers, believes it is due to there not only being an interest in what the Church has to offer, but also an active desire fore the sacraments:

“The statistics over 2015 indicate that the Church in Germany remains, as before, a strong force, whose message is heard and accepted. There is evidently not only an interest, but also an active desire for the sacraments of the Church, as the slight increase in the number of Baptisms and marriages shows. Although the number of people leaving the Church has decreased when compared to 2014, the number remains high, indicating we should persevere in our pastoral efforts. We need a “demanding pastoral approach” which does justice to the various realities of people and communicates the hope of the faith in a convincing manner. The completion of the Synod of Bishops in the past year, as well as Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter Amoris laetitia are important signposts.

“But the naked numbers also show that the Church in our country is an integral part of our society. We will develop our pastoral efforts further on the basis of these statsitics. A lot has already been done in the dioceses. I am thinking of the process of dialogue concluded in the past year, which has contributed to a renewal in the Church. Pope Francis encourages us when he says that the path to the Church of the future is the part of a “synodal Church”. This means that all the faithful, laity and clergy, are required! In the future, we will bear witness of our faith together and proclaim the Gospel with conviction.”

The cardinal, who serves as the president of the German Bishop’s Conference, is optimistic, and the latest numbers do warrant some measure of optimism. Many dioceses are reporting changes in trends of several years, especially in the number of baptisms and marriages, revealing that 2014/2015 is, for now a turning point in some areas. When comparing the 2015 statstics with those of 1995, 20 years ago, it becomes clear how welcome this change is. The number of Catholics is still lower than in 1995, sometimes significantly so (of note are the Dioceses of Görlitz and Magdeburg). Baptisms, however, are more frequent in some dioceses than they were in 1995. Berlin, Dresden-Meißen and Erfurt all report increases. It is interesting to see that both these dioceses and those with the most extreme drops in Catholic faithful are in the east of Germany, where secularism is most prevalent after decades of communist rule. This increase can be partly attributed to immigration, from both Poland and the further abroad.

Marriages are still in crisis, however, with the numbers halved in some places over the past 20 years (Bamberg, Berlin, Dresden-Meißen, Erfurt, Görlitz, Hamburg, München und Freising, Passau and Würzburg are the only dioceses to have kept their numbers at 50% or above).

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.

More than just receiving – After Amoris laetitia, some thoughts on Communion and being Catholic

Communion-WafersAlmost a month since the publication of Amoris laetitia, it becomes untenable to claim that the notorious footnote 351 somehow opens the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. The debate is far from over, but over the course of the past weeks there have been an increasing number of authorities who explained that, no, this is not what the Pope intended to say. Cardinals Christoph Schönborn – named by Pope Francis to have given the right interpretation of the entire document -, Walter Brandmüller and Gerhard Müller are among these. The teaching on the subject as written down by Pope Saint John Paul II in Familiaris consortio remains current. And it couldn’t be any different, as Cardinal Burke also emphasised: an Apostolic Exhortation does not have the intention or authority to change doctrine.

I have been among those who have accussed Pope Francis of being unclear on this topic, but he isn’t really. It’s just that he never intended Amoris laetitia to give an authoritative solution, but to urge pastors and faithful to be creative and come up with solutions within the framework of the teachings of the Catholic Church. We must read the text with his emphases and focus, not our own.

Personally I find one of the clearest, and most often overlooked, points to be that the Catholic Church knows seven sacraments, of which the Eucharist is one. The footnote speaks only of ‘sacraments’, which in certain cases may be a help to couples who live in socalled irregular situations. This must, the Pope clearly indicates time and again, be decided on a case by case basis, conscious of the sensitive situation they might be in, and I can imagine that the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, Confession can all certainly get a look in in these decisions. The possible solution presented in footnote 351 is therefore of a greater scope than what the vast majority of commenters – on both sides of the issue – have been saying.

And here we find a major cause of the problem: apparently, so many people think, you’re not really a part of the Church unless you receive Holy Communion. And not only that, there exists a right to receive Communion. This is both blatantly untrue. Our Catholic identity is in the first place not based in Communion but in Baptism, and secondly it extends far further than the act of receiving (or, in too many cases, taking) Communion. Unless we realise that, we are doomed to remain focussed on the question of who can and can not receive and thus, who is and is not really a part of our Catholic community. Pope Francis is determined to fight this latter idea, and if we are to side with him in that fight, we must re-evaluate our ideas about Holy Communion.

But let no one think I consider Eucharist and Communion not really that important. The Eucharist is the most valuable treasure the Church has. It is Christ, and the Church physically gives Him to the people. There can be no greater gift. This dictates how we relate to this sacrament. An honest desire to receive Communion is a good thing: we desire to receive Christ, make Him a part of ourselves, or ourselves a part of Him (Communion is like eating, but also completely unlike eating).

However, the Eucharist also inspires us, enables us to be Catholic, live a Christian life. This is expressed in prayer, in charity, in the works of mercy (both spiritual and corporal) and in every part of our lives. Or it should be. The proper understanding and relation with Christ in the Eucharist is a necessity in making it work in us. I have compared it to medication (in a field hospital, if you will): if we don’t change our lives and avoid what makes us sick, no amount of pills is going to make us better.

Holy Communion is a gift, and we are asked to not only accept it but make it fruitful in us. And sometimes we can’t. The situation of a family in which one of the spouses was previously married, but who both have the responsibility for children born in that second relationship, is an example. It is an objective fact, in which accusations and responsibility play no part, that this couple lives in an irregular situation and therefore can not receive Communion. But our Catholic faith is greater than that, and by no means are these people excluded from the most holy. Even being in the presence of the Holy Eucharist can be a sanctifying event, which is why the Holy Father emphases the importance of Adoration. The sacrament of Confession, to which footnote 351 is also open, can be a powerful help for people in this situation, even when they can’t change their objectively sinful situation.

We must not downplay the value of Communion, but neither should we deny the power of the Eucharist and the inspiration and strength it gives us to live Christian lives, even if we can’t physically receive it. Prayer, Confession, charity, mercy, solidarity are all fruits of the eternal sacrifice of Christ which, ever new, comes to us through the Eucharist. Let us emphasise what we can, and not what we can’t.

Seriousness and joy, two bedfellows in the Year of Mercy – Archbishop De Kesel’s installation homily

Last Saturday, Msgr. Jozef De Kesel was installed as the 24th Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, at the Cathedral of St. Rumbold. Attending were, among others, the Belgian king and queen, all other Belgian bishops (including Archbishop De Kesel’s two predecessors, Archbishop Léonard and Cardinal Danneels), as well as Cardinal Wim Eijk from the Netherlands and Bishop Gérard Coliche from France. In his homily, the new archbishop looked at the readings of the third Sunday of Advent, and kept close to the theme of the Holy Year of Mercy. In the spirit of Pope Francis, he called for a Church that goes out into the world, to confront “our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.”

Read my translation of the homily, which was given in both French and Dutch, below.

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“Dear friends,

The Scripture readings we have just heard are the reading for the third Sunday of Advent. They are words that are being read today and tomorrow everywhere in the world, wherever Christians come together on the Sunday. They prepare us for Christmas. But they do give us mixed feelings. On the one hand we have John’s call for conversion. That we do not miss He who is coming. For He is coming, he says, “to clear his threshing floor”. Not exactly a comforting message. Words that point out the seriousness of the situation and our responsibility.

But at the same time there is also the call to joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” he says. Of old this Sunday has also been called this: Sunday Gaudete! And Saint Paul adds, “Have no anxiety …  the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds. The Prophet Zephaniah shares the same call for joy. They seem unlikely bedfellows: the seriousness and responsibility that John emphasises and the call to joy and happiness. But it is these two which brings us together today: great responsibility, but also great joy.

Yes, the words of John are binding. He calls to conversion. Yet when those who have just been baptised ask him, “What should we do?”, his response is surprising. He asks for nothing extraordinary or sensational. Share what you have. They should not give everything, but what they have. If you have more clothing than you need, then give to those who do not have enough. The same applies to food: share what you have more of than you need. And to the tax collectors he does not say to cease their work. He simply says, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed”. Beware of corruption. And the soldiers who come to him, he does not ask to desert. He simply asks them: do what you do properly, without abusing your position and without the use of arbitrary violence. Never forget that you are human like everyone else. What John asks requires string commitment. That is true. But he does not ask anything extravagant. A baptised person does not keep a distance from others. We are to return to the responsibility and solidarity that we share with all men, regardless of their religion of belief.

But why be baptised? Why be Christian? The liturgy of this Sunday gives us the answer, and it too is astonishing. It is the joy that makes me a believer. It is not out of necessity or because I feel obligated. I am a Christian in freedom and love. We are known and loved by God. This is the heart of our faith. This joy and all love is therefore a call to fidelity and conversion.

This is the heart of Christianity. Not in the first place a doctrine or morality. But the certainty that we, frail and temporary people, are known and loved by God. It can hardly be imagined. But how, if this is true, can we not rejoice? Of course this does not answer all questions or solve every problem. But we know from experience how much this makes us happy, gives meaning and direction to our existence: that we are known, appreciated and loved by other people. That we are not nobody. Exactly that is the joy of the Gospel: to know that we are not only by those who are near to use, but by God Himself, the Creator and source of all that exists. Known and loved and radically accepted. Not without reason did Pope Francis call his first Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel”. And not without reason did he, last Tuesday in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, at the start of the great jubilee, open the door, the door of God’s mercy. Like we will do tomorrow here, and in Brussels and in Nivelles and in all cathedrals and jubilee churches in the entire world.

No, God is not an indifferent God. No arbitrary power, only concerned with Himself. We people are worth everything to Him. That is why He ask that one thing: that we are also not indifferent to each other. Especially not to those who stand at the side and do not matter, the poor and vulnerable, and the countless who are fleeing from war and violence. That we respect all life, no matter how small and vulnerable. Respect for the religious and philosophical convictions of every man. Respect and care for the planet we inhabit. We are also responsible for future generations. This world can be a hard place. This is what the Gospel asks from us: that we do not became hard and indifferent, insensitive and merciless. Because that is our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.

This is the Gospel that the Church proclaims. The Gospel of God’s tenderness. And this is not just rhetoric. He is committed to the very end. And His Son, Jesus Christ, became one of us, vulnerable and defenseless as a child of men. A miracle of humanity. A love to which there is only one answer: to love in our turn. We appreciate and respect each other. Proclaiming the mercy of God and calling for respect and love, that is the mission of the Church. This is the place it searches out in our pluralistic and modern society. Nothing more, and nothing less. In a secularised culture, she can and must make her voice heard. And so much more than a religious fundamentalism that at this time constitutes a very real threat.

Not a Church that looks inward, but a Church that shares in the joys and sufferings of the world. Sympathetic to the plight of humans, of any kind. This was the message of the Second Vatican Council. Last Tuesday, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, it was exactly fifty years since the closing of the Ecumenical Council. The Constitution on the Church in the world begins with these impressive and moving words: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

This is the vocation that the Church has received from God. To that we want to dedicate our best forces at the task entrusted to me today. I with you, and you with me. As we heard from John: no extravagant or spectacular projects. But a search for a consistent experience of the Gospel. And with that one certainty: that we are known and loved by God. That is our joy and faith today.

+Jozef De Kesel
Mechelen, 12 December 2015″

The last big step – the German language group’s third commentary

The last big contribution of the German language group, their commentary on the third part of the Instrumentum laboris. There are several interesting elements in it, to begin with the first paragraph in which the Synod fathers strongly criticise the comments of some of their colleagues about what happens in the deliberations. They also criticise a too-strict application of the rules, and especially the language used in doing so.

Despite the expectations of some, the group also comes out strong in defence of the family and magisterial documents sich as Humanae vitae and Familiaris consortio.

The most difficult topic is left until last: the question of allowing divorced and civilly remarried faithful access to the sacraments? The German language group seems to be in favour of it, but also emphasises that this is a decision that needs to be made in the internal forum, in conversation between the people concerned and the priest accompanying them, and it involves some tough questions.

The German original is here, and my translation follows:

We have witnessed with great concern and regret the public statements from certain Synod fathers about persons, content and course of the Synod. These contradict the spirit of walking together, the spirit of the Synod and its fundamental rules. The imagery and comparisons used are not simplistic and false, but also hurtful. We firmly distance ourselves from these.

It is a joint desire of the German language group to complement the title of the Relatio finalis, “The Vocation and the Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World”, with the subtitle “Considerations and suggestion for the Holy Father, Pope Francis, in order to better express the classification of the text, which is not a decisive document. We recommend for the introduction a mention of the global questionnaire and an expression of gratitude and esteem.

Regarding a clearer emphasis on the family as subject of pastoral care it should be specified that Christian families are call to witness of the Gospel of marriage which has been entrusted to them. The Christian spouses and families are part of a new family of Christ, His Church. In that way the spouses can be a sacrament for the world. The “new family of Jesus Christ”, the Church, should encourage, strengthen and enable  the spouses to be such witnesses. This allows, after all, the Church to always learn from the spouses’ and families’ experiences of life and faith.

Here, a confession was important to us: wrongly understood efforts to uphold the Church’s  teachings time and again led to hard and merciless attitudes, which hurt people, especially single mothers and children born out of wedlock, people living together before or in place of marriage, homosexually oriented people and divorced and remarried people. As bishops of our Church we ask these people for forgiveness.

We have also spoken extensively about the relation between speech, thought and action, especially regarding a humane understanding of human sexuality. A suitable and renewable language is is crucial, in the first place for the introduction of adolescent children and youth to a mature human sexuality. This is in the first place the task of the parent and can not be left to education at school or media and social media alone. Many parents and pastoral workers find it difficult to find an appropriate and at the same respectful language which places biological  sexuality in the overall context of friendship, love, enriching complementarity and the mutual commitment of woman and man.

The working group found it important to emphasise that the Christian conviction in its basis assumes that God has created humanity as man and woman and has blessed them so that they become one flesh and fruitful (cf. Gen. 1:27 onwards; 2:24). In their equal personal dignity, as in their distinctiveness, man and woman are Gods good creation. Although, according to the Christian understanding of the unity of body of soul, biological gender (“sex”) and social-cultural gender roles (“gender”) are analytically different from one another, they can not be fundamentally or arbitrarily separated. All theories that regard human sexes as a subsequent construct and encourage an arbitrary social interchangeability, are te be rejected as ideologies. The unity of body of soul includes that the concrete social self-image and social role of men and women in cultures are different and subject to pronounced change. Therefore, the awareness of the full personal dignity and the public responsibility of women is a positive sign of the times that the Church values and encourages (cf. Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris, 22).

We have spoken about the connection between the sacraments of baptism and marriage and the necessity of faith.

The Catholic confession about marriage is based on the word of the Lord in Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition and is faithfully retained in its substance through the magisterium. Nevertheless, there are tensions between the dogmatic, moral-theological and canonical approaches in the theological development, which can lead to difficulties in pastoral practice.

For example, the axiom “every marriage contract between Christian is a sacrament per se” must be reconsidered. In societies that are no longer homogeneous Christian, or countries with different cultural and religious backgrounds, a Christian understanding of marriage can no longer be readily assumed, even among Catholics. A Catholic without faith in God and His revelation in Jesus Christ can not automatically enter into a sacramental marriage without or even against his knowledge or will. He lacks the intention to at least want what the Church understands as marriage. Although the sacraments are not effective through the faith of the recipient, they, but also not without or regardless of him; At the least, the grace remains fruitless, when it is not received freely and willingly with faith determined by love.

The question also arises among our fellow Christians whose religious convictions deny the sacramentality of marriage (with its essential properties), if a sacramental marriage has occurred despite this. This does not mean that the validity of non-Catholic marriages is denied by the Church, or that the the work of God’s  mercy in non-sacramental marriages is questioned. We acknowledged the variety of studies about this question and recommend and deeper study of these questions with the goal of a new magisterial reappraisal and a greater coherence of the dogmatic, moral-theological and canonical statements about marriage with pastoral practice.

We have an addition to interfaith marriages: In view of the topic of interfaith marriage the positive aspects and the special vocation of such a marriage must be mentioned in the first place, as the non-Catholic Christians are in no way outside the one Church, but are a part of it through Baptism and a certain, if imperfect, communion (cf. Unitatis redintegratio, 3). Interfaith marriages may also be considered as house churches and have a specific vocation and mission, consisting in the exchange of gifts in the ecumenism of life.

In view of the importance of the family in society and state, the working group underlines as starting point, that marriage and family precede the state. They are basis and “vital cell of society” (Apostolicam actuositatem, 11). There can be no common life without family. The political community is therefore obliged to do everything to enable and permanently promote this “vital cell”. The repeatedly bemoaned “structural disregard” for the family must be overcome. The means for that are in the first place access to housing and work, the facilitation of education and childcare, as well as fairer benefits for families in tax legislation which acknowledges in equitable manner what families give to society. It should ne clear: not the family must be subordinate to economic interests, but vice versa. The family is at the heart of Catholic social teaching, which is an indispensable part of the Church’s proclamation and evangelisation. All Christians are called to be engaged in the field of  the political design of social coexistence and so to help families live better lives and flourish. Additionally, politicians must especially observe the principle of subsidiarity and not restrict the rights of families. Here, the “Charter of the Rights of the Family” must be noted. The Church as a whole must play an active and exemplary part with her engagement in the realm of family education, child care, schools, counseling centers and institutions for family aid.

In view of marriage preparation it was a concern of the working group to point out that a short conversation or a brief introduction do not suffice. Since many couples are unable to build upon an education marked by faith, the introduction of a marriage catechumenate is strongly recommended, taking at least several months, to really come to a mature “yes”, carried by faith, that is aware of the finality of the marriage covenant and trusts in God’s  faithfulness.

The aspect of responsible parenthood was one of the central discussion topics in the working group. According to the order of God’s creation, the marital love of husband and wife and the transmission of human life are ordered towards one another. God has called man and woman to participate in his work of creation and at the same time as interpreters of His love and placed the future of mankind in their hands. Husband and wife should realise this mission of creation in responsible parenthood. Before the face of God, and with consideration of their medical, economic, psychological and social situation, their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of this children, as well as the wellbeing of the greater family and society, they will decide the number and spacing in time of their children (Gaudium et spes, 50). According to the integral personal and human character of conjugal love the right way of family planning is the consensual call of the spouses, the consideration of the rhythm and the respect for the dignity of the partner. In this sense the Encyclical Humanae vitae (10-12) and the Apostolic Letter Familiaris consortio (14, 28-35) should be redeveloped and the willingness to have children be awakened, contrary to a mentality that is often hostile to life and partly to children.

Young spouses should be encouraged time and again to give life to children. This will make the openness to life in family, Church and society grow. The Church, with her numerous facilities for children contribute to a greater childfriendliness for children in society, but also in the Church. Observing responsible parenthood requires the formation of conscience. Conscience is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths” (Gaudium et spes, 16). The more spouses set out to listen to God in conscience, and the more they allow themselves to be guided spiritually, the more their decisions will be inwardly free from affective inclinations and the adaptation of their behaviour to society. For the sake of this freedom of conscience the Church strongly rejects forced government measures in favour of contraception, sterilisation or even abortion.

We have also debated extensively about the integration of divorced and civilly remarried people in the Church community.

It is known that there has been strong struggle, in  both sessions of the Synod of Bishops, about the questions of whether and to what extent divorced and remarried, faithful, when they want to take part in the life of the Church, can, under certain circumstances, receive the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. The discussions have shown that there are no simple and general solutions to this question. We bishops have experienced the tensions connected to this question as many of our faithful, their concerns and hopes, warnings and expectations have accompanied us in our deliberations.

The discussions clearly show that some clarification and explanation to further develop the complexity of these questions in the light of the Gospel, the doctrine of the Church and with the gift of discernment. We can freely mention some criteria which may help in our discernment. The first criterium is given by Pope Saint John Paul II in Familiaris consortio 84, when he invites us: “Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid”. It is therefore the duty of the pastors to travel this path of discernment together with those concerned. It would be helpful to take, in an honest examination of conscience, the step of contemplation and penance together. The divorced and remarried should then ask themselves how they dealt with their children when their marital Union fell into crisis? Where there attempts at reconciliation? What is the situation of the partner left behind? What is the effect of the new relationship on the greater family and the community of faithful? What is the example for the young who are discerning marriage? An honest contemplation can strengthen trust in the mercy of God, which He refuses no one who brings their failures and needs before Him.

Such a path of contemplation and penance can, in the forum internum, with an eye on the objective situation in conversation with the confessor, lead to personal development of conscience and to clarification, to what extent access to the sacrament is possible. Every individual must examine himself according to the word of the Apostle Paul, which applies to all who come to the table of the Lord:  “Everyone is to examine himself and only then eat of the bread or drink from the cup; because a person who eats and drinks without recognising the body is eating and drinking his own condemnation. That is why many of you are weak and ill and a good number have died. If we were critical of ourselves we would not be condemned” (1 Cor. 11:28-31).

Like those of the first two parts, the modi to the third part of the Instrumentum laboris were worked upon in a good synodal spirit and adopted unanimously.