The state of the world at Christmas, according to Bishop Punt

In his regular ‘Word from the Bishop’ column, Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam this time looks ahead to Christmas, and particularly the state of our world today. Are political grandstanding and military threats really an answer, he asks. While we live in a broken world, power is needed to keep opposing powers in check, but real change starts in the hearts of people, he argues.

20160110_punt_70“We are celebrating Christmas in a tense time. The Middle East is on fire. North Korea and American are threatening “fire and fury” upon each other. Almost all countries are rearming themselves. Each one, in their own opinion, to defend themselves against the others. That is how the First World War started. How do we break this spiral of fear, hate and violence?

The world leaders are betting on diplomacy, shows of force and alliances. Understandable. At the same time, everyone knows that that is not the ultimate solution. What we need is a New World Order, many politicians therefore claim. Especially a world government with complete power and authority to control international conflicts. What they forget is that leaders are also always people with exactly the same weaknesses. They, too, easily fall into self-interest, greed and lust for power. We see it everywhere around us. We have already seen in extreme way, in Hitler, Stalin and Mao, what the concentration of power leads to. On a worldwide level the consequences will be unimaginable.

Great thinkers from the past have long foreseen this and warned against it. Think of Dostoyevsky or George Orwell, or of Aldous Huyxley with his famous novel Brave New World (1932). Or also of Robert Benson, an English priest from the 1900s, with his novel Lord of the World (1907). Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict have referred to it as a warning to us. Visionary, Benson describes a secularised world in which mankind, plagued by fear and chaos, calls for a strong leader. Then, an all-powerful dictator rises, a sort of Antichrist. He does indeed bring order with power and control, but ultimately robs mankind of all its dignity and freedom. A new world order is not the answer to chaos and war, but sooner or later a highway to the most complete dictatorship of all time. As long as we live in this broken world, powers must always be confronted by other powers.

But how should things be? I have said it before: the world will only change when man changes. Diplomacy, alliances and sometimes military interventions are necessary, but can only combat the symptoms of a wounded world and an inwardly wounded mankind, but it is not the cure. That should take place in the heart of man. And the Good News of Christmas is that this is possible. Man has a conscience and is able to change. He can became great and holy, a force for good for all mankind. Great and small people defeating evil, first in their own hearts, and then changing their surroundings and the world. Our time needs such people, not least in politics. Nothing in man’s being or in his history should be an obstacle to that, the Lord promises.

You will probably the beautiful song Amazing Grace. What you may not know is that it was written by the captain of a slave ship in the eighteenth century, John Newton. In a storm he was touched by the light of God, and saw the great evil of his life. He had the courage to confront it and ask for forgiveness. One moment of grace completely changed him. He began to strive for the abolishment of slavery, and later became a gifted preacher who drew full churches in England. Only the change of heart can offer the solution. The entire Bible is an encouragement to open yourself up to the touch of God’s Spirit.

But Scripture also teaches us that that touch is never open-ended and always presents us with a choice. When the Spirit comes in force, as it did for John Newton, his mild Light will let you feel the love of God, but also show you the dark places of your heart and your hidden sins. Not to discourage you, but to give you the chance to change what is not right, and to receive forgiveness. That is why Christ has come, Scripture tell us, to save us through the forgiveness of our sins. We can leave behind everything that we regret and confess honestly. When you believe in this Child, love incarnate, and bring everything that weighs you down and holds you back to Him, He will carry it with and for you, and give you strength to be a force for good for the world around you. And after this life He will receive you in His eternal Kingdom. Some will receive this gift of redemption in gratitude, like the shepherds and the magi, and kneel down to worship the Child. Others will be too prideful for that, like Herod, and hold on to their power, greed and lust, persecute the Child and banish God from their lives.

Christmas is the feast of the Light. The Light of God’s Love and truth that enlightens the hearts of people, and through them the world. May this Light be ours in these days. In that sense I wish you all a Blessed Christmas.”

 

Advertisements

A little prayer for Christmas

prayerA little prayer I whipped up this morning for my wife to use in her school’s Christmas celebration. As it was to be prayed before (and, it is hoped, with) an audience of teens who are generally only vaguely familiar with the act of prayer and the Christian faith as a whole, I chose to focus mostly on human kindness and charity instead of more difficult theological concepts such as the Incarnation. Still, Christmas can’t exist without God, the Light of the world, the Word become flesh, so even when celebrating with people unfamiliar with such things, it is no good to be so general as to ignore that world-changing event.

And, yes, there are traces of the well-known prayer of St. Francis in there.

“Lord God,

We celebrate Christmas. In the darkest time of the year we celebrate that it became Light. That Light enlightens our world and ourselves.

We see that there is much that is wrong, that people do things that harm others and the world. We, too, sometimes make mistakes.

We celebrate Christmas. A new beginning. The child in the manger shows us that beginning. Now, at the start of the Christmas holidays, in which we will also begin a whole new year, we want to ask You to keep lighting our way. So that we can bring peace where there are fights and arguments, joy where there is sorrow, hope where people no longer know where to go, light in the darkness.

And when we may find ourselves in darkness, may we also encounter people of light.

We celebrate Christmas.

Amen.”

Last Advent – Bishop Wiertz looks back

In his final letter for Advent, Bishop Frans Wiertz, until last week bishop of Roermond, looks back on his almost 25 years at the helm of the southernmost diocese of the Netherlands. The letter will be read out in churches throughout the diocese this weekend.

Dies 2017-2823

^Bishop Wiertz, front row centre, is pictured with priests and seminarians of the Diocese of Roermond at Rolduc, yesterday. In this final meeting with them, he urged them to be missionary and to listen to people.

“Brothers and sisters,

On Saturday 2 December I celebrated my 75th birthday. On that day, as requested, Pope Francis has allowed me to retire as bishop of Roermond. I bade my farewells over this weekend and entered retirement. The pope will appoint a new bishop for our diocese in some time.

You can imagine that I have been thinking a lot over the past months about the almost 25 years that I was your bishop. I especially recall the many visits to parishes, during which the confirmations have always been especially impressive. On one of those occasions a confirmand once asked me, “Do you like being a bishop?” To which I gladly answered ‘yes’.

And also now, as I am stepping back, I can say, “yes, I have gladly been your bishop”. Because you are not a bishop for yourself, but for the people in the diocese with whom you share the same faith. Saint Augustine said it as follows, “I am a Christian with you and a bishop for you.”

No one applies for being a bishop. It appears on your path. When it became clear it would also be asked of me, it was rather frightening. “Can I do this? Is there no one better?” But when Pope John Paul II indicated that he wanted to appoint me, I said ‘yes’ with all my heart.

I was confident that things would turn out fine. I took that confidence in the first place, of course, from Christ, who called me to this office. When He places something on your path, He will also help you to fulfill the mission. Did He also not help the Apostles to fulfill their mission? “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” He reminded His disciples.

But I also feel the support of a number of saints. In the first place Saint Francis de Sales, my patron saint. From him comes the quote, “God is God of the human heart”. With these simple words he drew a link between God and man. He loved people and was united to them. From an inner faith, Francis de Sales could pass on God’s love. I also tried to do so.

There are two others saints who have shown me my way as bishop: Saint Servatius and Saint Willibrord. Upon the grave of the first in Maastricht we built the Basilica of St. Servatius. This holy Armenian came to our parts in the fourth century to proclaim here the faith in the triune God. He was later followed by Willibrord, who came from Ireland.

These saints, who came from far to proclaim the faith in our country, made me aware that we belong to a world church. Within that greater body of the world church, local faith communities can help and support each other in difficult times. That is why I made mission trips to various countries. I was able to visit flourishing churches there, and I was a guest in churches who exist under the cross, but where the faithful fire of the people touched me deeply.

Just like Servatius and Willibrord came to us, I went from here to other countries. I asked for priests there, who will make sure the God’s voice does not fall silent and that the holy sacraments will continue to be celebrated in the future.

I am exceedingly grateful that, at this moment, 45 young men from various countries are studying for the priesthood at Rolduc. With our own priests from Limburg that can create the link between people and God and God and people in the future. Their enthousiasm and honest inspiration fill me with great joy.

Finally, in the years that I was your bishop, I always knew I was supported by Our Lady, who we invoke here in Limburg with the title ‘Star of the Sea’. She is connected to the Diocese of Roermond in a special way. Her statue in Maastricht draws a continuous stream of people, who light a candle before her and pray a couple of Hail Marys.

Like at the wedding at Cana, Mary has always whispered to me, “Do as Jesus tells you to.” I listened to His word every day in the liturgy and I let myself by nourished by Him every day in the holy Eucharist. I also gladly celebrated the other sacraments and so continued Jesus’ work of salvation for us.

“Do as Jesus tells you to”. That was the way I was shown at my ordination as priest and bishop. The person of Jesus and what He does for people was always the guiding principle in the difficult questions which appeared on my path.

That is why I am so saddened by the fact to so many people have given up their membership of our Church. I want to say to them, that they have not been written off and that the Church knows that, in many cases, she is party to their decision. But I also hope for many to return. The door is always open.

Mary also always inspired me to pray to the Holy Spirit, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles.When the disciples flee every which way after Good Friday, it is Mary who calls them back together and says, “Let us pray! Let us pray to the Holy Spirit!” At Pentecost the Apostles receive the courage to go out to all parts of the world. They can no longer remain silent. A missionary Church is born.

As members of that missionary Church we are in this Advent on our way to Christmas. In a few weeks we will celebrate that we were introduced, through Mary, to the Son of God. It was she who brought the world into contact with Jesus. Seen like this, Mary was the first missionary. I would like to urge you to be missionary with here and spread God’s love throughout the world.

“Do you like being a bishop”? the confirmand asked. In response I can say that I have gladly been your bishop. And also that I have been a happy bishop because of that. Through the inspiration of Jesus, His mother Mary and the other saints.

As bishop emeritus, because of my increasing physical limitations, I can no longer be active. Just like many religious become contemplative when they grow older, I will also remain united in prayer with you and the Lord, who entrusted me with the office of bishop almost 25 years ago.

Let us pray to the Holy Spirit for love and faith.

Roermond, 2 December 2017

+ Frans Wiertz,
bishop emeritus of Roermond”

First Advent – Bishop van den Hout looks ahead to Christmas and beyond

Advent is nearly upon us, which means that bishops write letters for the season to their diocese’s faithful. Over the coming days and weeks, I will share a selection of these here, and the first one is from my own bishop. It is Msgr. Ron van den Hout’s first Advent letter as bishop, as he was consecrated and installed in June of this year. As a result, his letter is a sort of look back at the first months in his new diocese and forward to the time to come. Whereas Bishop van den Hout was initially hesitant to say much about any policies he may have, he now says a few things which reveal about his focus as bishop. As Advent is a time of preparation for what the bishop calls the threefold coming of Christ, it is a fitting time to look forward to the future.

Inwijding nieuwe bisschop Groningen-Leeuwarden“Today is the start of Advent, the period of preparation before Christmas. We celebrate that the Lord has come, but also that He is the one who is coming. We speak of a double, or even triple, coming. This thought is dear to me and nourishes my faith life.

The first coming of Christ is a historical one. The birth of Jesus took place in the history as we will hear it in the gospel of the Mass of the night of Christmas: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” and in the Gospel of Christmas day: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” These texts belong to Christmas and are recognised by everyone. Even those who do not expressly believe in God often appreciate the Church and church buildings as an important historical and cultural heritage. Many are concerned about the future of our church buildings and others concern themselves with maintaining Christian values and the sharing of stories from the Bible and the meaning of Christian iconography.

The second coming of Christ is that which takes place in our own faith life now. The becoming present of Christ can be especially experienced in the liturgy, prayer and receiving the sacraments. In order to experience this coming, personal faith and personal engagement are required. It requires more than a general religious interest: submission and openness to God’s revelation through and with the Church.

I would connect the third coming of Christ with moral life and charity. At the end of times Christ will come in His full glory. The last part of the liturgical year, when we make the transition towards Christmas, presents us with the idea that all earthly things will one day cease existing and that God will be all in all. With this in mind we are asked to lead a good and just life in this time and to be prepared to join Him when He comes. Being prepared not only means expecting Him, but also to live accordingly.

The coming of Christ is about then, about now and about later Believing is about history and what once took place, it is my faithful and moral life now, and it is about what we may hope for and look forward to, the fullfilment.

Since my consecration as bishop of our Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden I have been through an intensive period of introductions. The first impressions I have made of a for me new area. The visits to the parishes were informative for me, but also relaxing. At home in the bishop’s house I have spoken one on one with various people, and I was introduced to the various parts of and in the diocese. The introduction will continue for a while longer.

If I may be allowed to give a first impression of what struck me. The different parts and areas are markedly different. The historical, cultural and social developments of Groningen, Friesland, Drenthe and the Noordoostpolder have been very diverse. That makes our diocese interesting. In a demographical context, the remark was made a few times that there are more than a few shrinkage areas. The diocese contains many small communities: none of the merged parishes have a nominal number of Catholics larger than 10,000. The communities are far apart. There are old Catholic enclaves with beautiful old churches, but there are also young parishes which developed in the 19th and 20th centuries from an influx of Catholics from other parts of the Netherlands and even from Germany. This process of establishment continued into the 1960s. The number of pastoral ministers is, compared to other dioceses, relatively large, but absolutely speaking their number is small. The mutual relationships are generally good. There are also many and intensive contacts with other Christians.

The development of cooperation which began decades age has now resulted in a nineteen processes of merger. I think it is a good thing that a single clear model was chosen for the parishes and parochial charity institutions. During my visits there was some mention of the shrinkage that exists in our parishes. Everyone is well aware of that. We will not be able to turn this development around. The question is what we must do and where we should best invest our valuable energy. The cooperation between the different locations in a parish will increase in the coming years; I would like to encourage that process. Seek out each other’s strong points, dare to trust on the strength of the other and embark on new activities together.\

Formulating a new policy is not an issue in this first year. But I am able to indicate a few things. Development of one’s own Catholic identity is, I think, important. Clarity of one’s own mission is necessary in order to play a part in the relationship with other Christians and in society. From one’s own identity, one can enter into conversations and can a  conversation prove to be fruitful. Interior development of one’s own religion seems to me to be indispensable.

Beginning with the substantive interests for the faith we could ask ourselves a few questions which could play a guiding role in organising pastoral care:

  • What does it mean that I believe?
  • Why do I do that with others?
  • What do we need to do so together?
  • What should a pastoral team offer and organise, in cooperation with the parishioners?
  • How can a parish council facilitate this?

We never start anything from nothing and we can only build on what our ancestors provided as foundations. Yet the time has come to rethink parish life and to look at how to adjust to the new circumstances. The priests, deacons and pastoral workers can no longer provide the ‘service’ they used to. The parishioners are asked for more efficacy and more willingness to look for new ways themselves; all this of course within the normal and familiar framework of our Church and in unity with the diocese and the world church. Pastoral care will have to be organised more soberly. And we will have to make choices and bring together and concentrate activities.

Concerning liturgy and the sacraments I would like to one again draw attention to the celebration of the Sunday with the Eucharist. Within the given circumstances everyone will work towards that as far as possible. I would like to ask each of you to pray for vocations to the priesthood and for a climate in which vocations in general can be recognised and responded to. The Church needs priests. There are the close cooperators of the bishop and put their lives completely to the service of the Church, through their celibate state of life.

In the official visits to the parishes I experienced much positivity and willingness to work for people. I admire the energy that I have seen and the enthousiasm for the work. I have also seen, in a number of parishes, what charity work is being done. It is once again time for us as Church to take up our role in society, to be there for the poor, the needy, migrants et cetera. The examples that I have seen have strengthened me in the conviction that it is possible. We also become more Church when we show our charitable face.

As Church we have a social position that we must try to maintain. We carry a culture with us that has defined Europe, which was and is good. We also have moral convictions – for example about life and death – which must continue to be heard, especially in this time. Additionally, as Church we have a responsibility towards ourselves and our fellow faithful, that we are nourished and strengthened and become more convinced of the working of God’s Spirit in our lives.

May I end this letter with a prayer? As a parish priest prays for his parishioners, a bishop prays for the faithful of his diocese.

“God, the time of Advent begins and we prepare for the coming of Christ and the celebration of His birth, At the start of this powerful and expectant time I want to pray for the part of your people entrusted to me, the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. That everyone, personally and with others, may take part in the Kingdom of God, that You bring near to us in your Son.”

I wish you all a good time of preparation or Christmas.

+ Dr. Cornelis F.M. van den Hout, Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

Photo credit: ANP

“Seeing with the eyes of the Lord” – Christmas message from the bishops of Utrecht

In their Christmas message, the archbishop and auxiliary bishops of Utrecht look back at the Holy Year of Mercy, urging us not to let the fruits of that Year go to waste. We should always try to look at others with Jesus’ eyes, as the logo if the Holy Year shows us.

Kardinaal%20Eijk%202012%20kapel%20RGB%204%20klein“At Christmas we celebrate that our God became visibly and tangibly among us in the Child of Bethlehem, our Lord Jesus Christ. Pope Francis has said about him, “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus, 1). The Holy Father wrote these words when he announced the Holy Year of Mercy on 11 April 2015. This Holy Year began with the opening of the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and subsequently with the opening of Holy Doors in all the world’s dioceses. In our Archdiocese of Utrecht, these were in Utrecht, Hengelo and Groenlo. The Holy Year is now ended, or perhaps we could say, whisked by. But we should be watchful that what the Holy Year of Mercy has brougth us, will not simply disappear. For this year has brought the Church – also in the Archdiocese of Utrecht – much that is good and encouraging.

mgr_%20hoogenboomAs bishops of the Archdiocese of Utrecht we are very grateful to the Pope for the past Holy Year of Mercy. Much has been received and shared in our parishes and establishments, in faith, hope and love. Much work has been done to make the Holy Year a reality in the liturgy, catechesis and charity. Both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy have been frequently highlighted and put into practice. People – young and old(er) – have received the sacrament of God’s mercy – the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, or Confession – and that is a source of great grace and joy.

One has confessed for the first time in his or her life, the other sometimes after many years. That confession could have taken place in the parish, during the World Youth Days in Krakow or during a pilgrimage, such as the one to Rome. As bishops we have emphasised to our priests, deacons and pastoral workers the importance of a good preparation for the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation for children, before they make their First Holy Communion.

woortsWe are very grateful to our priests, deacons, religions, pastoral workers, coworkers, catechsists and all our volunteers for all the good and blessed work they have done for the success of the Holy Year of Mercy!

A high point in this Holy Year was without a doubt the pilgrimage that we made with some 2,000 people from all dioceses of the Dutch Church province to Rome, the ´eternal city´. Among them were some 200 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Utrecht. That pilgrimage has deepened and enriched our faith and being Church. Especially noteworthy was the Eucharist celebrated on the ‘Dutch day’ (15 November) in St. Peter´s, followed by the welcome of Pope Francis and his address to the Dutch faithful. The Pope was happy and impressed by such a large and enthusiastic group of pilgrims from the Netherlands. He was moved when a Catholic refugee from Syria presented him with a booklet detailing what has been done in and by the Dutch dioceses and parishes for the reception of refugees.

As mentioned, the Holy Year is over. The Holy Doors are closed. But the door of God’s merciful love is not – that remains always open for us and all people! And from this love we Christians are and remain called to make God’s mercy tangible and visible, especially to those who are ignorant, helpless or poor. Our Lord Jesus keeps asking us to look, to see with His eyes.

logoIn the Eucharistic celebration on the Dutch day, Cardinal Eijk said, for that reason, that the logo of the Holy Year of Mercy, the logo that was especially designed in Rome for this Hole Year, should remain etched in our minds. After all, it is a striking logo that highlights so clearly that mercy is a key word for the Christian faith. This logo depicts Jesus carrying a man on his back. It is based on the parable told by Jesus in the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke (15:1-10). This parable speaks of the shepherd with a hundred sheep of which one gets lost. The shepherd leaves the 99 in the wilderness to search for that one lost sheep.

We could wonder: who would leave 99 sheep in the wilderness to look for that one lost sheep?! Isn’t that shepherd taking a lot of risks?! Shouldn’t he be leaving to sheep to its fate? The parable was told by Jesus in this way on purpose to show how far God will go to search for people who have strayed from His paths and save them. For that reason God became man in Christ and made Himself the sacrifice, through His suffering and the cross, that was needed to expiate our guilt and return us to God.

When we look at the logo closely the following becomes clear: Jesus has two eyes, and the person He carries on His back as well. But no matter how often we count those eyes, there are always three. The designer did this in purpose to make us think. It indicates that Jesus and the suffering person that He is carrying on His back and saves, share one eye together, so to speak. The logo expresses the following:

In the first place the logo invites us to look at our neighbours with the eyes of our Lord Jesus, that is: with His merciful and forgiving love. We shouldn;t certainly be concerned about moral shortcomings, but then especially about our own. When it comes to others who cause us harm, let us then consider them with Jesus’ eyes. Try, as it were, to share one eye with Him. This is the message of the logo of the Holy Year of Mercy: as the Lord looks at us with loving and merciful eyes, so look at your neighbours and be prepared to forgive them when they have done you wrong, and offer them new chances when they show remorse.

This is frequently the advice of a spiritual counsellor or confessor to someone who struggles with the people around him, especially because they find it difficult to forgive them their unpleasant traits and habits : “try to look at him or her with the eyes of Jesus”.

This is helpful. When we commit ourselves conscously to this and pray to the Lord to let us look at our neighbours with His eyes, He will not remain silent and comes to us with His grace.

There is a second layer to the logo, a second message. Jesus sharing one eye with that person in need shows that He looks in mercy at our need, our difficulties, our pain and our sorrow, with our eyes, as it were. He can do so with our eyes because He Himself became man and freely submitted Himself to the conditions of our lives, which – to put it mildly – are not always advantageous. He experienced this Himself too. Jesus makes our need, pain and sorrow His own and looks at it with our eyes. This means that Jesus makes our life His own and He can do so more than anyone.

Jesus making our lives His own, is something He also says in Matthew 25:

“Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).

And there is more: in this context the logo also invites us to look at our neighbours in need with Jesus’ eyes of mercy, and the sense of compassion, and really make their lives our own.

I happily wish you, your loved ones and all people of good will a blessed Christmas and God’s blessing for the new year 2017! A new year to look at each other and others, to see with the eyes of our Lord Jesus, of whom we celebrate at Christmas that He came among us through His incarnation.

With His eyes he continues to look at us, for us with His endlessly merciful love.

Utrecht, Christmas 2016

+Willem Jacobus Cardinal Eijk
Archbishop of Utrecht

Msgr. Th. C. M. Hoogenboom
Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht

Msgr. H. W. Woorts
Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht

Holding on to each other in a time of confusion – Bishop de Korte’s Christmas message

On Monday, following the annual Van Lanschot Christmas concert at the cathedral, Bishop Gerard de Korte presented his Christmas message. The bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch reflects on the state of our society and political world, saying that there is much to be grateful for, but also acknowledging feelings of insecurity which exist and which deserve a better answer than the ones provided by populist movements. In God’s coming down to humanity at Christmas, the bishop says, we find an example of what a just and loving society can look like.

bisschop-de-korte“Several weeks ago our queen opened the Jheronimus Academy of Data Science. With this, the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch advances in the academic march of civilisation.

The data institute researches the possibilities of ‘big data’, but also the moral implications of the enormous increase of information. During the presentations preceding the opening of the institute, the guests were presented with interesting examples of practical applications.

In recent decades the digital revolution has led to an enormous increase of avalaible data. One thing and another means, in theory, that decisions by doctors, bankers, companies and managers can be made with much greater precision.

Reflecting on these matter I encounter a paradox. In the media we continuously hear about fact-free discussion among our politicians. While more information becomes available, many a politician prefers not to speak on the basis of facts, but primarily on the basis of feelings and emotions. It is not about what is true, but about what feels true.

I recall that, during the American elections, most of the statements by the current president-elect about economical topics were revealed by economists to be partly or completely untrue. Once again, it became clear that data must always be interpreted, and that interests also always play a part.

Much to be grateful for

One of our daily newspapers recently published an interesting conversation with Swedish researcher Johan Norberg about his latest book, Progress. In that book, Norberg shows, with a multitude of data, how life has improved from one generation to the next. It goes well with the world when it comes to fighting poverty, life expectation and education.

Worldwide fewer people fall in the category of ‘extremely poor’, research by the World Bank shows. In 1970, 29 percent of the world’s population was malnourished. Today that is 11 percent. People born in 1960 died on average at the age of 52. Today the average person reaches his 70th birthday.

In our country life expectation rose from 73 to 81 in half a century. The Netherlands has one of the best healthcare systems, as we read recently, and when it comes to education our dear fatherland is high on many lists. Seen from history, we can say that the Netherlands is a good country to live in.

We have a high level of prosperity. We do not need to fear the sudden appearance of a police van in front of our house, taking us away without reason. We have an impressive constitution with many freedoms, a free press and an independent judiciary. In short, there are much data for which we can be grateful.

Despite all these material and immaterial achievements, the experience of the state of our country is a different one for many Dutchmen. Sociologists refers to our country as ‘extremely rich and deathly afraid’. There is a strong feeling of unease among a significant part of the population. More than a few people have feelings of fear and insecurity.

Time of unease

In part that is a result of western news services. Good news is boring news. But in general one could say that good whispers and evil shouts. In that regard I like to quote Pope Francis: one falling tree makes more noise that an entire forest growing. Our media enlarges problems and everything that is going well remains in the background. Watching the news, one could get the impression that our world is one great mess, but that is not true of course. There is much more going well than wrong in the world.

But I do not want to claim that these current feelings of unease in our society are fact-free. There is an accumulation of problems which rightly worry many people.

Accelerated globalisation of the last decades has made many uneasy. There are increasingly clear winners and losers of that globalisations. People hear about the excesses of worldwide capitalism, such as high bonusses and tax evasion. But at the same they fear for their own jobs or those of their children and grandchildren. The security of existence of an increasing number of countrymen is under pressure.

Our political landscape is rapidly splintering. Many people are worried about that. While there are great challenges this splintering threatens to limit the effectiveness of the government after next March’s elections.

Many of us are also worried about the pollution of the environment and climate change. In his impressive social encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis urges us to protect Mother Earth. Especially now we are facing the challenge to truly realise our stewardship.

A vague sense of insecurity also invokes much unease, especially because of attacks by Muslim terrorists. With their pointless violence against our citizens they try to destabilise our society and so play into the hands of unsavory forces in our own society.

Fear and the unease of the people is fed, not in the last place, by a spiritual crisis. Because of the last decades’ secularisation and dechristianisation many of our contemporaries lack a solid foundation. In a time of rapid transition they no longer have the ability of falling back on a solid faith in God.

All the concerns and problems lead to a coarsening of relationships in our society and sadly also to the rise of a poisonous populism. Poisonous because it divides people, undermines the trust in our fragile rule of law and especially because it shouts loudly, coarsely and without any nuance, without offering concrete solutions.

How to respond?

What response to this development is desirable? As bishop I want to mention a few things, based on the Catholic thought about the good and just society.

Let responsible administrators take the questions of populists seriously, for they are the questions of many citizens of our country. But these questions deserve a better answer than is being provided in populist circles. The threat to security of existence that is being felt requires a response. Our wealthy Netherlands must be able to safeguard the existence of every citizen, also materially.

Let us, as citizens of this good country, no longer push one another away, but keep looking for connections. No thinking in us and them, but inclusive thinking. Catholic thoughts aims to unite and is directed at sense of community and solidarity. Of course there are differences in vision and conflicts of interest. Many debates get stuck in rough language and shouting matches. Instead of providing arguments, personal attacks. The result is that the dignity of the neighbour is trampled underfoot. Let us then conduct social discourse on point, but also with respect and courtesy.

Our diocese’s recent policy note is titled Building together in trust. But that is not just a mission for our own diocese, but also for our society. An important aspect of this is that we acknowledge our responsibility for the whole. If we only serve our own (partial) interests, we will get a hard society in which the law of the jungle will be victorious. A just society, on the other hand, has an eye of the vulnerable and for the many people wo are threatened to be left behind.

Christmas: celebration of God’s solidarity

In a few days we will be celebrating Christmas. For Christians, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ. Even before the celebration of St. Nicholas, many shop windows in our city were decorated for Christmas. Santa Claus, green and lights everywhere. Retail knows well how to use Christmas to make the December revenu a success. Priests and preachers have traditionally questioned this development. Christmas is more than gold and glitter, more than good food and presents.

I will not be repeating this Church protest against commerce’s grip on Christmas tonight. Not only because I do not like waving my finger like an angry school teacher, but also because that protests is not very effective.

It makes little sense for a sour-faced bishop to speak about the degeneration of the Christmas thought. People, including believers, have a need for comfort and security, especially in the dark and cold month of December. A good meal and a thoughtful present can only serve to improve mutual solidarity.

But perhaps you will allow me to invite you not to stop at the exterior, but also search out the interior of Christmas.

At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the Emmanuel: God with us. In Christ, God bows down to the world. At Christmas, God says to you and me: man, I love you. In Christ, God’s love of humanity has become unequivocally visible. In Jesus, God wants to share all with us, including our fear of dying and death. Christmas is the feast of God’s solidarity and loyalty. With Him, we are safe.

In this period, we dispel the darkness of winter with lights and candles. Our God dispels our darkness with the light that is Christ. I sincerely wish that you will allow that divine Light into your lives.

It will allow the tempering of much unease and anger. Secure in God’s love, we are called to hold onto each other in this confusing time and life in solidarity with each other; to build together in trust and take our responsibility for the building up of our faith communities and society.

Out of that conviction I wish you a blessed feast of Christmas.

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte
Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch”

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

 

“It was night” – Archbishop Koch’s reflection after the terror attack

Trauergottesdienst in der GedächtniskircheOn Tuesday evening, the faiths of Berlin came together to commemorate the dead and wounded of the terror attack on the Christmas market adjacent to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche on Monday. In that church, itself a memorial to the dead of the Second World War, Archbishop Heiner Koch offered the following poetic reflection:

So speaks the Lord:
I dwell in a high and holy place,
but also with the contrite and lowly of spirit,
To revive the spirit of the lowly,
to revive the heart of the crushed.
I saw their ways,
but I will heal them.
I will lead them and restore full comfort to them
and to those who mourn for them
creating words of comfort.
Peace! Peace to those who are far and near,
says the Lord; and I will heal them. (from Isaiah 57)

It was night.
Last night here in Berlin.
The night of terror, of fear, of death, of despair, of powerlessness, of anger.
It was night.

It is night.
In Aleppo and in so many places in this world.
Night of powerlessness, of death, of hunger.
Night, in which I do not know what to do anymore.

It was night.
Back then in Bethlehem.
In the middle of the night God became man: Jesus.
A man of the night.
A number.
With no place in the town and soon to be on the run.
A God who became man in the night.
But since He became God in the middle of the night and told all those in the night, I will not leave you alone – not in life and not in death – a star shines in the night.
A star with the small hope in the continuous night, that the middle of the night is yet the beginning of the day.
A star which shows the way of travelling together, not to exclude, not to settle. Together they came from distant countries, with their life experiences, to the child in the manger.
We continue on the road in the night.
And will not let go of each other.

Thus the star became a star of blessing in the middle of the night.
Thus it became Christmas in the middle of the night.
Then in Bethlehem and hopefully and certainly also in Berlin.
Then and now.
In the middle of the night.

Earlier on Tuesday, Berlin’s St. Hedwig’s Cathedral hosted a moment of silent prayer, with organ music and a brief word from Archbishop Koch.

Photo credit: Michael Kappeler/dpa