Bishop Bonny at the Synod – Yes to family and marriage, respect for diversity and local responsibilities

Like last year, the intervention of a Belgian Synod father has been made public. This time it is Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, who used his three minutes of speaking time to discuss the chapter from the Instrumentum laboris that deals with the fullness of the family.

The Dutch original text is available here. Below is my English translation:

johan-bonnyIntervention on Part II, Chapter III (The Family and The Path Leading to its Fullness) of the Instrumentum laboris (IL)

  1. According to sociological research, marriage and family are highly regarded as values, even in modern western culture. There is an honest desire among both Christians and those who think differently for authentic friendship, lasting relationships, for children and grandchildren, for supportive family structures. For the Church this desire is a positive starting point for the proclamation of the Gospel. At the same time there are doubts in our society about the feasibility and the sustainability of marriage and family (IL 65). It is therefore important that the Church has a convincing word in favour of the choice for marriage and children, and the steps and path of growth towards making that choice. In this context, civil marriage, as institutional form of marriage and family, deserves the necessary appreciation (IL 63, 66, 102). Furthermore, our contemporaries are counting on the Church as a partner in the development of social structures and legal frameworks which benefit marriage and family life. On this point the Synod can send out a strong and, if necessary, countercultural signal.
  2. Sacramental marriage is, also among faithful, no longer the de facto only model of marriage and family life. The experiences of our contemporaries are very diverse and varied on this point. More than in the past, their life stories follow a personal course. Next to risks and limitations, this development also offers possibilities and opportunities. It is important that the Church highlight the positive or constructive elements in this development (IL 56, 98), value the “seeds of the Words” which are dormant in life stories (IL 56, 99), recognise the graduality in the process of growth that people go through (IL 60), respect and promote the “divine pedagogy of grace” on the path of life that God goes with people (IL 62), and also welcome a “praeparatio evangelica” in the “symphony of differences” (IL 83), and especially to end all exclusions (IL 72, 121). For couples and families the way of the Gospel today is the way of dialogue and mutual respect.
  3. In their local Churches bishops encounter a great variety of questions and needs, to which they must provide a pastoral answer today. Across the world, faithful and pastors have made use of the Synod and the questionnaire to present their pressing questions to the bishops and the Pope. Those questions clearly differ between countries and continents. There is however a common theme in those questions, namely the desire that the Church will stand in “the great rive of mercy” (IL 68, 106). It is important that the Synod give space and responsibility to the local bishops to formulate suitable answers to the pastoral questions of that part of the people of God which is entrusted to their pastoral care. The individual bishops’ conferences have a special role in this. The Synod not only deals with “the family as Church”, but also with “the Church as family”. Every family knows what it means to work on unity in diversity, with patience and creativity.

Msgr. Johan Bonny, Bishop of Antwerp
Bishops’ Conference of Belgium

Bishop surprise – Ghent’s Van Looy to join Belgian delegation to the Synod

van looyWe already knew that the Belgian bishops had delegated Bishop Johan Bonny to October’s Synod of Bishops assembly, and it is no surprise that Cardinal Godfried Danneels once again features in Pope Francis’ personal selection of delegates. What is surprising, not least to the man himself, is the choice of a third Belgian bishop to go to Rome next month, as we learned from the full list of Synod delegates that was released today. That third bishop is Msgr. Luc Van Looy, Bishop of Ghent and, since a few months, chairman of Caritas Europe. And that function, the bishop believes, may well be the reason that he was selected by the Pope.

“I was surprised by the personal invitation from the Pope. I assume that the Pope asked me because of my experiences in the world Church and as chairman of Caritas Europe and member of the international administration in Rome.”

Those functions will also dictate his contributions at the Synod, Bishop Van Looy explains.

“I will focus therefore on families and poverty, families who are fleeing or migrating, as well as broken families and the consequences thereof for children. Additionaly, as a Salesian I am especially concerned with young people and their upbringing and all the concerns that parents have regarding this. Let’s not forget that the Synod is about the mission of the family in the world”.

A point well worth remembering in that last sentence, as too often it seems that the only thing to be discussed at the Synod is whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics should receive Communion.

Bishop Van Looy was already chosen by the other bishops of Belgium to be the substitute for Bishop Bonny, to attend the Synod if the latter would be unable to. Whetehr they will now chose another substitute seems possible if unlikely.

Two other Belgian participants are Fr. George Henri Ruyssen SJ, professor in Canon Law at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, and Fr. Emmanuel De Ruyver, a priest studying in Rome, who is an assistant in the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.

Archbishop Léonard at 75, time to look back and ahead.

léonardToday Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard marks his 75th birthday, and his letter of resignation will be delivered to the desk of Archbishop Giacinto Berloco, the Apostolic Nuncio to Belgium, who will forward it to Rome. All this is foreseen in canon law, but the immediate outcome has several options.

The resignation may be accepted immediately, after which a Diocesan Administrator will have to be appointed. The resignation may als be postponed for either a set or undefined period. In any case, the Holy See press office bulletins, which announce retirement and new appointments, will be enthusiastically scrutinised.

In any case, the relatively short period that Archbishop Léonard occupied the seat of Saint Rumbold is coming to an end. It is a time of looking back, as well as looking ahead. Back at the past five years and ahead to whomever the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels may be.

Archbishop Léonard was appointed at roughly the same time that I started this blog, and my translation of an earlier interview with him caused one of the first peaks in visitors here. Ever since his appointment, he was considered a likely candidate to be made a cardinal, which however never happened. But this never caused him grief.

One of the first major obstacles on his path was the revelation that the former bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, had been guilty of sexual abuse. As president of the Belgian Bishops’ Conference, all eyes were on Archbishop Léonard. Shortly afterwards, the archbishop went to Rome for the ad limina visit. In an interview he discussed the Vangheluwe case, as well as education and the shortage of priests. Shortly before his own retirement, the archbishop was judged guilty of negligence in a case of sexual abuse.

201104070920-1_andre-leonard-veegt-taart-weg-en-vervolgt-voordracht-About education, he later had to correct misunderstandings about his comments, something that would mark the following years as well. Notable were his comments about AIDS as a form of immanent justice. This seeming difficulty in understanding between archbishop and media even led to the archbishop’s spokesman resigning. Among many clergy and faithful, even politicians, Archbishop Léonard was not popular because of his clear voice and these misrepresentations, although in pastoral contexts he was widely loved, for example when 22 Belgian children died in a coach crash in Switzerland. Adversity, however, sometimes had the upper hand, as the archbishop was the recipient of pies (above right), pizza, slaps and water to his face. These attacks never aroused anger in him, however. On the contrary. Following that final assault, Archbishop Léonard wrote a very kind letter to all who had expressed support for him.

In Brussels, Archbishop Léonard was soon faced with the need for new bishops, as his auxiliaries left to Namur and Bruges. In 2011 he recieved three new auxiliary bishops.

In 2012, Archbishop Léonard led his diocese in a new evangelisation of cities, one of the first porjects of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation.

Archbishop Léonard took part on two Synod of Bishops assemblies, where he spoke on the reality of evil, as well as the role of women in the Church. In the 2012 Synod he was a member of the Commission for the Message.

Following the election of Pope Francis, Archbishop Léonard offered a Mass of thanksgiving in Brussels.

Last year, Archbishop Lëonard started looking ahead to the future, even clearing up some misconceptions about his upcoming retirement.

ordination léonard fraternity of the holy apostlesAfter his retirement, and contrary to his previously expressed wish to leave Brussels, Archbishop Léonard will live with the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles, a priestly fraternity which he founded in 2013 (at left, Archbishop Léonard is seen ordaining one of the fraternity’s priests in October of 2014). Priests from this fraternity, inspired by Fr. Michel-Marie Zanotti-Sorkine, are currently entrusted with the pastoral care of two parishes in Brussels. Whether this will be a temporary arrangement or otherwise, remains to be seen.

As for the future for Mechelen-Brussels, we can only guess. But there are some possibilities we may investigate. The metropolitan see of Mechelen has been held in turn by archbishops from the Flemish and Walloon parts of Belgium. While Pope Francis, who makes the final appointment, is probably not one to be bothered overly much by such considerations, preferring to choose the best man for the job, whether he be from Flanders of Wallonia, it is a sensitive issue in Belgium. I expect therefore that the new archbishop will come from one of the Flemish dioceses or that part of the archdiocese which lies in Flanders. Archbishop Léonard, after all, is a Walloon, and his predecessor, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, hails from Flanders.

kockerolsThe Holy Father may choose to elevate one of the suffragan bishops of Flanders. These are Bishop Jozef de Kesel of Bruges, Luc van Looy of Ghent, Johan Bonny of Antwerp and Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt. Bishop Léon Lemmens, auxiliary bishop for the Flemish part of Mechelen-Brussels, and Jean Kockerols, auxiliary for Brussels (pictured at right), may also be added to this group. At 73, Bishop van Looy is too close to his own retirement to be a likely choice. The others are between 56 and 67, so their age is no issue. Three bishops (De Kesel, Lemmens and Kockerols) know the archdiocese well, as they serve or have served as auxiliary bishops in it. There are also bishops who are no strangers to Rome or to the Pope personally. Bishop van Looy accompanied the young people of Verse Vis when they interviewed the Pope last year. Bishop Lemmens worked in Rome before being appointed as auxiliary bishop and Bishop Kockerols is internationally active as one of the vice-presidents of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE). Bishop Bonny had made headlines for himself in relation to the Synod of Bishops, so he will also not be unknown in Rome. The only relatively unknown bishop is Patrick Hoogmartens, but he, at least, has a motto that should appeal to the current papacy: “Non ut iudicet, sed ut salvetur” (Not to judge, but to save, John 3:17).

Or the Pope may decide to do something that hasn’t happened since 1925: appoint a priest who has not yet been a bishop anywhere else to become the new archbishop. Whoever he may turn out to be, he will facing a stiff task as a shepherd in an increasingly secular environment. It may be hoped that he will be both pastorally sensitive and doctrinally clear.

léonard coat of armsArchbishop Léonard’s coat of arms

“Sincere, modest and humble” – Cardinal Lehmann congratulates Cardinal-designate Rauber

One of the new cardinals is Archbishop Karl-Josef Rauber, who comes from Germany and has been closely involved with the Church in Belgium and Luxembourg. Reason enough to share the congratulatory message from Karl Cardinal Lehmann on the website of the Diocese of Mainz.

Archbishop Rauber was a priest of the Diocese of Mainz from 1959 to 1982 and will be the eleventh German cardinal (five of whom, including Rauber, will be non-electors). He was the previous Nuncio to Belgium and Luxembourg, succeeded in 2009 by Archbishop Giacinto Berloco. In some circles Archbishop Rauber is seen is somewhat of a liberal, but in difficult situations, such as the commotion that followed comments by Pope Benedict XVI that condoms are not the resolution to the AIDS epidemic in Africa (which Rauber experienced firsthand as Nuncio in Uganda), he was able to explain the meaning of what happened correctly and underlined the importance of quotations in context and understanding the subject matter. But Archbishop Rauber has not always been careful: he spoke about the preparatory work he did for the appointment of the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels in 2010, and revealed that the general consensus was that Bishop Jozef de Kesel was to be appointed. Pope Benedict XVI instead chose André-Joseph Léonard. Some saw this openness as a sign of Archbishop Rauber’s frustration that his work was for naught. Likewise, his transfer from Switzerland to Hungary in 1997 was seen as a result of his role in the conflict surrounding then-Bishop Wolfgang Haas of the Diocese of Chur.

In Belgium and Luxembourg, Archbishop Rauber also oversaw the appointment of Bishops Guy Harpigny of Tournai, Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt and Johan Bonny of Antwerp.

lehmann rauber“Congratulations to the Apostolic Nuncio Karl-Josef Rauber
on the occasion of his elevation to cardinal by Pope Francis

Among the (arch)bishops that Pope Francis has appointed as cardinals is – as one of the five gentlemen over the age of 80 – the German-born former Apostolic Nuncio Dr. Karl-Josef Rauber. He is a priest of the Diocese of Mainz.

Archbishop Rauber was born on 11 April 1934 in Nuremberg, went to school at the Benedictine gymnasium in Metten in Bavaria and studied Catholic theology at the then new University of Mainz. On 28 February 1959 he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Albert Stohr in Mainz cathedral. He worked for three years in Nidda, where he got to know well the diaspora situation in Oberhessen.

In 1962, the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, he started his PhD studies in canon law in Rome and attended the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy. From 1966 to 1977 he worked as one of the four secretaries of Archbishop Giovanni Benelli, the later cardinal from Florence, who was very influential in the Secretariat of State and the Curia. He and especially Pope Paul VI had a lasting impact on Rauber. In those eleven years in the Curia, and in close proximity to the Pope, he received a comprehensive experience of the Church.

In 1977 Rauber began his extensive diplomatic work at the Nunciatures in Belgium, Luxembourg and Greece, and later as Nuncio in Uganda. In 1983, on 6 January, the feast of the Epiphany, he was consecrated as a bishop by Pope John Paul II.

In 1990 Nuncio Rauber was tasked with the governance of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome. In 1993 he once again returned to diplomatic service as Apostolic Nuncio in Switzerland and Liechtenstein (1993-1997), in Hungary and Moldova (1997-2003) and in Belgium and Luxembourg (2003-2009), where he had begun his foreign diplomatic career in 1977. Aged 75, Rauber retired in 2009 and has served the Schönstatt sisters in Ergenzingen in the Diocese of Rotternburg-Stuttgart both pastorally and spiritually.

As Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Rauber was faced in some situations with difficult challenges for the Church: in Uganda he encountered the beginning of the AIDS epidemic among the population; in Switzerland he had to help resolve the conflicts in the Diocese of Chur; in Hungary it was the long-term consequences of the relations between Church and state in the Communist era; in the political landscape of Belgium the Church did not have an easy time; in Brussels the Holy See also established its diplomatic mission to the EU: Rauber was the right man for a sensible coordination and division of work for both missions in one place.

So we may be glad that Pope Francis chose to include, from the ranks of former papal diplomats, Karl-Josef Rauber among the especially honoured emeriti in this creation of cardinals. He has especially excelled in service to the world Church and the Pope in the second half of the twentieth century: by incorruptibility and independent judgement, candor and sincerity in dealing with others and modesty and humility in his actions. Through more than a few conversations over the past decade in Rome I know that many of his colleagues think highly of him and are happy to see him in Rome and elsewhere. True to his overall program Pope Francis has highly honoured a selfless diplomat in service to the Church. One may certainly see this is a somewhat belated recognition.

In the years of his high-level work in Rome and for the world Church, Nuncio Rauber has always maintained an active relationship with his native Diocese of Mainz, and the diocese has always accompanied him on his way. That was especially visible in his participation in many happy but also painful events in the diocese. On 13 April 2014 we celebrated his 80th birthday in Mainz.

On Sunday 4 January I congratulated him with his appointment: we are happy with and for him. We thank him for his great service and pray for him for God’s blessing for body and soul.”

Photo credit: Bistum Mainz/Blum

2014, a year in review

As the year ends, it is once more time to look back at the past year in this blog. It wasn’t quite 2013, but there was still enough to write and think about. I have been a bit less active in writing, for reasons of real life, but the number of page views in 2014 still topped out at close to 100,000. An altogether satisfactory number.

In this review of the year, I will look back on various topics that kept us busy in 2014.

The Catholic Church in the Netherlands

jaimeThere have been many interesting things going in locally, some positive, some negative, but together they reflect the life of the Catholic Church in this country. From Roermond, the case of Bishop Frans Schraven, a martyr for the faith in China, was sent to Rome in light of a future beatification. The financial numbers of 2012 were published and showed a continued downward slope. The Dutch government sent a new – and royal – ambassador (pictured at left) to the Holy See. The Congregation for the Religious sent their second man to meet representatives of religious orders in the Netherlands. Monks of a declining abbey announced that they would be moving to a small island of the northern coast of the country. Personally, I experienced aprocession warfhuizen rain-soaked but satisfying pilgrimage (at right) to another religious site in the north. The Dutch bishops felt the need to stand up against a resurgence of anti-Semitism, and they also announced the upcoming publication of a new Missal translation. My own diocese saw the ordination of two new transitional deacons, while the sole hermit residing in that same diocese also announced the good news of his own upcoming ordination. Protestant clergy discovered the benefits, if not the deeper meaning, of the Roman collar. A community fighting the biography simonisclosing of their local Church appeal to the Pope. Catholic Voices, the successful communications initiative from the UK, launches a Dutch chapter. The retired archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Ad Simonis, is the subject of a major biography (cover at left). And in Nijmegen, the Diocese announces changes to the local university chaplaincy.

Cardinal Eijk

eijkThe archbishop of Utrecht remains unenviable as he continues in his work as president of the Bishops’ Conference, member of the Curia in Rome, and all too often a scapegoat. This year, he made headlines when stating that the decisions of the Council of Trent are still current, which caused resentment among ecumenical partners. He was also accused of vetoing a papal visit to the Netherlands, which turned out to be quite untrue, and the bishops ended the rumours by releasing a joint statement.

The seminaries

ariënsinstituut seminariansBy the end of summer, a debate erupted about the future of the seminaries in the Netherlands. Some parties advocated the creation of one or two major seminaries, while others were in favour of continuing with the current six. The majority of seminary directors seemed to favour the first option. Earlier in the year, the Archdiocese of Utrecht, restarted its own seminary (first class, staff and family at left).

Pope Francis

cardinals consistoryThe world remains interested in Pope Francis, and it was no different in this blog. First up, there was his first consistory, in which he created 16 new cardinals, including a fair few unexpected ones. The Holy Father was interviewed by young people from Belgium (at left), an interview that was also televised. Later, the verse vis,luc van looy, francisPope also sent a personal note to the Netherlands, to the participants and organisation of the Catholic Youth Festival. 50,000 altar servers from Germany made a pilgrimage to Rome, where Pope Francis spoke to them. The national Church of the Dutch, the Church of the Frisians, marked the anniversary of its dedication, and Pope Francis sent a note of congratulations. The Pope’s decision to terminate the appointment of the commander of the Swiss Guard led to much rumour, which proved pope francis curia christmas addressunfounded later. Pope Francis clarified this and other questions in a new interview. By the end of the year, Pope Francis announced his second consistory. Finally, his Christmas address to the Curia caused new shockwaves, but deserves a good reading by everyone.

New appointments

101020marx250There has been a fair amount of new appointments in 2014, and especially in Germany. First Fr. Herwig Gössl was appointed as auxiliary bishop of Bamberg. Cardinal Reinhard Marx (at left) was elected as the new president of the German Bishops’ Conference, in addition to his many other duties. In Essen, Bishop Franz Vorrath retired and Fr Wilhelm Zimmermann was appointed as new auxiliary bishop. Archbishop Werner Thissen of Hamburg retired while his successor remains to be appointed. Fr. Stefan Oster was woelki32appointed as the new Bishop of Passau, and Fr. Stefan Burger was the new Archbishop of Freiburg im Breisgau. The Diocese of Erfurt was finally given a new bishop in the person of Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr, after waiting for two years. The biggest appointment of the year was in Cologne, where Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki (at right) returned from Berlin to succeed Cardinal Joachim Meisner.

Mgr%20Bert%20van%20Megen2-loreWhile there were no new bishops in the Netherlands, a Dutch priest was appointed to represent the Holy See in Sudan and Eritrea. Father Bert van Megen (at left) was consecrated by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

In Rome, there were also some notable appointments: Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera left the Congregation or Divine Worship to become Archbishop of his native Valencia. He was later succeeded by Cardinal Robert Sarah. Lastly, Pope Francis appointed a new camerlengo and vice-camerlengo.

The Synod

eijk synodThe big topic in the second half of the year was the Synod of Bishops’ Extraordinary Assembly on the family. In the eyes of the rest of the world, Germany remains a focal point of liberal trends that are at odds with Catholic teaching. That is not always true, but some bishops did strengthen that opinion. Bishop Ackermann of Trier was the first to be criticised for his comments on marriage and sexuality. From Brazil, Austrian-born Bishop Kräutler made comments on celibacy, the ordination of women and the Eucharist, and is said to have the Pope’s blessing to develop these ideas further in johan-bonnyBrazil. In Belgium, Bishop Johan Bonny (at left)was the loudest voice to advocate changes in the teachings on marriage, both before and after the Synod. At the Synod, Belgian Cardinal Danneels spoke in favour of mercy, but did not go as far as Bishop Bonny. In the Netherlands, Bishop Rob Mutsaerts explained that the Synod was not about changing doctrine, and Bishop Gerard de Korte stressed the importance of mercy and finding new words to reach people. How doctrine can change remains an important question.


tebartzSpilling over from last year, the final acts of the case of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst (at right) and the Diocese of Limburg played out as it became clear that the Vatican did not want the bishop to stay. He was to retire and Bishop Manfred Grothe, auxiliary bishop of neighbouring Paderborn was appointed as Apostolic Administrator. The last statement of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst spoke of forgiveness and a new beginning. Bishop Grothe presented an overview of the situation since then in his letter for Advent.

Sexual abuse

gijsenThe sexual abuse crisis, while quieter than in the past, still continues, with a few shocking revelations and continuing developments in helping the victims. In 2014, three claims of abuse against the late Bishop Gijsen (at left) were deemed plausible, and the late Bishop Niënhaus, auxiliary of Utrecht, was revealed to have been guilty of sexual abuse. Shortly after the news about Bishop Gijsen, Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond offered a Mass of penance and reconciliation and said that there is no excuse for sexual abuse by people of the Church. Later, a court decision forced the bishops to continue accepting new claims of abuse by deceased perpetrators, or cases which happened too long ago to be pursued by a court, until well into 2015.

International events

frans van der lugtThis blog has a clear focus on the local Church in Northwestern Europe, and also on Rome of course, but sometimes events in other parts of the world deserve a place here. In fact, the most-read blog post of the year, with more than 3,900 views, is in this category. It is the sad news of the death of Fr. Frans van der Lugt (at right) in Syria. Another death, this time because of a car crash, was vital wilderinkthat of Dutch-born Bishop Vital Wilderink (at left) in Brazil. Also in South America, the retirement of the Bishop of Paramaribo, also a Dutchman, mad me wonder of his successor would be a native son of Suriname. And then there was the shocking crash of flight MH17 in Ukraine, shot down by rebels, killing 298 people.

From Rome

marriageAnd lastly, Rome also had its say in various developments and decisions which came down to us. The Congregation or Divine Worship urged for restraint in the sign of peace during Mass, Pope Francis married 20 Roman couples and changes in the Curia gave some indications of the future.


In 2014 the following cardinals returned to the Father:

  • José da Cruz Cardinal Policarpo, Cardinal-priest of San Antonio in Campo Marzio, Patriarch emeritus of Lisbon
  • Emmanuel III Cardinal Delly, Cardinal-Patriarch, Patriarch emeritus of Babylon of the Chaldeans
  • Marco Cardinal Cé, Cardinal-Priest of San Marco, Patriarch emeritus of Venice
  • Duraisamy Simon Cardinal Lourdusamy, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria della Grazie alle Fornaci fuori Porta Cavalleggeri, Prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches and Archbishop emeritus of Bangalore
  • Bernard Cardinal Agré, Cardinal-Priest of San Giovanni Crisostomo a Monte Sacro Alto, Archbishop emeritus of Abidjan
  • Francesco Cardinal Marchisano, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Lucia del Gonfalone, President emeritus of the Labour Office of the Apostolic See
  • Edward Bede Cardinal Clancy, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria in Vallicella, Archbishop emeritus of Sydney
  • Edmund Casimir Cardinal Szoka, Cardinal-Priest of Santi Andrea e Gregorio  al Monte Celio, Archbishop emeritus of Detroit, President emeritus of the Governorate of the Vatican City State, President emeritus of the Pontifical Commission or the Vatican City State
  • Fiorenzo Cardinal Angelini, Cardinal-Priest of Santo Spirito  in Sassia, President emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers
  • Jorge María Cardinal Mejía, Cardinal-Priest of San Girolamo della Carità, Librarian emeritus of the Vatican Apostolic Library and Archivist emeritus of the Vatican Secret Archives

Whereas 2013 saw the death of more than a few bishops in Northwestern Europa, in 2014 we lost only two:

  • Bishop Hubert Luthe, Bishop emeritus of Essen
  • Bishop Wolfgang Kirchgässner, Titular Bishop of Druas, Auxiliary Bishop emeritus of Freiburg im Breisgau

The impossibilities of Bishop Bonny

Johan-BonnyIt’s no secret that Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp is a voice of the more ‘progressive’ side of the Church, if such categories can be applied to the Catholic Church (which I think they can’t to any satisfactory extent). He is a bishop able to relate easily to the faithful, addressing them effectively about the practicalities of the faith (as we have seen in, for example, his recent letter for Advent). At the same time, he is less concerned or interested in adhering to the legalities, the rules, the doctrine of the Church, although these are one of the two legs the Church stands on: mercy and the law, which support and feed each other. The one must not exist without the other.

The fact that Bishop Bonny emphasises mercy is not a problem in itself. Pope Francis does so as well. But the Holy Father does not distort or deny the teachings of the Church. Bishop Bonny, sadly, does.

In an interview with Belgian newspaper De Morgen, published on Saturday, Bishop Bonny made several statements regarding the recognition of same-sex relationships by the Church. He said that there should be a “range of forms of recognition”.

“In the Church we should look for a formal recognition of the ‘relationality’ which is also present in same-sex couples. Just like a diversity of legal frameworks for couples which exist in society, a range of forms of recognition should also be introduced in the Church.”

It is hard to understand what Bishop Bonny means here. Recognising the existence of a relation between two persons is something factual. We can all see a relation, in whichever form, between two people, whoever they are. The Church will also acknowledge this, as she is not in the business of denying reality. But we may well assume that recognition goes a bit further in this case.

“The substantive values are more important to me than the institutional question. Christian ethics assume durable relationships in which exclusivity, loyalty and care for the other are at the centre.”

Bishop Bonny makes a sharp distinction here between the substance and the institution, which is, in essence, a division between the two legs of pastoral care I mentioned above, mercy and law. Of course the content or substance of a relationship is extremely important, be the relationship a heterosexual or homosexual one, or even a friendship of family bond. But the fact, the institutional question does not go away and can not be ignored. These continue to exist, and must be recognised and understood, in addition to the substance of the relationship.

“Additionally, there is the openness to new life, or at least the responsibility assumed by partners to be generous in what is being passed on to children.”

This is pure watering-down of what the Church teaches about the nature of marriage. The sacrament of marriage is open to life, which means that the spouses are open to welcoming new life flowing forth from their sacramental bond, both mentally, spiritually and physically. Simple sharing a responsibility is quite simply not the same thing, even though it is, in itself, laudable.

In the last quote featured in the article linked to above, Bishop Bonny finally hits the mark.

“In their lives, everyone is confronted with relationships, friendships, family and the education of children. We must not deny that there are wounds and traumas in the Church about this. Too many people have felt excluded for too long.”

This is true, and not only for homosexual people, and this is a serious problem that must be addressed. The care offered by the Church must be effective, ever-present and open. There is much to win in this field, since many people are indeed excluded because the Church gives the impression that they are. But the big question is how to remedy that.

There are two options, as I see it:

  • We open our doors and listen to everyone who comes to us, share the truth with them and help them in their need, or
  • We tell these people lies and promise them impossibilities to make the pain stop.

What is the right option? It should not be hard to see.

I am not saying that the right option is the easy one. It isn’t in the least, because here too we find the two legs of pastoral care in the form of emotion on the one hand, and facts on the other.

As I have hinted at above, care and concern for homosexual people, including those in relationships, is a good thing, and it must be expressed. The pain and lack of understanding they feel is real. As Catholics we are people of mercy and this means we can not be deaf to these feelings. But that is not the complete picture of our duty as Catholics. We also represent a truth beyond ourselves, after all, the truth of Jesus Christ. In my opinion, He offers the best guidance in such situations through this passage from the Gospel of John: after He has been confronted by the scribes and Pharisees with the adulterous woman, and tells them that he is who is without sin cast the first stone, and after they have silently left, He addresses the woman: “Has no one condemned you?” She replies that no one has. “Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go away, and from this moment sin no more.” (John 8:10-11)

There are several lessons to draw from this: first, Jesus does not condemn the woman who has objectively sinned, but He does tell her to stop sinning. That is our example. Not to condemn or exclude anyone and to be honest to the truth, the truth of Christ.

So, in the end, while Bishop Bonny is most certainly right in emphasising the need for proper pastoral care for people in homosexual relationships (as well as anyone else, really), his chosen solution ultimately does more harm than good as it dilutes the truth and present impossibilities as attainable and desirable.

The lost sheep – Bishop Bonny’s letter for Advent

Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp has also devoted his letter for Advent to the topic of loneliness , or rather, to the slightly broader topic of the lost sheep. It seems that the Francis effect is quite visible in this year’s batch of Advent letters…

johan-bonny“In the spring I visited a kindergarten. The three classes had prepared a play for my visit. The performed the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). Two teachers and a dozen toddlers crawled around on hands and feet, dressed like sheep. They had a real sheepskin or a white cloth on their backs. One teacher was the shepherd: she wore a heavy cloak and had a staff in her hand. Another teacher was the lost sheep, that first got lost and was then kindly returned to the stable by the shepherd. I watch and was fascinated and touched. When the first group had performed the parable, the teacher asked a new group of children to play the sheep. “And who wants to be the lost sheep?” All hands went up in the air at the same, “Me, me, me, Miss!” The toddlers pushed and shoved to be allowed to be the lost sheep! I thought, how many hands will be raised when you are thirty or fifty years older? Who of you will then be the lost sheep, not in a play, but in real life?

In real life no one raises their hand to be the “lost sheep”. By the way, you don’t  see the “lost sheep”, it is hidden in society or in the city. Someone who has been really hurt, abandoned or disadvantaged, doesn’t flaunt it. In real life, “lost sheep” have a tough sense of survival. They can survive for a long time in their loneliness. You must literally go out to find them, like the shepherd in the Gospel. And that can take a long time. During Advent, the liturgy asks our attention for the small and forgotten people around us. This does indeed require some searching, since you can easily live in our cities and towns without encountering a “lost sheep”. The preparation for Christmas starts with this kind of searching. Who will join in the searching?

This searching comes from the heart of the Gospel. On a certain day Jesus said of himself that “the Son of man has come to seek out and save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). And when He speaks of the shepherd joyfully carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders (Luke 15:5), He is talking about Himself. There would have been no Christmas if God had not come looking for the “lost sheep”. Jesus would not have been born in a stable, had He not come looking for people on the periphery of society. Advent comes from the Latin verb advenit, “He is coming!” For God this also means “He is searching”. May He also come and find me, in my comfortable home or in my fearful hideout?

In a real nativity scene there should be at least two sheep from the flock mentioned in the Christmas story (Luke 2:6-14). They are not hidden. They are the first sheep of the flock that Jesus gathers around Him as the Good Shepherd. They have found the warm stable where He awaits them. How many people in these coming weeks will not stop for a while at a nativity scene, feeling the homesickness of a “lost sheep” that may stand and be seen? Simply because lost or broken strands join each other for a while around the nativity scene.

I wish you a good Advent: “He is searching!” Not in play, but in reality.”

+ Johan Bonny
Bishop of Antwerp