The thin line of hope – After Syria, Bishop Bonny reflects on Easter

In February, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp visited Syria. Visiting Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, he saw firsthand the destruction wrougth by years of war and also the incessant work of the churches to help the people caught in the middle. For Easter, he looks back on his journey:

Verwoestingen in Oost-Aleppo (2)

I took the photo above in Syria, in the destroyed eastern part of Aleppo. What do you see? A background and a foreground. Two opposed images. In the background only destruction: no doors, no windows, no roofs, no transport, no life. The bombardments and fighting was exceptionally heavy in the final months of 2016. All means were employed, even chemical weapons. Until all the houses and streets were destroyed and all inhabitants had left. But, in the foreground, there is a red round water tank, which the government has recently placed there. A truck comes to fill it every day. Next to the water tank there are four children. They come to collect water in recycled plastic bottles. They will bring it to their mother, somewhere in the ruins. They are two opposite images. The dead stones and the living water. The ruins and the children. An between them: the thin line of hope.

What is Easter about? About death and life. And about the thin line of hope.

The background of Easter is dark and cold. Jesus was nailed to the cross and has died. Friends placed his dead body in a tomb. The disciples have lost all faith and hope. For can anything good come from a grave? What they have gone through with Jesus will fade to memory. Leaving seems their only option. How many people today do not have those feelings! They look out over ruins or a tomb. Little is left of their former joy or friendship. Life of fate has hit them hard. The injustice or irreversibility of what has happened to them weighs heavily. The stone has covered the entrance of the tomb.

But, the foreground of Easter is different. It happens in the early hours. At dawn, the women go to the tomb. They see that the stone is rolled away The tomb is empty.

Jesus is not dead, He lives! He is not gone, He has risen!

Jesus has begun a new story. We celebrate that divine event at Easter. As a sign of Jesus’ resurrection we light the paschal candle and bless the waters of baptism. New Christians are baptised with that water in the Easter vigil. The priest also sprinkles the faithful with that water, not a little, but generously. Water belongs to Easter: fresh water, as a first sign of new life and hope. Are there ruins to clear in your life?

Do you fear the future? At Easter, let yourself by sprinkled with newly blessed baptismal water!

The fresh splash does good. It startled. It breaks through resignation. It makes barren ground soft and fertile.

The photo from Aleppo is my photo for Easter. I had it enlarged and it now stands on my desk. It is not a nice photo. No plus Easter bunny or yellow chick. No pretty creation or decoration. It is reality. When I bless the baptismal water at Easter and sprinkle the faithful with it, I will think of the red round water tank in Aleppo and the children next to it.

Hope does not begin again in a grand scale. Hope beings again small.

Hope begins again where we can collect fresh water to live on. Does that clear the ruins? Does it ensure the future? Not immediately and not by itself. But life is given a new opportunity. We can begin a new story. The thin line of hope appears again.

In the Easter Gospel the women are the first to arrive at the empty tomb. There, they are immediately given a task from the angel: “Go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you” (Mark 16:7). What lies in the heart of Galilee? Not a water tank, but a big lake full of water and fish. There Jesus awaits His disciples, as the Risen Lord.

There they can begin anew, with Him, as “fishers of men”.

What is my wish for you for Easter? That you may find the ‘living water’ and that you may share it, even if with a recycled bottle, like the children in the photo.

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Flowers for the Vatican

Like every year, the flowers that will decorate St. Peter’s Square in Rome for Easter left the Netherlands. In the public flower garden Keukenhof Bishop Hans van den Hende sent them off with a blessing, saying:

“We pray and ask for blessing to thank God for creation, for growth and life, which we receive from God. And we ask God’s blessing for the journey, so that these flowers and plants, which have been the subject of so much work and expertise, may come to full bloom in St. Peter’s Square. At Easter we celebrate that Christ is risen. The colourful flowers, plants and trees emphasise that Easter is our most important feast, looking ahead to eternity with God.”

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Last year, the flowers were subject of several attacks by seagulls. While Bishop van den Hende recalled that gulls and flowers are part of the same creation, and assumed they would be able to settle things together, the Holy See and the Dutch florists seem less sure of that. The flowers will be protected by kites looking like birds of prey and – only when there is no one in the square – lasers. This is similar to methods used at airports to keep landing strips clear of birds.

Meanwhile, on the other side of St. Peter’s, other Dutch flowers are blooming in the Vatican gardens. The tulip bulbs were a gift from King Willem Alexander during his state visit last June, and these have now produced white tulips, Dutch ambassador to the Holy See, Prince Jaime de Bourbon de Parme, reports:

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Photo credit: [1] St. Willibrord parish, [2] Prince Jaime

Outreach – Bishop de Korte explains why his cathedral hosts a prayer service to open a gay pride event

Recently trickling into international Catholic media was the planned ecumenical prayer service at ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s cathedral basilica of St. John the Evangelist, planned expressly to open the annual Pink Saturday gay pride event. There has been much concern and criticism that a catholic church, a cathedral even, is used in a manifestitation that revolves around something that is so at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Some feared that the service could be construed as a form of support of the extravagant lifestyle so often associated with pride manifestations.

Following the first meeting of his new presbyteral council, and upon that council’s request, Bishop Gerard de Korte has written the following letter to not only explain the reasoning behind holding the prayer service, but also to delve into the Catholic Church’s teachings surrounding homosexuality and the balance between doctrine and life.

It is a careful letter, but one that should be admired for the bishop’s sensitive treatment of the issue, and attitude that is often lacking in debates about this issue. The bishop acknowledges his own duties as shepherd and has stressed that the prayer service can not contain anything that is contrary to Catholic doctrine.

In the end, the cathedral administrator and the bishop have made one of two choices. They could have kept far away from any acknowledgement of the pride events taking place in their city, or they could have taken the bold step towards some form of dialogue. They have chosen the latter. A prayer service is in the first place about meeting God, the bishop argues, and not supporting or protesting anything.

The location, St. John’s, is also striking since in 2010 it was the site of protests, supported by gay right activists and even some politicians, during Mass against the denial of Holy Communion to a practising homosexual.

bisschop-de-korte“Brothers and sisters,

On Thursday 1 June the new presbyeral council met for the first time. Among other things, we discussed the ecumenical prayer service which will be held at the start of Pink Saturday (24 June) in the cathedral. Some priests were concerned; others were glad about the breathing room provided. The planned ecumenical prayer service not only triggered discussion among priests, but also among other faithful. Homosexuality remains a sensitive topic in our Church, leading to much emotion. The presbyteral council has asked me to clarify my own position in a letter. It will in the first place be about the prayer service in St. John’s, but also about the topic of Church and homosexuality in a broader sense.

Ecumenical prayer service

The ecumenical prayer service at the cathedral is the primary responsibility of the pastoral team, especially the cathedral administrator. I know that administrator Van Rossem carefully deliberated it. He obviously discussed the service with the church council, but also with me. The cathedral is, after all, the bishop’s church. I left the decision with the administrator, under the condition that nothing will be said during the prayer service that goes against Church teaching. The contents of the prayer service can not be allowed to hurt the religious feelings of our faithful.

The cathedral administrator ultimately made a positive decision. It is very important that the service is prepared by the administrator and three preachers from ‘s-Hertogenbosch. They trust each other and are aware of the concerns of a part of the faithful. I have full confidence that the service will be serene. Every worship service revolves around the worship of and encounter with God. Liturgy requires stillness and can never be used for protests or demonstrations. Those present at the prayer service will hopefully be encouraged and strengthened in their faith that God loves us unconditionally in Christ. The cathedral administrator and the preachers have asked me, as bishop, to conclude the service with a brief word and a blessing.

During Pink Saturday there will probably be things taking place in the city which are strongly disapproved of by Catholics and other Christians, including homosexual Christians. In that regard I recall the remark of one of our priests during the presbyteral council meeting on 1 June. During the days of carnival there are also things taking place which are hard to reconcile with Catholic ethics. That is, however, no reason to abandon carnival services.

Church and homosexuality

I have the need to not only discuss the planned ecumenical prayer service in this letter, but also the topic of Church and homosexuality. In the Roman Catholic view marriage, the life bond between man and woman, is the framework of an ordered experience of sexuality. The unconditional love and faithfulness of God as thus reflected in marriage. Other forms of sexuality are considered disordered. As a Roman Catholic bishop I am called to uphold this teaching.

This vision is, however, at odds with the dominant ideas about relationships and sexuality in modern Netherlands. A great part of our own Church people is influenced by modern secular culture. The result is a deep chasm between the word of the Church and the experience of many outside, but also inside our Church. One thing and another often leads to misunderstanding, anger and regret. As a bishop, however, I feel called to continue seeking out dialogue, no matter how difficult it often is.

Every bishop, but also every priest, is not only a teacher, but also a shepherd. He is aware of the tensions between teachings and life, also and especially in the area of sexuality. The Church’s ideal and stubborn reality regularly clash. It is pastoral wisdom to not use the teachings of the Church as a stick to strike with, but as a staff to lean on.

Traditionally the Church has known the saying: a lion in the pulpit, a lamb in the confessional. This implies that a wise shepherd tries to find an accessible way with every faithful. The Church’s norms are rarely achieved in concrete existence. In those cases we are not called to throw stones. When God starts counting sins, no one remains standing. But God is forgiveness and that nourishes us. We can and must appear before the face of the Lord with all the rough edges of a life lived.

Now what?

Faithful homosexuals, but also their parents and other family, often struggle with many questions. Which way to go? Is it possible to find a relationship of love and trust within the limits of Catholic morality? The Church asks homosexual people to live in abstinence. Such a life can only be lived healthily and happily when one experiences true friendship with other people and with God. This is also a duty for our parishes. Within the Catholic community, homosexuals should find kindness and friendship. Christians are called to honest charity. It is about the acceptance of every person as God’s creature.

The Church’s norms about experiencing sexuality are clear and the bar is set high, certainly according to dominant Dutch culture. Faithful are called to relate to the norms of the Church and form their conscience. Every faithful goes his or her way with God and conscience is the final and ultimate authority. A tension may possibly continue to exist between the truth of the Church and the conscience of every individual faithful. When parents find that one of their children is homosexual, they are called to surround that child with all care and love. The same is, I am convinced, true for the Church as mother.

United in Christ,

Msgr. dr. Gerard de Korte
Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch”

For Hasselt and the Blessed Virgin, a papal blessing

Pope Francis has sent a letter and apostolic blessing to Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt on the occasion of the 18th Coronation Feasts in Tongres, which are to be held from 3 to 10 July. The feasts include  Belgium’s largest processions and has been recognised as an immaterial world heritage.

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Bishop Hoogmartens personally asked the Holy Father for his blessing:

“Our Lady, Cause of Our Joy, is after all the patron saint of the Diocese of Hasselt, which celebrated its 50th anniversary next year. The runup to this anniversary starts with the Coronation Feasts and ends in the summer of 2017, after the Virga Jesse feasts in Hasselt. In my meeting with the Pope I told him this and asked for his blessing. I then repeated my request in writing to the nunciature. I am very happy that, through the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, he has granted his papal blessing to all of the 3,000 participants, the parishes of Tongres and, in extension, the faithful of the Diocese of Hasselt. But also to the people who will come to watch the Coronation Feasts, and who will participate in the celebrations surrounding Mary, Cause of Our Joy.”

The tradition of the Coronation Feasts goes back to 1890 when the statue of the Blessed Virgin in Tongres was crowned. Georges Willemaers, chairman of the organising committee, explains, “The entire Gospel is made manifest through the life of Mary. This takes place in four processions through the centre of the city, and a similar number of evening plays before the tower of the basilica.”

In his letter, Pope Francis asks the Blessed Virgin “to guide all towards the mildness of her face, so that everyone may redisover the joy of God’s tenderness.” The letter will be read out in all parishes of the diocese in this weekend.

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^A Passion play depicting the birth of Christ and the visit of the Magi, during an earlier edition of the Coronation Feasts. More photos may be viewed here.

Tongres, located roughly halfway between Liège and Hasselt, is one of western Europe’s oldest Catholic centres. It became the seat of a bishop in 344, although it soon had to share this honour with Maastricht, which then became the sole residence of the bishop in the 6th century. Today, Tongres’ history is reflected in it being a titular diocese, which has been held by Bishop Pierre Warin, auxiliary bishop of Namur, since 2004. The Diocese of Hasselt, of which Tongres is a part, was established in 1967 out of the Dutch-speaking part of the Diocese of Líège. It corresponds with the Belgian province of Limburg. Bishop Hoogmartens, in office since 2004, is its third bishop.

Road signs – how changing the teaching of the Church leads us nowhere

In Germany the Central Committee of German Catholics, the ZdK, has been calling for pastoral and doctrinal changes to the Catholic understanding of marriage and family. Earlier this week, it seemed as if the Conference of Dutch Religious, the KNR, was following suit.

Towards the end of April, the KNR, through its commission for women, was involved in the organisation of a symposium on relationships and family, with a special focus on divorce, homosexuality and migration, in the light of the Synod of Bishops’ assemblies about the same topic. The symposium’s closing statement, which appeared on the KNR website on the 20th of May, summarises the conclusions and outlines what the participants – some 70 priests, religious and laity in all – think the bishops should decide and promote at the upcoming general assembly. Some of their points, such as simplifying the process of nullification of marriages or increasing pastoral sensitivity towards the divorced – are already being investigated and developed in the Church. Others are rather problematic and clash with the Catholic understanding of marriage and family, and thus ultimately with the sacrament of marriage and the order of Creation as has been given to us by God.

The symposium suggest the following in addition to the non-problematic points I already mentioned. I have added my comments in [red].

  • More respect for the decisions and the conscience of remarried faithful. [There is  a difference between respecting decisions and conscience and allowing things. One can respect a decision and still point out the consequences. The reverse is also true: the person making a decision must be aware and respect the consequences of it. Of course, no one should be forcing anyone towards or away from a decision, but the Church does have a duty of honesty towards people. In the end, we are free people, free to make informed choices, but that is not the be-all and end-all.]
  • Finding a new word for “annulment” as many people do not want to deny the relationship that existed. [To me this sounds like a superficial nicety. Sure “annulment” is a legalistic term that does not sound nice, but the end of a marriage is not nice. It should be remembered that an annulment does not mark the end of a marriage, but the conclusion that there never was a sacramental marriage to begin with. Nothing is ended, since there was nothing to begin with. Is that denial of a relationship? Of course not. Everyone, and the couple involved certainly, will see that there most certainly was a relationship. We should not need to change words to realise that.]
  • Reconsidering doctrine and practice regarding divorce, using the Orthodox Churches as an example. [This is problematic in a way that I know little about, but Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, Secretary of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, explains in Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church that there is no single Orthodox understanding or praxis regarding these issues, in addition to other problems. Taking the Orthodox example may not be as straightforward or desirable as it seems.]
  • Marking the end of a marriage with some sort of ritual [This is vague enough to be hard to disagree with. What sort of ritual? Is it one of celebration or mourning? A ritual for people or for God? Is there even something to mark the ending of?]

Regarding homosexuality, the closing statement lists three points:

  • Considering the relationships of people of the same sex, who love each other and take care of each other, as equal to heterosexual relationships and respecting them as such. [This is a difficult one. A distinction must be made between people and relationships. People are always equal, with the same human diginity that God has given all of us. And this should be the basis of how we interact with each other. Relationships, a vague enough term to encompass everything from being neighbours, colleagues at work, up to and including marriage, are not equal. There may be similarities between homosexual and heterosexual relationships, but there are also differences. When we start to consider them as fully equal we disregard the differences, which are not inconsequential. Sure, we can respect the love and responsibility in all relationships (these are inherently good things), but at the same time we acknowledge a fullness that we are called to strive for as far as we can. When we say that all relationships are the same, we deny this, and thus deny God].
  • Re-assessing the anthropology of the Church on the basis of modern insights from psychology, biology and philosophy. [While the Church must always be open to what we learn of the world and humanity through science, this must never be a reason to close the door to revelation. God has taught us about ourselves, and continues to do so through Scripture, Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church. The Church must remain careful to not be swept away with the winds of time. The teaching, including that about sexuality, marriage and family, can not be subject to the whims of the times. Besides, discovering new facts about human nature and sexuality is not in itself reason to change doctrine and practice, but an invitation to work out how both are compatible and can be understood through each other. The Church does not teach primarily because she discovers things (although she does that too), but because she has been given a teaching.]
  • If so desired to bless unions other than the classical marriage between man and woman. [There are two things to consider here. First, there is the blessing itself: in order to bless something, the Church must be in favour of it, and consider it something that must benefit from the blessing in order to flourish. Same-sex relationships (or, if we keep to the language of the statement, any relationship one can think of – even including between adult and minors, people and their pets, with multiple spouses and so on) do not in themselves meet these criteria, regardless of the good they can manifest, such as love and care. Secondly, the Church blesses publicly, not in secret. Assuming a way was found to bless the love and care in a relationship, but not the relationship itself, the Church must take care to show that this is what it is doing. Today, there is a high risk that any such blessing is seen as a sacramental marriage, something which the Church cannot support].

This will sound like a whole bunch of negatives, and that is in itself problematic too. The message of the Church is not a negative one, but it is different to what comes to us in society. The whole of love, family, sexuality and everything connected to it, the Church teaches, is more than just the desires of individual people. That is what it begins with, of course, but it can become so much more. That is what God has called us to from the very beginning, and that is what the Church continues to uphold.

It is exceedingly important for the Church to look at how she presents this, which is why, I believe, Pope Francis called the Synod to begin with: not to change doctrine, but to revitalise the pastoral work of the Church in this field. In order to so, the Church must be honest and open, truthful and welcoming, even when her conversational partners are not. She must speak, but also listen, for the feelings, desires and questions of people are very real, and they deserve acknowledgement and answers.

By changing teachings, the Church shows she does not take herself seriously. So why should anyone else? Listening and acknowledging is not automatically the same as accepting, although society would often have us believe it is. Not agreeing is the same as disrespecting or opposing, we so often hear or read, sometimes bluntly, sometimes between the lines. Instead, we should always look to Jesus, who did not agree with the Pharisees, tax collectors and other sinners, but who nevertheless sat down and ate with them and listened to their stories. He took them seriously enough to listen and then correct them when necessary. And we know that that approach worked, far better than bluntly pointing fingers and calling someone a sinner.

We are people called to great things, to fully become ourselves in love. None of us is perfect, and we all have our particular challenges on the road towards the fullness in God. We are not called to sit down and give up, or to walk past those who have sat down (or worse, encourage them to sit down and give up), but to continue, to help those who struggle and can’t see where to go anymore. And to do that, we need clear signs along the road, not arrows towards side roads that lead nowhere.

Rain and wind didn’t stop us – impressions of a pilgrimage

Last Saturday, as I shared on this blog, I went on pilgrimage to Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed. While it is impossible to share my personal experience with mere words, I think photos will do as well. I can, however, say, that this year’s pilgrimage did not disappoint in either surprises – a rain storm as we were just about halfway to the shrine – or devotion and familial comforts.

Anyway, some photos:

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^Beginning with Mass at the Church of St. Boniface in Wehe-den Hoorn, Father Maurits Damsté takes care to give everyone present their share of holy water as the cathedral schola, which had travelled north for the occasion, sings the “Asperges me“. Just like our Baptism washed us clean of our sins, we pray that our confession of sins and the sacrifice of the Lord which we celebrate in Holy Mass will also wash us “whiter than snow”.

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^The shrine containing the relics of several holy hermits – including St. Anthony Abbot and St. Gerlac – is being lifted onto the shoulders of four servers. During the Mass it stood before the altar, and for several years now, it has had pride of place in the procession.

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^Assembling the procession line, which went rather easily this time around.

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^For the first time, the procession was a sacramental one, as Fr. Maurits carried the Blessed Sacrament underneath a canopy upheld by four men. This is really having the Lord join us. This was also when the rain started to fall.

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^Amid the windswept fields of northern Groningen – not to mention the rain and even rumblings of thunder – it is not always easy to maintain composure, especially when carrying big things which catch lots of the aforementioned wind and rain.

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^Some evidence that your humble blogger also did his part. I’m the soaked person holding the pole with a statue of the Blessed Virgin, right behind the reliquary of the holy hermits.

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^Big skies, tiny procession.

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^The rain has stopped, but evidently did its thing.

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^Arriving in Warfhuizen, home of Our Lady.

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^Holy Hour in the mercy chapel. Father Maurits incenses the Blessed Sacrament in this image taken from behind the enclosure grille.
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^Prayers. It has become traditional for faithful to individually ask for prayers for specific intentions (provided they are comfortable with doing so in public), which the entire congregation then takes up. It makes things quite personal and sometimes emotional.

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^A blessing with the Blessed Sacrament. Perfect conclusion to procession, devotion and prayer.

Photo credit: [1-7, 9-12] Marjo Antonissen Steenvoorden, [8] Sander Zwezerijnen

Mass, disturbed

Painful scenes in Cologne’s cathedral on Christmas morning. As Cardinal Meisner, on his 80th birthday, celebrated the birth of the Lord among us, a disturbed woman mounted the altar and struck a pose, bare-breasted, shouting “I am God!”. She was forcefully removed from the sacristy and cathedral

Footage below (it may be disturbing):

Like Brussels’ Archbishop Léonard – another target of Femen hooligans before him – Cardinal Meisner remained as calm as can be in his response. At the end of Mass he offered his blessing to all, including the woman who, he said, “needs it most”. He has not made much mention of the incident since. Auxiliary Bishop Dominik Schwaderlapp deemed the action not worthy to make a big fuss about.

Like the earlier incident with Archbishop Léonard, it is perhaps a good thing to express your support and prayerful union with the cardinal archbishop and the faithful of Cologne. Cardinal Meisner may be contacted via this address:

Seiner Eminenz Joachim Kardinal Meisner
Erzbischöfliches Haus
Kardinal-Frings-Straße 10
50668 Köln

It is also good to pray for this obviously disturbed woman and others who are tempted by evil ideologies and actions.