The effects of Christmas, 70 years later

I came across this moving story on the website of the Diocese of Regensburg:

Special guests during the Christmas evening Mass in the cathedral of Regensburg: the Vawter family from America returned to the place where their mother experienced her own Christmas miracle in 1945. In that year, 22-year-old Gabriele Meyer arrived in American-occupied Regensburg, after having been set free from a Soviet POW camp in Czechoslovakia. In the Bavarian city, a stranger took care of her, gave her food coupons and took her to Mass at St. Peter’s  cathedral. There, young Gabriele experienced her own Christmas miracle: the festive liturgy and the angelic voices of the choir for the first time allowed her to forget all the pain and terror which had led her here.

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After the war, Gabriele Meyer emigrated to the United States, married a man named Vawter and had three children. These children, daughter Dorle and sons Art and Tom, with their own children, were the personal guests of Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer this Christmas. Gabriele Vawter died in 2010, but she never forgot her experience in Regensburg at Christmas of 1945, and it moved her entire family. They assured Bishop Voderholzer, “We now know what moved our mother so deeply then!”

The power of celebrating, music and practical assistance in times of need. It can transcend decades and generations.

Merry Christmas

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

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Oh, come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant!
Oh, come ye, oh come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him,
Born the King of angels!

Christ is born, 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, and every day in the hearts of people everywhere in the world. May today herald His arrival in your heart!

Seriousness and joy, two bedfellows in the Year of Mercy – Archbishop De Kesel’s installation homily

Last Saturday, Msgr. Jozef De Kesel was installed as the 24th Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, at the Cathedral of St. Rumbold. Attending were, among others, the Belgian king and queen, all other Belgian bishops (including Archbishop De Kesel’s two predecessors, Archbishop Léonard and Cardinal Danneels), as well as Cardinal Wim Eijk from the Netherlands and Bishop Gérard Coliche from France. In his homily, the new archbishop looked at the readings of the third Sunday of Advent, and kept close to the theme of the Holy Year of Mercy. In the spirit of Pope Francis, he called for a Church that goes out into the world, to confront “our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.”

Read my translation of the homily, which was given in both French and Dutch, below.

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“Dear friends,

The Scripture readings we have just heard are the reading for the third Sunday of Advent. They are words that are being read today and tomorrow everywhere in the world, wherever Christians come together on the Sunday. They prepare us for Christmas. But they do give us mixed feelings. On the one hand we have John’s call for conversion. That we do not miss He who is coming. For He is coming, he says, “to clear his threshing floor”. Not exactly a comforting message. Words that point out the seriousness of the situation and our responsibility.

But at the same time there is also the call to joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” he says. Of old this Sunday has also been called this: Sunday Gaudete! And Saint Paul adds, “Have no anxiety …  the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds. The Prophet Zephaniah shares the same call for joy. They seem unlikely bedfellows: the seriousness and responsibility that John emphasises and the call to joy and happiness. But it is these two which brings us together today: great responsibility, but also great joy.

Yes, the words of John are binding. He calls to conversion. Yet when those who have just been baptised ask him, “What should we do?”, his response is surprising. He asks for nothing extraordinary or sensational. Share what you have. They should not give everything, but what they have. If you have more clothing than you need, then give to those who do not have enough. The same applies to food: share what you have more of than you need. And to the tax collectors he does not say to cease their work. He simply says, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed”. Beware of corruption. And the soldiers who come to him, he does not ask to desert. He simply asks them: do what you do properly, without abusing your position and without the use of arbitrary violence. Never forget that you are human like everyone else. What John asks requires string commitment. That is true. But he does not ask anything extravagant. A baptised person does not keep a distance from others. We are to return to the responsibility and solidarity that we share with all men, regardless of their religion of belief.

But why be baptised? Why be Christian? The liturgy of this Sunday gives us the answer, and it too is astonishing. It is the joy that makes me a believer. It is not out of necessity or because I feel obligated. I am a Christian in freedom and love. We are known and loved by God. This is the heart of our faith. This joy and all love is therefore a call to fidelity and conversion.

This is the heart of Christianity. Not in the first place a doctrine or morality. But the certainty that we, frail and temporary people, are known and loved by God. It can hardly be imagined. But how, if this is true, can we not rejoice? Of course this does not answer all questions or solve every problem. But we know from experience how much this makes us happy, gives meaning and direction to our existence: that we are known, appreciated and loved by other people. That we are not nobody. Exactly that is the joy of the Gospel: to know that we are not only by those who are near to use, but by God Himself, the Creator and source of all that exists. Known and loved and radically accepted. Not without reason did Pope Francis call his first Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel”. And not without reason did he, last Tuesday in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, at the start of the great jubilee, open the door, the door of God’s mercy. Like we will do tomorrow here, and in Brussels and in Nivelles and in all cathedrals and jubilee churches in the entire world.

No, God is not an indifferent God. No arbitrary power, only concerned with Himself. We people are worth everything to Him. That is why He ask that one thing: that we are also not indifferent to each other. Especially not to those who stand at the side and do not matter, the poor and vulnerable, and the countless who are fleeing from war and violence. That we respect all life, no matter how small and vulnerable. Respect for the religious and philosophical convictions of every man. Respect and care for the planet we inhabit. We are also responsible for future generations. This world can be a hard place. This is what the Gospel asks from us: that we do not became hard and indifferent, insensitive and merciless. Because that is our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.

This is the Gospel that the Church proclaims. The Gospel of God’s tenderness. And this is not just rhetoric. He is committed to the very end. And His Son, Jesus Christ, became one of us, vulnerable and defenseless as a child of men. A miracle of humanity. A love to which there is only one answer: to love in our turn. We appreciate and respect each other. Proclaiming the mercy of God and calling for respect and love, that is the mission of the Church. This is the place it searches out in our pluralistic and modern society. Nothing more, and nothing less. In a secularised culture, she can and must make her voice heard. And so much more than a religious fundamentalism that at this time constitutes a very real threat.

Not a Church that looks inward, but a Church that shares in the joys and sufferings of the world. Sympathetic to the plight of humans, of any kind. This was the message of the Second Vatican Council. Last Tuesday, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, it was exactly fifty years since the closing of the Ecumenical Council. The Constitution on the Church in the world begins with these impressive and moving words: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

This is the vocation that the Church has received from God. To that we want to dedicate our best forces at the task entrusted to me today. I with you, and you with me. As we heard from John: no extravagant or spectacular projects. But a search for a consistent experience of the Gospel. And with that one certainty: that we are known and loved by God. That is our joy and faith today.

+Jozef De Kesel
Mechelen, 12 December 2015″

Merry Christmas!

“Do not be afraid. Look, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people.

Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those he favours.”

[Luke 2:10-14]

nativity^The tiny nativity scene that graces our home

I wish all the readers of my blog, my followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook a very merry and blessed Christmas. May the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ not only be a coming in our world, but also in our hearts. He is our shepherd, our friend, our guide and teacher. He is the way, the truth and the life.

“Do not be afraid! Our Father is patient, he loves us, he gives us Jesus to guide us on the way which leads to the promised land. Jesus is the light who brightens the darkness. He is mercy: our Father always forgives us. He is our peace.”

Pope Francis, Christmas homily 2013

Good intentions – Pope to the Curia, or to us all

Pope Francis gave the Roman Curia an earful, they say. Rather than limiting himself to general niceties and well-wishes in the traditional Christmas address, he told the cardinals, bishops and other members of the Curia what’s wrong with them and what they must improve to function properly again. They say.

Reality is a bit different, as it often is.

pope francis curia christmas address

To start, the fact of a Pope giving a meaty address is nothing new, and certainly not when that Pope is Francis. He challenges his audience, and on this occasion he chose to do so in light of the preparation for Christmas, of which the sacrament of Confession is an important part. He lists no less than fifteen pitfalls that the Curia must look out for. But only the Curia? Not in the least. At the end of his list he says:

“Brothers, these sicknesses and these temptations are, naturally, a danger for every Christian and for every Curia, community, Congregation, parish, Ecclesial Movement, etc. and they can strike at the individual as much as at the communal level.”

We should all listen well to the Pope’s  words in this, because the risks for the Curia are no different than the risk we ourselves run. Rather than seeing the fifteen points in the speech as stern warnings, we can turn them around and use them as good intentions for Christmas and the new year.

  1. Consider yourself as important as everyone else.
  2. Enjoy the gift of rest and relaxation, and the fruits of companionship and time for others and for God.
  3. Stay in touch with people and their feelings, wishes and hopes (as well as your own).
  4. Have confidence in the Holy Spirit in your work and life.
  5. Know your capabilities and those of others around you, and coordinate.
  6. Always remain in an encounter with the Lord.
  7. Stay true to yourself and consider the interests of others as much as those of yourself.
  8. Always remain a shepherd for others, through example and care.
  9. Speak directly, openly and without complaining.
  10. Think of duties, not just rights, and honour God rather than persons.
  11. Think of others, share with them and take joy in what they say and do.
  12. Be happy, and don’t take yourself too seriously.
  13. Travel lightly through life, don’t be weighed down by possessions.
  14. Remain open to others, also as a group.
  15. Don’t show off or take pride in your abilities or achievements.

Good advice, if not always easy. I suspect that if we apply these good intentions, the change will be astounding. And it’s not our change, achieved by us, but by the Holy Spirit working in us. As Pope Francis says:

“We must clarify that it is only the Holy Spirit – the soul of the Mystical Body of Christ, as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed affirms: “I believe … in the Holy Spirit, Lord and giver of life” – who heals every infirmity. It is the Holy Spirit who supports every sincere effort of purification and every good will of conversion. He it is who makes us understand that every member participates in the sanctification of the Body and in its weakening. He is the promoter of harmony: “ipse harmonia est,” says Saint Basil. Saint Augustine says to us: “While a part adheres to the body, its healing is not despaired of; instead, what was cut off cannot be taken care of or healed.”

The peace of Christ – Bishop Van Looy’s letter for Christmas

Ghent’s Bishop Luc Van Looy devotes his Christmas letter to the peace of this period. Peace in ourselves, but also the peace we are obliged to share with those who need it most, especially the homeless, the displaced and the refugees.

van looyTo all people of good will
Christmas letter from Msgr. Luc Van Looy, Bishop of Ghent

Christmas truce

The commemorations of the start of the First World War remind us of what our ancestors did to achieve peace. In the past year we could learn much from the media about this dark page in our history. At the same time we are continuously confronted with the horrible situations in which many people live today, because of the violence of war. The UN speaks of 28 million people without a home and 10 million refugees in the world at this moment. Among these people there are a great many children, especially since those countries in which war now rages have a culture of families with many children. In 2013, 15,840 people asked for asylum in Belgium, people mostly from eastern European and African countries.

We can’t take comfort in the thought that these things happen in distant countries. We can’t remain blind to the situation of so many displaced persons in our towns and cities: homeless, squatters, people without a house, who are completely dependent on social services for their food and clothes. Perhaps we et to easily rid of our duty by giving some small alms or donating to some project for children in Africa or Latin America. A child in London asked, “Why would I go to my mother’s when there is no electricity of water there?” These people need our love, just like our material support.

Pope Francis sees in these “new forms of poverty and vulnerability … the suffering Christ”. “The homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, and many others” all call to mind the suffering Christ. The image of breaking the bread and pouring the wine as His body and blood are irrevocable signs of the total givenness of Christ. Pope Francis calls for generous empathy out of that union with Christ. Referring to himself, he says, “Migrants present a particular challenge for me, since I am the pastor of a Church without frontiers” (cf. Evangelii Gaudium 210).

Christmas is an ideal period for special focus on these social problems. Mary and Joseph also failed to find shelter for the birth of Jesus. In addition, they were forced to flee with Him to Egypt. Herod did not recognise the Messiah in this child; he was not interested in the person, but to his own position as steward. It is our duty to focus on the person and not to judge or generalise based on race or culture, religion or ancestry, poverty or wealth, orientation or age. The incarnation of Christ shows us that every human being deserves attention. Jesus comes among the people. He joins in their conversations and speaks with authority, but at the same time He listens to their concerns. He has special attention for the deprived, the sick, the poor, the children. His attention is for the sinners; He lets the adulterous woman go, to ultimately praise her to the expense of the host. He is a man among men. He did not take pride in His descent. On the contrary, He became the servant of all.

In the social unrest that we have witnessed recently, we need to distinguish what is important. Here too, man needs to be in the centre instead of mere power play. Here the Pope also speaks: “Conflict cannot be ignored or concealed. It has to be faced. But if we remain trapped in conflict, we lose our perspective, our horizons shrink and reality itself begins to fall apart. In the midst of conflict, we lose our sense of the profound unity of reality” (Evangelii Gaudium 226).

Christmas teaches us to bring peace. “He is the peace between us” (Eph. 2:14), and He paid the price for it with His blood on the cross. People and cultures are diverse and you can try to achieve peace through negotiations, but nothing is as strong as the unity of Spirit. Unity is fundamental and transcends all conflict. Looking for a synthesis, one must depart from the desire for unity among all people. It is a matter of appreciating the other, esteeming him – more than yourself – and recognising and accepting the dignity of all. This attitude can defeat all partisanship and conflict. No one is more man because he or she was born in some privileged culture or in a certain context. Equality flows from the gift of life itself, which everyone has received from the same Father.

Dear friends, states of war, conflict, migration and poverty can not leave us unmoved. There are many initiatives in this time of Christmas to ease the fate of others, to share the warmth of the community. In this time everyone may experience that Christ has come to bring peace and unity. But it is important that this attention is not limited to the period of Christmas, but spreads throughout the year. The service to people and the world – we call this te diaconate – is an essential aspect of our Christianity.

I wish for the year 2015 to be a year of solidarity and service for all of you, of friendship which resolves conflicts, of peace in families. May the peace of Christ for every man be even stronger than just a “Christmas truce”, so that it may be a new start wherever necessary. For it was God’s intention to give everyone peace, when He sent His Son into the world.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year.”

For Advent, the state of the Diocese – Bishop Grothe considers Limburg

While it’s not really a letter for Advent, the timing of this message from Bishop Manfred Grothe, Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Limburg, is not coincidental. In it he looks back on the past year, an eventful one for the diocese, which is still in a sort of transitional period following the resignation of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst and the financial drama that led to that.

14_03_Grothe“Dear sisters and brothers in the Diocese of Limburg,

After the start of the new liturgical year we are in the time of Advent, in which we prepare for the coming of the Lord. For many people it is a time, both professionally and privately, to look back on the past month and to use the weeks before Christmas to re-orient themselves: Where do I stand? What are my goals for the coming year?

As Christians in the Diocese of Limburg we look back on eventful and challenging months. Much has happened – although not everything has always been visible for everyone – and as Apostolic Administrator I was able to go part of the way with you. For that I thank you from my heart. I have above all used the time to first hear and get to know the diocese, its administration, commissions, consulting bodies and communities.

Things have quieted down in the Diocese of Limburg, and the headlines of the media have gone. Together we have started on a path of reorganisation and we have already taken important steps. Various bodies have had the courage for self-reflection and correction. Much has become clearer and more visible, but much also still needs time. I am confident that we can make a new start together, that trust will be renewed. In that context I especially think of the men and women who have withdrawn from recent confrontations and also risked an open debate. I wish that our diocese draws ever more together and regains a healthy self-awareness and self-confidence. From the joy of faith we can draw the strength to witness to the people of the loving closeness of the living God.

In the new year we will continue the reorganisation of the diocese’s financial management. With an eye on canon law the diocesan financial council will be installed with a new staff. The goal in this is a clear and unambiguous division of responsibility in the administration of the diocesan council and its authority and control. By employing external personnel a greater independence will be achieved while maintaining the duties of the financial council.

In addition the statute of the see will be revised, in cooperation with the relevant bodies, and the organisation’s management will be reorganised. Greater differentiation of assets and the path of transparency will be consistently continued. Already in July of 2014 the diocese published the assets and financial commitments of the Diocese of Limburg, the cathedral chapter and the school organisation.

In the coming months the thoughts and opinions of volunteer and paid staff, which was collected between September and the end of November, will also be evaluated. This evaluation will be an great additional help for me to process what happened and to learn from it. Today I can already thank all who made use of the option of making a phone call. There have been more than 100 calls. These reports have made it possible for me to get an idea of your thoughts and feelings and to understand better how you have experienced the past year. It is encouraging to me that the majority of callers have reported by name.

Nine new parishes will be established on 1 January 2015. Together with the 14 ‘new type parishes’ already existing half of the 45 new parishes has then been established.

The ‘new type parishes’ are past the stadium of planning and prognosis and already in many ways a concrete reality and a first answer to the changes and challenges of Church life. Together with the diocese, its curia and synod, I want to continue in this way. The process as a whole should not be reversed and stopped.  But the questions from the people in the parishes and communities are heard and easily understood. That is why we will continue with the visits to the communities. I can understand the concerns related to such a process of change and I also see many hurdles which must be overcome in dialogue and together. We must develop the steps to allow faith and community life to be lived strongly and with new impulses, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. That will certainly be a challenge since Church and lived faith will get a new face and will also be realised in a different shape and form. In addition to the geographical reorganisation of the diocese, perspectives must also be developed in the coming year that demonstrate how pastoral care in the ‘new type parishes’ may be realised and succeed.

A special working group with representatives from several departments of the diocese has worked intensively to find a use for the building complex on the Domberg in Limburg. The complex was built as a house for the bishop of Limburg and will in principle also be used as such. We want to use the coming months to open up and de-mythologise the house. There will therefore be guided tours for employees as well as for groups from the Diocese of Limburg. The buildings are planned to be used for conferences and meetings of various organisations. In addition, it can host exhibitions, theological and other events. In this way we want to include the bishop’s house in the plans for the Diocese of Limburg. The private areas will be excluded from the opening, with respect for their private use.

In September Bishop emeritus Dr. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst left the Diocese of Limburg and moved into a private house in Regensburg. Until now there has not been a new assignment connected to this. I would have much preferred an official farewell, in whatever form. This has not been possible to date, for various reasons, but remains an option for the diocese. In the weeks until Christmas and the end of the year I invite all to accompany the bishop emeritus in prayer and ask God’s blessing for his future, which remains uncertain. Equally uncertain for now is when the election of a new bishop will be initiated by the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. The Holy Father wants me to remain as Apostolic Administrator in the Diocese of Limburg for a while longer and prepare for a new beginning while the see remains vacant. In the first half of the year I am allowed to fill the two empty places in the cathedral chapter and so complete the chapter for the election.

Dear sisters and brothers, the tasks that lie before us are complex and yet I see with gratitude that we have taken many steps in the past months. That gives me confidence. I invite everyone to continue on this path with magnanimity and mutual respect for the other. Not only our diocese, but also our society is faced with great challenges in the new year. We are discussing assisted dying and as Christians we have the duty to always and ever anew make the dignity of people in all phases of life visible. We provide a vital service to society. We also can’t lose sight of people at the edge of society and those who have fled to our country and look for help in their often indescribable need. That was made clear to me during a brief visit to the Burbach refugee centre. As Church of Limburg we will therefore continue to commit ourselves to a “culture of hospitality for refugees” and use our financial and human resources to give our neighbours not just a home, but also a piece of homeland.

I wish you a blessed time of Advent and a Christmas rich in mercy, and a blessed new year. God has become man. Let’s celebrate that with confidence and faith in God and show the people around us what that means for us.

Limburg, on the third Sunday of Advent

+Auxiliary Bishop Manred Grothe

Apostolic Administrator “