Mouring and rejoicing after Notre Dame burned

“We are gathered in the Mother Church of the Diocese of Paris, Notre-Dame Cathedral, which rises in the heart of the city as a living sign of God’s presence in our midst.  My predecessor, Pope Alexander III, laid its first stone, and Popes Pius VII and John Paul II honoured it by their presence.  I am happy to follow in their footsteps, a quarter of a century after coming here to offer a conference on catechesis.  It is hard not to give thanks to the Creator of both matter and spirit for the beauty of this edifice.  The Christians of Lutetia had originally built a cathedral dedicated to Saint Stephen, the first martyr; as time went on it became too small, and was gradually replaced, between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, by the great building we admire today.  The faith of the Middle Ages built the cathedrals, and here your ancestors came to praise God, to entrust to him their hopes and to express their love for him.  Great religious and civil events took place in this shrine, where architects, painters, sculptors and musicians have given the best of themselves.  We need but recall, among so many others, the architect Jean de Chelles, the painter Charles Le Brun, the sculptor Nicolas Coustou and the organists Louis Vierne and Pierre Cochereau.  Art, as a pathway to God, and choral prayer, the Church’s praise of the Creator, helped Paul Claudel, who attended Vespers here on Christmas Day 1886, to find the way to a personal experience of God.  It is significant that God filled his soul with light during the chanting of the Magnificat, in which the Church listens to the song of the Virgin Mary, the Patroness of this church, who reminds the world that the Almighty has lifted up the lowly (cf. Lk 1:52).  As the scene of other conversions, less celebrated but no less real, and as the pulpit from which preachers of the Gospel like Fathers Lacordaire, Monsabré and Samson transmitted the flame of their passion to the most varied congregations, Notre-Dame Cathedral rightly remains one of the most celebrated monuments of your country’s heritage.  Following a tradition dating back to the time of Saint Louis, I have just venerated the relics of the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns, which have now found a worthy home here, a true offering of the human spirit to the power of creative Love.”

Pope Benedict XVI, 12 September 2008, at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

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Last night, Notre Dame burned. This morning, we find that more than we could have hoped for was spared of its interior. The roof and spire may be gone, and soot may cover the walls and mangled debris may have reached the floor, but Notre Dame still stands.

And most important of all, the reason of its existence still remains: the presence of the Lord, Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine, the sacraments given to us who wish to follow Him, as well as some of the symbols of the salvation He wrought for us.

Notre Dame is a historical building which has a special place in the hearts and minds of many, first of all the Parisians and the French, but also those millions, including yours truly, who had the chance to visit her, however briefly.*

But more than a monument to history and the civilisation in which we live, Notre Dame is a church. It is the home of God, a prefiguration of heaven, the place where we come to encounter Him as closely as we can. It manifests the presence of God in the heart of Paris, in the place where that great city began, and thus also in the heart of all the works and endeavours we undertake.

Last night’s fire and its timing, as Holy Week begins, can be understood symbolically, regardless of the cause of the fire. The scenes of people praying and singing as the cathedral burned give us hope and remind us that God hears us at the difficult times in our lives, but He remains present when things are going well and we tend to forget or ignore Him. Like Notre Dame, He is always there.

Today, we may mourn the damage done, but we may also rejoice in what remains. Notre Dame still stands. God is still with us.

*Last October, my wife and I had the chance to visit Notre Dame. By chance we participated in a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Aupetit and Bishop Freddy Fuenmayor Suárez of Los Teques, Venezuela, who gifted an icon of the Blessed Virgin to Notre Dame. The cathedral was filled to capacity and the mood was celebratory. The joy of the Hispanic community was palpable and infectuous. A fond memory, which made yesterday’s developments all the more painful.

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Cardinal Newman to be canonised – The Pope emeritus reflects

Newman

Blessed John Henry Newman is to be declared a saint. That joyful news was announced today as Pope Francis authorised the promulgation of a decree recognising, among other things, a second miracle attributed to the intercession of the English cardinal. That second miracle is required before a person can be canonised (unless he or she is recognised as a martyr).

In 2010, Cardinal Newman was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI during his papal visit to the United Kingdom. That visit was centred to a large extent around the person of the soon-to-be-saint, and Pope Benedict spoke about him on several occasions. Below I wish to share a few of the Pope emeritus’ thoughts, as a way to mark the great news. All the quotations were taken from the official texts available on the website of the Vatican, linked to above:

“As you know, Newman has long been an important influence in my own life and thought, as he has been for so many people beyond these isles. The drama of Newman’s life invites us to examine our lives, to see them against the vast horizon of God’s plan, and to grow in communion with the Church of every time and place: the Church of the apostles, the Church of the martyrs, the Church of the saints, the Church which Newman loved and to whose mission he devoted his entire life.”

“On the one hand Cardinal Newman was above all a modern man, who lived the whole problem of modernity; he faced the problem of agnosticism, the impossibility of knowing God, of believing. He was a man whose whole life was a journey, a journey in which he allowed himself to be transformed by truth in a search marked by great sincerity and great openness, so as to know better and to find and accept the path that leads to true life. This interior modernity, in his being and in his life, demonstrates the modernity of his faith. It is not a faith of formulas of past ages; it is a very personal faith, a faith lived, suffered and found in a long path of renewal and conversion. He was a man of great culture, who on the other hand shared in our sceptical culture of today, in the question whether we can know something for certain regarding the truth of man and his being, and how we can come to convergent probabilities. He was a man with a great culture and knowledge of the Fathers of the Church. He studied and renewed the interior genesis of faith and recognized its inner form and construction. He was a man of great spirituality, of humanity, of prayer, with a profound relationship with God, a personal relationship, and hence a deep relationship with the people of his time and ours. So I would point to these three elements: modernity in his life with the same doubts and problems of our lives today; his great culture, his knowledge of the treasures of human culture, openness to permanent search, to permanent renewal and, spirituality, spiritual life, life with God; these elements give to this man an exceptional stature for our time. That is why he is like a Doctor of the Church for us and for all, and also a bridge between Anglicans and Catholics.”

“At the end of his life, Newman would describe his life’s work as a struggle against the growing tendency to view religion as a purely private and subjective matter, a question of personal opinion. Here is the first lesson we can learn from his life: in our day, when an intellectual and moral relativism threatens to sap the very foundations of our society, Newman reminds us that, as men and women made in the image and likeness of God, we were created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and the fulfilment of our deepest human aspirations. In a word, we are meant to know Christ, who is himself “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6).”

“Newman’s life also teaches us that passion for the truth, intellectual honesty and genuine conversion are costly. The truth that sets us free cannot be kept to ourselves; it calls for testimony, it begs to be heard, and in the end its convincing power comes from itself and not from the human eloquence or arguments in which it may be couched.”

“Finally, Newman teaches us that if we have accepted the truth of Christ and committed our lives to him, there can be no separation between what we believe and the way we live our lives. Our every thought, word and action must be directed to the glory of God and the spread of his Kingdom. Newman understood this, and was the great champion of the prophetic office of the Christian laity. He saw clearly that we do not so much accept the truth in a purely intellectual act as embrace it in a spiritual dynamic that penetrates to the core of our being. Truth is passed on not merely by formal teaching, important as that is, but also by the witness of lives lived in integrity, fidelity and holiness; those who live in and by the truth instinctively recognize what is false and, precisely as false, inimical to the beauty and goodness which accompany the splendour of truth, veritatis splendor.”

“Cardinal Newman’s motto, Cor ad cor loquitur, or “Heart speaks unto heart”, gives us an insight into his understanding of the Christian life as a call to holiness, experienced as the profound desire of the human heart to enter into intimate communion with the Heart of God. He reminds us that faithfulness to prayer gradually transforms us into the divine likeness. As he wrote in one of his many fine sermons, “a habit of prayer, the practice of turning to God and the unseen world in every season, in every place, in every emergency – prayer, I say, has what may be called a natural effect in spiritualizing and elevating the soul. A man is no longer what he was before; gradually … he has imbibed a new set of ideas, and become imbued with fresh principles” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, iv, 230-231). Today’s Gospel tells us that no one can be the servant of two masters (cf. Lk 16:13), and Blessed John Henry’s teaching on prayer explains how the faithful Christian is definitively taken into the service of the one true Master, who alone has a claim to our unconditional devotion (cf. Mt 23:10). Newman helps us to understand what this means for our daily lives: he tells us that our divine Master has assigned a specific task to each one of us, a “definite service”, committed uniquely to every single person: “I have my mission”, he wrote, “I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do his work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place … if I do but keep his commandments and serve him in my calling” (Meditations and Devotions, 301-2).”

“While it is John Henry Newman’s intellectual legacy that has understandably received most attention in the vast literature devoted to his life and work, I prefer on this occasion to conclude with a brief reflection on his life as a priest, a pastor of souls. The warmth and humanity underlying his appreciation of the pastoral ministry is beautifully expressed in another of his famous sermons: “Had Angels been your priests, my brethren, they could not have condoled with you, sympathized with you, have had compassion on you, felt tenderly for you, and made allowances for you, as we can; they could not have been your patterns and guides, and have led you on from your old selves into a new life, as they can who come from the midst of you” (“Men, not Angels: the Priests of the Gospel”, Discourses to Mixed Congregations, 3). He lived out that profoundly human vision of priestly ministry in his devoted care for the people of Birmingham during the years that he spent at the Oratory he founded, visiting the sick and the poor, comforting the bereaved, caring for those in prison.”

John Henry Newman’s feast day is 9 October, the date in 1845 on which he converted to the Catholic faith. That will most probably not change upon his canonisation. The most significant change is that Saint John Henry Newman may now be venerated world wide. The veneration of Blesseds is limited to the dioceses or countries where they lived and worked. No date has as of yet been announced for the canonisation, although it will most likely take place in Rome.

 

Looking ahead at the Amazon Synod, Bishop Bode hints at married priests

bode_purpur_240In a recent interview for a documentary broadcast on Monday in Germany, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück seemed rather ahead of events. The documentary discussed the future of the Church when there is a shortage of priests, and Bishop Bode spoke about the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, scheduled for next year. One of the expectations for that Synod is that it will discuss the option of ordaining married men to the priesthood, as the shortage of priests is also a problem in the Amazon, where settlements are often few and far between, and faithful sometimes have to make do with one Mass per year. Ordaining married men would, the supporters of the idea, say, alleviate that problem, as it makes more men available for ordination. If there will actually be more men presenting themselves at seminaries remains a good question, though.

What that idea in mind, Bishop Bode said that, if the Synod would decide in favour of ordaining married men, the German bishops would also ask for that option to be implemented in Germany. “If it is possible in principle,” he explained, “it should also be in situations where the need is different.”

The Catholic Church maintains that priests should live celibate lives. That is obviously incompatible with marriage, although married priests do exist in the Catholic Church. Usually these are former Protestant ministers who converted and later became priests. These are exceptions which take into account the specific situation of these men. The Church is not going to say they are no longer beholden to the obligations of marriage when she recognises the validity of their vocations to the priesthood. She takes marriage serious enough to prevent that. In such cases the Church is able to allow a dispensation from the law on celibacy, since it is not a divine law. Currently, she does so on a case-by-case basis, so there is no general law allowing dispensation from the obligation of priests to live celibate lives.

What Bishop Bode is hoping the Synod on the Amazon will allow is exactly such a general law, and he is not wrong when he says that if it can be done for a diocese in Brazil, it should also for one in Germany. But will it truly solve the problem? Maybe the bishop knows of throngs of married men wishing they could be priests, but I somehow doubt it. I think that the shortage of priests is tied to the shortage of active faithful and the lacking visibility of the Church. Bishops are struggling to counter these trends by merging parishes and giving parish priests responsibility for wide swathes of territory, but that is merely fighting the symptoms. The heart of the problem lies in clear teaching, visible charity and honest devotion. In the end, men must be attracted to the priesthood because of these, and not by the problems that will arise if they do not come.

 


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For 2018, a somewhat obscure saint

Heilige_AfraEvery year I use the Saint Name Generator to find a patron saint for my blog for the year. Whatever name the generator may come up with, I always try to see it as something of an inspiration and guide for my future endeavours here and in social media. But sometimes, that’s difficult.

This year, I was given the name of Saint Afra. She’s no only a very old saint, having died in 304, but also one of whom we know very little beyond her legend. But at least she hails from the area which I try to cover in this blog: of Cypriot origins, she led a holy life and died in Augsburg, Germany.

Her legend tells us that she was originally a pagan, possibly the daughter of the king of Cyprus, working as a prostitute (perhaps in the service of the local temple of Venus). She converted when she and her mother hid the bishop of Girona, Spain, who was fleeing the persecutions under Emperor Diocletian. Now a Christian, she was arrested when she refused to make a sacrifice to pagan idols, and was killed by being burned at the stake (although some sources say she was actually beheaded). The story of her martyrdom is by far the more reliable part of her legend.

Her patronage includes the city of Augsburg, converts, martyrs and penitent women. There, at least, we may find something to relate to as your author is himself a convert (eleven years ago coming April). Maybe Afra’s steadfastness in the face of adversity will prove to be an inspiration as well.

Sancta Afra, ora pro nobis!

The protective hand of the mother – Dutch dioceses consecrated to Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart

On Saturday afternoon the Dutch bishops consecrated their dioceses to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, coinciding with the centenary of the first apparition of Mary in Fatima and the tail-end of Pope Francis’ visit to that pilgrimage site in Portugal. The bishops did so at the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady in Maastricht. All the active Dutch ordinaries and auxiliary bishops were present, as was Cardinal Ad Simonis, archbishop emeritus of Utrecht. From Groningen-Leeuwarden, which is expecting their new bishop on 3 June, diocesan administrator Fr. Peter Wellen was present.

Cardinal Wim Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht and metropolitan of the Dutch Church province, led the consecration during a Vespers, and gave the following homily:

“After the downfall of the Portuguese royal house as the result of a revolution in 1910, a very anticlerical government came to power in which freemasons dictated the tone. This government issued various measures against the Church: the wearing of priestly clothing was forbidden, as was taking religious vows; monasteries and religious orders and congregation were abolished by law and their possessions confiscated; Jesuits were forced to renounce their Portuguese citizenship; religious education in schools was abolished and the government gave themselves the right to appoint professors to seminaries. The brain behind these measures, Alfonso Costa, had the goal of eradicating Catholicism in Portugal in two generations.

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He did not succeed in this for various reasons. The faith of the Portuguese people was too strong en the Holy See resisted successfully. But a very important factor was the apparitions of Mary to three shepherd children in Fatima: Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta. These apparitions greatly impacted Portugal, as well as, by the way, the rest of the Catholic world. After an angel appeared to them in 1916, Mary first appeared to them om 13 May 1917. She would do so six times in the period between 1 May and 13 October 2017.

The apparitions of Mary at Fatima are part of a string of important Marian apparitions: in La Salette in 1946, Lourdes in 1858 and Castepetroso in 1888. At all these apparitions, Mary’s message was that we should return to Christ, the Son of God and her son, do penance to gain forgiveness for our own sins and those of others and devote ourselves intensively to prayer, especially the Rosary. But of all these apparitions, those at Fatima were the most prophetic.

This had to do with the content of the three secrets that Mary entrusted there to the shepherd children. The first concerned a vision of hell and a call to prayer, conversion and penance to save souls and bring them to eternal salvation. The existence of hell was (and is) denied by many Christians and is not or barely mentioned by Christian preachers and catechists. The solemn warning of Mary must, however, be taken serious.

The second secret was an announcement of the end of the First World War, but also of the Second World War if people would not stop insulting God. Mary called for prayer and penance to implore God to bring peace. She also asked to consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart to prevent atheistic communism to spread from Russia to other countries. Various popes, beginning with Pius XII in a radio message on 31 October 1942, have responded to this. It is significant that communism in Russia fell in 1989.

The third secret was a vision of a bishop in white, the pope, being persecuted, falling down as if dead under the sound of gunshots amid the bodies of bishops, priests, religious and lay people, fallen like martyrs for the faith under communism and fascism. It is an image of the way of the cross that the Church, led by the popes, has gone. On 13 May 2000, Cardinal Sodano announced, during a visit of Pope John Paul II to Fatima, that this vision referred the attack on the pope in St. Peter’s Square in Rome on 13 May 1981.

How should we now look at Mary’s messages in Fatima, and what do they add to our faith in Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer? The revelation of Holy Scripture, the public revelation to all of humanity, has been completed with Jesus Christ. Nothing can be added to that.

Mary’s messages to the shepherd children in Fatima are private revelations. Private revelations do not add anything to the deposit of faith as a whole:  “It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (art. 67). The messages of Mary at Fatima helped to better understand what the faith in Christ required to hold onto under the serious threats to the Church in the twentieth century.

A specific guidance from Mary at Fatima was her call to consecrate Russia, but also other countries or persons, to her Immaculate Heart. The heart represent the interior of the person here, and also the conscience, where the heart of man’s relationship with God lies. We call Mary’s heart immaculate because God safeguarded her from the original sin from the moment of her birth, and also because she remained free from sin in the rest of her life.

The consecration to her Immaculate Heart means two things specifically. Firstly, this consecration means that we want to follow Mary in the choice that she made in her heart of hearts, when the angel asked her to be the mother of God’s Son. She expressed her yes to God with the words, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Like Mary, we want to achieve a complete consecration of ourselves to Christ.

We realise, however, that we can’t do so on our own and need God’s grace. And this brings us to the second important meaning of the consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary: it also expresses that we consecrate ourselves to her motherly care. In other words, that we entrust ourselves to her intercession with God.

Mary’s concrete message at Fatima especially concerned the critical situation of the Church in the previous century. But the message is still current. The situation of the Church has certainly not improved in our century. Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world. Additionally, there is not only persecution from outside, but also from within.

Pope John Paul II said this his life was saved on 13 May 1981 because Mary deflected the trajectory of the bullet that could have killed him. That bullet is now incorporated in the crown of the statue of Mary in Fatima. To that protecting hand of Mary, through her intercession, the Dutch bishops entrust their dioceses in this Vespers. We pray that Mary places the path of the Church and our personal lives in the protective hands of the Risen Lord, through her constant intercession. Amen.”

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The bishops were joined by numerous priests, religious, seminarians and lay faithful, filling the medieval basilica. Following the consecration, representatives of various groups lit candles at the statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

As 13 May was also the feast day of St Servatius, the first bishop in what is now the Netherlands, several bishops briefly visited the crypt where his remains lie, in the Basilica of St. Servatius, also in Maastricht. While some 130 altar servers from Germany celebrated Mass in the church above, the bishops prayed at the tomb.

 Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

“Precious in His eyes” – Cardinal de Kesel’s homily at the consecration of Bishop Aerts of Bruges

BRUGGE CONSECRATION BISHOP AERTSTaking a cue from the new bishop’s episcopal motto, Cardinal Jozef de Kesel spoke in his homily for the consecration of Bishop Lode Aerts of Bruges about the love of God, but also about the conversion needed to open ourselves for that love. And, with St. Augustine as an example, the newly-created cardinal emphasised that a bishop needs a second conversion.

“Dear friends, it is noteworthy that no Gospel begins with Jesus. It starts with John as a prophet in the desert. No Gospel comes straight to the point. Apparently, one can’t begin immediately. One has to be prepared. The terrain must be made made smooth. A inner transformation, a conversion, has to have taken place beforehand. And that is what John does: he calls for conversion. He calls people to the desert, which is traditionally the place of conversion. That is where everything began. That is where Israel found its vocation. There it became the People of God. There they found how valuable they were in God’s eyes. So that is where they have to return to. There is no way to Jesus than through that voice calling in the desert. Without that conversion, we won’t be able to hear Him.

Precisely for that reason, Jesus is so harsh for some Pharisees and certain Saducees. It is more about more about a mentality than about person. This mentality has lead to the conflict that made Jesus its victim. It is the mentality of those who do not conversion. Who are content with themselves and thank God that they are not like the others. The mentality of those who say, “There is nothing wrong with us, we have Abraham as our father!”

John’s call is also directed at us and the Church of today. We need conversion. We must get rid of self-assurance. It is a grace to us that Pope Francis continuously appeals to us for this. We must not fall back on ourselves. We must acknowledge our poverty and smallness. As long as we do not acknowledge this poverty, also in ourselves, Jesus has nothing to offer to us. They will also be Jesus’ first words: “Blessed are the poor of spirit!” It is the Spirit of the Messiah of which Isaiah speaks today. The Messiah, who is inspired by a spirit of deep humanity and sympathy. “He shall judge the poor with justice … strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth”. We must get rid of all complacency. Not a Church who is only occupied by herself, as Pope Francis requests. We have received the Gospel. It is our greatest treasure. But we did not earn it. “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give”.

As long as you accept it is normal that another loves you, you do not know what love is. As long as you think that you have earned and have a right to that love, you do not know what you mean to another. Only when you have dropped all pretense and know you are being loved undeservedly, only then you know how valuable you are in the eyes of those who love you. That is what God asks of His Church and of us today, this conversion, this emptying and this poverty. It is what Charles de Foucauld searched for. Last Thursday it was one hundred years ago that he died. And Augustine also experienced it in his life. He searched God with all his heart. It took a long time. He had to give up certainties before being able to surrender himself. “Too late have I loved you, but then You called and shouted (!); You have broken through my deafness and touched my heart.” So he became a Christian and a great bishop.

But oddly enough, in order to become a bishop, Augustine had to convert also. A second time! He had to soul of a monk. Becoming a priest was not something he sought at all. When he finally was one, his fame spread. In one of his homilies he said to have had so much fear of becoming a bishop that he avoided going soemwhere where the seat was vacant. But in Hippo, which he passed, he did not take into account that Bishop Valerius was old and people were looking for a successor. There was no avoiding anymore: he became a bishop.

You are familiar with his writings. You know that, when he wrote or preached about being Christian, he always did so with great inspiration and enthusiasm. But when he discussed the office of the bishop, he was always somewhat more muted. He writes about very lively: about the burden and the weight and the pressure of that office. I am not telling you this to frighten you. It can also encourage and comfort you to know that Augustine also knew and experienced it. But most of all to tell you that these two can not be separated: being a Christian and being a bishop. One needs conversion for both. But they do spring from the same source: the faith that we are loved by God, “precious in His eyes”.

Christian and bishop. The latter can sometimes be a great burden. But the former always turns it into a great grace. For yourself and for the entire faith community of which you are now the shepherd. You will, as Pope Francis says, sometimes walk ahead, sometimes among the sheep, sometimes after them. But always together and united with them in love and suffering. Knowing that there are no rulers and servants, but that we are all brothers and sisters, friends of Jesus, children with God our Father. Paul says it today: “Accept each other as members of one community”. For you are called with your entire church community to proclaim God’s love. We will soon hear it on Christmas Eve: how God’s charity appeared when he shared our existence in Christ, man among men. He loved us so much. So precious in His eyes.”

BRUGGE CONSECRATION BISHOP AERTS

Bishop Aerts was consecrated on Sunday afternoon by Cardinal de Kesel in Bruges’ San Salvator Cathedral. Ghent’s Bishop Luc van Looy and emeritus Bishop Arthur Luysterman served as co-consecrators, a logical choice as Bishop Aerts was a priest of that diocese (and dean of Ghent for a month until his appointment to Bruges.

ceremonieel_wapen_website_internet%202Bishop Aerts’ motto is featured in his coat of arms and comes from the Book of Isaiah (a fitting choice for Advent, by the way). About it, the bishop writes:

“We are infinitely precious in God’s eyes. Everyone, believing or non-believing, exemplary or not, everyone is precious in the eyes of God. It comes from Isaiah, a passage about a people in exile. Somewhat comparable to today’s circumstances. A time of crisis, there is fear and insecurity. And there aren’t very many of them left, either. And precisely then God say, the prophet tells us, that they are precious in His eyes.”

Photo credit: [1, 2] Kurt Desplenter, [3] Bisdom Brugge

‘From Conflict to Community’ – Nordic bishops on the eve of Pope Francis’ ecumenical visit

The members of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference – covering the countries of Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland – have written a pastoral letter looking ahead to Pope Francis’ visit to Lund and Malmö, as well as the state and future of ecumenical relations with the Lutheran church in their countries. They rightly indicate that the anniversary of the Reformation, which will begin with the events in Lund that the Pope will attend, is no reason to celebrate for Catholics.

My translation of the document, which generally aligns itself closely with ‘From Conflict to Communion’, the 1999 document in which the Catholics and Lutherans agreed on the doctrine of justification. My translation follows:

7904248_orig“In 2017 we mark an event which has had great consequences for the Christian faith, in the first place in Europe. In the year 1517 Martin Luther initiated a process which became known in history as the Reformation and which, especially for our Lutheran fellow Christians represents an important moment in the development of their ecclesiastical tradition and identity. But since the Reformation would have been impossible without the Catholic basis, it is appropriate that we, as Catholic Christians, also think about it. That is already expressed in the document ‘From conflict to communion’, the result of dialogue in the Lutheran-Catholic Commission for the Unity of the Church. This tekst is directed towards a common commemoration, which is based on reflection rather than triumphalism.

Despite all explainable reasons, the Reformation caused a split in Christianity, which remains painful to this day. In the Nordic countries this split meant that the Catholic Church could only start again after many centuries. That is why the 500th anniversary of the event of the Reformation can not be observed as a celebration in the true sense. Rather it should be recalled in contrition. The process of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the churches of the Reformation began many decades ago. But we can not tire of striving for the full unity in Christ.

At the start of the 16th century, the Catholic Church was in need of reform, something that not only Martin Luther, but also others acknowledged and expressed at that time. But instead of dealing with the necessary doctrinal questions, Christians of different confessions have instead done much harm to each other. At the closing of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Pope Francis prayed for “mercy and forgiveness for the unevangelical behaviour of Catholics towards other Christians”. In Sweden several Lutheran ministers have responded to that and also asked us Catholics for forgiveness.

The important questions is now, how we can continue together to come closer together in faith, in hope and in love? We, the Catholic bishops in the north of Europe, want to go on this path of reconciliation with our Lutheran brothers and sisters and do everything to promote unity.

Ecclesia semper reformanda

The Church must always let herself be converted and renewed by Christ. We are indeed a holy people, but a people of sinners on pilgrimage to eternity. Conversion, contrition and maturing in the faith are important stations on this path. Through the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church opened herself to many things that are also important to Lutheran Christians, for example the role of Holy Scripture and the meaning of the priesthood of all baptised. Thus, many difference have actually disappeared.

What still divides is, among other things, the sacramentality of the Church, as well as the understanding of the sacrament and the office. As Catholics we believe that the Church is the fundamental sacrament in which the incardinated word becomes present through the sacraments, in order to unite with us in love and transform us in Himself.

At the same time we see that many faithful Lutheran Christians become increasingly open to these aspects. A questions that remains pending and which is painfully felt on both sides is that of the common Eucharist. As much as this desired is justified, the unity of the Lord’s Table must also reflect the full unity in faith.

The Petrine office is also difficult to understand for many Lutheran Christians. But the personality of Pope Francis has made it more understandable. Pope Saint John Paul II already invited all non-Catholic Christians to think about other ways of  exercising the Petrine office (Ut Unum Sint, N.95).

Traditionally, the role of Mary and the saints has also been contentious. But among many non-Catholic Christians the meaning of Mary as the Mother of God and example in faith is being re-acknowledged.

Despite the mutual approach in question of doctrine, greater differences in questions of ethics and morality have recently appeared. But even when these make the dialogue in some respects more difficult, it should not be given up.

Definition of the Christian faith

In all ages Christians have formulated teachings to clearly define doctrine, distinguish them from false ideas or to convey them intelligebly. Often such formulations evolved into bones of contention, which for a long time created great frontlines between Christians. The principles of the reformers were similarly divided for many centuries. It is nevertheless fruitful, also for Catholics, to constructively engage with them.

Sola fide

The faith is undoubtedly necessary for justification. We share the central mysteries of the faith – for example, about the Trinity, about Jesus Christ, about salvation and justification – with our Lutheran brothers and sisters. We rejoice in this unity of faith which is based in baptism and expressed in the joint declaration about justification. That is why it is our mission to be witnesses of these truths of faith in our secular society. In our Nordic countries, where few practice their faith, it is important to proclaim the good news together and with one voice.

Sola Scriptura

Only through Holy Scripture can we receive the full revelation about the salvation which is offered to us in Christ. This revelation in received and shared in the Church. Through the teaching office of the Church this living tradition in Holy Scripture is codified. For us Catholics Church, teaching, tradition and Scripture belong together. In the Church and with the Church, Scripture is opened for us.  In this way the faith becomes ever more alive for us. Recently the number of Lutheran Christians who agree with  us believe that Scripture and the tradition of the Church are closely connected, has been on the rise.

Sola gratia

“Everything is mercy”, the saintly Doctor of the Church Thérèse of Lisieux, who can be considered as the Catholic answer to Martin Luther, says. Without God’s mercy we can do nothing good. Without His mercy we can not come to eternal life. Only through God’s mercy can we be justified and holy. Mercy can truly transform us, but we must also respond to this mercy and work alongside it. In the Mother of God, Mary, full of mercy and immaculate, we see how much can God can do in a person.

For many Lutheran Christians it is still difficult to agree with this truth. But we also see that many of them are open to similar questions about growth in prater and in holiness.

Simul iustus et peccator

We are all at the same time justified and sinners. As Catholics we believe that we are really sinners; but through the mercy of God we can receive forgiveness of all guilt in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As baptised Christians we are called to holiness. The Church is a school of holiness. The saints, who we can ask to intercede for us, are shining examples and role models of this holiness. One of these role models is a woman from our countries, Saint Elisabeth Hesselblad, who was recently canonised. She is an incentive to all of us to go the way of holiness more consciously.

We see that many Lutherans are also open to the saints, such as, for example, Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In our secularised world we need such witnesses of faith. They are living and credible witnesses of our faith.

Martyrium

We know that also in our time many Christians are persecuted for their faith and that there are also many blood witnesses. Martyrdom unites Christians from various churches. We think of all Christians, also in the Middle East, who are persecuted and yet remain true to Christ and His Church. Their example also strengthens us in our faith. Many Christians from these countries have also come to us in the north. it is therefore important that we, all Christians in our countries, maintain, protect and deepen what we share in faith. Then we can also increasingly give and common witness of the risen Lord.

Future perspectives

The joint declaration ‘From conflict to communion’ closes with five ecumenical imperatives, suggested to us Catholics and Lutherans to take further steps on the common way to unity. They are:

  1. Beginning from a perspective of unity and not of division, and promoting what we have in common.
  2. At the same time allowing oneself to be transformed by the witness of the other.
  3. Committing oneself to the search for visible unity.
  4. Rediscovering jointly the power of the Gospel of Christ for our time.
  5. Witness together of the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

Also when these five imperatives speak of great and not always simple concerns, their message is clear, but only when we devote outself completely to Christ and together rediscover the power of the Gospel (cf. 4th imperative).

We are happy and thank God that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, will be coming to Lund on the occasion of the commemoration of the Reformation, to strengthen us in faith.

We therefore invite all Catholics to accompany the preparations for the papal visit with their prayer and to participate in as great a number as possible in both the ecumenical meeting in Malmö Arena and the Mass in Swedbank Stadion. In that way we will show both the joy, as Catholics, of being with Pope Francis, and also respect for the identity of our Lutheran fellow Christians, grown from the Reformation. Despite the still existing differences we are convinced, confident in the mercy of God, that ways towards common unity can be found.

On the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila, 15 October 2016

+ Czeslaw Kozon, Bishop of Copenhagen

+ Anders Arborelius OCD, Bishop of Stockholm

+ Bernt Eidsvig Can. Reg, Bishop of Oslo, Administrator of Trondheim

+ David Tencer OFM Cap, Bishop of Reykjavik

+ Teemu Sippo SCJ, Bishop of Helsinki

+ Berislav Grgic, Bishop-Prelate of Tromsø

+ Gerhard Schwenzer SS.CC., Bishop emeritus of Oslo”

csm_vollversammlung_01_37cd1858a6^Bishops Grgic, Sippo, Eidsvig, Kozon, Arborelius and Tencer, with Sr Anna Mirijam Karschner CPS, the general secretary of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference.