Inflating an aside – disagreements over a theoretical papal visit

“It is not impossible,” Pope Francis said about visiting the Netherlands. “And now that the Netherlands has an Argentine queen, who knows?”

hagrid meme

He may wish he had refrained from this aside in the interview with Straatnieuws, which was published last week. Because even this is reason for some to launch into diatribes about papal visits being blocked and bishops being less than keen to have the Holy Father come over.

Following the interview, the bishops’ conference released a statement to the effect that Pope Francis has always been and remains welcome, although there is, at this time, no official invitation. Early last year Cardinal Eijk, president of the conference, enquired with Pope Francis about a visit to the Netherlands, to which the Holy Father replied that he did not see a chance in the near future. The bishops acknowledged this in last week’s statement, and repeated that a visit remains possible, “if there is space in everyone’s agenda”. Earlier today, they once again stated something similar, adding that the Pope is aware that he is welcome and that the bishops remain in contact with Pope Francis about it.

Some have called this a pathetic response, and others have – once again – sent an open letter to the media to convince the Pope to come and visit after all. A visit that, they claim or at least suggest, the bishops do not want, but which the faithful desperately need.

Thus an image is drawn based on a faulty perception: the Pope’s comment in the interview is taken far too seriously (of course he is not going to say he doesn’t want to come and visit), and the bishops’ statement, coupled with the continued absence of any preparation for a papal visit, is seen as active opposition on the part of the local episcopate.

It would be wonderful if Pope Francis would make an apostolic journey to the Netherlands, but let’s be realistic. It’s not as if our country is significant when seen from Rome, nor will it feature high on the list of Pope Francis’ priorities. The financial  and logistical side, not unimportant, requires careful preparation. An open invitation or petition by itself is not going to do that. I don’t blame the bishops for being careful. To see that as a sign of opposition is delusional.

A papal visit should unite the faithful – bishops and laity -, not draw lines. At this moment, the latter is happening.

The Synod – time for some personal thoughts

There is so much talk about the Synod that it’s hard to decide what to blog about it when available blogging hours per day are limited. Should I focus on what I thought about all the interventions, the rumours, the hopes and fears? Or would it be a good idea to make available the translated texts from some of the Synod fathers that have been making headlines in the runup to the Synod? Just some of the questions I asked myself. Obviously I decided to focus on the latter, and it has proven to be a good decision, judging from the interest it has been getting.

But of course I do have thoughts on the Synod, and as this is a blog, I will be sharing some of them.

First of all, we are looking at glimpses of the Synod from the outside, which limits the amount of reliable information we are getting. Of course, some reports and interpretations are more reliable than others, and personally I find myself gravitating towards the more level-headed reports. The Synod is not over yet, so I find myslef annoyed at the fear and panic in some quarters of the web. As if they already know what the result is going to be: a disaster for Church and faith. I somehow doubt that. We should be glad if this Synod even has a lasting effect.

I have been translating the interventions of the Belgian and German Synod fathers (it’s a shame that the sole Dutch Synod father, Cardinal Eijk, has chosen not to disclose his text). Does that mean I agree with them? No, not automatically. I also don’t subscribe to the notion that just because it’s written by a Belgian or a German it’s automatically heresy. They have good things to say. They also say some things which I find worrisome. An example. I’m not a theologian, but I don’t see a reason for divorced and remarried Catholics to be allowed to receive Communion. If we take the indissolubility of marriage seriously, as well as the words of Jesus in Matthew 9, we can’t say that divorce and remarrying is no big deal. Certainly, this makes things difficult for the people involved, no doubt about that. But what is the basis of our faith? The person, words and actions of Jesus or the emotions and feelings of people? The latter, which does not mean we should not take the latter seriously. And that is what I believe this Synod is, or should be, about.

As the German bishops especially have emphasised, we must go to the people where they are. Jesus did. But He didn’t tell them to stay there. He told them to change their circumstances. “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus does not condemn us, but does urge us to change our ways. That is what we as Church should always keep in mind and try to emulate. Not condemning people, but urging them to leave their wrongs behind them.

The fruitful path for the Synod is, in my opinion, not to be found in changing doctrine, but in pastoral practice. There is much to win there in term of efficiency.

How to deal with all the rumours about the Synod? Ignore them. There is one reliable source to learn about the atmosphere, the factions or lack thereof, on the Synod floor, and that is the Synod fathers themselves. They’re categorically denying the existence of factions, of fighting and anger. It’s a good and fruitful effort, they say, with room for debate, discussion, disagreement even. That’s the hallmark of any proper debate. We shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming to know what certain cardinals, bishops or even the Pope wants or tries to do. If we learn about a letter to the Pope, that is no reason to scream “rebellion!”, but a perfectly normal way of communicating. The Pope is not above debate and can deal with questions and even different opinions.

We are Catholics, which means we have a living faith of hope and beauty. We are not unfamiliar with some optimism and trust in the Holy Spirit. Let Him do His work. Do not presume to always know better .

francis synod

^Even the Pope has reason to smile going into the Synod, so let us not be too grumpy

Danger and salvation – At Bishop Bentz’s ordination, Cardinal Lehmann about the office of bishop

udo bentz ordinationIn his homily at the ordination of Bishop Udo Bentz as auxiliary bishop of Mainz, last Sunday, Cardinal Karl Lehmann drew heavily on St. Augustine, and especially on his thoughts on the office of bishop, and the dangers of it. The cardinal wants to emphasise the fact that a bishop always remains a part of the faithful, with whom he  shares a common Christianity.

There is also a personal element in the homily, towards the end, as Cardinal Lehmann reflects on his many years as bishop of Mainz and the people he shared that time with. It is hard not to read this in the light of his upcoming retirement. Aged 79, it is a safe bet that Cardinal Lehmann will retire between now and his 80th birthday, on 16 May next year. He has been the bishop of Mainz since 1983, and as such he is the longest-serving German bishop, and one who is still the ordinary of the diocese he was ordained for.

Here is the cardinal’s homily in my translation:

lehmann“Honourable sisters and brothers in the Lord!

Dear brother Dr. Udo M. Bentz, about to be ordained as bishop!
Dear co-consecrators Karl-Josef Cardinal Rauber and Archbishop Stephan Burger!
Dear brothers in the office of deacon, priest and bishop!

What is a bishop? Why and how do we have such an office in the Church? An initial answer can already be found in the word for this service. “Episcopus“, from which the word bishop comes, is one who “oversees”, and a “guardian”, a “supervisor”. From the Bible, the word also derives from “shepherd”. Incidentally, the liturgy of ordination, the act of ordination, with its ancient signs and gestures, words and hymns, so eloquent and filled with meaning, that any preaching can be but a small introduction to these events. I will mention but one especially impressive image: during the entire prayer of ordination two priests hold the Gospel book above the head of the ordained. The bishop should be completely under the Gospel and serve Him.

Today I choose another path and will discuss some words from Saint Augustine. As is well known, as bishop of Hippo on northern Africa, he would always speak about the office of bishop on the day of his ordination. He would certainly also have done so at bishops’ ordinations in the African Church province. Sita, the titular see of Udo Bentz, in north Africa, belonged to it. One can already learn much from these homilies.  I want to try and do so with you.

For that purpose I have chosen a text from the homilies, which is incidentally also quoted in the great text about the Church from the Second Vatican Council (LG 32): “What I am for you terrifies me; what I am with you consoles me. For you I am a bishop; but with you I am a Christian. The former is a duty; the latter a grace. The former is a danger; the latter, salvation” (Serm. 340, 1: PL 38, 1483).

During the Second Vatican Council this text was cited as an important point in relation to the statements concerning the laity. That may surprise, since there is a separate chapter on bishops. Here in relation to the laity, they and the holders of offices become in a very fundamental way like brothers, yes, like a family of God, through which the new commandment of love in realised. At many points, especially in the second chapter of the Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council strongly emphasised this fundamental commonality. That is why it is a very fundamental decision of the Council to concentrate the understanding of the People of God on the commonality of all believers, and not in advance on any distinction between the various charisms, services and offices. A “true equality” can then be established in building up the Body of Christ and in the call to holiness. As LG 32 puts it: “And if by the will of Christ some are made teachers, pastors and dispensers of mysteries on behalf of others, yet all share a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity common to all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ. For the distinction which the Lord made between sacred ministers and the rest of the People of God bears within it a certain union, since pastors and the other faithful are bound to each other by a mutual need. Pastors of the Church, following the example of the Lord, should minister to one another and to the other faithful. These in their turn should enthusiastically lend their joint assistance to their pastors and teacher” (Constitution on the Church “Lumen gentium”, Chapter 4, par. 32). It is understandable that these words from Saint Augustine have often been repeated very often in recent years and decades, together with the remarks from the Constitution on the Church about the laity.

Certainly, one should not take this text as noncommittal expression of a mere personal modesty. This is about a true theology of office and at the same time about the unity of Christianity in the variety of tasks.

“For you I am a bishop…” Augustine does not see the office as contained in itself, in its value and power. Her understands it entirely in relation to the task entrusted to him. The office of bishop is entirely a service to the sisters and brothers in the faith. Augustine also says this in another way, that  the guidance and leadership are only fulfilled in the fruitfulness and “usefulness” of his service to the people.

As we know, Augustine considered the task of being bishop a burden on his shoulder and which often also depressed him. From that comes the anxiety and doubt if he really did justice to his task, especially in the eyes of others, and fulfilled it adequately before God. This is in sharp contrast to many homilies at a first Mass or anniversary of a bishop, even in our time. For Augustine wonder if this high office, which certainly demands much of him, is not a great danger to himself. We often think differently and often believe that a high official is already closer to God because of his position, and has so many merits that God will automatically save him and give him eternal life. For Augustine, the office is no relief, but a danger to his salvation, as becomes very clear in the sermon quoted at the beginning. In the Middle Ages they thought similarly. One need only think of Dante.

What comforts the bishop of Hippo in the face of this danger, is the shared Christianity with all sisters and brothers. Here the bishop is part of “normal” Christian life. There each is first responsible for himself when this can also be freely extended to others. So Augustine can say, in short, “Learning is dangerous, but students are safe”. He who stands “above” others, must be judged and addressed according to the measure of his task. The terror of this diminishes when one completely becomes a part of the flock of believers. This unity is even more important than the office alone.

Many burdens of office become light when one is quite humble in relations with the normal and simple People of God. I personally often like to speak in this regard of belonging to the “foot soldiers” of God. It then also becomes visible what has been given and asked of others and does not overestimate oneself. This unity in Christianity with many other makes more modest and humble. It is in any case contrary to all overconfidence of office.

Nevertheless, Augustine is very much aware about the own responsibility of the office, which he does not underestimate. He also does not deny it. He talks about the office as a duty (officium). He agrees with Pope Gregory the Great that the bishop is the “watcher”, the one who looks ahead and so has to lead the way. He must be ready for conflicts if the Gospel demands it. Like Jesus he must also be willing to give his own life. This can result in a profound loneliness. That is why the unity with all the faithful is, once again, so important.

That one statement by St. Augustine, “What I am for you…”, which reflects, with many similar insights in his work, a deep grounding in the Triune God, says more about the office of bishop and its execution than many great treatises about the theology of office. I am in any case grateful to St. Augustine for these words. For me they remain valuable and helpful.

As bishop, I have been able to experience  this mutual support, this shared Christianity and life in various duties here in Mainz for a long and rich time. I thank the many women and men, young and old for the solidary way with which they supported our service. Time and again, I was able to gratefully feel this foundation, together with my predecessors Bishop Stohr and Cardinal Volk, and the auxiliary bishops Joseph Maria Reus, Wolfgang Rolly, Franziskus Eisenbach, Werner Guballa and Ulrich Neymeyr. This applies to both voluntary and paid staff. Because of it I was able to always do my duty with joy and gratitude. A prerequisite is certainly that one listens to others and remains in dialogue with them and that one acknowledges what others say until the end, as Saint Benedict teaches us in his rule, and that one is also willing to accept corrections. Only in this way unity is possible without blurring the differences in responsibilities.

With this gratitude I also ask that we maintain this valuable heritage of a good tradition in the Church, for which Saint Augustine stands and which once again comes to life in the Second Vatican Council, through our working together, not only today, but also tomorrow, as an indispensible element in the construction of the Church of Mainz. I also wish this spiritual and pastoral heritage for you, dear Udo M. Bentz, in the name of all present on your ordination day and for your service. Carry the torch of faith onwards. The fire still burns under the ashes. Amen.

Karl Cardinal Lehmann, Bishop of Mainz”


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.


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catholics, Creation and Ecumenism

prayerPope Francis recently declared that the date of 1 September would from now on be the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. The Dutch bishops followed suit and called for all fatheful and people of good will to pray for the protection of and care for creation. Not only does this emphasise the place of humanity, and especially Catholic Christians, in the whole of creation, but it also sheds a light on the ecumenical priorities of Pope Francis.

The start with that last fact, Pope Francis has long been cultivating his personal relations with the Orthodox Church in the persons of its highest-ranking prelates. This new World Day of Prayer is the Catholic version of an Orthodox day of prayer for the same purpose: creation. So he has established yet another day on which Catholics and Orthodox share prayers and goals, and it is hard not to see this is a prelude to a common date of Easter, which I personally believe may not be that far off. Easter is the most important event for the Church of both West and East, and an important waypost on the road to future unity.

And why Creation? It is impossible not to see this in relation to Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ (the official Dutch translation of which is available for preorder now), which discusses our responsibility for the world around us. Some consider this to be a bad thing, but it is of course a perfectly reasonable and important topic for a Pope to talk about. After all, we are stewards, not just of ourselves and our relationship with God, but of the entire world around us. And as such we have a responsibility to protect and take care of Creation. And not only we, but everyone in the world, Christian or not. That makes Creation a perfect ecumenical topic.

Bishop Gerard de Korte, Theologian Laureate

korteLast night, during the annual night of theology – during which Dutch theologians look back on and celebrate recent developments in the field – Bishop Gerard de Korte was elected as the first “theologian laureate”. The title is an unofficial one and the most recent one after the “most talked about theologian” and the “theologian of the year”.

Bishop de Korte will be an ambassador of theology for the coming year and will be commenting on current affairs from a theological point of view (much like he does in his recently-launched blog). He was one of three nominees and won with a clear majority.

It all sounds nice, of course, but in reality the bishop’s title will not make a major difference. At most it will be putting theology, the person of the bishop and the Catholic Church in the spotlight. But Bishop de Korte has been doing much of what the title asks of him for at least the past five years. In the bishops’ conference he is the go-to prelate for matters of Church and society, so he often speaks on behalf of the conference on television and radio, and he frequently contributions opinion pieces and articles to written media,the diocesan website and his aforementioned blog.

A recognition of his work, then, with the hope that it may continue and bear good fruit.