Bishop Gerard de Korte, Theologian Laureate

korteLast night, during the annual night of theology – during which Dutch theologians look back on and celebrate recent developments in the field – Bishop Gerard de Korte was elected as the first “theologian laureate”. The title is an unofficial one and the most recent one after the “most talked about theologian” and the “theologian of the year”.

Bishop de Korte will be an ambassador of theology for the coming year and will be commenting on current affairs from a theological point of view (much like he does in his recently-launched blog). He was one of three nominees and won with a clear majority.

It all sounds nice, of course, but in reality the bishop’s title will not make a major difference. At most it will be putting theology, the person of the bishop and the Catholic Church in the spotlight. But Bishop de Korte has been doing much of what the title asks of him for at least the past five years. In the bishops’ conference he is the go-to prelate for matters of Church and society, so he often speaks on behalf of the conference on television and radio, and he frequently contributions opinion pieces and articles to written media,the diocesan website and his aforementioned blog.

A recognition of his work, then, with the hope that it may continue and bear good fruit.

Bishops react to Laudato Si’

They’ve all received the encyclical in advance, with a personal note from Pope Francis, so more than a few bishops were ready to offer their thoughts and opinions as soon as Laudato Si’ was launched yesterday. Here are a few reactions I came across in my corner of Europe.

archbishop ludwig schickArchbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg writes: “The Biblical call to subdue the earth, can no longer be used by anyone as a justification for the plundering of nature and the wasting of resources.”

hesseFrom Hamburg, Archbishop Stefan Heße comments on the fact that Pope Francis addresses his encyclical to all people in the world: “He makes clear what urgent future issues must be solved for the entire world and for all people. That is not possible without a radical change in mentality”. And later, “Thus he underlines that the problems, which concern all, can also only be solved by all.”

101020marx250Cardinal Reinhard Marx, speaking on behalf of the bishops’ conference, said: “This encyclical is a great work of the Pope, which I gladly make my own. Today the Pope speaks to the conscience of the world and also of the Church, whether it is convenient or not. His message is not comfortable, it wakes us up and warns us to take responsibility. There is a great concern from the Pope not to separate ecological and social problems, commitment to the environment and to the poor, under any circumstances. In the sense the often used label of environmental or climate encyclical falls short. It is rather about an entanglement of the issues of environment and development.”

overbeckBishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen continues in much the same vein as Cardinal Marx: “With this text Pope Francis once again places himself in the tradition of his patron saint, as he – like Saint Francis – emphasises the interconnectedness of the world … It’s about the triad of God – Man – Creation, but also concretely about, for example, the various connections of climate change … This make the Encyclical a strong sign of the responsibility of our universal Church for the world, of which I hope, with an eye on the UN climate summit in Paris this autumn, that it does not miss its effect.”

dekorte2In the Netherlands, Bishop Gerard de Korte spoke at a press conference to present the Encyclical, and emphasised the fact that the Pope wants to address all people: “The Encyclical is a new impulse for the efforts of Catholics for a more just and sustainable world. But the words “our common home” in the Encyclical’s subtitle makes clear that the Roman Church wants to address all people. Not just other Christians and other believers, but all people of good will (par. 13). Together we are one human family (par. 52) … Addressing all people, believers and unbelievers, indicates that the best of the world religions and philosophies needs to be tapped to reach a global ethics of Creation. Mobilising the spiritual and ethical power of all people is extremely important. Christians have faith in Gods Spirit who blows where He wants and can renew people. The Spirit breaks through lethargy and despondency and gives us joy and peace (par. 222 etc).”

Bischof-Norbert-Trelle-Foto-Bernward-MedienHildesheim’s Bishop Norbert Trelle starts with the criticism of Pope Francis against modern economic systems: “These exclude a large number of people alive today, does not take future generations sufficiently into account and creates a throwaway culture, which exploits resources without concern for the people or the environment and accepts with open eyes the changes in the climate. Opposite that, the Pope places the worth of individual people, his relationship with Creation and with the Creator in the heart of it. He connects these theological statements with an invitation to fundamental economical change and concrete action of individuals …

BischofGenn_Klauser_05-2009Bishop Felix Genn of Münster emphasises that the Encyclical is not just an environmental tract: “Certainly environmental problems are at the heart of Laudato Si’, but it is much more than an ‘environmental Encyclical’. It concerns the common home of Creation. In essence, Pope Francis answers the question which each of us should also ask: “What kind of world do we want to leave for those that come after us, the children who are now growing up?” This then leads to us asking about the reason for our existence and about the values that form the basis of our coexistence: “Why do we got through this world, what do we work and tire ourselves out for, what does this earth need us for?” Only when we ask ourselves these questions, so Pope Francis thinks, in my view quite rightly, the care for the environment will produce effective results.”

bode_purpur_240Lastly, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, one of the German delegates to the Synod of Bishops, connects the Encyclical with the theme of the Synod’s upcoming meeting: “And so the Synod in October about the questions of marriage and family should not supersede the concerns for the human family and its home, Creation. Marriage and family are, after all, an essential component of an integrated ecology.”

My bishop has a blog

bloggingSo, my bishop now has a blog. As well as a spiffy new design of the diocesan website to host it on. This makes Bishop Gerard de Korte only the second Dutch blogging bishop, after Bishop Jan Hendriks, who blogs on his own website. It’s a small group, that’s true, but at least it’s there. I am very much in favour of bishops maintaining a blog which is more than just the monthly columns on diocesan websites (which I don’t deny have their value).

mgr_de_Korte3Bishop de Korte is no stranger to writing, as he contributes regularly to newspapers and other media about current affairs. His blog can add a new level to these writings, as it can also be used for more personal reflections. And the bishop has realised that, since in his second post he not only mentions his taking part in a pilgrimage to Lourdes with the Order of Malta, but also expresses his pleasant surprise at being nominated for the title of “national theologian”. Topics like these, which not only give factual accounts of things that happen, but also add a more personal reflection of the bishop, can be very useful in communicating what he stands for and what the Church has to say. That is certainly true for his blogging colleague, Bishop Hendriks, who regularly shares homilies and photos of Masses, pilgrimages and other things he takes part in and finds useful to write about. Via these personal notes people are exposed in an accessible way to the greater wealth of Catholic life and faith.

So, welcome to the world of blogging, bishop! I hope it’s a good experience and I’m looking forward to future posts.

For Lent, the cardinal once more on church closings

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkIn his letter for Lent, Cardinal Eijk once again broaches the subject of church closings, the topic for which he has been criticised so strongly in recent months. Even now, there is a petition on its way to Rome to ask the Pope to stop the cardinal from closing all those churches – something which he is pertinently not doing: his prediction of hundreds of churches closing in the coming years is just that, a prediction and not policy.

In the letter, the cardinal writes:

“The secularisation I mentioned above is also becoming increasingly visible in our own Archdiocese of Utrecht, in part because many parish council are forced, because of greatly decreasing attendance and structural financial shortage, to close church buildings. Among the directly involved that is cause for deep emotions of sorrow. But also for me: every time I receive a parish council’s request to secularise a church building, I do so with a heavy heart.”

Like I and others have said time and again, it is not the cardinal deciding to close specific churches, but the parish councils who are responsible for those buildings. Despite this, various groups, including retired priests and pastoral workers in the archdiocese, continue in their accusations that the cardinal is wilfully closing churches and purging the archdiocese of all those who are critical of him. The difference between these groups and the cardinal is that the former are solely motivated by emotion, while Cardinal Eijk does acknowledge that emotion, but does not consider it the deciding factor in solving the existing problems. He continues:

“This has been cause for confusion and anger in more than a few people. But it is important not to persist in that anger. There is a danger than anger turns into bitterness,and bitterness is like a dungeon in which no light penetrates. It is important to remain open, to God and to fellow parishioners with whom we are the Church. That goes for churches that remain open for the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and also for villages and city suburbs which no longer have a church building. As Catholics we can come together there at other times, to be near to each other and deepen our faith through prayer, Scripture, catechesis. When a church building disappears, our faith and being Church in a village or suburb does not.”

This sound like an echo of what Bishop Gerard de Korte wrote earlier: living communities, even in places where there is no church building. The critical parties often make the mistake of limiting the Church to the celebration of Mass or the possession of a building of their own. But while Holy Mass is the most important treasure the Church has, it is by no means the only one. And the Church has never been confined to walls. No church in the world, not even Saint Peter’s in Rome, is the deciding factor in the continued existence of the Catholic Church.

Yes, closing churches is painful and emotional for all involved. But it should not be reason for accusations, but for renewed vigour in our faith life. If we want our communities to be alive and with a future, we must do our best to make sure they are. We don’t have the luxury of sitting and waiting for the bishop to fix things for our communities. As Catholics we must be active instead of passive, knowledgeable and open, charitable and willing to step over boundaries and look beyond our human limitations.

New travel companions – two ordinations in Groningen-Leeuwarden

ordination duzijn jellemaA festive day for the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden yesterday, as it gained two new priests. Father Diederik Duzijn and Arjen Jellema were ordained by Bishop Gerard de Korte in the cathedral of St. Joseph. It was the second ordination in two weeks time, following that of diocesan hermit Brother Hugo to the diaconate on 23 January.

In his homily, the bishop spoke about the well-known story of the disciples who travelled to Emmaus. Just like Christ who joined them as a stranger, the bishops said, priests are also called to join the faithful on their way, to both listen to their life stories and explain them in the light of the Gospel.

The bishop also referred to his recent letter about the future of the diocese and asked the new priests to aid the faithful in contributing to building thriving communities of faith. The sacramental priesthood, he noted, is intended to be in service to the entire people of God.

Father Diederik Duzijn is appointed to the parishes around Drachten in the southwest of Friesland, while Father Arjen Jellema will work in the parishes in the southern part of the city of Groningen and surrounding towns, as well as the student chaplaincy. Both priests will offer their first Masses today: Fr. Duzijn in Drachten and Fr. Jellema in the cathedral in Groningen.

The compatibility of different approaches – two bishops against the tide of church closings

de korte eijkAgain, the rivalry between bishops seems to be rearing its head, if we are to believe the media. Earlier I wrote about Cardinal Eijk’s efforts in dealing with church closings and parish mergers, all in the context of decreasing participation and means, and today Bishop Gerard de Korte makes public his own efforts to handle the very same issues in his own diocese. And both approaches differ in some ways, but they are perhaps more similar and compatible than many want to see.

The plans of the two prelates can be summarised as follows:

Cardinal Eijk is merging parishes which will have a “Eucharistic centre”, a church building where there will be Holy Mass on every Sunday. Other churches in the new parish are on rotation when it comes to Mass, so to speak. In this way, the cardinal underlines the importance of the Mass on Sunday and the stability it provides for parish life.

Bishop de Korte aims at local communities. In his new parishes he wants the local communities, the remnants of separate parishes, to remain alive and viable, even if there is not always a Mass on Sundays. And if need be, they will also have to do without a church building of their own, although the bishop strives to keep every church in the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden open.

Bishop de Korte is perhaps much clearer about his desire for active local communities, but there is no indication that Cardinal Eijk disagrees, even if he does not spell it out. In the Archdiocese of Utrecht, local communities can and should also continue being active and living schools of faith, even if there is no regular Sunday Mass or even a church building. In that sense, the options are no different than what Bishop de Korte has outlined in a recent letter to the parishes of his diocese.

For neither bishop closing churches is policy or even a desire. Bishop de Korte has clearly said he wants to avoid it whenever possible, and Cardinal Eijk recently said something similar, even if he seems perhaps sometimes a bit more pessimistic.

But when local communities want to remain viable, there is one thing to remember. It does not happen automatically. As Bishop de Korte said, we all need to take our responsibility as Catholics and contribute to the life of our parish in whatever way we can.

Both bishops’ plans in response to the facts of decreasing means are more similar than different and, at the very least, compatible. Emphasising the importance of a regular Mass in a central place for the entire parish is important, as is the value of local communities where people live, learn and celebrate their faith together. Bishop de Korte identifies a point that is of paramount importance to make both his and Cardinal Eijk’s focus a success: strengthening Catholic identity and finding new people and means. We need to know who we are and what we believe in order to become living and attractive communities.

Charlie Hebdo – Bishops react

Like almost every public authority figure, the Dutch bishops have also released an official response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in paris, two days ago. It is a perfunctory statement, short and quite standard:

Logo Bisschoppenconferentie“The Dutch Bishops’ Conference is shocked and stunned by the reports about the violent attack on the offices of a magazine in Paris, in which twelve people were killed.

The bishops strongly reject the use of any form of violence to impose opinions or religious convictions. They also reject any form of violence aimed at denying people their right to express their own opinions.

The bishops’ sympathies go to the relatives of the deceased victims and also to the injured and their families. “We pray for consolation for them, but also for wisdom for the French authorities in approaching violence because of religious and philosophical opinions.

Furthermore, the bishops’ conference fully endorses Pope Francis’ reaction to the attack.”

More interesting are the reactions of individual bishops.

Bishop Jos Punt, of Haarlem-Amsterdam, sent an open letter to the editors of the major Dutch newspapers and, in extension, to all who work in the free press. In it, he writes:

kn_705396_punt“My thoughts are with your colleagues who have died and with their families, relatives and friends. But my thoughts are also with you and all your coworkers, who are used to be able to bring world news in freedom and rightly consider this a great good in the democratic principles we all cherish. That freedom is now again challenged and that makes you feel unsafe.

As bishop of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam I know that religions and their spiritual leaders, but also ministers, politicians and many others in public office or functions are sometimes targets for satire. That can go very far and cause protests.

But in the context of freedom of speech it must be possible to do so respectfully and must never lead to brutal murder, like yesterday in Paris.”

Bishop Punt also underlines the importance of dialogue between religions with mutual respect and good will, to foster peace and harmony in the world, and reminded that the forces of good are always stronger than the forces of evil. He closes his letter as follows:

“I wish you and your coworkers much wisdom and courage in the decisions you have to make now, perhaps forced by circumstances, in bringing news. But now you are supported by many who have shown their horror at this attack and sympathise strongly with you.”

mgr_hendriks2014_200Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of the same diocese, shares the letter as well, and adds:

“The terrorist action which happened in Paris must be strongly condemned by every sane person. I hope that this will not lead to further violence, but to more attention for the importance of an honest and open dialogue to achieve peace and reconciliation.”

Bishop Gerard de Korte, of Groningen-Leeuwarden, gives advice on how to respond to the attack and its aftermath.

korte“The time for naivety is over. A small number of fanatics can seriously disrupt our society. Our governments have the task of eliminiating terrorists as much as possible before they can strike. But guaranteeing one hundred percent security is of course an illusion.

I think it is sensible to keep our heads cool. It is completely counterproductive to outcry ourselves in anger and fear. Now we especially need a strong and controlled reaction by society. Hysterics and blind hatred towards Muslims must now be avoided. Even in hectic times it is important to keep finding nuances. Citizens in our pluralistic society must seek out that which connects. As creatures of God we people belong fundamentally together, after all.

Bishop de Korte also warns that as Christians we must avoid taking the moral high ground in this matter:

“As Christians we should be humble.  For centuries Christians despised, hated and killed others. After the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, Christians have often wanted to violently enforce their vision of the truth. As far as I can see, we have left that unholy way only fairly recently. For our Church the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) also led to a breakthrough on this point. It’s no longer the right of the truth that is in the centre, but the dignity of every human. Christ is the truth in person and every man has the duty to find this truth. But that is only possible in full freedom and without any coercion or violence. We can not make holy God an instrument for our violent actions.”