Last Advent – Bishop Wiertz looks back

In his final letter for Advent, Bishop Frans Wiertz, until last week bishop of Roermond, looks back on his almost 25 years at the helm of the southernmost diocese of the Netherlands. The letter will be read out in churches throughout the diocese this weekend.

Dies 2017-2823

^Bishop Wiertz, front row centre, is pictured with priests and seminarians of the Diocese of Roermond at Rolduc, yesterday. In this final meeting with them, he urged them to be missionary and to listen to people.

“Brothers and sisters,

On Saturday 2 December I celebrated my 75th birthday. On that day, as requested, Pope Francis has allowed me to retire as bishop of Roermond. I bade my farewells over this weekend and entered retirement. The pope will appoint a new bishop for our diocese in some time.

You can imagine that I have been thinking a lot over the past months about the almost 25 years that I was your bishop. I especially recall the many visits to parishes, during which the confirmations have always been especially impressive. On one of those occasions a confirmand once asked me, “Do you like being a bishop?” To which I gladly answered ‘yes’.

And also now, as I am stepping back, I can say, “yes, I have gladly been your bishop”. Because you are not a bishop for yourself, but for the people in the diocese with whom you share the same faith. Saint Augustine said it as follows, “I am a Christian with you and a bishop for you.”

No one applies for being a bishop. It appears on your path. When it became clear it would also be asked of me, it was rather frightening. “Can I do this? Is there no one better?” But when Pope John Paul II indicated that he wanted to appoint me, I said ‘yes’ with all my heart.

I was confident that things would turn out fine. I took that confidence in the first place, of course, from Christ, who called me to this office. When He places something on your path, He will also help you to fulfill the mission. Did He also not help the Apostles to fulfill their mission? “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” He reminded His disciples.

But I also feel the support of a number of saints. In the first place Saint Francis de Sales, my patron saint. From him comes the quote, “God is God of the human heart”. With these simple words he drew a link between God and man. He loved people and was united to them. From an inner faith, Francis de Sales could pass on God’s love. I also tried to do so.

There are two others saints who have shown me my way as bishop: Saint Servatius and Saint Willibrord. Upon the grave of the first in Maastricht we built the Basilica of St. Servatius. This holy Armenian came to our parts in the fourth century to proclaim here the faith in the triune God. He was later followed by Willibrord, who came from Ireland.

These saints, who came from far to proclaim the faith in our country, made me aware that we belong to a world church. Within that greater body of the world church, local faith communities can help and support each other in difficult times. That is why I made mission trips to various countries. I was able to visit flourishing churches there, and I was a guest in churches who exist under the cross, but where the faithful fire of the people touched me deeply.

Just like Servatius and Willibrord came to us, I went from here to other countries. I asked for priests there, who will make sure the God’s voice does not fall silent and that the holy sacraments will continue to be celebrated in the future.

I am exceedingly grateful that, at this moment, 45 young men from various countries are studying for the priesthood at Rolduc. With our own priests from Limburg that can create the link between people and God and God and people in the future. Their enthousiasm and honest inspiration fill me with great joy.

Finally, in the years that I was your bishop, I always knew I was supported by Our Lady, who we invoke here in Limburg with the title ‘Star of the Sea’. She is connected to the Diocese of Roermond in a special way. Her statue in Maastricht draws a continuous stream of people, who light a candle before her and pray a couple of Hail Marys.

Like at the wedding at Cana, Mary has always whispered to me, “Do as Jesus tells you to.” I listened to His word every day in the liturgy and I let myself by nourished by Him every day in the holy Eucharist. I also gladly celebrated the other sacraments and so continued Jesus’ work of salvation for us.

“Do as Jesus tells you to”. That was the way I was shown at my ordination as priest and bishop. The person of Jesus and what He does for people was always the guiding principle in the difficult questions which appeared on my path.

That is why I am so saddened by the fact to so many people have given up their membership of our Church. I want to say to them, that they have not been written off and that the Church knows that, in many cases, she is party to their decision. But I also hope for many to return. The door is always open.

Mary also always inspired me to pray to the Holy Spirit, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles.When the disciples flee every which way after Good Friday, it is Mary who calls them back together and says, “Let us pray! Let us pray to the Holy Spirit!” At Pentecost the Apostles receive the courage to go out to all parts of the world. They can no longer remain silent. A missionary Church is born.

As members of that missionary Church we are in this Advent on our way to Christmas. In a few weeks we will celebrate that we were introduced, through Mary, to the Son of God. It was she who brought the world into contact with Jesus. Seen like this, Mary was the first missionary. I would like to urge you to be missionary with here and spread God’s love throughout the world.

“Do you like being a bishop”? the confirmand asked. In response I can say that I have gladly been your bishop. And also that I have been a happy bishop because of that. Through the inspiration of Jesus, His mother Mary and the other saints.

As bishop emeritus, because of my increasing physical limitations, I can no longer be active. Just like many religious become contemplative when they grow older, I will also remain united in prayer with you and the Lord, who entrusted me with the office of bishop almost 25 years ago.

Let us pray to the Holy Spirit for love and faith.

Roermond, 2 December 2017

+ Frans Wiertz,
bishop emeritus of Roermond”

Advertisements

Changes in Münster as Auxiliary Bishop Geerlings retires

23795750_1127524700712501_5423271941249965540_nFive years before reaching the age of retirement, 70-year-old Bishop Dieter Geerlings retired as auxiliary bishop of Münster today. Health issues forced the early retirement. In 2015, the discovery of cancer forced the complete removal of his stomach, but by the end of 2016, the bishop had taken up all his duties again. But the necessary limitations of his physical situation proved to be incompatible with the life and duties of an auxiliary bishop, it has now turned out. Following his doctor’s advice and after consulting with Bishop Felix Genn, Münster’s ordinary, Bishop Geerlings offered his resignation to the Pope in September. Today it was accepted.

Bishop Geerlings, who is the titular bishop of Tacapæ and served as auxiliary bishop of Münster for seven years, expressed his regret at having to retire early. Responding, Bishop Genn stated:

“I am of two minds. On the one hand I am very grateful to Pope Francis for accepted the offer of resignation, because auxiliary bishops and bishops also need to take care of their health. On the other hand we lose – also when Bishop Geerlings will accept certain duties again – an outstanding auxiliary bishop, who in hindsight has been a great support to me. Dieter Geerlings was and is, also as auxiliary bishop, in the first place a pastor. He was and is always very near to the questions and concerns of the people. He is someone who goes to people and has no fear of contacts. With a keen mind and great expertise he analysed the questions which concern us as Church today. He was always led by this perspective: How can we, as Church today, be there for the people in their specific situations.”

Although Bishop Geerlings has now laid down his duties as episcopal vicar for the region Coesfeld/Recklinghausen and is no longer a member of the curia of the diocese or the German Bishops’ Conference (he was a member of the committees for caritas and migration), he remains, when his health permits, available for confirmations and also remains rector of the church of St. Clement in Münster, member of the cathedral chapter and pastor for the non-German speaking Catholics in Münster.

The retirement of Bishop Geerlings sets, so it seems, an already planned change in the ordering of the Diocese of Münster into motion. Until now, the diocese consisted of five pastoral regions, each under the pastoral responsibility of an auxiliary bishop. Citing the decreasing number of priest, Bishop Genn says that, while fewer priests are available in the parishes, things can’t remain as they were at the head of the diocese. Bishop Geerling’s pastoral region, Coesfeld-Recklinghausen, will be split up: Coesfeld will be added to Münster and Warendorf under the responsibility of Bishop Stefan Zekorn, while Recklinghausen will join Wesel and Kleve, which form Bishop Rolf Lohmann’s pastoral area. Borken and Steinfurt (Bishop Christoph Hegge) and Oldenburg (Bishop Wilfried Theising, not on the map below) remain unchained.

 

inaktiv

With the loss of one pastoral region, Münster will henceforth have four instead of five auxiliary bishops; still the highest number of any German diocese, though.

Bishop Voderholzer’s remedy to dropping numbers

In a homily at the pilgrimage site of St. Anna Schäffer in Mindelstetten, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg addressed the recently released statistics regarding church attendance and such in the Catholic Church in Germany. He compares them to the equally disastrous numbers in the Lutheran church and explains that the standard liberal remedies of constantly wanting to change church and faith, and getting rid of perceived oppressive dogmas, is not the solution to the crisis.

According to Bishop Voderholzer, the numbers point out something else: an evaporation of faith. He also puts this into perspective, saying that the Lord never promised his followers to be a majority anywhere. Rather, he foresaw difficulties and opposition. So, depressing numbers should, in themselves, really not be a cause for us to give up.

1085557_m1w590q75v2214_PortrtbildBischof_2“Dear sisters and brothers in the Lord!

Last Friday, the 21st of July, the statistics for the Catholic Churc and the Lutheran Church in Germany for the year 2016 were published. You will probably have heard a few things about it via radio and television or in the newspaper.

The outcome was not very surprising. Like before, the number of people leaving the Church are disconcertingly high, even when they have dropped by some 11 percent in the Catholic Church as compared to 2015. The number of baptisms has increased slightly, the number of marriages decreased soewhat. In Hamburg and Berlin the number of Catholics has grown, due to the influx of Catholic foreigners; but in general the number of Catholics is growing smaller.

Dear sisters and brothers, I do not want to bore you with numbers and statictics today, on the Anna Schäffer Day of Remembrance. But the public reactions to these numbers are noteworthy and lead us to look further.

As a remedy to turn these trends around and to preserve our social relevance we are continuously advised to – literally – “open up and rid ourselves of rigid conservative dogmas.”

In this case, these are:

Abolishing the celibacy of priests;

Removing the different tasks and appointments of men and women in the Church and admitting women into apostolic ministry;

Consenting to the demand of full legal equality of same-sex partnerships with marriage;

Admitting everyone to Communion, and so on.

You know the list of demands as well as I do.

Dear sisters and brothers! The problematic nature of this advice becomes clear with a quick glance at the statistics of the Lutheran church. If the application of the aforementioned pieces of advice would really be a way of improving the situation of the Church, flourishing life must be visible in the Lutheran church.

But what do the numbers say? More people leave the Lutheran church – and have done so, with the exception of 2014, for years – than the Catholic Church, despite the fact that in the Lutheran church these demands have all basically been fulfilled and all these alleged impediments to being church are no longer present. But this is generally ignored in public, even though the numbers were presented on the same day. Isn’t the reason that this is being ignored perhaps that it would reveal the blatant weakness, yes, the inconsistency and absurdity of this “good” advice to the Catholic Church?! Can one, in all seriousness, present the path of the Lutheran church as a remedy, when it is so often led to an even greater distance to the faith and the church? I say this without malice! I know Lutheran fellow Christians who completely agree with my assessment and who warn us Catholics not to make the same mistakes.

We must look much further in the whole debate. The statictics reveal a secularisation which has been progressing for years, a loss of church affiliation and lastly a decline in the substance of faith, an evaporation of the awareness of God. That is why we do not really have a shortage of priests, but a much more fundamental shortage of faith. The priest shortage is a symptom, like a fever. But the fever is not itself the disease, but it indicates the presence of an inflammation. I am certain: the fever of the priest shortage indicates the disease of lack of faith. As an aside, the Lutheran church has also long known the phantom of lack of priests, as there are too few young people who study theology and are willing to also put themselves professionally at the service of the Gospel; all this without celibacy and with the possibility for women to also assume the office of the priesthood! This should give us a sense of the true reasons for the lack of church adherence.

Dear sisters and brothers, come together at the grave of Saint Anna Schäffer! We all have the image and the fate of the Church at heart. But not in the sense that we belong to her as to a club whose public image and strength are the ultimate goal; but for the sake of the message and the sake of the people, for whose sake God became man in Jesus Christ. In the Church He takes us into service for His Gospel. The Lord did not promise us that we would always be the majority; rather, He predicted headwind and resistance.

For that reason we should not concern ourselves too much with numbers and statistics. What should concern us is that the Gospel can lighten up our environment, through our lives in faith. Everywhere where we overshadow the Gospel because of inattentiveness, lovelessness and hard-heartedness, we are called to convert and once more give the Lord space.

Instead of constantly changing the structures, also and especially the sacramental structures of the Church, instead of diluting the message of the Gospel and instead of proclaiming a light version of Jesus, evangelisation is called for, a saturation of society with the Spirit of Jesus. And the first and all-important step on that way is a daily striving towards holiness, the daily listening to God’s word and the willingness to begin the reform of the Church with myself. That is reformation: the renewal of faith, the restoration of the image of Christ which was engraved in us in Baptism and Confirmation. Where this is granted to us in God’s mercy, where we succeed in this, we will make the people of our time once again curious about the faith which supports us. And then we can also explain the hope that lives within us.

Dear sisters and brothers in the Lord! In the endeavours of evangelisation in our time Saint Anna Schäffer is in every aspect an example and also an advocate.

She wanted to devote her life to the mission abroad. But the Lord had destined her for the mission in her own country. Before becoming a comforter and source of joy in faith for many, she had to allow herself to be evangelised again, and radically so. Accepting her suffering as a partaking in the cross of Christ was anything but easy. Bedridden and with her gaze upon the cross she faced this process of inner healing and transformation. She so became a bright sign of God’s work, a messenger of faith to countless people and ultimately a saint of the Catholic Church.

And so we pray today for her intercession, that the Lord will grant each and everyone of us the grace to begin the reform of the Church in ourselves; that we muster the courage to lt ourselves be evangelised anew every day and in this way be prepared to serve the mission of the Church – for the salvation of humanity and the glory of the triune God, whose is the glory, today, every day and forever. Amen.”

“Room for the Risen One” -Looking back at the installation of bishop Timmerevers

On 27 August, Bishop Heinrich Timmerevers was installed as bishop of Dresden-Meißen. Here on the blog it went sort of unmarked because of the summer season, but here is the translation of the homily Bishop Timmervers gave on that day.

There are a few interesting comments to be found, not so much about the future direction he wishes to take in managing the diocese, but of a more theological nature. Comments about the centrality of the person of Jesus and our constant need to seek Him out, but also about what it means that we followed a resurrected Jesus, the need for vocations and recognising Jesus in the faces of the poor and needy.

160509-timmerevers-250“Dear sisters and brothers here in the cathedral and in the courtyard!
Dear fellow celebrants via the screens!

I.

The first encounters with faithful from our diocese took place during the Katholikentag in Leipzig. Various people often addressed me with the words, “Are you not our new bishop?” “Yes, I am!” We usually exchanged a few words and then I was often told, “We look forward to you very much!” – sometimes followed by the addition, “Hopefully you will stay a bit longer!” “That is what I’m expecting”, I answered.

Dear sisters and brothers! Since a few weeks my identity card includes the line ‘Schloßstrasse 24, 01067 Dresden’. I want to grow new roots here in the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen and make my home among you. The words I frequently heard – “We are happy with you!” – I gladly answer them now, “I am also happy you!”

II.

A person entering the cathedral is soon taken with the altar statue, created for this church by Anton Raphael Mengs in 1752. Christ, the crucified and risen one, is being taken up into heaven. It is an Ascension image.

In the reading we have just heard a part of the Letter from the Apostle Paul to the Colossians (3:1-4). They are the verses which we always hear on the feast of the Ascension of Christ: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.”

It seems a remarkable coincidence to me, that I chose my episcopal motto from these verses 15 years ago, and that it is now held up to use in the form of this great image. “Seek, where Christ is!”. “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” What is above is Christ. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, become man for us, crucified, died and buried, but then risen from the dead, He returns home to the Father. Through the Spirit, which He has poured out over the entire world, and which He continues to pour out, He is among us. This is the Jesus Christ with whom we are concerned, with whom Christians are concerned, He is the heart of our faith and life. This also seems a wonderful coincidence to me: Bishop Joachim chose the motto “Jesus in the centre”; Archbishop Heiner the motto “Rejoice always, the Lord is near!”. And I chose as motto: “Seek, where Christ is!” It is all about Him!

III.

Perhaps some would wonder, “Why should I seek Christ, what does that mean to me?” What it means to me, I have heard already in the first line of today’s reading: “You were raised with Christ!” One who is united to Christ through Baptism, has received a new life with Him, a life which does not end with death. Even more: the person baptised holds life within him, which today, now, gives us the strength and courage to face the challenges of life. Who seeks Jesus, finds direction for his life. Who seeks Jesus, finds clarity amid the many meanings presented by this world. Who seeks Jesus, finds with him the power of love, which conquers all division! Who seeks Jesus, finds a peace with Him, which the world can not give and no man can create! To quote Pope Benedict: “By relying on Jesus, you lose nothing, but gain everything!” You gain quality of life! How many of us, gathered here together, can say: It is worth seeking Jesus and entrusting yourself to Him!

IV.

Where do we find this Jesus Christ?

The statue of the Ascension in the cathedral provides an initial answer. The Church is the place of the risen, and indeed this, our Church, today, which constantly needs renewal and vitalisation through the Gospel. This Church, which has suffered under division since the Reformation, this Church, which every now and then can give a credible witness of love and mercy, this Church is the place of the Risen Lord! And in this Church the Lord is present in His Word, which is proclaimed and lived; He is present under the signs of bread and wine; He is present in the ministries of our Church. He is present when we come together in His name.

The faithful in the communities of the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen have, over the past years, been working with a process of exploration. What matters is to find ways in which as many people as possible in Saxony and eastern Thuringia can come to know and encounter Christ. I want to familiarise myself very soon with this process and I want – as soon as possible – to visit and get to know the responsible communities.  I agree with the basic conviction of this process: the Church is the space of the Risen, the parish as the home of the Risen, the community coming together, is a place of the Risen! And then, dear sisters and brothers, the responsible communities established in this process of exploration will also be places of the Risen.

Amid all the questions and searching, with their arguments, clarifications and decisions, which must be made for a new structure for the pastoral care, and in trying to be a living and inviting Church, we all share the responsibility together to give the Risen One space among us. How can this be experienced?

The abbot of a great religious order told me that, when he would visit the various monasteries of the community, he would ask two question and speak with the monks about them. The first question: “Are you in the peace of the Risen One?” And the second question: “Do you have vocations?”

Dear sisters and brothers, I invite you to ask yourself these questions: “Are you in the peace of the Risen One, and do you have vocations?” In thinking about what the future will brign for our communities, what matter is that we create room among us for the Risen One! Who approaches Him in thought, question, search and in word and deed, will experience His peace.

The second question, “Do you have vocations?”, is internally connected to the first one! The Risen One calls people to be priests, religious. the Church needs these vocations! The Risen One calls the baptised and confirmed to come together with their gifts and abilities and work together on building up the Church! In the peace of the Rison One we can be Church together and have an effect on the world!

V.

The Church does not exist only for herself: we have been placed in the world, we live in it and with our lives we witness to the Good News! “Seek where Christ is!” Christ Himself shows us an even greater horizon, where we we look for and can find Him. In the Gospel that we hae just heard (Matt. 25:31-40), Jesus speaks about the final judgement and presents to us what will be asked then. These questions make our lives today very concrete!

Jesus says something unimaginable, He identifies Himself with the suffering and needy of this world. Whoever seeks Him, finds Him in the hungry, the thirst, the homeless, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. He takes the suffering out of their anonymitym He gives them a face, His face! And so He can say, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me”.

Christ broadens our horizon! Being Church and being Christian is not realised by staring at heaven, Christians do not remain within the churches, however beautiful these are! Being Christian means not being satisfied with looking inward in sacristies and parish houses! In seeking Christ we arrive at those who – for whatever reason – are in need! That is where we are all called!

Dear sisters and brothers, I invite you to go with me. Let us seek where Christ is!

I rejoice in you!

Amen!”

More than just receiving – After Amoris laetitia, some thoughts on Communion and being Catholic

Communion-WafersAlmost a month since the publication of Amoris laetitia, it becomes untenable to claim that the notorious footnote 351 somehow opens the door for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. The debate is far from over, but over the course of the past weeks there have been an increasing number of authorities who explained that, no, this is not what the Pope intended to say. Cardinals Christoph Schönborn – named by Pope Francis to have given the right interpretation of the entire document -, Walter Brandmüller and Gerhard Müller are among these. The teaching on the subject as written down by Pope Saint John Paul II in Familiaris consortio remains current. And it couldn’t be any different, as Cardinal Burke also emphasised: an Apostolic Exhortation does not have the intention or authority to change doctrine.

I have been among those who have accussed Pope Francis of being unclear on this topic, but he isn’t really. It’s just that he never intended Amoris laetitia to give an authoritative solution, but to urge pastors and faithful to be creative and come up with solutions within the framework of the teachings of the Catholic Church. We must read the text with his emphases and focus, not our own.

Personally I find one of the clearest, and most often overlooked, points to be that the Catholic Church knows seven sacraments, of which the Eucharist is one. The footnote speaks only of ‘sacraments’, which in certain cases may be a help to couples who live in socalled irregular situations. This must, the Pope clearly indicates time and again, be decided on a case by case basis, conscious of the sensitive situation they might be in, and I can imagine that the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, Confession can all certainly get a look in in these decisions. The possible solution presented in footnote 351 is therefore of a greater scope than what the vast majority of commenters – on both sides of the issue – have been saying.

And here we find a major cause of the problem: apparently, so many people think, you’re not really a part of the Church unless you receive Holy Communion. And not only that, there exists a right to receive Communion. This is both blatantly untrue. Our Catholic identity is in the first place not based in Communion but in Baptism, and secondly it extends far further than the act of receiving (or, in too many cases, taking) Communion. Unless we realise that, we are doomed to remain focussed on the question of who can and can not receive and thus, who is and is not really a part of our Catholic community. Pope Francis is determined to fight this latter idea, and if we are to side with him in that fight, we must re-evaluate our ideas about Holy Communion.

But let no one think I consider Eucharist and Communion not really that important. The Eucharist is the most valuable treasure the Church has. It is Christ, and the Church physically gives Him to the people. There can be no greater gift. This dictates how we relate to this sacrament. An honest desire to receive Communion is a good thing: we desire to receive Christ, make Him a part of ourselves, or ourselves a part of Him (Communion is like eating, but also completely unlike eating).

However, the Eucharist also inspires us, enables us to be Catholic, live a Christian life. This is expressed in prayer, in charity, in the works of mercy (both spiritual and corporal) and in every part of our lives. Or it should be. The proper understanding and relation with Christ in the Eucharist is a necessity in making it work in us. I have compared it to medication (in a field hospital, if you will): if we don’t change our lives and avoid what makes us sick, no amount of pills is going to make us better.

Holy Communion is a gift, and we are asked to not only accept it but make it fruitful in us. And sometimes we can’t. The situation of a family in which one of the spouses was previously married, but who both have the responsibility for children born in that second relationship, is an example. It is an objective fact, in which accusations and responsibility play no part, that this couple lives in an irregular situation and therefore can not receive Communion. But our Catholic faith is greater than that, and by no means are these people excluded from the most holy. Even being in the presence of the Holy Eucharist can be a sanctifying event, which is why the Holy Father emphases the importance of Adoration. The sacrament of Confession, to which footnote 351 is also open, can be a powerful help for people in this situation, even when they can’t change their objectively sinful situation.

We must not downplay the value of Communion, but neither should we deny the power of the Eucharist and the inspiration and strength it gives us to live Christian lives, even if we can’t physically receive it. Prayer, Confession, charity, mercy, solidarity are all fruits of the eternal sacrifice of Christ which, ever new, comes to us through the Eucharist. Let us emphasise what we can, and not what we can’t.

Just before the announcement, an interview with Archbishop De Kesel

Minutes before today’s announcement and presentation of the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Kerknet had the chance to sit down and ask a few questions to Archbishop-elect Jozef De Kesel. The interview about memories of the past and hopes for the future gives some idea of who Msgr. De Kesel is.

In my translation:

aartsbisschop-jozef-de-keselAt your ordination as priest you were surrounded by priests of the family, and especially also your uncle, Leo De Kesel [auxiliary bishop of Ghent from 1960 to 1991, who ordained his nephew]. Was it a matter of course for you to follow in their footsteps?

“The well-known Uncle Fons, a Norbertine from Averbode Abbey, was also there. But no, in 1965 it was already not a matter of course anymore. My vocation comes in part from the family context, but also from my involvement in the Catholic Social Action and in the parish, where a group of us studied the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council.”

Who were your mentors?

“In that time we read, for example, Romano Guardini. I also followed the movement around Charles de Foucauld. Later, when I studied theology, I read with interest the Jesus book and other literature of Msgr. Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner and Willem Barnard.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also a great source of inspiration for me. I mostly discovered him when I was responsible for the Higher Institute of Religion in Ghent. I was so fascinated by Letters and Papers from Prison that I subsequently read all his works.”

What connects these inspirations?

“The theologians teach me that the Christian faith is a great treasure with a rich content and tradition. Bonhoeffer teaches me to understand that this tradition can be experienced in different contexts.

We no longer live in the  homogenous Christian society of the past. But the comfortable situation of that time is not the only context in which to experience your faith.”

As bishop you chose the motto “with you I am a Christian” in 2002. What did you mean by that?

“The first part of the quote by St. Augustine is, “For you I am a bishop”. By choosing only the second part I clearly state that my first calling as a bishop is to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus. Everything else follows from that. For me it is important to jointly take responsibility. That responsibility binds us as a society. The quote is also a clear choice for collegiality in exercising authority. I am very happy with the three auxiliary bishops that I can count on in the archdiocese.”

What are the great challenges for the Church today?

“The question is not so much how many priests we need and how to organise ourselves. But: what do we have to say to society? Formation and the introduction into the faith are very important for that. It is not a question of having to take an exam in order to be a part of it. There can be many degrees of belonging. But we can assume that there is a certain question or desire when people come to Church.

Don’t misunderstand me. A smaller Church must also be an open Church and relevant for society.”

What sort of Church do you dream of?

“A Church that accepts that she is getting smaller. The Church is in a great process of change and that sometimes hurts. But that does not mean that there is decay. There have been times in which the Church was in decay while triumphing.

I dream of a Church that radiates a conviction, that radiates the person of Jesus Christ. Of an open Church which is not only occupied with religious questions, but also with social problems such as the refugee crisis.

Politics have to be neutral, but society is not. Christians are a part of that and should express themselves.”

You did not take part in the Synod on the family, but will probably get to work with its proposals. What will stay with you from this Synod?

“The Synod may not have brought the concrete results that were hoped for, such as allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. But it is unbelievable how much it was a sign of a Church that has changed. The mentality is really not the same anymore.

I may be a careful person, but I do not think we should be marking time. Mercy is an important word for me, but in one way or another it is still  somewhat condescending. I like to take words like respect and esteem for man as my starting point. And that may be a value that we, as Christians, share with prevailing culture.”

May we assume that you will take up the thread of Cardinal Danneels?

“It is of course not my duty to imitate him, but I have certainly learned much from him. Also from Msgr. Luysterman [Bishop of Ghent from 1991 to 2003], by the way, with whom I have long worked in Ghent.”

Your predecessor liked to court controversy in the media. Pope Francis stands out for his human style. What is the style we may expect from you?

“In the papers I have already been profiled as not mediagenic. We will see. For my part, I will at least approach the media openly and confident.”

Will you be living in Brussels, like Msgr. Léonard, or will you choose the archbishop’s palace in Mechelen?

“Msgr. Léonard will be staying in Brussels for a while, so my first home will be Mechelen. I think it would be interesting to alternate and also have a place in Brussels.”

You like Brussels, don’t you? And Brussels likes you.

“The love is mutual, yes. I am certainly no stranger to the French speaking community in our country.”

The Church in Brussels announced this week that Confirmation and First Communion will now be celebrated at the same time, at the age of ten. A renewal you can agree with?

“I wrote the brochure about the renewal of the sacraments of initiation myself, and I conclude that Brussels interprets my text to the full. I am very happy about that. Brussels immediately shows itself as the laboratory of renewal that I so appreciate about it.”

The five years in Bruges were not easy. How have they changed you as a man or what did you learn from them?

“In Bruges I had final responsibility in an environment I did not know well. As auxiliary bishop I was happy to often discuss things with the archbishop, and now I was more on my own. As archbishop I am very happy to be able to rely on three good auxiliary bishops with whom I will be pleased to discuss matters. Like my time as episcopal vicar in Ghent and as auxiliary bishop in Brussels, I consider the past five years as an important learning experience.”

Synod Day 1 – First impressions

léonard synod

^Orthodox metropolitan of Belgium, Athenagoras, who is a guest at the Synod, snapped this photo of Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard of Mechelen-Brussels. Also visible, at the far right, is Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm.

eijk synod^Cardinal Eijk (second from the right) is seen in this still from the CTV live stream, seated between Cardinals John Tong Hon of Hong Kong and George Alencherry of Ernakulam-Angamaly. On the other side of Cardinal Alencherry sits Cardinal Marx.

As the Metropolitans of the Low Countries, to name but two, got down to business, the rest of the world was treated to a mixture of openness and secrecy about the Synod’s deliberations. On the one hand the first session was streamed live, but on the other the remainder will take place behind closed doors. And unlike previous Synod assemblies, the contributions of the speakers will also not be published. Instead, there will be summaries of the day’s proceedings and several participants will take part in daily press briefings.

In his opening address to the Synod, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri told the participants not to use their Twitter accounts in the Synod hall. That makes sense, but let’s hope they’ll continue using them outside the hall. Related to that, there are a few blogging bishops and cardinals at the Synod. In addition to those populating my sidebar, I have also come across the blogs of Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, of Gatineau in Canada, and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville in the US.

The official Vatican website on the Synod also has a bunch of texts and also video interviews with participants in several languages.

Today, Cardinals Maradiaga (Tegucigalpa and the Council of Cardinals), Marx (Munich and the Council of Cardinals), Napier (Durban), Sistach (Barcelona), Erdö (Budapest) and Archbishop Okada (Tokyo) took the first sit-down with the press. Their words there gave some hints at what was discussed in the second congregation, which took place this afternoon.

Cardinal Maradiaga spoke about the importance of marriage preparation which, he said, should start after Confirmation. Cardinal Sistach stressed the importance of the bishops staying as close as possible to the people and their lives, so as to formulate a realistic response. Archbishop Okada added that in Japan it was the laity who kept the faith alive and passed it on to later generations, despite persecutions. Cardinal Napier painted the image of the Church as the Good Samaritan, caring for the wounded. Cardinal Marx, then, stated that there needs to be a public debate on the Synod’s themes.

The entire mission programme, so to speak, of the Synod was outlined by the ubiquitous Cardinal Péter Erdö, in his Relatio ante disceptationem.

pope francis synod^And in the end, the Pope strolled home… (photo courtesy of Charles Le Bourgeois)