One of the first things that Pope Francis asked of the bishops he has called to Rome to take part in the meeting on the protection of minors in the Church, which opens today, was that they meet with victims. This is something that victims themselves had also generally demanded, as a part of the recognition of their suffering: that the Church see them, hear them, understand what they had gone through. In the Netherlands, the Dutch bishops have made efforts to do so since the crisis broke here some nine years ago.
Bishop Hans van den Hende, chairman of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and as such a participant in the meeting, decribes the context of his meetings with victims as follows:
“Several times I have met and spoken with victims of sexual abuse. Sometimes they were people who did not want a procedure, but who did want to tell their story. Most often the meetings were a part of the sessions of the complaints commissions of the reporting authority. Also in the framework of the socalled contact group, there has in some cases been direct contact with victims, because their procedures had stagnated. These meetings were a confrontation every single time. As a bishop you act on behalf of the community of the Church. Often the accused had already passed away. Many people have been marked by the abuse and I could see that speaking about the personally suffered abuse is difficult and requires courage.”
Bishop van den Hende sees the meeting as a unique event, the first in its kind, and forms his expectation around the goals expressed by Pope Francis:
“The pain and shame for the abuse of minors has been felt for years inside and outside the Church. This is the first time that the problem of abuse of minors in the Church is discussed in a special meeting of the worldwide Church. Pope Francis has indicated that he has three things in mind with this meeting: to make bishops across the world aware of the abuse and make them recognise it, commitment of the worldwide episcopate to engage this problem, plus communal moments of prayer and penance.”
The Dutch approach has always had a sharing with the rest of society in mind. This was a recommendation of the Deetman Commission, which executed the independent investigation into abuse in the Catholic Church in the Netherlands. As part of this effort, the Commission’s final report was translated into English and communicated to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Dutch experience, Bishop van den Hende explains, is in a sense unique and may well be a valuable contribution to the meeting:
“In the Netherlands the bishops and religious are fully aware of the seriousness of the abuse of minors by people of the Church. Together they chose at the time for an independent investigation and an independent procedure to achieve recognition and compensation for victims, and also support. Elsewhere in the world you do not often see such cooperation or joint approach.”
Thursday will see the beginning of perhaps the most charged and certainly most anticipated Vatican event in some time: the bishops’ summit on abuse, in which the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences, representatives of religious movements and the heads of a number of curia dicasteries will meet over the course of three days to discuss a unified approach to sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Expectations about its outcome are high, although they may be too high considering the brief length of the meeting and its focus, not on formulating unfified policies – these often already exist – but on getting every single bishop on the same time. After this week, no bishop should have the excuse of saying he did not know of any abuse or how to deal with it.
On behalf of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Hans van den Hende will attend the meeting in his capacity as the body’s president. The bishop of Rotterdam already met with the pope in December, together with Dr. Wim Deetman, who headed the Dutch investigation into the abuse that took place over past decades. This audience took place out of the pope’s desire to be informed about what the Dutch bishops had done to combat abuse and to compensate the victims. Some have seen that approach as an example for the rest of the world. Bishop van den Hende, in a recent interview, agrees with that, saying, “The joint approach of bishops and religious as it took shape in the Netherlands, in combination with an independent investigation and an independent procedure, is, I think, a good example of recognition and commitment with regards to the victims.”
About the expectations of the summit and its outcome, Bishop van den Hende is catious.
“Much will depend on the results of the meeting, that is to say if the goals established by the pope will be fully achieved. You can only come to plans of actions out of the recoginition of the seriousness of the abuse and the joint willingness to come to a true commitment. I am not sure if this can be achieved in the short timespan granted to the upcoming meeting, but it is necessary to take true steps forward in the world Church.”
“I don’t know what the pope plans to do, he did not express himself about that to me. But if Pope Francis, in those four days in Rome, is able to convince the bishops that the abuse is a major problem which concerns the entire Church, and which requires a thorough approach, the meeting will in a sense already have been successful. Then something can be done on a global scale. That also means that a second meeting must soon follow.”
Dr. Deetman, shown at left while meeting Pope Francis, believes that the Dutch investigation and program of compensation is indeed an example of how things should be done in other locations as well.
“You must outsource such an investigation [into abuse]. Multidisciplinary and with free access to the archives. I emphasised that to the pope. Also very important: it concerns facts. Make sure that nothing remains swept under the carpet. If you want to properly investigate what went wrong in the various Church provinces and in the Vatican itself, it must be independent, and the results must be made public, with anjustification of the methods of investigation. Without any doubt.”
But Dr. Deetman also urged for caution:
“You must be careful, also when it concerns perpetrators. We have had to conclude that someone had been accused, but it later turned out that he or she could impossible have done it. You do damage someone’s reputation and name. And something else: something may be ‘plausible’, but even then there all kinds of degrees of plausibility”.
This is a good reminder. In recent headline cases in which prelates have been accussed of knowing of the actions of abusers – I mention a Cardinal Wuerl or Farrell – conclusions are drawn before the facts have been studied. This is not something that should be encouraged, although it is understandable when it comes to such horrible acts.
Photo credit:  Servizio Fotografico – L’Osservatore Romano
A new year, so a good time to look ahead to what 2019 may bring. The year will undoubtedly have its share of surprises, but there are always some things we can know for sure.
Among these is the inevitable progression of time, and thus the aging out of cardinals. In 2019, ten cardinals will celebrate their 80th birthday and so lose their right to participate in a conclave for the election of a new pope, as well as any duties they may have in the curia. The umber of cardinal-electors will drop from 124 to 114. Still a sufficient number, but Pope Francis has shown that he wants to keep the electors as close to their theoretical maximum of 120 (or over it, as the case is now), so a consistory may be in the books sometime towards the end of the year, or at the start of 2020.
The cardinals aging out are:
30 January: Alberto Cardinal Suárez Inda, archbishop emeritus of Morelia, Mexico
7 October: Laurent Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya, archbishop emeritus of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
11 October: Zenon Cardinal Grocholewski, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Catholic Education
14 October: Edoardo Cardinal Menichelli, archbishop emeritus of Ancona-Osimo, Italy
15 October: Telesphore Placidus Cardinal Toppo, archbishop emeritus of Ranchi, India
Who may replace these cardinals among the electors is guesswork, as Pope Francis has never felt bound to pick his cardinals from the traditional places. Still, the list above could give some hints and we may assume that the Holy Father will choose cardinals for countries who no longer have any. That said, possible candidates could be Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski of Kraków, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh and Archbishop Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa. Another source of new cardinals are the papal visits Pope Francis makes. He has made some of hosts cardinals in the past before. It may therefore be possible that we may see new cardinals from Panama, the Arabian peninsula, Morocco, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania (all confirmed visits), and perhaps Japan, Mozambique and Uganda (rumoured visits).
Closer to home, a number of dioceses will be looking forward to new bishops this year. In the Netherlands, the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam has just received a coadjutor bishop, although the sitting ordinary, Bishop Jos Punt, expects to remain in office until his 75th birthday in 2021. Health permitting, of course.
In Belgium, Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent (pictured at left) has already had his retirement accepted. At 77, he completed a two-year extension to his mandate last year. He is to remain in office until the appointment and installation of his successor. Namur’s Bishop Remy Vancottem is, at 75, also past retirement age, so the southeastern diocese may see a new bishop before the year is out as well.
In Germany, Bishop Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg will turn 75 in June. Among the country’s auxiliary bishops, there is room in Freiburg im Breisgau where erstwhile auxiliary Bishop Michael Gerber was appointed to Fulda in December.
In the headline-making department, there is of course next month’s meeting of the heads of all the bishops’ conferences in Rome, to discuss a unified Church response to the abuse crisis. Among the participants will be Bishop Hans van den Hende for the Netherlands, Cardinal Jozef De Kesel for Belgium, Cardinal Reinhard Marx for Germany and Bishop Czeslaw Kozon for Scandinavia.
Currently gearing up in Panama, the World Youth Days will take place from 22 to 27 January. The first group of Dutch pilgrims have departed for the Central American country today, with more to follow. Among them will be Bishops Everard de Jong and Jan Hendriks. Bishop de Jong is again replacing Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, who has decided to stay at home as he is recovering from unplanned – and not further specified – surgery. Last year, Bishop Mutsaerts elected not to take part in the Synod assembly on youth and vocation in Rome. Bishop de Jong went in his stead.
In October, the Synod of Bishops will gather again for a special assembly for the Pan-Amazonian region, to discuss the specific challenges for the Church there. The expectations are high, as many assume to what will be decided there, especially on the topic of married priests, will have global consequences. Participation in the special assembly is limited to bishops from the area, which means there is a minute Dutch link, at least when it comes to language, in the person of the bishop of Paramaribo, Msgr. Karel Choennie. Bishop Choennie is a member of the pre-synodal council preparing the special assembly in cooperation with Synod of Bishops’ general secretariat.
2019 will undoubtedly bring much to be discussed in (social) media, and there is still plenty being carried over from previous years. Keeping track of everything, let alone formulating thoughts and responses can sometimes be a challenge, but it’s probably a good idea to remember that not finding words or timely responses does not mean one does not care. There are many opinions, and many eloquent ones at that, to be found everywhere. And, perhaps more importantly, there are also answers to be found in the past. After all, what was true and good in the past remains true and good now. That is something to remember when we are confronted with questions and developments which seem to challenge our beliefs, understanding and even faith. We have a deposit of faith and exegesis to fall back on, and many of today’s questions and challenges are not new ones.
The announcement had been long expected, but it was a surprise nonetheless, coming as it did just before year’s end, and only weeks after another new bishop’s installation (in a country as small as the Netherlands, a fairly rare event) in Roermond.
Last Monday morning, the pope’s birthday,, Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop and vicar general of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam, received a phone call from the nunciature in The Hague, informing him that he was appointed as bishop coadjutor of Haarlem-Amsterdam. With the nuncio, Archbishop Cavalli, being in Rome, a Wednesday meeting with the secretary, Msgr. Mendez, resulted in yesterday’s announcement. Bishop Hendriks suggests in his blog that the timing is due to other appointments – ‘s-Hertogenbosch in March of 2016, Groningen-Leeuwarden in April of 2017 and Roermond in October of this year. “It is clear that Rome – since everything is connected in a small country like the Netherlands – has wanted to wait for these appointments,” the bishop writes.
As coadjutor bishop, Msgr. Hendriks remains an auxiliary bishop, but is assured of becoming the new bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam upon the retirement of Bishop Jos Punt, the current ordinary. His name had been whispered for other positions over the past years, but Haarlem-Amsterdam is the perfect fit for Bishop Hendriks, familiar as he is with the diocese. His appointment can be seen as a natural culmination of his previous ‘career’: from parish priest to seminary rector to auxiliary bishop and vicar general.
“I presented this request to the pope some time ago, after my second stroke. I have been carrying the final responsibility for our beautiful diocese for more than 20 years now. Much has happened in that time and I do my work with love, but I have been struggling with my health for several years. The appointment of Msgr. Hendriks as coadjutor gives me the opportunity to gradually transfer more managerial tasks to him, and also assures the continuity of management and policy. With his experience as rector, and the last few years as auxiliary bishop and vicar general, he knows the diocese like not other, and is widely respected.”
While no one can be sure when exactly Bishop Hendriks will succeed Bishop Punt, the latter suggests a tie frame in the aforementioned letter, saying “when my time comes, at most in two years time when I reach the age of 75, he will be the new bishop of our beloved Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam.” Given Bishop Punt’s health issues, an early retirement seems a distinct possibility, but it will likely take place no later than 10 January 2021, when Bishop Punt will turn 75, and it will probably be a quick succession at that. There is no need for the new bishop to be chosen after a retirement letter has been received in Rome, nor does he have to be consecrated, as he is already a bishop. And his installation can be planned ahead of time.
Coadjutor bishops are fairly rare in the Netherlands. There have been 11 in the past century, with the most recent being Bishop Hans van den Hende, who was coadjutor of Breda in 2006 and 2007. Haarlem-Amsterdam had one in 1983 (Bishop Hendrik Bomers, who succeeded Bishop Zwartkruis after a mere two days as coadjutor bishop) and from 1958 to 1960 (Bishop van Dodewaard).
Bishop Hendriks continues his duties as auxiliary bishop and vicar general in the diocese, and also serves as consultor to the Congregation for the Clergy and as a judge in the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, both in Rome.
Bishop Jos Punt has served as Bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam since 2001. Before that he had been the apostolic administrator from 1998 to 2011 and auxiliary bishop since 1995. He has also been the apostolic administrator of the Military Ordinariate of the Netherlands since 1995.
Although no details have emerged about yesterday’s private audience of Bishop Hans van den Hende and Dr. Wim Deetman with Pope Francis, the mere names of the participants make it virtually impossible to not conclude that the abuse crisis must have been at the heart of the encounter.
Bishop van den Hende (at right) is the bishop of Rotterdam and the president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and, as such, will take part in February’s meeting in Rome with all the heads of the world’s bishops’ conference to discuss the abuse crisis and formulate a unified response. Dr. Deetman, former education minister and mayor of The Hague, headed the investigation into historical sexual abuse within the Catholic Church on behalf of the bishops and the Conference of Dutch Religious.
A recent study by the Dutch Broadcast Foundation (NOS) reveals that, in the seen years since the publication of the Deetman Commission’s conclusions, there have been 103 background checks on priests who were under consideration of being transferred or appointed in one of the Dutch dioceses. In one case a bishop blocked such a transfer or appointment because of past abuse claims against the priest involved. Similarly, a further 46 claims of “unacceptable behaviour” have been made since 2015, eight of which involved sexually unacceptable behaviour committed after the publication of the Deetman report. These all involved adults, not minors, and three of the claims are still under investigation. Two of the claims involve an unnamed religious movement which does not fall under the authority of a bishop and is also not a member of the Conference of Dutch Religious. An unidentified auxiliary bishop has informed the Vatican and the police about the movement and the claims against them, as well as his own bishop, who is keeping an eye on the developing situation.
Also interesting in light of the private audience is a letter sent to the participants in the meeting on “The Protection of Minors in the Church”, scheduled to take place from 21 to 24 February. The letter, issued by the organising committee consisting of Cardinals Cupich and Gracias, Archbishop Scicluna and Father Zollner, emphasised that “Absent a comprehensive and communal response, not only will we fail to bring healing to victim survivors, but the very credibility of the Church to carry on the mission of Christ will be in jeopardy throughout the world.” The authors urge the Conference presidents to reach out to and meet with victims before the meeting, something which the Dutch bishops, as well as bishops from other countries, have been doing over the last few years. In other countries, however, this is something new.* The letter concludes: “[E]ach of us needs to own this challenge, coming together in solidarity, humility, and penitence to repair the damage done, sharing a common commitment to transparency, and holding everyone in the Church accountable.”
As said, it will probably remain unknown what Bishop van den Hende and Dr. Deetman discussed with the Pope, unless one of them chooses to reveal something, but if the abuse crisis was discussed, perhaps the actions of the Dutch bishops, which can be an example of correct policies, not just for the Church, but for society as a whole, will influence the preparations of the February meeting in a constructive and positive way.
* A recent development from the Archdiocese of Cologne comes to mind, where a priest from Cameroon had been working among the French-speaking faithful. This despite the fact that he had been laicised in his home diocese. However, for his work abroad, his bishop is said to have issued letters confirming his good standing… The exact details remain unclear. The laicisation is aid to have taken place in 2013, and there is talk of an emeritus bishop of the Archdiocese of Bertoua having provided credentials to the former priest. The only living emeritus archbishop of that see is Belgian-born Roger Pirenne, who retired in 2009. Why credentials were seemingly issued by a retired bishop, instead of current Archbishop Joseph Atanga, remains unclear. It is clear, however, that the abuse issues is not yet being taken seriously in all parts of the world. Let’s hope that the February meeting can do something to change that.
In February of next year, Pope Francis will receive the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences to discuss the “protection of minors”, as today’s press communique states. It is obvious that this announcement, originally proposed by the Council of Cardinals who concluded their 26th meeting today*, comes in the wake of, and is a reaction to, the events of the past weeks.
Some think that February’s meeting, which has not been identified as an Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, as the participation of conference presidents only suggests. comes rather late. After all, the crisis is happening now, but it would be foolish to think it will be gone when the new year rolls around. The current crisis was triggered by investigations by a grand jury in the American state of Pennsylvania, but at this time, the attorneys general of six more states have either already subpoenaed dioceses in their states, have announced that they will do so, or, in some cases, dioceses themselves have invited AG’s to study their paperwork. This, and similar procedures in other countries, including Germany, assure that the abuse history of the Church will be with us for a long time to come. Things will not have blown over by the time the bishops meet in Rome.
That said, the Church, from the Pope on down, does not have the luxury to sit back and do nothing until February. Too many high ranking prelates, including the pope himself, have been implicated or somehow included in accusations of silencing victims, hiding abusers, and not reporting crimes. The crisis has by now, rightly or wrongly, involved so many people, and high ranking ones at that, that proper action has become not only unavoidable, but extremely necessary. And continued silence is not that proper action.
Finally, as some have rightly pointed out, while the prevention of abuse of minors and the identification and punishment of perpetrators remains high on the list of priorities, the current crisis in the Church is not only about that. The victims have not solely been minors. In the case of Archbishop McCarrick, they were seminarians, so young adults, and the abuse was later covered up by other priests and bishops. It is to be hoped that February’s assembly will recognise and discuss that aspect too.
While Pope Francis is free to appoint other delegates to the assembly, and he would be wise to do so, the presidents of the bishops’ conferences are expressly invited, or, if you will, summoned. There are 114 Roman-rite conferences in the Church, and a further 21 of Eastern rites. The presidents of these are elected by the members of each conference, and they need not be a cardinal or archbishop (metropolitan or not). The president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference is the bishop of Rotterdam, Msgr. Hans van den Hende (pictured), while the Belgian bishops, on the other hand, are headed by Cardinal Jozef De Kesel, and the Germans by Cardinal Reinhard Marx. The Nordic Bishops’ Conference then, made up of bishops from five countries, have the bishop of Copenhagen, Msgr. Czeslaw Kozon, as their president. It is unknown if bishops from dioceses which do not belong to a conference, such as Luxembourg, will be invited as well.
*And not on Monday, as I wrote earlier. Thanks for the correction sent by e-mail, David Cheney of Catholic Hierarchy!
**A detailed investigation of several years has revealed, media suggest, almost 4,000 victims of abuse over the course of 6 decades. The official report is to be published in two weeks time.
While there has been much said and written about Cardinal Willem Eijk’s criticism on how the Pope handled the German plans to allow non-Catholics to receive Communion under certain circumstances, and the opposition that triggered from seven German bishops, the Dutch bishops have been rather quiet about the comments of the metropolitan of the Dutch Church province.
Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary of Haarlem-Amsterdam and easily the most social media-minded among the bishops, wrote on Facebook that that was not the place to offer any commentary. Via his spokesman, Bishop Hans van den Hende of Rotterdam, president of the Dutch bishops’ conference, let it be known that he “hopes and expects that the agreements as described in the aforementioned documents [the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism and the Ecumenical Directory] remain the guideline.”
The most extensive comment, although one without directly addressing the cardinal, comes from Bishop Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In his regular contribution to the diocesan website, the bishop addresses the accusation that Pope Francis causes confusion through his words and actions, a position that Cardinal Eijk – and others with him – very clearly takes in his commentary. Bishop de Korte defends the Pope when he writes, “It is nowhere apparent that the Pope violates the teachings of the Church. But he does want to take into account the stubbornness of our existence.”
Addressing the topic of alleged confusion, the bishop writes:
“Some faithful, including high prelates, think that the pope allows room for confusion. But isn’t it better to speak about a papal willingness for permanent dialogue? Such an attitude does not flow from modernism of liberalism, but from the heart of the gospel. In Christ, God came to stand next to us. We in our turn are also called to accept one another. At stake is the willingness to a permanent dialogue, which does not mean the denial of our deepest convictions, but that we are open to the workings of the Holy Spirit in the other.
In the end, we all live from pure mercy. That faithful realisation can make us humble, mild and modest.”
Bishop de Korte focus on dialogue is worthy, and he is correct when he says the pope, and all Catholics, should never be closed in on themselves, open to dialogue with everyone. But, and here’s what is almost absent from the bishop’s text (except from the reference to “our deepest convictions”), dialogue has to be about something. Speaking with each other for its own sake is a good starting point to create trust and friendship, but ultimately, we must speak about something. Jesus Christ spoke with people, sinners and righteous alike, but never just for the sake of speaking. He had a clear message, and did not refrain from admonishing when necessary. We are called to continue sharing that message, which is about love, hope and faith, about charity, but also salvation, about changing our behaviour and leaving things behind to follow Him.
Rather than limiting ourselves to being kind and listening, or only quoting rules, we must take the best of both, and approach the other in kindness, love and, no less important, honesty.
Ideally, the messages of both Cardinal Eijk and Bishop de Korte are read and appreciated by readers, who can find value in both. Reality, however, shows that people would rather put the one against the other and resort to name-calling or mocking in social media. Whatever the intention of a bishop in writing an article, I am quite sure that is never it.
Like every year, the flowers that will decorate St. Peter’s Square in Rome for Easter left the Netherlands. In the public flower garden Keukenhof Bishop Hans van den Hende sent them off with a blessing, saying:
“We pray and ask for blessing to thank God for creation, for growth and life, which we receive from God. And we ask God’s blessing for the journey, so that these flowers and plants, which have been the subject of so much work and expertise, may come to full bloom in St. Peter’s Square. At Easter we celebrate that Christ is risen. The colourful flowers, plants and trees emphasise that Easter is our most important feast, looking ahead to eternity with God.”
Last year, the flowers were subject of several attacks by seagulls. While Bishop van den Hende recalled that gulls and flowers are part of the same creation, and assumed they would be able to settle things together, the Holy See and the Dutch florists seem less sure of that. The flowers will be protected by kites looking like birds of prey and – only when there is no one in the square – lasers. This is similar to methods used at airports to keep landing strips clear of birds.
Meanwhile, on the other side of St. Peter’s, other Dutch flowers are blooming in the Vatican gardens. The tulip bulbs were a gift from King Willem Alexander during his state visit last June, and these have now produced white tulips, Dutch ambassador to the Holy See, Prince Jaime de Bourbon de Parme, reports:
“With his down-to-earth faith and his dedication to his mission, Msgr. Ernst meant a lot to many people. Since my installation in 2012 I was able to visit him more often. His health was fragile, but his mind was strong. At the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, in 2016, he was barely mobile, but he very much wanted to concelebrate the Eucharist. The Franciscan sisters increasingly watched over him in the past months. He was able to entrust himself to God. He reflected on his fragility and death very soberly. During a visit last year he told me that someone had advised him to prepare for the end of his life. It was a sign of his vitality that he responded with, “Perhaps it is time to do so”.”
Bishop Jan Liesen responds to the news of the passing of Bishop Hubertus Cornelis Antonius Ernst, emeritus bishop of Breda, six weeks after celebrating his 100th birthday. The most senior of the Dutch bishops passed away late in the evening on Friday 19 May.
Bishop Huub Ernst was the 8th bishop of Breda, from 1967 to 1992, after which he served for two more years as apostolic administrator. He lived long enough to see three bishops succeed him: the late Tiny Muskens in 1994, Hans van den Hende, now of Rotterdam, in 2007, and Jan Liesen in 2012. Bishop van den Hende, in his capacity of president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, reacted to the passing of Msgr. Ernst on behalf of the other bishops, saying:
“Into very old age Bishop Huub Ernst was vital and concerned with his diocese, the Church province and society as a whole. He was consecrated as a bishop almost fifty years ago. Recently, we were able to congratulate him with his 100th birthday. Bishop Ernst was our older brother in the office of bishop, possessing a great heart for charity and the work of peace.”
Generally respected as a wise and well-spoken man, Bishop Ernst nonetheless never received a university education. In some quarters he was also seen a progressive bishop, which he was to a certain extent on the classic topics like celibacy, homosexuality and women, although he failed to get along with the liberal 8 May movement after this group ignored his advice and used a ‘table prayer’ of their own making at their annual manifestation.
Bishop Ernst chaired Pax Christi Netherlands from 1976 to 1994, reflecting his concern with the projects of peace in the world. Under his guidance, Pax Christi and the Catholic Church in the Netherlands threw their support behind protests against the presence of nuclear weapons in the Netherlands and the world. In 1983, he spoke before 550,000 protestors in The Hague on this topic. He would later also be highly critical of the war against terrorism waged by the international coalition led by the United States. He based these positions in Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical on peace in the world.
One of Bishop Ernst lasting achievements is considered to be the establishment of Bovendonk seminary in Hoeven near Breda. At his installation in Breda, the Theological Faculty Tilburg was responsible for the formation of priests. In 1983, Bishop Ernst estaiblished Bovendonk specifically for late vocations: men are educated and formed for the permanent and transitional diaconate, as well as the priesthood, initially while also holding their day job. Graduates from Bovendonk currently work in all dioceses of the Netherlands.
The period of Bishop Ernst’s mission leading the Diocese of Breda coincided with a time of great change in Church and society. Over the course of the 1970s, he developed a program based on three observations: a decrease in the number of faithful; the presence of core group of faithful willing to carry responsibility in the Church; and a decrease in the number of priests, deacons and religious. Towards the end of his time in office he had concluded that the Church in the Netherlands was in a missionary situation and a minority in society. Bishop Ernst believed that the Church should distinguish itself through charity and displaying the contents of her faith through language, liturgy and the behaviour of faithful.
Bishop Ernst tried to find a balance between Church doctrine and respect for the conscience of individual people. As such, he participated in the Synod of Bishops meeting of marriage and family in 1980.
Following his restirement, Bishop Ernst continued to speak on topics of ethics and philosophy. In 2007, he reviewed a publication by the Dutch Dominicans calling for lay priests from among the faithful to offer the Eucharist when a real priest was unavailable. Bishop Ernst called this “incorrect, not sensible and not the right solution”.
In 2011, Bishop Ernst was called to testify in a court case against an abusive Salesian priest. The bishop’s claimed to not have been informed about the priest’s past transgressions and found it unimaginable that the Salesians withheld essential information from him when he was asked to appoint the priest in his diocese.
A short overview of the life of Bishop Ernst
1917: Born as oldest child of three in a Catholic family in Breda. He attended primary school at the parish school and the Huijbergen brothers. Subsequently, he went to minor seminary in Ypelaar and then the major seminary in Bovendonk.
1941: Ordained by Bishop Pieter Hopmans. He was appointed as parish assistant in Leur.
1943: Appointed as conrector of the Franciscan sisters in Etten.
1947: Moved to Bovendonk to teach moral theology there.
1957: Appointed as chairman of the (wonderfully-named) Society of Catechists of the Eucharistic Crusade.
1962: Appointed as vicar general of Breda by Bishop Gerard de Vet.
1967: Following the unexpected death of Bishop de Vet, vicar general Ernst succeeds him as bishop. He is consecrated by the archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Alfrink.
1980: Bishop Ernst participates in the Synod of Bishops on marriage and family, representing the Dutch episcopate.
1992: Bishop Ernst offers his resignation upon reaching the age of 75. Pope John Paul II appoints him as apostolic administrator pending the appointment of his successor.
1994: Bishop Ernst retires as apostolic administrator upon the appointment of Bishop Tiny Muskens.
Bishop Ernst was main consecrator of his successor, Bishop Muskens, and served as co-consecrator of Bishop Johann Möller (Groningen, 1969), Jos Lescrauwaet (Haarlem, 1984), Ad van Luyn (Rotterdam, 1994) and Hans van den Hende (Breda, 2007).
Bishop Ernst was the oldest Dutch bishop alive. On his death, that mantle passes to Ronald Philippe Bär, emeritus bishop of Rotterdam, who will be 89 in July.
“When I had to end my duties because of my age, I experienced that, while possessing a clear mind, I was definitely losing my physical strength. I concluded from that that my task would now be to stand in my own life for what I looked for in the offices. Experiencing this, I said, “Chaplain again, invisibly present. Without this being expressed amid the others who believe. The images I carry with me from my time in the chaplaincy express the relationship in which we live. It is a life of gratitude.””
This grateful and simple approach to his priestly ministry is also reflected in the bishop’s episcopal motto: a simple “Shalom“.
Bishop Ernst marks his birthday in private. On 4 April he was visited by Bishop Hans van den Hende, president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, on behalf of the other bishops. Bishop van den Hende was bishop of Breda from 2007 to 2011, after first serving as coadjutor bishop under Bishop Ernst’s successor, Bishop Muskens. Bishop Ernst was one of the co-consecrators of Bishop van den Hende in 2006.