A small treasure among palaces – A visit to Copenhagen’s Cathedral of St. Ansgar

For the past two weeks, my fiancée and I have been vacationing in Sweden and Denmark, and on Sunday the 19th we attended Mass at Copenhagen’s cathedral of St. Ansgar. Bishop Czeslaw Kozon offered the Mass, and proved to be a kind and gracious host at the charity lunch in the cathedral garden after Mass. He asked us not only about our holiday and daily life, but, when I told him I try and sometimes blog about Church affairs in the Netherlands and sometimes also Scandinavia, also about recent developments in the Church here: parish mergers, Church closings and what that meant for faithful and priests alike. A validation of sorts that there is definitely interest in the Dutch Catholic Church from abroad.

Of course, we also took in the cathedral church itself, of which I share a number of photos below. St. Ansgar’s cathedral is a small church as cathedral go, and shares the Bredgade street with the Orthodox Church of St. Aleksandr Nevskij and the impressively domed Frederiks Kirke, also known as the Marble Church. Acorss from the latter lies Amalienborg castle, the residence of Queen Margrethe II.

St. Ansgar’s is the cathedral of the Diocese of Copenhagen, which covers the entire country of Denmark, as well as the Faroe Islands and Greenland. The cathedral was consecrated in 1842, and was put on the same footing as a cathedral in 1942. In 1953, upon the establishment of the diocese, St. Ansgar’s really became a cathedral.

The cathedral has enjoyed one papal visit, in 1989, when Pope St. John Paul II toured the Nordic countries.

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A view towards the sanctuary gives an overview of the cathedral. Apparently there had recently been a wedding, judging from the roses decorating the pews. The pews are the originals installed in the 19th century and some still bear the coat of arms of the Habsburgs, as the church was under the protection of the Austrian legate in Copenhagen.

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A closer look at the sanctuary, with the cathedra at the centre. This was a change made by Bishop Kozon, whose coat of arms can be seen above the chair.

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The dome over the sanctuary is decorated first with images of the Blessed Virgin and various saints of import for Denmark and northern Europe as a whole. Above them are Jesus Christ with the Apostles, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and at the top is God the Father.

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The windows are all decorated with one saints each. These were installed on the initiative of Bishop Johannes von Euch between 1885 and 1894, replacing the original clear panes.

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The organ in the choir loft, installed here in 1995.

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In the right aisle, adjacent to the sanctuary, stands the baptismal font with a quote from Mark 16:16: “Salvus erit, He is saved”, in front of a painting of Saint Ansgar, who shared the Gospel in modern northern Germany, Denmark and Sweden, eventually becoming archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen.

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To the left of the sanctuary, an image of the Blessed Virgin with the Child Jesus, a gift from Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I, and plenty of burning candles in front of it.

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An overview of the entire front of the cathedral.

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One last glimpse.

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In the church garden there was a charity lunch, with the proceeds going to the local Caritas. We enjoyed strawberry tarts, juice and wine, as well as the blooming garden and the conversation with some of the faithful and Bishop Kozon.

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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.

My bishop has a blog

bloggingSo, my bishop now has a blog. As well as a spiffy new design of the diocesan website to host it on. This makes Bishop Gerard de Korte only the second Dutch blogging bishop, after Bishop Jan Hendriks, who blogs on his own website. It’s a small group, that’s true, but at least it’s there. I am very much in favour of bishops maintaining a blog which is more than just the monthly columns on diocesan websites (which I don’t deny have their value).

mgr_de_Korte3Bishop de Korte is no stranger to writing, as he contributes regularly to newspapers and other media about current affairs. His blog can add a new level to these writings, as it can also be used for more personal reflections. And the bishop has realised that, since in his second post he not only mentions his taking part in a pilgrimage to Lourdes with the Order of Malta, but also expresses his pleasant surprise at being nominated for the title of “national theologian”. Topics like these, which not only give factual accounts of things that happen, but also add a more personal reflection of the bishop, can be very useful in communicating what he stands for and what the Church has to say. That is certainly true for his blogging colleague, Bishop Hendriks, who regularly shares homilies and photos of Masses, pilgrimages and other things he takes part in and finds useful to write about. Via these personal notes people are exposed in an accessible way to the greater wealth of Catholic life and faith.

So, welcome to the world of blogging, bishop! I hope it’s a good experience and I’m looking forward to future posts.

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

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^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.

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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