New bishops in summer

Everything, including the Church, slows down over summer. As a result, there are few appointments and consecrations of bishops in August. Nonetheless, Germany gained two of them: Msgr. Peter Kohlgraf was consecrated as bishop of Mainz on 27 August and Msgr. Franz Josef Gebert became the third auxiliary bishop of Trier last Sunday.

These two consecrations fill out the roster of German bishops: there are no vacant sees or auxiliary bishop positions among the 28 (arch)dioceses in the country. This, however, is not a situation that will continue for long: Würzburg’s Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann is already 75, while Hildesheim’s Bishop Norbert Trelle reached that age today. Both dioceses can therefore expect a new bishop relatively soon (barring any exceptional circumstances, such as in the Austrian diocese of Innsbruck, which has been awaiting a new bishop since November of 2015).

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^Bishop Peter Kohlgraf, flanked by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop Stephan Burger and Cardinal Rainer Woelki, greets people gathered after his consecration.

Bishop Kohlgraf is the successor of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who headed the Diocese of Mainz for 33 years until his retirement in May of 2016. It is a public secret that the cardinal had wanted his auxiliary Bishop Udo Markus Bentz to succeed him, but the latter’s appointment as Bishop Kohlgraf’s vicar general can be seen as a form of continuity with the Lehmann era. The previous vicar general, and diocesan administrator during the year-long sede vacante, Msgr. Dietmar Giebelmann, has been appointed as episcopal vicar for, among others, migration and integration, thus indicating some of the initial points of focus of the new bishop.

Bishop Franz Gebert was appointed to fill the position left by Bishop Helmut Dieser, who was appointed as Bishop of Aachen in September of last year. Like other German dioceses, Trier has a standard number of auxiliary bishops, in this case three, as episcopal vicars for individual pastoral areas are made bishops as a rule. Bishop Gebert headed the diocesan charity office before his appointment as auxiliary bishop, and will continue in that role as episcopal vicar for the caritas. Additionally, he will be responsible for pastoral visitation in the Trier area on behalf of Bishop Stephan Ackermann.

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Bishop Franz Gebert (front row, second from right) poses with the other bishops hailing from the Diocese of Trier: front row: Leo Schwarz (auziliary bishop emeritus), Robert Brahm (auxiliary bishop), Stephan Ackermann (ordinary), Franz Gebert, Jörg Peters (uxiliary bishop), Alfred Kleinermeilert (auxiliary bishop emeritus). Back row: Helmut Dieser (bishop of Aachen), Felix Genn (bishop of Münster), Georg Bätzing (bishop of Limburg).

Photo credit: [1] Stefan Sämsmer, [2] Bistum Trier

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The work is never done – Bishop Dieser installed as Bishop of Aachen

With a call to unity and an eye on the future Bishop Helmut Dieser was installed as seventh bishop of Aachen on Saturday. In addition, bishop Dieser also emphasised the synodal future of the Church of Aachen, stating in his installation homily:

“No masterplan, no hey ho! we are better than those before us, and certainly no panic as if we must save the Church, but: Lord, tell us what is needed, tell us when we pray, when we speak and plan with each other, when we are critical and make decisions. Help us to be synodal with each other and with you today, meaning: to know that we are journeying together, not yet ready, but in the unity of the faith of the Church, in the diversity of gifts and tasks and responsibilities, growing towards you, the first who is already complete, so that we may also be complete.”

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He may be the seventh bishop of Aachen since the diocese was re-established in 1930, Bishop Dieser has just as much to do as any of his predecessors, he explained.

Main celebrant at the installation Mass was Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki, archbishop of Cologne, as Aachen is a suffragan diocese of that archdiocese. In his word of welcome, he recalled the main duty of a bishop: “The first and most important task of the Apostles then and their successors the bishops now is to proclaim the joyful message of Jesus Christ […] and to be witnesses of the resurrection of Christ.”

Another word of welcome was given by Reinhard Cardinal Marx. The president of the German Bishops’ Conference knows Aachen’s new bishop well, as both come from the Diocese of Trier. Cardinal Marx was bishop there from 2001 to 2007, and Bishop Dieser was a priest of that diocese from 1989 to 2011 and later auxiliary bishop until this year. Cardinal Marx said,

“Those who know Helmut Dieser are soon impressed by his open and cheerful nature. I know the new bishop well. Dyuring my time as bishop of Trier, Helmut Dieser was an involved priest and pastor, who could listen well. With his pastoral experience, his responsibility as auxiliary bishop in Trier and his theological working and thinking, Bishop Dieser brings the best requirements for his new mission.”

Other celebrants at the installation Mass were Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the Apostolic Nuncio to Germany, Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier, and Bishop Karl Borsch, auxiliary if Aachen and Administrator of the diocese between the retirement of Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff and the installation of Bishop Dieser.

In his closing words of thanks, Bishop Dieser began his ministry with a request:

“Let me live with you! Simply, not excessively and exaggerated. Not hidden in roles and expectations. I too am a limited human being. I too can overtax myself.

Only when you can and want to live with me, can I be bishop with you and for you!”

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Bishop Helmut Dieser is the seventh bishop of the Diocese of Aachen in its current form. A first Diocese of Aachen was established in 1801, under Napoleonic rule, with territory taken from Cologne in Germany, Roermond and Batavia in the Netherlands, and Liège in Belgium. In 1821 this was once again suppressed, its territory added to Cologne, Trier and Münster. This first Diocese of Aachen only ever had a single bishop, Frenchman Marc-Antoine Berdolet, from 1801 to 1809. His appointment was part of the power struggles between Napoleon’s France and the Holy See. Following Berdolet’s death, the Holy See gave no permission to ordain a successor.

 In 1930, Aachen was re-established, this time only from territory of the Archdiocese of Cologne.

Photo credit: Andreas Steindl

“A service to the faith of the people” – Bishop Helmut Dieser looks ahead to Aachen

Trier is a popular hunting ground for new bishops, if the last two appointments are an indication. First Germany’s oldest diocese lost its vicar general to Limburg and today one of its three auxiliary bishops is announced as the sevent bishop of the Diocese of Aachen. Bishop Helmut Dieser succeeds Heinrich Mussinghoff, who retired in December.

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54-year-old Helmut Dieser was born in Neuwied, north of Koblenz, and studied Catholic theology and philosophy in Trier and Tübingen. He was ordained a priest in 1989 and in 1992 he was attached to theological faculty of Trier University, promoting there in 1998. From 2004 onward he worked as a parish priest and teacher of homiletics at the St. Lambert study house in Lantershofen. In 2011 he was appointed as auxiliary bishop of Trier and titular bishop of Narona, a former diocese in what is now southern Croatia. In the German Bishops’ Conference he is a member of the faith commission and the pastoral care commission.

The appointment of Bishop Dieser was announced at noon in Trier. Dean of the cathedral chapter Manfred von Holtum described the incoming ordinary like this. “I am happy that, with him, we receive a bishop in continuity with his predecessors, Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff and Bishop Klaus Hemmerle, who is open to new pastoral directions. The new bishop of Aachen, Dr. Helmut Dieser, stands for synodality in the Church and especially for ecumenism.”

Bishop Karl Borsch, auxiliary bishop of Aachen and diocesan administrator during the sede vacante, added: “In the meetings of the German Bishops’ Conference I have gotten to know and appreciate Bishop Helmut Dieser as a spiritual and communicative person. In the Conference he is a member of the faith and pastoral care commissions, where his counsel as a proven theologian is asked. He is an experienced shepherd, and I know that, as such, he is looking forward to meeting the faithful and communities in our diocese.”

Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier described his erstwhile auxiliary bishop as a “man of the Church and a powerful witness of the Gospel”. He also underlined his communicative skills, in part due to Bishop Dieser’s experience in teaching homiletics.

Speaking in Trier, Bishop Dieser himself describes his new mission as something great, something big in his life. “But I can say yes to this great thing, since I am confident that I will draw nearer to God, answering Him, as I follow Jesus: in this new office. God’s call does not remain vague, it becomes tangible. As tangible as this hour and as tangibe as the Diocese of Aachen and its people.”

Bishop Dieser also discussed the topic of synodality, thanking Bishop Ackermann for calling and organising a synod in the Diocese of Trier in recent years. “The experience of the synod left a deep impression on me, and its results have given us a sense of which direction to look and proceed. What I have learned and experienced in the synod, I now want to take with me to Aachen. I was happy to find, in a speech from Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff from 2011, that the Diocese of Aachen under his guidance has started in similar directions as our synod in Trier. Also in Aachen, the idea of a “community of communities” creates greater pastoral spaces which can give shape to various forms of Church life, interconnecting them.”

About his new ministry of service, he says,

“it will be a service to the faith of the people. The faith of the Gospel must in modern times be won, found and continued differently then in the past.

Many of our contemporaries are convinced: I know that I do not need to know whether God exists or not. I can live very well without knowing precisely. The Church, however, is convinced that, if we want to know more about ourselves, want to know deeper what our own life, the world, other people are and mean, we need faith. The God who surpasses all knowledge and understanding (cf. Phil. 4:7) has become completely knowable and meets us in a historical man and his life on earth: in Jesus and His Gospel.”

The bishop continues by explaining the ecumenism is an important element in this endeavour. He wants to help people acknowledge that they want to be Christians and so also know why they want to be Christians. Church life, he says, develops through the answers that people give to God and to Jesus, with their own lives and spiritual gifts, their charisms.

“So I am confident: we do not need to save the Church! She grows where the Gospel is being proclaimed and heard and answered. And there is not and will not be a time, until the end of the world, when the Gospel is not current!”

Photo credit: Bistum Trier

“The bishop bearing witness to the Cross” – Cardinal Woelki’s homily at the consecration of Bishop Bätzing

On Sunday, Bishop Georg Bätzing was ordained and installed as the 13th bishop of Limburg. Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, the archbishop of Cologne, gave the homily, which I share in my English translation below. The cardinal also served as consecrator of the new bishop, together with Bishop Manfred Grothe, who lead the diocese as Apostolic Administrator during the two and a half years between bishops, and Bishop Stephan Ackermann of the new bishop’s native Diocese of Trier.

bischofsweihe_neu_int_23“Dear sisters, dear brothers,

An ordination – be it to deacon, to priest or, as today, to bishop – is always a public act; an effective action which changes both the person being ordained – although he is an remains the same person – and his environment. This is true even when an ordination must be performed in secret for political reasons. And so public interest, especially at an episcopal ordination, is a most natural thing. Today too, many eyes are focussed on Limburg; perhaps even more eyes than usual at an episcopal ordination. In recent years, the focus of the media on Limburg and its bishop has been too strong, if the question of how things would proceed now was not one well beyond the Catholic press.

The man who will be ordained as the thirteenth Bishop of Limburg today, is being sent to “bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted” (cf. Is. 61:1). He knows the wounds that need healing; he knows that the faithful in this diocese must be brought together and united again, and he knows the challenges which face not just the Church in Limburg, but everywhere, when she wants to proclaim, credibly,  Christ as the salvation of all people, also in the future. His motto, then, advances what has already been important to him in his various pastoral duties in Trier: he was and is concerned with unity in diversity – Congrega in unum. It is no coincidence that today’s ordination concludes the traditional week dedicated to the Holy Cross in the Diocese of Limburg.

The feast of the Cross and the Week of the Cross have a long tradition here, which is applicable in this situation. At the introduction of the feast in 1959 by Bishop Wilhelm Kempf its goal was to establish an identity in a young diocese. He chose the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross as diocesan feast, with an eye on the relic of the Holy Cross kept in the reliquary of the cathedral treasury of Limburg. But not from this artistic and outstanding treasure of Byzantine art, before which one can linger in amazement and admiration like before an exhibit in a museum, does the Church in Limburg derive her identity. No, it is from that which is hidden within: the precious Cross of the Lord, by which we are saved. Only that grants the Church of Limburg, yes, the entire Church, her identity. The Apostle Paul knew this, and following him, everyone who is appointed to the episcopal ministry therefore knows this.

Our new bishop also knows. Because this is the heart of his calling and mission as bishop: to proclaim Christ, as the Crucified One in fact. He is not to proclaim Him with clever and eloquent words, so that the Cross “might not be emptied of his meaning” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:17).

On the Cross hangs the unity of the Church, because from the crucified Body of Jesus the Church emerged. In her all the baptised are woven together. All the diversity of the Spirit, which animates and moves the Church, has its origin there. Understanding the mystery of Christ depends on the Cross. No salvation without the Cross! Without the Cross no Gospel, no Christianity! Only in the Cross do we recognise who God and who man is, what God and what man is capable of. We say that God is love. These horribly absurd, often abused and yet so eagerly awaited words gain their sober and exhilerating depth and truth against all kitsch and all shallow romanticism only in the light of the Crucified One.

Saint John the Evangelist reminds us that God so loved the world, that He gave His only son (cf. John 3:16). This was not an “either-or” devotion. It was not a game of God with Himself without us humans, no large-scale deception, no comedy. Christ died and so He become equal to us all, we who received everything that we have from God and who always violently want to “be like God”, on our own strength, as we can read in the first pages of the Bible, in the history of the fall. And then he, the Son of God, did not want to cling to His divinity with violence, like a robber, but He emptied Himself, became man, creature, became the second Adam, who did not want to be like God on his own strength, but wanted to be obedient until the death on the Cross. Only in this humiliation, in this selfless devotion to God’s love for us, He is raised: the Crucified One lives! The humiliated one reigns!

This is then the case: The God who we imagined as unapproachable, as fearsome, is dead, definitively dead! It was not us who killed him, as Nietzsche claimed, but this Jesus of Nazareth, He has killed him. But the true God lives, the God who came down to us, unimaginably close in Jesus Christ. This God lives, who we recognised on the cross as God-with-us, and whom we continue to recognise only through the cross of Christ, recognise in that complete sense in which recognition means acknowledging, loving, being there for others.

And so, after all, understanding this world and our lives also depends on the cross. Its image assures us that we are ultimately embraced by the mercy of God. That, dear sisters and brothers, is our identity as Christians and therefore also our identity as Church. That is what a bishop is to proclaim, even more, to live. Before everything, he is to be a witness of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the decivise salvific act of God. From this everything else flows: our commitment to and engagement  with Church and society, our commitment to peace and social justice, to human dignity and rights, to the poor and homeless, to the suffering, the sick, the dying, to life, also of the unborn. Everything flows from the mystery of the cross, and so the bishop promises just before his ordination to care for all, to be responsible and seek out the lost to the very end. “Tend to my sheep,” (John 21:16) does not mean, “Tend to my sheep where it is easy, where no dangers lurk.” It means to protect every human being as God Himself does – also there where it becomes abysmal and dark; where people lose themselves, where they put trust in false truths or confuse having with being. God knows how vulnerable we people are, and how much care and mercy each of us needs to live in such a way that it pleases God: not loving ourselves, but God and our neighbour. The cross is the reality of this love which desires to exclude no one, but which also recognises the “no” of those which it addresses. The openness of the most recent Council to a universal understanding of divine salvation allows us to see those who believe differently, only half or not at all as potential sisters and brothers. Such an understanding of and relationship with all people also permeates our Holy Father, when he wants to cure the sickness in ecclesial and social coexistence with the medicine of mercy (cf. Jan Heiner Tück).

As universal sacrament of salvation the Church only has one single Lord: Jesus Christ. God Himself anointed Him (Is. 61:1). That is why we always must ask ourselves what He wants from us and where He wants to lead His Church. The future of the Church is critically dependant on how the different charisms that God has given us can be developed. At the time that Bishop Kempf established the feast of the Cross it was, in addition to establishing an identity, about bringing together unity and diversity, centre and periphery in the young diocese.

This program can not be better summarised than in the new bishop’s motto: “Congrega in unum“. Also today, it is the mission of a bishop to discover charisms, recognise talents, guide developments, allow unity in diversity: “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another” (Rom. 12:4-5). Where he succeeds in this service, oaks of justice can grow (Is. 61:3) and plantings can develop through which the Lord can show His justice (61:3) – in the heart of history, in the here and now, in the heart of this diocese. Where this service is successful people are encouraged and empowered to imitate and let God guide their lives – also when He may lead them, for a short while, “where they do not want to go” (John 21:18). We humans may be sure – in all hazards to which we are exposed or expose in faith – that we are protected by God; He has entrusted the bishop with the most valuable task that He has to give: “Feed my sheep!” (John 21:17).  Nothing more – but that absolutely.

Amen.”

Photo credit: Bistum Limburg

As the new bishop comes to Limburg, two questions answered

His consecration is still two weeks away, but Bishop-elect Georg Bätzing has recently answered two of the most frequently-asked questions regarding his appointment as bishop of the Diocese of Limburg. The German diocese was left without a bishop in 2014 when Franz-Peter Tebartz-Van Elst  was forced to resign following a financial scandal surrounding the building complex including the diocesan offices and his personal appartments.

rtemagicc_georg_btzing_3032012_jpgThe new bishop will be using the buildings, which cost an estimated 31 million euros to build and refurbish, for office space, but he will not be living there. The living spaces will be given to the use of the diocesan museum, as well as for meetings, assemblies and other exhibitions. Bishop Bätzing himself will take up residence fifteen minutes away, in a small house built in the 1950s, offered for his use by retired vicar general Franz Kaspar. While the latter had use of the house for the rest of his life, he offered his house to the new bishop on the day that Msgr. Bätzing was appointed. Fr. Kaspar, considered the former right-hand man of Bishop Tebartz-Van Elst, has stated his wish to live outside the diocese. Earlier, the house was the residence of Bishop Walther Kampe, auxiliary bishop of Limburg from 1952 to 1984.

franz-peter-tebartz-van-elstThe other question revolves around Bishop Tebartz-Van Elst’s possible presence at the consecration of his successor. The retired bishop, who now works in the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation, has decided for himself that he will not travel to Limburg for the occasion. Bishop Bätzing will be consecrated on 18 September by Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki, as archbishop of Cologne the metropolitan of the Church province of which Limburg is a part, with co-consecrators Bishop Manfred Grothe, auxiliary bishop of Paderborn and apostolic administrator of Limburg until the installation of the new bishop, and Bishop Stephan Ackermann, bishop of Trier, the diocese where Bishop-elect Bätzing was a priest and vicar general until his appointment to Limburg.

Photo credit: [2] Getty

The long wait is over – A bishop for Limburg

It took two years, three months and a few days, but Limburg finally has a bishop again. Well, once he is ordained and installed, that is. Msgr. Georg Bätzing has been elected by the cathedral chapter and subsequently appointed yesterday by the Pope to become the 13th bishop of the Diocese of Limburg, which had been vacant since the forced retirement of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst in March of 2014.

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Msgr. Bätzing was born in 1961 in Kirchen, not far from the Diocese of Limburg. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Trier in 1987 following studies in Trier and Freiburg. After serving in parishes in Klausen and Koblenz, he was appointed as subsititute rector of the diocesan seminary in Trier. From 1996 to 2010 he led the seminary and was responsible for the whole of priestly formation in the diocese. He received the title of monsignor in 2005. Since 2012 he has been the vicar general of the diocese.

“If I knew how to laugh and cry at the same time, I would do it,” Msgr. Bätzen reflected on his appointment. The past days had been emotional, he said.  But the first moments of shock after hearing the news have been replaced by joy at his new assignment. Over the past two years he had hoped for a good bishop for the neighbouring Diocese of Limburg, but he never thought it would be him. Confident that God “has nothing but good for him in store”, he looks back on Trier, where his roots lie, and forward to Limburg, the faithful of which he asks to pray for him: “That our common path in the Church of Limburg will be good and under the blessing of God.”

Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier also commented on the appointment of hsi vicar general: “With Msgr. Bätzing, Limburg receives an excellent bishop. We all know that. We know Vicar General Bätzing as a person who is kindhearted, authentic and clear at the same time. Georg Bätzing can listen well, relies on participation, is a mediator, but does not shy away from making decisions. He is a priest in all his heart and an inspirational preacher.”

aachenmainzThe Diocese of Limburg was established in 1821 to cater to the Catholics in the then-current Duchy of Nassau, as well as the Free City of Frankfurt. Its territory was taken from the adjacent dioceses of Trier and Mainz. Originally a suffragan see of Freiburg, in 1929 it became a part of the Province of Cologne. In 1930 and 1933 it gained some more territory, from Fulda and Trier respectively. There are some 645,000 Catholics in the diocese, out of a total population of 2.4 million. It has few major cities aside from Wiesbaden and Frankfurt am Main, with the majority of Catholics concentrated in the south and northwest.

Now that Limburg has a bishop again, there are two vacant dioceses remaining in Germany (pictured above at right): Aachen, like Limburg a suffragan of Köln, and Mainz, which borders Limburg in two separate parts to the south and east.

Photo credit: Bistum Trier

“Remember your leaders” – In Echternach, Cardinal Eijk on St. Willibrord

Five years ago I wrote about the annual Echternach procession in honour of Saint Willibrord. In this year’s edition, which was held on Tuesday, Cardinal Wim Eijk gave the homily for the opening celebration. As archbishop of Utrecht and metropolitan of the Dutch Church province, he usually attends the procession, as St. Willibrord is the patron saint of the archdiocese, the Netherlands and Luxembourg (where he is buried iin Echternach abbey, which he founded in 698).

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In addition to Cardinal Eijk and Luxembourg’s Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich and his predecessor Archbishop Fernand Franck, other prelates attending included the Apostolic Nuncio to Belgium and Luxembourg, Archbishop Giacinto Berloco; Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond and his auxiliary Bishop Everard de Jong; Bishop Felix Genn of Münster with his auxiliary Bishop Wilfred Theising; Bishop Jean-Christophe Lagleize of Metz, Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier and his auxiliary Bishop Jörg Peters; Bishop Theodorus Hoogenboom, auxiliary of Utrecht; Bishop Franz Vorrath, auxiliary bishop emeritus of Essen, as well as the abbots of Clervaux in Luxembourg and Sankt Mathias Trier, Kornelimünster and Himmerod in Germany. In total, there were 9,383 participants in the procession, which started at 9:30 in the morning and ended at 1pm.

Cardinal Eijk’s homily follows below:

DSC05172“Dear brothers and sisters,

“Remember your leaders (that is, the Christian community leaders and pastors) who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith”,  we read in the Letter to the Hebrews (13:7). We do know to which community this letter was addressed. The author is similarly unknown. The background and the aim of the letter are, however, clear: the author is a pastor, who is worried as the faith in the community to whom he writes his letter is decreasing. Other ideas, which are alien to the Gospel, are being increasingly accepted: “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching” (Heb. 13:9). It is not said which teachings these are.

It is notable that the faith in this still young community is already under attack. The Letter to the Hebrews was written between the 70s and 90s of the first century, some forty to sixty years after the resurrection of Jesus, the first Pentecost and the beginning of the proclamation of the Gospel by the Church. When the decline has begun, it goes fast. This instinctively reminds us of the decline of the Dutch Church province in the 1960, which subsequently also became clear in other countries. This decline also took place in only a few years. We are flooded by new concepts and ideas that deny the Christian faith. In hindsight, our situation is comparable with the community to whom the Letter to the Hebrews was written. The advice to remember our leaders who first spoke the word of God to us, also goes for us.

Let us follow this advice. Saint Willibrord, who is called the Aposte of the Netherlands and who established Echternach Abbey, is one of the most important leaders who first proclaimed the Christian faith to us. What do we know about him? What characterised him and what drove him? How can he inspire us today? Willibrord was born in 658 in Northumberland (in the north of England). In his twenties he entered Rathmelsighi monastery in Dublin (Ireland) to prepare for a mission in the Netherlands. For twelve years he received a thorough education there. He got to know the spirituality of the Hiberno-Scottish monks. In 690 he came to the Netherlands with his companions. A year later he received from Pope Sergius I the mission to proclaim the Gospel among the Frisians. Willibrord expressly wanted to perform his mission in union with Rome and be a part of the entire world Church. During his second visit to Rome in 685 the Pope ordained him as archbishop of the Frisians and he received the pallium.

When we really want to know the spirit of Saint Willibrord and his motives, we must know a few things about the aforementioned Hiberno-Scottish monks. These did not strive for a systematic evangelisation and did not in the first place think of the creation of great structures and the establishment of dioceses. Their motive, to proclaim the faith, had in the first place to do with their focus on their own sanctification. They fostered an ascetical-mystical ideal: Like Christ during His earthly life and like His Apostles, they wanted to have no place to rest their heads (Matt. 8:20), and like them possess nothing and endure the suffering that would be theirs through rejection, misunderstanding, resistance and violence. They wanted to be what is called in Latin peregrini, meaning strangers or pilgrims, like Jesus and the Apostles themselves. It was their ideal to spread the good news like Jesus and the Apostles, as strangers without a permanent residence, following His call: “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29).

Willibrord and his companions wanted to heed this call and left their homeland with its already well-developed and widespread Christian structures, to proclaim Christ and His Gospel as peregrini among us on the European mainland. Willibrord experienced what it is to go with Jesus without being able to rely on established structures. He and his companions had the same experiences as Jesus during His earthly life. They too encountered misunderstanding and persecution. They found what it means that no slave is above his master (Matt. 10:24).

Of course, Willibrord also tried to rely on structures: he saught the protection of the Frankish royal house and established monasteries to support the mission. But in the beginning there were no structures at all. And what structures he established were frequently destroyed again, for example during a rebellion of the Frisians under their King Radbod. This also provides one of the explanations for the way in which the spring procession was held until 1947: with three steps forward and two back. This reflects the evangelisation, which in general was very fruitful, but not without times of serious setbacks.

As Willibrord and his companions could, at the start of their mission, not rely on permanent Christian structures, and as the structures they built were frequently destroyed again, their Hiberno-Scottish spirituality was not just their motivation, but also the most important means of their evangelisation. The direct imitation of Christ in their way of living gave them a strong personal charisma as disciples of Jesus. This was well-received: soon they were joined by missionaries from the areas they had evangelised, aglow with the same fire – like Saint Liudger, founder of the Diocese of Münster, born in Zuilen, a village near Utrecht and today a subburb of that city.

Can we not see a comparison here with what later happened multiple times in the Church? During the French Revolution and the the time after it, for example, the Church in western Europe lost many of her structures and took several steps backwards. But over the course of the nineteenth century the Church took many steps forward again.

Sadly we have to conclude that the Church has once again taken quite a few step back in the past fifty years. In the 1950s the communication of faith happened almost automatically, carried by our strong parishes, Catholic schools and other structures which played an important role in the past. Now even more than in the past, the advice is true: remember your leaders, who first spoke the word of God to you. Willibrord and his companions are an example for us because of their determination, based on the spirituality of the Hiberno-Scottish monks, to be on the road with Jesus, even without great structures, even in the face of opposition. That enabled them to withstand misunderstanding, criticism, opposition and setbacks and gave them the charisma of the disciples of Jesus during his earthly life. This was precisely what made their evangelisation – despite the frequently necessary steps back – very fruitful.

We have now taken steps backwards and can rely on ever fewer structures. We can’t literally follow Saint Willibrord, but we can be inspired by his spirituality. It not only shows us the way towards our own sanctification, but at the same time teaches us how we can proclaim the faith without structures of any kind. His spirituality, directed towards the development of a convincing personal charisma as disciples of Jesus, is, perhaps more than we realise, groundbreaking for the new evangelisation of western Europa. I am not a prophet, but we can anticipate that our current secular culture is not for ever and will at some point in the future be replaced by another culture. And who knows, perhaps then, in regard to our Christian structures, we can take a few steps forwards again. Amen.”

Photo gallery available here.