The Catholic Church is still the biggest club around

A report by the Social Planning Office of the Netherlands revealed that the Catholic Church is still the biggest “club” in the country, with 4 million members, but it probably won’t be for long. The continuously growing ANWB (the Royal Dutch Touring Club), which supports all forms of travel and is responsible for road and traffic signage, now has 3.9 million members.

While they are mere numbers that say nothing about the actual involvement of and support given by members (which is rather significantly lower than 4 million in the case of the Church), it is interesting to see. The Netherlands is often considered to be a staunchly secularist country, and when faith in this country is discussed, the assumption is that the vast majority of Dutch Christians are Protestants. That is actually not true. The Protestant Church comes in at number three, with 1.7 million members, less than half that of the Catholic Church. However, I think it’s a reasonably safe bet that the percentage of active members is higher among Protestants, as adherence to those church communities is frequently a strongly cultural one.

The other “clubs” in the top 10 are the KNVB (Royal Dutch Football Association) with 1.2 members; the FNV (Federation Dutch Labour Movement, a trade union), also with 1.2 members; the KWF (Queen Wilhelmina Fund, a foundation for the fight against cancer) with 970,000 members; the Woonbond (a national association of house tenants) with 945,000 members; the World Wildlife Fund with 870,000 members; Natuurmonumenten (an association for the protection of nature) with 730,000 members; and the Vereniging Eigen Huis (a consumers’ organisation for home owners) with 700,000 members.

A reminder: look upon Christ

blessed sacrament pope francis

Don’t forget, in most cathedrals and many other churches the world over, faithful will join Pope Francis in an hour of Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. United in faith, the Church that Christ established will simply be with the Lord, in prayer, adoration and silence. If you haven’t already, see what your cathedral or local church is doing today between 5 and 6 in the afternoon.

In his Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, by which he announced the Year of Faith, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI reminded us:

“During this time we will need to keep our gaze fixed upon Jesus Christ, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2): in him, all the anguish and all the longing of the human heart finds fulfilment. The joy of love, the answer to the drama of suffering and pain, the power of forgiveness in the face of an offence received and the victory of life over the emptiness of death: all this finds fulfilment in the mystery of his Incarnation, in his becoming man, in his sharing our human weakness so as to transform it by the power of his resurrection. In him who died and rose again for our salvation, the examples of faith that have marked these two thousand years of our salvation history are brought into the fullness of light.”

This afternoon’s Holy Hour will be the perfect opportunity to keep our gaze upon, or return it to, Jesus Christ, and also to reflect on what we have done, as individuals, communities, parishes, dioceses or other groups of faithful, in this Year of Faith. Porta Fidei is a great outline on how it was intended by our retired Holy Father. Did we succeed in making that intention reality, or is there still much work to do?

Bound for Heaven or for Hell?

pope francis massPope Francis’ recent homily about salvation, and even more so Father Thomas Rosica’s comments about it, has led to much speculation, confusion and even anger about one of the most essential questions in the faith: the question of who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell. Maybe it’s good to shine a small light on this difficult theological topic.

First of all, let’s  start with the words that Pope Francis spoke in his homily of 22 May:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all!”

The Church has always upheld the universality of redemption in contrast to some Protestant communities, who have limited it to a certain group of predestined faithful. A glance on the Catholic Encyclopedia page about this topic points our attention to some Scripture passages which bear this out. I’ll quote a few, but do read the link above especially the subsection titled ‘Universality of Redemption’, to get an idea of traditional Catholic teaching about this subject.

1 John 2:2: “He is the sacrifice to expiate our sins, and not only ours, but also those of the whole world.”

1 Timothy 2:4: “he wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth.”

1 Timothy 4:10: “he is the Saviour of the whole human race but particularly of all believers.”

2 Corinthians 5:19: “I mean, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not holding anyone’s faults against them, but entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”

Christ crucifiedChrist’s sacrifice on the Cross, by which He brought about redemption for humanity, was not in any way limited. It’s target audience, so to speak, included every human being in past, present and future. But in order to properly understand this, we must try and understand how redemption works.

Perhaps it can be best likened, for the purpose of this blog post, to some form of medication, a pill perhaps, which works for everyone. It can relieve everyone of the pain of some illness. But it doesn’t do so automatically: we must take the pill for it to work. It is no different in the case of redemption. In order for it to work in us, we must make the conscious decision to accept it. That is once again perfectly in accordance with the free will that God has created us with and which He always respects.

So, yes, Pope Francis is correct and in full agreement with Catholic teaching when he says that Christ also redeemed atheists. However, as is sort of their job description, they haven’t accepted it yet. They haven’t yet taken their medication, so it can’t do its work. But unlike a pill, redemption has no sell-by date. It doesn’t go bad if left on the shelf for too long.

rosicaFather Thomas Rosica, who is not the press chief of the Vatican as some media would have it, offers some answers to questions about the Pope’s homily. He does not relegate all atheists to Hell (nor to Heaven, for that matter), but presents some much-needed nuance to the discussion, based on several passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Most important is that Christ is the final Judge: He will decide on the fate of everyone, based on how they have lived (and in that matter there can be no opposition between faith and works, as both are integral parts of a person’s life).

Also important in the discussion above is Paragraph 171 of the Catechism, which asks “What is the meaning of the affirmation “Outside the Church there is no salvation”?”

This means that all salvation comes from Christ, the Head, through the Church which is his body. Hence they cannot be saved who, knowing the Church as founded by Christ and necessary for salvation, would refuse to enter her or remain in her. At the same time, thanks to Christ and to his Church, those who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ and his Church but sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, try to do his will as it is known through the dictates of conscience can attain eternal salvation.

In short, if a person knows that the Church that Christ founded is necessary for salvation, and nonetheless refuses to be part of her, he or she can not be saved. So, is this true for atheists, then? I would say that it isn’t for the vast majority of them. Many people are atheist or agnostic out of ignorance, and generally not wilfully so. They do not know the Church as necessary for salvation, so it can’t be held against them if they refuse to be part of her.

In his homily of last Wednesday, Pope Francis spoke much about “good works”. This lines up well with the above quote from the Catechism: “those who … sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, try to do his will as it is known through the dictates of conscience can attain eternal salvation.”

There is much more that may be said about this, but the post is getting overly long anyway, so I’ll leave it at this. But I will add an addendum:

Fr. Rosica’s explanations (and those of others) do not contradict what Pope Francis has said, and nor do they indicate some division in the Vatican between the Pope and the Curia. That many media do choose to present it as such, should serve as a warning to us to always remain vigilant when reading or hearing someone’s interpretation of Church affairs and teaching.

Hot topic, or how the Church does, in fact, not promote violence

andrée van esAt a European conference on the emancipation of homosexuals in The Hague, an Amsterdam alderman has called for all religious leaders in the world to take their responsibility regarding the acceptance of homosexuals and transgendered people.

“As long as the Pope and most Muslim leaders do not accept homosexuality as a sexual orientation, millions of people will consider violence against gays, lesbians and transgendered people to be justified,” Andrée van Es (pictured), who holds the diversity and integration portfolio in the Amsterdam city council, said. This sweeping generalisation, putting religious leaders in all their diversity in the same corner, is not only a gross misrepresentation of reality, but also a worrying example of the imposition of one society’s political philosophy on others.

Writing as a Catholic and as a blogger with some knowledge of Catholic teachings on these matters, I will limit myself to the Church and her faith, leaving Muslim thoughts about homosexuality aside.

To begin with the very first words of the statement quoted above, I must explain that the Church does accept homosexuality as a sexual orientation: she accepts that it exists, that people can experience sexual attraction to people of the same gender. However, she does not accept it as a true expression of the ordered nature of man as created by God. That is why she will always be opposed to same-sex marriage, for example, as it is an impossibility. However, that is far from the same thing as advocating violence against homosexuals. The Church always upholds that ancient teaching of hating the sin, loving the sinner. Whatever a person’s sexual orientation, he or she has an innate dignity and should always be treated in accordance with that dignity that all men have been given. The Church will always defend that dignity, which is most visibly in her pro-life attitude, but also in her pastoral relations between individual faithful, laity and clergy alike.

However, and this is an important distinction that is often misunderstood or overlooked, this loving understanding of people’s equality in their human dignity is far from the same as accepting everything a person does (not is or has, but does). Indeed, when we love someone, we are bound to correct that person if he or she makes mistakes, and we should guide and help them in their lives, whatever the difficulties are that they may face over the course of it. Be it illness, poverty, social issues or a disordered sexuality, we must be there to stand with them, help them in their lives, to achieve the fulfillment of life as God has willed it. We are people with a purpose, created for that purpose, and God has given us the possibility to achieve that purpose, to live in unity with Him for all eternity, despite the obstacles and barriers that we find on our path. He has given us the means to overcome them, and we often find those means through the help of others.

That reality governs the actions of the Church. God has willed to reach out to us through her, that she may be there to lead us to Him. As members of His Church, we are called to make that possible. We do so through the love that Christ has showed us, and that is not a sappy kind of love which sees everything through rose-tinted glasses and accepts everything. No, that love wants the best for its object: us. And therefore it guides, corrects, teaches.

The Church accepts reality, but does not accept that that is all there is. We can and must always strive for something better, for the very best. God is that very best, and He is what we strive for.

All of the above commits us to something which is not easy, certainly not in our modern society. It can come across as discriminatory, hateful even. But just like a parent correcting a child, there can be no hate between God and man. The Church does not hate homosexuals. She loves them like she loves all men, and she teaches them through the faculties given to her by the Lord, in love, like a parent teaches, guides and sometimes has to correct a child.

When suggesting someone to do something, the first step to is to make sure you know what you are talking about. Ms. van Es has clearly failed to do this, as she so clearly links the Pope, and thus the Catholic Church, to violence. A cursory search soon comes up with Paragraph 2358 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”

In 2008, while offering some criticism, the Holy See welcomed

“the attempts made in the statement on human  rights, sexual orientation and gender identity – presented at the UN General  Assembly on 18 December 2008 – to condemn all forms of violence against  homosexual persons as well as urge States to take necessary measures to put an  end to all criminal penalties against them” [source].

In 2009, the Permanent Mission to the UN reiterated much the same sentiments:

“The Holy See also opposes all forms of violence and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, including discriminatory penal legislation which undermines the inherent dignity of the human person. The murder and abuse of homosexual persons are to be confronted on all levels, especially when such violence is perpetrated by the State” [source].

Three quotes found through a short search via Google and Wikipedia. Ms. van Es could and should have known much better.

Photo credit: Gemeente Amsterdam

The goodness of Saint Joseph

Today is the feast day of Saint Joseph, which is by “a significant coincidence” also the day on which Pope Francis is inaugurated as Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church. St. Joseph is patron of the universal Church and, on a far smaller scale, also my own patron. So he can’t go unmentioned on the blog today.

Saint_Joseph

“In the Gospels, Saint Joseph appears as a strong  and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness,  which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and  a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for  love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!”

Pope Francis, Homily at the Mass for the Inauguration of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome

Art credit: Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus, by Guido Reni, ca. 1635

“Christ, Christ is the centre”

pope francisIn his address to media representatives yesterday, Pope Francis pointed out that, while the Petrine ministry is of course important, it is not what the Church is ultimately about:

“Christ is the Church’s Pastor, but his presence in history passes through the freedom of human beings; from their midst one is chosen to serve as his Vicar, the Successor of the Apostle Peter. Yet Christ remains the centre, not the Successor of Peter: Christ, Christ is the centre. Christ is the fundamental point of reference, the heart of the Church. Without him, Peter and the Church would not exist or have reason to exist. As Benedict XVI frequently reminded us, Christ is present in Church and guides her. In everything that has occurred, the principal agent has been, in the final analysis, the Holy Spirit. He prompted the decision of Benedict XVI for the good of the Church; he guided the Cardinals in prayer and in the election.”

In these days and weeks it is only understandable that much time and energy is devoted on the Pope. We need and should take the time to get to know him, and that will go on for some time yet. But  let’s not limit ourselves to his person. After all, he is simply the shepherd who will lead us to the Good Shepherd.

No shepherd is a carbon copy of other shepherds. Pope Francis is not Pope Benedict XVI. But their ministries do compliment each other. We can’t see them in isolation, nor should we engage in competitions to see who is the better shepherd.

In many of his recent words, as in the quote above, Pope Francis reminds us of what his predecessor taught. In a sense, he is building his own ministry on that of Benedict, and that means we can’t put everything the latter taught and did behind us. Just like we can’t ignore what John Paul II taught, or Paul VI, or John XXIII…

The pontificate of Pope Francis exists in a continuity, and that continuity is the journey of  “the Holy People of God … to encounter Jesus Christ.”

The final farewell

Although it was not his last day on the Chair of Peter, Pope Benedict received the best farewell we could have given him during his last general audience, yesterday morning. And, in turn, it was the best sendoff he could have given us.

general audience, st. peter's square

Secular media reluctantly reported “several thousand” faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square, but the official numbers were 150,000, which does not include the pilgrims who were forced to remain in the surrounding streets. In total, the number of faithful who wanted a last glimpse of the Holy Father may have been as high as 400,000.

I watched the audience via a livestream provided by SQPN, with live commentary by Fr. Roderick (recording available here). Nobody really knew what to expect until the audience had gotten underway. The Pope’s extra long tour across the square was no surprise, but as he had taken his place on the platform in front of the facade of the basilica, his very personal reflection did take many by surprise. Rather than a reflection on a Gospel passage or theological topic, Pope Benedict took the opportunity to express his gratitude: to God, the cardinals and the entire Curia, all of those working behind the scenes, the Diocese of Rome, and the entire people of God. Several times, he expressed his desire to remember in prayer everyone he ever encountered. A very touching passage, I found, was how people would write to the Holy Father:

“It’s true that I receive letters from the world’s greatest figures – from the Heads of State, religious leaders, representatives of the world of culture and so on. I also receive many letters from ordinary people who write to me simply from their heart and let me feel their affection, which is born of our being together in Christ Jesus, in the Church. These people do not write me as one might write, for example, to a prince or a great figure one does not know. They write as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, with the sense of very affectionate family ties. Here, one can touch what the Church is – not an organization, not an association for religious or humanitarian purposes, but a living body, a community of brothers and sisters in the Body of Jesus Christ, who unites us all. To experience the Church in this way and almost be able to touch with one’s hands the power of His truth and His love, is a source of joy, in a time in which many speak of its decline.”

Although today we will get our last glimpse of the man who has been our spiritual father for almost eight years, he is not leaving us, he said yesterday:

“The “always” is also a “forever” – there is no returning to private life. My decision to forgo the exercise of active ministry, does not revoke this. I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on. I do not abandon the cross, but remain in a new way near to the Crucified Lord. I no longer wield the power of the office for the government of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, within St. Peter’s bounds. St. Benedict, whose name I bear as Pope, shall be a great example in this for me. He showed us the way to a life which, active or passive, belongs wholly to the work of God.”

Today, we are saying our final goodbyes, but it really isn’t a farewell. Although we may not see or even be aware of it, in the gardens of Vatican City there will be a loving heart, continuously praying for all of us.

Tomorrow, the frenzy of conclave preparation gets underway, but today, let’s remember, let’s say our goodbyes and let’s pray.

general audience