“A service to the faith of the people” – Bishop Helmut Dieser looks ahead to Aachen

Trier is a popular hunting ground for new bishops, if the last two appointments are an indication. First Germany’s oldest diocese lost its vicar general to Limburg and today one of its three auxiliary bishops is announced as the sevent bishop of the Diocese of Aachen. Bishop Helmut Dieser succeeds Heinrich Mussinghoff, who retired in December.


54-year-old Helmut Dieser was born in Neuwied, north of Koblenz, and studied Catholic theology and philosophy in Trier and Tübingen. He was ordained a priest in 1989 and in 1992 he was attached to theological faculty of Trier University, promoting there in 1998. From 2004 onward he worked as a parish priest and teacher of homiletics at the St. Lambert study house in Lantershofen. In 2011 he was appointed as auxiliary bishop of Trier and titular bishop of Narona, a former diocese in what is now southern Croatia. In the German Bishops’ Conference he is a member of the faith commission and the pastoral care commission.

The appointment of Bishop Dieser was announced at noon in Trier. Dean of the cathedral chapter Manfred von Holtum described the incoming ordinary like this. “I am happy that, with him, we receive a bishop in continuity with his predecessors, Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff and Bishop Klaus Hemmerle, who is open to new pastoral directions. The new bishop of Aachen, Dr. Helmut Dieser, stands for synodality in the Church and especially for ecumenism.”

Bishop Karl Borsch, auxiliary bishop of Aachen and diocesan administrator during the sede vacante, added: “In the meetings of the German Bishops’ Conference I have gotten to know and appreciate Bishop Helmut Dieser as a spiritual and communicative person. In the Conference he is a member of the faith and pastoral care commissions, where his counsel as a proven theologian is asked. He is an experienced shepherd, and I know that, as such, he is looking forward to meeting the faithful and communities in our diocese.”

Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier described his erstwhile auxiliary bishop as a “man of the Church and a powerful witness of the Gospel”. He also underlined his communicative skills, in part due to Bishop Dieser’s experience in teaching homiletics.

Speaking in Trier, Bishop Dieser himself describes his new mission as something great, something big in his life. “But I can say yes to this great thing, since I am confident that I will draw nearer to God, answering Him, as I follow Jesus: in this new office. God’s call does not remain vague, it becomes tangible. As tangible as this hour and as tangibe as the Diocese of Aachen and its people.”

Bishop Dieser also discussed the topic of synodality, thanking Bishop Ackermann for calling and organising a synod in the Diocese of Trier in recent years. “The experience of the synod left a deep impression on me, and its results have given us a sense of which direction to look and proceed. What I have learned and experienced in the synod, I now want to take with me to Aachen. I was happy to find, in a speech from Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff from 2011, that the Diocese of Aachen under his guidance has started in similar directions as our synod in Trier. Also in Aachen, the idea of a “community of communities” creates greater pastoral spaces which can give shape to various forms of Church life, interconnecting them.”

About his new ministry of service, he says,

“it will be a service to the faith of the people. The faith of the Gospel must in modern times be won, found and continued differently then in the past.

Many of our contemporaries are convinced: I know that I do not need to know whether God exists or not. I can live very well without knowing precisely. The Church, however, is convinced that, if we want to know more about ourselves, want to know deeper what our own life, the world, other people are and mean, we need faith. The God who surpasses all knowledge and understanding (cf. Phil. 4:7) has become completely knowable and meets us in a historical man and his life on earth: in Jesus and His Gospel.”

The bishop continues by explaining the ecumenism is an important element in this endeavour. He wants to help people acknowledge that they want to be Christians and so also know why they want to be Christians. Church life, he says, develops through the answers that people give to God and to Jesus, with their own lives and spiritual gifts, their charisms.

“So I am confident: we do not need to save the Church! She grows where the Gospel is being proclaimed and heard and answered. And there is not and will not be a time, until the end of the world, when the Gospel is not current!”

Photo credit: Bistum Trier

Three years of Pope Francis – years of continuity of rupture?


^Three years ago tomorrow, the world’s first look at Pope Francis

Tomorrow marks the third anniversary of the election of Pope Francis. Time flies. And of course, countless commentators are picking their high and low points from these past years.  And it amazes me how much opposition the Holy Father still faces, especially in online Catholic media. And I know, that can’t be taken as an accurate reflection of the Catholic world as a whole, but this is communication, and there volume sometimes matters as much as accuracy and perhaps more than representation. It’s not nice, but there you have it.

In these comments, and not just those that specifically aim to give an overview of this pontificate, an artificial opposition between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis is strikingly noticable. Pope Benedict said, this, taught that, and now Pope Francis says something else and teaches another thing, so the commentary goes. The implication being that what Pope Francis is saying, doing and emphasising is somehow contrary to the things Pope Benedict focussed on, and some even go so far as to call the current pontiff a heretic because of this preceived discrepancy. A careful reader of what Pope Francis says (and yes, I admit, a careful reading of his remarks, especially the off-the-cuff ones, can be a challenge), knows that this is not the case. Not only are the two pontiffs in agreement with each other when it comes to the content of the faith, the differences in their focus is also not as large as some would have us think.

A fair few number of people lament the fact that Pope Francis emphasises mercy, care for the poor and creation and the economic inequality that seems an innate element of western capitalist societies. These are not really Catholic topics, they say, and the Pope should devote more time and focus on catechesis, liturgy, prayer, truth as revealed to us in the Gospels. But do these things suddenly no longer matter or exist, just because this Pope speaks about them less or in another way than his predecessor? Of course not. The Catholic Church consists of more than just the Pope, and we all share the same responsibility as he does: to proclaim the faith and defend it, to teach it, celebrate it properly and let it shine through in every part of our being and lives. Maybe we should talk less about what the Pope should say and say and do some things ourselves.

Sure, one may prefer one Pope over the other, but just because ‘your Pope’ has passed away or retired, his teachings have not. St. John Paul II’s teachings about the family and Pope Benedict XVI’s words about liturgy and truth remain as valid and valuable as Pope Francis’ attention to mercy and the environment. The different topics and emphases should not automatically be considered as contrary, but as in continuity. Pope Francis does not suddenly disregared his predecessors’ teachings simply because he speaks about something else. Neither should we.

Thoughts about the next bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

Apparently there are people who look to me to predict who the new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden will be. Well, surprisingly, I don’t know. I am not privy to the deliberations of the seven-priest cathedral chapter of the diocese, let alone the thoughts of the other bishops, the nuncio or the Pope.

Bishops de Korte and Hurkmans in Den Bosch, on Saturday. Behind them Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts.

But we can make guesses, for whatever that is worth. To do so, we can first take a look at the recent history of bishop appointments in the Netherlands. While auxiliary bishops are virtually always chosen from among priests and therefore need to be consecrated as bishops first, ordinaries – bishops who lead a diocese – rarely are. It is more usual for a new ordinary to be transferred from another diocese, as happened with Bishop de Korte on Saturday, or an auxiliary bishop being chosen. This happened, for example, when Bishop Jan Liesen was picked for the Diocese of Breda in 2011. He was auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch before that.

There are currently five auxiliary bishops in the Netherlands. In order of precedence they are:

  • Bishop Everard de Jong, 57, Titular Bishop of Cariana and Auxiliary Bishop of Roermond
  • Bishop Theodorus Hoogenboom, 55, Titular Bishop of Bistue and Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht
  • Bishop Herman Woorts, 52, Titular Bishop of Giufi Salaria and Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht
  • Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, 57, Titular Bishop of Uccula and Auxiliary Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch
  • Bishop Jan Hendriks, 61, Titular Bishop of Arsacal and Auxiliary Bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam

dejong_hulpbisschop_0Of these, Bishop de Jong (at left) may have the best cards. A bishop for 17 years, he was allegedly in the running to succeed then-Bishop Eijk in Groningen-Leeuwarden back in 2008. Ultimately that appointment went to Bishop de Korte, but his time may now have come. Coming from a large diocese, he has relatively little experience with the process of parish mergers and consolidations as it is taking place in Groningen-Leeuwarden. This could speak against him.

Of the other four, most attention has been on Bishop Mutsaerts. Seen as the opposite of Bishop de Korte in several ways, many assume that he will be removed to another diocese fairly soon. The likely choice is, of course, Groningen-Leeuwarden. In how far there is a basis in fact for this assumption remains to be seen. It is said that Bishops Mutsaerts and De Korte get on fine personally, and the latter would see the advantage of having an auxiliary bishop at his side as he familiarises himself with his new diocese.

Bishops Hoogenboom, Woorts and Hendriks are possible choices to come to Groningen, but at the moment none really stands out as being more likely than the others. When it comes to the communication and opennes of Bishop de Korte, Bishop Hendriks perhaps comes closest. For the cathedral chapter he could be an option if they want to see the line of Bishop de Korte continue. The auxiliary bishops of Utrecht are reputed to be more in line with Cardinal Eijk.

Of the other ordinaries in the Netherlands two are certainly too old to be transferred to another diocese: Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam is 70 and Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond 73. With the mandatory retirement age of bishops set at 75, they can safely assume that they will remain in their dioceses. Another ordinary who will not be appointed is of course Cardinal Wim Eijk, the archbishop of Utrecht. He was the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden from 1999 to 2008 and as a rule bishops do not return for a second shift, so to speak (although canon law does not preclude it). A return would be seen as a demotion anyway, what with Eijk being an archbishop and cardinal.

bishop van den hendeThis leaves only two other ordinaries to be considered: Rotterdam’s Hans van den Hende (at right) and Breda’s Jan Liesen. Bishop van den Hende is a native of Groningen-Leeuwarden, serving as its vicar general before being appointed as coadjutor bishop of Breda in 2006. If he was to come home, it would mean his third appointment as ordinary, after Breda and Rotterdam. While not impossible, it is quite unlikely. And with only four years as bishop of Breda and almost five years and counting in Rotterdam, he may be excused for wanting to stay in one place for a while longer. That’s better for his diocese, too.

Bishop Jan Liesen has been in Breda since 2011 and before that he was auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch for a year and change. There is nothing really excluding him as an option for Groningen-Leeuwarden, except for his short time in Breda. Stability must be considered: it is probably not a good idea for the diocese to start looking for its third bishop in les than ten years.

So, in my expert opinion (ahem…), if the new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden is to be picked from among the other bishops of the Netherlands, Bishop Everard de Jong and Jan Hendriks have the best odds, with Bishops Liesen, Hoogenboom and Woorts as possible runners-up.

Pope Francis’ second Dutch appointment, which will certainly not happen before the end of May, and perhaps, as Bishop de Korte suggested, not before the year’s final months, could be a surprise. A priest native to Groningen-Leeuwarden may be a bridge too far just yet, but whatever will happen, it should be an interesting couple of months before us.

Photo credit: [1] Chris Korsten

In surprising move, Bishop de Korte goes south

It was one of the more unexpected choices, and for the new bishop the change will be big in several ways: he goes from the north to the south of the country, from a diocese with few Catholics to one with many, from a part of the country where people are fairly down to earth, to one where the Dutch concept of ‘gezelligheid’ has a natural home and where people are sometimes brutally honest. It will be interesting to see what bishop and diocese bring each other.

Mgr. Hurkmans en Mgr. de Korte
Bishop Hurkmans and his successor, Bishop de Korte

The new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch is 60-year-old Gerard de Korte, until today the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. And this scribe’s bishop at that. In yesterday’s blog post I already characterised Bishop de Korte as a popular shepherd. He is personable, interested, with a keen sense of the hearts and minds of other people. That makes him well suited to represent the Catholic Church in relations with other Christians, a talent he has made one of the focal points of his mission. In Groningen-Leeuwarden, such ecumenical effort is a necessity and a value. How it will take shape in ‘s-Hertogenbosch will be very interesting to see.

In a message leaked prematurely via Twitter, Bishop Hurkmans congratulated Bishop de Korte, and expresses a few wishes to him and the faithful of ‘s-Hertogenbosch:

bisschop Hurkmans“I wish very much that you, as a society, may live in confidence with the new bishop. You and I, we, live in a time of many and great changes. Especially now it is good to stand on the solid ground the faith offers us. God is our Creator and Father. He wanted all of us and included us in His plan of love.

Secondly, I wish for you all that you may remain hopeful with the new bishop. Evil and death are in the way of us all. They supplant hope. Jesus Christ broke the power of sin and opened the way to life. We celebrate this in the Eucharist and from it we draw hope every time. With that, as a new community around Christ, we can be a sign of hope in our society.

Lastly, I wish for the new bishop and you all to remain in love. That this may be the basis of your life. The Holy Spirit lives in us. He plants love in us and continuously strengthens the divine life. This makes love bloom in us. Love can reinforce our community. Love will let us live for each other in the Church and in the world.

Remaining in faith, hope and love is more than guaranteed when we participate in unity in a healthy life of the Church. I gladly wish Msgr. Gerard de Korte people who say yes to their vocation to the priesthood, the diaconate and the religious life, people who will work with him in the life of the Church, people who make the Church present in the world. People who support him in his prayer and proclamation, on being close to people and managing the diocese.”

Bishop Hurmans, now bishop emeritus, closes with a word of gratitude, despite beginning his letter by saying that he has said enough about his retirement.

“I thank you all for the faith, the hope and the love which I was able to keep among you. I hope to be able to be a witness of that in a simple way, trusting in the Sweet Mother of Den Bosch and living from the Holy Eucharist, until my death.”

duzijn jellema ordinationBishop de Korte has been the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden since 2008. Before that, from 2001 to 2008, he was auxiliary bishop of Utrecht, where he also worked as a priest since his ordination in 1987. He is a historian and served as seminary rector before his appointment as bishop. In Groningen-Leeuwarden he was a bishop on the road, travelling to every corner and sharing the major celebrations of Easter and Christmas between the cathedral in Groningen and the church of St. Boniface in Leeuwarden. Ordinations were also shared between the two cities: those of deacons, as pictured at left, in Leeuwarden, and priests in Groningen. He leaves a diocese in the midst of the greatest reorganisation in recent history: the reduction of its 84 parishes to 19. May the vacancy of the seat in St. Joseph’s cathedral in Groningen be a short one.

In my blog, Bishop de Korte has made frequent appearances, and translations of his writing may be found via the tag cloud in the left sidebar. Just click on the tag ‘Bishop Gerard de Korte’.

Despite the appointment coming before Easter, Bishop de Korte will mark the Church’s  greatest week in Groningen-Leeuwarden. His installation in ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Evangelist will follow on 14 May.

In hindsight, this was perhaps the most Franciscan option in the Netherlands. Bishop de Korte fits the profile of what Pope Francis wants in a bishop (although other bishops are often unfairly depicted as being in opposition to the Holy Father): an open communicator, close to the people, a shepherd who smells like the sheep. These qualities may go a long way in resolving the polarisation that plagues parts of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In recent years more than one community has broken with the diocese, and the person and approach of Bishop de Korte, a man of dialogue and a strong voice against hate and distrust, may go a long way in setting them back on a course towards reconciliation.

Bishop de Korte at an interfaith meeting against hate and racism in 2014.

 In his new diocese, Bishop de Korte will undoubtedly continue to stress the importance of catechesis. Back in 2012 he said, “It may sound dramatic, but I sometimes feel that only a great catechetical offensive can secure Catholicism in our country. Without it, the strength of our faith seems to continue to weaken and Catholics become more and more religious humanists for whom important aspects of classic Catholicism have become unfamiliar.” Other emphases of his new task will be ecumenism, religious life and active Catholic communities.

de korte eijkIn the Dutch Bishops’ Conference this appointment does not change much, although several commentators have chosen to see it as a blow for Cardinal Eijk, outgoing president and predecessor of Bishop de Korte in Groningen. The two prelates have not always seen eye to eye, and they have clashed on occasion, although how much actual truth there is behind the rumours will probably remain guesswork. In the conference, Bishop de Korte retains his one voice, and continues to hold the portfolios that formulate Church relations with the elderly, women and society. Actual change will only occur when a new bishop is appointed for Groningen-Leeuwarden, and perhaps not even then: if the new ordinary up north is one of the current auxiliary bishops in the country, the composition of the bishops’ conference remains the same as it is now.

Now, we could make the assumption that Cardinal Eijk would have liked to see a bishop in ‘s-Hertogenbosch who was more in line with himself, but that is guesswork. And besides, as I have pointed out before, the cardinal and the bishop may have different personalities and talents, their policies (for example, about the closing of churches and merging of parishes) are not always all that different.

In recent years, Bishop de Korte has appeared as the voice of the bishops’ conference, especially in the wake of the abuse crisis. This will not change, I imagine, even if the crisis has abated somewhat. Although the bishops in general remain hesitant to embrace the resources of the media, Bishop de Korte is the one whose face and name appears most frequently. He is a blogger on the diocesan website, writes books and articles and even appears on television every now and then. This is something that he should continue to do so: he is well-liked by many in and outside the Church, and knows how to communicate to both. And that is a value we need in our Church today.

More to come.

Photo credit: [1] ANP RAMON MANGOLD, [2] Roy Lazet, [3] Leeuwarder Courant, [4], ANP, [5] edited by author

Pope in the air – on understanding papal communication

Ah, the joy of papal in-flight press conferences. They are not his invention, but under Pope Francis they’ve become something both looked forward to and feared by many. His most recent one, on the return flight from Mexico, was no exception.

Vatican Pope Zika

When it comes to communication, Pope Francis’ preference seems to lie with the verbal variety. In conversations, homilies and speeches he relies on animation, vocal emphasis, gestures and spontaneous interjections to get his message across. This makes him a fascinating voice to listen to, but in writing, I find, he is more of a challenge. There are exceptions, such as his encyclicals Lumen Fidei and Laudato si’ or the Bull Misericordiae vultus, which are intended to be read rather than heard. But when we read his daily homilies, transcripts of interviews and speeches (certainly the ones he gives without preparation), something gets lost, something that is there in forms of communication other than speech.

Pope Francis commented on a variety of topics on his flight back to Rome last Thursday, including some which were bound to get journalists writing: sexual abuse, immigration, the meeting with Patriarch Kirill, politics (Mexican, Italian, American), abortion, divorce, forgiveness… And in a transcription, especially a translated one (such as here), we can see traces of the interjections but the non-verbal communication is completely absent, of course. And a significant part of the message is lost as a result. This is something to keep in mind when reading what the Pope has said.

Some commenters state that Popes do not issue authoritative magisterial teaching in airplane interviews, and they are right. But they are not right in automatically disregarding such interviews as meaningless for that reason. Pope Francis has not changed any part of the doctrine of the Catholic Church, and he never intended to. We should not read his comments as such. We should read (or, to get the full message, hear) them as an effort by the Holy Father to explain something, to teach about what the Church teaches and how she acts or speaks in certain situations or on certain topics.

It is important to also have this in the back of our heads when listening to the Pope in a press conference. The Pope does. His comments are made on the presumption that Church teaching is given. It is not made or changed in the interview, but underlies whatever is being said. And of course the comments can be debated, criticised, applauded or even ignored. They should, however, never be made out to be something they are not: doctrinal statements. The Pope has other channels for those.

Photo credit: Alessandro Di Meo/Pool Photo via AP

“Peace, purity and consistency” – Cardinal Eijk’s message for Lent

In his message for Lent, Cardinal Wim Eijk looks ahead at the Gospel readings for this time, “a tried and tested method of focussing more on God in this period”. After discussing what Lent means in this Holy Year of Mercy, he also takes on a topic which Pope Francis also discusses frequently: the reality of the devil in our lives.

To the elemtents of “peace, purity and consistency”, which are important for our spiritual lives in Lent, the cardinal adds a fourth one: mercy.

There’s more, too, in my translation of the text:

Kardinaal%20Eijk%202012%20kapel%20RGB%204%20klein“Brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Politicians in the 21st century are a bit like mountaineers: the go from one summit to another. At the end of 2015 the climate summit was held in Paris, for example, seen by many as a “last chance” to save the climate. After days of negotation an agreement appeared, of which we hope that it will be upheld by all parties.

In January of this year there was a summit of another sort: in the Swiss winter sports tonw of Davos the World Economic Forum (WEF) too place, where leading business people and politicians came together. After the industrial revolutions of the steam engine, mass production and information technology, a fourth industrial revolution is nigh, the World Economic Forum says. One of the elements of that fourth industrial revolution is that soon as many people in the world as possible will be connected to machines and each other via the Internet. Sensors which can read signals to activate machines when they are needed, are increasingly being integrated in clothing and jewelery, while a rose-coloured future of robots and self-driving cars by means of the Internet was presented in Davos.

There are undoubtedly many advantages, but a population connected and exchanging data through the Internet does not automatically make true human contactsm which is the sort of contact by which the exchange of data leads to an encounter with the other as a person. Contacts in which we really listen to the other’s story and not immediately weigh every word on our own inner value scales. Contacts in which drinking a cup of coffee together is more than enjoying a beverage together, because the one you are drinking it with has a chance to tell his story. Contacts in which we have compassion and sympathy when the situation requires it. And the situation requires it more often than we sometimes wish…

The world currently has great need of such compassion and sympathy, Pope Francis concluded. Partly for that reason he has called for the Holy Year of Mercy, which we are living in now. What the fourth industrial revolution can never bring, is what Pope Francis hopes to see as the result of this Holy Year; a ‘revolution of tenderness’. For that reason the Church must strongly emphasise her tradition of mercy, the Pope claims.

We are now at the start of Lent. This time of fasting offers a special opportunity to come clean with yourself. And not only with yourself, but also with your neighbours and with God. It is a forty-day ritual of purification – of the body, but especially of the soul. By stepping from what does not really matter, by separating the main and the side issues and so focus more on God, we come closer to our own identity: we are children of God, who is merciful Father for us. In the Bull Misericordiae vultus, in which Pope Francis announced the Holy Year of Mercy, he wrote with reason: “The season of Lent during this Jubilee Year should also be lived more intensely as a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy” (Misericordiae vultus, 17).

The Gospel readings in Lent are a tried and tested method of focussing more on God in this period. In Luke 4:1-13 we read, for example, about the temptation of Jesus by the devil, when He spends forty days in the desert. The demonic temptations should not be seen symbolically only, as Pope Francis has emphasised several times. In the 21st century, the figure of the devil remains a reality. “We are all tempted, because our spiritual life, our Christian life, is a battle. Because the devil does not want us to become holy, he does not want us to follow Jesus. The devil’s temptations have three main characteristics, and we have to be aware of them in order to not to fall into his trap. What does the spirit of evil do to snatch us away from Jesus’ path? The temptation begins subtly but then it grows and increasingly grows stronger. Secondly, it infects someone else. It spreads to another and seeks to take root in the community. Fonally, to calm the soul, it seeks to justify itself. It grows, spreads and justifies itself” (Pope Francis, The Devil exists, daily meditation held on 11 April 2014, in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae).

We must take care to always remain vigilant, for demonic temptations often seem appealing. Just like decay masks itself with a sweet scent, so that we realise too late what we are dealing with.

In Luke 9:28-36 Jesus, accompanied by some of His disciples, ascends the mountain to pray. In this way He wants to be closer to God. Jesus frequently goes up a mountain to be with God and when we follow Jesus this also has to be a regular part of our lives.

Lent can help us to (spiritually) reanimate our prayerful relationship with God. It isn’t always easy, with all the distractions of the modern 24-hour economy, to find that solitude. There is, after all, so much distraction around us. The devil is sometimes called “the great tempter”. He tries to tempt man to do the bad and not the good. But the devil manifests himself in our time just as often as “the great distracter”. Instead of focussing on God, there is always something else that ostensibly requires our attention. The devil makes convenient use of this to distract us from God. The rule of “peace, purity and consistency”, used by young parents for their children, may be of use to us here. For us as children of God, this rule remains valid for our entire lives: find the peace of prayer, always aspire for spiritual purity and pray consistently: good habits are, after all, also hard to unlearn.

In the parable of the fig tree without fruits (Luke 13:6-9), which we read about on the Third Sunday of Lent, the owner threatens to have the fig tree cut down as it hasn’t born fruit in three years. Jesus quotes the vinedresser who answer the owner: “Sir, leave it one more year and give me time to dig round it and manure it: it may bear fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down”. In this vinedresser we can recognise Jesus, “the face of the Father’s mercy” (Misericordiae vultus, 1), who is always willing to give man a new chance and for that purpose gives His life on the cross.

We too keep getting every opportunity to be nourished. In a very special way we receive that nourishment on Sunday in the celebration of the Eucharist, when we hear to the Word of the Lord and when, by receiving Holy Communion, we encounter and receive Christ. This inner attitude of mercy expresses itself outwardly in performing the works of mercy. The tree is known by its fruits, according to a saying with Biblical roots.

On the fourth Sunday of Lent we hear one of the best known parables in the Bible. In it, Jesus speaks about the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). The father receives his child – who was lost because of sin and who wasted his inheritance – with open arms. This parable has become a symbol of the boundlessness of Gods mercy: He keeps watching for His prodigal children. Hoping that they will recognise their sins, return to their senses and so also so Him. Rembrandt depicted the embrace of the Father and His prodigal son strikingly in a famous painting. The Dutch bishops chose this painting as a logo for their publications about the Year of Mercy, such as on the website http://www.heiligjaarvanbarmhartigheid.nl.

Lent is a frutiful time for us faithful, and in the Holy Year of Mercy it gets and extra dimension. Pope Francis added to this by the initiative of “24 hours for the Lord”, which will be held on 4 and 5 March. In his Bull says about it: “So many people, including young people, are returning to the Sacrament of Reconciliation; through this experience they are rediscovering a path back to the Lord, living a moment of intense prayer and finding meaning in their lives. Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the centre once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands. For every penitent, it will be a source of true interior peace” (Misericordiae vultus, 17).

On the request of Pope Francis, a Holy Door has been opened in one or more churches in every diocese in the world. In the Archdiocese of Utrecht there are three: in Utrecht, Groenlo and Hengelo. People can pilgrimage to these churches and there are special celebrations and activities for the Holy Year there.

Pope Francis decreed that whoever goes through a Holy Door earns a full indulgence. The Eucharist must be celebrated and the sacrament of penance and reconciliation (confession) must be received thereto. This sacrament, often forgotten in the Netherlands, opens the path to the mercy of the Father. But we are also called to perform the works of mercy ourselves. There is much to do, so that can not be an excuse – there are no less than seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy. Performing these works of mercy should obviously not be limited to the Holy Year. We should be permanently reformed to a better version of ourselves in this Holy Year of Mercy.

In our archdiocese we also answer to the call of Pope Francis to bring the sacrament of confession into the spotlight anew. For that purpose there will be “celebrations of mercy” in our parishes, which include the adoration of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Several priests will be available for confession during these celebrations. The Dutch bishops will, in line with Pope Francis’ request, ask priests, deacons and pastoral workers to introduce children who are receiving their First Communion to the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.

God always wants the best for us. I pray that this Lent can be a new beginning, also for those who believe they are far removed from God the Father. For He always waits for us and wants to give us His mercy, so that we can become new people. In the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“No need to remember past events, no need to think about what was done before. Look, I am doing something new, now it emerges; can you not see it? Yes, I am making a road in the desert and rivers in wastelands.” (Is. 43:18-19)

I wish you all a fruitful and blessed Lent.

Utrecht, Ash Wednesday 10 February 2016

Willem Jacobus Cardinal Eijk
Archbishop of Utrecht”

Further on up the road – the German Synod fathers look back and ahead

They continue to be the subject of much criticism. Some claim their views have been victorious at the Synod, others say they have not. Some say they are manipulating the media, relishing in their rebelliousness… Well, that’s all fine to write lengthy articles, opinion pieces and blogs about, but I continue detesting conspiracy theories, and rather take people at face value and at their word (which does not mean I agree with them on all matters). On that note, here is my translation of the message of the German bishops who participated in the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop Heiner Koch and Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, at the conclusion of said meeting:

Dt Synodenteilnehmer

^The German participants in the Synod: Aloys and Petra Buch, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop Heiner Koch and Archabbot Jeremias Schröder OSB

“We conclude the Synod of Bishops in Rome with gratitude. For three weeks we have debated and struggled intensively and encouragingly, controversially and honestly with representatives from all over the world, dug into theological questions and addressed the realities of life of the family. Above all, these weeks were a spiritual wealth: in the celebration of the Eucharist, in common prayer and fraternal conversation we have sought ways in which the mission of the family in Church and world can succeed.

At the basis of our deliberations, next to Holy Scripture and Tradition, were the words of the Second Vatican Council: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (Gaudium et spes, 1). In this spirit we grappled theologically and practically with the needs of the family.

The Synod of Bishops took seriously the situation of families as they are: open, honestly, differentiated globally, but similar in many ways. Across all cultural divides, marriage and family are a constant value of human coexistence. We are therefore grateful to Pope Francis that he followed the synodal way on this topic. It began with the worldwide questionnaire of the Vatican and the Synod of last year. The current conclusion is not the end, but a colon. We must continue on this road for and with the family. No other global institution undertakes such a global contemplation with worldwide participation on the topic of the family.

The Synod has shown the great importance that the Church attaches to marriage and family. There was already a great consensus on this question during the deliberations. The Church encourages people to live marriage and family and the make an effort to continue faithfully on this way and endure difficulties. The Synod emphasised that the normal everyday life of the family is a witness. At the same time we are called to find ways to strengthen and accompany the family. This can happen, for example, by advocating in favour of the family in social policies, especially also for large families or single parents, using state legislation to promote the family and recognising its value for society. This must also and especially happen within the Church, for example through the corresponding training of pastoral workers to accompany families, through better marriage preparation and guidance, especially in the first years of marriage, but also through counselling services and facilities.

It became clear during the Synod that Church guidance is required, especially during times of hardship, for example when raising children is difficult, when family members are ill or disabled, requiring much care and attention, when spouses are fighting, when people are separated and remarry. Here it is important to recognise not only what the Church does, but also to say honestly where we have failed as Church: misconceived efforts to uphold Church teachings have repeatedly led to harsh and merciless attitudes, which caused people pain, especially single mothers and children born outside of marriage, people living together before or in place of marriage, people with homosexual orientation and divorced and remarried people. As bishops we ask these people for forgiveness, as we formulated in our working group.

We are grateful that the Synod has expressed  an appreciation for interfaith marriages and underlined the character of the path of life in marriage and family, while a more positive view of the path before marriage was also discussed. On the topic of divorced and remarried people the necessary distinctions of situations were addressed in the text. It was attempted to avoid generalisations. The Synod is clear that every situation in life must be considered individually. In hindsight we would have wished for more courage to deal with the realities more intensively and recognise them as signs of the times in which God wants to tell us something, but we also recognise that we have learned to go along with other cultures and experiences.

The Synod of Bishops advises the Pope. We will accompany the way forward with our prayers. Pope Francis now has the task to use the wealth of results for the Church. The Holy Father can only take decisions for the entire Church, where he always stand for the unity of the Church and the further synodal path, as he said himself in his historic speech last week.

What was considered in the Synod, we will develop and make concrete at home. As Church we accompany and live with the people, the spouses, the families, especially also with the oppressed, with their joys and hopes, sorrows and fears. Questions which occupy us now are these: How do we open, and not close, the way towards Christ? How do we fully integrate people in the Church? How do we become a Church with open doors? And how do we relate to families in the most difficult situations, such as refugee families, to make a life in dignity possible for them, as the Gospel shows? How can we encourage a new spring in the pastoral care of families in general?

The final text of the Synod of Bishops opens perspectives for action and gives impulses for further theological thought. That will also be incorporated in the message of the German bishops about marriage and family, which we are currently working on. What is important is this: the synodal path of the Church continues. Perhaps it has only just begun. The Church stays on the path and with the people, also in the questions of marriage and family. We, as Church in Germany, want to continue on this road with Pope Francis. Encouraged and strengthened we return to our dioceses.”

Photo credit: KNA