Doing more with less – how to face the challenge of church closings

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkI recently made my Dutch-language blogging debut over at Broodje Paap, and the subject of that first post – how to respond to necessary church closing and parish mergers – remains topical. Today, Cardinal Wim Eijk, target of much criticism and often seen as personally responsible for the decline of Catholic life in his Archdiocese of Utrecht – personally reacted on Radio 1 (a very welcome development in itself – we need to see and hear our bishops in the media more often).

In his radio interview, Cardinal Eijk laid out the facts that caused him to make disconcerting predictions of more than 90% of the Catholic churches in the archdiocese closing in the next 20 years. Some of his critics have presented this prediction as active policy on the cardinal’s part, but, as the cardinal said today, he doesn’t like it any more than we do. But we can’t close our eyes to the facts.

The Church in the Netherlands is, by and large, old. There are young people, of course, but in many churches and parishes, the elderly are in majority. This has an effect on finances and prospects for the future. With ever-decreasing financial contributions from the faithful, parishes and dioceses must look to savings and investments, and those can’t last forever. Some parishes – the cardinals expects that the vast majority – will at one point have to consider if they can afford the upkeep of all their church buildings, for example. Maintenance, electricity, heating… these are not free. It is unavoidable that churches will have to be closed, and this calls for new efforts on the part of the faithful.

And that, in my opinion, is what we must really focus on. Without denying or ignoring the pain of a community losing the church where they worshipped, got married, prayed, celebrated Mass, said goodbye to their loved ones, formed a community, this closing must in the end invite us to a renewal.

A renewal of faith, of active Catholic life, perhaps outside the familiar boundaries of church building and even parish or diocese. What form this can take, I don’t know, but when we limit ourselves to finger-pointing and anger, it will certainly take no form at all.

A first step in this process is communication, which is not only speaking, but also listening. The priests and bishops who find themselves in these situations must listen to and acknowledge the pain the faithful share with them, as well as their suggestions and ideas. And likewise the faithful must listen to and acknowledge the efforts of priests and bishops to make the best of a bad situation and ideally work with them to achieve that. It is important to remember that, as Catholics, we are all on the same side.

A second step, which is closely linked to the communication I outlined above, can be an openness to the faith that the Church wants to teach and share with us. Our faith is bigger than our own desires and opinions. We can’t allow ourselves to remain closed in by those, but we must be open to Christ, His teachings, His sacraments, His Church, whatever form it may take at this moment in time. Some things, after all, are more fundamental to our faith than others. Buildings and parishes boundaries do not make our faith, the person of Christ – and all He gives us through His Church and those He has appointed to minister to the faithful – does.

In the end, I don’t  think that church closing force us to become something new and unheard of. Rather, we are invited to return to the essence of our faith. That does not require that we do less, but rather more with fewer means. Each one of us needs to make an effort. Only looking to our priests and bishops to do something is irresponsible. We must all act, together, as Catholic Christians.

Our faith is positive. Let us remain so as well.

Meetings in Rome, and some thoughts about blogging bishops

hendriks paus franciscusThe Netherlands is a fairly small country, and the Catholic Church in this country is, relatively speaking, even smaller. So when a Dutch bishop or two visit Rome and meet with the Pope, it is interesting enough to mention here. But that’s not the only reason, of course…

This week, Bishops Jan Hendriks and Theodorus Hoogenboom visited the Eternal City to discuss the plight of diocesan religious institutes who no longer have enough members to supply their own superior, economist or council members. For that purpose they met with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. Bishop Hendriks writes about the visit on his personal website.

Bishop Hendriks also attended Wednesday’s General Audience (where the photo above was taken) and shares an anecdote about a meeting with a Nigerian cardinal:

“Among others, I spoke with Cardinal John Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja in Nigeria, who was in Rome for a congress on the meaning and the role of women, with participants from various world religions. He had been well acquainted with the former bishop of Haarlem, Msgr. Hennie Bomers CM, who died suddenly in 1998, shortly after a visit to Nigeria where he had ordained fellow Lazarist brothers. The cardinal had good memories of the bishop’s house in Haarlem, where he had stayed in the past. I didn’t tell him we are busy selling the building…”

Bishop Hendriks is the sole blogging bishop in the Netherlands (although several other bishops regularly contribute articles and texts to various media and their diocese’s websites), and I think his is an example that deserves more following. It is good to know what our bishops are doing, to counter the unwanted image of secrecy that, in my opinion, the bishops’ conference still has. We know they meet monthly, but what they discuss remains a secret. I’m not suggesting we should all receive detailed reports of their discussions (Bishop Hendriks also supplies none, but he does explain what the meeting in Rome was about), but more openness, certainly in the personal medium of a blog or piece on a website, could help making us faithful feel more involved in their daily affairs and more understanding when difficult decisions need to be made, such as in cases of parish mergers and church closings.

Of course, a blog is not for everyone. Neither is a social media presence. But generally speaking, there is still so much to gain in the new media for our bishops. The Internet has penetrated in every layer of society and few are the people who never come into contact with it. More and more people get their news from the web first, and opinion is everywhere. As the chief shepherds of our local Church and the visible representatives of the world wide Church that they are, the bishops must also be there. Blog posts, the personal element of a social media presence, can be a great asset in that.

Synod Day 1 – First impressions

léonard synod

^Orthodox metropolitan of Belgium, Athenagoras, who is a guest at the Synod, snapped this photo of Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of Mechelen-Brussels. Also visible, at the far right, is Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm.

eijk synod^Cardinal Eijk (second from the right) is seen in this still from the CTV live stream, seated between Cardinals John Tong Hon of Hong Kong and George Alencherry of Ernakulam-Angamaly. On the other side of Cardinal Alencherry sits Cardinal Marx.

As the Metropolitans of the Low Countries, to name but two, got down to business, the rest of the world was treated to a mixture of openness and secrecy about the Synod’s deliberations. On the one hand the first session was streamed live, but on the other the remainder will take place behind closed doors. And unlike previous Synod assemblies, the contributions of the speakers will also not be published. Instead, there will be summaries of the day’s proceedings and several participants will take part in daily press briefings.

In his opening address to the Synod, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri told the participants not to use their Twitter accounts in the Synod hall. That makes sense, but let’s hope they’ll continue using them outside the hall. Related to that, there are a few blogging bishops and cardinals at the Synod. In addition to those populating my sidebar, I have also come across the blogs of Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, of Gatineau in Canada, and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville in the US.

The official Vatican website on the Synod also has a bunch of texts and also video interviews with participants in several languages.

Today, Cardinals Maradiaga (Tegucigalpa and the Council of Cardinals), Marx (Munich and the Council of Cardinals), Napier (Durban), Sistach (Barcelona), Erdö (Budapest) and Archbishop Okada (Tokyo) took the first sit-down with the press. Their words there gave some hints at what was discussed in the second congregation, which took place this afternoon.

Cardinal Maradiaga spoke about the importance of marriage preparation which, he said, should start after Confirmation. Cardinal Sistach stressed the importance of the bishops staying as close as possible to the people and their lives, so as to formulate a realistic response. Archbishop Okada added that in Japan it was the laity who kept the faith alive and passed it on to later generations, despite persecutions. Cardinal Napier painted the image of the Church as the Good Samaritan, caring for the wounded. Cardinal Marx, then, stated that there needs to be a public debate on the Synod’s themes.

The entire mission programme, so to speak, of the Synod was outlined by the ubiquitous Cardinal Péter Erdö, in his Relatio ante disceptationem.

pope francis synod^And in the end, the Pope strolled home… (photo courtesy of Charles Le Bourgeois)

The trouble with headlines – no sins and no new developments in Pope marrying 20 Roman couples

Making headlines is not always easy. I sometimes find myself having completed a blog post with relative ease, only to struggle with coming up with an eye-catching headline. They need to be short, interesting and true to the content of the article they announce and, in essence, summarise. I imagine that these are the same concern of those who write for a living for newspapers, journals and on websites. But in recent days too many have failed to follow the rules…

Yesterday, 20 Roman couples were married in St. Peter’s Basilica by Pope Francis. This is pretty rare for Popes to do for the simple reason of their many other duties. Pope Benedict XVI never did it, and Pope St. John Paul II only got around to it once over the 27 years of his pontificate. But as he is the bishop of the Diocese of Rome, witnessing the marriage of some of the faithful of his diocese is a wonderful opportunity to be near to his closest flock: the Romans themselves.

pope-wedding

The couples were from all walks of life and a broad range in age, and all had their own stories, as the Pope hinted at in his homily: “The path is not always a smooth one, free of disagreements, otherwise it would not be human. It is a demanding journey, at times difficult, and at times turbulent, but such is life!” Rare are the couples whose story is the stereotypical romantic one: they meet, fall in love, get married, have children and live happily ever after. I think it is safe to assume that none of the twenty couples married yesterday have had such smooth sailing. And that is what inspired many headlines.

 “Pope marries sinners,” we read. “Francis overthrows tradition by marrying cohabitating couples!” and more along such lines. The essence of all this was that Pope Francis, they said, in contrast to Catholic teaching and the practice of the Church for years, married people who were living in sin. But was that really true?

The simple answer is no. In reports about yesterday’s ceremony we read that one of the grooms has had a previous married nullified and that a bride already had a child. Others were apparently already living together for a long time before marrying. While it is objectively so that the Church has its concern about children being born outside marriage and cohabitation while not married, these in themselves have never been reason for the Church refusing to marry couples. In fact, it is simply so that the Church gladly welcomes any couple who wants to receive the sacrament of marriage.

marriageMarriage is a sacrament that includes both rights and duties. To oneself, to one’s  partner, to God and to the community. It is good for the future husband and wife to be well aware of these, be willing to accept them and know how to include them in their lives together. That is a  lifelong process, but it starts before marriage begins.

From the outside we may notice many irregularities – a child outside of marriage, a previous marriage – but we should not jump to conclusions about these 20 Roman couples. All we know is that these irregularities are now regularised, and that is reason for joy.

There is certainly no reason to see sins and new developments where there are none. Pope Francis did not do anything that could not be done before, and nothing that priests across the world don’t do regular (although they would rarely marry forty people in one go). What is remarkable, however, is that it happened. That 20 couples said yes to each other, promised to stand together in good and bad times and let their love bear fruit and new life in all sorts of ways. That’s the true headline.

Photo credit: [1] Alessandra Tarantino/AP,  [2] Paul Haring/CNS

A recognisable path – Atheist “painter of the Pope” enters the Church

A recognisable story via Kath.net today. Painter Michael Triegel from Leipzig, once an atheist, entered the Church last Easter, and it was Pope emeritus Benedict XVI who helped him cross the Tiber. Triegel became known in Catholic circles in 2010, when he was commissioned by the Diocese of Regensburg – then still headed by Bishop Gerhard Müller, now the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a personal friend of the retired Pope – to paint an official portrait of Benedict.

michael-triegel-2010-11-20-7-0-23

^Triegel and the portrait he made, photographed in 2010.

Triegel himself doesn’t make a fuss about his conversion, although he recognises it is not something that happens every day. “You would not believe how often I have been asked over the past years, if I wanted to be baptised. There must have been telephone calls in higher Catholic circles, asking whether Triegel had already joined.” He was the atheist who painted the Pope, which made for juicy headlines. “Now I’m just an East German artist entering the Church. Also not exactly commonplace.”

What made him reach the momentous decision to receive the sacrament of Baptism was Benedict’s writings. “[These]  were important, his theory that faith and knowledge need not contradict each other. For me that was the breaking point. […] I foudn that faith entered my heart via my mind.”

Like I said, a recognisable story. My introduction to the faith and subsequent entrance into the Church coincided almost exactly with the start of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. He was elected in April of 2005, I first attended Mass in that year’s Advent. His magisterium has been instrumental in my discovery of the Church and the faith, and so also my personal development as a Catholic. Mr. Triegel’s “breaking point”, that faith and knowledge need not contradict each other, was also a major discovery for me. It shone through in all I read from Pope Benedict XVI, especially when I started blogging in 2010.

On the occasion of his Baptism, Triegel said, “When one concerns itself for 30 years with the true, the good, the beautiful and even with religion, it can’t remain without any consequences whatsoever. For me, now is the time to be baptised.”

[EDIT} I have added a translation of the complete interview that Michael Triegel gave to Die Zeit.

One year ago today…

benedictEveryone’s marking the day last year that Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. Surely, 11 February 2013 was a day that still resounds today.

Personally, Benedict XVI is very much “my Pope”. He was the Holy Father when my curiosity for the faith awoke, when I started the road towards Baptism, the sole Pope whose name I had heard in the Eucharistic Prayer (barring a single slip-up from my priest one time), and when I started my blogging. And suddenly that came to an end.

I now understand those who consider Pope John Paul II to be “The Pope”. For me that is Benedict XVI. I love Pope Francis like a Catholic should, but I am also still getting used to him.

I have created a page collecting my blog posts of the period that started with that shock announcement on 11 February 2013. You may find it here, and under the title bar above.

On notice – the press office to communicators

bloggingAn important communique from the Holy See press office yesterday, not least for us bloggers and others active in social media who regularly share and comment on what the Pope does or says.

FALSE STATEMENTS ATTRIBUTED TO POPE FRANCIS

Dear friends, we have been notified by many readers that there are stories currently circulating all over the Internet spreading statements by Pope Francis with regard to a number of issues, concerning the Bible’s content, the relations between religions, the renewal of the Church’s doctrine, and even the calling of an alleged “Third Vatican Council”, which are FALSE. These statements were spread by unknown sources. Therefore, we would like to alert all readers to be careful and not to trust too soon news about the Pope that are not from the Vatican. There are also many unidentified trolls on social networks that try to put false information in circulation, taking advantage of the fact that it is easy to “throw the stone and hide the hand”. Many are also not aware that ALL FACEBOOK PROFILES OF POPE FRANCIS/JORGE MARIA [sic] BERGOGLIO ARE NOT OFFICIAL PAGES AND THEY HAVE NOT BEEN AUTHORIZED TO OFFICIALLY REPRESENT THE POPE, THEREFORE THEY SHOULD CLEARLY STATE THEY ARE JUST ‘FAN PAGES’.  We encourage all readers to check the official Vatican media sources for further confirmation of Pope Francis’ statements, or even to check what exactly he said with reference to specific issues.  IF THE STATEMENTS ATTRIBUTED TO THE POPE BY ANY MEDIA AGENCY DO NOT APPEAR IN THE OFFICIAL MEDIA SOURCES OF THE VATICAN, IT MEANS THAT THE INFORMATION THEY REPORT IS NOT TRUE. Below is a list of the official Vatican media which you should use as valid reference to be sure that any reported statement referred to the Pope is true:

- News.va: a news aggregator portal, it reports the news and information from all the Vatican media in one website, available in five languages: www.news.va News.va also has a Facebook page: www.facebook.com/news.va

- L’Osservatore Romano (newspaper): www.osservatoreromano.va

- Vatican Radio: www.radiovaticana.va

- VIS (Vatican Information Service): www.vis.va

- Holy See Press Office: www.vaticanstate.va/content/vaticanstate/en/altre-istituzioni/sala-stampa-santa-sede.html

- Centro Televisivo Vaticano (Vatican Television Center): www.ctv.va  or www.vatican.va/news_services/television/

- Vatican.va: the official website of the Holy See, where you can find the full text of all speeches, homilies and Apostolic documents by the Pope: www.vatican.va

- PopeApp: the official app for smartphones dedicated to the Pope (Copyright News.va)

- @Pontifex: the official Twitter profile of the Pope.

The only official Facebook profiles representing the Holy Father and the Vatican are those from News.va and the Vatican media (see the above list of Vatican media). We would like to thank you all for your kind attention as well as for your notifications and suggestions. Please do share this information as much as possible with your contacts! Thank you very much!

First of all, it’s like I have said several times: if you want to know what the Pope said about something, read or listen to what he said. While there are many media outlets who do a good job in reporting on papal issues, there are also many who do not, either out of ignorance or malicious intent.

Secondly, this statement can be read as a duty for us Catholic bloggers and writers. It does not mean we can’t write about the Pope anymore, or discuss what he has said and what it means. It does mean that we must be as accurate as we can. Accuracy is a service to ourselves and our readers. We must first and foremost reflect the truth before giving our own interpretation or opinion.