Generational shift as Bishops’ Conference gets new leadership

mgr_van_den_hendeAs expected the Dutch bishop’s conference today elected a new president after Cardinal Eijk announced, earlier this year, that he would not be available for a second term at the head of the conference. His successor is Bishop Hans van den Hende (pictured at left), ordinary of Rotterdam and in the past vicar general under Cardinal Eijk when the latter was bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. This is the second time that the presidency goes to a bishop of Rotterdam, after Bishop Ad van Luyn’s 3-year term from 2008 to 2011.

liesenThe president is part of the permanent council of the bishops’ conference, together with the vice president and a third member. This council prepares the monthly meetings of the bishops. The vice president was until today Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond, but health reasons, which he so openly discussed recently in Lourdes, force him to step back as well. He is succeeded by the bishop of Breda, Jan Liesen (at right). The third member of the permanent council, Haarlem-Amsterdam’s Bishop Jos Punt also steps back, and he is succeeded by the new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Gerard de Korte.

The new permanent council represents a generational shift: the average age of the members drops from 68 to 56. Bishops Van den Hende and Liesen, aged 52 and 55, are even among the three youngest members of the conference. Bishop de Korte is the only council member who has been a bishop for more than a decade.

Bishop van den Hende is the sixth president of the bishops’ conference since it was established in 1966.  The first three presidents were the archbishops of Utrecht: Cardinals Alfrink (1966-1975), Willebrands (1976-1983) and Simonis (1983-2008). They were followed by Bishop van Luyn (2008-2011) and Cardinal Eijk (2011-2016).

All three are elected for a five-year term.

  • Hans van den Hende is 52, the youngest member of the bishops’ conference, but has been a bishop for almost ten years now. A priest of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, he was appointed as coadjutor bishop of Breda 2006, succeeded Bishop Muskens as ordinary in 2007. In 2011 he was moved one diocese over and has been the bishop of Rotterdam since then. In the bishops’ conference he holds the portfolio for ecumenism.
  • Jan Liesen, 55, was a priest of the Diocese of Roermond when he was appointed as one of two new auxiliary bishops of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 2010. Less than a year later he was appointed to succeed Bishop van den Hende in Breda. In the bishops’ conference he holds the portfolio for liturgy and Bible.
  • Gerard de Korte, 61 since yesterday, was a priest of the Archdiocese of Utrecht and auxiliary bishop of that same archdiocese from 20o1 to 2008. In that latter year he was appointed to succeed Wim Eijk as bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. Earlier this year, he was tapped as the new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In the bishops’ conference he holds the portfolios for Church and the elderly, Church and society and women and Church.

Thoughts about the next bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

Apparently there are people who look to me to predict who the new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden will be. Well, surprisingly, I don’t know. I am not privy to the deliberations of the seven-priest cathedral chapter of the diocese, let alone the thoughts of the other bishops, the nuncio or the Pope.

Bishops de Korte and Hurkmans in Den Bosch, on Saturday. Behind them Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts.

But we can make guesses, for whatever that is worth. To do so, we can first take a look at the recent history of bishop appointments in the Netherlands. While auxiliary bishops are virtually always chosen from among priests and therefore need to be consecrated as bishops first, ordinaries – bishops who lead a diocese – rarely are. It is more usual for a new ordinary to be transferred from another diocese, as happened with Bishop de Korte on Saturday, or an auxiliary bishop being chosen. This happened, for example, when Bishop Jan Liesen was picked for the Diocese of Breda in 2011. He was auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch before that.

There are currently five auxiliary bishops in the Netherlands. In order of precedence they are:

  • Bishop Everard de Jong, 57, Titular Bishop of Cariana and Auxiliary Bishop of Roermond
  • Bishop Theodorus Hoogenboom, 55, Titular Bishop of Bistue and Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht
  • Bishop Herman Woorts, 52, Titular Bishop of Giufi Salaria and Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht
  • Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, 57, Titular Bishop of Uccula and Auxiliary Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch
  • Bishop Jan Hendriks, 61, Titular Bishop of Arsacal and Auxiliary Bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam

dejong_hulpbisschop_0Of these, Bishop de Jong (at left) may have the best cards. A bishop for 17 years, he was allegedly in the running to succeed then-Bishop Eijk in Groningen-Leeuwarden back in 2008. Ultimately that appointment went to Bishop de Korte, but his time may now have come. Coming from a large diocese, he has relatively little experience with the process of parish mergers and consolidations as it is taking place in Groningen-Leeuwarden. This could speak against him.

Of the other four, most attention has been on Bishop Mutsaerts. Seen as the opposite of Bishop de Korte in several ways, many assume that he will be removed to another diocese fairly soon. The likely choice is, of course, Groningen-Leeuwarden. In how far there is a basis in fact for this assumption remains to be seen. It is said that Bishops Mutsaerts and De Korte get on fine personally, and the latter would see the advantage of having an auxiliary bishop at his side as he familiarises himself with his new diocese.

Bishops Hoogenboom, Woorts and Hendriks are possible choices to come to Groningen, but at the moment none really stands out as being more likely than the others. When it comes to the communication and opennes of Bishop de Korte, Bishop Hendriks perhaps comes closest. For the cathedral chapter he could be an option if they want to see the line of Bishop de Korte continue. The auxiliary bishops of Utrecht are reputed to be more in line with Cardinal Eijk.

Of the other ordinaries in the Netherlands two are certainly too old to be transferred to another diocese: Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam is 70 and Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond 73. With the mandatory retirement age of bishops set at 75, they can safely assume that they will remain in their dioceses. Another ordinary who will not be appointed is of course Cardinal Wim Eijk, the archbishop of Utrecht. He was the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden from 1999 to 2008 and as a rule bishops do not return for a second shift, so to speak (although canon law does not preclude it). A return would be seen as a demotion anyway, what with Eijk being an archbishop and cardinal.

bishop van den hendeThis leaves only two other ordinaries to be considered: Rotterdam’s Hans van den Hende (at right) and Breda’s Jan Liesen. Bishop van den Hende is a native of Groningen-Leeuwarden, serving as its vicar general before being appointed as coadjutor bishop of Breda in 2006. If he was to come home, it would mean his third appointment as ordinary, after Breda and Rotterdam. While not impossible, it is quite unlikely. And with only four years as bishop of Breda and almost five years and counting in Rotterdam, he may be excused for wanting to stay in one place for a while longer. That’s better for his diocese, too.

Bishop Jan Liesen has been in Breda since 2011 and before that he was auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch for a year and change. There is nothing really excluding him as an option for Groningen-Leeuwarden, except for his short time in Breda. Stability must be considered: it is probably not a good idea for the diocese to start looking for its third bishop in les than ten years.

So, in my expert opinion (ahem…), if the new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden is to be picked from among the other bishops of the Netherlands, Bishop Everard de Jong and Jan Hendriks have the best odds, with Bishops Liesen, Hoogenboom and Woorts as possible runners-up.

Pope Francis’ second Dutch appointment, which will certainly not happen before the end of May, and perhaps, as Bishop de Korte suggested, not before the year’s final months, could be a surprise. A priest native to Groningen-Leeuwarden may be a bridge too far just yet, but whatever will happen, it should be an interesting couple of months before us.

Photo credit: [1] Chris Korsten

Coming and going – Looking ahead at 2016

A new year, so time for a look at what 2016 may bring in the field of new bishop appointments. As ever, reality may turn out different, but we may make some assumptions.

???????????????????????????????????In the Netherlands, to begin with, a new bishop will arrive in the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Bishop Antoon Hurkmans (right) has already has his resignation on health grounds accepted and it shouldn’t take more than a few more months for his successor in the country’s largest diocese (in numbers at least) to be named. Will it be current Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts? Who’s  to say.

lehmannIn Germany, three prelates are expected to retire this year. First of all the long-serving Bishop of Mainz, Cardinal Karl Lehmann (left), who will reach the age of 80 in May. Losing his voting rights in the conclave and his memberships in the Curia, his retirement is expected to follow around the same time. The Diocese has already announced that Cardinal Lehmann will continue to live in his current home, while the former abode of Cardinal Volk, bishop of Mainz from 1962 to 1982. Cardinal Lehmann has headed Mainz since 1983.

14_03_GrotheIn Limburg we may finally expect the arrival of a new bishop. Administrator Bishop Manfred Grothe (right) will be 77 in April and has already retired as auxiliary bishop of Paderborn. In March, it will be two  years since Bishop Tebartz-van Elst was made to retire, and according to Bishop Grothe, the time is just about ready for his successor to be named.

3079_4_WeihbischofJaschke2013_Foto_ErbeIn the Archdiocese of Hamburg, the last auxiliary bishop, Hans-Jochen Jaschke (left) will reach the age of 75 in September. This may mean that Archbishop Stefan Heße will be requesting one or more new auxiliary bishops from Rome, either this or next year.

van looyIn Belgium then, Ghent’s Bishop Luc Van Looy (right) will turn 75 in September. The Salesian, who became president of Caritas Europe and was among Pope Francis’ personal choices to attend the Synod of Bishops last year, has been bishop of Ghent since 2003.

frans daneelsIn Rome, another Belgian bishop will reach the retirement age in April, Archbishop Frans Daneels (left), secretary of the Apostolic Signatura and a Norbertine priest, may return to Averbode Abbey in Belgium, where he made his profession in 1961.

There are also a number of vacant dioceses which we may assume to be filled in 2016. In Germany these are, in addition to the aforementioned Diocese of Limburg, Aachen, where Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff retired from in December, and Dresden-Meißen, vacant since Bishop Heiner Koch was appointed to Berlin in June.

vacant dioceses germany

^Map showing the three currently vacant dioceses in Germany. From left to right: Aachen, Limburg and Dresden-Meißen.

In Belgium, the Diocese of Bruges is vacant, following the appointment of Jozef De Kesel as archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels. The name of Bishop Léon Lemmens, auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels, has been mentioned as a successor in Bruges.

Two circumscriptions which have been vacant for  number of years, and which are expected to remain so for the foreseeable future, are the Territorial Prelature of Trondheim in Norway, vacant since 2009, and the Military Ordinariate of the Netherlands, vacant since 1993. Bishops Bernt Eidsvig of Oslo and Jozef Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam continue to act as Apostolic Administrators of the respective bodies.

Bishops: for refugees, donate time, money, prayer and hospitality

Logo BisschoppenconferentieThe Dutch bishops, meeting last weekend, perhaps unsurprisingly, decided to heed the call of Pope Francis to offer aid to refugees. They are following the example of bishops in Germany and other countries, and a decision on this topic had been forthcoming. I already came across grumblings that the bishops as a whole were keeping rather quiet about refugees and their plight. Only Bishops Gerard de Korte and Jos Punt had shared their thoughts on the websites of their dioceses. More on that in a later post.

They urge faithful to open their hearts: “We stimulate faithful to sign up for volunteers’ work at, for example, refugee centres, where there is often a need among refugees for a Dutch “buddy”, who can help finding the way at Dutch government agencies. It can also, for example, have great value for Christian refugees to be accompanied by a Dutch Christian.” The bishops also mention that there are other ways of helping, not least by way of displays of hospitality.

When it comes to donating goods, the bishops defer to professional aid agencies in indicating what is needed. They want to enter into discussions on short notice with these organisations to map out what is needed to shelter a family or group of refugees in faith communities.

On 20 September, there will be a collection in parishes. Funds collected will go to refugee aid and shelter.

A more expansive statement on the refugee crisis and its various aspects is forthcoming. In the meantime, the bishops ask for prayer, in addition to the aforementioned donations of time, money and Christian charity.

From the island and the desert, a new Nuncio to the Netherlands

Pope Francis today appointed the new Apostolic Nuncio to the Netherlands, the successor to Archbishop Andre Dupuy, who is now retiring. The new Nuncio is Archbishop Aldo Cavalli, an experienced diplomat who has been a Nuncio since 1997.

cavalliArchbishop Aldo Cavalli was born in 1946 in northern Italy and became a priest of the Diocese of Bergamo in 1971. Before enrolling in the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the Holy See’s “diplomacy school”, in 1975, he taught literature at the minor seminary of Bergamo and studied political and social sciences. In Rome he added canon law and theology to his studies. Subsequently he worked at the Holy See’s diplomatic mission in Burundi and at the Secretariat of State, before being appointed as Apostolic Delegate to Angola and Apostolic Nuncio to São Tomé and Principe in 1996. A year later, he became a full Nuncio to Angola. In 2001 he was transferred to Chile, in 2007 to Colombia and in 2013 he came to Malta, in what was once of the last appointments made by Pope Benedict XVI before the latter’s  retirement. Like his predecessors, Archbishop Cavalli also became Nuncio to Libya a few months later, in addition to his appointment in Malta.

Archbishop Cavalli is the tenth Apostolic Nuncio to the Netherlands since 1967, the year that the diplomatic mission became a full nunciature. Since the archbishop is 68, he is about seven years away from his retirement, and we may assume that this will be his final posting.

The Apostolic Nuncio is not only the ambassador of the Holy See to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and the liaison between the Dutch Church and Rome, but also plays a role in the appointment of new bishops. The previous Nuncio, Archbishop Dupuy, never had the opportunity to play his role in that field, but Archbishop Cavalli will. In the coming seven years three Dutch bishops will reach the age of retirement: Bishop Frans Wiertz in December 2017, Bishop Antoon Hurkmans in August of 2019 and Bishop Jos Punt in January of 2021. Archbishop Cavalli will oversee the appointments of new bishops for the two diocese with the largest number of Catholics (Roermond and ‘s Hertogenbosch) as well as the one containing the Dutch capital (Haarlem-Amsterdam). In Malta he was involved in the appointment of Archbishop Charles Scicluna, which is a comforting precedence.

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