Quo vadis?

On this day on which the Church celebrates two of her foundation stones, and 44 successors of these stones receive the signs of the fullness of their episcopacy, it is good to ask ourselves the question that, tradition tells us, Saint Peter asked the Lord, when he encountered Him on the road leading out of Rome. As Peter was fleeing the persecutions he suffered in the city, the Lord came towards him, heading back to where Peter came from. “Lord, where are You going?”, seemingly less surprised at meeting Jesus than at seeing Him head in a direction where He would be less than welcome.

Peter’s question is also our question. Peter was afraid, and we are also often afraid of the consequences that an active Christian life brings. After all, it is rarely in line with society’s thinking, and may provoke misunderstanding, even hostility. But we should remember that our Christian life is not a road that we have to find alone. We are following someone. Jesus Christ has gone this road before. Therefore, we should not hesitate to ask HIm, if things get tough or painful, “Lord, where are you going?” And wherever He goes, we will go with Him, knowing that we are not alone, whatever befalls us, good or bad. Jesus goes the road ahead of us, even if we hesitate, take a wrong turn or double back.

Saint Peter has shown us this. Upon meeting Jesus on the road, He understood that He was a follower of Christ, and found the courage to go where He went before Him.

“I am going to Rome, to be crucified again.”

Art credit: Domine, quo vadis? by Annibale Carracci (1602)

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

A mosque in New York

Everyone will have heard of the plans that a mosque is to be built not too far from the place where the World Trade Center towers fell on 11 September 2001. Nor will the opposition in some quarters have gone unnoticed. Even our national madman, Geert Wilders, plans to protest the planned construction next month. You’d think he’d be too busy creating a coalition agreement he bears no responsibility for.

Anyway, back to the mosque (if only to keep the blood pressure down). I am, quite frankly, disappointed to see that Catholic websites, notably among them Rorate Caeli, join in the fear-mongering, painting a picture as if there is some holy war going on between Islam and Christianity. For the record, I am not a fan of Islam. I don’t agree with its tenets (I would have been a Muslim otherwise), and I think that it more easily leads to violence than most other faiths. But I will always support a Muslims right to express his belief and worship where he wants to (albeit not in Catholic churches, of course. Worship, but be sensible about it. Isn’t that one of the foundations of the Catholic faith>? I think so.

Photo showing the location of the proposed mosque relative to Ground Zero

Anyway, this mosque in New York, which won’t even be visible from Ground Zero, should be allowed out of the cherished freedom of religion that exists in the United States and most other civilised countries. And that freedom is not limited to Christianity, of course. It is thanks to this freedom, even though it is challenged more and more, that we Catholics can live our faith and worship in our own churches. To deny others the same right undermines the freedom we enjoy and renders it invalid. After all, freedom of religion is not a matter of faith or dogma. It is a legal measure, and as such not connected to any faith at all, and since it concerns all of society, that is where it belongs. Whether it is right or wrong can of course be discussed, like all legalities can, but as long as we make use of it and support it as Catholics, our protests when others want to exercise the same right have no basis in reality.

And as for the concerns that that mosque will tarnish the memories of those who died in 9/11? Rubbish. Any person capable of rational thought will realise that the terrorists acted out of terrorist motives. Perhaps their being Muslim made them more likely to be corrupted, but an unstable Christian runs the exact same risk. Look at the various crazy sects, founded on some misshapen form of Christianity, that exist.

Religion just a choice?

This morning I was browsing through one of those free newspapers you find at bus and train stations, and I came across a letter sent in by a reader. Said reader fulminated against protests lodged by political party SGP about the use of the lyrics of the Green Day song ‘Jesus of Suburbia’ in a secondary school exam. The SGP complained about those lyrics because they perceived them to be anti-Christian. That by way of providing context. The writer of the letter wrote that people of faith shouldn’t complain, because religion is ‘just a choice’ and ‘they shouldn’t bother other people with it’.

For the record, I don’t agree with the SGP position on this. But I also don’t agree with the letter writer. Religion or faith can’t be limited to ‘just a choice’, as if it is the same as the choice of what colour socks I’m going to wear on a given day. Because that is all that the word ‘choice’ entails: a conscious decision to do something or other some certain way.

When I look back at the road I’ve travelled in the past years, I can say it did start with a choice: not the choice of being Christian or not, but rather the choice of going to see what Mass was and to talk about it with people. From there it quickly developed into something far greater. My decision to let myself be baptised came from a growing conviction that it was the right thing to do: it was not about what I would like, but about what I thought I’d need. I said yes to that sacrament because I had grown to believe that it was something I needed to do to be able to live my life to the fullest.

In that way the ‘choice’ became the foundation to my entire life. It is far more than something that merely appeals to me; it is the framework, reference and source of who I try to be and do.

Saying then that religion is ‘just a choice’ completely misses the point. When I see, read or hear something that is an insult to my faith, it is also an insult to me, and I should be allowed to ‘bother others with it’. That is simply an element of human social conduct, and a tool that society uses to maintain cohesion: there are lines that must be drawn, otherwise society becomes a shapeless chaotic mass. Calling others out for their statements not only protects me from future insults, it also points others to the effects of what they’re saying.  And hopefully we can all learn from that.

The lyrics of the Green Day song, although making heavy use of religious imagery, are not an insult, but it’s easy to see how a superficial glance at the words may lead some to conclude otherwise.

Elections: weighing the options

Next week I will be casting my vote for the city council of Groningen. I have yet to decide which party will be getting my red-pencilled ballot paper, so some research into the various parties is in order. The question I am trying to answer is: what party best represents my own views as a Catholic, and which party has the best chance – via strategic coalitions, for example – to turn those ideas into policy?

I have a choice between eleven parties, or twelve if I count the option to cast a blank vote. But I’ll only do that if I draw the conclusion that I have no confidence in any party (or if I really don’t care, but that’s unlikely). Some parties are not really options for me, of course: some of the local or one-issue parties don’t speak for me, for example. Neither do the liberal parties VVD and D66. My choice is between the left and the conservative, to simplistically delineate them. PvdA (social-democrats), SP (socialists), GreenLeft, CDA (Christian democrats) and ChristianUnion (social Christian democrats). The first three and the last two have connected lists, which means they’ll form and speak as a block in the council together. All have extensive social programs, with the left focussing on the individual and the conservatives on society as a whole.

The Christian point of view is an important one for me, and I think it should be heard in politics. Of the five parties above, only the ChristianUnion is outspokenly Christian. The CDA is as well in name, but reading through their program their Christianity is far less clear. I also don’t really like their overly blunt approach towards beggars and addicts in the city. But they are a major and thus influential party, having had  many seats in the past and they’ll probably continue to have a significant number after the elections as well.

The downside of the ChristianUnion is that they are very much Protestant, which leads to a limited approach and relation to the faith. Their founding documents which consider the Catholic faith idolatry is also an obstacle. Their advantage is stability. The ChristianUnion does not water down its beliefs, but is also not limited by them, and I think that such clarity can do much good.

There are no clear Catholic choices in these elections. Is the ‘least bad’ option good enough? Voting is always better than not voting. And perhaps a vote for any Christian party will open the door for more openly Catholic politicians in the future… I am still undecided. Online election guides keep directing me to the CDA or the SP, so until 3 March I’ll probably keep weighing the options.

The bishops of England and Wales meet with the pope

The bishops of England and Wales have been in Rome this past week for their ad limina visit, and on Monday they met with the pope who spoke to them about various issues. The full text of the address is here, but I would like to emphasise a few elements below. 

The bishops of England and Wales with the Holy Father. Photo courtesy of L'Osservatore Romano.

 

“I urge you as Pastors to ensure that the Church’s moral teaching be always presented in its entirety and convincingly defended. Fidelity to the Gospel in no way restricts the freedom of others – on the contrary, it serves their freedom by offering them the truth. Continue to insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society. In doing so, you are not only maintaining long-standing British traditions of freedom of expression and honest exchange of opinion, but you are actually giving voice to the convictions of many people who lack the means to express them: when so many of the population claim to be Christian, how could anyone dispute the Gospel’s right to be heard?” 

The pope refuses to allow the Church to fall back on herself, safe in her own little world. There is a duty to make knows the truth in the Church to those outside it. The part I bolded is an indication of how sharp the pope can be if he wants to get his point across..  

“In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognize dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate.” 

Disagreement for the sake of disagreement has no place in  a debate, although too often it is heralded as that much-lauded and often misunderstood freedom of speech. Yes, we have a right to voice our opinion, but that does not free us from the obligation to think it through or deal with any consequences of what we say. 

“Indeed, since the priest plays an irreplaceable role in the life of the Church, spare no effort in encouraging priestly vocations and emphasizing to the faithful the true meaning and necessity of the priesthood. Encourage the lay faithful to express their appreciation of the priests who serve them, and to recognize the difficulties they sometimes face on account of their declining numbers and increasing pressures. The support and understanding of the faithful is particularly necessary when parishes have to be merged or Mass times adjusted. Help them to avoid any temptation to view the clergy as mere functionaries but rather to rejoice in the gift of priestly ministry, a gift that can never be taken for granted.” 

That is such an enormous risk in a society which has virtually no sense of sacrality left. We don’t recognise it when we see it, assuming we even see it at all. When a priest is seen as merely a functionary, we ultimately diminish the very essence of all of God’s gifts to us, because we don’t accept them for what they are. 

“I would ask you to be generous in implementing the provisions of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, so as to assist those groups of Anglicans who wish to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. I am convinced that, if given a warm and open-hearted welcome, such groups will be a blessing for the entire Church.” 

As for that last point, Anglicanorum Coetibus is having an effect on the papal visit to the UK in September. Apparently, Queen Elizabeth II is miffed about the pope’s initiative to open the doors to Anglicans who want to return home to the Catholic Church. After all, the queen is the head of the Anglican church, so she is not amused that the Holy Father has made it easier for members of her flock to leave and swim the Tiber. 

She cancelled the planned dinner with the pope, which to me seems a bit childish. The Queen’s government officially invited the pope, which means essentially that the Kingdom did, and now the personification of that Kingdom seems to back pedal a bit. 

Well, whatever happens, the papal visit to the UK looks to be stormy. There is a lot of enthusiasm, but the opponents are, once more, very loud.

A look back at the conference

The conference I attended yesterday afternoon was certainly interesting. All in all, a dozen or so student societies and other groups were represented, all of them Christian in some way, shape or form.  The introductions included some words from Prof. Zwarts (pictured), Rector Magnificus of the university, about what he thinks the role of the Christian societies in the larger framework of the university should be. He sees them as anchor points in the expanding student population in the city, that can help people keep their bearings in the large anonymous and often new world of university life. He said he counts on them to maintain the human side of things, while the university obviously works on the academic and official business. It was quite surprising to see how much value Prof. Zwarts attaches to having specifically Christian groups involved with a secular university.

The first major item of the conference were the so-called ‘talks by representatives of the various groups’. I was one of those, teamed up with a fellow representing a Reformed (Liberated) group. It turned out to be more of an interview times five. In five ten-minute rounds we were asked questions about who we were and what we did, with a new audience every time. So a lot was repeated, but it was quite informative. For one, I found that the Reformed (Liberated) group is not too dissimilar from our student parish in the way it works, so perhaps some cooperation may be possible with them in the future.

After a break and a short talk by a professor in early church and New Testament studies on open communication (he postulated that the two seemingly separate bodies of church and society, while legitimately so, should not be isolated from each other), we teamed up in smaller groups, not by affiliation of denomination, but toally random, to throw ideas for future cooperation about. What could we do and what not, what kind of ideas already exist, what can we learn from each other, that sort of stuff. These ideas were then dicussed by the chairman for the day, who picked a few good ones and suggested we realise them.

All in all, the conference was fruitful. Form our perspective there is certainly is a wide gap between the various Protestant denominations on the one hand and the Catholic Church on the other, but there was a lot of interest in us and enthusiasm for our presence. In the past, Bishop Eijk pulled us out of the general Christian platform to maintain our identity (and rigthly so, because a short while later that platform went from generally Christian to generally spiritual), but many people apparently were sorry to see us go.

In the next couple of days, the suggested ideas will be committed to paper and hopefully we’ll be able to work some of them out and maintain the contacts we have tentatively established. I think that the Reformed (Liberated) group and their miniter, as well as the Navigators, whose motto is as simple as knowing and witnessing Christ, can be good partners for us. We will be working towards a first event on Shrove Tuesday; we invited representatives of the groups at the conference to come and visit us then for drinks, a tour of the cathedral and a chance to get to know us a bit more.