Back to square one for the monks on Schiermonnikoog

A – hopefully temporary – setback for the four Cistercian monks on Schiermonnikoog, as they decided to abandon their building plans for a new monastery. Initially, as I wrote before, the plans for a low building with a single light tower was met with approval by the island’s inhabitants. The monks cite “serious and harmful division” caused by the plans as the reason to abandon them.

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^A impression of the monastery according to the now abandoned plans

Since their arrival in early 2015, the monks have expressed no greater wish than to be able to live in peace with the population of Schiermonnikoog. Over the course of the past years they have endeavoured to introduce themselves to the people and be as open as possible about their plans. That is why the building plans were not even formal yet when the monks abandoned them just before Easter.

The criticism against the plans focussed on the ease with which the monks were seemingly able to formalise their plans – Schiermonnikoog is a national park, so having building plans approved can be a lengthy and bureaucratic process – as well as the height of the tower, planned to rise some 14 meters above the dunes in an area otherwise marked by holiday homes. Somewhat more surprising, the monks were also criticised for the luxury of their planned accomodations…

The change of plans does not mean that the monks plan to leave the island. Soon they will be looking at alternate plans – and possibly an alternate location on the Island as well.

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No April Fool – 13 months in, the vacancy ends

End of a long sede vacante

It took thirteen months, an almost unprecented long time, but the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden will soon have a bishop again. The Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Aldo Cavalli, had already stated that the name would be known before Easter. With tomorrow being the fifth Sunday of Lent, he was cutting it a bit close. The long time between bishops gave rise to some speculation and rumours, which I wrote about here. These speculations will undoubtedly continue now that there is a new bishop. Many will choose to see the selection, which was ultimately made by Pope Francis, in political terms: the new bishop is either a man in the vein of the Holy Father, which means he is a pastoral figure with an eye for the people instead of the law; or he fits the mold of Cardinal Eijk, which means he is a dogmatic, a stickler for rules. Reality, as often, is more nuanced.

20170330_sHertogenbosch_Bisschoppen_©RamonMangold_03The new bishop

The new bishop comes from the south, and thus, in a way, makes the opposite move than his predecessor, who went from Groningen-Leeuwarden to ‘s-Hertogenbosch. From that later see comes its vicar general, Msgr. Ron van den Hout, to take over the reins of this country’s most northern diocese.

Bishop-elect Van den Hout is 52, not extraordinarily young or old when compared with his predecessors. He has been vicar general of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch since 2012. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1993, studied in Rome and Nijmegen, and most recently taught Bible studies at three seminaries, in addition to serving as temporary pastor in the Bommelerwaard region, in the north of the diocese.

The Diocese

The new bisdom inherits a diocese wich, in some ways, is a work in progress. In the eight years (from 2008 to 2016) that Msgr. de Korte was ordinary, the diocese underwent a process of change which saw the number of parish decrease from 84 to 19. While the previous bishop made it policy to maintain the old parishes as communities in the new larger parishes, it is up to the new bishop to see the process to its conclusion and his choice to keep Bishop de Korte’s vision intact or adapt it as he sees fit. With one parish, which includes the cathedral in Groningen, exempt from the mergers, only two new parishes are awaiting establishment,  while a third is already merged, but will see one more old parish join at a later date. The entire process is expected to be concluded by 1 January 2018.

In the years that Bishop de Korte led the diocese, the number of religious establishments within its boundaries tripled. A relatively large increase, in absolute numbers it is perhaps somewhat less impressive: from one to three. In addition to the shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed in Warfhuizen, which is under the care of hermit Father Hugo, the Holy Ghost Fathers have established themselves in Heerenveen, while the Cistercians from Sion Abbey are working to build a monastery on the island of Schiermonnikoog. Bishop de Korte actively encouraged this trend, and his successor could do worse than do likewise.

The Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden is one of the two youngest in the Netherlands, having been established in 1955, it is the second largest in size, and the smallest by number of Catholics (a little over 100,000, of whom some 10% attend a Mass or celebration over the course of one weekend)*. It covers the three northern provinces of the Netherlands (Fryslân, Groningen and Drenthe) as well as the northern third of the province of Flevoland. Its population varies from traditionally left-wing in the former Communist stronghold of eastern Groningen, to traditionally Catholic along the German border from the southeastern tip of Groningen to the south of Drenthe. Major cities are few, but include the university city of Groningen, which is also home to the cathedral of St. Joseph and the diocesan offices (relocated there by then-Bishop Willem Eijk, bishop from 1999 to 2008). Catholic faithful are clustered in various places, but in general the parish, especially in the countryside, are expansive. Coupled with a relative low number of priests this means that clergy has to be able and willing to travel.

Bishop van den Hout Will be the fifth bishop of the Groningen-Leeuwarden. Two of his predecessors are still active: Cardinal Willem Eijk as archbishop of Utrecht, and Msgr. Gerard de Korte as bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Bishop Hans van den Hende of Rotterdam is a former priest and vicar general of the diocese, and his immediate predecessor, Msgr. Ad van Luyn, was born in Groningen.

In the past eleven months, since the installation of Bishop de Korte in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the diocese has been run by diocesan administrator Fr. Peter Wellen, vicar general under the previous bishop, and general delegate Fr. Arjen Bultsma, formerly the episcopal vicar for Fryslân and the Noordoostpolder.

Reactions

Bishop-elect van den Hout was informed about his appointment last week, and accepted it on Wednesday. His initial reaction was hesitant, but he realised that it was “something that had come his way, and I was obliged to cooperate gladly”.

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^The new bishop, at left, receives a welcome present from diocesan administrator Fr. Peter Wellen.

As for the future, the new bishop sees himself as a man of the parish. “The life of the Church must be realised in the parishes,” he said. “The faithful must take their baptism seriously, while the diocesan curia serves to support this.” As yet unfamiliar with his new diocese, the bishop-elect intends to start visiting the parishes soon after his consecration, which is scheduled for 3 June. Asked about his predecessors and how he compares to them, Msgr. van den Hout said that he simply wants to be himself, to be there for the people. He hasn’t taken up a position on how the diocese should be run, as this depends on the specific  local situation. He is curious and open about the Catholic life in the parishes of his new diocese, and will make any decisions based on what he finds.

More to come.

*Statistics date from 2008. The expectation is that the actual and current numbers are lower).

Photo credit: [1] Ramon Mangold, [2] Mark de Vries

A monastery rising on Schiermonnikoog

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To rise from the dunes of Schiermonnikoog in 2018, the monastery of the Cistercian monks who arrived on the island last year has taken shape. On paper at least. The largely one-level building while have room for a maximum of fourteen monks, while the tower , centered over the chapel, reaches a height of almost fourteen meters. A large window at the top channels natural light down into the building.

While he would have preferred a building with a smaller profile, Abbot Alberic explains that that tower was an express wish of the island’s inhabitants. If anything, it shows the goodwill that the monks have created on Schiermonnikoog. This should help in winning the council and province’s permission to buy the ground for the monastery. Currently it is in the possession of nature protection agency Natuurmonumenten and used as a horse paddock. The monks hope to complete the paperwork over the course of this year, after which construction can begin in 2018.

The building will be constructed of natural materials wherever possible, and it will be fitted with solar panels, making it energy neutral. As per the Cisterican tradition, the monks will live a life of prayer and not involve themselves with life on the island. In order to be self-sufficient, the monks are exploring options to work with local farmers in the production of biological cheese. With most of the island being a natural park, there is no room for a garden in which to grow fruit and vegetables.

Abbot Alberic has the hope that the monastery will attract new monks, joking that, should the fourteen available cells on Schiermonnikoog not be enough, they could consider new establishment on adjacent islands. A spokesman for the monks explained one of the goals of the new island community: “The goal is to find a new modern form of spirituality and way of living which also appeals to new generations”. He adds that he is aware that the interest in living a monastic life according to the old, traditional rules is decreasing, which is why the monks on Schiermonnikoog are looking for new forms which do appeal to people. I have my doubts about that direction, although it is true that monasteries and convents, at least in the Netherlands, are not overburdened with a flood of applicants. But ‘new forms of modern spirituality’ have been tried and found wanting since the 1960s…

On Schiermonnikoog, monks find their new home

It’s the border between farmland and dunes dottes with holiday homes, but it will be the location of a small Cistercian monastery. The mayor and executive board are all for it, but the municipal council will also need to agree. But the signs are good, and the monks on Schiermonnikoog seem to have found their new home.

Four monks from the former Sion Abbey are currently residing on the island of Schiermonnikoog, off the northern Dutch coast, in a residential home they are renting. Ever since their arrival, a result of their decision to leave too-large abbey, the monks have been looking for a location to establish their monastery on the island. It will be a small religious house, but with the hope that it may be the start of something bigger. A hope that is recognised and shared by Bishop Gerard de Korte, in whose diocese the monks now reside. He has repeatedly identified the presence of the monks on Schiermonnikoog as one of the seeds of spiritual renewal in the diocese, together with the shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed in Warfhuizen and the community of the Holy Ghost Fathers in Heerenveen, which is in the process of growing from two to four members.

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^On 26 January, Abbot Alberic and Brother Paulus introduced themselves to the 27 pupils of the local secondary school. This was one of several introductions to the inhabitants of Schiermonnikoog.

The future monastery on Schiermonnikoog will be in a unique position. As a Cistercian house it will be a home of silence and prayer, but located in a world of farming, tourism and nature. Schiermonnikoog is small, its sole village surrounded by a national park, and soon with a monastery on the border between the two.

Photo credit: Simon van der Zee

Documenting the moving of monks

I have written before about the planned move of the Cistercian monks of Sion Abbey to the island of Schiermonnikoog. The community is now renting a house where the brothers live in groups of three to scout the terrain and find a new permanent home for their community. On the Sunday of Pentecost, the monks celebrated their last public Mass at Sion Abbey. While they haven’t left that place yet, the monks do not want to host faithful for Masses and prayer services when they can’t guarantee those service to take place on set times.

The big new development in the story, however, is that the entire project will be documented by a film crew, for a documentary that is expected to air sometime in the spring of 2018. Filming has already begun and will last until the end of 2017.

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It sounds to be like a wonderful project to document an extraordinary event like this: monks of one of the stricter orders in the Church not only downsizing, but also looking ahead to the future with a new foundation on an island that is named for them.

For now titled “Monnik” (Monk), the documentary will use the move as a context in which to find answers to some questions. From the summary on the website:

“What moves them to be a monk today, contrary to all the demands of modern society? What are they looking for in this simple existence with possession, no career perspectives, no relationships or family, no autonomy or freedom, no visible successes? What do they find there, hidden behind cloister walls, in the order’s rigid hierarchy, subject to a strict schedule of prayer, study and labour? Did they lose their own identities to the uniformity of the habit?

[…]

MONK is a reflection of the timeless spirituality of the brothers at a critical time in their order’s history and in their personal lives. Their existence, filled with many hours of silence and prayer is seemingly pointless. But would this ancient uselessness perhaps not show something of the basis of human existence?”

The makers of the documentary have secured almost half of their expected budget of 200,000 euros. They accept donations via this page.

For the monks of Sion, a first foothold on the island

monks schiermonnikoogThe Cistercesian monks of Sion Abbey, who have been scouting possibilities of relocating their monastic home to the island of Schiermonnikoog, have found a first place to call home, if a temporary one. Through the offices of a Belgian sponsor, the monks were able to purchase a house in the sole village on the island, a house which was until recently used a hairdresser’s shop and home. The house is situated on the east-west axis of the village, on the edge of the historic village heart and a newer postwar area, and will be used by two monks from May onwards.

The community has plans to build a new monastery on Schiermonnikoog as their current monastery, near Diepenveen in the northeast of the Archdiocese of Utrecht, is too large and expensive to maintain. It is likely that they’ll choose a more removed location for the new monastery, even though their current house is in the village. The major part of the Island is a national park of dunes and beaches, although their are also areas of Farmland to the south and east of the village.

Schiermonnikoog has an important monastic past and is even named for the monks who used live and work there, meaning “island of the grey monks”. Like these mediëval monks, the new community is also Cistercian, albeit of the Order of the Strict Observance, which developed out of the original Cistercian Order in the 17th century.

The website of Sion Abbey has a list of “frequently asked questions” in Dutch regarding the relocation.