Charlie Hebdo – Bishops react

Like almost every public authority figure, the Dutch bishops have also released an official response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in paris, two days ago. It is a perfunctory statement, short and quite standard:

Logo Bisschoppenconferentie“The Dutch Bishops’ Conference is shocked and stunned by the reports about the violent attack on the offices of a magazine in Paris, in which twelve people were killed.

The bishops strongly reject the use of any form of violence to impose opinions or religious convictions. They also reject any form of violence aimed at denying people their right to express their own opinions.

The bishops’ sympathies go to the relatives of the deceased victims and also to the injured and their families. “We pray for consolation for them, but also for wisdom for the French authorities in approaching violence because of religious and philosophical opinions.

Furthermore, the bishops’ conference fully endorses Pope Francis’ reaction to the attack.”

More interesting are the reactions of individual bishops.

Bishop Jos Punt, of Haarlem-Amsterdam, sent an open letter to the editors of the major Dutch newspapers and, in extension, to all who work in the free press. In it, he writes:

kn_705396_punt“My thoughts are with your colleagues who have died and with their families, relatives and friends. But my thoughts are also with you and all your coworkers, who are used to be able to bring world news in freedom and rightly consider this a great good in the democratic principles we all cherish. That freedom is now again challenged and that makes you feel unsafe.

As bishop of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam I know that religions and their spiritual leaders, but also ministers, politicians and many others in public office or functions are sometimes targets for satire. That can go very far and cause protests.

But in the context of freedom of speech it must be possible to do so respectfully and must never lead to brutal murder, like yesterday in Paris.”

Bishop Punt also underlines the importance of dialogue between religions with mutual respect and good will, to foster peace and harmony in the world, and reminded that the forces of good are always stronger than the forces of evil. He closes his letter as follows:

“I wish you and your coworkers much wisdom and courage in the decisions you have to make now, perhaps forced by circumstances, in bringing news. But now you are supported by many who have shown their horror at this attack and sympathise strongly with you.”

mgr_hendriks2014_200Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of the same diocese, shares the letter as well, and adds:

“The terrorist action which happened in Paris must be strongly condemned by every sane person. I hope that this will not lead to further violence, but to more attention for the importance of an honest and open dialogue to achieve peace and reconciliation.”

Bishop Gerard de Korte, of Groningen-Leeuwarden, gives advice on how to respond to the attack and its aftermath.

korte“The time for naivety is over. A small number of fanatics can seriously disrupt our society. Our governments have the task of eliminiating terrorists as much as possible before they can strike. But guaranteeing one hundred percent security is of course an illusion.

I think it is sensible to keep our heads cool. It is completely counterproductive to outcry ourselves in anger and fear. Now we especially need a strong and controlled reaction by society. Hysterics and blind hatred towards Muslims must now be avoided. Even in hectic times it is important to keep finding nuances. Citizens in our pluralistic society must seek out that which connects. As creatures of God we people belong fundamentally together, after all.

Bishop de Korte also warns that as Christians we must avoid taking the moral high ground in this matter:

“As Christians we should be humble.  For centuries Christians despised, hated and killed others. After the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, Christians have often wanted to violently enforce their vision of the truth. As far as I can see, we have left that unholy way only fairly recently. For our Church the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) also led to a breakthrough on this point. It’s no longer the right of the truth that is in the centre, but the dignity of every human. Christ is the truth in person and every man has the duty to find this truth. But that is only possible in full freedom and without any coercion or violence. We can not make holy God an instrument for our violent actions.”

Prayer and the authentic image of God – Bishop Punt’s letter for Advent

In his message for Advent, Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam addresses the distortion of religion in the world, and presents a two-fold solution:

Punt“The world is in chaos, but there is hope. Humanity isn’t completely left to its own devices. 2000 years ago the heavens were broken open. Shepherds saw a great light. Angels showed them the way. The Messiah was born. God’s Son become man. Since then His Spirit comes down on this world. But the Evil is also making tracks. In the end, good shall be victorious. That is a divine promise. The Lord knows His time.

Distorted images of God

If that perspective of God, hope and eternity no longer exists, everything changes. Existing norms and values, the sense of humanity, everything loses its foundation. We have seen it in the last century, dominated by atheist ideologies and an unprecedented contempt of humanity. But religion in itself is no guarantee for peace and humanity either.

Distorted images of God and eternity can equally lead to cruelty. That is something we see especially in our time. In the extremism of the so-called Islamic State religion has taken on inhuman forms. No one seems to have an answer ready. Not the moderate and authentic Islam, and even less the western politicians and military. How to fight people who do not fear death, since they see it as a quick road to Paradise, even if they have to drag innocent people along with them. How to deal with people who think they can please God by cutting the throats of “unbelievers”. Nothing can stand up to that. Politicians and soldiers are powerless.

A father looks for his child

This is mostly a moral and spiritual question. It concerns closing the sources of hate, and denying the distorted images of God and eternity. Extremists draw their strength and fanaticism from them. For decades their hatred against the west has grown, partly because of western neocolonial politics.

What can we do now? I think two things: presenting an authentic image of God, and prayer. Recently I saw a documentary about a father looking for his son. There had been a fight at home, the boy had been unjust to his parents, went out into the world and had gone missing. His father then resigned from his job, sold everything he owned and went looking for his child. For years he travelled, across half the globe, until he had found his son and was able to embrace him again. All the fighting and accusations were completely forgotten.

There is no more beautiful image of who and how God is. You don’t need to look for him. He is looking for you. You only need to allow yourself to be found, by being open for His existence and His love, by the willingness to direct your life towards truth and justice, and by praying, even as a heart’s sigh. No prayer is lost.

Saved by prayer

Centuries before Christ the king of Assyria, Sennacherib, advances on Jerusalem with an enormous army. Hezekiah, the king of Judah, refuses to surrender the city. Sennacherib writes him a  letter and taunts him, “Who do you think you are? You have seen how Assyria has defeated all peoples. How would Jerusalem be saved? Do not be fooled by the God you trust, He will not be able to save you from my hands.” Hezekiah goes to the Temple and places the letter on the altar of the Lord, and prays, “Lord, you alone are God over all kingdoms of the earth. Hear how Sennacherib taunts you, the living God. Save us from his grasp, so that all people of the earth will see that You alone are God”.

That night, Scripture informs us, the angel of the Lord brought down death and confusion on the camp of Assyria. Sennacherib struck camp and returned in humiliation to Assyria, where he died.

Whether it concerns our personal life or the situation in the world, the Lord waits for our prayer and confidence to bring salvation. Let us place our prayer and good deeds, but also our needs and sins, before the Child of Bethlehem, like the shepherds and the wise men did. He will give us peace and a solution, although perhaps along very different roads than we would expect. In that sense, I wish you a blessed Christmas.”

+ Msgr. dr. Jozef M. Punt
Bishop of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam

In the light of MH17: “…”

Of course the world is full of violence and death these days, from Gaza to the Central African Republic, and from Syria to the Ukraine, but sometimes it all hits particularly close to home. 285 innocent people were killed yesterday, and at least 189 of them were Dutch. The reason for their death? They flew over a conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, at an altitude of 10 kilometers. Someone somewhere launched a surface-to-air missile at the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, apparently mistaking it for a military transport plane.

NETHERLANDS-MALAYSIA-AVIATION-ACCIDENT-UKRAINE-RUSSIA

^No photos of wreckage here, but a shot of the Boeing as it left Schiphol Airport yesterday.

In my social media circles, there are at least two people who have lost friends or acquaintances. The outpouring of support and prayer on Facebook and Twitter struck me yesterday and today, even though the sheer scale of the death and destruction is mind numbing.

Pope Francis had a statement released via the Holy See press office today, which reads:

“The Holy Father, Pope Francis has learned with dismay of the tragedy of the Malaysian Airlines aircraft downed in east Ukraine, a region marked by high tensions. He raises prayers for the numerous victims of the incident and for their relatives, and renews his heartfelt appeal to all parties in the conflict to seek peace and solutions through dialogue, in order to avoid further loss of innocent human lives.”

The Dutch bishops also shared their grief and called for prayer:

“We ask all faithful to do everything possible to support the families and friends of victims. And we encourage all the faithful to commend the victims to the mercy of God during the services of this Sunday, and to pray for strength and courage for those left behind.”

Individual bishops als commented. Cardinal Eijk said in an official statement:

“The world heard with shock of the crash of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 near the border between Ukraine and Russia. All of the nearly 300 passengers and crew, including at least 154 Dutch, were killed. Sentiments of sorrow and frustration  dominate all aircraft disasters. According to the first reports this civilian airplane was shot down with a missile – which would make this disaster even more unbearable.

We pray for the eternal rest of the people who died in this tragedy. Our thoughts and prayer are also with the family members, friends, acquaintances and colleagues of the victims. For them a time of great uncertainty and mourning has begun. I ask all parishes in the Archdiocese of Utrecht to pray for the victims and their survivors in next Sunday’s services.”

The bishops of Haarlem-Amsterdam and ‘s Hertogenbosch have also called for prayers and support for the victims and their families.

But, in the end, words are words. In these cases whatever we do never feels like it is enough. We can only pray, hope and love.

Photo credit: Fred Neeleman/AFP/Getty Images

In Haarlem-Amsterdam, a downsizing

With his signature Bishop Jos Punt today finalised the sale of his residence on Haarlem’s Nieuwe Gracht. The monumental building has been the home of the bishops of Haarlem and most of the diocesan offices for more than 150 years. Bishop Punt will be moving to the rectory adjoining the cathedral basilica of St. Bavo, where auxiliary Bishop Jan Hendriks already resides. The fate of the diocesan offices will be decided later, as the move is expected to take place in early 2015. The building will be then remodeled into a hotel.

nieuwe_gracht_80^A view of the bishop’s residence and diocesan offices from across the canal.

The building, which is a registered monument, is a complex of at least five adjoining buildings. At the heart are a residential home dating from 1734 and a neo-renaissance style building designed by noted architect Pierre Cuypers, who is responsible for many public buildings and churches throughout the country (and whose son, Jos Cuypers, designed St. Bavo’s cathedral).

The downsizing is not the first of its kind in the Netherlands. In the past the offices and the bishop’s residence of, to name but two, the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden and the Archdiocese of Utrecht were also moved to a single central location. Few bishops, however, live as close to their cathedral as Bishop Punt will. A cathedral houses a bishop’s seat, so it makes sense for him to be frequently there or, at least, nearby.

The final say – Bishops write a letter about the papal visit that didn’t happen

Logo BisschoppenconferentieThe bishops today issued a letter in which they respond to the enthusiasm for a possible papal visit and the disappointment when it became clear that one was not forthcoming. This letter is certainly very welcome, especially considering all the speculations and accusations that were launched against Cardinal Eijk, who was said to have actually blocked the papal visit. But as I explained in my blog before, reality was quite different, and this letter touches upon that.

Below is my translation:

Brothers and sisters,

There is great enthusiasm among the Dutch population for a papal visit, not only in our Church, but also among many others. The bishops of the Netherlands find the fact that so many are being touched and inspired by Pope Francis, and the way in which he is a follower of Christ, heartwarming. During their ad limina visit the bishops personally experienced the Pope’s compassion and are strengthened by his encouragement and his call to maintain hope.

The option of a papal visit mobilised many. However, in January the Pope himself made it known that a visit to our country was, for the time being, not possible. That is why the bishops, in their first subsequent meeting, decided to not formally invite him. That an invitation was not forthcoming now, was a disappointment for many. But you may be assured that Cardinal Eijk and the other bishop would have gladly welcomed the Pope to the Netherlands.

A civil initiative was launched to collect signatures to try and convince the Pope to come to the Netherlands this year anyway. The bishops find this very positive. But they have to inform the parishes that a visit is sadly not possible for now. Should the opportunity arise in the future to issue an invitation, the bishops will certainly discuss this again.

In the meantime we hope that the enthusiasm for Pope Francis and his witness of the Gospel in words and action will continue to bear fruit in the Church and the world. We pray that this will lead to new and concrete choices for Christ and His commandment to love God and neighbour in word and deed.

The Roman Catholic bishops of the Netherlands

The only thing not addressed in this letter is the alleged preparation by Bishop Punt, but I wonder if that should be something, if it is true to begin with, that should be discussed publicly. The bishops are in one mind about this to the rest of the world, and any internal troubles should be, or already have been, dealt with in private.

Cardinal Eijk and the Pope – an explanation

In the style of Jimmy Akin’s X points to know and share, here is my attempt at a clear overview of the facts surrounding a possible papal visit to the Netherlands and Cardinal Eijk’s alleged role in preventing it.

What actually happened?

bishops st. peter's  squareThere are actually two moments in time that we could call the starting point of the current rumours and debate. The first is the ad limina visit of the Dutch bishops that took place in the first week of December. The popularity of Pope Francis caused some to seriously consider the possibility of a papal visit to the Netherlands, and among these ‘some’ were bishops. While the possibility was not discussed with the Holy Father during the ad limina, the bishops did promise to discuss it during their plenary meeting in January.

The second moment was earlier this week, when daily newspaper Trouw published an article accusing Cardinal Wim Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht and president of the Bishops’ Conference, of having vetoed a papal visit. He was said to have told the other bishops that he and the Pope had decided it was not going to happen. The bishops soon made it be known that this was not exactly what happened. It was in fact the Pope alone who had to inform Cardinal Eijk that he did not see a chance for a visit to the Netherlands in the near future. Visits to other countries and the reform of the Roman Curia were cited as reasons. Cardinal Eijk later informed those who asked that Pope Francis remained as welcome as ever.

Is this all, then?

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkSadly not. While the Trouw article was picked up by news outlets, both local and abroad, the correction from the bishops was not. Many assumed that Cardinal Eijk was the one who blocked the visit, and even among those who were aware of the correction, there were some who assumed this was damage control and that it really wasn’t the Pope who didn’t  want to come, but Cardinal Eijk coming up with reasons not to host him. I have been coming across plenty of ill feelings towards the cardinal, generally all based on the incorrect reporting in Trouw and other media outlets.

Are there any other sources backing up Cardinal Eijk?

There is one important one: Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, the press chief of the Vatican. Dutch journalist Andrea Vreede, who lives and works in Rome, today contacted him to ask if a papal visit to the Netherlands was really not an option, and if the Pope had received an invitation which could then have been blocked by Cardinal Eijk. Fr. Lombardi said that Pope Francis had never accepted an invitation to visit the Netherlands and that there was no basis for a one-day visit on the 31st of May. The silence of the other bishops is also an indicator that things happened as is said. In the past some bishops did not hesitate to disagree with Cardinal Eijk.

What’s the deal with the one-day visit?

PuntHere the person of Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam comes in. While there are no official confirmations of this, it is said that he had scheduled a one-day visit of Pope Francis to Amsterdam. Logistics, finances, security, even a script are all said to have been ready. Bishop Punt, together with his auxiliary Bishop Jan Hendriks, visited the Pope last September. During the ad limina visit, Bishop Punt said that Pope Francis was interested in visiting the Netherlands. It may be assumed that the Holy Father said so during that earlier visit.

Although there are no solid sources for this, some say that Bishop Punt, once returned home, went about planning said one-day visit, which may have included a visit to Amsterdam’s St. Nicholas Basilica, a charity project in the capital and a prayer service in the Amsterdam Arena football stadium.

And 31 May?

On that day the devotees of Our Lady of All Nations, the controversial name of Our Lady as she is said to have appeared in Amsterdam in the middle of the 20th century, are having their annual day of meeting and prayer. Bishop Punt is a known adherent of this devotion, and has approved it in his capacity as ordinary of the diocese. Some now state that Bishop Punt wanted to combine this event, taking place in the aforementioned Basilica of St. Nicholas, with the papal visit and so promote the devotion worldwide. As before, these are assumptions made by some, and there is no proof that this is actually true.

What’s the status now?

There is a clear split between those who have read and accept the official correction of the bishops and therefore hold that Cardinal Eijk acted perfectly reasonable, and those who are prone to some conspiracy theories in this matter, believing that Cardinal Eijk did veto the visit and acted out of spite, fear or simple lust for power. Some add the Our Lady of All Nations story and hold that Bishop Punt was cut off by the cardinal.

And my opinion?

I am quite sure that things are indeed as the bishops say. There may have been some confusion because of Bishop Punt’s enthusiasm for a visit (who knows, he may well have been thinking about and exploring some options) and Cardinal Eijk’s personality (when he has said something it remains said, and when he maintains he has been clear enough he will not be easily convinced of explaining himself further). Cardinal Eijk will not have been telling the Pope to stay away, but he will have been honest about any reservations he may have had (I explored some possible reservations in my previous post on this topic). Bishop Punt may well be disappointed, as he has indicated, but I have not seen any evidence of a falling out between him and the cardinal. The bishop has also not issued a formal invitation, as we have learned via Fr. Lombardi, but he has probably presented some idea for a visit to the rest of the bishops’ conference. Cardinal Eijk may have taken that suggestion with him to Rome and discussed it with Pope Francis. Whatever the facts, it is the Holy Father who ultimately said that there was no time in the foreseeable future. And there is no reason to assume anything else, really.

The cardinal’s “no” to a papal visit

I added the official correction from the bishops’ conference to how Trouw represented the facts below:

eijkAccording to Trouw, preparations for a hypothetical papal visit to the Netherlands was already well-advanced when Cardinal Wim Eijk, as president of the Bishops’ Conference, vetoed the visit, doing so, he explained, after discussing the plans with the Pope on 10 January.

It seems amazing that the preparation was already so well underway: security was planned, money was available and there was even a script for the visit. While the idea was floated by Bishop Jos Punt several months ago, rumours did not become serious until the ad limina visit two months ago, and plans weren’t even officially discussed until the January meeting of the conference. For there to be a script ready this soon seems incredible. The article in Trouw states that Bishop Punt presented a full schedule for a one-day papal visit to Amsterdam during the plenary meeting in autumn. By the looks of it, this seems more like the trademark enthusiasm of Bishop Punt. A papal visit to his diocese would have been unlikely without the involvement of the rest of the conference. It would have been a national event anyway.

francisAs president of the Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Eijk is fully within his right to veto such plans, of course. And while the Trouw article suggests that “inside sources” confimr that no papal visit was discussed during Cardinal Eijk’s meeting with Pope Francis, the bishops’ spokeswoman rightly states that such meetings are confidential: we never get to hear what the Pope discusses with those he meets, especially not when they’re cardinals. Pope and cardinals can decide for themselves what they want to share of their conversation, and Cardinal Eijk has decided to keep it at this.

In general, the sources who say that a visit would have been possible or even desired by the Pope, are unnamed sources in the Vatican. I don’t think there’s much credibility we can attach to those…

Is it a shame that Pope Francis isn’t visiting? Of course. It would have been wonderful. It would also have been expensive, and I can understand that that would have kept the Pope at home, even though the Netherlands is, in some sense, a peripheral area in the Catholic world. And I don’t think that the bishops are ready to manage this… Pope Francis’ visit to the Netherlands, even if it were for just one day, would be making headlines for weeks. Considering the media’s opinion and track record of reporting on Catholic affairs, there would have been an enormous amount of misrepresentation of the Church and the faith, which would have to be corrected by the bishops and the faithful (who need to do this much more often, anyway). In that sense, I am glad that the Pope is not coming over.

And then there is the financial side. The bishops’ conference is cutting costs on all sides, and a papal visit is not going to be financed completely by the Holy See. While housing Pope Francis, with his sober tastes, would not be a problem, using the Amsterdam Arena football stadium for a prayer service, the logistics, the security, and all sorts of additional costs would be irresponsibly high at this moment.

Would the visit attract enough people? I think so. Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1985 was disastrous, but times have changed. The media haven’t turned on Pope Francis yet (which they will when they find out he is not going to change Church teaching on sexuality, marriage, family and such). So in that sense a visit would be desirable now, more so than in the future. But in what sense it would be for the perceived persona of the Pope instead of a pastoral visit to strengthen the faithful can be debated…

Logistics, finances and communication skills would prohibit this visit, in my opinion. While Pope Francis would be enthusiastically received by all layers of society (imagine the circus when politicians all want to be involved…), I fear the effects of the visit would not last very long.

It’s a sad decision, but a good one, I think. Enthusiasm for a visit is simply not enough to make it happen.

EDIT: While my general comments above stand, it seems that the facts of the decision are somewhat different than represented by Trouw. The decision to not have a papal visit was not the cardinal’s, but the Pope’s. Read below my translation of the official statement from the bishops’ conference:

 On 10 January last, Cardinal Eijk met with Pope Francis in a private audience. The newspaper Trouw today misrepresents what both discussed during the meeting. Trouw states that the Pope and Cardinal Eijk decided jointly that a visit to the Netherlands would not take place. Cardinal Eijk is said to have also stated that in the plenary meeting of the Bishops’ Conference. That is completely besides the truth.

During the ad limina visit Cardinal Eijk replied to reporters’ questions that Pope Francis is welcome in the Netherlands. On 10 January he probed Pope Francis about the possibility of a papal visit to our country. The Pope himself indicated that he did not see a chance to do so in the foreseeable future. He is already planning to visit the Holy Land and several other countries. There is therefore no opportunity to visit the Netherlands soon.

Added to that are the Pope’s plans to reorganise the Roman Curia. As is known he has established a commission of eight cardinals from all continents who regularly meet in Rome to advise him in that matter. In the coming years this reorganisation will require much time and attention from the Pope. Therefore he has little opportunity to conduct travels abroad.

Trouw claims that the spokesperson of the Bishops’ Conference has said that Cardinal Eijk informed the Bishops’ Conference that the Holy Father and he had decided that the visit would not take place. In her e-mail to Trouw reporter Emiel Hakkenes, of Friday 31 January last, the spokesperson of the Bishops’ Conference made it known that the Pope decided himself not to visit the Netherlands (for now).