No fear in violent times – Bishop Wiertz’s letter for Advent

Bishop Frans Wiertz digs into the topic of fear and evil in his letter for Advent. His opinion of modern society is not overly positive, but he finds the antidote in the promise of the angel to the shepherds: “Be not afraid”.

Mgr. F.J.M. Wiertz“Brothers and sisters,

We are preparing ourselves for Christmas. At the heart of the celebration of this feast is of course the story of the birth of Jesus. Every time, we discover new facets in it which are worth reflecting on. This year, our attention is especially drawn to a verse from the song of the angel. The angel heartens the shepherds in their alarm and their fear: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy…” (Luke 2:10).

“Do not be afraid”. This encouragement appears frequently in Holy Scripture, in all kinds of variations. A zealous reader once counted how frequently. He made the surprising discovery that it was no less than 365 times! So you could say that the Word of God encourages us every day: “Have no fear. Do not be afraid”.

Perhaps this appeal is especially necessary in our time. Our society is contradictory. Never before did people have it this good. But still, many have a sense of great discontent. Research has established the presence of this discontent before. Many people individually call themselves happy, but as a society we are unsatisfied and insecure. Our lives are even permeated by a “culture of fear”. People have become afraid of each other.

The brutal violence of terrorism scares us. Our peaceful coexistence is threatened by it. We are worried about the coarseness and hardness of modern life. Normal social contact is disrupted by it. We are even starting to distrust each other. We lock our houses down with security systems and padlocks. “Who can I still trust?” is often heard.

We are undeniably at a crossroads in history. The core values of our coexistence have thoroughly changed in a very short time. Growing individualism is paralysing our common solidarity. Our common bond has become fleeting, loyalty a difficult task.

Does this make us feel good? Young people are looking for a handhold in all sorts of ways. The elderly are worried about their future. For young and old existence has become confusing. Uncertainty takes hold over us.

This uncertainty ultimately comes from the weakening or even the disappearance of the faith in God. God, revealed in Jesus Christ, the power of His Holy Spirit. Many hardly know what to do with it. People are trying to live without God in our time. Without any awareness of His care. Without sense for His love.

By extension, also often enough: without any concern for him or her who remains our neighbour. If God is no longer our Father, we are also no longer each other’s brothers and sisters.  This absence of God and neightbour, that frightens me.

Should we, as Christians, resign ourselves to this culture of fear? The call to ‘watchfulness’ resounds in many texts in the liturgy of Advent. As faithful we must not ignore the problems of this time. We must be on our guard, watch for the power of evil not conquering us.

With all people of good will, we are searching for a peaceful society. The Gospel asks for solidarity in fighting everything that stands in the way of a humane society. The faith in Jesus Christ is at odds with any form of indifference. Pope Francis continuously warns against what he calls a ‘global indifference’.

The frightening situation of a violent world wakes us up. We often close our eyes for the power of evil in our superficial world. Let us open our hearts for the many who have fled the misery of their destroyed homes.

The fear of people in our time is really not unfounded. We can not deny that an evil power is working among us. This should be fought with all virtuous means. Saint Paul still presents us with a very simple and very effective measure: “Conquer evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).

We must not allow ourselves to be paralysed by fear. Fear is, after all, a poor counselor. That is why the angel of Christmas warns us, “Do not be afraid.” And he adds, “For behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy… For today … a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord” (Luke 2,10-11).

God did not remain a stranger to us. No distant absentee. From the silence of His mystery He came intimately close to us in Jesus. He broke through His silence. Opened heaven that was closed. The Word of God became man and lives among us.

Faith in the Christ child always gives us new confidence and hope in our sometimes frightening situation. It has become a hard task to give these virtues a stable place in our lives. In order to break the spiral of our fear, we need courage. The courage of a persevering witness of faith. As the Reverend Martin Luther King said, “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear”. May the birth of Christ give us that strength of His peace and salvation!

+ Franz Wiertz,
Bishop of Roermond”

Wake up! – Bishop Oster’s letter for Advent

Passau’s Bishop Stefan Oster takes St. Paul’s words as his own in his letter for Advent, urging us to wake up from sleep. We must wake up to actively pursue a relationship with Jesus Christ, in the knowledge that the most important commandment is to love Him. And we can, as the bishop says, “it is really possible to love Jesus”.

oster“Dear sisters and brothers,

It is time to rise up from sleep! So goes the urgent admonition from St. Paul to the Christians of Rome in today’s reading. It is time to get up from sleep. Paul lives in a very deep inner unity with Christ. And it is characteristic of people like Paul, throughout history, that they see their own time as broken, superficial, threatened. As lulled to sleep. This in comparison to what they themselves experience inwardly, which has grasped them within, what is to them to true, a reality: the closeness to Christ. And, like Jesus Himself in the Gospel, Paul sees the danger that we people become inwardly deaf and blind to His presence, that we no longer have any sensitivity for His being near to us, that He wants to transform us from within, every day and every hour. It is time to get up, Paul says. In the Gospel Jesus says: be watchful, be prepared. You do not known the hour at which the Son of Man comes.

Dear sisters and brothers, I would most of all like to call you and also myself and all of us in a similar way: it is time to rise up from sleep. Jesus is coming, Jesus is near. Am I willing? Is my heart open to Him, who wants to come in glory, wants to come again in the fullness of love, of truth, of light and power. And who now already wants to enter our hearts every day, so that we may truly know Him, from heart to heart, when we meet Him face to face. Or are we perhaps not also often in a situation in which we should basically fear His coming, after having forgotten Him for so long?

You know that we are occupying ourselves in the diocese with a great topic: how can we help each other to find a new faith, to deepen it anew? What does “new evangelisation” mean? How do we open our faith in such a way that it touches people of today, with their questions of today? That they sense that this is really a source of life, healing, depth, beauty and truth? I am convinced that we can only find the answers to such questions when we also ask ourselves again: Do I know Jesus? Am I really interested in Him? Do I really believe that He can touch and transform my life here and now? Has He already touched it? Have I, for example, ever been moved in my heart by what we celebrate at Easter, namely that Jesus lives?! And do I believe that He also lives in our Church, in the celebration of the sacraments? And do I also believe that He also lives in me, and wants to enable me to become like Him, to love and trust like Him?

Dear sisters and brothers, it is really possible to love Jesus. And in the Gospel Jesus tells us very clearly that we should try. And He even tells us that loving Him is the most important commandment of all. Our ability to love our fellow men, our neighbours like ourselves, but also the poor, the marginalised, this ability comes from Him, from our relationship with Him, from remaining with Him. He wants us to become more like Him. And I earnestly believe, dear sisters and brothers, that our ability to help other people come to faith also depends on our relationship with Jesus. From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks, He tells us. And all that once conquered your heart will make you act differently than before this conquest. Does our behaviour show that Jesus has conquered our hearts? Do we rightly bear His name, when we call ourselves Christians?

I am well aware that these questions are challenging for all of us. For me as well, of course. And of course, a relationship with Jesus is also a path, a process, a maturing and ripening, often with highs and lows. It is never cut and dry. Often one feels like a beginner. But my question to us is this: have we already begun the journey? Have we understood how important this relationship is for our lives, for our salvation? Or don’t we believe too often: being a Christian means not doing anything to anyone, and trying to be reasonably nice?! This would be a great misunderstanding, because being a Christian is in the first place a relationship, a relationship that transforms. New evangelisation is therefore, for example: learning to pray anew, alone and together. Look for people with whom you can regularly come together, to pray together; to read Scripture together – and to tell each other what role Jesus plays in your lives. And when you think that you would have nothing to say, let yourself be strengthened by the stories of others. In this way you will learn to become more sensitive to Jesus’ presence in your life. Dear sisters, dear brothers, Jesus is looking for people who will passionately live with and for Him, regardless of where and how old they are. He is looking for people who can speak, who can speak about their faith and their lives with the Lord. The Church therefore needs individuals, but also groups and communities, to put this into practice – and also help other people to find words – to speak of our faith anew.

What do you think, dear sisters and brothers, is it not time to get up? And, as Paul says, to rise from sleep? Form a sleep which wants to convince us that the faith is self-perpetuating? From the inertia which wants us to consider everything else more important than the most important relationship of our lives! Is it not time to return to Jesus again and ask Him to recoginise us? The time of Advent before is a good opportunity for that! We prepare ourselves for His coming. We celebrate the greatest event in world history. And we Christians have the privilege to believe that it is and remains true, and that it happens also today! In and among us! Do we believe it? Or do we rather remain in bed? I am in favour of waking up and allowing ourselves to be touched anew by His love, who is for me personally, who knows me, who wants to come to my heart and who is eternal. I very much wish, dear sisters and brothers, that you will be touched anew by it in this Advent. And I am grateful for all who help to introduce others to this mysteries. God bless you all.

Given on the first Sunday of Advent 2016

Dr. Stefan Oster SDB, Bishop of Passau.”

Waiting for God – Bishop Bonny’s letter for Advent

In the first of this year’s traditional Advent letters that most bishops write, Bishop Johan Bonny speaks about waiting. Waiting for our friends or loved ones, but also waiting for God. And about God’s waiting for us.

8579640“Good friends,

“I have been waiting for you!” That short sentence can sound business-like or emotional. It depends on who says it and when. And especially to whom it is being said. “I have been waiting for you!”. It sounds different when a teacher says it to a student who is late for class. Or when an office worker says it to a colleague with whom he takes the morning train to Brussels. Or when a prisoner says it to his girlfriend who comes to visit him every week at the prison. Or when a boy says it to the girl who did not show up for their date. Or when a mother says it to her daughter who returns home from a party in the early hours. Or when a woman says it to her husband who is married more to his work than to her. Or when a man says it to his wife who has been visiting with her friend  for too long again. Of when parents say it to their child who is finally coming home after surgery. “I have been waiting for you!” It can convey joy or gratitude or misunderstanding or anger.

“I have been waiting for you!” We do not say it to each other when there is no friendship or love involved. It makes us recognise friends and loved ones: they wait for each other, they consider the other’s  presence, they become impatient or distrustful when the other does not show up, the absence of the other at an appointment hurts. When friendship or love cools, waiting for each other disappears. Appointments become more business-like. Waiting becomes less personal and less emotional. Do you want to know who your friends are or who loves you? This question is the test. Who would say to me now, “I have been waiting for you!”?

Soon it will be Advent again in the church community. It is a time of looking forward and waiting in preparation for Christmas. “I have been waiting for you!” Precisely this sentence befits this time in the Church’s year. Remarkably enough, we will often be hearing these words from the mouth of God during Advent: “I have been waiting for you!” The entire Bible speaks of God’s waiting for man. God does not coolly follow humanity from a distance. On the contrary. He is involved, full of friendship and love, with man and the people He has chosen. He desires to be their God and they His people. How often was God not alone in that desire? How often was He not left in the cold? But God continued searching to be close to man. Jesus is the full revelation of that divine search.

At the same time man thirsts for the coming of God. Waiting is a two-way street. But even if a deep desire for God’s friendship and love is alive in man, it is not easy to come close to God. God is so completely different. He is so completely unpredictable. It is not easy to make an appointment or arrange a meeting with Him. He transcends our plans and our agendas. So man, too, is sometimes left alone in his search for God. Someone who loves God must have patience, precisely because it is about God and no one less than Him. Advent is about that patient desire. Patiently looking forward to the coming of Jesus, to be able to say to Him at Christmas, “I have been waiting for you!”

+ Johan Bonny, Bishop of Antwerp”

In Munich, a count brings the auxiliary bishops back to three

bv-stolberg-139large_1414758497After an equal number of years, the number of auxiliary bishops for the southern German Archdiocese of München und Freising is back to three, one for each pastoral region. The new bishop, appointed today, is Rupert Graf zu Stolberg, a 46-year-old priest who has been the episcopal vicar for the Munich region since 2013 and member of the cathedral chapter, functions he will retain as bishop.

Bishop-elect Stolberg was born in 1970 in Salzburg, Austria, but grew up in Passau, Bavaria. After graduating he worked at a mission station in Mexico, before returning to Germany to study medicine. He later switched to theology and the seminary in Munich and was ordained for the Archdiocese of München und Freising in 2003. He was the personal secretary of Cardinal Friedrich Wetter since 2005 and continued in that function for Cardinal Reinhard Marx when the latter was appointed in 2007. In 2011 he joined the personnel department for the pastoral regions Nord and South. In 2013, then, he succeeded retiring auxiliary Bishop Engelbert Siebler as episcopal vicar for Munich. From Bishop Siebler he took the – utterly Franciscan – habit of celebrating Christmas with homeless people.

Bishop-elect Stolberg has been a vocal opponent of the Pegida movement, warning against the racist tendencies underlying their motivations. He is a member of the speakers’ council of the Munich Alliance for tolerance, democracy and justice and a founder of the city’s religious council.

The new bishop, whose full name is Rupert Ferdinand Carl Thaddäus Antonius Maria Graf zu Stolberg-Stolberg, is of noble blood. He is a member of one of the various branches of the Stolberg family, which dates back to the 13th century. In the Holy Roman Empire they were worldy rulers over a range of counties and lordships. The Stolberg-Stolberg line has included the Catholic politician Count Joseph Theodor, the Nazi General Major Christoph and opponent of Nazism and rescuer of Jews Countess Maria zu Stolberg-Stolberg.

The consecration of Bishop-elect Stolberg is scheduled for 10 December, and will undoubtedly be performed by Cardinal Marx as main consecrator and the see’s other two auxiliaries, Bishop Bernard Haßlberger and Wolfgang Bischof as co-consecrators. He has been given the titular see of Sassura, which lies in modern Tunisia.

Photo credit: Thomas Dashuber

In surprising move, Bishop de Korte goes south

It was one of the more unexpected choices, and for the new bishop the change will be big in several ways: he goes from the north to the south of the country, from a diocese with few Catholics to one with many, from a part of the country where people are fairly down to earth, to one where the Dutch concept of ‘gezelligheid’ has a natural home and where people are sometimes brutally honest. It will be interesting to see what bishop and diocese bring each other.

Mgr. Hurkmans en Mgr. de Korte
Bishop Hurkmans and his successor, Bishop de Korte

The new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch is 60-year-old Gerard de Korte, until today the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. And this scribe’s bishop at that. In yesterday’s blog post I already characterised Bishop de Korte as a popular shepherd. He is personable, interested, with a keen sense of the hearts and minds of other people. That makes him well suited to represent the Catholic Church in relations with other Christians, a talent he has made one of the focal points of his mission. In Groningen-Leeuwarden, such ecumenical effort is a necessity and a value. How it will take shape in ‘s-Hertogenbosch will be very interesting to see.

In a message leaked prematurely via Twitter, Bishop Hurkmans congratulated Bishop de Korte, and expresses a few wishes to him and the faithful of ‘s-Hertogenbosch:

bisschop Hurkmans“I wish very much that you, as a society, may live in confidence with the new bishop. You and I, we, live in a time of many and great changes. Especially now it is good to stand on the solid ground the faith offers us. God is our Creator and Father. He wanted all of us and included us in His plan of love.

Secondly, I wish for you all that you may remain hopeful with the new bishop. Evil and death are in the way of us all. They supplant hope. Jesus Christ broke the power of sin and opened the way to life. We celebrate this in the Eucharist and from it we draw hope every time. With that, as a new community around Christ, we can be a sign of hope in our society.

Lastly, I wish for the new bishop and you all to remain in love. That this may be the basis of your life. The Holy Spirit lives in us. He plants love in us and continuously strengthens the divine life. This makes love bloom in us. Love can reinforce our community. Love will let us live for each other in the Church and in the world.

Remaining in faith, hope and love is more than guaranteed when we participate in unity in a healthy life of the Church. I gladly wish Msgr. Gerard de Korte people who say yes to their vocation to the priesthood, the diaconate and the religious life, people who will work with him in the life of the Church, people who make the Church present in the world. People who support him in his prayer and proclamation, on being close to people and managing the diocese.”

Bishop Hurmans, now bishop emeritus, closes with a word of gratitude, despite beginning his letter by saying that he has said enough about his retirement.

“I thank you all for the faith, the hope and the love which I was able to keep among you. I hope to be able to be a witness of that in a simple way, trusting in the Sweet Mother of Den Bosch and living from the Holy Eucharist, until my death.”

duzijn jellema ordinationBishop de Korte has been the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden since 2008. Before that, from 2001 to 2008, he was auxiliary bishop of Utrecht, where he also worked as a priest since his ordination in 1987. He is a historian and served as seminary rector before his appointment as bishop. In Groningen-Leeuwarden he was a bishop on the road, travelling to every corner and sharing the major celebrations of Easter and Christmas between the cathedral in Groningen and the church of St. Boniface in Leeuwarden. Ordinations were also shared between the two cities: those of deacons, as pictured at left, in Leeuwarden, and priests in Groningen. He leaves a diocese in the midst of the greatest reorganisation in recent history: the reduction of its 84 parishes to 19. May the vacancy of the seat in St. Joseph’s cathedral in Groningen be a short one.

In my blog, Bishop de Korte has made frequent appearances, and translations of his writing may be found via the tag cloud in the left sidebar. Just click on the tag ‘Bishop Gerard de Korte’.

Despite the appointment coming before Easter, Bishop de Korte will mark the Church’s  greatest week in Groningen-Leeuwarden. His installation in ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Evangelist will follow on 14 May.

In hindsight, this was perhaps the most Franciscan option in the Netherlands. Bishop de Korte fits the profile of what Pope Francis wants in a bishop (although other bishops are often unfairly depicted as being in opposition to the Holy Father): an open communicator, close to the people, a shepherd who smells like the sheep. These qualities may go a long way in resolving the polarisation that plagues parts of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In recent years more than one community has broken with the diocese, and the person and approach of Bishop de Korte, a man of dialogue and a strong voice against hate and distrust, may go a long way in setting them back on a course towards reconciliation.

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Bishop de Korte at an interfaith meeting against hate and racism in 2014.

 In his new diocese, Bishop de Korte will undoubtedly continue to stress the importance of catechesis. Back in 2012 he said, “It may sound dramatic, but I sometimes feel that only a great catechetical offensive can secure Catholicism in our country. Without it, the strength of our faith seems to continue to weaken and Catholics become more and more religious humanists for whom important aspects of classic Catholicism have become unfamiliar.” Other emphases of his new task will be ecumenism, religious life and active Catholic communities.

de korte eijkIn the Dutch Bishops’ Conference this appointment does not change much, although several commentators have chosen to see it as a blow for Cardinal Eijk, outgoing president and predecessor of Bishop de Korte in Groningen. The two prelates have not always seen eye to eye, and they have clashed on occasion, although how much actual truth there is behind the rumours will probably remain guesswork. In the conference, Bishop de Korte retains his one voice, and continues to hold the portfolios that formulate Church relations with the elderly, women and society. Actual change will only occur when a new bishop is appointed for Groningen-Leeuwarden, and perhaps not even then: if the new ordinary up north is one of the current auxiliary bishops in the country, the composition of the bishops’ conference remains the same as it is now.

Now, we could make the assumption that Cardinal Eijk would have liked to see a bishop in ‘s-Hertogenbosch who was more in line with himself, but that is guesswork. And besides, as I have pointed out before, the cardinal and the bishop may have different personalities and talents, their policies (for example, about the closing of churches and merging of parishes) are not always all that different.

In recent years, Bishop de Korte has appeared as the voice of the bishops’ conference, especially in the wake of the abuse crisis. This will not change, I imagine, even if the crisis has abated somewhat. Although the bishops in general remain hesitant to embrace the resources of the media, Bishop de Korte is the one whose face and name appears most frequently. He is a blogger on the diocesan website, writes books and articles and even appears on television every now and then. This is something that he should continue to do so: he is well-liked by many in and outside the Church, and knows how to communicate to both. And that is a value we need in our Church today.

More to come.

Photo credit: [1] ANP RAMON MANGOLD, [2] Roy Lazet, [3] Leeuwarder Courant, [4], ANP, [5] edited by author

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!