Mistake or misrepresentation? Bishop Liesen on the Christmas song confusion

Mgr. Jan LiesenYesterday, Bishop Jan Liesen, holding the liturgy portfolio in the Dutch bishops’ conference, wrote a letter about the confusion surrounding popular Christmas songs in the liturgy. In the piece, which was published in Katholiek Nieuwsblad and on the conference’s website rkkerk.nl, the bishop confirms what many had already suspected: Publisher of Mass booklets, Berne Heeswijk, and especially director Fr. Joost Jansen, spoke nonsense when they said that the bishops had forbidden the use of such songs as ‘Silent Night’ in the liturgy of Christmas.

Bishop Liesen writes:

“This statement is not true and has caused much unrest. […] The Christmas song question is not new. In 2001 the Roman Congregation for Divine Worship decided that liturgical songs in the vernacular need the approval of both the bishops’ conference and the Holy See. To properly introduce this measure a list of songs for the liturgy was created and at the same a period of transition was sought. On the request of and in consultation with publisher Berne the Dutch bishops received such a transition period: for two years a number of songs could be used in the liturgy, even if they were not (yet) included in the list. It was agreed with Berne that the publisher would abide by the approved songs. This agreement was signed, among others, by Fr. Jansen. To be clear: the list of approved songs is still in development and is continuously expanded with new songs; both theologians and musicians are working on this. Traditional Christmas songs are also suggested.”

He adds in a subsequent paragraph that all people involved in the publication of Mass booklets – among them Fr. Jansen (pictured below) – were informed in June of this year that the so-called ‘Christmas traditionals’ may now be printed in the back of these booklets.

joost jansenAll this puts the publisher’s earlier statements – that the bishops had forbidden the use of such songs, and that they had petitioned Rome to issue this ban – in a new light. Simply put: he was talking nonsense. There never has been a ban, and certainly not one planned by the bishops, and the traditional popular Christmas songs may still be used – in their proper place – on Christmas Eve.

Sadly, no correction is yet to be found on the publisher’s website… which makes me wonder: was this an honest mistake or a wilful misrepresentation of facts. For one in the business of publishing, such a misunderstanding of agreements made and signed is a very serious one…

Bishop Liesen concludes his letter as follows:

“Part of that treasure of songs, to which many faithful are justifiably attached, are many Christmas songs. The bishops, too, enjoy singing them and informed Berne on 21 June that these songs are very much suited to be published in the back of the Mass booklets, so that they may be sung at Christmas.”

Photo credit: [2] Jeroen Appels/Van Assendelft

Panic takes over… and all responsibility flies out the window

Sigh… sometimes you have to wonder what people are thinking, not least people who provide a professional service to the Church and the faithful. One such case erupted this afternoon, and was smothered within hours, but not before the damage was done. And the guilty party? Not just the media who should do a lot more fact checking when writing about the Church, but also the publishers of Mass booklets in the Netherlands, the Norbertine abbey of Berne.

silent_nightWe’re no longer allowed to sing Silent Night at Christmas Mass this year, they panicked. When making the Mass booklets they felt so bad about all the songs the bishops wouldn’t allow them to print anymore: the aforementioned Christmas staple, but also the songs by Huub Oosterhuis (a good thing if those were banned). And although the order came from Rome, they said, they Vatican wasn’t to blame, because the ‘fluffiest Pope evur’ surely wouldn’t allow such a nasty thing. No, the Dutch bishops had told Rome to ban the songs. Bad bishops.

frmennenWell, reality is a bit different, as Father Cor Mennen (pictured), advisor to the Nationale Raad voor Liturgie (National Liturgy Council), explains. The Mass booklets are printed according to a list of approved songs. As Bishop Jan Liesen, who holds the liturgy portfolio in the Bishops’ Conference, confirms, Silent Night and others songs may be added to the list in the future, but at this time they have not which is why they are not included in the booklets. This is a new process, as in the past every song would have to be individually approved. As Fr. Mennen says:

“With this approach we want to avoid having to discuss every individual song. Silent Night isn’t on the list yet, but the approval is, as far as I know, only a matter of time. The song is uncontroversial. Parishes arent doing anything wrong if they sing it.”

Now why on earth didn’t the publishers know this? Or rather, why did they choose such a panicky reaction, which was eagerly lapped up by the media? They really should have known better. The only thing this achieves is a bad image in the papers. Oh, look at that silly Church and those power-hungry bishops banning everything the people like… And I wouldn’t want to feed the people who now think those songs really are banned.

Pretty irresponsible behaviour, I would say.

The artificial opposition of faith and dogma

With a sign proclaiming 'We remain San Salvator', protesters continue being stubborn

Over the past week or so, I have come across a number of instances in which the faith of the average churchgoing people is put in opposition to the rules or dogmas which are handed down from Rome. Some examples:

  • The ongoing dispute between the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch and the parish of San Salvator (they have now claimed to be expecting a break with the diocese, looking for alternative locations to continue their ‘services’, and they will bar Auxiliary Bishop Mutsaerts from entering the church through passive resistance (although he is invited to attend one of their priestless Masses – what Masses?!)).
  • An announcement of the Mariënburg-old-codgers’-club-of-‘critical’-Catholics’ upcoming annual symposium centered around the question of what they still believe (judging from the words of chairman Erik Jurgens, who said he doesn’t need to believe in the Trinity or take the Creed seriously to be a good Catholic, they don’t believe in anything much).
  • Retweets by the Dutch Dominicans of an article by a one of their own warning us against believing that Christ is, in fact, God.
  • And, lastly, an assurance from theological publishers’ Berne Heeswijk that one of their new publication “will not be going the way of dogma, but the way of the faithful”.

Just some examples, but indicative of a trend that, although often not very visible, is still well alive. To me, the division between the faithful on the one hand and dogma on the other is an artificial separation, which is potentially very dangerous. It’s not as if these are not related or connected in any way.They are, and we need both.

Faith is our answer to God. As the Catechism tells us: “Faith is man’s response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of his life” [26]. God takes the first step, we respond. The faith is our response to God’s active revelation and gift. Since it comes from God, this gift is perfect, but our faith is not automatically perfect: it is, after all, our response, and we are merely human. Were our response perfect, the relation between God and us may have been something like that between a programmer and a computer: the programmer inputs something and the outcome of his input is perfect and predictable. We’d be mindless automatons when it came to faith. But we are not. God created us with free will, we are free to act and to choose in all we do, including our quest for God or our denial of Him.

A consequence of that free will is that we have to be active partners in our relationship with God, in our faith. God helps us, but we need to do some of the work ourselves as well. Otherwise, again, we’d be left without choice and freedom. God offers his assistance in that through the Church he founded (Matthew 16:18-19). In the Church we find the means to develop our faith, to allow it to grow.

In the Gospel of John we read the Parable of the Vine (15-1-11). Jesus tells us there: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a branch — and withers; these branches are collected and thrown on the fire and are burnt” And later: “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.”

Jesus asks us to remain in Him, to keep His commandments and His teachings, lest we be thrown away and come to nothing. Now, Jesus’ teaching includes some very clear dogmas, so to speak: He is God, there are various things we need to do and understand to be able to follow Him. In other words, there are certain rules we need to follow.  Just like the sabbath was made for us, and not we for the sabbath (Mark 2:27), the rules are there for us, not we for the rules. They allow us to grow in faith, to reach our full potential. The rules are also educational: they teach us about God and His identity, and likewise about ourselves, through the things we say do and believe.

What’s the consequence of we do not follow the rules that Christ gave us, and which were later given to us by the Church with the authority given to her by Christ? We need only to look at San Salvator, Mariënburg, the Dutch Dominicans, Berne Heeswijk… and so many others.  Places were faith is a matter of mere feelings and nice thoughts. We will wither and come to nothing.

There is no opposition between the dogmas and the faith of the common man, so to speak. The former helps the latter achieve his full potential, which does require a conscious effort and desire to achieve in us.

An interesting related question to this whole matter is what comes first: our conscience or the teachings of the Church? Father Juan R. Vélez offers an interesting article about that very question, offering answers based on the teaching of Blessed John Henry Newman. The article is also available in Dutch.