As the Red Bishop goes, the rest is silence…

muskensThese days this blog certainly gives the impression of being preoccupied with death. But, then again, death is part of life, and when it encroaches we can benefit by acknowledging it. So, with that, in mind, onwards to another post about a death in the local Catholic family.

Last night a life ended that was greatly animated by concern for others, both abroad and at home. Also a life that was not without its critics, who accused it of being perhaps too generally spiritual as opposed to Catholic, and on some topics far too liberal. But that criticism did not leave its mark. Silence, care and simply doing what needed doing did.

Bishop Martinus Petrus Maria Muskens passed away last night at the age of 77. The final years of his life were marked by ever decreasing health and mobility, although he was able to attend several major celebrations within the Diocese of Breda, including the 50th anniversary of his own ordination to the priesthood. Bishop Muskens is survived by his own predecessor, Bishop Huub Ernst, and two of his predecessors, Bishop Hans van den Hende and Jan Liesen, as bishops of Breda.

Bishop Muskens, whose first name was usually shortened to ‘Tiny’, started his life in the Church as a priest of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch in 1962. His study of missiology at Nijmegen led him to Indonesia, where he worked for eight years as director of the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference’s documentation centre. In 1978, Father Muskens went to Rome, to become rector of the Dutch College and teach Church history at two international colleges. One of his most noted efforts there was the restoration of the Church of Saints Michael and Magnus, better known as the Church of the Frisians. Today this church is the home base for Dutch pilgrims and officials in Rome. In 1994, Pope John Paul II appointed him as the ninth bishop of Breda. Bishop Muskens was consecrated by his predecessor, Bishop Huub Ernst, which marked his first permanent return to the Netherlands since he left for Indonesia. Marking his international and interfaith outlook that would come to the fore in later years, Bishop Muskens chose the simple word “Shalom”, Peace, as his motto.

Following two minor strokes in 2001, Bishop Muskens decided to request a coadjutor and an early retirement. These were both granted in 2006, in the form of Bishop Hans van den Hende, and in 2007, when Bishop Muskens joined the Benedictine community in Teteringen, where he was simply known as “Brother Martinus”. Shortly afterwards, a chance collision with a cyclist led to him breaking his hip. He never walked again without the aid of a cane, and at major celebrations he was usually present in choir or in a pew at the front of the church.

In his years as bishop of Breda, Msgr. Muskens was perhaps the most visible bishop in the media. Several of his statements and convictions caused ripples in society and also within the Church. He was, for example, in favour of abolishing mandatory celibacy for priests, and suggested the use of condoms as a lesser evil. He was also in favour of female deacons. On the other hand, other acts and statements made him quite popular in society. He said that a homeless person should be allowed to steal a bread if that meant survival, and at another occasion he slept in a doorway to underline the plight of homeless people. This social engagement gave him the nickname I used in this blog post’s title: the Red Bishop.

His experience in dealing with Islam was also visible in his work as bishop. He suggested that the Dutch national holiday of the second day of Pentecost be traded for a holiday to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid, since the former lacks any theological basis. He also suggested we address God also with the name Allah. On the other hand, he was also critical of Islam. The dialogue between Christians and Muslims has no future, he said in 2007, as long as countries in the Middle East continue to forbid the construction of churches.

Like him or not, there is no denying that Bishop Tiny Muskens was a character, and he knew it. He knew the importance of sometimes shaking up set morals and convictions. As such, he leaves some big shoes to fill, but I’ll go as far as to say that we could use someone to fill them.

Journalist Arjan Broers, who wrote three books with and about the bishop, characterises Bishop Muskens in the epilogue to one of those books:

“In this book, you won’t read how all sorts of people feel at ease with Muskens, because they don t need to pretend with him. You will neither read how people often felt visibly uncomfortable with him. Not out of awe for His Excellency, but because he is so hard to fathom.

You will not read how Muskens can pester people […]. You won’t read how he can act like a tank, by walking into a Church institution in Rome, bishop’s cross on his chest like an imposing identification, and keep on walking and asking until he gets what he wants. And you’ll neither read how, at other times, he accepts how things are without a fight.”

A tank, a man with a mission he simply had to see through, Bishop Muskens got away with it and did what he understood as the right thing. And he simply did it, without much words, as he was perfectly at ease with silence. Silence just because it’s silent.

The Requiem Mass and funeral will take place on 23 April in the Cathedral of St. Anthony in Breda. Bishop Muskens will be laid to rest in the family grave in his native Elshout.

Photo credit: R. Mangold

Beatification information

What with the celebration of Queen’s Day here in the Netherlands and the assorted social engagements that accompany it, I find little time to write something substantial about tomorrow’s big event: the beatification of Pope John Paul II, whom we may from then on call Blessed John Paul II. Luckily, several other bloggers and reporters are in Rome to share the amazing atmosphere in the eternal city with their readers. I happily link to them.

Father Roderick and Steve Nelson are in Rome for SQPN. They give a foretaste of the excitement and the crowds here. Anna Arco of the Catholic Herald shares her first Roman blog post to give an excellent overview of the events of today, including the closure of St. Peter’s Square at 1 this afternoon until 5:30 tomorrow. Finally, Rocco Palmo, of the excellent Whispers in the Loggia, offers several detailed posts about the preparations as well.

I will spend tomorrow morning in front of the tv. Dutch Catholic broadcaster RKK will start live coverage at 10 in the morning.

Fr. Michel Remery celebrated Mass for the Dutch pilgrims in Rome's church of the Frisians today

Photo credit: Louis Runhaar/RKK

The Church as an island?

From a distance, I’ve been following the discussion that has developed around the suggestion from theologian Frank Bosman and information scientist Eric van den Berg that churches across the country ring their bells should the Dutch football team be victorious in the World Cup final. Of course, that point is moot now, but the suggestion and the discussion it raised is interesting. Bosman and Van den Berg offer their own analysis here (in Dutch).

They list a number of positive responses from the Remonstrants, the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, staff members of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Father Harm Schilder and even the Church of Santi Michele e Magno, better known as the Church of the Frisians, in Rome.

But it is some of the negative responses which lead me to what I want to discuss. People say that the Church should not concern itself with anything popular or worldly, that church bells should only be used to call people to prayer or service, and that this involvement with the World Cup in some way supports idolatry since, some say football players are then treated as gods themselves.

For the vast majority of people, church bells are the main and often only visible sign of the Church in daily life. They hear them in the morning when they ring to call people to Mass, when it is time to pray the Angelus and even when another hour has passed. That alone shows that church bells have long outgrown a strictly liturgical or ecclesiastical use. They are social and cultural phenomena which play a part in the daily life of both christians and others. All of which does not imply that their function of calling people to prayer and Mass is any less important.

The Church is a part of society, even when we try to abide to Christ’s words when he said that we do not belong to this world (cf John 17: 16-18). The simple fact is that we do live and function is this world, even if our fate lies beyond it. Christ has even sent us to follow our vocation in this world. That vocation, our christian identity, should also be the foundation and deciding fact of what we do, but it does not preclude an expansion of activities. Ringing a church bell to celebrate something or other (be it a football victory, the Queen’s birthday or New Year) that plays a major part in the life of many people or which has an important role in society does not bring us down to some lower level, but may ultimately function to raise others up.

It’s ultimately a simply choice: we, as a Church, fall utterly silent and retreat to our own isolated world, thus ignoring Jesus’ call “that the world may believe” (John 17: 21), or we remain present, in both simple and significant ways, but ultimately in the lives of people. It is through the Church that God’s salvation works. That Church must therefore always let her voice be heard, on serious matters of life and death, but also in pure joy and celebration.

The Catholic faith reflects the full human experience, and more. Prayer, knowledge, wisdom and contemplation, but also laughter, celebration, sadness, compassion and the whole spectrum of human emotion.  I see many who seem to advocate a serious, dark and grim Catholicism. The reason, they appear to say, is that the problems we face are serious and grim. Well, no doubt about it. But such a faith has more in common with some isolationist and restrictive Protestant communities which deny basic human emotions and conditions than it does with the full range of human and divine life that comes to us through the Church.

The Catholic Church can’t allow itself to be an island, “entire of itself” (to quote John Donne). She must be seen and heard, because Christ must be seen and heard. With the christian identity as a form foundation, the Catholic Church can weather a joyful celebration here and there. She may even grow from it.