A journey begun in May of this year saw its conclusion today, with the official installation of Bishop Antoon Hurkmans as rector of the church of Saints Michael and Magnus, better known as the Church of the Frisians, the Dutch national church in Rome.
Following his early retirement from the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Bishop Hurkmans had initially expected to retire to his native village of Someren, where he would see how he could assist in the local parish. But then came word from Rome, where Fr. Tiemen Brouwer OP expressed his wish to decrease his workload. The rector of the Church of the Frisians wanted to retire after nine years running the parish centered on the outskirts of St. Peter’s Square. Enter the bishops, who were to select a successor. In Bishop Hurkmans’ own words:
“I unexpectedly learned that the bishops were looking for a new rector for the Church of the Frisians in Rome. The news struck a cord with me immediately. Is this my future? Without reservations, without asking too many questions, without wanting all kinds of things, I offered myself for this duty. The bishops then decided to suggest me as a candidate. This meant that I was faced with perhaps the greatest change in my life. To Rome! A different culture, a different language and back to basic pastoral care. Confident and with joy, as I can write now, I take on this challenge. It gives me the chance to really let go of the diocese and give my successor, Msgr. de Korte, all necessary room. And Rome was familiar enough for me that I had soon found an appartment and a community at Santa Maria dell’Anima, where I feel at home. The language is still a challenge, a project of years. And, let me say, a healthy mission.”
While the Dutch bishops can suggest a parish priest for the Church of the Frisians, the actual appointment is made by the Vicariate of Rome, one of the two major subdivisions of the Diocese of Rome.
Ever since the beginning of his priesthood, the bishop emeritus of ‘s-Hertogenbosch had always had the wish to go abroad, but that never happened. After his first posting as a parish priest, he became rector of the diocesan seminary, vicar general and then bishop.
Bishop Hurkmans was installed by the president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, Rotterdam’s Bishop Hans van den Hende. The installation Mass, which was the Mass for the feast of Saint Willibrord, patron of the Dutch Church province, was streamed live on Dutch television and may be watched here. Bishop Hurkmans expressed his feelings at his new tasks by saying, “It is a privilege to be this close to Peter.”
As for the future, while there are new duties, there is still a sense of retirement for Bishop Hurkmans. A much-desired return to simple pastoral care, as he himself expressed.
“I will be in the church every morning, where everyone is welcome to enter, to say hello, to speak in their mother tongue for a while, to share some of their life history, I will be there to listen.”
“I shouldn’t be working or doing too much there, but by simply being there I can make a big difference.”
Fr. Brouwer, then, remains in Rome as a confessor attached to the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls.
Visiting Lourdes with faithful from his diocese last week, Roermond’s Bishop Frans Wiertz related a personal story about his deteriorating eyesight. The 73-year-old bishop, the most senior of the active bishops in the Netherlands, has been suffering from an increasing loss of his sight for a while now. And, as he puts it, “it will not get better”.
Perhaps Lourdes was the perfect place to share such a personal experience of a physical ailment. Here, where the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous, thousands of pilgrims come every year to seek healing from what ails them, and the diocesan pilgrimage led by Bishop Wiertz (together with Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, recently retired from ‘s-Hertogenbosch) was no different.
Bishop Wiertz gives no indication that it prevents him from doing his duties as bishop. As he explains, it forces him to focus more on listening instead of watching, and each word he reads requires more time, so perhaps he has to take things a little bit slower. But he has an auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Everard de Jong, at his side to lead the Diocese of Roermond with its 1 million faithful. For now, we need not expect yet another round of bishop appointments.
The full text of Bishop Wiertz’s homily follows below:
“You may have noticed this week that I always read my text with a little light. That is because I can no longer see very well. I will turn 74 this year and even bishops are not safe from all sort of old age ailments. But you need not feel sorry for me: I am in good health for my age. Except for those eyes. Sight is failing. And it will not get better.
A while ago this bothered me, as I have to read, and read out, much. And in my free time I like to read books: novels, history, theology. I manage with those lights, but I’m not as fast as I used to be. That is no disaster, but it is a nuisance. Until I discovered something a few months ago. Since I have to read more slowly, I also read with more attention. Every word becomes clearer, so to speak. It sticks more and I reflect on its meaning more.
Walking around here in Lourdes, I wonder if this eye problem does not also have a deeper meaning. I may see a little less, but I also got something in return. A more intense awareness of the meaning of words. And in conversation listening becomes more important than looking.
God lets us have new experiences before we realise it ourselves. I do not mean to say that all illnesses or physical defects are a good thing. Not at all. Over the course of the years I have spoken to more than enough people who really suffer. My ailment is like nothing in comparison. But I have also learned from these sick and handicapped people – here in Lourdes, but also in the parishes where I have worked – that there is only one way to overcome suffering: by going through it. And at the same time look for support with God.
Luckily, nowadays doctors can do a lot to cure people are make physical suffering more bearable. But the best way to learn and accept your situation is through prayer. “Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray,” we heard in the first reading. It doesn’t make you better in the literal sense of the word, but it can help you feel better.
God heals in a different way. He helps you discover things in your illness of handicap, things you weren’t aware of before. Call them small miracles who help you every day to handle life.
Many people know Lourdes because of the great miracles. But in all the years that I have been coming here I have never seen those. I did witness many small miracles. People who can handle things again after a pilgrimage. People who find out, here in Lourdes, that they can still do a lot of things themselves. Like me with my more intense readings and more intensive listening. A small miracle. It is nothing compared to the miracle Jesus performs for the royal official in the Gospel. His son lives again even before he realises it himself. And why? What did he do? Nothing more than taking Jesus’ word for it. We can have faith in Jesus, that all that we experience in our lives has meaning. Even when we do not see it ourselves.
That is why we can look for the small positive things that cheer us up. Small things which help us through the day, who make us able able to handle things for a while. The smile of someone we know. A kind word. The good care of volunteers. The fact that we are making such a beautiful trip together. These are small miracles that God gives us. Winks from heaven, which He uses to show us that He thinks of us and grants everyone healing in His very own way.
You will shortly recieve the laying on of hands. You may experience that as a sign that God is with you, that He gives you strength and helps you. Perhaps in a way that you haven’t thought of yourself. Let us always be open to God, who walks His own paths in healing, but never leaves us.
Bishop Gerard de Korte has the habit of not writing out his homilies. He usually makes somes notes, but for the most part he speaks from memory. His homily during his installation Mass as bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, yesterday, was no different. But, contrary to past occasions, the bishop’s notes were published, and they’re complete enough to reconstruct the lengthy homily that ended in a welcoming applausse from the full cathedral basilica.
The bishop begins by reflecting on the person whose feast it was yesterday: the Apostle who was chosen to replace Judas, St. Matthias. An important criterium in his election was his being a witness of Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1: 21-22). And since a bishop is a successor of the Apostles, his first task is to be a witness of the resurrected Lord. The Church is a community around the living Christ, the bishop said, so let us live with Christ and His Gospel as our basis.
Of course, there was occasion to look back, first to Bishop Bekkers, who was buried from St. John’s basilica exactly fifty years before Bishop de Korte’s installation. He remains a symbol for many Catholics of a loving, mild and hospitable Church. But also to Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, the now retired bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Bishop de Korte thanked him for his work as parish priest, seminary rector, vicar general and bishop.
Then, a look to the future. Bishop de Korte’s takes up the call of Bishop Hurkmans to defeat all division in the diocese. Tolerance is a virtue, there is room for different emphases and spiritualities in the Catholic house, and, most importantly, if Christ has chosen us, who are we to not accept each other?
As ever, Bishop de Korte has a realistic eye for the Church in our times. Yes, there are few young people, yes, the Church is vulnerable, yes, in many ways these are the years of truth. Like he said in his letter with that title from January 2015, Catholics must take their responsibility. Priests, deacons, pastoral workers, religious and all the baptised.
The bishop extended a specific invitation to the religious in his new diocese, asking them to work with the diocese, to reinforce and support each other.
Ever with an eye for ecumenism, Bishop de Korte siad he wants to continue working for better ecumenical relations in his new diocese. To not only celebrate, but also learn and serve together and so bear witness together of the risen Lord.
Taking a page from Pope Francis’ book, the bishop desires a Church which is open to the needs of the world, that joins all spiritual forces to realise more global justice and the protection of Mother Earth.
In closing, the bishop directs the attention to Mary, to whom there is a strong devotion in the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Mary continuously refers to Christ (Do what He tells you to). Mary is also the mother of the faithful, a source of comfort, an example of the love for God and the neighbour. Let’s follow her example.
While the Mass for his installation as bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch has begun, here is my translation of Bishop Gerard de Korte’s final message to the faithful of Groningen-Leeuwarden, the diocese he leaves behind:
“On Monday 29 February, around 10:30, the Papal Nuncio, Msgr. Aldo Cavalli, rang and asked if he could come to Groningen that day. He wanted to discuss an “important topic”. I knew then that it would be about the succession of Bishop Hurkmans of Den Bosch. And my intuition was confirmed that afternoon. The Nuncio told me that Pope Francis had appointed me as the new bishop of Den Bishop. The news led to some necessary chaos, both for me as for many faithful in our diocese.
In september of 2008 I was installed in the cathedral as bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. Despite all sorts of great and small concerns – when is our earthly life ever without clouds? – I look back on the years behind me with gratitude. A few years ago, the downsizing of the diocesan offices caused many concerns. Especially the letting go of several respected employees, solely for economic reasons, was a difficult but also necessary decision.
A lot has happened in the past years. Almost automatically, I recall the merger of parishes and caritas groups. After a long period of preparation and a broad consultation of pastoral teams and parish councils, the decision was made in autumn of 2011 to merge the 80 parishes into some 20 new parishes. This process must be completed on 1 January 2018. Starting point is the vision to combine administrative upscaling with pastoral downsizing. In the large diocese of the north we must try and maintain as many of the 80 faith communities as possible. In my letter “The years of truth” (January 2015) I made a distinction between church building and faith community. When it is no longer possible to maintain a church building, but the local faith community is still (relatively…) alive, the faithful can choose to continue coming together for the liturgy and other activities. The core thought here is: keeping the Church as close to the faithful as possible.
By now, I have moved to ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Moving is an exercise in the art of letting go. I have to say goodbye to a nice house, a great team of coworkers and so many other good people. In recent days I have spoken of an Abrahamic experience. Like the father of our faith I must leave the good and familiar country and go into the unknown in the hope that it will be good to be there as well. By the way, I am confident that I will soon find a true home again in Den Bosch.
You will go on as Catholics of the north. A small but conscious minority. I gladly repeat the call from my letter “The years of truth”: Catholics, take your responsibility. You are called to manifest the faith of your baptism. Pope Francis urges Catholics not to remain hidden in the sacristy or church building. Vital faith communities are missionary communities with open doors. All things being equal, we gather in out church buildings for the celebration of the Eucharist and other forms of liturgy. This feeds our soul and gives us the strength to give form to the imitation of Christ in our daily lives. Pope Francis frequently speaks of a Church which looks towards all of society. A Church that prefers to be dirty because she has spent too much time in the streets, instead of sick because she has been inside too much.
Finally, I would invite you to pray for each other. Hopefully you are willing to pray for the success of my new mission in the south. My task will not always be easy, but much is possible in the power of God’s Spirit. In the south I pray for wisdom for Pope Francis and all who are preparing the appointment of a new bishop. I hope for a new bishop who will work for a warm and hospitable Church around Christ as our living Lord. I wish you all the best and God’s blessing. Continue on the path of faith, hope and especially love “trusting in Christ”.
Strong rumours appeared yesterday that Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, retiring from the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, will not be returning to his hometown of Someren, as he previously announced. Instead, his retirement will be spent in the eternal city, Rome, where he will become the new rector of the Church of the Frisians.
The church of Saints Michael and Magnus, as it is officially known, is a 12th century church adjacent to Saint Peter’s Square. While just outside the borders of Vatican City, it is an extraterritorial possession of that country. It was restored as the national church of the Dutch in Rome in 1989, largely because of efforts by the late Msgr. Tiny Muskens, later bishop of Breda.
Bishop Hurkmans will succeed Dominican Father Tiemen Brouwer, who has been responsible for the church since 2007.
The presence of Frisian Christians in Rome can be traced back to the ninth century. All inhabitants of the coastal areas (reaching quite far inland at times) of what is now the Netherlands, northern Germany and southwestern Denmark were considered Frisian at that time. The current church was built in 1141, but only 5 years later Pope Eugene III took the perpetual right of the Frisians to use the church away from them. In 1910, the later Cardinal Jan de Jong, who was then studying in Rome, made a pilgrimage to the church and found that all knowledge of the Frisian history of the church seemed forgotten. In 1989, the head of the Dutch College, Msgr. Muskens, succeeded in making the church a Dutch centre in Rome. In 2005 this was made official, and the church became a parish church in its own right.
EDIT: Bishop Hurkmans was put forward as rector of the Church of the Frisians by the Dutch Bishops’ Conference. This suggestion now lies with the Vicariate of Rome to accept or refuse.
The news has not been officially confirmed yet, so treat it as as rumour for now. Chances are that we will get said confirmation on or shortly before 14 May, when Bishop Hurkman’s successor in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Msgr. Gerard de Korte, is installed.
It has been a busy day for Bishop Gerard de Korte, the culmination of what he himself calls a “confusing and hectic” week, but a day on which he also made a positive impression in his new diocese. The official announcement of his appointment came in a press conference where he, flanked by his new auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts and his predecessor Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, emphasised several times that the focus of his first year will be to get to know his new diocese and its people. And since he only learned of his appointment on Monday, he will not have spent his days formulating his policies before seeing where he was to be a bishop. Following the answering of questions from some 25 reporters assembled in the bishop’s house adjacent to the Basilica of St. John, Bishop de Korte met with the mayor of his new home city and then got a tour of the buttresses and rooftops of the basilica.
In a letter to the priests, deacons and pastoral workers of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, Bishop de Korte describes his feelings and hopes for the coming time:
“Dear priests, deacons and pastoral workers
Dear ladies and gentlemen,
Last Monday our Nuncio, Msgr. Aldo Cavalli, came to Groningen to inform me that Pope Francis had appointed me as bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
You will understand that the past days have been confusing and hectic for me. After seven and a half years I have to let go of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, which is very dear to me. Confident in Christ, you know my episcopal motto, and hoping for a friendly welcome in the new diocese, I accept this new assignment.
My appointment will also raise questions among you. What will happen now? Who will be the new bishop? At this time a few things are clear.
Until Saturday 14 May, the day of my installation in Den Bosch, the Pope has appointed me as Apostolic Administrator and I will continue to have final responsibility for the management of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden.
A major responsibility will by for the cathedral chapter in the coming time. The canons must choose a diocesan administrator for the period from 14 May until the installation of the new bishop. They also have the duty to create a terna, a list of three suitable candidate bishops.
For now I ask you to pray for me, that I may have the strength to continue working on the proclamation of the Gospel and the harmonious building of the Christian community. And to pray that the canons may make good decisions in wisdom.
I pray for a good future of our diocese and for a good successor who will want to work for a cordial and clear faith community.
With kind greetings and united with you in Christ,
+ Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte”
The Dutch Bishops’ Conference congratulated Bishop de Korte on his appointment. Conference president, Cardinal Eijk, said:
“We know Msgr. De Korte as a colleague who greatly committed himself for his diocese and provided with conviction an important Catholic voice in the social debate as holder of the portfolio for Church and Society on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference. We pray for and with him that he may be a blessing for the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and sincerely congratulate this diocese with this appointment.”
Bishop de Korte spoke with the cardinal, who is in Rome for meetings of the Pontifical Academy for Life, over the phone and said that the latter congratulated him most kindly. But of course, the rumours that the bishop and the cardinal can’t stand each other remain…
Judging from the reactions on social media, people in ‘s-Hertogenbosch are over the moon with their new bishop, and in Groningen-Leeuwarden they are sad to see him go. Of course, there are other opinions of well. Father Cor Mennen, parish priest and member of the cathedral chapter of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and well-known for his orthodox standpoints, said that he is not cheering just yet. And, speaking as a Catholic in Groningen-Leeuwarden, I would say sadness is not the emotion I associate with the bishop’s leaving (but I am also not glad about it, either). I find myself looking forward instead of back: it is an exciting time as we await who the new bishop will be, and it interesting to see what the future will bring for Bishop de Korte and the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
It was one of the more unexpected choices, and for the new bishop the change will be big in several ways: he goes from the north to the south of the country, from a diocese with few Catholics to one with many, from a part of the country where people are fairly down to earth, to one where the Dutch concept of ‘gezelligheid’ has a natural home and where people are sometimes brutally honest. It will be interesting to see what bishop and diocese bring each other.
The new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch is 60-year-old Gerard de Korte, until today the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. And this scribe’s bishop at that. In yesterday’s blog post I already characterised Bishop de Korte as a popular shepherd. He is personable, interested, with a keen sense of the hearts and minds of other people. That makes him well suited to represent the Catholic Church in relations with other Christians, a talent he has made one of the focal points of his mission. In Groningen-Leeuwarden, such ecumenical effort is a necessity and a value. How it will take shape in ‘s-Hertogenbosch will be very interesting to see.
In a message leaked prematurely via Twitter, Bishop Hurkmans congratulated Bishop de Korte, and expresses a few wishes to him and the faithful of ‘s-Hertogenbosch:
“I wish very much that you, as a society, may live in confidence with the new bishop. You and I, we, live in a time of many and great changes. Especially now it is good to stand on the solid ground the faith offers us. God is our Creator and Father. He wanted all of us and included us in His plan of love.
Secondly, I wish for you all that you may remain hopeful with the new bishop. Evil and death are in the way of us all. They supplant hope. Jesus Christ broke the power of sin and opened the way to life. We celebrate this in the Eucharist and from it we draw hope every time. With that, as a new community around Christ, we can be a sign of hope in our society.
Lastly, I wish for the new bishop and you all to remain in love. That this may be the basis of your life. The Holy Spirit lives in us. He plants love in us and continuously strengthens the divine life. This makes love bloom in us. Love can reinforce our community. Love will let us live for each other in the Church and in the world.
Remaining in faith, hope and love is more than guaranteed when we participate in unity in a healthy life of the Church. I gladly wish Msgr. Gerard de Korte people who say yes to their vocation to the priesthood, the diaconate and the religious life, people who will work with him in the life of the Church, people who make the Church present in the world. People who support him in his prayer and proclamation, on being close to people and managing the diocese.”
Bishop Hurmans, now bishop emeritus, closes with a word of gratitude, despite beginning his letter by saying that he has said enough about his retirement.
“I thank you all for the faith, the hope and the love which I was able to keep among you. I hope to be able to be a witness of that in a simple way, trusting in the Sweet Mother of Den Bosch and living from the Holy Eucharist, until my death.”
Bishop de Korte has been the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden since 2008. Before that, from 2001 to 2008, he was auxiliary bishop of Utrecht, where he also worked as a priest since his ordination in 1987. He is a historian and served as seminary rector before his appointment as bishop. In Groningen-Leeuwarden he was a bishop on the road, travelling to every corner and sharing the major celebrations of Easter and Christmas between the cathedral in Groningen and the church of St. Boniface in Leeuwarden. Ordinations were also shared between the two cities: those of deacons, as pictured at left, in Leeuwarden, and priests in Groningen. He leaves a diocese in the midst of the greatest reorganisation in recent history: the reduction of its 84 parishes to 19. May the vacancy of the seat in St. Joseph’s cathedral in Groningen be a short one.
In my blog, Bishop de Korte has made frequent appearances, and translations of his writing may be found via the tag cloud in the left sidebar. Just click on the tag ‘Bishop Gerard de Korte’.
Despite the appointment coming before Easter, Bishop de Korte will mark the Church’s greatest week in Groningen-Leeuwarden. His installation in ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Evangelist will follow on 14 May.
In hindsight, this was perhaps the most Franciscan option in the Netherlands. Bishop de Korte fits the profile of what Pope Francis wants in a bishop (although other bishops are often unfairly depicted as being in opposition to the Holy Father): an open communicator, close to the people, a shepherd who smells like the sheep. These qualities may go a long way in resolving the polarisation that plagues parts of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In recent years more than one community has broken with the diocese, and the person and approach of Bishop de Korte, a man of dialogue and a strong voice against hate and distrust, may go a long way in setting them back on a course towards reconciliation.
In his new diocese, Bishop de Korte will undoubtedly continue to stress the importance of catechesis. Back in 2012 he said, “It may sound dramatic, but I sometimes feel that only a great catechetical offensive can secure Catholicism in our country. Without it, the strength of our faith seems to continue to weaken and Catholics become more and more religious humanists for whom important aspects of classic Catholicism have become unfamiliar.” Other emphases of his new task will be ecumenism, religious life and active Catholic communities.
In the Dutch Bishops’ Conference this appointment does not change much, although several commentators have chosen to see it as a blow for Cardinal Eijk, outgoing president and predecessor of Bishop de Korte in Groningen. The two prelates have not always seen eye to eye, and they have clashed on occasion, although how much actual truth there is behind the rumours will probably remain guesswork. In the conference, Bishop de Korte retains his one voice, and continues to hold the portfolios that formulate Church relations with the elderly, women and society. Actual change will only occur when a new bishop is appointed for Groningen-Leeuwarden, and perhaps not even then: if the new ordinary up north is one of the current auxiliary bishops in the country, the composition of the bishops’ conference remains the same as it is now.
Now, we could make the assumption that Cardinal Eijk would have liked to see a bishop in ‘s-Hertogenbosch who was more in line with himself, but that is guesswork. And besides, as I have pointed out before, the cardinal and the bishop may have different personalities and talents, their policies (for example, about the closing of churches and merging of parishes) are not always all that different.
In recent years, Bishop de Korte has appeared as the voice of the bishops’ conference, especially in the wake of the abuse crisis. This will not change, I imagine, even if the crisis has abated somewhat. Although the bishops in general remain hesitant to embrace the resources of the media, Bishop de Korte is the one whose face and name appears most frequently. He is a blogger on the diocesan website, writes books and articles and even appears on television every now and then. This is something that he should continue to do so: he is well-liked by many in and outside the Church, and knows how to communicate to both. And that is a value we need in our Church today.
More to come.
Photo credit:  ANP RAMON MANGOLD,  Roy Lazet,  Leeuwarder Courant, , ANP,  edited by author