In the presence of some 1,000 people, including priests and bishops from Belgium and abroad, as well as King Philippe and Queen Mathilde, Cardinal Godfried Danneels was laid to rest on Friday. The funeral Mass took place in Mechelen’s cathedral of Saint Rumbold and was led by Cardinal Jozef De Kesel. In his homily, the current archbishop of Mechelen-Brussel referred to Cardinal Danneels’ motto and spoke about the humanity of God. He characterised Cardinal Danneels as a good shepherd who desired and tried to renew and reform the Church as he felt Vatican II called for.
“Good friends. In the final days of 1977, Cardinal Danneels was ordained a bishop in Antwerp. It was the third Sunday of Advent. A few days later it was Christmas. In the liturgy the Letter of St. Paul to Titus is read about God’s kindness and love. We have just heard this reading. Cardinal Danneels took his motto from this reading: Apparuit humanitas Dei nostri, the kindness and love of God has appeared. Those few words introduce us to the heart of the Gospel. And they also show us how the cardinal has lived his vocation as priest and bishop, all those many years.
“The kindness and love of God has appeared.” It has been translated into Latin so beautifully and so right: humanitas Dei, God’s humanity. God who is not only motivated by a great love for His people, but who has also become man Himself. And thus treats us so humanely. Not demanding, not enforcing, not judging. He has saved us, it says, “not because of any righteous deeds we had done, but because of his mercy.” Many of our contemporaries are under the impression that faith and religion limit people in freely finding their happiness. They feel that it is always about having to or not being allowed to.
Of course, being human is serious business and love can be demanding. Yet the Gospel is the good news of God’s love. This one thing is promised to us in every way: that God is attuned to humanity, that we are known and loved by Him, and radically accepted, even in our fragility and finitiness, even in our sin. Yes, the kindness and humanity of God has appeared. It is our joy and our salvation. That is why we are not without hope. And that is why the Gospel is for all who want to hear it a call to true humanity. The fact that Cardinal Danneels chose precisely these words for his episcopal motto characterises him. It is the way in which he has been a good shepherd through all those years.
We have received the same good news of the kindness and humanity of God in the gospel reading that we have just heard. It tells about the beginning of Jesus’ mission, when, in the synagogue of Nazareth, He is asked to read Isaiah’s prophecy, which says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news.” Jesus recognised Himself in these words from Isaiah and discerned His own mission. Here we find the first reference to a “gospel”. It has become a key to understanding all of His mission. He did not come to judge but to save. We are known and loved by God as we are. This is, as Pope Francis says, “the joy of the Gospel”.
To the proclamation of this gospel, Cardinal Danneels dedicated his life. As He did on Jesus, the Spirit also came down on him and he too was consecrated by anointing. He received this Spirit in abundance. With the gift of the word which he had, and always with the simplicity of heart which is the mark of a disciple of Christ, he touched so many people, here and in the world Church. The long years in which he was a priest and a bishop represent, in many respects, a decisive turning point for both the Church and for society. It was the end of an era and the beginning of an unknown and uncertain future. It was not easy to be a guide and pastor in these times. But he was. With courage and authority, but always without “breaking a bruised reed or quenching a dimly burning wick”. His words about King Baldwin at the latter’s funeral also apply to him: “There are kings who are more than king; they are the shepherds of their people.”
The cardinal had the gift of the word. Through that word, spoken and written with so much passion, he touched the hearts of many. Through that word he always led us to the source. He was not nostalgic about the past. And, loyal to the Second Vatican Council, he was fundamentally convinced about the need for renewal and reform in the Church, in her head and members. An open Church which does not elevate herself above the people, but sympathises with the joy and the hope, but also with the grief and the fear of the people.
Renewal and reform. He really desired these. But not without resourcement, not without spirituality, not without a thorough liturgy, not without prayer. That concern for the interior always took priority amidst all structural reforms. He also knew that there was no future for our Church without the other Christian churches. Ecumenical dialogue was important to him, just as he was convinced of the importance of interreligious dialogue and of other religious traditions in our country.
At a funeral one does not honour the deceased by praising him to high heaven. At a funeral one prays for mercy and consolation. That is no less true for Cardinal Danneels. When he reached the age of 75 and he was asked in an interview about what he would ask for when he would ultimately stand before God, he answered, “For mercy for what I did wrong.” When his biography was presented a few years ago, he spoke publicly for the last time. At that time the Church was much confronted with sin and weakness because of abuse in her own circles. And then, too, he said: “where I fell short, I count on God’s forgiveness.”
That is our prayer today. With a heart filled with gratitude and a deep love. Have mercy, Lord, for him who served You with so much love, and receive him with love in Your house.”
Photo credit: Hellen Mardaga