Meetings in Rome, and some thoughts about blogging bishops

hendriks paus franciscusThe Netherlands is a fairly small country, and the Catholic Church in this country is, relatively speaking, even smaller. So when a Dutch bishop or two visit Rome and meet with the Pope, it is interesting enough to mention here. But that’s not the only reason, of course…

This week, Bishops Jan Hendriks and Theodorus Hoogenboom visited the Eternal City to discuss the plight of diocesan religious institutes who no longer have enough members to supply their own superior, economist or council members. For that purpose they met with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Bishop Hendriks writes about the visit on his personal website.

Bishop Hendriks also attended Wednesday’s General Audience (where the photo above was taken) and shares an anecdote about a meeting with a Nigerian cardinal:

“Among others, I spoke with Cardinal John Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja in Nigeria, who was in Rome for a congress on the meaning and the role of women, with participants from various world religions. He had been well acquainted with the former bishop of Haarlem, Msgr. Hennie Bomers CM, who died suddenly in 1998, shortly after a visit to Nigeria where he had ordained fellow Lazarist brothers. The cardinal had good memories of the bishop’s house in Haarlem, where he had stayed in the past. I didn’t tell him we are busy selling the building…”

Bishop Hendriks is the sole blogging bishop in the Netherlands (although several other bishops regularly contribute articles and texts to various media and their diocese’s websites), and I think his is an example that deserves more following. It is good to know what our bishops are doing, to counter the unwanted image of secrecy that, in my opinion, the bishops’ conference still has. We know they meet monthly, but what they discuss remains a secret. I’m not suggesting we should all receive detailed reports of their discussions (Bishop Hendriks also supplies none, but he does explain what the meeting in Rome was about), but more openness, certainly in the personal medium of a blog or piece on a website, could help making us faithful feel more involved in their daily affairs and more understanding when difficult decisions need to be made, such as in cases of parish mergers and church closings.

Of course, a blog is not for everyone. Neither is a social media presence. But generally speaking, there is still so much to gain in the new media for our bishops. The Internet has penetrated in every layer of society and few are the people who never come into contact with it. More and more people get their news from the web first, and opinion is everywhere. As the chief shepherds of our local Church and the visible representatives of the world wide Church that they are, the bishops must also be there. Blog posts, the personal element of a social media presence, can be a great asset in that.

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“It’s better in Heaven…” – On the death of Bishop Joseph Lescrauwaet

lescrauwaetLess than two weeks ago, a short tweet from a priest friend broke the news that Bishop Joseph Frans Lescrauwaet was coming to the end of his earthly life. That end came today. At the age of 90, the retired auxiliary bishop of Haarlem leaves a heritage of study, education and engagement in numerous fields, from Church politics to ecumenism. Bishop Lescrauwaet was the second most senior Dutch bishop, with only the emeritus Bishop of Breda, Huub Ernst, before him.

Joining the congregation of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart after a youth in Amsterdam, young Jos Lescrauwaet followed his formation as a priest during the war; his philosophical studies in Stein, Diocese of Roermond, and his theology in Raalte, Archdiocese of Utrecht. His ordination in 1948 was followed by a doctoral thesis in 1957 on a topic that would mark the rest of his active ministry: ecumenism. As a theologian, he taught systematic theology at the University of Tilburg and various subjects at the seminary of his congregation, also in Tilburg.

Originally one of the contributing authors to the journal Concilium, Fr. Lescrauwaet followed the example of Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar and started writing for the more orthodox Communio. He was one of the editors of the Dutch edition of that journal when it was launched in 1976.

Bishop Lescrauwaet’s theological expertise led to several high-profile appointments. In 1969 he became a member of the International Theological Commission. He was chairman of the council of the disastrous (though not disastrous through his fault) Dutch Pastoral Council (1966-1970) and secretary and expert during the Special Synod of the Bishops of the Netherlands, called by Pope John Paul II to repair some of the damage done in previous years.

lescrauwaetThis latter function played a part in his appointment as a bishop later on as it did for most other priests involved, such as the later bishop of Rotterdam, Ad van Luyn. In 1983, Fr. Lescrauwaet (at right, pictured around that time) was appointed as Auxiliary Bishop of Haarlem and Titular Bishop of Turres Concordiae. He was consecrated by the Coadjutor Bishop of Haarlem, Msgr. Henny Bomers, appointed on the very same day as Bishop Lescrauwaet (Bishop Bomers was already a bishop, having been ordained in 1978 as Vicar Apostolic of Gimma in Ethiopia). Bishop Ernst of Breda and Bishop Jan de Kok, Auxiliary of Utrecht, served as co-conserators.

As auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Lescrauwaet was active in many fields, and not necessary always only within the Diocese of Haarlem. These activities were often ecumenical in nature. In the final years before his retirement, Bishop Lescrauwaet was a member of the board of the Dutch Council of Churches.

It is said that there have always been tensions between Bishops Bomers and Lescrauwaet, and that these were the reason for the latter’s frequent absence from the diocese. Some blame the bishop for this absence, but those who knew him personally cherished him for his pastoral acumen and his sense of humour, which was evident even when discussing the most difficult of theological concepts.

lescrauwaetBishop Lescrauwaet retired in 1995 at the age of 71, for reasons of age and health, and returned to the south, where he had worked and lived before his appointment to Haarlem. He moved into the diocesan seminary of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, the St. John’s Centre, and picked up his old job of teaching theology again. He also served as spiritual counsellor of the seminary. At left, he is pictured with Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, during the celebration of his 90th birthday last year. Ultimately, in 2011, the bishop moved back to Tilburg, to live in the retirement home of his congregation.

The Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam announces that Bishop Lescrauwaet’s  funeral will take place from the Basilica of Saint John in Den Bosch, the cathedral near which he spent most of the years since his retirement, on 23 November. The Mass starts at 10:30. The day before, faithful will have the opportunity to visit the late bishop at the St. John’s Centre, the diocesan seminary around the corner from the basilica.

Photo credit: [1] Bisdom Haarlem-Amsterdam, [2] ANP – Cor Out, [3] Sint-Janscentrum

The Lady of All Nations – A diocese celebrates, but serious questions remain

On 12 June a day of prayer in honour of the Lady of All Nations will take place in Amsterdam, under the auspices and with the participation of Bishop Jos Punt of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam. Lady of All Nations refers to the Blessed Virgin and specifically the alleged apparitions of her in Amsterdam between 1945 and 1959. These apparitions, like others across the world, caused much debate and also much enthusiasm. The debate still remains, and is fueled by a distinct lack of clarity.

At the root of this lie two things that the Blessed Virgin is alleged to have communicated during these apparitions; the first is a prayer that refers to her as she “who once was Mary”, and the second the wish that a fifth Marian dogma be declared, which would make her coredemptrix, saviour next to Jesus Christ. The image created from the apparitions, pictured to the left, also shows Mary in front of the Cross, taking the place of Christ.

Both these elements, the prayer and the dogma, constitute a rupture with all we know of the Blessed Virgin and her role in salvation history, and all that she has communicated in apparitions and miracles. And that, in short, is why the veneration of the Lady of All Nations is so problematic.

During his pontificate, Venerable Pope Pius XII acted against the title of ‘coredemptrix’, and had it removed from documents. The Second Vatican Council expressed exceeding caution in using the term, and even used the word mediatrix sparingly. A 1997 conference on the subject in Czestochowa also decided against the proposed dogma, citing the rupture with the Mariological beacons set forth by the Council (and, I might add, the whole of salvation history).

Much debate in the world Church, then. But things also developed on the diocesan level. According to canon law, a diocesan bishop has full authority to judge the validity of such supernatural phenomena. It is part of what he received at his consecration to the episcopate. Over the decades, at least two bishops of the Diocese of Haarlem, Msgr. Huibers and Zwartkruis, had investigations into the alleged apparitions conducted which led to the veneration of the Lady of All Nations being forbidden within the diocese. In 1996, only weeks before his death, Bishop Henny Bomers declared that he no longer had any qualms about the cultus that had developed and in 2002 Bishop Jos Punt declared the phenomena that occurred between 1945 and 1959 to be authentic. That meant that, with to the authority vested in a diocesan bishop, the veneration was allowed worldwide.

Here we have an interesting contrast; whereas the higher Church authorities, manifesting their duty and ability of guiding the faith of the Church, expressed caution in the interpretation and consequences of the alleged apparitions and messages, the local curia on the diocesan level came to the conclusion that such caution is not warranted. Some blame that latter development on Bishop Punt with his strong personal devotion to the Lady of All Nations, but the case has kept basically all bishops in Haarlem of the last 60 years busy. Twice a serious investigation was called, and at least two bishops came to the personal conclusion that everything was authentic (Bishop Huibers probably came to the same conclusion in 1955, but abided to the ruling of a committee he had established to investigate the apparitions).

That is the situation as it is now, but what tends to be overlooked are the judgements of Pope Pius XII, the Second Vatican Council and modern prelates such as Cardinal Amato, who all speak against the full authenticity. And I tend to agree with their serious reservations. I am not denying Bishop Punt’s authority, but neither am I (or any Catholic) obliged to believe in whatever apparition, be it Amsterdam, Lourdes, Medjugorje or Fatima.  And if we believe, we must do so with heart and mind. The heart may be there, but the mind has its questions which deserve answers.

And that is why I doubt the wisdom is such large-scale events like the day of prayer on 12 June. The Lady of All Nations, and the contents of the Virgin’s alleged messages, of her as coredemptrix and as something else than the human Mary, are presented as accepted elements of the faith, when they are not.

‘A courageous bishop’

A surprising article on the website of Katholiek Nieuwsblad. Surprising in that the author, Jan Peeters, takes the unpopular position and manages to given an overview of the recent decisions of Archbishop Eijk, which have caused so much discussion in his archdiocese these past months. Peeters’ position is, in my opinion, the unpopular one, in that he defends the archbishop who has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism. Granted, not all of that criticism was unjust, but the article below shows that much can be defended.

I agree with the main point that Peeters makes; that the Dutch Church needs a doctor who is able to make the drastic decisions to heal things. And such decisions rarely make anyone popular, certainly not immediately.

That’s not to say that I agree with everything in the article. Especially the points he makes about Ms Stienstra and her reasons for acting the way she did are, in my opinion, unverifiable by anyone but herself.

In closing, an article that shows the big picture, although some emotion, or should I say frustration, shines through here and there.

A courageous bishop

Church historian Peter Nissen is a strange man: his long-held wish dream of a ‘bishop with balls’ has finally come true, and it’s still not right, because he is immediately ‘stalinist’.

For the strangers in Jerusalem: it concerns Wim Eijk, de archbishop of Utrecht, who was sharply attacked in Trouw over his policies. Eijk has the thankless task to safeguard the archdiocese, with drastic measures, from bankruptcy. He also considers I his task to have the financial side secure enough to assure continued wellbeing for the next ten years.

Eijk is probably the first Dutch bishop who has publicly indicated that the situation of the Catholic Church has gotten so precarious that he lets money flow back to local faith communities, through cuts in staff and supporting services. How hard the times are for them is something we’ll hear in the coming week during the start of the Kerkbalans fundraising campaign.

Hard reality

Or simply from the numbers: Between 1998 and 2008 the number of Churchgoing Catholics in Utrecht dropped with 41.9 percent to a meager 55,400 per week. These have to support 306 parishes: on average 181 often elderly parishioners per parish.

Eijk is the first to couple action to all concerned mutterings by turning every penny from the pockets of the faithful twice. Sadly and unavoidably that leads to job cuts. Even our national unions can’t avoid that. Eijk’s willingness to take that step shows backbone, because it is not easy and provides ammunition to his opponents.

A ‘bishop with balls’ therefore, to use the vocabulary of Peter Nissen. The image of a cold sanitiser that this creates works strongly to his disadvantage. We see another man than the likeable one in the interview after his long illness.

Playtime is over

The fact that Nissen does not welcome Eijk’s deciseveness may have to do with the fact that he became a ‘victim’ of it himself. Eijk’s opponents may shout that he can’t handle criticism, but on the other, the people are unable to deal with shepherd who truly lead. The playtime that has paralysed the Dutch Church province for the past forty years seems to be over now that there is an archbishop who firmly takes control. That is relatively new.

Nissen probably expected Eijk to concede when he pulled the university of Nijmegen out of the partnership with the Catholic universities of Utrecht and Tilburg which would lead to the Faculty of Catholic Theology. But he lost for his own university the long-desired Vatican recognition: Eijk was not fooled. Nissen is therefore not the objective oberser people take him for.

Resentful of consisten?

The same goes just as much for fellow church historian Ton van Schaik. He too has some unfinished business with Eijk. The latter, when he was bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden, though it unacceptable that a certain Van Schaik, who had publicly declared that Eijk was unfit to be not only a bishop, but even a priest, was a teacher at the Bovendonk seminary in which the diocese participated. He lost his position as teacher.

In Trouw Nissen calls these actions “almost stalinist practices. You may cheer for the leader and agree with his policies, or you’re out.” Disregarding the fact that the qualification ‘almost stalinist’ is a grave one for any historian, let alone a Catholic one, the reaction, no matter how ridiculous, is understandable in the Dutch context.

Anarchy

Our native Church is stuck in the anti-authoritarian attidude of the 1970s, when bishops barely acted out of fear for attack, as happened to Bishop Gijssen of Roermond and, later, his colleague Bomers in Haarlem, who suffered a fullblown coup.

The ultimate example is the affair around the recently deceased theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, who had received an official Vatican conviction for heretical ideas, but who was not sanctioned in any way, neither against his person nor his ‘teachings’. He was even given, with the support of several bishops, a university chair, which was then rapidly turned back by Rome.

Cultural difference

In this context the rumoured friction between the current and previous archbishops is not unthinkable. But is that not primarily a confrontation between two cultures? One who think that you can’t take drastic measures, and the other considering lack of action unacceptable? Eijk did not just inherit a financial mess, but also an atmosphere of everyone going their own way.

It is well know that Cardinal Simonis worked towards at least one weekly Eucharist in each parish, but encountered shrugs and mockery in his own diocesan council.

Changing of the guard

It is fully understandable that newly-arrived Eijk wanted to clean up. A new policy requires new people, and that causes resistance by definition, since for certain people it will mean a loss of power. It is foolish to accuse the archbishop of ‘power politics’ en ‘power concentration’ when he used his responsibility and makes decision. As if the former deans who formed the diocesan council did not play power politics or, according to some, even had the actual power. Together they were responsible for the policy of squandering that brought the archdiocese to the edge of bankruptcy. Former economist Jacques Klok’s statements in Trouw, that the diocese pumped 1.5 million euros annually into the ‘missionairy Church’, are evidence of utter recknlessness.

‘It wasn’t me’

Klok thinks it not opportune for Eijk to constantly nag about the financial mismanagement under Cardinal Simonis, but wasn’t that first and foremost Klok’s responsibility, who was the financial genius at the head of the economic council of the Dutch dioceses for years?

Did not Klok in 2003 gather a surprised press corps to deny that the archdiocese was bankrupt? It seems that Jacques Klok is trying to clear his own conscience to the detriment of the cardinal.

Well-considered

What some consider not calssy, let alone sympathetic is Eijk’s mentioning of impending bankruptcy at his installation. Was that kick at the departing people or an emphasis that the required measures were not his fault? Or was to wake everyone up to the looming measures? It worked, because the dismissal of the diocesan council caused very little discussion among the fauithful. That was well thought-out.

Tiltenberg substandard?

What does not fit in the negative image of Eijk as ‘ambitious job hunter’, is the closing of his own seminary, always a bit of prestige for a bishop. Some priests replied to the violent reactions with the understatement that they ‘never knew the konvikt was that good.’ There were three equal elements in the decision: lack of funds, too hew students and a good alternative, at least second best: the Tiltenberg seminary in Haarlem.

Out of the backyard

The archbishop also yielded his much-appreciated rector, Norbert Schnell, to the Bovendonk seminary, which had gone without a rector for two years, and which also delivered priests for Utrecht. Was that an attemopt to ‘buy off’ his colleague Van den Hende, or did he really want to optimally use his few means, even outside the boundaries of his own diocese? That is highly unusual in the Netherlands.

Everyone admits that seven seminaries for the Netherlands is foolish, but the willingness to end that waste of energy, manpower and means was missing until now.

And that is how the archbishop was the first to do what many thought should have been done a long time ago: concentrate the seminaries in one or two locations. Until now no bishop wanted to be the first. That too is being courageous.

Circle Hendriksen

CRK chair Nelly Stienstra sees this all very differently. Cardinal Simonis was a regular visitor, just like Wim Eijk who was a ‘friend’. Those relations originated with former auxiliary bishop of Utrecht Th.G.A. Hendriksen, with whom Stienstra had a special bond and who became her housemate. That is how she became involved with the circle of orthodox priests and later bishops around Hendriksen. Those relations continued after his death in 2001 and next to cordial and fruitful contacts, resulted in open doors and influence for Ms Stienstra. That was also the case for the Ariënskonvikt: Stienstra lived across the street from one of its locations where she often came, went to Mass daily and which was a window into the heart of the archdiocese for her. Its closure abruptly ended that and the cordial contacts at the Maliebaan [location of the diocesan offices] are for now also seriously disrupted.

Complicating factor is the fact that Msgr. Hendriksen saw the konvikt as one of the two seminaries for the Netherlands. That made Stienstra’s objections against its closure intensely personal. It must have been an enormous loss for her.

The bishop lies?

In late December Eijk removed Ms Stienstra as a volunteer from his cathedral, because she had publicly declared that there were millions available for the konvikt. These statements have not been proven yet. She also accused the archbishop of “abuse of power and lack of humanity”.

She accuses the archbishop of being a despot, now that he has removed her for her criticism, after so much work on her part and despite their ‘friendship’. But wasn’t it ‘friendly’ Nelly Stienstra herself who initially publicly doubted the integrity of the archbishop and accused him in Trouw of “abuse of power and lack of humanity”?

Crisis of authority

Are Eijk’s actions truly vindictive, ‘stalinist’ or ‘despotic’? Or does the archbishop tyr to make clear that not everything should just be said? That some acts are not without consequence? He makes clear that he won’t be mocked. And that had became habit in the past forty years.

In 1984, Archbishop Simonis told young Catholics in Utrecht that there was not crisis of faith, but a crisis of authority in the Church. His succesor now tries to reassert that authority. That takes getting used to. That is necessary. Our terminally ill Church province, that saw the average percentage of regular churchgoes drop from 23.7 percent to a paltry 7.1 percent in 28 years, urgently needs a doctor. An able surgeon who saves what can be saved and removes what’s necessary and who does what is medically best. A cool person you can trust with your life. The rest is secondary for now.