Communion – Understanding Pope Francis

EDIT: At the bottom of this post, I have added some thoughts about the story Pope Francis told about a bishop he knew, a story that initially caused some confusion.

During a question round in the Lutheran church community in Rome, yesterday, Pope Francis was asked about the sensitive topic of receiving Communion as a non-Catholic. The person asking the question was a Lutheran lady with a Catholic husband, and she wondered when it was possible for them to receive Communion together. As both the Catholic and Lutheran churches have this sacrament, it is unclear if she was referring to receiving in a Catholic Mass or a Lutheran service. Basically, she could have been asking how she, a Lutheran, could receive Communion in a Catholic Mass, or how her husband, a Catholic, could receive the bread in a Lutheran service. Both are different situations, but revolve around the same problem: receiving the sacraments while not fully accepting the belief that comes with it.

pope francis lutherans

Pope Francis’ answer, provided here by Rocco Palmo*, is quite difficult to follow. The Holy Father is sometimes a challenge to understand (that’s  what you get with a man who speak from the heart, and often spontaneously – and this is not a slight against him), but now he left me scratching my head. In short, he leaves the decision to receive Communion to the woman’s conscience, but also mentions that the choice should be made “only if one is sincere with oneself and the little theological light one has”. In other words, with a formed conscience. There is no mention of the importance of truly understanding what Communion in Catholic teaching is. This could possibly be off-putting in this context, but on the other hand, we can’t  go around pretending that Communion, the receiving of the very Body and Blood of the Lord, is a matter that can be decided by people individually… With that I mean that, while every person must make an examination of conscience and decide whether or not to receive, no one can decide that he or she can receive in circumstances that another can not.

It is also interesting to note that Pope Francis immediately stated that he is not competent to decide if a non-Catholic can receive Communion in a Catholic Church. Well, if the Pope can’t, who can?

This underlines how important an issue this is: we are talking about the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and the honour and worship that this is due. Not allowing people to receive is neither a matter of denying a right to them, nor a punishment for sins committed. It is not rooted in human failings, but in the honour of glory of God, whom we should not receive without accepting Him fully. There are no ifs and buts in allowing the Lord to make us His own. To receive Him conditionally, which is what we do when we known that He can not fully inhabit us (because there are certain obstacles in our path towards Him), disgraces both Him and us. We are called to so much more than that.

This leaves open another question that Pope Francis asks: “To share the Lord’s banquet: is it the goal of the path or is it the viaticum [etym. “to accompany you on the journey”] for walking together?” In other words, is it a prize at the end of the road, or a support to help us walk the path? Maybe Communion is just the start of a path, of a journey with God? We all know that no one who receives Communion is automatically perfect, not even when they have made an examination of their conscience and found there is nothing to prevent them come forward and receive the Body and Blood of Christ. There are very few saints walking back to the pew afterwards. For us, in our imperfections and failings, Communion is a viaticum. But even a viaticum must be allowed to work. And, this is important, God’s mercy and support is not limited to Communion. In the debates about who should and should not receive, it often seems as if God’s mercy takes the exclusive form of consecrated bread and wine. It does not.

As a final aside, we also receive Communion as part of the community. Our coming forward and receiving, our saying “Amen” after the priest holds up the host with the words “The Body of Christ”, is an acknowledgement of our belief in that dogma and the entire faith that comes from that – the Eucharist, after all, is the source and summit of our faith. Someone who is a faithful Protestant with significant differences in belief, can’t pretend to acknowledge the Catholic faith. Neither can a Catholic acknowledge the faith of another church community with teachings that disagree fundamentally with those of the Catholic Church.

* The translation provided by Zenit offers more clarity than the one I linked to above, not least about what the Pope said about a bishop he knew: “I had a great friendship with an Episcopalian Bishop, 48, married, with two children, and he had this anxiety: his wife was Catholic, his children were Catholics, he was a Bishop. On Sundays he accompanied his wife and his children to Mass and then he went to worship with his community. It was a step of participation in the Lord’s Supper. Then he went on, the Lord called him, a righteous man.” This would then be Episcopalian Bishop Tony Palmer, who had the desire to become Catholic. He was good friends with Pope Francis and died after a motorcycle accident in 2014. Previously, it was assumed that the Holy Father was referring to Argentine Bishop Jerónimo Podestá, who married and was subsequently removed as bishop and barred from exercising his priestly ministry. On his deathbed in 2000, then-Archbishop Bergoglio reached out to him, the only Argentine prelate to do so. A friend refers to the following passages from magisterial documents that are relevant in this context: Ecclesia de Eucharistia 46 and 46, Ut Unum Sint 56 and Sacramentum Caritatis 56. These texts discuss the existing possibility for members of other church communities to receive the Eucharist, when they “greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments. Conversely, in specific cases and in particular circumstances, Catholics too can request these same sacraments from ministers of Churches in which these sacraments are valid” (Ut Unum Sint, 46).

Some have said that Pope Francis only spoke about the Lutheran Last Supper, but the example of Bishop Palmer, who accompanied his wife and children to Mass (there is no mention of him receiving communion, so the Pope carefully steers clear of commenting on that). This is undoubtedly similar to the problem faced by the woman who asked the question. The Pope does not just speak about Catholics receiving sacraments in other Church communities, but just as much, if not more, about non-Catholics receiving Catholic sacraments.

For Paramaribo, a native son again

After almost 18 months, Paramaribo and the entire country of Suriname will once more have a bishop, and for only the second time in its almost 200-year history, the bishop is a native son.

Father Karel Choennie, pictured below with Apostolic Administrator Fr. Antonius te Dorshorst and episcopal vicar Fr. Esteban Kross at today’s press conference announcing his appointment, was vicar general under the diocese’s previous bishop, Dutchman Wim de Bekker, who retired in May of 2014.


Bishop-elect Choennie was born in Suriname in 1958, He studied pedagogy at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and subsequently at the minor seminary in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. He received his licentiate in pastoral theology at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1985. He served in various parishes in Paramaribo, became a member of the diocesan curia in 2001 and vicar general in 2005. This office was suspended upon the retirement of Bishop de Bekker in 2014.

The diocese reports that the new bishop will be consecrated in early 2016. According to canon law this must take place within three months after the appointment, in this case before 11 February. The identity of the main consecrator is unknown at this time, but it is a safe bet that emeritus Bishop de Bekker will be the one. After his retirement he remained in Suriname, living in the town of Groningen, west of Paramaribo.

Bishop-elect Choennie, as mentioned above, is the second bishop of Paramaribo born in Suriname. The first native bishop of Paramaribo was Msgr. Aloysius Zichem, who is now 82. He was bishop from 1971 to 2003. All other ordinaries have been Dutch, reflecting the colonial history of Suriname.

The Diocese of Paramaribo, which covers all of Suriname, is a suffragan diocese of the Archdiocese of Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. It was established in 1817 as  the Apostolic Prefecture of Dutch Guyana-Suriname, promoted to an Apostolic Vicariate in 1842 and became the modern diocese in 1958.

Photo credit: Gino Rozenblad

In Reykjavik, the new bishop arrives

francis bücher tencer
Bishop Bürcher and Bishop-elect Tencer with Pope Francis

For the first time in almost three decades, Reykjavik’s Christ the King Cathedral will host the consecration of a bishop, as Msgr. David Bartimej Tencer, O.F.M. Cap. becomes the fifth bishop of the diocese.

The Mass in which the new bishop is conmsecrated is scheduled for 18:00. Consecrator will be the retired bishop of Reykjavik, Msgr. Pétur Bürcher, and co-consecrators will be  Archbishop Henryk Nowacki, Apostolic Nuncio to Iceland and the other Nordic countries, and Bishop Tomáš Galis of Zilina in Slovakia. Like Msgr. Tencer, Bishop Galis was a priest of the Diocese of Banská Bystrica, and later he became auxiliary bishop of the same diocese before coming to Zilina in 2008. I assume he is co-consecrator to represent his diocese, or because of a personal friendship with the new bishop (or both).

The Diocese of Reykjavik’s website is pretty completely available in English, although pretty frugal in detailed information, but a report on tonight’s consecration may become available in both Icelandic and English soon.

Danger and salvation – At Bishop Bentz’s ordination, Cardinal Lehmann about the office of bishop

udo bentz ordinationIn his homily at the ordination of Bishop Udo Bentz as auxiliary bishop of Mainz, last Sunday, Cardinal Karl Lehmann drew heavily on St. Augustine, and especially on his thoughts on the office of bishop, and the dangers of it. The cardinal wants to emphasise the fact that a bishop always remains a part of the faithful, with whom he  shares a common Christianity.

There is also a personal element in the homily, towards the end, as Cardinal Lehmann reflects on his many years as bishop of Mainz and the people he shared that time with. It is hard not to read this in the light of his upcoming retirement. Aged 79, it is a safe bet that Cardinal Lehmann will retire between now and his 80th birthday, on 16 May next year. He has been the bishop of Mainz since 1983, and as such he is the longest-serving German bishop, and one who is still the ordinary of the diocese he was ordained for.

Here is the cardinal’s homily in my translation:

lehmann“Honourable sisters and brothers in the Lord!

Dear brother Dr. Udo M. Bentz, about to be ordained as bishop!
Dear co-consecrators Karl-Josef Cardinal Rauber and Archbishop Stephan Burger!
Dear brothers in the office of deacon, priest and bishop!

What is a bishop? Why and how do we have such an office in the Church? An initial answer can already be found in the word for this service. “Episcopus“, from which the word bishop comes, is one who “oversees”, and a “guardian”, a “supervisor”. From the Bible, the word also derives from “shepherd”. Incidentally, the liturgy of ordination, the act of ordination, with its ancient signs and gestures, words and hymns, so eloquent and filled with meaning, that any preaching can be but a small introduction to these events. I will mention but one especially impressive image: during the entire prayer of ordination two priests hold the Gospel book above the head of the ordained. The bishop should be completely under the Gospel and serve Him.

Today I choose another path and will discuss some words from Saint Augustine. As is well known, as bishop of Hippo on northern Africa, he would always speak about the office of bishop on the day of his ordination. He would certainly also have done so at bishops’ ordinations in the African Church province. Sita, the titular see of Udo Bentz, in north Africa, belonged to it. One can already learn much from these homilies.  I want to try and do so with you.

For that purpose I have chosen a text from the homilies, which is incidentally also quoted in the great text about the Church from the Second Vatican Council (LG 32): “What I am for you terrifies me; what I am with you consoles me. For you I am a bishop; but with you I am a Christian. The former is a duty; the latter a grace. The former is a danger; the latter, salvation” (Serm. 340, 1: PL 38, 1483).

During the Second Vatican Council this text was cited as an important point in relation to the statements concerning the laity. That may surprise, since there is a separate chapter on bishops. Here in relation to the laity, they and the holders of offices become in a very fundamental way like brothers, yes, like a family of God, through which the new commandment of love in realised. At many points, especially in the second chapter of the Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council strongly emphasised this fundamental commonality. That is why it is a very fundamental decision of the Council to concentrate the understanding of the People of God on the commonality of all believers, and not in advance on any distinction between the various charisms, services and offices. A “true equality” can then be established in building up the Body of Christ and in the call to holiness. As LG 32 puts it: “And if by the will of Christ some are made teachers, pastors and dispensers of mysteries on behalf of others, yet all share a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity common to all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ. For the distinction which the Lord made between sacred ministers and the rest of the People of God bears within it a certain union, since pastors and the other faithful are bound to each other by a mutual need. Pastors of the Church, following the example of the Lord, should minister to one another and to the other faithful. These in their turn should enthusiastically lend their joint assistance to their pastors and teacher” (Constitution on the Church “Lumen gentium”, Chapter 4, par. 32). It is understandable that these words from Saint Augustine have often been repeated very often in recent years and decades, together with the remarks from the Constitution on the Church about the laity.

Certainly, one should not take this text as noncommittal expression of a mere personal modesty. This is about a true theology of office and at the same time about the unity of Christianity in the variety of tasks.

“For you I am a bishop…” Augustine does not see the office as contained in itself, in its value and power. Her understands it entirely in relation to the task entrusted to him. The office of bishop is entirely a service to the sisters and brothers in the faith. Augustine also says this in another way, that  the guidance and leadership are only fulfilled in the fruitfulness and “usefulness” of his service to the people.

As we know, Augustine considered the task of being bishop a burden on his shoulder and which often also depressed him. From that comes the anxiety and doubt if he really did justice to his task, especially in the eyes of others, and fulfilled it adequately before God. This is in sharp contrast to many homilies at a first Mass or anniversary of a bishop, even in our time. For Augustine wonder if this high office, which certainly demands much of him, is not a great danger to himself. We often think differently and often believe that a high official is already closer to God because of his position, and has so many merits that God will automatically save him and give him eternal life. For Augustine, the office is no relief, but a danger to his salvation, as becomes very clear in the sermon quoted at the beginning. In the Middle Ages they thought similarly. One need only think of Dante.

What comforts the bishop of Hippo in the face of this danger, is the shared Christianity with all sisters and brothers. Here the bishop is part of “normal” Christian life. There each is first responsible for himself when this can also be freely extended to others. So Augustine can say, in short, “Learning is dangerous, but students are safe”. He who stands “above” others, must be judged and addressed according to the measure of his task. The terror of this diminishes when one completely becomes a part of the flock of believers. This unity is even more important than the office alone.

Many burdens of office become light when one is quite humble in relations with the normal and simple People of God. I personally often like to speak in this regard of belonging to the “foot soldiers” of God. It then also becomes visible what has been given and asked of others and does not overestimate oneself. This unity in Christianity with many other makes more modest and humble. It is in any case contrary to all overconfidence of office.

Nevertheless, Augustine is very much aware about the own responsibility of the office, which he does not underestimate. He also does not deny it. He talks about the office as a duty (officium). He agrees with Pope Gregory the Great that the bishop is the “watcher”, the one who looks ahead and so has to lead the way. He must be ready for conflicts if the Gospel demands it. Like Jesus he must also be willing to give his own life. This can result in a profound loneliness. That is why the unity with all the faithful is, once again, so important.

That one statement by St. Augustine, “What I am for you…”, which reflects, with many similar insights in his work, a deep grounding in the Triune God, says more about the office of bishop and its execution than many great treatises about the theology of office. I am in any case grateful to St. Augustine for these words. For me they remain valuable and helpful.

As bishop, I have been able to experience  this mutual support, this shared Christianity and life in various duties here in Mainz for a long and rich time. I thank the many women and men, young and old for the solidary way with which they supported our service. Time and again, I was able to gratefully feel this foundation, together with my predecessors Bishop Stohr and Cardinal Volk, and the auxiliary bishops Joseph Maria Reus, Wolfgang Rolly, Franziskus Eisenbach, Werner Guballa and Ulrich Neymeyr. This applies to both voluntary and paid staff. Because of it I was able to always do my duty with joy and gratitude. A prerequisite is certainly that one listens to others and remains in dialogue with them and that one acknowledges what others say until the end, as Saint Benedict teaches us in his rule, and that one is also willing to accept corrections. Only in this way unity is possible without blurring the differences in responsibilities.

With this gratitude I also ask that we maintain this valuable heritage of a good tradition in the Church, for which Saint Augustine stands and which once again comes to life in the Second Vatican Council, through our working together, not only today, but also tomorrow, as an indispensible element in the construction of the Church of Mainz. I also wish this spiritual and pastoral heritage for you, dear Udo M. Bentz, in the name of all present on your ordination day and for your service. Carry the torch of faith onwards. The fire still burns under the ashes. Amen.

Karl Cardinal Lehmann, Bishop of Mainz”


Four days until bishop, Msgr. Bentz on his preparations

38_Bentz1On 20 September he will fill the vacancy left by Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr as auxiliary bishop of Mainz, but for Msgr. Udo Bentz there is more linking him to the past and the bishops who came before him. Consider something as simple as the various signs of his new office: the episcopal cross that he will wear on his chest is gift from his family, the staff is given by the diocese, the mitre comes from Cardinal Karl-Josef Rauber (who will also be one of the co-consecrators), and the bishop’s ring has perhaps the most personal value. It used to belong to Bishop Werner Guballa, who passed away in 2012.

“After the death of auxiliary Bishop Werner Guballa – we were close friends – I received his bishops’ ring as a memento. Since then I kept it in my prayer corner as a sign of closeness. The fact that I will now wear it myself, means a lot to me.”

Before the day of consecration is here, however, Bishop-elect Bentz will prepare during a private retreat in St. Hildegard Abbey in Eibingen, west of Mainz. Accompanying him is Bishop Franz Kamphaus, bishop emeritus of Limburg.

“During the days at the abbey I will meditate on the texts of the ordination liturgy. Bishop Kamphaus will hand my spiritual suggestions, and I will use the time for personal prayer. Also, a great number of people have promised that they will pray for me at this time.”

As bishop, Msgr. Bentz will also remain rector of the seminary, at least for the foreseeable future. He is adamant about living at the seminary as he has been.

“Of course! The household community is part and principle of priestly formation. Even though I will be on the road much more, the seminary, the seminarians and the Croatian sisters remain the centre of my life and also my spiritual home. I feel very well in my home!”

As for his faith life, the appointment, which was made on 15 July, just before the end of the semester, after which Msgr. Bentz went on holiday, has not yet changed much. And in recent days the practical preparations have taken centre stage.

“My experience is this: In spiritual life the actual developments often happen nearly imperceptibly and rather hidden, before you even see them as changes. Spiritual experiences “lag behind”,  in the sense that it takes time for them to sink in. The [spiritual]  exercises before ordination are certainly many… these days of contemplation are my actual and ultimate preparation for ordination.”

Msgr. Udo Bentz will be consecrated on 20 September by Cardinal Karl Lehmann as main consecrator, and Cardinal Karl-Josef Rauber, Apostolic Nuncio emeritus to Belgium and Luxembourg and now residing in the Diocese of Mainz, and Archbishop Stephan Burger of Freiburg im Breisgau as co-consecrators.

Read the entire interview in German here.

Photo credit: Anja Weiffen

Corpus Christi – The Eucharist as source and summit

While it is celebrated in the Netherlands next Sunday, today is the actual day of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Corpus Christi, the feast day devoted to one of the most mysterious truths of our faith: the Real Presence of Our Lord in the consecrated bread and wine.

My parish priest asked my to translate his homily for the feast day for use in the English-language Mass on Saturday, and I was given his permission to share it here in my blog (in a slightly edited form).

eucharist“”What is the Holy Mass, the celebration of the Eucharist?”, was the question asked in a Catholic group. Silence. “We come together to pray”, someone eventually mumbled. “To honour God”, someone added, “and to ask for His assistance”.

That is all true, but we always do that when we pray, in Vespers or Adoration or whatever communal prayer we have. But what is the unique element of a Mass? Why is Holy Mass the central and most characteristic celebration of the Catholic Church and, by the way, also of the Orthodox Churches of the East? Because in it we remember the Easter of Jesus – His death and resurrection – and make it present in the signs of bread and wine. It is the celebration of the heart of our faith.

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, they come together in the Eucharist. The one sacrifice on the Cross of Good Friday remains present among us in the signs of bread and wine, as at the Last Supper Jesus said about the bread: “Take this, all of you, and eat of it: for this is my body which will be given up for you”, and about the chalice of wine: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: for this is the chalice of my blood, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”.  And so, the next day He gave up His Body and Blood for us on the Cross. And at the Last Supper, Jesus added: “Do this in memory of me.”

He wanted the one sacrifice on the Cross – literally the crucial moment in the history of God with people – to remain among us in this way, sacramentally, which means in signs but also real, as each sacrament achieves in signs (for example, the water at Baptism) what it indicates.

All sacraments, the entire sacramental life of the Church, is contained in the Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross, in the Eucharistic sacrifice that our Saviour established in the night that He was betrayed, to let the sacrifice continue through all the ages, until He comes again.

That is why the Eucharist is source and summit of all the sacraments, of all of Christian life. Everything flows from it and everything leads back to it. It is supper and  sacrifice. Bread and wine are at the heart of creation. They contain what the earth has to offer. Bread gives life and existence to man, wine gives him joy. Gifts of creation, work of our hands and from them we offer to God – a sacrifice, but the true sacrifice is the gift of self.

At the multiplication of loaves it already became clear how Jesus saves all from distress and gives in abundance. At the wedding at Cana it was the same: abundance and the best – the new, second creation already shows itself. All lines come together at the Last Supper: the lines of bread and wine, of supper and sacrifice, of gift and gift of self, of creation and salvation, of past, present and future – until He comes again.

Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, through the power of His word and the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit is continuously implored, and especially through the laying on of hands to bring to life, in the Eucharist, and at ordinations. Of course Christ is present in the Church in many ways: in His word, in her prayer (“where two or three are gathered in My name…”), also in the poor, the sick and prisoners (“what you have done for the least of Mine…”), in the sacraments, in the person of the priest.  But nowhere in that intense way as in bread and wine. In bread and wine Christ himself is completely present. That is why we kneel at the Eucharistic prayer, and the priest kneels after the words of consecration: not for bread and wine, but for Christ in the signs of bread and wine – through Christ’s own words.

When we have received Him like this in Holy Communion, we abide with Him in a silent and intimate conversation. Yes, we believe in the continuing presence of Jesus in the Blessed Hosts that remain and which have traditionally been given to the sick and which are again given at the next Mass. Since the 13th century that was expanded into the adoration of the Eucharistic Lord in the monstrance. We will conclude this Eucharist with a short time of silent adoration and a blessing with the Blessed Sacrament.


Father Rolf Wagenaar is parish priest of St. Martin’s parish in Groningen and cathedral administrator of the Cathedral of Saints Joseph and Martin, Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden.