In case of a vacant seat, Cardinal Farrell takes the reins

After a seven-month vacancy, the Catholic Church has a Chamberlain again. Not that that makes any difference for the time being, but there are a few interesting implications all the same. The Chamberlain of the Apostolic Camera exercises his duties, in cooperation with the vice-chamberlain and other officials, when there is no pope. These duties include the notification of the world of a pope’s death, preparations for his funeral and the conclave for the election of a new pope, and the communication of financial reports of the various dicasteries, as well as the will of the late pope, to the College of Cardinals. While the government of the Catholic Church during a sede vacante lies with the College of Cardinals, the Chamberlain has just enough authority to allow the continued functioning of the aparratus of the Church, without making any changes or decisions.

farrellIn 2014, Pope Francis chose Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran as his chamberlain. Of course, he never exercised his duties before his death in July of last year. Today, Pope Francis announced Cardinal Tauran’s successor: Cardinal Kevin Joseph Farrell. The 71-year-old prelate, who serves as the prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life is the first non-European to be chosen as chamberlain. Cardinal Farrell is Irish, but has long served in the United States before coming to Rome in 2016, first as auxiliary bishop of Washington under former cardinal (and, it is said, soon-to-be laicised) Theodore McCarrick, and then as bishop of Dallas. There has been a chamberlain since 1089, and the vast majority of them have been either Italian or French, with a two Spaniards and an Englishman thrown in for good measure.

Cardinal Farrell is not that surprising a choice, as he has been a close collaborator of the pope for the past few years. He was called in from Dallas to lead the newly-established Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, a duty which lies close to the heart of Pope Francis.

At 71, Cardinal Farrell may be expected to remain chamberlain until somewhere around his 80th birthday. Considering that Pope Francis will then be 90, it is not unimaginable that he actually get to exercise his duties when the time comes.

Capital punishment no longer an option as Pope Francis changes the Catechism

o-DEATH-PENALTY-facebookSister Helen Prejean, renowned American anti-death penalty advocate, called it “the last remaining loophole in Catholic teaching on the death penalty”: the paragraph in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which allowed the death penalty, if only when it was “the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor”. Par. 2267 continued by stating that, if there are other and bloodless means of defence against an aggressor, these should always be used instead of the death penalty.

Yesterday Pope Francis changed this paragraph, and it now states that the death penalty is inadmissable in all circumstances.

The full text of the new paragraph 2267 is as follows:

catechism-of-the-catholic-church2628lg“Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”,[1] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

[1] Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.

With the press release came a letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addressed to the world’s bishops. He explains how the changes to the Catechism are rooted in past teachings of the Magisterium, especially Pope St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitæ, and teachings from Pope Benedict XVI and Francis himself. The cardinal therefore concludes:

“All of this shows that the new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium. These teachings, in fact, can be explained in the light of the primary responsibility of the public authority to protect the common good in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently, and had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime.”

In his blog, canon lawyer Bishop Jan Hendriks explains why past teachings, which did allow for the death penalty to be implemented, do no invalidate this new text:

“The reason lies in a greater awareness of human dignity and the various developments in society which make it no long necessary to implement the death penalty to protect citizens. That was also the reason why Pope John Paul II could hardly imagine the death penalty to be necessary, as the Catechism has stated since 1995: the state has such good means that the cases in which the death penalty is necessary to neutralise the aggressor are very rare, if they even occur. The new text takes a further step and unequivocally states that it is no longer necessary to implement the death penalty, and that a greater awareness of human dignity makes this even more inadmissable.”

Is this change as major as some media would have us believe? Yes and no.

Yes, because it is evidence that the Church has the luxury to say that capital punishment is no longer a necessity, no matter how rare. Past reasons for a state to kill a person are no longer valid, as there are other ways in which society can be protected from dangerous people.

And no, because it is a logical consequence of the pro-life position of the Church. Every person is created and willed by God and as such has an innate dignity which we must respect. Among other things that means that we have no right to take a life. This is a position that the Church has always held, even when it allowed for certain situations in which capital punishment was the only resort. The death penalty as such is always sinful. But, being also practical, the Church knows that sometimes there are no ideal solutions.

But that no longer flies. As Catholics we are pro-life, even if that life belongs to a murderer or other criminal.

On Corpus Christi, Cardinal Woelki returns to the debate

The Church celebrated the feast of the Eucharist, Corpus Christi, today. She reflects on and celebrates the wondrous presence of Christ among us in the Blessed Sacrament He has given to the Church. In Germany on this day, it is hard not to think of the recent debates surrounding that sacrament, and especially the question of who can receive it. In Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, spoke about the situation at the end of the Mass he celebrated in the square in front of the city’s cathedral. He revealed what lies at the basis of his difficulties with the proposal to allow non-Catholics to receive Communion:

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“Some think, “What’s the point? That’s nonsense.” Others even think, “It’s a puppet show.” I think: This is about life and death. This is about death and resurrection. This is about eternal life, this is about Christ. This is about His Church and hence this is about the essence. And that is why we must fight for it and find the right way. Not just any way, but the way of the Lord, which He shows us, since He alone is the way and the truth and the life.”

We often, sometimes as a matter of course, say that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the life of the Church. But when you really think about what that means, about what the Church teaches and professes about the true presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, the cardinal’s passionate words make a lot of sense.

In his homily, Cardinal Woelki called the Eucharist the greatest mystery of our faith, except for the Holy Trinity. He reminded the faithful in Roncalli Square that by receiving Communion they say “Yes and amen” to the Pope and to the bishop, to the sacramental structure of the Church and to the saints and their veneration. This makes Holy Mass not just “some event” which can be replaced by a Word and Communion service, “no matter how beautiful”. Also worth remembering, especially in the current debate, is this:

“In the first place, what matters is that, in the celebration of the Mass, we have something to give – namely ourselves to God – surrendering ourselves to Him.”

Looking back on the letter sent to Rome by him and six other bishops, Cardinal Woelki said:

“Much has been written and claimed. Among other things, I was said to have secretly turned to Rome, to have secretly written something. In the words of Holy Scripture, I say: I acted openly and freely and have written and said what had to be written and said, in all openness. I say once again: We in Germany do not live on an island of Blesseds. We are not a national church. We are a part of the great universal Church. All our German dioceses are incorporated in the great globe. We are all united with all other Catholic Churches around the world, united under the leadership of the Holy Father. That is why we approach Christ in unity with all other particular churches. In fidelity to the deposit of faith handed down to us by the Apostles.”

Another bishop who mentioned the Communion issue was Essen’s Franz-Josef Overbeck. He said that a “theologically responsible solution” had to be found, but also emphasised that when the salvation of souls in an interdenominational marriage is at stake, Communion must be allowed for both spouses. The question then remains, of course, when this would be the case, and if this isn’t yet covered by the options allowed under the current Code of Canon Law.

Photo credit: Ottersbach (DR)

Four years later, the case against the bishop does not look as clear-cut

Bishop GijsenFour years ago, the commission charged with investigating accusations of sexual abuse against members of the clergy, decided that two such charges against the late Bishop Joannes Gijsen, ordinary of Roermond from 1972 to 1993, and of Reykjavik from 1996 to 2007, were plausible. As the bishop had died the year before, no legal action was possible against him. And that was for the better, it now turns out.

The local court of Gelderland judged this week that the commission had acted carelessly and broken basic legal regulations int he cases against Bishop Gijsen. The judge decided that the commission acted contrary to its own regulations, did not investigate the facts to a satisfactory extent and did not hear the defence. The court reproached the commission for accepting limited evidence: one charge against the bishop was deemed plausible simply because of the existence of a second unproven complaint.

The St. John foundation had charged the commission for unnecessary damaging the good name of clergy and other Church workers. Bishop Gijsen was one of the people they represented. The foundation considers the entire procedure followed by the commission in investigating charges of sexual abuse to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court thought otherwise and deemed this charge and others inadmissable, and thus offered no judgement on the guilt or innocence of Bishop Gijsen. But it did offer some stern words against the commission and their decisions, and so threw the conclusions of the last years into renewed doubt.


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The thin line of hope – After Syria, Bishop Bonny reflects on Easter

In February, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp visited Syria. Visiting Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, he saw firsthand the destruction wrougth by years of war and also the incessant work of the churches to help the people caught in the middle. For Easter, he looks back on his journey:

Verwoestingen in Oost-Aleppo (2)

I took the photo above in Syria, in the destroyed eastern part of Aleppo. What do you see? A background and a foreground. Two opposed images. In the background only destruction: no doors, no windows, no roofs, no transport, no life. The bombardments and fighting was exceptionally heavy in the final months of 2016. All means were employed, even chemical weapons. Until all the houses and streets were destroyed and all inhabitants had left. But, in the foreground, there is a red round water tank, which the government has recently placed there. A truck comes to fill it every day. Next to the water tank there are four children. They come to collect water in recycled plastic bottles. They will bring it to their mother, somewhere in the ruins. They are two opposite images. The dead stones and the living water. The ruins and the children. An between them: the thin line of hope.

What is Easter about? About death and life. And about the thin line of hope.

The background of Easter is dark and cold. Jesus was nailed to the cross and has died. Friends placed his dead body in a tomb. The disciples have lost all faith and hope. For can anything good come from a grave? What they have gone through with Jesus will fade to memory. Leaving seems their only option. How many people today do not have those feelings! They look out over ruins or a tomb. Little is left of their former joy or friendship. Life of fate has hit them hard. The injustice or irreversibility of what has happened to them weighs heavily. The stone has covered the entrance of the tomb.

But, the foreground of Easter is different. It happens in the early hours. At dawn, the women go to the tomb. They see that the stone is rolled away The tomb is empty.

Jesus is not dead, He lives! He is not gone, He has risen!

Jesus has begun a new story. We celebrate that divine event at Easter. As a sign of Jesus’ resurrection we light the paschal candle and bless the waters of baptism. New Christians are baptised with that water in the Easter vigil. The priest also sprinkles the faithful with that water, not a little, but generously. Water belongs to Easter: fresh water, as a first sign of new life and hope. Are there ruins to clear in your life?

Do you fear the future? At Easter, let yourself by sprinkled with newly blessed baptismal water!

The fresh splash does good. It startled. It breaks through resignation. It makes barren ground soft and fertile.

The photo from Aleppo is my photo for Easter. I had it enlarged and it now stands on my desk. It is not a nice photo. No plus Easter bunny or yellow chick. No pretty creation or decoration. It is reality. When I bless the baptismal water at Easter and sprinkle the faithful with it, I will think of the red round water tank in Aleppo and the children next to it.

Hope does not begin again in a grand scale. Hope beings again small.

Hope begins again where we can collect fresh water to live on. Does that clear the ruins? Does it ensure the future? Not immediately and not by itself. But life is given a new opportunity. We can begin a new story. The thin line of hope appears again.

In the Easter Gospel the women are the first to arrive at the empty tomb. There, they are immediately given a task from the angel: “Go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you” (Mark 16:7). What lies in the heart of Galilee? Not a water tank, but a big lake full of water and fish. There Jesus awaits His disciples, as the Risen Lord.

There they can begin anew, with Him, as “fishers of men”.

What is my wish for you for Easter? That you may find the ‘living water’ and that you may share it, even if with a recycled bottle, like the children in the photo.

The cardinal’s testament

On a day in March 2009, Cardinal Karl Lehmann sat down and looked ahead at the day he would pass from this life into the eternal life. Almost nine years to the day later, his successor would lead his funeral Mass and share the spiritual testament with the world.

die-insignien-des-verstorbenen-kardinal-karl-lehmann-auf-dem-sarg

In a requiem Mass celebrated by Bishop Peter Kohlgraf (who also marked his 51st birthday) and five other bishops*, and in the presence of almost the entire German episcopacy (as well as Cardinals Adrianus Simonis from the Netherlands and Walter Kasper from Rome), Cardinal Karl Lehmann was interred in Mainz’s Cathedral of St. Martin of Tours and St. Stephen today. After the Mass was concluded, the text of the cardinal’s spiritual testament was published on the diocese’s Facebook page. Below, I share my translation.

“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

My testament as bishop

I thank God for all gifts, especially the people He has given me, especially also my parents, teachers and my homeland. I am greatly thankful for the many full-time and voluntary sisters and brothers with whom I was allowed to work and who have supported me.

Theology and Church have been the breath of my life. I would choose thusly again! We all , especially in the time after 1945, have buried ourselves deeply in the world and the times, also in the Church. This is also true for me. I pray God and the people for forgiveness. Renewal must come deeply from faith, hope and love. Hence I remind all of the words of my motto, which come from Saint Paul, and which have become ever more important for me: “Stand firm in the faith!”

With gratitude and a request for prayer for me, I greet the Holy Father, the bishops, priest and deacons, all coworkers and all sisters and brothers in the Diocese of Mainz, in my home Diocese of Freiburg im Breisgau, as well as friends in our Church and in ecumenism, and the Catholics of our country, for whom I gladly was chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference for more than 20 years. I was always concerned with the unity in faith in the diversity of our lives, without blinkers and uniformity.

I leave the arrangement of the requiem Mass and the burial to the cathedral chapter and the auxiliary bishops. We have many good customs!

There are two things under which I have suffered time and again, and ever more: In many ways, our earth and, to a large extent, our lives are wonderful, beautiful and fascinating, but they are also profoundly ambiguous, destructive and terrible. Lately, the frightfulness of power and how man deals with it has dawned on me more and more. Brutal thought and the reckless pursuit of power are to me among the harshest expressions of unbelief and sin. Resist their beginnings! I increasingly keep Jesus’ words from Luke in mind:”When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Choose a good successor! Pray for him and for me! Goodbye!”

Mainz, 15 March 2009

+ Karl Cardinal Lehmann

Bishop of Mainz

der-sarg-wird-zur-beisetzung-die-krypta-getragen

In his homily, Bishop Kohlgraf fondly remembered the popularity of Cardinal Lehmann, something that was proven in the days after his death by what people shared on social media:

“One shared that Bishop Lehmann had confirmed him and how much that meant to him. Others shared everyday encounters in the street and small conversations. I know of others for whom the cardinal was a true pastor and guide on he search for a personal faith. Not without reason do the people of the Diocese of Mainz call him “our Karl”. He was able to converse with everyone: with the so-called simple folk and with those with social, ecclesiastical and political influence.”

Bishop Kohlgraf referred to the cardinal’s spiritual testament several times. About the comment that the Church had  ‘buried’ itself in society in the last decades, the bishop said:

“A Church burying itself in the times: in its brevity and poignancy this sentence seems to me to be prophetic. The temptation to plan and create everything, as if administration, planning, material possession is the decisive factor, does not grow smaller. In this way our late cardinal warns us to live according to faith, hope and love, before starting to “create”. The source, which gives us true life, must not be forgotten.”

Cardinal Lehmann instead insisted that the search for God lay in the heart of people: something that is innate to all human beings. This search leads to a God who has a name, who can be addressed.

“The God of the Bible is a God who enters into history, a good of liberation, who accompanies people, “God with us”. He ultimately reveals Himself unparalleled in Jesus Christ. The cardinal’s coat of arms contains an open Bible, a reference to this God who speaks to people and joins them on the way: on the coffin today, likewise, there lies an open Bible. Today, God is also “God with us”. Since this God is so great and has numerous ways of speaking, there is an endless number of ways to come to Him, as numerous as the people and their means of expressing themselves. Theology must be diverse, faith experiences must be possible for different people, faith is not narrow, not uniform”.

The requiem and funeral Mass for Cardinal Lehmann was witnessed by thousands of people along the route of the funeral procession, in the cathedral and on the square in front of it, where faithful could watch the proceedings on big screens. Among the guests were the prime ministers of the federal states of Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate, on whose territory the Diocese of Mainz is located. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrived under police escort when the procession had entered the cathedral. Chancellor Angela Merkel had wanted to be there, but had duties in Berlin. She is expected to attend tomorrow’s requiem service in Berlin’s St. Hedwig cathedral.

*Concelebrating with Bishop Kohlgraf were Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, Apostolic Nuncio to Germany; Reinhard Cardinal Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference; Gerhard Cardinal Müller, former priest of the Diocese of Mainz; Bishop Gebhard Fürst of Rottenburg Stuttgart, representing the Oberrhein Church Province, from which Cardinal Lehmann hails; Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr of Erfurt, former priest and auxiliary bishop of Mainz; and Bishop Udo Bentz, auxiliary bishop of Mainz.

Photo credit: [1] Arne Dedert (dpa), [2] Boris Roessler (dpa)

Cardinal Meisner’s spiritual testament

In 2011 Joachim Cardinal Meisner wrote his spiritual testament. Cardinal Woelki read it out in the memorial Vespers on Wednesday evening. Below is my translation of the original German text.

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“Dear brothers in spiritual service,
Dear coworkers in pastoral care and charity,
Dear sisters and brothers in the Archdiocese of Cologne,
Dear friends and family!

Like all people, I do not know day or hour, nor the manner and place of my death. That is why I want to write down a final word to you all now, which will then be read out at the right time. It will mainly be a final world in this world for you to Jesus Christ.

Dear Jesus Christ,
You are the word through which everything came into being. I thank you, that you have wanted me and thus assured my existence. Your word accompanied me in life and led me to your care for the world and people. That is why I became a priest and bishop, marked and consecrated by your wounds. It is one of the most astonishing things in my life, that you have used me at your cross and honoured me with your passion. Because of your love for the world, your heart, hands and feet were pierced. You touched me with your cross out of love for the people. You allowed me to be your priest and your bishop. That is why, especially in dying, I want to praise the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which joy came into the world.

In the Liturgy of the Hours I expressly testify and confess with our priests:

“Christ, divine Lord,
he loves you who has but strength to love:
unknowing, he who does not know you;
with longing, he who does.

Christ, you are my hope,
my peace, my happiness, all my life.
Christ, my spirit seeks you,
Christ, I adore you.

Christ, I cling to you
with all the power of my soul;
You, Lord, alone I love,
I seek you, I follow after you.”

In this joy, I desired to serve all in the Archdiocese of Cologne. Our bishop’s city of Cologne holds the honorary title of “Sancta Colonia Dei Gratia Romanae Ecclesiae Fidelis Filia” (Holy Cologne, through God’s mercy the faithful daughter of the Roman Church). In my episcopal service I tried to honour this distinction. Christ has established the Petrine ministry in the Church, to give direction and support to the many peoples in their time. This is my last request to you all for the sake of your salvation: Stand by our Holy Father. He is today’s Peter. Follow his directions. Listen to his words. Peter does not want anything for himself, but everything for the Lord and for his sisters and brothers.

You all know that my life encompassed three social systems: twelve years of Hitler’s Reich, forty-four years of Communist rule and now more than twenty years of free democracy. In all three eras of my life the service of the Pope has always given me direction, encouragement and support. Always hold on to the Pope and you will not lose Christ!

I do not desire the mercy granted to the Apostle John, nor the forgiveness you gave Peter, but only that which you granted on the cross to the thief, I beg: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).”

Photo credit: KNA

After death, no changes from Rome – some thoughts about the CDF Instruction

cemeteryAd resurgendum cum Christo is nothing new. Today’s Instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presents no new teachings or policies regarding the burial of the dead. Rather, it aims to underline why the Church prefers burial over cremation in a time when cremation is on the rise. In short, burial confirms faith in the resurrection of the body, shows the dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person, and it corresponds to the respect owed to the body as an temple of the Holy Spirit. Also significant in this Holy Year of Mercy: burying the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy.

Has the Church been opposed to cremation, and does it continue to be, then? Not at all. Objectively, cremation does not “negate the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body” (n. 4). Like with burial, the Church asks that the ashes be placed in a sacred place, such as a cemetery or other area set aside by compentent Church authorities. Like the buried body, the ashes of the deceased should be similarly included in the prayers of the living and are deserving of continuous respect. Their location helps to assure that.

The most interesting part of the Instruction, in my opinion, is that these considerations and requirements aim to prevent any form of superstition (paragraph 7 mentions pantheism, naturalism and nihilism as reasons to not allow the scattering of ashes “in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way”).

We are created in the image of God, in body and spirit. Through Baptism our bodies have become home to the Holy Spirit. Human beings have an innate dignity which flows directly from our created nature. This dignity does not stop at death. Our bodies continue to be deserving of respect. In life we have shown our faith through our actions and words. In death we remain able to show our faith in the bodily ressurection in which Christ went before us. Physical life may end at death, but the two are not separate. In our modern western society we have grown used to keeping death out of sight (which probably accounts for how easily we allow such horrors like abortion and euthanasia), but life and death are integral to our existence and our faith, as Ad resurgendum cum Christo underlines in its second paragraph:

“Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning. The Christian vision of death receives privileged expression in the liturgy of the Church: “Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended, and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven” [Roman Missal, Preface I for the Dead]. By death the soul is separated from the body, but in the resurrection God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul. In our own day also, the Church is called to proclaim her faith in the resurrection: “The confidence of Christians is the resurrection of the dead; believing this we live” [Tertullian, De Resurrectione carnis, 1,1].”

Photo credit: Inge Verdurmen

The courage of Easter – Archbishop Koch’s message

1900163306“How confidently can we live, as God is at our side on the difficult paths of life! How confidently can we pray: the good God hears and understands us! How hopefully can we commit ourselves to people, as God gives us strength in all challenges! How expectantly can we die, as the Crucified One does not abandon us in death!

Do we as Christians really live such an alternative, renewed life style? Does our life differ from that of those who can not or do not want to believe in the Resurrection? Do we really conform to the Easter message? Do we really rely on the presence of God in our lives? Without the courage to rely on God and live in an Easter-ly way, we can not experience the Ressurected One in our lives. Experiences can only gather those who “let go”. We can leave the graves of our unbelief and our inertia when the stone from our graves has also been rolled away. The people in our society need no witness more than that of faithful Christians who dare, with the resurrected Christ, to shape their lives every day and always direct their lives anew towards the message of Easter.”

Archbishop Heiner Koch,
Easter letter to the faithful of the Archdiocese of Berlin

God is inexhaustible love – Bishop de Korte’s letter for the Holy Year of Mercy

Perhaps in lieu of (or, as it may turn out, in addition to) his customary letter for Advent, Bishop Gerard de Korte has written a letter about the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy to the faithful of his diocese. In it, he writes about the importance of mercy as it is a fundamental element of the identity of God. He identifies two kinds of mercy – moral and social, and further divides the latter in three constituent elements or expressions: in our own lives, in the Church and in society. He concludes his letter by underlining the message of Pope Francis, as expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si’: that, by living mercy in these three contexts, we should work with others to build a society of mercy.

Read my translation below:

korte

“Brothers and sisters,

On 8 December, a Marian feast and also the date of the end of the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago, the Year of Mercy will begin in our Church. It is an invitation to look critically at how our parishes function, but also at our own existence. How merciful and mild do we treat one another? Do we mostly see what’s alien and strange in the other and do we mindlessly ignore the good? Do I give someone who has done wrong a new chance? Am I really willing to help when someone is in need?

Shortly after his election as bishop of Rome, Pope Francis gave an interview that was published in a number of magazines of the Jesuit Order. The Pope called himself a sinner called by the Lord. He referred to a painting by Caravaggio, depicting the calling of Matthew. Apparently our Pope recognises himself strongly in Matthew. As a tax collector, a despised collaborator of the Roman occupiers, he is invited to experience forgiveness and a new start. Christ meets him with merciful love and calls him to follow Him. Pope Francis lives from this some merciful love of Christ.

Office holders in the Church are especially invited to take a look in the mirror. Pope Francis recently quoted from an address by Church father Ambrose: “Where there is mercy, there is Christ; where there is rigidity, there are only officials”. This is an incisive word which everyone with a pastoral assignment in our faith community must consider seriously. In this context I would like to refer to the book Patience with God by the Czech priest Tomas Halik. A great number of people, within and without our Church, are like Zacchaeus in the tree from the Gospel. They are curious but also like to keep a distance. To get in touch with them requires pastoral prudence and mildness on the part of our officials.

In this letter I would like to zoom in on the word mercy, which for many of our contemporaries is probably somewhat old-fashioned and outdated. What is mercy actually? Maybe the Latin word for mercy, misericordia, can help us. A person with misericordia has a heart (‘cor‘)  for people in distress (‘miseri‘):  sinner, the poor, the grieving, the sink and lonely people. The Hebrew word for mercy is not so much concerned with the heart, but with the intestines. A person with mercy is touched to the depths of his belly by the needs of the other.

God is a merciful God

In Holy Scripture we often hear about the mercy of God. Even until today the Exodus, the departure from slavery in Egypt and the arrival in the promised land, is for the Jewish people a central topic of faith.

God has seen the misery of His people in Egypt and had compassion with His people (Exodus 3). Elsewhere in the book of Exodus we read, “God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy” (cf. Exodus 34,6). For Israel the Lord is supportive mercy, making life possible.

The history of ancient Israel is a history of loyalty and infidelity. The decline of the Northern Kingdom in the 8th century and of Judah and Jerusalem in the 6th century BC has been interpreted by the Jewish people as punishment for sins. The people as bride have been unfaithful to the divine bridegroom. But punishment is never God’s final word. The prophet Hosea writes that God does not come in anger (cf. Hosea 11). In God, mercy is victorious over His justice[*]. Ultimately there is forgiveness and a merciful approach.

In the letter in which he announces the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis calls Christ the face of God’s mercy (‘misericordiae vultus‘). In Him God’s great love for man (‘humanitas dei‘) (Titus 3:4) has become visible. The great Protestant theologian Oepke Noordmans published a beautiful collection in 1946, with the title “Sinner and beggar”. In it, Noordmans touches upon the two most important dimensions of God’s mercy. Not only moral mercy but also social mercy. In Christ, God is full of merciful love for both sinners and beggars.

Moral and social mercy

God’s moral mercy is depicted most impressively, as far as I can see, in the parable of the Prodigal Son. A son demands his inheritance from his father, who yet lives, and wastes the money on all sorts of things that God has forbidden, In the end he literally ends up among the pigs. To Jewish ears this is even more dramatic than to us, since in Judaism pigs are, after all, unclean animals. In this situation, there occurs a reversal. The son memorises a confession of guilt and returns to his father. In the parable we read that the father is already looking for his son and, even before the confession has been spoken, he embraces him. Here we find what Saint Paul calls the justification of the Godless man. God is as “foolish” as the father in the parable. It is the foolishness of merciful love. God is inexhaustible love and gives his son a new chance, even when he has turned away from Him (cf. Luke 5:11 etc).

Social mercy is depicted sublimely in the parable on the Good Samaritan. A man is attacked by robbers and lies on the side of the road, half dead. Several people from the temple pass by, but they do not help. Then a stranger passes, a Samaritan who many Jews look upon with a certain amount of negative feelings. But this distrusted person acts. He becomes a neighbour to the person lying on the side of the road. He treats his wounds and lets him recover in an inn, on his costs. The Church fathers, theologians from the early Church, have seen Christ himself in the person of the Samaritan. He comes with His merciful love to everyone lying at the side of the road of life. Christ has gone the way  of mercy until the end. He lives for His Father and His neighbour until the cross. In this way, Christ shows that He has a heart for people in misery: the poor, sinners, people dedicated to death (cf. Luke 10:25 etc).

Is God merciful to all?

We are all temporary people. None of us here on earth has eternal life. Sooner or later death will come and take life away. In that context we could wonder what we can hope for. Are we like rockets burning up in space or can we look forward to returning home? Over the course of Church history this has been discussed both carefully and generously. Not the most insignificant theologians, such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, were in the more careful camp, with the Scripture passage in mind which says that “many are called, but few are chosen”. There was also another sound in the early Church. The theologian Origen was so filled with God’s love that he could not imagine that anyone could be lost. The Church, however, based on the witness of Scripture, has denied this vision. There are too many passages in Holy Scripture which leave open the possibility of being definitively lost.

In our time, however, our Church is generally  optimistic regarding salvation. God’s  desire to save does not exclude, but include human freedom. God’s hand is and remains extended to all. Only God knows who takes this hand. Not without reason do we pray, in one of our Eucharistic prayer, for those “whose faith only You have known.” God’s mercy maintains its primacy. Christ has, after all, died for all men. God is loyal and the cross and resurrection of Christ can be a source of hope for us all. In other words: God takes our responsibility seriously, but I hope that He takes His love even more seriously.

Culture of mercy

God’s mercy requires a human answer, a culture of mercy. Here we can discern at least three dimensions: personal, ecclesiastical and social. In our personal life we are called to love God and our neighbour. But we know that cracks continue to develop in relationships. People insult and hurt each other. The Gospel then calls us to forgiveness.  Scripture even suggests we should postpone our worship when there are fractures in how we relate to our fellows (cf. Matthew 5:24).  Forgiveness can always be unilateral. But both parties involved in a conflict are necessary for reconciliation. Christ does not only ask us for merciful love for our loved ones, but also for our enemies. We realise that this can only be realised in the power of God’s  Spirit, and even then often by trial and error.

Merciful faith community

In one of our prefaces the Church is called the mirror of God’s kindness. In our time we notice a crisis in the Church. Many contemporaries have become individualists because of higher education and prosperity. This individualism also has an effect in the attitude towards the Church. Many people do believe, but in an individualistic way and think they do not need the faith community. Added to that is the fact that the Church suffers from a negative image. More thana  few see the Church as institute that restricts freedom. Many think that the Church demands much and allows nothing.

As people of the Church we should not immediately get defensive. Criticism on our faith community invites us to critical reflection of ourselves. Do we really live the truth in love? Do we really care for and serve each other? A Christian community will not restrict people but promote their development into free children of God (cf. Romans 8:21).

We can see the Eucharist as the ultimate sacrament of God’s merciful love. Time and again the outpouring love of Christ is actualised and made present in the Eucharist. About Communion, Pope Francis has said words which are cause to think. According to him, Communion is not a reward for the a holy life, but a medicine to heal wounded people. The mercy of the Church also becomes visible in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, or confession. For many reasons this sacrament has almost been forgotten in our country. At the same time I hear that in some parishes especially young people are rediscovering this sacrament. I hope that the Year of Mercy can make a contribution to a further rediscovery of the sacrament of God’s  merciful love for people who fail.

Ecclesiastical mercy is of course also visible in all form of charity. Everywhere where Christians visit sick and prisoners, help people who are hungry or thirsty, cloth the naked or take in strangers, the ‘works of mercy’ become visible (cf. Matthew 25:31 etc).

Merciful society

After the Second World War Catholics took part in the rebuilding of a solid welfare state. After the crisis years of the 1930s and the horrors of the war, there was a broad desire among our people for the realisation of a security of existence. Catholic social thought, with the core notions of human dignity, solidarity, public good and subsidiarity, has inspired many in our Church to get to work enthusiastically. After all, although the Church is not of the world, it is for the world.

But in our days there is much talk of converting the welfare state into a participation state. Of course it is important that people are stimulated optimally to contribute to the building of society. But at the same time government should maintain special attention for the needs of the margins of society. Not without reason does Christian social thought call government a “shield for the weak”.

In June Pope Francis published his encyclical Laudato Si’. Here, the Pope ask attention for our earth as our common home. Catholics are asked to cooperate with other Christians, people of other faiths and all “people of good will”. The Pope urges us to join our religious and ethical forces to realise a more just and sustainable world. With a reference to St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun our Pope pleads for a new ecological spirituality in which our connection with the Creator not only leads to a mild and merciful relation with our fellow men, but also with other creatures.

In closing

We all live from the inexhaustible merciful love of our God, as has become visible in Jesus Christ. Let us in our turn, in the power of God’s Spirit, give form to this love in our relationships with each other, in our faith communities and in our society. In this way we can make an important contribution to the building of a “culture of mercy”.

Groningen, 22 November 2015
Solemnity of Christ, King of the Universe

+ Msgr. Dr. Gerard De Korte
Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden”

*As an aside, not to distract from the overall message of the bishop’s letter: I am sorry to see this line here in such a way, as if there is a conflict between mercy and justice, in which one should be victorious over the other. Mercy without justice is no mercy at all, as it is deceitful. How can be kind and merciful to others if we keep the truth from them? The truth and its consequences must be acknowledged and accepted in mercy, so that we can help others living in that truth, even if they sometimes fail (as we eventually all do).