For Groningen-Leeuwarden, a new religious community

holy ghost fathers logoSurprising and inspiring news yesterday, when the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden announced that it would entrust the parish of Saints Peter and Paul in south-central Friesland, which includes the city of Heerenveen, to the Holy Ghost Fathers. Three priests from this religious congregation will take care of the pastoral needs of the faithful there, with the first, Father Charles Eba’a C.S.Sp, arriving to succeed Father Anton de Vries as parish priest. The latter is currently recovering from heart surgery and retiring on age and health grounds. Fr. Eba’a, 43, will be joined on short notice by 70-year-old Father Leo Gottenbos C.SS.Sp. A third Holy Ghost Father, possibly also of African decent, will arrive in 2016, although no one has been named yet.

The Holy Ghost Fathers, or in full the Congregation of the Holy Spirit under the protection of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, were founded in 1703 in Paris by then-seminarian Claude Poullart des Places, and barely survived the French Revolution. Today, the congregation is dedicated to spreading the Good News and working with the poor and ministering in areas and situations “where the Church has difficulty in finding ministers”. The north of the Netherlands certainly qualifies in that respect.

charles eba'aFr. Charles Eba’a, pictured at right, originally comes from Cameroon and has worked in parishes in the Diocese of Rotterdam for the past ten years, most recently as parish priest in the parish federation of St. Mary Magdalen in the Southern part of the city of Rotterdam and adjacent towns. Fr. Leo Gottenbos returned in September from 40 years’ ministry in Brazil.

The initiative for their arrival was taken by the Holy Ghost fathers two years ago, when the province contact Bishop Gerard de Korte to see if an international community of three fathers could be established somewhere in the diocese. The parish in and around Heerenveen was selected because of the upcoming retirement of the parish priest, the focus on service and the planned function of the parish house as meeting place in the city. The community will the congregation’s fifth in the Netherlands.

The Holy Ghost Fathers will be the only religious community in the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, although a second one is planned: the coming of the Cistercians of Sion Abbey to Schiermonnikoog, which I wrote about before. A third religious establishment is the shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed, maintained by hermit Father Hugo, in Warfhuizen.

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A different perspective – the numbers behind the refugee crisis

The refugee crisis dominates headlines at the moment, and so do the opinions, as these are wont to do. There are positive opinions, that we must offer aid, shelter refugees and find solutions for the immediate need and despair we see, and these have a bigger share than I would have expected. But there are also negative ones, rooted in fear that we are welcoming terrorists, that strange cultures, religions and ideologies will come to dominate and irrevocably change our own culture and religions (or lack thereof).

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In countries around us, especially in Germany and Austria, the Church has been on the frontline in welcoming refugees and speaking out for their basic human needs. The bishops of these countries have been vocal on this topic, and one bishop, Archbishop Stephan Burger of Freiburg im Breisgau, recently outlined the basics behind the refugee crisis and the numbers that we must keep in mind before making sweeping statements on either side of the argument:

erzbischof_stephan_burger_q“The great number of refugees which come to us in Germany, and the numerous crisis hotspots of this world are showing us very clearly now: We are standing before a critical point on world history. The different parts of the world are increasingly intertwined with one another and ecological fragile. For the future this includes both great dangers and significant opportunities. We must acknowledge that, despite and perhaps because of the great diversity of cultures and ways of life, we are a global community. And so we also carry responsibility for this community.

Today there are nearly 60 million people are fleeing. Behind this flight lies distress, despair, lack of perspective, tragedies.

However, the frequently heard idea, that the majority of refugees are en route to Europe, does not agree with reality. We must be careful not to look at the world from a European perspective. The 28 countries of the European Union at present house less than four per cent of the total number of refugees and displaced persons in the world. regarding this it is often forgotten that about three quarters of these people, as internally displaced persons, do not even make it across their own borders – let alone to Europe. We should not lose sight of their special need. For the Kurds of northern Iraq, for example, this means that out of every four inhabitant, one is displaced. In every village, in every city in this region there now live refugees. The civil war in Syria has by now caused more than four million people to flee. Additionally there are 7.6 million interior displaced persons in the country itself.

The moving images of refugee boats in the Mediterranean urge us to ask how we can rescue people in peril on the sea and guarantee them a life in security and dignity. The question about the complex reasons why thousands of people leave their homes, is not being asked enough.

Many of the desperate refugees are fleeing from the horror of a bloody war or the terror of despots. Others are called “economic refugees”: they want to escape a life of poverty and misery, which is partly caused by the political decisions of Industrial countries and emerging markets. For example, the traditional land rights of indigenous farmers are being overridden by the rights of investors. Unfair trade agreements disrupt the livelihood of local manufacturers. International corporations are plundering the resources of Africa – without any notable benefits for the local population.

We are convinced that there is a need for more legal and secure routes to Europe. We are aware that, also in Germany, the capacity to take care of refugees is not limitless. Therefore, there is a need for a European and global effort to comprehensively address the causes of poverty and flight. The topic must remain at the top of the agenda of world politics.  The reason for the increase in refugee movements in the European Union does not come from Africa, by the way, but is in the first place an expression of political and economical problems in the Balkans and also in continuing violence in the Middle East and in Afghanistan. Africans formed, in the first six months of this year, just 19 per cent of asylum seekers in the European Union – and it was similar a year earlier.

That there has now been a dramatic global increase to the aforementioned 60 million refugees, can in the first place be explained by the significant rise in forced internal migration as a result of war and violence. The truly grave humanitarian problems regarding refugees are to be found primarily in fragile states. Seen globally, cross-border flight occurred for 86 per cent in equally poor areas adjacent to crisis areas – such as in Lebanon, Kurdistan, Jordan and Kenya, in Chad and in northern Cameroon.

Both latter states especially show the results of violence, which has been ongoing for many months now, of the terrorist network “Boko Haram”. Most reports from this region that we hear in Germany are mostly about terror attacks and abductions. That the situation has also caused a wave of refugees is little known. Some 190,000 people have fled to Cameroon, Chad and Niger following terrorist actions. Additionally, there are some 100,000 internally displaced refugees in Cameroon, who had to flee from “Boko Haram” attacks.

Partner organisations of MISEREOR report that family members of refugees were killed by terrorists before their eyes. They speak about how combatants of “Boko Haram” came to their villages, plundered and then burnt their houses. Many families were separated; especially women and children desperately need protection.

In Germany, it is also a challenge to humanely house and care for refugees – especially with an eye on the coming winter. Certainly, more effort is needed. But we must not forget the people in those countries in the world who are not nearly as wealthy and have to offer protection and nourishment to far more refugees.”

Back to Africa – three days in Benin

Today will see the return of Pope Benedict XVI to the continent where the Catholic Church only seems to know growth, as he departs Rome for an apostolic journey to Benin. Apart from the usual courtesies and meetings, there are several important points in this three-day visit. As the relevant page on the Vatican website indicates, this visit takes place “on the occasion of the signing and publication of the Post-Synodal Exhortation of the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops”. Said Assembly took place during most op October of 2009, and the upcoming Apostolic Exhortation, said to be titled Africae Munus, will collect its conclusions and form something like a game plan for the African Church.

Cardinal Gantin (1922-2008)

Another personally important part of the visit, at least for the Holy Father himself, will be the opportunity to visit and pray at the tomb of Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, the Beninese prelate who was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s immediate predecessor as Dean of the College of Cardinals from 1993 to 2002. Cardinal Bernardin died in 2008 and his tomb is in the chapel of the St. Gall seminary in Ouidah, about 40 kilometers west of the capital, Cotonou, where the rest of the papal visit will take place.

Following the previous papal visit to Africa (Cameroon and Angelo in March of 2009) many media eyes and ears seem only open to whatever shockingly ‘new’ statement the pope will make now about condoms or some such interesting topic. If there will be such a statement that the media will take and run with, there is a high risk that the more important elements of this journey will be completely snowed under. It happened in the past, it will happen again. Better be aware of it.

Benin, which will host a pope for the third time (Blessed John Paul II visited in 1982 and 1993), has a population of some 8.8 million, of whom 27.1% is Catholic. Other main religions are Islam and Vodun (Voodoo). Many Beninese practice a combination of Muslim, Christian and local beliefs, and it seems likely that Pope Benedict will warn against that. To other African prelates, those of Angola and São Tomé and Principe during their ad limina visit in October, he spoke firmly against the practice of witchcraft in their countries and the threat it is to especially children:

“[T]he hearts of the baptized are still divided between Christianity and traditional African religions. Afflicted by problems in life, they do not hesitate to resort to practices that are incompatible with following Christ (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2117). An abominable effect of this is the marginalization and even the killing of children and the elderly who are falsely condemned of witchcraft.” [To the bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Angola and São Tomé and Principe (C.E.A.S.T.) on their ad Limina visit, October 29, 2011]

The Church in Benin consists of two metropolitan archdioceses and eight dioceses. The two metropolitans are Archbishops Antoine Ganyé of Cotonou and Pascal N’Koué of Parakou. Archbishop Michael Blume is the Apostolic Nuncio to Benin, and also to neighbouring Togo.

Photo credit: 30giorni.it