Four bishops have written their thoughts and feelings about last week’s ad limina visit down and shared the resulting texts on the websites of their respective dioceses. Here, in full, are my translations, reflecting the encouragement that the bishops took home from their encounter with Pope Francis and the offices of the Curia.
Bishop Gerard de Korte, bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden:
“What did the ad limina visit bring me as bishop of the North? I think in the first place encouragement. Our report included many statistics which cause concern. The Church, after all, continues to shrink. But the Pope and also his coworkers in the various Congregations and Pontifical Council continuously warned the bishops against a sterile pessimism. The message was always: be patient, make contact, try to connect, don’t write anyone off, don’t blow up any bridges. Every bishop should after all be a ‘pontifex’, a bridge builder. I saw these words as a confirmation of my policy. In a recent article on the future of Roman Catholicism I summarised that policy in two words: clear and cordial. The Church of tomorrow can only thrive when she stays close to Jesus. God’s unconditional love and forgiveness in Jesus for every person and our entire world should be at the heart. God’s mercy should also make us merciful and mild in how we deal with one another.
At the same time that should happen in a heartfelt and inviting way. Not with a pointing finger or a frown, but with an open attitude and a smile. There are many stalls in the modern religious market. For religious searchers the choice for Christ and His Church is not always the obvious one. For many of our contemporaries, faith is a search, a process. Parishes and church communities are called to increasingly initiate people in the treasure of Christian tradition and bring them to Christ, step by step. For ultimately every person is called to live his or her life out of the friendship with the living Christ.
Encouraged by the ad limina visit I continue my work as bishop. In turn, I hope to be able to encourage Catholics and other Christians to live the life of their Baptism. Pope Francis continuously asks us to be brave and to live out of hope. Let us grab the plough, out of the joy of the Gospel!”
Wim Cardinal Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht:
“The preparations for the ad limina visit of the Dutch bishops were preceded by numerous speculations. What would the new Pope Francis think of the Dutch bishops? Wouldn’t they be strongly chastised for their policies? In that context, many think of the mergers of parishes and the closing of churches, which the bishops would be deciding upon out of ideological motives and because of a shortage of priests. What was striking was that the approach of sexual abuse by Church workers was now getting less attention.
In my article for the November issue of the diocesan magazine Op Tocht, which was also spread to the parishes as a letter, I discussed in detail the painful necessity of parish mergers and church closings in several locations. The archdiocese does not take the initiative to close a church. That is in the first place the responsibility of the parish councils, which then request the archbishop to remove a church from service. But in the end neither the archbishop nor the parish council make the decision, but the people who decide to no longer take part in worship and no longer support the Church financially.
In the 1950s ninety percent of the Catholics attended Church on Sunday. Today that is five percent and that percentage is still dropping. Anyone can see that church closings then become unavoidable. The same goes for parish mergers. Parishes which can no longer survive alone, can join forces with other parishes and form a new thriving faith community. We must now take our responsibility for the future. Our children who still believe must have the opportunity to celebrate and share the faith. It would be irresponsible to try and maintain everything we have now and use up all available means doing so, leaving future generations empty-handed.
The Pope understands this, and so does the Roman Curia. In other parts of the world, for example in the United States, the need for parish mergers and church closings becomes apparent. Between 2000 and 2011, 121 churches in the Diocese of Essen, Germany, were removed from use and closed.
Many other topics were also discussed. The Pope and his coworkers received, for example, detailed information from the Dutch bishops about the situation around the sexual abuse of minors. In the last months, fruitful cooperation has come into being between the chairmen of the Bishops’ Conference, the KNR (Conference of Dutch religious) and KLOKK, the major umbrella organisation for victims of sexual abuse. They jointly established a final date of 1 July 2014 for the reporting of claims of sexual abuse concerning deceased perpetrator and cases of sexual abuse that fall under the statute of limitations. Said chairmen also presented a joint report to Secretary Opstelten on 5 November of this year, the so-called base-measurement, in which the implementations of the recommendations of the Deetman Commission of 2011 were investigated. The report includes a number of solid pieces of advice to improve the approach to claims of sexual abuse. The Bishops’ Conference, the KNR, KLOKK, and the management and overview foundation for sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands have enthusiastically begun implementing this advice. The base-measurement was translated into English and sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The Dutch bishops and the KNR coupled the announcement of the final date with a call to all to supply supportive evidence for claims of sexual abuse where possible. We also called all to – contrary what sadly sometimes occurs elsewhere – not oppose victims in any way when they make a claim, or blame them for it, but support hem as much as possible. They suffered enough under the sexual abuse. We called all to help the Church clean her slate in the interest of the victims. The Pope encouraged us to continue on this road. At the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith we were also told that we chose a “good direction”.
The way in which Pope Francis replied to the Dutch bishops’ policies was heartwarming for them. He was visibly moved by the difficulties we face. His biggest fear was that we would become discouraged because of the problems we are struggling with, and that we would succumb to feelings of sorrow. He impressed upon us not lose hope, hope in the promises of Christ: “This hope never disappoints.” The message which he repeatedly drew our attention too was, “Do not look back, try not to keep what you once had, but look ahead.” A word that he continuously repeated was, “avanti, avanti, sempre avanti.” Keep going forward than do not look back at the past. In the past the Church may have had great buildings and structures, but we live in the present. In the present, you must take your responsibility.
As Dutch bishops we feel very much confirmed and encouraged by the Pope and his coworkers to go “avanti”, that is to say, forward on the path we are on. What we take with us from this very successful ad limina visit is that we should not Always look back nostalgically to a rich past, but that we must go “avanti”, forward, with our task to proclaim Christ and His Gospel. We must now take our responsibility and take the necessary measures, even if they are not always popular, to make sure that there are enough means and opportunities to also in the future proclaim the faith in Dutch society. If we don’t do anything now and maintain everything, we take away from our children the means to share the Gospel and celebrate the faith.
For the bishops it was also a special experience to be together for an entire week in Rome. In addition to unity with the world Church, the ad limina visit has also strengthened our mutual unity. Many concrete questions from the bishops have been answered by workers in the Roman Curia. We will get to work with the advice we received, in courage and enthusiasm.
The ad limina visit was closed with a celebration of the Eucharist at St. Mary Major. Here, at the end of the celebration, we answered Pope Francis’ call to us in the address he gave us in writing at Monday’s audience, to dedicate our Church province to Mary. This we did, and we confirmed it by praying the Hail Mary together. We asked Mary to pray for us to God to make our beautiful ad limina visit fruitful for the proclamation of the Catholic faith in the Netherlands.”
Bishop Theodorus Hoogenboom, auxiliary bishop of Utrecht:
“What is the homework that Pope Francis gave the Dutch bishops during the ad limina visit?” I was asked in the preliminary conversation before a radio interview… My answer was that an ad limina visit, since its establishment in the 16th century, is first and foremost a pilgrimage of the bishops to the graves of the Apostles Peter and Paul. And that is how I look back on it as well: the ad limina visit was a precious week in which we, the Dutch bishops, prayed in the four great basilicas (St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls), in the Church of the Frisians and in the Santa Maria dell’Anima (where Pope Adrian VI, from Utrecht, lies buried). The fact that, on 2 December, we could first celebrate Holy Mass at the tomb of Saint Peter in the catacombs and shortly afterwards meet the personal successor of this Apostle on the see of Peter, Pope Francis, was for me without doubt the high point of our ad limina visit.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus calls the Apostle Peter to strengthen his brothers, the other Apostles, in their faith. And that is exactly what Pope Francis did towards us as Dutch bishops. Aware of the situation in which the Dutch Roman Catholic Church finds herself, the Pope directed words of hope and encouragement to the bishops and all Roman Catholics in our country. In the ‘group talk’ with the Pope I could ask him, referring to Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper (John 13), how he sees the relation between liturgy, especially the Eucharist, and diakonia. Pope Francis’ answer was that the worship of God and the service to the neighbour, especially the neighbour in need, are inextricably entwined. He also mentioned practical examples from the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires where he was archbishop. We can mirror the practical examples from our archdiocese to that; for example the food collection for the Food bank during the Chrism Mass in Apeldoorn.
That we could start the ad limina visit with a fraternal meeting with Pope Francis, despite original plans, is to me a gift from God’s providence. During our visits to the Congregations and Pontifical Councils we reported on the developments in the Dutch Church province since the last ad limina visit in 2004. But on those occasions we also looked ahead, and time and again we heard words which referred to the joy of the Gospel, to Christian joy and the trust in God about which Pope Francis had earlier spoken with us so warmly and inspirational. A joyful message which I continue to carry with me in my life and works as auxiliary bishop of Utrecht. It was not about getting homework assigned and which you reluctantly start, but about confirmation and encouragement in performing a joyful duty for life.”
Bishop Herman Woorts, auxiliary bishop of Utrecht:
We continue encouraged, with hope and joy, amid the concerns and responsibilities. The Pope and the Curia, people with their inspiration, it has all come much nearer for me. I am grateful for having experienced this and also grateful that we are part of that one world Church, led by the Pope, above all of the Holy Spirit, accompanied by Mary, Peter and Paul and all those other saints and blesseds. It has strengthened me, not least the daily Masses and prayer and sympathy of many at home. That does good.
What will also stay with me: when we left the room after the conversation with the Pope, I spoke with him about the contact with rabbis and Jewish organisations. He squeezed my arm and indicated: continue with that. He was happy about it.”