60 years a priest – Cardinal Simonis looks back and ahead

Simonis 60 jaar kardinaal Simonis klCongratulations to Cardinal Adrianus Johannes Simonis, who yesterday celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination in Utrecht’s cathedral of St. Catherine. The 85 year-old cardinal was archbishop of Utrecht from 1983 to 2007 and his successor, Cardinal Willem Eijk, invited him to mark the milestone in his former cathedral, the mother church, in a way, of the entire Dutch Church province.

The fact that Cardinal Eijk had invited Cardinal Simonis, and spoke words of praise about the jubilarian’s life and work in one of the most turbulent periods in recent history for the Church in the Netherlands, may well be seen as some evidence of reconciliation between the two prelates. Following Cardinal Eijk’s arrival in Utrecht in 2008 there had been ruffled feathers because of major changes enforced by Cardinal Eijk in the running of the archdiocese and differences in style and personality between both cardinals. Yesterday, however, Cardinal Eijk concluded his address as follows:

Simonis 60 jaar receptie toespraak kl“In all these developments you always remained true to your motto, which you also quoted in your homily in this morning’s Eucharist: “Ut cognoscant te,” “That they may know you.” The goal of your entire priestly life was and still is that people will get to know and meet Christ, the Good Shepherd, who calls himself “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Through Him we come to the Father. In imitation of Jesus you sacrificed much to bring the people entrusted to your pastoral care to the full truth in the Risen Lord. We are and remain very grateful to you for that. Now that we are celebration the 60th anniversary of your ordination to the priesthood, we pray that the Lord may bless you abundantly.”

At the start of the Mass Cardinal Simonis already referred to Cardinal Eijk’s kind words, and played them a bit down, saying:

I must, however, admit that I have been far from a perfect priest, let alone a perfect bishop in the 47 years of those 60. We are only reconciled if we ask God for forgiveness and continuously return to Him. More than even, I want to pray today for this forgiveness. God has been wonderfully merciful to me for sixty years, but I want to admit to Him and you how much I have failed in even fulfilling this grace. May God be merciful to me and may he grant that we will be together in this hour, in His Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth, of love and of peace.”

In his homily, which, he says, he was advised to make more like a witness than a speech, Cardinal Simonis looked back on his life, often comparing the past with the present.

“The tragedy of my life – if I am allowed to put it like that – is the fact that [religious knowledge among the people] is extremely lacking. […] Roughly half of the Dutch population considers themselves irreligious, while the other half includes many ‘somethingists’. You often hear, “I believe there is something”. That’s it for our Good Lord! The Father and the Son reduced to ‘something’! Sadly, we live in a time of radical secularisation, which in essence means ‘getting rid of God’. There is barely room for God, let alone a personal God. Many have traded faith for indifference, despite the tireless warnings from Pope Francis at the Wednesday audiences. And if there is anything that is clear from the Gospel, from Jesus’ preaching, it is that God is a personal God. The boundless secret of God, simply described by Jesus as “Our God, who art in heaven.”

He continues on a more personal note on this topic:

“How am I under all this? Well, it is the great dark side of my life as priest and bishop. In a manner of speaking, I get up with it in the morning and go to bed with it at night. The only thing I can do now is pray that the Holy Spirit perform the miracle of conversion and true religious renewal.

Isn’t all this too pessimistic? Msgr. Jansen [first bishop of Rotterdam, who Cardinal Simonis succeeded as bishop in 1970] one told me, “You are a pessimist”. I answered him, “No, monsignor, I am a realist”. Upon which he said, “That’s what all pessimists say”. Now, I must admit that the virtue of hope is not my strongest virtue. Which is a disgrace for a Christian, to be honest! That is why I pray multiple times a day for strengthening of faith, hope and love, both for myself and for the more than 400,000 faithful I was able to pass on the Spirit to.”

It being Corpus Christi, and the Eucharist being the heart of the priestly life, Cardinal Simonis unavoidably spoke about the first and foremost of sacraments.

When, in the 1960s, the focus rather one-sidedly shifted from the Eucharist as sacrifice to the Eucharist as meal, Cardinal Alfrink [Archbishop of Utrecht from 1955 to 1975] wrote an article that I have always rememberd: “The Eucharist is, in the first place, a sacrifice in the form of a meal.” That is how I still celebrate the Eucharist, primarily as a sacrfice, sacrifice of reconciliation, of adoration, of supplication and of gratitude; the sacrifice of the new covenant for the forgiveness of all sins. We no longer need to sacrifice bulls, sheep or lambs to God. The one sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, of He who Paul so strikingly calls “the self-giving”, is enough for God. In Him, God’s love was fulfilled completely. That sacrifice was made one, but it is hidden in God’s eternal ‘now’, from which it is made present among us ever anew, so that we people who live some 2,000 years later, can join in that sacrifice and take part in its fruits.”

The cardinal concludes with an earnest desire for the future:

“I have no greater wish than that those who call themselves believers will sanctify the Day of the Lord again by celebrating, if possible, the Eucharist. There will be little future for the Church in the Netherlands when our faith is not continuously nourished by the proclamation of the Word of the God and the reception of the Lord Himself as nourishment for our lives.”

Simonis 60 jaar Mis kl

Concelebrating the Mass with Cardinal Simonis were Cardinal Eijk and his two auxiliary bishop, Msgrs. Hoogenboom and Woorts, as well as Bishops Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Ron van den Hout of Groningen-Leeuwarden and Wiertz of Roermond. From Germany came Cardinal Joachim Meisner, emeritus of Cologne, and from Rome Msgr. Karel Kasteel, former secretary of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum”. Bishops de Jong and Hendriks attended the reception.

Photo credit: Archdiocese of Utrecht

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Permission withdrawn – Bishop de Korte says no to gay pride prayer service at his cathedral

downloadLast week, Bishop Gerard de Korte wrote a letter to explain his decision to allow an ecumenical prayer service to open the gay pride Pink Saturday event at ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s cathedral. I shared that letter in an English translation in the post linked above. Sadly, that letter did not have the effect hoped for the by the bishop, and today he announces that he withdraws his permission for the prayer service in his cathedral.

In his second letter, the bishop states that he failed to remove the tensions that arose in his diocese following the announcement of the prayer event. “My nuanced doctrinal and pastoral letter was not accepted by many,” he writes, and adds, “Homosexuality remains a sensitive issue in our Church.”

Bishop de Korte then explains his decision to withdraw permissions:

“Until today, priests and other faithful have protested the prayer service at St. John’s. Although I personally completely trust the prayer leaders, I must conclude that, even before the service has begun, the religious feelings of many Catholics have been deeply affected. To the, the cathedral is the symbol of our diocese and they cannot believe that the service’s serenity is guaranteed. This is a serious state of affairs. I cannot hurt the conscience of faithful and must not cause scandal to my brothers and sisters.

The commotion surrounding the intended prayer service is such that the good relationships within the faith community are at stake. In that context I feel, after careful deliberation, forced to withdraw my permission for the ecumenical prayer service in our cathedral. I really that this new decision is a disappointment to more than a few. But because of the unity in our diocese I believe I can do no other.”

This decision, the bishop explains, does in no way mean that there should be no outreach from the Church to the gay community. I think that was at the core of the intended prayer service, hence the title of my previous post on the issue beginning with that word ‘outreach’.

Bishop de Korte writes:

“Dominant secular culture is directly contrary to Catholicism on the correct experience of sexuality in general and homosexuality especially. Catholic faithful live in modern culture and are deeply influenced by it.

As I concluded in my Pentecost letter, this often leads to misunderstanding, anger and sadness. As a bishop, I will keep looking for a proper form of dialogue, both internally and externally, no matter how difficult and thankless that may often be. People, of any orientation, should find, in our Catholic community at least, kindness, security and friendship. Every person is welcome in our faith community.”

The sense of disappointment is tangible in the bishop’s words, and that is shared by many who have commented on social media tonight. What we should watch out for is fingerpointing, however. Bishop de Korte felt forced to make this decision, but he did so out his sense of duty to all the faithful entrusted to his pastoral care, not just those who may happen to agree with him on this issue. Personally, I initially had some trepidations about the wisdom of the prayer service, but on the other hand, as the bishop says, we can’t ignore the society we live in. It is in that society that we must reach people: it is impossible to remain outside it and expect to be a Church with any kind of influence or voice. The Church will simply be ignored, even more than it is already, by faithful and non-faithful alike.

Bishop de Korte concludes his letter with a sense of hope.

“When I was installed as bishop in the cathedral, on Saturday 14 May 2016, I spoke about the importance of mutual trust and unity. I strife for an clear but also hospitable and friendly Church. I hope and pray that every faithful in our diocese wants to contribute to that, especially at this moment. Especially now, we are called to hold on to each other as a community around the living Lord.”

The ecumenical prayer service is not cancelled, but will relocate to a nearby Protestant church. Cathedral administrator Father Geertjan van Rossem will be one of the celebrants of the serive, but Bishop de Korte won’t attend.

Photo credit: Marc Bolsius

Outreach – Bishop de Korte explains why his cathedral hosts a prayer service to open a gay pride event

Recently trickling into international Catholic media was the planned ecumenical prayer service at ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s cathedral basilica of St. John the Evangelist, planned expressly to open the annual Pink Saturday gay pride event. There has been much concern and criticism that a catholic church, a cathedral even, is used in a manifestitation that revolves around something that is so at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Some feared that the service could be construed as a form of support of the extravagant lifestyle so often associated with pride manifestations.

Following the first meeting of his new presbyteral council, and upon that council’s request, Bishop Gerard de Korte has written the following letter to not only explain the reasoning behind holding the prayer service, but also to delve into the Catholic Church’s teachings surrounding homosexuality and the balance between doctrine and life.

It is a careful letter, but one that should be admired for the bishop’s sensitive treatment of the issue, and attitude that is often lacking in debates about this issue. The bishop acknowledges his own duties as shepherd and has stressed that the prayer service can not contain anything that is contrary to Catholic doctrine.

In the end, the cathedral administrator and the bishop have made one of two choices. They could have kept far away from any acknowledgement of the pride events taking place in their city, or they could have taken the bold step towards some form of dialogue. They have chosen the latter. A prayer service is in the first place about meeting God, the bishop argues, and not supporting or protesting anything.

The location, St. John’s, is also striking since in 2010 it was the site of protests, supported by gay right activists and even some politicians, during Mass against the denial of Holy Communion to a practising homosexual.

bisschop-de-korte“Brothers and sisters,

On Thursday 1 June the new presbyeral council met for the first time. Among other things, we discussed the ecumenical prayer service which will be held at the start of Pink Saturday (24 June) in the cathedral. Some priests were concerned; others were glad about the breathing room provided. The planned ecumenical prayer service not only triggered discussion among priests, but also among other faithful. Homosexuality remains a sensitive topic in our Church, leading to much emotion. The presbyteral council has asked me to clarify my own position in a letter. It will in the first place be about the prayer service in St. John’s, but also about the topic of Church and homosexuality in a broader sense.

Ecumenical prayer service

The ecumenical prayer service at the cathedral is the primary responsibility of the pastoral team, especially the cathedral administrator. I know that administrator Van Rossem carefully deliberated it. He obviously discussed the service with the church council, but also with me. The cathedral is, after all, the bishop’s church. I left the decision with the administrator, under the condition that nothing will be said during the prayer service that goes against Church teaching. The contents of the prayer service can not be allowed to hurt the religious feelings of our faithful.

The cathedral administrator ultimately made a positive decision. It is very important that the service is prepared by the administrator and three preachers from ‘s-Hertogenbosch. They trust each other and are aware of the concerns of a part of the faithful. I have full confidence that the service will be serene. Every worship service revolves around the worship of and encounter with God. Liturgy requires stillness and can never be used for protests or demonstrations. Those present at the prayer service will hopefully be encouraged and strengthened in their faith that God loves us unconditionally in Christ. The cathedral administrator and the preachers have asked me, as bishop, to conclude the service with a brief word and a blessing.

During Pink Saturday there will probably be things taking place in the city which are strongly disapproved of by Catholics and other Christians, including homosexual Christians. In that regard I recall the remark of one of our priests during the presbyteral council meeting on 1 June. During the days of carnival there are also things taking place which are hard to reconcile with Catholic ethics. That is, however, no reason to abandon carnival services.

Church and homosexuality

I have the need to not only discuss the planned ecumenical prayer service in this letter, but also the topic of Church and homosexuality. In the Roman Catholic view marriage, the life bond between man and woman, is the framework of an ordered experience of sexuality. The unconditional love and faithfulness of God as thus reflected in marriage. Other forms of sexuality are considered disordered. As a Roman Catholic bishop I am called to uphold this teaching.

This vision is, however, at odds with the dominant ideas about relationships and sexuality in modern Netherlands. A great part of our own Church people is influenced by modern secular culture. The result is a deep chasm between the word of the Church and the experience of many outside, but also inside our Church. One thing and another often leads to misunderstanding, anger and regret. As a bishop, however, I feel called to continue seeking out dialogue, no matter how difficult it often is.

Every bishop, but also every priest, is not only a teacher, but also a shepherd. He is aware of the tensions between teachings and life, also and especially in the area of sexuality. The Church’s ideal and stubborn reality regularly clash. It is pastoral wisdom to not use the teachings of the Church as a stick to strike with, but as a staff to lean on.

Traditionally the Church has known the saying: a lion in the pulpit, a lamb in the confessional. This implies that a wise shepherd tries to find an accessible way with every faithful. The Church’s norms are rarely achieved in concrete existence. In those cases we are not called to throw stones. When God starts counting sins, no one remains standing. But God is forgiveness and that nourishes us. We can and must appear before the face of the Lord with all the rough edges of a life lived.

Now what?

Faithful homosexuals, but also their parents and other family, often struggle with many questions. Which way to go? Is it possible to find a relationship of love and trust within the limits of Catholic morality? The Church asks homosexual people to live in abstinence. Such a life can only be lived healthily and happily when one experiences true friendship with other people and with God. This is also a duty for our parishes. Within the Catholic community, homosexuals should find kindness and friendship. Christians are called to honest charity. It is about the acceptance of every person as God’s creature.

The Church’s norms about experiencing sexuality are clear and the bar is set high, certainly according to dominant Dutch culture. Faithful are called to relate to the norms of the Church and form their conscience. Every faithful goes his or her way with God and conscience is the final and ultimate authority. A tension may possibly continue to exist between the truth of the Church and the conscience of every individual faithful. When parents find that one of their children is homosexual, they are called to surround that child with all care and love. The same is, I am convinced, true for the Church as mother.

United in Christ,

Msgr. dr. Gerard de Korte
Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch”

All set for the new bishop

Zetel-nieuwAt Groningen’s cathedral of St. Joseph, all is set for the consecration of the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, at 11am today. The photo at left shows the cathedra, the bishop’s seat, with his new coat of arms applied (more on that below).

Nine years after the last time a new bishop arrived, and 18 after it hosted the consecration of one, the cathedral will be filled to capacity. Attendance is by invitation only: last week the diocese already urged people who did not have an invitation to stay at home and watch the Mass on television (live broadcast is available via the NPO2 public channel, and will be available to stream later). Some 700 guests are expected, which means the cathedral is filled to capacity.

DBVOB7ZWsAAvHUHThe bishop-elect, Msgr. Ron van den Hout has been in Groningen since last week and has already met with various groups of faithful on a private basis: the Saturday evening international student group and a diocesan youth gathering, to name two. In today’s Mass he will first be consecrated as a bishop, and then officially installed as the ordinary of his new see. Until that moment, the diocese is still without its bishop and under the leadership of the diocesan administrator, the former vicar general, Fr. Peter Wellen.

Consecrating the new bishop will be Wim Cardinal Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht and bishop of Groningen from 1999 to 2008, with Bishops Gerard de Korte and Rob Mutsaerts, respectively bishop and auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, serving as co-consecrators. Bishop de Korte was, of course, Msgr. van den Hout predecessor in Groningen and the bishop under which he served as vicar general in ‘s-Hertogenbosch for a year.

Hout-wapenPart and parcel of being a bishop is choosing a coat of arms, and the one for the new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden was published a few days ago. Msgr. van den Hout’s personal coat of arms is placed on the diocesan gold cross on a green field. It features an anchor blooming into a tree at the top, with the tree referring to the bishop’s family name (Van den Hout means someting like ‘of the wood(s)’) as well as the shield of the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The anchor is a symbol of hope, relating to the motto underneath: In exilio spes, hope in exile. Lastly, the tree also represents the man who trusts in God (Jeremiah 17:8).

The cup on the blue background comes from the coat of arms of the town of Diessen, where Msgr. van den Hout grew up, and represented the earth holding the seed for next year’s crop. The cup on the red background refers to the Eucharist and the words from Psalm 116 (12-13): “How can I repay the Lord for all the great good done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD.”

More on the ceremony later.

Photo credit: Bsdom Groningen-Leeuwarden

All seats filled as Mainz gets its new bishop

teaser-lebenslaufAlmost a year after the retirement of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, all the dioceses of Germany have a bishop at the helm again – a situation that has not existed for several years. Succeeding the cardinal who led the Diocese of Mainz for 33 years is Father Peter Kohlgraf.

A priest of the Archdiocese of Cologne, Bishop-elect Kohlgraf has already been active in Mainz since 2012. He has been working as professor of pastoral theology at the Katholischen Hochschule in that city, and assistant priest in Wörrstadt, south of Mainz. Fr. Kohlgraf is a graduate of the Universities of Bonn and Münster, and has experience in pastoral care in the parish and for students as well as education.

The date for the bishop’s consecration is yet be announced, as is the identity of the consecrating bishops, but it would be surprising indeed of Cardinal Lehmann would decline the honour.

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Cardinal Lehmann, seated, and Bishop elect Kohlgraf

With the appointment of Fr. Kohlgraf, Cologne once again shows itself to be one of the ‘bishop factories’ of Germany. Six of the 27 ordinaries in Germany hail from the archdiocese on the Rhine. Other such bishop factories are Paderborn with five ordinaries originating from there and Trier with four. All three dioceses are among the oldest in Germany and located in the central part of western Germany, to the west and north of Mainz.

In an interview for Katholisch.de, the new bishop of Mainz touched on some of the more sensitive topics in an dbeyond the church in Germany. Asked about the trend of merging parishes to create what the interviewer calls XXL parishes, as an answer to the shortage of priests, and if he has any alternatives, Fr. Kohlgraf responds:

“I think there is no standard solution here, either. In the Catholic Church we are faced with the tension that we rightly say that the celebration of the Eucharist is source and summit of the life of the Church. That means that, on Sundays, the Eucharist is the central celebration from which the Church and the community draw life. The question is then, of course, how Catholic life should function in small communities. I myself live in a small village in Rhenish Hesse, in a Catholic diaspora situation. That is this tension in which we exist. We should not merely think centralistic, but must also consider how Church life can function in each location. People must be motivated to live out their being Christian.”

Bishop-elect Kohlgraf’s thoughts here are comparable to those of, to name one, Bishop Gerard de Korte in the Netherlands.

As an academic, the bishop elect has followed the discourse about the priest shortage and possible solutions and especially the idea to ordain married men, the so-called viri probati. On this, he says:

“It should be proven if this really solves our problems. I am not so certain about that. I don’t want to look at this from ideological, philosophical or theological perspectives. But it is not without reason that the priestly vocation has always been an academic calling with a full study program. That has meaning. I think that we must remain able to speak theologically in modern society. That quality will play an increasingly greater part. That does not mean that there are not also highly qualified men among the so-called viri probati. But we must look at how a part-time formation would work in addition to holding a job. There are many questions which are not yet answered. I do not currently see a solution for it.”

It sounds as if Bishop-elect Kohlgraf is not opposed to detaching the priesthood from a mandatory vow of celibacy, but his uncertainty has to do with the practicality of it all, especially the years of study and formation. There are, however, places where part-time formation is practiced, albeit for the permanent diaconate, for example in Bovendonk, in the Dutch Diocese of Breda. Here, men study part-time next to their fulltime job, with the exception of the final years, in which they work fulltime in a parish.

Photo credit: [1] Bistum Mainz, [2] Bistum Mainz/Blum

In exile? – A motto for the new bishop

Now that a new bishop for Groningen-Leeuwarden has finally been appointed, a period of  months begins until his consecration. Set for 3 June at St. Joseph’s cathedral, Msgr. Ron van den Hout will be the first bishop consecrated there since 1999, and only the second one ever. The new bishops’ predecessor, Msgr. de Korte, was already a bishop when appointed to the northern diocese in 2008, so he was only installed as ordinary. It is not yet known who the consecrating bishops will be, but I would not be surprised if Bishop Gerard de Korte would serve as chief consecrator. Bishop-elect van den Hout not only succeeds him as bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden, but also served as his vicar general in ‘s-Hertogenbosch for a year. The bishop who initially appointed Msgr. van den Hout as his vicar general, Msgr. Antoon Hurkmans, could also be invited to travel north from Rome to be one of the two co-consecrators.

f035fdc6-a42b-4ea3-ac5c-e1382f1d2d97Following his presentation at the diocesan offices yesterday, Msgr. van den Hout revealed the motto he has chosen to grace his coat of arms (still to be designed): In exilio spes (Hope in exile). At first glance perhaps a reflection of his being sent far away from home, to a diocese with significantly fewer Catholics (noting the contrast with his home diocese, the bishop-elect said, “I know that there are few religious, there is no Catholic university, there are no guilds”), the true reason is different. Msgr. van den Hout explains:

“One of the Eucharistic prayers says, “Confirm your Church in exile. Make her one in love and faith” [literal translation from the Dutch text – MV]. In my lectures the topic of exile was frequently addressed. In exegesis, the time of the Persian and the exile has been given more attention.

Difficult times are Always a phase in salvation history. Israel survived the exile because it was willing to seek out God once again.”

His soon-to-be brother bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam, sheds some more light on the motto:

“With it, he, as an exegete, links to a topic which is close to his heart, as well as to the words of Pope Francis during the last Ad limina visit. The Pope compared the situation of the Church in our country with that of the exile of the Jewish people: there can be a tendency to look back to a glorious past, but the mission – which the prophets then pointed out to the Jewish people – is to look ahead, to seek out God and work towards the future with confidence and perseverence.”

Upon the news of Bishop-elect Van den Hout’s appointment, which was, perhaps unavoidably leaked several hours in advance, the Bishops’ Conference welcomed him into their ranks. Via conference president Bishop Hans van den Hende, they assured him of their prayers, especially in the weeks towards his consecration and installation.

In a letter to the priests and pastoral workers of his diocese, Bishop Gerard de Korte reacted with sadness and joy to the new mission of his vicar general, writing:

naamloos“Pope Francis’ choice means a great sacrifice for our Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In the past year I have gotten to know Ron as a jovial priest of Brabant.

Through the appointment of Dr. Van den Hout as new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden I lose a reliable and hard-working coworker. But I get him back as a colleague in the bishops’ conference.

I congratulate the faithful of my old diocese with the new bishop, and hope and expect that they will greet him warmly.”

Photo credit: [1] Bisdom Groningen-Leeuwarden, [2] Ramon Mangold

No April Fool – 13 months in, the vacancy ends

End of a long sede vacante

It took thirteen months, an almost unprecented long time, but the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden will soon have a bishop again. The Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Aldo Cavalli, had already stated that the name would be known before Easter. With tomorrow being the fifth Sunday of Lent, he was cutting it a bit close. The long time between bishops gave rise to some speculation and rumours, which I wrote about here. These speculations will undoubtedly continue now that there is a new bishop. Many will choose to see the selection, which was ultimately made by Pope Francis, in political terms: the new bishop is either a man in the vein of the Holy Father, which means he is a pastoral figure with an eye for the people instead of the law; or he fits the mold of Cardinal Eijk, which means he is a dogmatic, a stickler for rules. Reality, as often, is more nuanced.

20170330_sHertogenbosch_Bisschoppen_©RamonMangold_03The new bishop

The new bishop comes from the south, and thus, in a way, makes the opposite move than his predecessor, who went from Groningen-Leeuwarden to ‘s-Hertogenbosch. From that later see comes its vicar general, Msgr. Ron van den Hout, to take over the reins of this country’s most northern diocese.

Bishop-elect Van den Hout is 52, not extraordinarily young or old when compared with his predecessors. He has been vicar general of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch since 2012. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1993, studied in Rome and Nijmegen, and most recently taught Bible studies at three seminaries, in addition to serving as temporary pastor in the Bommelerwaard region, in the north of the diocese.

The Diocese

The new bisdom inherits a diocese wich, in some ways, is a work in progress. In the eight years (from 2008 to 2016) that Msgr. de Korte was ordinary, the diocese underwent a process of change which saw the number of parish decrease from 84 to 19. While the previous bishop made it policy to maintain the old parishes as communities in the new larger parishes, it is up to the new bishop to see the process to its conclusion and his choice to keep Bishop de Korte’s vision intact or adapt it as he sees fit. With one parish, which includes the cathedral in Groningen, exempt from the mergers, only two new parishes are awaiting establishment,  while a third is already merged, but will see one more old parish join at a later date. The entire process is expected to be concluded by 1 January 2018.

In the years that Bishop de Korte led the diocese, the number of religious establishments within its boundaries tripled. A relatively large increase, in absolute numbers it is perhaps somewhat less impressive: from one to three. In addition to the shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed in Warfhuizen, which is under the care of hermit Father Hugo, the Holy Ghost Fathers have established themselves in Heerenveen, while the Cistercians from Sion Abbey are working to build a monastery on the island of Schiermonnikoog. Bishop de Korte actively encouraged this trend, and his successor could do worse than do likewise.

The Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden is one of the two youngest in the Netherlands, having been established in 1955, it is the second largest in size, and the smallest by number of Catholics (a little over 100,000, of whom some 10% attend a Mass or celebration over the course of one weekend)*. It covers the three northern provinces of the Netherlands (Fryslân, Groningen and Drenthe) as well as the northern third of the province of Flevoland. Its population varies from traditionally left-wing in the former Communist stronghold of eastern Groningen, to traditionally Catholic along the German border from the southeastern tip of Groningen to the south of Drenthe. Major cities are few, but include the university city of Groningen, which is also home to the cathedral of St. Joseph and the diocesan offices (relocated there by then-Bishop Willem Eijk, bishop from 1999 to 2008). Catholic faithful are clustered in various places, but in general the parish, especially in the countryside, are expansive. Coupled with a relative low number of priests this means that clergy has to be able and willing to travel.

Bishop van den Hout Will be the fifth bishop of the Groningen-Leeuwarden. Two of his predecessors are still active: Cardinal Willem Eijk as archbishop of Utrecht, and Msgr. Gerard de Korte as bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Bishop Hans van den Hende of Rotterdam is a former priest and vicar general of the diocese, and his immediate predecessor, Msgr. Ad van Luyn, was born in Groningen.

In the past eleven months, since the installation of Bishop de Korte in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the diocese has been run by diocesan administrator Fr. Peter Wellen, vicar general under the previous bishop, and general delegate Fr. Arjen Bultsma, formerly the episcopal vicar for Fryslân and the Noordoostpolder.

Reactions

Bishop-elect van den Hout was informed about his appointment last week, and accepted it on Wednesday. His initial reaction was hesitant, but he realised that it was “something that had come his way, and I was obliged to cooperate gladly”.

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^The new bishop, at left, receives a welcome present from diocesan administrator Fr. Peter Wellen.

As for the future, the new bishop sees himself as a man of the parish. “The life of the Church must be realised in the parishes,” he said. “The faithful must take their baptism seriously, while the diocesan curia serves to support this.” As yet unfamiliar with his new diocese, the bishop-elect intends to start visiting the parishes soon after his consecration, which is scheduled for 3 June. Asked about his predecessors and how he compares to them, Msgr. van den Hout said that he simply wants to be himself, to be there for the people. He hasn’t taken up a position on how the diocese should be run, as this depends on the specific  local situation. He is curious and open about the Catholic life in the parishes of his new diocese, and will make any decisions based on what he finds.

More to come.

*Statistics date from 2008. The expectation is that the actual and current numbers are lower).

Photo credit: [1] Ramon Mangold, [2] Mark de Vries