In the light of MH17: “…”

Of course the world is full of violence and death these days, from Gaza to the Central African Republic, and from Syria to the Ukraine, but sometimes it all hits particularly close to home. 285 innocent people were killed yesterday, and at least 189 of them were Dutch. The reason for their death? They flew over a conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, at an altitude of 10 kilometers. Someone somewhere launched a surface-to-air missile at the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, apparently mistaking it for a military transport plane.

NETHERLANDS-MALAYSIA-AVIATION-ACCIDENT-UKRAINE-RUSSIA

^No photos of wreckage here, but a shot of the Boeing as it left Schiphol Airport yesterday.

In my social media circles, there are at least two people who have lost friends or acquaintances. The outpouring of support and prayer on Facebook and Twitter struck me yesterday and today, even though the sheer scale of the death and destruction is mind numbing.

Pope Francis had a statement released via the Holy See press office today, which reads:

“The Holy Father, Pope Francis has learned with dismay of the tragedy of the Malaysian Airlines aircraft downed in east Ukraine, a region marked by high tensions. He raises prayers for the numerous victims of the incident and for their relatives, and renews his heartfelt appeal to all parties in the conflict to seek peace and solutions through dialogue, in order to avoid further loss of innocent human lives.”

The Dutch bishops also shared their grief and called for prayer:

“We ask all faithful to do everything possible to support the families and friends of victims. And we encourage all the faithful to commend the victims to the mercy of God during the services of this Sunday, and to pray for strength and courage for those left behind.”

Individual bishops als commented. Cardinal Eijk said in an official statement:

“The world heard with shock of the crash of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 near the border between Ukraine and Russia. All of the nearly 300 passengers and crew, including at least 154 Dutch, were killed. Sentiments of sorrow and frustration  dominate all aircraft disasters. According to the first reports this civilian airplane was shot down with a missile – which would make this disaster even more unbearable.

We pray for the eternal rest of the people who died in this tragedy. Our thoughts and prayer are also with the family members, friends, acquaintances and colleagues of the victims. For them a time of great uncertainty and mourning has begun. I ask all parishes in the Archdiocese of Utrecht to pray for the victims and their survivors in next Sunday’s services.”

The bishops of Haarlem-Amsterdam and ‘s Hertogenbosch have also called for prayers and support for the victims and their families.

But, in the end, words are words. In these cases whatever we do never feels like it is enough. We can only pray, hope and love.

Photo credit: Fred Neeleman/AFP/Getty Images

Dutch-born hermit bishop in Brazil dies

vital wilderinkA life for God sometimes ends in the most earthly ways possible, as was the case for Dutch-born Bishop Vital Wilderink in Brazil on Wednesday last. The 82-year-old retired prelate, who had lived as a hermit since his retirement in 1998, was killed when the car he was in crashed into a 300-meter deep ravine west of Rio de Janeiro. The driver of the car was also killed, while two further passengers came out injured but alive.

Bishop Vital João Geraldo Wilderink was born in Deventer, Archdiocese of Utrecht, in 1931 and entered the Order of the Carmelites in 1957. As such he was sent out to Brazil, where he became auxiliary bishop of Barra do Piraí-Volta Redonda in 1978 and the first bishop of Itaguaí in 1980. He retired early in 1998, when he was 66. Since that time he lived as a hermit.

Easter message – Bishop Jozef De Kesel

Bishop Jozef De Kesel of Bruges has an excellent message on the topic of suffering and death in the perspective of the Resurrection.

de kesel“All that is written about us, will be fulfilled by you in these days”. Thus the opening verse of a song that Willem Barnard wrote for the start of Holy Week. Much is said in those few words. That He shared our existence to the very end. That nothing human is unknown to Him. The final days, the days of His passing. These are also the days that refer to what is impossible, but what the Church counts as her deepest conviction: that He is risen. The final days: they are the days of ‘pascha’, the passing from death to life. And in these days He fulfilled all that was written about us.

What is striking is that that also includes His death. You would think that the Resurrection makes everything in order again and that we would better forget this dying and that death. Especially considering how scandalous that dying was: condemned and executed. But that dying and death does belong to what He fulfilled in those final days. No Easter without Good Friday. Death is also part of the Pascal mystery.

The Church has never been tempted to hide or trivialise that death, let alone suppress it. Paul says with emphasis:  “We are preaching a crucified Christ” (1 Cor.1 :23). And when Holy Week begins with the introit of Maundy Thursday, we sing: “Let our glory be in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In Him we have salvation, life and resurrection, through Him we are rescued and set free.”

Glory in the Cross, that is a strange and alienating thing to say. Isn’t suffering being cherished here? Isn’t it explained as something positive? That is something that the Church and Christianity is sometimes accused of. A sort of mystification of suffering. When, a few weeks, the expansion of the euthanasia bill for minors was voted on, we were confronted again with that criticism. Are faithful not aware of the suffering of people? Shouldn’t people be freed from that suffering? Is that not the ultimate at of compassion? Or is it perhaps meaningful and good that people suffer?

Suffering is something we should pursue. That would be absurd. Pain must be relieved and that is possible today. Therapeutic stubbornness can’t be justified. Christianity does not cherish suffering. Not even that of Jesus. Jesus did not seek out suffering. The Gospel informs us that Jesus, when things did indeed get dangerous for Him, retreated more and more. Now and then we read that He did not show Himself in public. In the end He even prayed that that cup could pass Him by. He tried to avoid danger as much as possible. But not at the expense of His mission. He would complete that mission to the end. And if the Cross was part of it, He would accept it. He said so to His disciples: “Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

But there is one question that remains. Why did God not answer the prayer of Jesus? Why couldn’t He change the minds of those who wanted to kill Jesus? Why couldn’t God arrange this differently, without that suffering and without that Cross? For faithful people the Resurrection is the ultimate answer to that question. Here, God breaks through all barriers. Indeed, what awaits is neither more nor less than a new creation. But not without that detour of suffering an death. Like the People of God once, when it left Egypt and tried to escape from a life of slavery, had to make a detour through the desert, a place of testing and suffering. Why no direct route to the promised land? Why that detour? Why Jesus’ death? There is only one answer to that question: because that detour, because suffering and death are a part of the human condition. We are not gods but human beings. About  Jesus it is also said: “Who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. […] and being in every way like a human being” (Phil. 2:6-7).

In the media debate about the expansion of the euthanasia I gradually started to ask myself this question: doesn’t all this also have to do with the fact that death is loosing its place in our secular society? That life is being arranged in such a way that it doesn’t really exist? It is being banned as much as possible from life. And when it comes and can’t be avoided, let it strike as quickly as possible. The euthanasia file is no longer about the physically unbearable suffering. It is increasingly about psychological suffering. And while the danger of a slippery slope as denied at first, the transition seems fairly obvious. Psychological suffering is real suffering, so why exclude it? And why not go further? Existential suffering also exists. Suffering because the meaning of life itself has been affected. It is striking that suicide is no longer a taboo today. Of course it is shocking in the case of young people. And that is the focus is rightfully on prevention. But the elderly? These are people that are “done” with life and so “step out of it”. That language says much. Suicide becomes a lucid and courageous act. Death is being made harmless from the start because it is no longer recognised for what it really is: a sign of radical finality. A sign that I did not decide or want my existence but was given it. A sign that I am not my own origin.

In a column in De Standaard rector Torfs rightfully notes, “life must be beautiful, and if it is not, death is an option. Suicide is today not just an escape for people who are deeply unhappy. It is equally there for someone who, after careful deliberation, decides that his happiness is not enough”. Where one no longer realises that finality and mortality, and so also death, are an essential part of what it means to be “a human being on earth”, life itself in its deepest sense becomes trivialised. Life in itself has then no meaning or value. Meaning and value depend on a presupposed quality to which it has to answer. But what is quality? The lightness with which “stepping out of life” is being discussed ultimately refers to the lightness with which life itself is being discussed.

The Christian faith in the Resurrection does not trivialise death. It belongs to our finite and mortal existence. And it is that finite existence that Christ wanted to share with us. Everything that is written about us, is fulfilled by Him. Including our death. Even if our culture tries to keep death as much as possible out of sight, death is and remains a mystery that we will never fully comprehend, let alone solve. Christian is no mysticism of suffering. But it does not deny death. But – and this is the heart of our faith – it is taken up in the even greater mystery of God’s love defeating death. That is what Christ fulfilled for us.”

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Easter message – Archbishop Robert Zollitsch

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, Apostolic Administrator of Freiburg im Breisgau, speaks about the freedom and life that God gives at Easter, through the Resurrection of His Son.

erzbischof_zollitsch_2011_03_h“Dear sisters, dear brothers in the community of faith,

“Why is this night different from all other nights?” That is the question that the youngest member present must ask the head of the family during the Jewish feast of Pesach. And in answer, the latter describes year after year the liberation of his people from slavery in Egypt, as we have just heard in the reading from the book Exodus. Of course, all who have come together for the feast known this: and yet it is valuable to hear this history anew every time. And this becomes clear to them: It is God who leads to freedom! He who entrusts himself to Him, can stand up to even superior numbers. With His strong arm he gives new courage and leads us to His goal.

“Why is this night different from all other nights?” For us as Christians the focus of this question goes even further. The night of Easter is more than the feast of the one liberation from slavery of a superior people. It is about more than the experience that we can trust God in our lives. We celebrate the resurrection of Christ, we celebrate life having defeated death and sin once and for all. We have become “free from sin”, as we have heard in the reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (6:7). Jesus having risen from the dead means for us that we “should begin living a new life” (Rom. 6:4). Everything is different from one moment to the next. The event of the Resurrection of Jesus changes the view on our lives. From now on it stands under a different sign. In the end, meaningless and emptiness do not remain. Life is victorious, hope defeats all doubt and fear. Yes, for us it is this night, in wich we experience permanent freedom, in which we are given new and eternal life. It is the basic message as given in an Easter song: “Freed we are from fear and distress, Life has defeated death: the Lord is risen.”

And yet, dear brothers and sisters, we do not find this message very easy. Can it be really true that death has lost its terror, that life has won the final victory? What we hear is almost too great. Do we really dare trust this news, even in the face of so much suffering and injustice in the world? We are at least not alone when we react hesitantly. The women, who wanted to go to the grave early in the morning to show their closeness to the deceased, find it difficult to have faith in the surprising news that jesus is risen and lives. It’s almost too bizarre: the message of the liberation of mankind from sin and death must be so strong that it works by itself . But that is not the case. In the face of the enormity of this message, the joy of the women at the empty grave is mixed with doubt. “Do not be afraid!” (Matt. 28:5, 10) – they need the encouraging words from the angel and from Jesus Himself to face the new situation and to take courage. It would have been far simpler if everything remained as it was! But perhaps we can somehow accept it. Every life ends at some point. The message of life and liberty is not so easy against this supposed realism. We much rather stay with our supposed certainties and are not so quick to let ourselves be surprised by God.

That is why this night differs from all others. It wants to encourage us. We must not be satisfied with too little. Supposed realism, which is often nothing more than pessimism in disguise, is only plausible on first glance. This night tells us: away with pessimism and all  prophets of doom! Trust freedom and life! God Himself gives it to us! Pope Francis summarises it: “Let us not be closed to the newness that God wants to bring into our lives! […] Let us not close our hearts, let us not lose confidence, let us never give up: there are no situations which God cannot change, there is no sin which he cannot forgive if only we open ourselves to him.” Yes, dear sisters and brothers, the call of Jesus: “Do not be afraid!” – it also applies to us! We can trust the possibilities that God grants us. We can live in the freedom into which He leads us. We have every reason to be lieve the promise that He gives us life, eternal life. Like the small light of the paschal candle that has driven the darkness out of our cathedral, to God defeat all darkness and gloom of the world with the Light of Life. There may be needs and misery, sickness and death in our daily lives: these do not have the final word. Love and life are stronger than all indifference.

This night teaches us that we are fundamentally freed by God, because do not need to be held prisoner by our concerns and needs. It shows us that we should not have any fear, since life is stronger than death. But it is not content with that. It looks for our answer. The event of this night wants our voice for life and freedom! It wants us to be carriers of hope ourselves and distributors of light. We should gather the courage that the women had; while they were still fearful, but hurried with joy to the Apostles to tell them of this nigh-unbelievable news. Yes, he who has experienced that life is victorious, can’t keep it to himself but carries the message further into the world. Whoever it is, he stands for life and freedom.

This becomes especially clear, dear sisters and brothers, in the Sacrament of Baptism. “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 28:19). This commandment from Jesus to His disciples concludes the encounters with the Risen One. The liberating message of His Resurrection is not ours alone. It applies to all people. That is why we bless the water of Baptism, with which the Sacrament of Baptism is conferred, in every Easter vigil. At the same time it reminds us of our own Baptism. That is why I am  pleased that we will give, in this Easter night in our cathedral, new life through the water of Baptism, given to us in this special night, to Ms. Nina Shokira. And she wants to share this life with her son Yuri, who will also receive the Sacrament of Baptism. Baptism is the external sign in which we experience the liberation from the trappings of sin and are called to new life in Jesus Christ. In the extent that baptism changes our lives, so important it is that we agree with from within and always remember what it means to belong to Jesus Christ and to be blessed by Him with new life. When we live from this, we feel how much this night changes our lives. Because all our days are permeated and carried by the liberating power of God. So: “Freed we are from fear and distress, Life has defeated death: the Lord is risen.” Amen.

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Easter message – Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki

Marking Easter – which is more than just one day – I want to share some of the messages that our bishops have given for the Feast of the Resurrection. First is the archbishop of Berlin, Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki, who speaks about how the hope of Easter opens us up to Christ, every day anew, so that we can help others to also meet Christ.

Rainer Maria Kardinal Woelki, Erzbischof von Berlin“”He is not here, for he has risen, as he said he would” (Matt. 28:6). The angels’ Easter message is not only directed to the women at the empty tomb, but also directly to us. Full of joy we join in with the Alleluiah of Easter. At the same time, many people have difficulties believing in the Resurrection, which makes me think.

Easter brought something new into the world: a hope which tells us, over the power of death: “For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Joh. 3:16). Easter is the answer of the Christian faith to the provocation of death.We are called to life in unity with the living Lord, we are called to eternal life. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminded us of this: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (EG 7)*. It is the encounter with Jesus Christ as the risen and the living. Scripture tells us of these encounters of people with the Risen: Jesus Christ is risen, He lives!

Only the Light “from Heaven” brightens our own life. Only the gaze “upwards” to Him opens up for us the meaning of all that Jesus Christ has done and said. His death on the cross seems to put into question his message and works. But through the Resurrection God the Father confirms the message and the work of His Son. The Resurrection, not death, is the final chapter of His and our life story.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!” (Joh. 20:29). This is verse from the Bible puts it succinctly: Whoever is open to the Easter message, in him it changes something. The Kingdom of God is near, and the promise is already active today. In the night before Easter this becomes visible when the Churches festively receives the catechumens. Through Baptism they arise into new life in Jesus Christ. The same is true for all of us, who are baptised and confirmed in His name. In Jesus we arise every new day to new life. And when we suffer some setback in our life, the hope of Easter give us the power to stand up anew every day.

In this way our own life becomes an answer to the questions of those who struggle with the message of Easter: Every Sunday, every day he can encounter the Risen One himself! In the Eucharist we meet the Risen One like the disciples met Him on the road to Emmaus. Similarly, we meet Him in prayer, where He listens to us and our concerns. And we meet Him in our neighbour, and vice versa: “It is no longer I, but Christ living in me” (Gal. 2:20). As easter people we are the “Light of the world”, the “Salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13-14), and we become signs of His salvation.

I wish you a happy and blessed Easter, Alleluiah!”

* Pope Francis quotes Pope emeritus Benedict XVI here

Original German text.

The good fight ends – Fr. Frans killed in Homs

frans van der lugtAn exemplary icon of steadfast dedication to those in need is no more. Father Frans van der Lugt was abducted, shot and killed this morning in Homs, Syria, the city and country that was his home for more than four decades. The Dutch Jesuit priest did not think of leaving his home and the community he was a part of – consisting not only of the few Christians in the city, but also, especially in later years, of his Muslim neighbours in the widest sense – as civil war engulfed Syria and cut off the part of Homs where Fr. Frans lived from the rest of the world.

Thousands of people in this pocket continue to struggle with hunger and poverty, something that Fr. Frans tried to alleviate in the ways he could. He brought the attention of the wider world to their plight and managed to get what little food there was – some of which he grew – out to the families who needed it.

In February, he illustrated the situation to a Dutch journalist as follows: “In the morning we eat a few olives. We cut vegetables out from between street tiles and make soup out of it in the afternoon and in the evening we see what’s left.”

A month earlier, he made the following emergency call:

“I am speaking to you from the old and besieged city of Homs. One of our greatest problems is hunger. There is nothing to eat. There is nothing worse than to see people in the streets looking for something to eat for their children.”

Do you think that the world will do something or will everyone watch while we die?

“That is impossible. It is impossible that we suffer while the world does nothing. Not only the world has to do something, but we all have to as well. Otherwise we will die. We do not want to die from pain and hunger.”

Father Frans did not see the world stop watching and doing nothing. He took but one side, the side of the people and their needs to live. That was not a side of guns and bombs, violence and war, but of faith, community and fraternal love. He was fighting the people’s  hunger and insanity that comes with it, as well as the world’s impotence in doing anything about it. For that he apparently had to die.

The death problem – Church funerals

In the days after the funeral of Bishop Jan Bluyssen, last Thursday, I’ve been reading a fair amount of criticism on how the Mass was performed. It was not in line with how the late bishop would have wanted it, some say. The large number of representatives of Church and state, the guild members in their folkloristic costumes, the clerics in cardinal red and bishop’s purple… all this are not becoming a bishop who was close to the people, who was loath to portray himself as lording it over the laity, who was, for many, a man among men, trying his best to serve the Lord and His Church as a bishop.

It should be noted here, that the funeral Mass was offered according to the liturgy of the Church. Attending bishops and other clergy were there to pay their respects to Bishop Bluyssen and they did so as prelates of the Church, which is not a 9-to-5 job, but, in lieu of their ordination, their identity. Bishop Bluyssen would have worn his liturgical clothing for the very same reason.

Uitvaart Mgr. Bluyssen

^Bishops attending the funeral Mass of Bishop Bluyssen. Clockwise from the top: Frans Wiertz (Roermond), Gerard de Korte (Groningen-Leeuwarden), Everard de Jong (aux. Roermond), Theodorus Hoogenboom (aux. Utrecht) and Joseph Lescrauwaet (aux. em. of Haarlem-Amsterdam). Behind them Cardinal Simonis.

Funerals are important. They are the final moment in which friends and family can bid farewell to a loved one, and a time to mourn that person. In that light, it is understandable that people feel ill at ease when a funeral seems to be about something else than the person being mourned. But when the funeral takes place from a  Church, when the deceased (and hopefully his or her family and friends) are Catholic, there is an important element to the funeral that secular ceremonies lack. It is a Mass, so the first and most important focus is on Christ, and the deceased is seen and remembered in His light.

What does that mean for the Catholic Church funeral Mass? Is mourning and remembering out of the question? Certainly not, but there are two things we need to consider: death is not the end, and those left behind are not powerless in the face of death.

A person’s life on earth has ended, but we believe that the soul is immortal and will return to its Creator, barring any obstacles. Prayer is the most powerful tool we have to make sure those obstacles are removed or diminished, and that is where we, those left behind come in. Our prayer is an act of love for the person we miss.

The funeral Mass is a Mass. That means that it is primarily the remembrance and actualisation of Christ’s  sacrifice on the Cross, the single most redemptive event in our entire history. Christ defeated death by rising after three days. Our loved one who has passed away follows our Lord in death, in the hope of one day rising with Him. Here, our prayer comes in again.

Catholic funerals, then, are not first and foremost a remembrance or even a celebration of the life that has ended. It is our sending off the deceased into the hands of the One who defeated death once and for all, and the start of our duty of prayer towards him or her.

The funeral Mass should be considered, planned and discussed out of its identity as a Mass. All other elements, such as eulogies and music, must be measured against this. And then, sometimes, the conclusion must be made (by the person who is responsible for the liturgy of the Mass: the priest) that some things are not suitable for Mass, but can be more suitable for a separate occasion before or after the Mass.

The Mass is the Mass is the Mass: we leave our beloved in the hands of the Lord and help him or her with our prayers, in the faithful hope of being reunited one day, as we follow the example of the first to rise from the dead: Jesus Christ. This transcends any personal preferences or opinions. Jesus can’t be left out of the equation. In the end, a person’s life comes to fullness in the light of the Lord, and there is no better memory than entrusting him to that light and expecting a future reunion.

Uitvaart Mgr. Bluyssen

^ Bishop Hurkmans incenses the coffin and mortal remains of Bishop Bluyssen, just like the offerings to the Lord, and the Word we receive from Him, are incensed during the Mass.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold