Seventeen years in the see of Boniface – Heinz-Josef Algermissen retires

It couldn’t have come on a more fitting day for the Diocese of Fulda. On 5 June they celebrated the feast day of their patron St. Boniface, which was celebrated over the weekend with the annual Bonifatius Fest which drew some 8,000 visitors, among them the bishop of that other diocese closely linked to St Boniface: Msgr. Ron van den Hout of Groningen-Leeuwarden.

Algermissen2On the same 5th of June it was announced this had been the last such day presided over by Bishop Heinz Joshistef Algermissen. That was not unexpected, as the bishop reached the age of 75 in February, and there was no reason to assume that his retirement would not be accepted within the following months. Bishop Algermissen led the Diocese of Fulda since 2001. Before that he served as an auxiliary bishop of Paderborn for five years.

The Diocese of Fulda, which traces its origins to the establishment of a monastery by the aforementioned St. Boniface in 744. In 751 the monastery became an abacy nullius under the direct responsibility of the Holy See, making the abbots independent from the local bishops. The prosperity of the abbacy grew, in 1220 it became an abbey-principality, and in 1752 it became a diocese in its own right, taking the name of Fulda. Over the subsequent centuries its borders were changed repeatedly, gaining territory in 1821 and 1929, and losing it in 1930 and 1973. The last change was a reflection of Cold War reality: parts of Fulda had been under Communist rule since the end of World War II, and in 1973 those parts, as well as parts of the Diocese of Würzburg, became a separate apostolic administration: Erfurt-Meiningen. In 1994 this became the Diocese of Erfurt.

Karte_Bistum_FuldaToday, the Diocese of Fulda covers the northerns and eastern parts of the Land of Hesse, a small part of Thuringia and and exclave in Bavaria. Within its 10,318 square kilometres live some 400,000 Catholics a little of 20% of the entire population. It remains a pilgrimage site because of St. Boniface’s wish to be buried there, instead of in Mainz or Utrecht. He had been killed in the Frisian swamps near what is now Dokkum in the Netherlands (hence the connection to the the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, hinted at above). With the acceptance of the retirement of Bishop Algermissen, and until the catedral chapter has chosen a diocesan administrator, Bishop Karlheinz Diez leads the diocese. He is Fulda’s sole auxiliary, making him the automatic choice for the role.

During his years in office, Bishop Algermissen had a clear eye on the future, creating 43 parish communities in ten deaneries by 2006, and in 2017 he created the strategy for the next decades until 2030. “When many today see an ever denser curtain blocking heaven from view and when the emancipation from God becomes a program, we are urgently called to establish a countermovement,” the bishop declared.

Commenting in Bishop Algermissen’s retirement, Cardinal Reinhard Marx expressed his gratitude for his service and hospitality (the German bishops meet in Fulda for their autumn plenary meetings), but also referred to his pro-life stance: “Regarding your work, I emphasise the special attention to unborn and dying life: protecting life from beginning to end has, also in public debates, always been a heartfelt concern for you.”

Bishop Algermissen was  a member of the Liturgy Commission and the Ecumenism Commission in the German Bishops’ Conference. He was vice-president of the latter commission.

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At last weekend’s Bonifatiusfest, a toast from Groningen-Leeuwarden canon Fr. Paul Verheijen to Bishop Algermissen (Credit: R. Leupolt)

The election of the new bishop follows the usual rules laid down in the Concordat between Prussia and the Holy See of 1929: the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, requests suggestions for the new bishop from the dioceses covering the former territory of Prussia and sends these to the pope. The pope, or rather the Congregation for Bishops, and following the collection of further information on the candidates by the nuncio, selects his three favoured candidates, and this list is then sent to the cathedral chapter, who elect their new bishop from that list. After approval from the governments of, in this case, Hesse and Thuringia, the cathedral chapter sends the name of the elected to the pope, who then appoints him. Following the publication of the name of the new bishop, a date for consecration (if the new appointee is not a bishop yet) and installation. The consecration of the new bishop falls to the metropolitan of the Church province of which Fulda is a part: Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker of Paderborn. Before this, however, the new bishop makes an oath of loyalty to the German state and the Länder of Hesse and Thuringia.

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^On the day that Bishop Algermissen retired, the newly-appointed bishop of Würzburg, Msgr. Franz Jung, made his oath of loyalty to the prime minister of Bavaria, Markus Söder. Bishop-elect Jung will be consecrated and installed on 10 June. (Credit: Markus Hauck (POW))

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First Advent – Bishop van den Hout looks ahead to Christmas and beyond

Advent is nearly upon us, which means that bishops write letters for the season to their diocese’s faithful. Over the coming days and weeks, I will share a selection of these here, and the first one is from my own bishop. It is Msgr. Ron van den Hout’s first Advent letter as bishop, as he was consecrated and installed in June of this year. As a result, his letter is a sort of look back at the first months in his new diocese and forward to the time to come. Whereas Bishop van den Hout was initially hesitant to say much about any policies he may have, he now says a few things which reveal about his focus as bishop. As Advent is a time of preparation for what the bishop calls the threefold coming of Christ, it is a fitting time to look forward to the future.

Inwijding nieuwe bisschop Groningen-Leeuwarden“Today is the start of Advent, the period of preparation before Christmas. We celebrate that the Lord has come, but also that He is the one who is coming. We speak of a double, or even triple, coming. This thought is dear to me and nourishes my faith life.

The first coming of Christ is a historical one. The birth of Jesus took place in the history as we will hear it in the gospel of the Mass of the night of Christmas: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” and in the Gospel of Christmas day: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” These texts belong to Christmas and are recognised by everyone. Even those who do not expressly believe in God often appreciate the Church and church buildings as an important historical and cultural heritage. Many are concerned about the future of our church buildings and others concern themselves with maintaining Christian values and the sharing of stories from the Bible and the meaning of Christian iconography.

The second coming of Christ is that which takes place in our own faith life now. The becoming present of Christ can be especially experienced in the liturgy, prayer and receiving the sacraments. In order to experience this coming, personal faith and personal engagement are required. It requires more than a general religious interest: submission and openness to God’s revelation through and with the Church.

I would connect the third coming of Christ with moral life and charity. At the end of times Christ will come in His full glory. The last part of the liturgical year, when we make the transition towards Christmas, presents us with the idea that all earthly things will one day cease existing and that God will be all in all. With this in mind we are asked to lead a good and just life in this time and to be prepared to join Him when He comes. Being prepared not only means expecting Him, but also to live accordingly.

The coming of Christ is about then, about now and about later Believing is about history and what once took place, it is my faithful and moral life now, and it is about what we may hope for and look forward to, the fullfilment.

Since my consecration as bishop of our Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden I have been through an intensive period of introductions. The first impressions I have made of a for me new area. The visits to the parishes were informative for me, but also relaxing. At home in the bishop’s house I have spoken one on one with various people, and I was introduced to the various parts of and in the diocese. The introduction will continue for a while longer.

If I may be allowed to give a first impression of what struck me. The different parts and areas are markedly different. The historical, cultural and social developments of Groningen, Friesland, Drenthe and the Noordoostpolder have been very diverse. That makes our diocese interesting. In a demographical context, the remark was made a few times that there are more than a few shrinkage areas. The diocese contains many small communities: none of the merged parishes have a nominal number of Catholics larger than 10,000. The communities are far apart. There are old Catholic enclaves with beautiful old churches, but there are also young parishes which developed in the 19th and 20th centuries from an influx of Catholics from other parts of the Netherlands and even from Germany. This process of establishment continued into the 1960s. The number of pastoral ministers is, compared to other dioceses, relatively large, but absolutely speaking their number is small. The mutual relationships are generally good. There are also many and intensive contacts with other Christians.

The development of cooperation which began decades age has now resulted in a nineteen processes of merger. I think it is a good thing that a single clear model was chosen for the parishes and parochial charity institutions. During my visits there was some mention of the shrinkage that exists in our parishes. Everyone is well aware of that. We will not be able to turn this development around. The question is what we must do and where we should best invest our valuable energy. The cooperation between the different locations in a parish will increase in the coming years; I would like to encourage that process. Seek out each other’s strong points, dare to trust on the strength of the other and embark on new activities together.\

Formulating a new policy is not an issue in this first year. But I am able to indicate a few things. Development of one’s own Catholic identity is, I think, important. Clarity of one’s own mission is necessary in order to play a part in the relationship with other Christians and in society. From one’s own identity, one can enter into conversations and can a  conversation prove to be fruitful. Interior development of one’s own religion seems to me to be indispensable.

Beginning with the substantive interests for the faith we could ask ourselves a few questions which could play a guiding role in organising pastoral care:

  • What does it mean that I believe?
  • Why do I do that with others?
  • What do we need to do so together?
  • What should a pastoral team offer and organise, in cooperation with the parishioners?
  • How can a parish council facilitate this?

We never start anything from nothing and we can only build on what our ancestors provided as foundations. Yet the time has come to rethink parish life and to look at how to adjust to the new circumstances. The priests, deacons and pastoral workers can no longer provide the ‘service’ they used to. The parishioners are asked for more efficacy and more willingness to look for new ways themselves; all this of course within the normal and familiar framework of our Church and in unity with the diocese and the world church. Pastoral care will have to be organised more soberly. And we will have to make choices and bring together and concentrate activities.

Concerning liturgy and the sacraments I would like to one again draw attention to the celebration of the Sunday with the Eucharist. Within the given circumstances everyone will work towards that as far as possible. I would like to ask each of you to pray for vocations to the priesthood and for a climate in which vocations in general can be recognised and responded to. The Church needs priests. There are the close cooperators of the bishop and put their lives completely to the service of the Church, through their celibate state of life.

In the official visits to the parishes I experienced much positivity and willingness to work for people. I admire the energy that I have seen and the enthousiasm for the work. I have also seen, in a number of parishes, what charity work is being done. It is once again time for us as Church to take up our role in society, to be there for the poor, the needy, migrants et cetera. The examples that I have seen have strengthened me in the conviction that it is possible. We also become more Church when we show our charitable face.

As Church we have a social position that we must try to maintain. We carry a culture with us that has defined Europe, which was and is good. We also have moral convictions – for example about life and death – which must continue to be heard, especially in this time. Additionally, as Church we have a responsibility towards ourselves and our fellow faithful, that we are nourished and strengthened and become more convinced of the working of God’s Spirit in our lives.

May I end this letter with a prayer? As a parish priest prays for his parishioners, a bishop prays for the faithful of his diocese.

“God, the time of Advent begins and we prepare for the coming of Christ and the celebration of His birth, At the start of this powerful and expectant time I want to pray for the part of your people entrusted to me, the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. That everyone, personally and with others, may take part in the Kingdom of God, that You bring near to us in your Son.”

I wish you all a good time of preparation or Christmas.

+ Dr. Cornelis F.M. van den Hout, Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

Photo credit: ANP

Lectures and meetings – baby bishops’ school in Rome

This past week, the bishops who have been appointed in the last year were in Rome for what has become known as ‘baby bishops’ school’, a series of lectures on things related to being a bishop. Among the participants was Bishop Ron van den Hout of Groningen-Leeuwarden, appointed in April of this year. The last time a Dutch bishop participated was in 2012. The week-long course has existed since 2001 and is jointly organised by the Congregations for Bishops and for the Oriental Churches.

20170908-_C817730.jpgBishop Ron van den Hout, at left, concelebrates the daily Mass during the course for newly-appointed bishops.

This year’s topic of the course was ‘Teachers in discernment’, and, according to a factual report on the website of Bishop van den Hout’s diocese, the bishops heard lectures on mutual collegiality, the relationships with the priests of the bishop’s new diocese, ecumenism, pastoral care for priests and their affective life, Church and media, the missionary Church, and the role of canon law in managing a diocese.

The German bishops were with six in Rome, among them Bishop Peter Kohlgraf of Mainz, who shared the photo below on his Facebook page, of bishops (and one priest) at dinner.

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From left to right: Franz Josef Gebert (auxiliary, Trier), Georg Bätzing (Limburg), Fr. Stefan Langer (Hamburg), Peter Kohlgraf (Mainz), Horst Eberlein (auxiliary, Hamburg), Dominicus Meier (auxiliary, Paderborn (albeit not a newly-ordained bishop)) and Rupert Graf zu Stolberg (auxiliary, München und Freising). Absent from the gathering were Bishops Mattäus Karrer (auxiliary of Rottenburg-Stuttgart) and Rolf Lohmann (auxiliary, Münster).

 

Next to the lectures, Bishop Kohlgraf identifies another important element of the week. “Another at least equally important part is formed by the conversations between the individual participants. It allowed me to get to know brothers who work in very sober and sometimes difficult situations and yet radiate great joy”. A participant in last year’s edition, Bishop Richard Umbers of Sydney, Australia (a bishop you should follow in Facebook or Twitter, by the way), said something similar in a recent conversation with Crux: “Make sure you organize a few lunches and dinners along the way. Make sure you make time to get to know some of those bishops in a more intimate setting. Build friendships there.”

The new bishops were received in audience by Pope Francis on Thursday afternoon. In his address, the Holy Father reminded them that “[t]he mission that awaits you is not to bring your own ideas and projects, nor solutions that are abstractly designed by those who consider the Church a home garden but humbly, without attention-seeking or narcissism , to offer your concrete witness of union with God, serving the Gospel that should be cultivated and helped to grow in that specific situation.” He spoke about discerning God in everything the bishops does and says. “Remember that God was already present in your dioceses when you arrived and will still be there when you are gone. And, in the end, we will all be measured not by counting our works but on the growth of God’s work in the heart of the flock that we keep in the name of the “Pastor and keeper of our souls” (cf. 1 Pt 2:25)”.

 

60 years a priest – Cardinal Simonis looks back and ahead

Simonis 60 jaar kardinaal Simonis klCongratulations to Cardinal Adrianus Johannes Simonis, who yesterday celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination in Utrecht’s cathedral of St. Catherine. The 85 year-old cardinal was archbishop of Utrecht from 1983 to 2007 and his successor, Cardinal Willem Eijk, invited him to mark the milestone in his former cathedral, the mother church, in a way, of the entire Dutch Church province.

The fact that Cardinal Eijk had invited Cardinal Simonis, and spoke words of praise about the jubilarian’s life and work in one of the most turbulent periods in recent history for the Church in the Netherlands, may well be seen as some evidence of reconciliation between the two prelates. Following Cardinal Eijk’s arrival in Utrecht in 2008 there had been ruffled feathers because of major changes enforced by Cardinal Eijk in the running of the archdiocese and differences in style and personality between both cardinals. Yesterday, however, Cardinal Eijk concluded his address as follows:

Simonis 60 jaar receptie toespraak kl“In all these developments you always remained true to your motto, which you also quoted in your homily in this morning’s Eucharist: “Ut cognoscant te,” “That they may know you.” The goal of your entire priestly life was and still is that people will get to know and meet Christ, the Good Shepherd, who calls himself “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Through Him we come to the Father. In imitation of Jesus you sacrificed much to bring the people entrusted to your pastoral care to the full truth in the Risen Lord. We are and remain very grateful to you for that. Now that we are celebration the 60th anniversary of your ordination to the priesthood, we pray that the Lord may bless you abundantly.”

At the start of the Mass Cardinal Simonis already referred to Cardinal Eijk’s kind words, and played them a bit down, saying:

I must, however, admit that I have been far from a perfect priest, let alone a perfect bishop in the 47 years of those 60. We are only reconciled if we ask God for forgiveness and continuously return to Him. More than even, I want to pray today for this forgiveness. God has been wonderfully merciful to me for sixty years, but I want to admit to Him and you how much I have failed in even fulfilling this grace. May God be merciful to me and may he grant that we will be together in this hour, in His Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth, of love and of peace.”

In his homily, which, he says, he was advised to make more like a witness than a speech, Cardinal Simonis looked back on his life, often comparing the past with the present.

“The tragedy of my life – if I am allowed to put it like that – is the fact that [religious knowledge among the people] is extremely lacking. […] Roughly half of the Dutch population considers themselves irreligious, while the other half includes many ‘somethingists’. You often hear, “I believe there is something”. That’s it for our Good Lord! The Father and the Son reduced to ‘something’! Sadly, we live in a time of radical secularisation, which in essence means ‘getting rid of God’. There is barely room for God, let alone a personal God. Many have traded faith for indifference, despite the tireless warnings from Pope Francis at the Wednesday audiences. And if there is anything that is clear from the Gospel, from Jesus’ preaching, it is that God is a personal God. The boundless secret of God, simply described by Jesus as “Our God, who art in heaven.”

He continues on a more personal note on this topic:

“How am I under all this? Well, it is the great dark side of my life as priest and bishop. In a manner of speaking, I get up with it in the morning and go to bed with it at night. The only thing I can do now is pray that the Holy Spirit perform the miracle of conversion and true religious renewal.

Isn’t all this too pessimistic? Msgr. Jansen [first bishop of Rotterdam, who Cardinal Simonis succeeded as bishop in 1970] one told me, “You are a pessimist”. I answered him, “No, monsignor, I am a realist”. Upon which he said, “That’s what all pessimists say”. Now, I must admit that the virtue of hope is not my strongest virtue. Which is a disgrace for a Christian, to be honest! That is why I pray multiple times a day for strengthening of faith, hope and love, both for myself and for the more than 400,000 faithful I was able to pass on the Spirit to.”

It being Corpus Christi, and the Eucharist being the heart of the priestly life, Cardinal Simonis unavoidably spoke about the first and foremost of sacraments.

When, in the 1960s, the focus rather one-sidedly shifted from the Eucharist as sacrifice to the Eucharist as meal, Cardinal Alfrink [Archbishop of Utrecht from 1955 to 1975] wrote an article that I have always rememberd: “The Eucharist is, in the first place, a sacrifice in the form of a meal.” That is how I still celebrate the Eucharist, primarily as a sacrfice, sacrifice of reconciliation, of adoration, of supplication and of gratitude; the sacrifice of the new covenant for the forgiveness of all sins. We no longer need to sacrifice bulls, sheep or lambs to God. The one sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, of He who Paul so strikingly calls “the self-giving”, is enough for God. In Him, God’s love was fulfilled completely. That sacrifice was made one, but it is hidden in God’s eternal ‘now’, from which it is made present among us ever anew, so that we people who live some 2,000 years later, can join in that sacrifice and take part in its fruits.”

The cardinal concludes with an earnest desire for the future:

“I have no greater wish than that those who call themselves believers will sanctify the Day of the Lord again by celebrating, if possible, the Eucharist. There will be little future for the Church in the Netherlands when our faith is not continuously nourished by the proclamation of the Word of the God and the reception of the Lord Himself as nourishment for our lives.”

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Concelebrating the Mass with Cardinal Simonis were Cardinal Eijk and his two auxiliary bishop, Msgrs. Hoogenboom and Woorts, as well as Bishops Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Ron van den Hout of Groningen-Leeuwarden and Wiertz of Roermond. From Germany came Cardinal Joachim Meisner, emeritus of Cologne, and from Rome Msgr. Karel Kasteel, former secretary of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum”. Bishops de Jong and Hendriks attended the reception.

Photo credit: Archdiocese of Utrecht

All set for the new bishop

Zetel-nieuwAt Groningen’s cathedral of St. Joseph, all is set for the consecration of the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, at 11am today. The photo at left shows the cathedra, the bishop’s seat, with his new coat of arms applied (more on that below).

Nine years after the last time a new bishop arrived, and 18 after it hosted the consecration of one, the cathedral will be filled to capacity. Attendance is by invitation only: last week the diocese already urged people who did not have an invitation to stay at home and watch the Mass on television (live broadcast is available via the NPO2 public channel, and will be available to stream later). Some 700 guests are expected, which means the cathedral is filled to capacity.

DBVOB7ZWsAAvHUHThe bishop-elect, Msgr. Ron van den Hout has been in Groningen since last week and has already met with various groups of faithful on a private basis: the Saturday evening international student group and a diocesan youth gathering, to name two. In today’s Mass he will first be consecrated as a bishop, and then officially installed as the ordinary of his new see. Until that moment, the diocese is still without its bishop and under the leadership of the diocesan administrator, the former vicar general, Fr. Peter Wellen.

Consecrating the new bishop will be Wim Cardinal Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht and bishop of Groningen from 1999 to 2008, with Bishops Gerard de Korte and Rob Mutsaerts, respectively bishop and auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, serving as co-consecrators. Bishop de Korte was, of course, Msgr. van den Hout predecessor in Groningen and the bishop under which he served as vicar general in ‘s-Hertogenbosch for a year.

Hout-wapenPart and parcel of being a bishop is choosing a coat of arms, and the one for the new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden was published a few days ago. Msgr. van den Hout’s personal coat of arms is placed on the diocesan gold cross on a green field. It features an anchor blooming into a tree at the top, with the tree referring to the bishop’s family name (Van den Hout means someting like ‘of the wood(s)’) as well as the shield of the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The anchor is a symbol of hope, relating to the motto underneath: In exilio spes, hope in exile. Lastly, the tree also represents the man who trusts in God (Jeremiah 17:8).

The cup on the blue background comes from the coat of arms of the town of Diessen, where Msgr. van den Hout grew up, and represented the earth holding the seed for next year’s crop. The cup on the red background refers to the Eucharist and the words from Psalm 116 (12-13): “How can I repay the Lord for all the great good done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD.”

More on the ceremony later.

Photo credit: Bsdom Groningen-Leeuwarden

In exile? – A motto for the new bishop

Now that a new bishop for Groningen-Leeuwarden has finally been appointed, a period of  months begins until his consecration. Set for 3 June at St. Joseph’s cathedral, Msgr. Ron van den Hout will be the first bishop consecrated there since 1999, and only the second one ever. The new bishops’ predecessor, Msgr. de Korte, was already a bishop when appointed to the northern diocese in 2008, so he was only installed as ordinary. It is not yet known who the consecrating bishops will be, but I would not be surprised if Bishop Gerard de Korte would serve as chief consecrator. Bishop-elect van den Hout not only succeeds him as bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden, but also served as his vicar general in ‘s-Hertogenbosch for a year. The bishop who initially appointed Msgr. van den Hout as his vicar general, Msgr. Antoon Hurkmans, could also be invited to travel north from Rome to be one of the two co-consecrators.

f035fdc6-a42b-4ea3-ac5c-e1382f1d2d97Following his presentation at the diocesan offices yesterday, Msgr. van den Hout revealed the motto he has chosen to grace his coat of arms (still to be designed): In exilio spes (Hope in exile). At first glance perhaps a reflection of his being sent far away from home, to a diocese with significantly fewer Catholics (noting the contrast with his home diocese, the bishop-elect said, “I know that there are few religious, there is no Catholic university, there are no guilds”), the true reason is different. Msgr. van den Hout explains:

“One of the Eucharistic prayers says, “Confirm your Church in exile. Make her one in love and faith” [literal translation from the Dutch text – MV]. In my lectures the topic of exile was frequently addressed. In exegesis, the time of the Persian and the exile has been given more attention.

Difficult times are Always a phase in salvation history. Israel survived the exile because it was willing to seek out God once again.”

His soon-to-be brother bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam, sheds some more light on the motto:

“With it, he, as an exegete, links to a topic which is close to his heart, as well as to the words of Pope Francis during the last Ad limina visit. The Pope compared the situation of the Church in our country with that of the exile of the Jewish people: there can be a tendency to look back to a glorious past, but the mission – which the prophets then pointed out to the Jewish people – is to look ahead, to seek out God and work towards the future with confidence and perseverence.”

Upon the news of Bishop-elect Van den Hout’s appointment, which was, perhaps unavoidably leaked several hours in advance, the Bishops’ Conference welcomed him into their ranks. Via conference president Bishop Hans van den Hende, they assured him of their prayers, especially in the weeks towards his consecration and installation.

In a letter to the priests and pastoral workers of his diocese, Bishop Gerard de Korte reacted with sadness and joy to the new mission of his vicar general, writing:

naamloos“Pope Francis’ choice means a great sacrifice for our Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In the past year I have gotten to know Ron as a jovial priest of Brabant.

Through the appointment of Dr. Van den Hout as new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden I lose a reliable and hard-working coworker. But I get him back as a colleague in the bishops’ conference.

I congratulate the faithful of my old diocese with the new bishop, and hope and expect that they will greet him warmly.”

Photo credit: [1] Bisdom Groningen-Leeuwarden, [2] Ramon Mangold

No April Fool – 13 months in, the vacancy ends

End of a long sede vacante

It took thirteen months, an almost unprecented long time, but the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden will soon have a bishop again. The Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Aldo Cavalli, had already stated that the name would be known before Easter. With tomorrow being the fifth Sunday of Lent, he was cutting it a bit close. The long time between bishops gave rise to some speculation and rumours, which I wrote about here. These speculations will undoubtedly continue now that there is a new bishop. Many will choose to see the selection, which was ultimately made by Pope Francis, in political terms: the new bishop is either a man in the vein of the Holy Father, which means he is a pastoral figure with an eye for the people instead of the law; or he fits the mold of Cardinal Eijk, which means he is a dogmatic, a stickler for rules. Reality, as often, is more nuanced.

20170330_sHertogenbosch_Bisschoppen_©RamonMangold_03The new bishop

The new bishop comes from the south, and thus, in a way, makes the opposite move than his predecessor, who went from Groningen-Leeuwarden to ‘s-Hertogenbosch. From that later see comes its vicar general, Msgr. Ron van den Hout, to take over the reins of this country’s most northern diocese.

Bishop-elect Van den Hout is 52, not extraordinarily young or old when compared with his predecessors. He has been vicar general of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch since 2012. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1993, studied in Rome and Nijmegen, and most recently taught Bible studies at three seminaries, in addition to serving as temporary pastor in the Bommelerwaard region, in the north of the diocese.

The Diocese

The new bisdom inherits a diocese wich, in some ways, is a work in progress. In the eight years (from 2008 to 2016) that Msgr. de Korte was ordinary, the diocese underwent a process of change which saw the number of parish decrease from 84 to 19. While the previous bishop made it policy to maintain the old parishes as communities in the new larger parishes, it is up to the new bishop to see the process to its conclusion and his choice to keep Bishop de Korte’s vision intact or adapt it as he sees fit. With one parish, which includes the cathedral in Groningen, exempt from the mergers, only two new parishes are awaiting establishment,  while a third is already merged, but will see one more old parish join at a later date. The entire process is expected to be concluded by 1 January 2018.

In the years that Bishop de Korte led the diocese, the number of religious establishments within its boundaries tripled. A relatively large increase, in absolute numbers it is perhaps somewhat less impressive: from one to three. In addition to the shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed in Warfhuizen, which is under the care of hermit Father Hugo, the Holy Ghost Fathers have established themselves in Heerenveen, while the Cistercians from Sion Abbey are working to build a monastery on the island of Schiermonnikoog. Bishop de Korte actively encouraged this trend, and his successor could do worse than do likewise.

The Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden is one of the two youngest in the Netherlands, having been established in 1955, it is the second largest in size, and the smallest by number of Catholics (a little over 100,000, of whom some 10% attend a Mass or celebration over the course of one weekend)*. It covers the three northern provinces of the Netherlands (Fryslân, Groningen and Drenthe) as well as the northern third of the province of Flevoland. Its population varies from traditionally left-wing in the former Communist stronghold of eastern Groningen, to traditionally Catholic along the German border from the southeastern tip of Groningen to the south of Drenthe. Major cities are few, but include the university city of Groningen, which is also home to the cathedral of St. Joseph and the diocesan offices (relocated there by then-Bishop Willem Eijk, bishop from 1999 to 2008). Catholic faithful are clustered in various places, but in general the parish, especially in the countryside, are expansive. Coupled with a relative low number of priests this means that clergy has to be able and willing to travel.

Bishop van den Hout Will be the fifth bishop of the Groningen-Leeuwarden. Two of his predecessors are still active: Cardinal Willem Eijk as archbishop of Utrecht, and Msgr. Gerard de Korte as bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Bishop Hans van den Hende of Rotterdam is a former priest and vicar general of the diocese, and his immediate predecessor, Msgr. Ad van Luyn, was born in Groningen.

In the past eleven months, since the installation of Bishop de Korte in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the diocese has been run by diocesan administrator Fr. Peter Wellen, vicar general under the previous bishop, and general delegate Fr. Arjen Bultsma, formerly the episcopal vicar for Fryslân and the Noordoostpolder.

Reactions

Bishop-elect van den Hout was informed about his appointment last week, and accepted it on Wednesday. His initial reaction was hesitant, but he realised that it was “something that had come his way, and I was obliged to cooperate gladly”.

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^The new bishop, at left, receives a welcome present from diocesan administrator Fr. Peter Wellen.

As for the future, the new bishop sees himself as a man of the parish. “The life of the Church must be realised in the parishes,” he said. “The faithful must take their baptism seriously, while the diocesan curia serves to support this.” As yet unfamiliar with his new diocese, the bishop-elect intends to start visiting the parishes soon after his consecration, which is scheduled for 3 June. Asked about his predecessors and how he compares to them, Msgr. van den Hout said that he simply wants to be himself, to be there for the people. He hasn’t taken up a position on how the diocese should be run, as this depends on the specific  local situation. He is curious and open about the Catholic life in the parishes of his new diocese, and will make any decisions based on what he finds.

More to come.

*Statistics date from 2008. The expectation is that the actual and current numbers are lower).

Photo credit: [1] Ramon Mangold, [2] Mark de Vries