For Advent, Bishop Bonny looks to the martyrs of Algeria

Today, nineteen martyrs of the faith will be beatified in Algeria. It’s a varied group of priests, religious sisters and a bishop and their martyrdom is not an ancient event. Rather, they were killed for being Christians in living memory, in te last decade of the 20th century.

In his Advent letter, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp presents us one of the soon-to-be Blesseds. Belgian-born White Father Charles Deckers. He, the bishop says, provides a modern face to Advent, a time of hope and expectation. These are what motivated Fr. Charles and the other martyrs in life, and these still remain.

bonny“What are we waiting for? A justifiable question. Every year it is Advent. Every year we dream about peace and reconciliation. Every years we read pages full of hope and expectation in the Prophets. Every year we construct a nativity scene with a child in the manger. Not once do we feel that those expectations are unnecessary or outdated. On the contrary, year after year current events bring new disappointments or challenges. Our greatest expectations still remain hidden as seeds in the earth, waiting for a better season.

In the middle of Advent, on 8 December, the Antwerp-born White Father Charles Deckers will be beatified in Oran, Algeria, together with eighteen other martyrs. This group of Algerian martyrs also includes a bishop, six sisters, three other White Father and seven Trappists. We know the latter from the movie Des Hommes et de Dieux.

Charles Deckers was born in Antwerp on 26 December 1924. He follows his secondary education at the college of Our Lady. During the Second World War the Jesuits implore their students to aid the needy inhabitants of the city. It marks Charles Deckers for life. After his secondary education he decides to become a missionary in Africa. He ends up in Algeria, then still a French colony. He studies Islam and learns both Arabic and Berber. In Tizi Ouzou, where he lives and works for the longest time, he has a special eye for the young. He establish a technical school where young people can learn a profession. During the Algerian War (1954-1962) he does everything to prevent young people from joining extremist or violent groups. Because the civil authorities do no appreciate his impact on Algeria’s youth, he is forced to leave the country in 1977.

He remains abroad for ten years: five years in Brussels and five years in Yemen. In Brussels he takes part in the establishment of El Kalima, a centre of encounter and dialogue between Christians and Muslims. He is finally able to return to Algeria in 1987. As priest he is attached to the Basilica of Notre-Dame d’Afrique in the capital Algiers. Again, he works for encounter and dialogue, especially among the young. And again, he establishes a polytechnic.

After 1990, political tensions in Algeria steadily increase. Fundamentalist Muslim groups commit deathly attacks against anyone working for peace and reconciliation in the country. Violence against Christians also increases. Despite the threats, most priests and religious decide to remain in the country. Charles Deckers also wants to stay, out of solidarity with the persecuted Christians and his threatened Muslim friends. It is a conscious decision, supported by a deep spirituality. On 26 December 1994 he celebrates his 70th birthday in Algiers. Days later he leaves for Tizi Ouzou, to visit his brother priests. Less than half an hour after his arrival a group of armed commandos break into the building and kill the four White Fathers present, among them Charles Deckers.

Expectation is not giving in to despair or bitterness. It is continued hope for what seems impossible.

After all, humanity’s most beautiful expectations are still hidden like seeds in the earth, waiting for better seasons. When will that hidden seed be able to sprout, grow and flower? It is an open question.

This year, the martyrs of Algeria provide a modern face to Advent.

Their hope and expectations have not vanished. They lie in the earth – also among us – waiting for better times. Advent’s question is not when God will come, but when man will receive Him. It is harder to wait for man that it is to wait for God.”

The thin line of hope – After Syria, Bishop Bonny reflects on Easter

In February, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp visited Syria. Visiting Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, he saw firsthand the destruction wrougth by years of war and also the incessant work of the churches to help the people caught in the middle. For Easter, he looks back on his journey:

Verwoestingen in Oost-Aleppo (2)

I took the photo above in Syria, in the destroyed eastern part of Aleppo. What do you see? A background and a foreground. Two opposed images. In the background only destruction: no doors, no windows, no roofs, no transport, no life. The bombardments and fighting was exceptionally heavy in the final months of 2016. All means were employed, even chemical weapons. Until all the houses and streets were destroyed and all inhabitants had left. But, in the foreground, there is a red round water tank, which the government has recently placed there. A truck comes to fill it every day. Next to the water tank there are four children. They come to collect water in recycled plastic bottles. They will bring it to their mother, somewhere in the ruins. They are two opposite images. The dead stones and the living water. The ruins and the children. An between them: the thin line of hope.

What is Easter about? About death and life. And about the thin line of hope.

The background of Easter is dark and cold. Jesus was nailed to the cross and has died. Friends placed his dead body in a tomb. The disciples have lost all faith and hope. For can anything good come from a grave? What they have gone through with Jesus will fade to memory. Leaving seems their only option. How many people today do not have those feelings! They look out over ruins or a tomb. Little is left of their former joy or friendship. Life of fate has hit them hard. The injustice or irreversibility of what has happened to them weighs heavily. The stone has covered the entrance of the tomb.

But, the foreground of Easter is different. It happens in the early hours. At dawn, the women go to the tomb. They see that the stone is rolled away The tomb is empty.

Jesus is not dead, He lives! He is not gone, He has risen!

Jesus has begun a new story. We celebrate that divine event at Easter. As a sign of Jesus’ resurrection we light the paschal candle and bless the waters of baptism. New Christians are baptised with that water in the Easter vigil. The priest also sprinkles the faithful with that water, not a little, but generously. Water belongs to Easter: fresh water, as a first sign of new life and hope. Are there ruins to clear in your life?

Do you fear the future? At Easter, let yourself by sprinkled with newly blessed baptismal water!

The fresh splash does good. It startled. It breaks through resignation. It makes barren ground soft and fertile.

The photo from Aleppo is my photo for Easter. I had it enlarged and it now stands on my desk. It is not a nice photo. No plus Easter bunny or yellow chick. No pretty creation or decoration. It is reality. When I bless the baptismal water at Easter and sprinkle the faithful with it, I will think of the red round water tank in Aleppo and the children next to it.

Hope does not begin again in a grand scale. Hope beings again small.

Hope begins again where we can collect fresh water to live on. Does that clear the ruins? Does it ensure the future? Not immediately and not by itself. But life is given a new opportunity. We can begin a new story. The thin line of hope appears again.

In the Easter Gospel the women are the first to arrive at the empty tomb. There, they are immediately given a task from the angel: “Go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you” (Mark 16:7). What lies in the heart of Galilee? Not a water tank, but a big lake full of water and fish. There Jesus awaits His disciples, as the Risen Lord.

There they can begin anew, with Him, as “fishers of men”.

What is my wish for you for Easter? That you may find the ‘living water’ and that you may share it, even if with a recycled bottle, like the children in the photo.

Waiting for God – Bishop Bonny’s letter for Advent

In the first of this year’s traditional Advent letters that most bishops write, Bishop Johan Bonny speaks about waiting. Waiting for our friends or loved ones, but also waiting for God. And about God’s waiting for us.

8579640“Good friends,

“I have been waiting for you!” That short sentence can sound business-like or emotional. It depends on who says it and when. And especially to whom it is being said. “I have been waiting for you!”. It sounds different when a teacher says it to a student who is late for class. Or when an office worker says it to a colleague with whom he takes the morning train to Brussels. Or when a prisoner says it to his girlfriend who comes to visit him every week at the prison. Or when a boy says it to the girl who did not show up for their date. Or when a mother says it to her daughter who returns home from a party in the early hours. Or when a woman says it to her husband who is married more to his work than to her. Or when a man says it to his wife who has been visiting with her friend  for too long again. Of when parents say it to their child who is finally coming home after surgery. “I have been waiting for you!” It can convey joy or gratitude or misunderstanding or anger.

“I have been waiting for you!” We do not say it to each other when there is no friendship or love involved. It makes us recognise friends and loved ones: they wait for each other, they consider the other’s  presence, they become impatient or distrustful when the other does not show up, the absence of the other at an appointment hurts. When friendship or love cools, waiting for each other disappears. Appointments become more business-like. Waiting becomes less personal and less emotional. Do you want to know who your friends are or who loves you? This question is the test. Who would say to me now, “I have been waiting for you!”?

Soon it will be Advent again in the church community. It is a time of looking forward and waiting in preparation for Christmas. “I have been waiting for you!” Precisely this sentence befits this time in the Church’s year. Remarkably enough, we will often be hearing these words from the mouth of God during Advent: “I have been waiting for you!” The entire Bible speaks of God’s waiting for man. God does not coolly follow humanity from a distance. On the contrary. He is involved, full of friendship and love, with man and the people He has chosen. He desires to be their God and they His people. How often was God not alone in that desire? How often was He not left in the cold? But God continued searching to be close to man. Jesus is the full revelation of that divine search.

At the same time man thirsts for the coming of God. Waiting is a two-way street. But even if a deep desire for God’s friendship and love is alive in man, it is not easy to come close to God. God is so completely different. He is so completely unpredictable. It is not easy to make an appointment or arrange a meeting with Him. He transcends our plans and our agendas. So man, too, is sometimes left alone in his search for God. Someone who loves God must have patience, precisely because it is about God and no one less than Him. Advent is about that patient desire. Patiently looking forward to the coming of Jesus, to be able to say to Him at Christmas, “I have been waiting for you!”

+ Johan Bonny, Bishop of Antwerp”

Of conference presidents

In Belgium, the bishops, meeting at Grimbergen Abbey, have elected their new president. Unsurprisingly, it is Archbishop Jozef De Kesel. It is customary for the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels to be elected as president. In fact, since the Bishops’ Conference of Belgium was established in the late 1950s, the country’s one archbishop has aways been chosen to head the conference. As vice-president the bishops selected Bishop Guy Harpigny of Tournai and Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp. With secretary general Herman Cosijns they are the bishops’ conference’s permanent council. The conference consists of the ordinaries and auxiliary bishops of the Belgian Church province, and has eleven members.

16%2001%2026%20Permanente%20raad%20-%20Conseil%20permanent_1

^Msgr. Cosijns, Bishop Harpigny, Archbishop De Kesel and Bishop Bonny.

In the Netherlands, the Dutch bishops are also looking ahead to the election of their new president, later this year. Cardinal Wim Eijk is concluding his term, which began in June of 2011. The cardinal issued a press statement today, saying he will not be available to serve a second term. That means that, whoever the new president will be, the Dutch Bishops’ Conference will, for the second time, be headed by someone else than the archbishop of Utrecht. The first time was from 2008 to 2011, when Rotterdam’s Bishop Ad van Luyn held the office.

As reasons for his ineligibility, Cardinal Eijk gives two reasons. The first is that he has been suffering from a painful joint disorder, which sometimes causes him to have trouble walking. This is not the first time that health issues have plagued the cardinal. Shortly after his appointment as bishop of Groningen in 1999, a nervous condition affecting his face had him in recovery for several months. The second reason given in the statement is the cardinal’s desire to be able to spend more time in and for the Archdiocese of Utrecht, especially pastorally. The challenges of continuing secularisation are specifically cited as something that Cardinal Eijk wants to give as much attention to as possible. The press statement further hints at a further reason: the stress of the  past five years, when the sexual abuse crisis especially demanded much time and attention.

This is not the first time that Cardinal Eijk, as archbishop of Utrecht, is not up for election. It also happened in 2008, when he was just appointed as archbishop and wanted to spend the time on familiarising himself with his new duties.

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^The Dutch Bishops’ Conference in its current composition, photographed in Rome during their Ad Limina visit in 2013.

Photo credit: [1] IPID, [2] RKKerk.nl

Jozef De Kesel returns to Brussels, but now as archbishop

In the end, Pope Francis decided to stick to the silent agreement: after a Walloon archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels comes a Flemish one. Succeeding Archbishop André-Joseph, who offered his resignation upon his 75th birthday in May, is Msgr. Jozef De Kesel, until today the Bishop of Bruges, where he succeeded the disgraced Roger Vangheluwe in 2010. Before coming to Bruges, Archbishop-elect De Kesel was auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels from 2002 to 2010.

de kesel

The new of Bishop De Kesel’s appointment broke widely in Belgian media yesterday afternoon, but it is only official now, upon the announcement in Mechelen-Brussels and later in Rome.

Bishop Jozef De Kesel is 68, which places him among the older active bishops of Belgium. A long ministry like that of Cardinal Godfried Danneels will not be forthcoming then. As the 24th archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels (before 1961 simply Mechelen), Archbishop De Kesel will lead the archdiocese with its three auxiliary bishops, Jean-Luc Hudsyn, Léon Lemmens (who has been tipped to succeed De Kesel in Bruges) and Jean Kockerols.

Iraq

Bishop De Kesel was most recently in the news because he journeyed to northern Iraq on a mission of solidarity with Tournai’s Bishop Guy Harpigny and Bishop Lemmens, an experience that greatly moved him. He likened it to visiting sick relatives, which is what you do to express your sympathy and concern. Back home in Bruges, Bishop De Kesel began calling on parishes to make housing available for refugees.

de kesel harpigny iraq

^Archbishop-elect De Kesel and Bishop Harpigny in Iraq

Dealing with abuse

Bishop de Kesel has also had to deal with priests who have been guilty of abuse, like more than a few of his colleagues. Through his diocese, Bishop De Kesel has been very open about those dealings, though. In 2014 he appointed a priest who had been found guilty of abuse by a court of law, although any punishment was waived. This priest later chose not to accept the appointment. In recent weeks, Bishop De Kesel had to suspend a priest after he returned to Brazil against previous agreements. He also contacted Brazilian Archbishop Murillo Krieger to warn him against this priest.

First choice

Earlier this year, it became clear that Bishop De Kesel was the first choice to succeed Cardinal Danneels, but that Pope Benedict XVI overrode this choice, as he has the right to, and appointed Archbishop Léonard.

Criticism and views

Bishop De Kesel, while largely popular among faithful in Belgium and abroad, is not without criticism. In 2010 he said he hoped that women could one day be priests, although in 2012 he underlined that the Church is unable to do so. He also believes celibacy for priests should be optional, but also says that this a decision that the Church as a whole should make. No chance of married priests (barring converts or the like) in Brussels anytime soon, then.

While he is a practical man, not blind to the realities around him, the new archbishop does not think that modernisation of Church and priesthood is the answer to everything. In 2013 he said, “Modernising the Church will not mean that people will return.” He added, “More personnel will also not solve our problems. It goes far deeper. Filling as many positions as possible with lay people, or allowing priests to marry, means staying blind to the real problems.” He has a clear vision of the Church, saying in an interview on the occasion of his appointment as auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels in 2002: “The Church should not be a dictatorship, but neither should she degenerate into a half-hearted thing that denies its own values and visions.”

De Kesel or Bonny?

Some have suggested that Bishop De Kesel is a compromise choice, and that his time as archbishop is intended to prepare the way for Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp to succeed him and make the real changes int he archdiocese. Considering that Bishop Bonny will be 67 when Archbishop De Kesel retires (and will have only seven years left before his own retirement), and Pope Francis 87 (if he has not retired by then), this is exceedingly unlikely. A future Archbishop Bonny will have no more time to affect changes than Archbishop De Kesel has now.

bishop jozef de keselBiography

Jozef De Kesel was born in 1947 in Ghent and raised in Adegem, halfway between Ghent and Bruges. His father was the town’s mayor, and his uncle, Leo-Karel De Kesel, would be an auxiliary bishop of Ghent for almost three decades. In 1965 he entered seminary and he also studied at the Catholic University of Louvain. He studied theology at the Pontifical University Gregoriana in Rome and was ordained in 1972 by his uncle. In 1977 he became a doctor of theology. In the 1970s he worked as a teacher of religion at several schools, and in 1980 he was appointed as prefect and professor at the seminary in Ghent, teaching dogmatic and fundamental theology, a job he held until 1996. He also taught at the Catholic University of Louvain from 1989 to 1992, and since 1983 he was responsible for the formation of pastoral workers in the Diocese of Ghent. In 1992 he was appointed as episcopal vicar in charge of the whole of the theological education and formation of priests, deacons, religious and laity in the diocese. He also became a titular canon of the St. Bavo cathedral in Ghent. In 2002 he was appointed as auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels and titular bishop of Bulna. His episcopal motto was inspired by St. Augustine: “Vobiscum Christianus“. Bishop De Kesel was appointed as episcopal vicar for Brussels. In 2010, Archbishop Léonard transferred him to the Flemish Brabant/Mechelen pastoral area. Three months later, Bishop De Kesel was appointed as Bishop of Bruges.

In the Belgian Bishop’s Conference, Archbishop-elect De Kesel is responsible for the Interdiocesan Commission for Liturgical Pastoral Care, for the contacts with the religious, the interdiocesan commission for permanent deacons, the commission fro parish assistants, for bio-ethical questions, for the Interdiocesan Council for Culture, the National Commission for Pastoral Care in Tourism, and for the Union of Women Contemplatives.

Installation

Archbishop-elect will be installed in Mechelen’s cathedral of St. Rumbold on Saturday 12 December.

More to come…

Photo credit: [1] BELGA, [2] Kerknet

Lies and a hint of colonialism at the Synod – Terzake follows the Belgian bishops

Yesterday I was asked about a television report made by Belgian television program Terzake, in which they followed the Belgian bishops Luc Van Looy and Johan Bonny at the Synod of Bishops. The full video, which is in Dutch, can be viewed here.

While most of the program reveals nothing we did not already know, with comments about the process needing to go forward and there not being any winners or losers at a Synod, there are a few problematic moments in it. First there is the small talk between Fr. Dirk Smet, rector of the Belgian College, and Cardinal Gerald Lacroix, where the latter asks about Fr. Smet’s microphone and if he is recording the conversation. Fr. Smet blatantly lies that he is not. While that is nothing more than rather deceitful, other statements in the program are more than that.

Being asked if the expectations of the Synod are too high, editor Emmanuel Van Lierde of weekly Tertio answers that it is difficult for the Pope to enforce anything, “as there is that conservative group, [including] Cardinal Gerhard Müller of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who before the Synod already threatened with a possible rupture in the Church…” That is a blatant untruth, and frames Cardinal Müller for something he has never said. The cardinal has warned that changing Church doctrine could lead to a schism, but that is not the same as him threatening that he would be breaking away from the Church if the Pope proceeded to quickly or forcefully. Cardinal Müller, or any of the more conservative Synod fathers for that matter, is not a schismatic.

bonnyLater on in the report, Bishop Bonny comments on his being a part of the French language group led by Cardinal Sarah, saying that the presence of many conservative African Synod fathers is something of a hindrance to him. “They always speak from the African standpoint about what we are experiencing here [in western Europe]”. Homosexuality, he explained, was for example not a topic that could be discussed.This brings to mind the comments of Cardinal Kasper last year, when he said that the Africans should not try and dictate what we in the west should do. It’s a rather colonial mindset, to want to listen only to what African Synod fathers are saying when it suits our western mindset. It can hardly be called synodality. Maybe Bishop Bonny could have been a bit more open and do what he expect others to do when he presents his thoughts: listen, think and not immediately assume that others are wrong and he is right.

Intervention 2 – Bishop Van Looy’s pedagogy of the prodigal son’s merciful father

On Saturday, Bishop Luc Van Looy gave his second intervention at the Synod, a short one based on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In it, he claims that the father, in his mercy, does not close any doors in order to reunite his family. It is clear this may be read as a suggestion that the Church is likewise open to everyone. The bishop underlines that both sons in the parable are sinners, opposed to one another, but mercy brings them together. A start towards conversion, perhaps?

bonny, danneels, van looy

^The Belgian bishops at the Synod: Bishop Johan Bonny, Cardinal Godfried Danneels and Bishop Luc Van Looy

The original Dutch text is available here. My translation follows below:

“A father had two sons. One requested his part of the inheritance and left the house. The other refused to acknowledge his brother as his brother when he came back. The father was faced with a dilemma. He had to choose and he chose to hold a welcome feast for the sinner, for mercy and complete integration of the prodigal son. At the same time he invited the other son at the family table.

Dear brother bishops, today we read Scripture differently, just like we also see the signs of the times differently today. The reason is that we live in different contexts and also that every historical context is different. But we still want everyone to sit at one table.

As shepherd and bishop I want everyone to be able to be together. That is why a call for a pedagogical approach to the reality occupying us now. I do not choose a diplomatic compromise or the desire to convince anyone else of my interpretation. Not so much a theological or a sociological approach, but a pedagogical approach of a father who loves his two sons equally and forgives them both. His mercy can convince them to sit at the same table. He hosted a great feast because they were both lost and had come back.

A pedagogy is always incarnate and concrete. It answers concrete questions. We must be wise enough to lose neither one or the other. The Gospel supplies us with a fundamental vision while the application allows different emphases. The oldest son has a different view on family life and authority. Yet he and his younger brother were both welcome at their father’s table. The father remains at the centre. He know how to handle both. They were sinners, each in there own way. In his great mercy the father knows how the reunity his family. He does not close a single door, on the contrary: he engages himself to keep the door open for both. A good educator does not close a single door.

+ Luc Van Looy”