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Over the past weekend, the news of the “plausible” abuse by Bishop Gijsen has obviously dominated Catholic news in the Netherlands. For some it was reason for renewed attacks against the Catholic Church, but what struck me most were the thought and feelings of those who had known Bishop Gijsen, who had entered seminary when he was bishop, who have him to thank for setting the first step towards finding their vocation. Those that I read all expressed feelings of confusion, of feeling lost. And that is what abuse, being a complete destruction of the bonds of trust and responsibility, does. It leaves victims stranded, alone, trying to build themselves up again and, too often, in the face of disbelief and accusations of lying.
Below, find my translation of the homily that Bishop Franz Wiertz gave on Monday, in a Mass of penance and reconciliation at Maastricht’s Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady.
“It is Holy Week. For Christians this is a week during which they not only follow Christ in His suffering, but especially look at themselves in this light and question themselves about the why of this death of the cross. The first confessions of faith, which we find in the Acts of the Apostles and also in the First Letter to the Corinthians, indicate the why of the cross very clearly: “Died for our sins”. In order to expiate our sins the Lord died on the cross. This makes us fall silent and we prefer not to hear these words. We don’t like being told that we are people who are not spotless and thus guilty.
Perhaps we think it is a bit strange that the new Pope, when he was asked, “Who are you, Jorge Bergoglio? What do you say about yourself?”, answered, “I am a simply sinful human being.” That means that the Pope does not want to present himself smugly as a perfect person, but as a human being in whose life guilt and sin are also a reality. We struggle with this fact. It throws us back on ourselves.
It is not without reason that guilt and sin are topics which are addressed in many ways in modern literature. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, devotes his play “The Flies” to the freedom of man and the responsibility that comes with it. But also to the feelings of guilt which are the result of choices made. The protagonist can’t live with these feelings of guilt. He tries to suppress them. Every attempt to chase them away is a stroke in the air. The flies return.
You can only come to terms with feelings of guilt by acknowledging them. Not by suppressing them. And certainly not by explaining away what happened. He who acknowledges guilt, will certainly also ask himself, “Who did I hurt? Who is the victim of the evil I have done? How can I repair what happened?”
Handling guilt is not easy for a person. It is more than a stain on one’s reputation. Guilt questions one’s own integrity. In response one attacks the evil of other with strong condemnations. Like David did when the Prophet Nathan told him the story of the rich man who prepared the poor man’s lamb for dinner. David suppressed how he had abused his own power and took the wife of Uriah for his own. How he then tried to hide his tracks by having Uriah die in battle.
Difficulty to accept our own guilt which is the consequence of the acts of her members, and taking responsibility for it, is also difficult for our own Church. Even this week we in the Netherlands and in our diocese were painfully confronted with the fact that a bishop, priests and religious abused their power and undermined their mission. They caused scandal, by actions that do not stand up to daylight: abuse of children and young people. There is nothing worse.
For decades it was denied or suppressed. Now that the true extent has become known, the shame is great. Parents entrusted their children to people of the Church, thinking that there was no safer place than that. Children entrusted themselves to people of the Church and they were abused. Their stories were often not believed.
Although this is also a social phenomenon, that can never be an excuse for people of the Church. Although it happened half a century ago, we experience it as an original sin which is almost impossible to atone for. But we must carry it with us. The Church also does not want to be reminded of the stains in her own reputation, and she frequently made the mistake of David by condemning the mistakes of people with great harshness and without mercy. Why did the Church respond like that? Is it shame? Is it fear of loss of prestige? Loss of face? Did they want to protect the institution more than the hurting victims?
It hurts to be confronted with these sinister and dark sides of the Church. We want to acknowledge that Church authorities and Church members have caused grave scandal and that they have been guilty of grievous acts. In that context the words “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” have perhaps been used too quickly. Since the extent of the abuse became known these concepts were for the victims like a red cloth for a bull. It angered them, because it was misguidedly used to avoid acknowledgement of the facts and to avoid to take responsibility.
This misguided use of the word “forgiveness” should never have happened, because it is a special word and it is a special phenomenon when forgiveness and reconciliation happens between people. But it should always be remembered that forgiveness and reconciliation confer no rights. They can only be received as an undeserved gift.
It always presumes a completely honest acknowledgement of one’s own guilt, without fleeing for the responsibility for what was done in the lives of people. Family members and partners of the victims must certainly not be forgotten in that. Forgiveness is only possible where it is preceded by the acknowledgment of guilt. Acknowledging guilt before the victim and for us a Church also acknowledgement of guilt before God. The forgiveness has a chance and there can be a future again. People can set off on the journey together again. Then they can find each other again as people and appreciate each other for what we can give each other.
May the time come that victims can give their trust to the Church and to people of the Church and forgive them for what was done to them. The Church must wait for that and in the meantime must continuously prove herself to be worthy of it. For now, we work hard together on a “road to reconciliation”. Amen.”
Photo credit: ANP
On Saturday Pope Francis appointed Dutch Msgr. Hubertus Matheus Maria van Megen as Apostolic Nuncio to Sudan. A high-profile appointment, certainly for a Dutch priest. Msgr. Bert van Megen is a priest of the Diocese of Roermond, and that diocese’s Bishop Frans Wiertz considers the appointment “a great honour.” As Nuncio, he will be similar to a country’s ambassador in another country, maintaining contact with the government and also with the local Church.
Archbishop-elect van Megen was born in 1961 in the town of Eygelshoven and was ordained to the priesthood in 1987, after studying at the diocesan seminary Rolduc, which produced more than one other bishop. After his ordination, Father van Megen was stationed in parishes in Nieuweinde and Schaesberg, both in the Diocese of Roermond. He entered the Holy See’s diplomatic service and subsequently worked at Nunciatures in Sudan, Brazil, Slovakia, Israel, the United Nations and most recently in Malawi, where he was chargé d’affaires.
Archbishop-elect van Megen joins a very select club, as he is only the fourth Dutch prelate to represent the Holy See at the highest level in a given country. The other members of this club are Archbishop Bernhard Gijlswijk (Apostolic Delegate to South Africa from 1922 to 1944), Archbishop Adriaan Smets (Apostolic Delegate to Persia from 1922 to 1930) and Archbishop Martin Lucas (Apostolic Delegate to South Africa from 1945-1952, Apostolic Internuncio to India from 1952 to 1959 and Apostolic Delegate to Scandinavia from 1959-1961). There are currently two other Dutch-born bishops active abroad: Bishop Willem de Bekker of Paramaribo, and Bishop John Oudeman, auxiliary of Brisbane. In addition, six more are retired.
The Apostolic Nunciature to Sudan was established in 1972 and seven archbishops have preceded Msgr. van Megen there. The most recent was Archbishop Leo Boccardi, who was transferred to Iran in July of last year. Previous Nuncios to Sudan also represented the Holy See in other parts of Africa at the same time, specifically Eritrea and Somalia. While Somalia currently has a Nuncio assigned, Eritrea has not, so Msgr. van Megen may eventually also be assigned to that country.
The Catholic Church in Sudan is covered by two circumscriptions; the Archdiocese of Khartoum and the Diocese of El Obeid. The archbishop of Khartoum, Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako is 73, so Msgr. van Megen will very likely be involved in the appointment of his successor.
About 5% of the population of Sudan is Catholic, mainly in the south and in Khartoum. Officially there is freedom of religion, but socially there is a strong pressure against conversion from Islam to Christianity. The violence and civil war that has affected the country in recent years makes for an interesting first posting for a new Nuncio.
Msgr. van Megen will probably be consecrated soon after Easter, but the location is not yet known, although Rome seems likely. If so, Pope Francis or Cardinal Parolin may well perform the consecration. But Mgr. van Megen has also said that he hopes that the ceremony will take place in the Netherlands. In that case I can imagine that Bishop Wiertz will consecrate him. As archbishop, Msgr. van Megen will hold the titular see of Novaliciana, located in modern Algeria. Previous holders of this see were, for example, Archbishop Faustino Sainz Muñoz, Nuncio to Great Britain from 2004 to 2010, and Cardinal Achille Silvestrini when he was Secretary of the Council for Public Affairs of the Church from 1979 to 1988
Earlier this week, representatives of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (the Curia dicastery for all religious orders and groups) visited the Netherlands for meetings with the religious superiors, the Conference of Dutch Religious and the bishops. The delegation consisted of the Congregation’s secretary Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo (pictured), and office manager Daniela Leggio.
Archbishop Rodríguez Carballo addressed the gather superiors of the Netherlands on Tuesday and appealed for a religious ‘refoundation’. He called for careful discernment of vocations, good Christian formation (with special attention for affectivity and sexuality), and a “creative loyalty”. What would the religious founders do hic et nunc? An answer to that question includes an appeal to radicality. The archbishop spoke of a threefold choice that needs to be made in regards to the aforementioned refoundation: the choice to put Christ at the heart of things, to discern between primary and secondary aspects of religious life, and a missionary existence.
The religious superiors also took the opportunity to ask questions. Dr. Leggio answered one of the questions, about the refoundation of religious life, with a counter-question: She said that everyone should ass him- or herself the question of what his or her duty in the here and now was. She said that many questions in the Netherlands revolved around rights: what is allowed and what isn’t? But those questions miss the mark: legal regulations are intended to give direction to life. Rules must be at the service of living the charism of all those various Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
On Wednesday the delegation met with a group of bishops and representatives of the Conference of Dutch Religious. Participating bishops were Frans Wiertz (Vice-President of the Bishops’ Conference and bishop of Roermond), Jan van Burgsteden (auxiliary bishop emeritus of Haarlem-Amsterdam), Jan Liesen (bishop of Breda), Theodorus Hoogenboom (auxiliary bishop of Utrecht) and Jan Hendriks (auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam). Bishop van Burgsteden, member of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, is the sole active religious member of the Bishops’ Conference, and holds the portfolios for Religious and Secular Institutes and New Movements. Bishop Hendriks writes that the bishops and the delegation discussed questions about the contacts between bishops and religious institutes.
And, in the margins of the meeting the Congregation also give permission for the establishment of new Benedictine convent in the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam. The convent of Mary, Temple of the Holy Spirit is a daughter house of the abbey of abbey of Sant’Angelo in Pontano, Italy, and has already been housing fourteen sisters since last May. The convent is located right next to the parish church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Aalsmeer. The formal canonical establishment of the convent will take place some time in the future, now that the road has been cleared by the Congregation’s permission.
In the Diocese of Roermond today, Bishop Frans Wiertz officially closed the diocesan phase of the case of Limburg-born Bishop Frans Schraven. The paperwork, documenting the bishop’s life and the reasons for a possible future beatification, is now to be sent to Rome, where the Congregation for the Causes of Saints will eventually present it to Pope Francis, who has the final say about what will happen next. The file includes the proposal to declare Bishop Schraven a martyr, which negates the need for a miracle before his beatification.
Franciscus Hubertus Schraven was born in Lottum, Diocese of Roermond, in 1873. At the age of 21 he joined the Congregation of the Mission, in which he was ordained a deacon (1898) and a priest (1899). In that year he departed Marseille for China, and in 1920 he was appointed as Vicar Apostolic of Southwestern Chi-Li in China, and consecrated bishop with the titular see of Amyclae. He led the community which is now the Diocese of Zhengding until 1937, when he died at the hands of Japanese troops engaged in the lengthy war with China that led into the Second World War in Asia.
On 9 October 1937 the Japanese conquered the city of Zhengding where Bishop Schraven was responsible for the protection of some 4,000 refugees, mostly women and children. As the soldiers plundered the city and killed and raped at will. At length, the Japanese authorities demanded that Bishop Schraven hand over some women to fill the soldiers’ need for “comfort”, in other words, to serve as sex slaves. The bishop refused. In the evening of the day that the city fell, Bishop Schraven and nine priests were arrested and deported by truck. It took until 1973 before their fate was discovered: they had been burnt alive on a pyre…
In his homily today, Bishop Wiertz spoke the following words about Bishop Schraven:
“Someone who found out firsthand what it means to follow Jesus, is Monsignor Schraven, for whom we are gathered today. Because of his refusal to supply comfort girls, he chose in favour of a human existence for some one Thousand women. He chose against seeing women as objects, as commodities. With that he also chose for a literal following of Jesus.
When Bishop Schraven met with the Japanese soldiers, he must have realised what the risks of his position were. He literally told the commander, “You may kill me if you want, but giving you what you want, never!” A courageous attitude, which fits completely with what he wrote earlier that year to his family here in Limburg: “Essential is that we are ready when God calls us”.
Sometimes it becomes clear that – surprisingly enough – different times have the exact same needs. Bishop Schraven resisted sexual abuse of women. In many places in the world this sort of abuse still takes place. As Church, as faithful people, it is our task to resist that in the name of Jesus.
In recent years there has been much to do about abuse by people of the Church herself. It was shameful to find that faithful were guilty of something like that. Bishop Schraven shows us that in the Church there have also Always been people who chose the good side, who condemned abuse and even gave their own lives if need be. In Monsignor Schraven we have an example of someone who radically stood up for the protection of girls and women from sexual violence.
Where we are able to support efforts who aim to do the same, we, as Church, can’t fail to do so. We are obliged to do so in Jesus’ Holy Name. Hopefully we are soon able to invoke the intercession of Blessed Bishop Schraven, who gave his own life in imitation of Jesus in the fight against the abuse of people.”
Happy anniversary to Bishop Franciscus Jozef Maria Wiertz, who today marks the 20th anniversary of his consecration as bishop.
Bishop Wiertz is the bishop of Roermond. On 25 September 1993 he was consecrated by Adrianus Cardinal Simonis, at the time the archbishop of Utrecht, with Bishop Joannes ter Schure, then ordinary of ‘s Hertogenbosch, and Bishop Alphons Castermans, then auxiliary bishop of Roermond as co-consecrators.
In the days after the funeral of Bishop Jan Bluyssen, last Thursday, I’ve been reading a fair amount of criticism on how the Mass was performed. It was not in line with how the late bishop would have wanted it, some say. The large number of representatives of Church and state, the guild members in their folkloristic costumes, the clerics in cardinal red and bishop’s purple… all this are not becoming a bishop who was close to the people, who was loath to portray himself as lording it over the laity, who was, for many, a man among men, trying his best to serve the Lord and His Church as a bishop.
It should be noted here, that the funeral Mass was offered according to the liturgy of the Church. Attending bishops and other clergy were there to pay their respects to Bishop Bluyssen and they did so as prelates of the Church, which is not a 9-to-5 job, but, in lieu of their ordination, their identity. Bishop Bluyssen would have worn his liturgical clothing for the very same reason.
^Bishops attending the funeral Mass of Bishop Bluyssen. Clockwise from the top: Frans Wiertz (Roermond), Gerard de Korte (Groningen-Leeuwarden), Everard de Jong (aux. Roermond), Theodorus Hoogenboom (aux. Utrecht) and Joseph Lescrauwaet (aux. em. of Haarlem-Amsterdam). Behind them Cardinal Simonis.
Funerals are important. They are the final moment in which friends and family can bid farewell to a loved one, and a time to mourn that person. In that light, it is understandable that people feel ill at ease when a funeral seems to be about something else than the person being mourned. But when the funeral takes place from a Church, when the deceased (and hopefully his or her family and friends) are Catholic, there is an important element to the funeral that secular ceremonies lack. It is a Mass, so the first and most important focus is on Christ, and the deceased is seen and remembered in His light.
What does that mean for the Catholic Church funeral Mass? Is mourning and remembering out of the question? Certainly not, but there are two things we need to consider: death is not the end, and those left behind are not powerless in the face of death.
A person’s life on earth has ended, but we believe that the soul is immortal and will return to its Creator, barring any obstacles. Prayer is the most powerful tool we have to make sure those obstacles are removed or diminished, and that is where we, those left behind come in. Our prayer is an act of love for the person we miss.
The funeral Mass is a Mass. That means that it is primarily the remembrance and actualisation of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, the single most redemptive event in our entire history. Christ defeated death by rising after three days. Our loved one who has passed away follows our Lord in death, in the hope of one day rising with Him. Here, our prayer comes in again.
Catholic funerals, then, are not first and foremost a remembrance or even a celebration of the life that has ended. It is our sending off the deceased into the hands of the One who defeated death once and for all, and the start of our duty of prayer towards him or her.
The funeral Mass should be considered, planned and discussed out of its identity as a Mass. All other elements, such as eulogies and music, must be measured against this. And then, sometimes, the conclusion must be made (by the person who is responsible for the liturgy of the Mass: the priest) that some things are not suitable for Mass, but can be more suitable for a separate occasion before or after the Mass.
The Mass is the Mass is the Mass: we leave our beloved in the hands of the Lord and help him or her with our prayers, in the faithful hope of being reunited one day, as we follow the example of the first to rise from the dead: Jesus Christ. This transcends any personal preferences or opinions. Jesus can’t be left out of the equation. In the end, a person’s life comes to fullness in the light of the Lord, and there is no better memory than entrusting him to that light and expecting a future reunion.
^ Bishop Hurkmans incenses the coffin and mortal remains of Bishop Bluyssen, just like the offerings to the Lord, and the Word we receive from Him, are incensed during the Mass.
Photo credit: Ramon Mangold