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.

Changes in ‘s Hertogenbosch – past, future and some guesses

With the announced retirement of Bishop Hurkmans it is a good time to look back an ahead. In his letter announcing his retirement, the bishop already indicated that a new period was beginning, a time of transition followed by a new bishop at the helm of the numerically largest diocese of the Netherlands.

hurkmans

The Hurkmans era, to call it that, began in 1998, when he was appointed on the same day that his predecessor, Bishop Jan ter Schure, retired. Unlike the latter, who had the misfortune to have been appointed when the polarisation between modernists and orthodox (in which group the bishop could be grouped) was at a final high point, Bishop Hurkmans was and is considered an altogether kinder and approachable man. That does not mean that he avoided making the difficult decisions, and especially following the appointment of two auxiliary bishops in 2010 (later whittled down to one, as Bishop Liesen was soon appointed to Breda), there were several major cases in which the diocese stood firm against modernists trends. But these things never came easy to him. The general idea that I have, and I am not alone, I believe, is that Bishop Hurkmans was altogether too kind to be able to carry the burden of being bishop. He accepted it, trusting in the Holy Spirit to help him – as reflected in his episcopal motto “In Virtute Spiritu Sancti” – but it did not always gave him joy. That said, while he is generally considered a kind bishop, there remain some who consider him strict and aloof, in both the modernists and orthodox camps. As bishop, you rarely win.

In 2011 he took a first medical leave for unspecified health reasons, and a second one began in 2014. While he regained some of his strengths, as he indicates in his letter, it was not enough.

hurkmans ad limina

^Bishop Hurkmans gives the homily during Mass at Santa Maria dell’Anima in Rome, during the 2013 Ad Limina visit.

In his final years as bishop, Msgr. Hurkmans held the Marriage & Family portfolio in the Bishops’ Conference. It is perhaps striking that he was not elected by the other bishops to attend the upcoming Synod of Bishops assembly on that same topic – Cardinal Eijk will go, with Bishop Liesen as a substitute. Before a reshuffle in responsibilities in the conference, Bishop Hurkmans held the Liturgy portfolio, and as such was involved with a new translation of the Roman Missal, the publication of which is still in the future.

Bishop Hurkmans was also the Grand Prior of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in the Netherlands, and as such he invested new knights and ladies at the cathedral in Groningen in 2012.

Mgr. Bluyssen

^Bishop Hurkmans buried several of his predecessors, such as Bishop Bluyssen in 2013

At 71, Bishop Hurkmans is young to retire, as 75 is the mandatory age for bishops to do so. Still, it is not unprecedented when we look at the bishops of ‘s Hertogenbosch since the latter half of the 20th century. Bishop Johannes Bluyssen retired, also for health reasons, in 1984 at the age of 57. Bishop Bekkers died in office in 1966 at the age of 58. Bishop Willem Mutsaerts, related to the current auxiliary bishop, retired in 1960, also aged 71. As for Bishop Hurkmans, may his retirement be a restful one.

mutsaertsLooking at the future, the inevitable question is, who’s next? Who will be the 10th bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch? Guessing is risky, but there are some likely candidates anyway. In my opinion, one of the likeliest candidates is Bishop Rob Mutsaerts (pictured), currently auxiliary bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch. He has been taking over a number of duties from Bishop Hurkmans during the latter’s absence, and he is at home in the diocese. Speaking against him is his sometimes blunt approach to problems, especially when Catholic doctrine is being disregarded, which does not always sit well with priests and faithful alike (although others, including myself, appreciate him for his clarity and orthodoxy.

Other possible options are one of the other auxiliary bishops in the Netherlands: Bishop Hendriks of Haarlem-Amsterdam, Bishop Hoogenboom and Woorts of Utrecht and Bishop de Jong of Roermond. I don’t really see that happening, though, with the sole exception of Bishop de Jong. He is southerner, albeit from Limburg, while the others are all westerners, and that does mean something in the culture of Brabant. Still, it has happened before.

Anything’s possible, especially under Pope Francis (and this will be his first Dutch appointment, and for new Nuncio Aldo Cavalli too). Diocesan priest and member of the cathedral chapter Father Cor Mennen once stated that he would not be opposed to a foreign bishop, provided he learn Dutch, if that means the bishop gets a good and orthodox one. I don’t see that happening just yet, though.

And as for when we may hear the news of a new bishop? Usually these things take a few months at most (although it has taken 10 months once, between Bishops Bluyssen and Ter Schure). The summer holidays are over in Rome, so proceedings should theoretically advance fairly quickly. A new bishops could be appointed and installed before Christmas then.

Bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch announces retirement

In a not completely unexpected development, Bishop Antoon Hurkmans today announces the acceptance of his early retirement as bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch. The bishop, who has led the diocese for 17 year, has been unable to fulfill his full duties for the past years. Health reasons led him to leave that to his auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Rob Mutsaerts, and the other members of the diocesan curia. Pope Francis has asked Bishop Hurkmans to remain in office until the appointment and consecration and/or installation of his successor. In a letter, the bishop outlines the decision and his reasons:

bisschop Hurkmans“Priests, deacons,
pastoral workers and pastoral assistants,
To the faithful and all of you who are connected to the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch,

Since July of 2014 I have not had the strength to perform my work in full. Luckily, almost everything in the diocese has been able to continue, in a perfect understanding with the auxiliary bishop, vicar general and the other members of the staff, under my leadership. Through good medical care I have regained some strength, but not enough to fully take up my duties. Therefore I have been compelled to ask our Holy Father Pope Francis in June to relieve me of my duties. That was not an easy decision. I would have liked to remain in office until my 75th birthday. An answer to my writing has now been received from Rome, and the road to me succession has been opened. Rome has also stated that I remain the bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch until my successor has been appointed and installed. The terna, a secret proposal of three candidates, is to be drafted by the cathedral chapter. The chapter presents the terna to the Bishops’ Conference, who take their own position on it. Both reports will be sent to the Nuncio. The Nuncio will then open an investigation into the possible candidates and will send his conclusion, with the reports, to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. After these preparations, Pope Francis will appoint the new Bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch.

I have recently had more time for reflection and prayer. That enables me to let go of my office in peace over the coming months. I have always considered it important to be the first to pray for all of you, for the diocese. In the power of the Holy Spirit I have led you in proclamation and the celeration of the sacraments. In leading the diocese I have been able to listen and sympathise much. In all these I have always three basic lines. First, I have wanted to work for the mutual unity in the diocese, within the whole of the World Church. I have explicitly wanted to launch the New Evangelisation. Where Christ is proclaimed, places of hope develop. Lastly, restructuring the parishes was a great challenge.

From the start I knew that me work would bring much stress. I never tried to avoid that. I considered it a challenge not to break with people, but remain in conversation with supporters and opponents. Looing back, I increasingly understand those tensions. And likewise for the people who, from time to time, have been explicitly critical about me. I don’t hold grudges to anyone. Of course I made mistakes in my work. I ask forgiveness from those who have affected by them. I want to slowly close the period of “being in service to the leadership” in peace.

I was the rector of the St. John’s centre seminary for eleven years, and for then years of those I was also vicar general, and I have now begun my eighteenth year as bishop. A time in which, especially thanks to many of you, much good has happened, such as the development and expansion of the seminary, the celebration of the Holy Year 2000, the celebration of the diocesan Year of Mary, the five-year Evangelisation program, the 450th anniversary of the diocese with the pilgrimage to Rome and working towards the new parishes in three rounds of reorganisation. I thank God, our Father,  in the first place for all the good that happened. I also think in gratitude of the various staff members with whom I work, of the workers in the diocese. With fraternal greetings I thank the priests who lead Church life in the parishes from day to day. I thank the deacons, pastoral workers, pastoral assistants and the many volunteers. With love I think of the religious and contemplative monastics in the diocese. They lose themselves in the love of God to propagate it. Also a word of appretiation for all who have responsibility in the intersection of Church and society, including the guilds, education and universities. I know I am connected with our brothers and sisters in other church communities, with whom I have spoken often. A kind thank you to my auxiliary bishop and the other bishops who I have met in our country and abroad. My affection, and here I have remained the parish priest of Waalwijk, for the faithful, for those who are closely involved with the Churcgh, but certainly also those who have grown further removed. That they may known that God loves them. Lastly, I thank Sonnius, the benefactors, the members of the prayer circle, the rector and seminary community who make sure that the seminary is always a “home” for me.

Slowly a new period begins for the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch. For now, I will travel with you as your bishop. I continue to lead in close cooperation with the staff. I leave the actual work for the most port to Msgr. Mutsaerts, vicar general Van den Hout and the other staff members. In due time I will fully acxcept the new bishop. I hope you will too, that is necessary. Follwing his consecration and installation, I will continue with you as bishop emeritus of ‘s Hertogenbosch. In what I can do, I will be at the service of the new bishop. On his invitation I will continue cooperating to the best of my abilities.

I am happy that I am continually strengthened in my faith. I continue travelling to God, my hope and expectation since my earliest youth (Ps. 71). I will live in the village I was born, the place where I received the faith from my parents. I hope that it will again become home to me, although I will miss ‘s Hertogenbosch. But that time is not here yet. There is time of transition. A time in which we can slowy make room in our hearts and minds for the new bishop. Let us pray on the intercession of Mary, the Sweet Mother of Den Bosch, for a good new bishop. For a bishop that the diocese needs now. Our help is in the name of the Lord.

I hope to meet you in the future, I greet you from my heart and remain with you in prayer.

Msr. drs. A.L.M. Hurkmans,
bishop ofs-Hertogenbosch”

More to come…

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.

Limburg

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.

Obituaries

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

In defense of the Middle Ages – not all violence, all the time…

In an article on the website of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts writes a piece about the barbaric acts perpetrated by ISIS in the Middle East, and he rightly condemns them. But we should not be too hasty in calling them medieval, although media and entertainment tend to do so (the bishop quotes actor Ving Rhames’ character from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, who warned he would get medieval on someone, to illustrate the use of the term medieval in movies!).

“I would IS returned to medieval values. A thousand years ago the Muslim world was a civilised one in which Islamic society was ahead of Christian Europe in medicine, science and astronomy, while Europe in turn was very civilised compared to the extremism and barbarism now going on in Syria. Certainly, there were fanatical splinter groups, but these never lasted long or were simply removed in the New World.”

Behaviour that we consider barbaric or uncivilised has more to do with the time of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Bishop Mutsaerts lists Inquisition, Puritanism, the Watergeuzen who tortured and killed the Holy Martyrs of Gorcum, Henry VIII who had his enemies decapitated, and witch trials. And it is exactly this period which laid much of the foundations of our own modern society. When seen like this, maybe the acts of ISIS aren’t too alien to us…

middle ages violence^The Middle Ages: not always like this…

And although modern science and education in Europe originated in the medieval Church, this Church was not immune to the new barbarism of later centuries, as Bishop Mutsaerts writes, “Copernicus was not persecuted in the 16th century, but Galileo in the 17th was…”

“We shouldn’t romanticise the Middle Ages or imagine them as a time of pastoral simplicity, courtliness and banquets (something that my hero Chesterton is somewhat inclined to). But to call modern despicable acts as “medieval” is misguided. It is more like a historical hangover from the Renaissance and the era of the Enlightenment. And it is fairly arrogant, considering the world in which we live now and the horrible events of the last century. What we consider uncivilised or barbaric should better be called “Baroque”, or perhaps even better “twentieth century”.

The Middle Ages, both in Europa and the Middle East, are a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. It is far richer, and also so very much different, than many imagine.

Catholic Christmas present ideas

It’s barely November, but two potential Christmas gifts came to my attention today.

Catholicism-bookFather Robert Barron’s series on the Catholic faith, Catholicism, is set for release in the Netherlands, with Dutch subtitles. Originally released in the United States several years ago, the series appears to be a wonderful tool for catechesis, but also an interesting look at the great variety of our worldwide Church, as well as the heart of the faith.

The 500-minute DVD series is available for the price of €39,90 from the Catholic Alpha Centre and Publisher Betsaida, which is connected to the St. John’s Centre seminary of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch.

Also from ‘s Hertogenbosch comes the second book, this time for adults, from the pen of Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, auxiliary bishop of that diocese (and at the moment filling in for ordinary Bishop Antoon Hurkmans who is taking his rest for medical reasons – prayers for him). In it, the bishop aims to correct all sorts of misconceptions about the Church and her faith. He writes:

“This is no scientific book. I don’t pretend to be a theologian, I’m no cultural sociologist or scientist. In order to explain things to non-experts, a pragmatic and sober approach by someone who knows the topic well is often more effective than a highly scientific approach.”

mutsaertsThe book, titled Gewoon over Geloof (a play on words which means both “simply about faith” and “acting or talking normally about faith”), aims to correct an image of the Church in modern secular society, which consider the Catholic faith to be “backwards, irrational, medieval, illiberal, unreasonable, misogynistic, homophobic and brainwashed”.

Bishop Mutsaerts has one previous book on his name, a children’s book titled Jezus kan niet voetballen (“Jesus can’t play football”).

The bigger question – Bishop Mutsaerts on the Synod

The Dutch bishops have not yet spoken much in public about the upcoming Synod, but today Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, auxiliary of ‘s Hertogenbosch, does. And he makes a point that has been emphasised before by both Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Burke: the Synod is not about divorce, remarriage and admission to the Eucharist. The question is a bigger one, as Bishop Mutsaerts explains:

Bisschop Rob Mutsaerts“With the extraordinary Synod of the Family which opens on 5 October, Pope Francis mostly aims for a greater appreciation of the Christian marriage as a sacrament. It is clear that in today’s culture the Biblical vision on marriage and family is considered to be virtually unattainable, and is seen more as a burden than as good news. Perhaps that is the reason for Pope Francis to have scheduled the beatification of Paul VI at the end of the Synod, as a closing statement.

Paul VI was a staunch defender of Christian marriage. His famed and infamous encyclical Humanae Vitae, however, achieved the opposite according to public opinion. The Biblical ideal was almost completely forgotten. It is to be hoped that October’s  Synod will not result in a repetition of Humanae Vitae. Expectations, after all, are high. Some fervently hope that the Pope will change the Church’s teaching about divorced and remarried people; others fear he will. That would result in a repetition of Humanae Vitae. And that is exactly what Pope Francis is afraid of: “I have not been happy that so many people – even church people, priests – have said: “Ah, the Synod will be about giving communion to the divorced”, and went straight to that point”, the Pope told reporters on the return flight from Israel.

The questions is much broader. The family is in crisis. Young people rarely choose marriage. They choose others ways of living together. The family is in crisis because marriage is in crisis, according to the firm opinion of Francis.

I hope that the Pope will get the Synod he has in mind, and not the Synod which is mainly concerned with the single question of divorced and remarried faithful. That is certainly a genuine problem, but a far more complex problem lies at its root: few understand marriage as a Christian vocation, strengthened by sacramental mercy. Not without reason did the Pope give  it “The pastoral challenges for the family in the context of evangelisation” as title, and he placed it as such emphatically within the context of evangelisation. Evangelisation is without meaning if we consider it without the Gospel. The words of Jesus to both the Samaritan woman and the woman caught in adultery was hard to accept for those who heard it then and those who hear it now. Don’t forget that the Apostles thought that Jesus’ teachings about marriage were so difficult that it would be better not to marry. If the Synod is true to the Gospel – can she be otherwise? – she can expect the same response, and it will be her duty to inspire confidence that the Christian marriage is still recommendable.

Pope Francis is keen to emphasise that Christian marriage is a sacrament. Much of the confusion surrounding marriage and divorce arises when we lose sight of the fact that marriage is a sacrament. Marriage is not indissoluble because two people make a promise for life. The Church can dispense people from their promises. That is een true for the vows of religious. But the Church can’t undo a sacrament. Marriage is indissoluble for the same reason that we have tabernacles: a consecrated host can’t be ‘deconsecrated’, just like Baptism or the ordination of a priest can’t be undone. Even a priest who has ben laicised remains a priest, even though he can’t exercise the office of priest (although he can hear confessions in emergencies). Nobody, no Synod and also no Pope, can undo a valid sacrament. That’s simply how it is. We shouldn’t therefore expect a relaxation of rules regarding divorced and remarried people in regard to their receiving Holy Communion. Those who do expect this will be disappointed from the outset.

Most Catholics are unaware of the sacramental character of their marriage. Marriage, by the way, is the only of the seven sacrament which is not administered by a priest or deacon, but by lay people, by husband and wife when they say yes to each other. This is the sacrament that gives strength and mercy to be able to keep promises. That is what it is about for the Pope.”