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A conference in Germany, held last week, in which the Catholic bishops of that country participated alongside some 300 experts to discuss reform in the Church, led to some worrying developments. Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, president of the bishops’ conference, presented some of this at the conference’s closing.
The first suggestion is to allow women to be ordained as deacons. According to Archbishop Zollitsch, this would be one of the reforms that would allow the Church to regain credibility and strength. But, as Regensburg’s Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer (the last German bishop to have been appointed by Benedict XVI) rightly commented, the diaconate is inextricably bound to the priesthood, which is only open to men. Allowing women to be deacons would make them different deacons than men: unable to progress on to priestly ordination, it remains to be seen what their duties in liturgy and parish would and could be. Whatever the case, they will not be deacons like men are deacons.
A second suggestion regards the position of divorced and remarried people in the Church. Their rights to sit on parish councils and the like is certainly open to debate, but their partaking of Communion and the other sacraments is another topic altogether. Archbishop Zollitsch said that he doesn’t intend to undermine the sanctity of marriage, but also wants to take these faithful seriously and make them feel welcome and respected.
Personally, I think that much greater progress may be made by the Church, as far as her credibility is concerned, in presenting her faith seriously and acting on it. But in the end, the Church is not in the business of being credible and liked. She is in the business of saving souls, and that purpose is not served by pandering to majority opinion, especially when that opinion does not gel with the faith of the centuries. In that respect, divorced and remarried faithful will be better served by good teaching and compassionate guidance, and not by pretending that there is no problem. Problems are not solved by ignoring them.
Throwing the diaconate open to women, even if this were possible, also will not solve any problem, assuming there even is a problem. Instead, it will only confuse people as to what is true and real; it will be a pretense.
Conferences on reform in the Church are actually bound to fail if they limit themselves to one country. The German bishops, for example, are not able to change the faith and teachings of the world Church. At most, they can create a rift between themselves and the rest of the Church. So what if a conference finds that there is a widespread desire for one thing or another? The standard response of the Church to that should not automatically be to agree and go along. Rather, she should consider it in the light of the faith and then decide of that desire is something she can work towards making reality. If she finds she can’t, her task is to teach, always motivated by love, and present the faith that Christ has given her to protect and communicate.
A look at the proposed new parishes in the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden after the mergers and reorganisations, as presented today by Bishop Gerard de Korte. It’s a bold plan, which aims to cut back the number of parishes from 81 to a mere 19. The reasons are multiple, including both financial and pastoral concerns. The reorganisation is set to be completed by 1 January 2018.
As a resident of this diocese, the plan also affects me and those in the parish where I live and attend Masses (which are, incidentally, not the same). I am therefore quite glad that the parish of St. Martin in Groningen (number 10 on the map), which includes the cathedral, remains unchanged. In a cartographical oddity, though, the southern suburbs of the city remain split off as they are today, but will be merged with the parishes in Haren and Zuidhorn – all parishes which today lack priests.
Other interesting plans include the merger of the parishes of Dokkum and Bergum with the island parishes of Ameland and Schiermonnikoog (3 on the map); the large and, as far as Catholics are concerned, empty quarters of Drenthe (14 and 16); and the parish along the German border (19), traditionally Catholic because of the Catholic peat workers moving there in the 19th century.
The new parishes, which the bishop says will be “learning, diaconal communities working out of the Eucharist”, may often be big, it will once more allow each parish to actual have its own resident priest. Hopefully this’ll mean the start of a turnaround away from the too-ubiquitous “Word & Communion services” that take place every Sunday throughout the diocese.
Belgian weekly Tertio has polled the various dioceses in the Netherlands (and Flanders) about the number of ordinations taking place this year. After thirteen ordinations to the priesthood in 2010, this year the number drops to a mere six. Also unlike last year, the ordinations are spread out more over the year. Two of them have already taken place: Fr. Karel Donders was ordained in Utrecht on 14 May, and Fr. Tjitze Tjepkema followed in Groningen on 21 May.
The four remaining priestly ordinations will take place on 18 June for Maciej Sendecki (Haarlem-Amsterdam) and Eugène Dassen (Roermond), and 29 October for Pascal Huiting and Maurits Damsté (both Groningen-Leeuwarden). A final unusual element is the fact that Groningen-Leeuwarden, the diocese with the smallest number of Catholic faithful, provides half of this year’s harvest.
In addition to the six ordinations to the priesthood, there will also be ordinations to the diaconate, both permanent and transitional: seven in Haarlem-Amsterdam (four permanent, three transitional), two in ‘s Hertogenbosch (both transitional) and four in Roermond (all transitional). The class of 2012 will then number at least nine and hopefully herald a renewed increase over the following years.
Later this month, on Saturday 21 May, the clergy of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden will increase with one priest and two transitional deacons. Bishop Gerard de Korte will ordain Tjitze Tjepkema to the priesthood, and Pascal Huiting and Maurits Damst’e to the diaconate.
The names of the first two have been no surprise to me. I have met Deacon Tjepkema once in Utrecht and Pascal is a good friend of friends of mine (among them my girlfriend). Mr. Damsté’s name has been under the radar for me until this year’s Chrism Mass, when the bishop spoke of three men to be ordained this year, “Tjitze, Pascal and Maurits”. I had no idea who this Maurits was at the time, but an article in the Friesch Dagblad revealed his name. Google then located an announcement, dated 24 August 2010, on the website of the parish where Mr. Damsté has been working as a pastoral worker since 2009. The announcement quotes him: “The bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden, Msgr de Korte, has asked me if I wanted to become a priest. After due deliberation I indeed answered ‘yes’ to this question.” Like Deacon Tjepkema and Mr. Huiting,he studied at the Faculty of Catholic Theology in Utrecht.
The step from pastoral worker to priest is perhaps not too unusual, but it is striking how this happened so unnoticed. In a diocese where priests are rare and new ordinations even more so, you’d expect any man willing to follow his vocation to be deservedly noticed.
While the parishes where Deacon Tjepkema will be appointed are already known – the south of the province of Drenthe – this is unknown for the other two. Mr. Damsté has expressed a desire to remain in the parishes where he is working now, but a priest goes where he is needed, of course. Mr. Huiting has been gaining experience in parishes in the southeast of Friesland. In recent years, new priests have ended up in the southeast of Drenthe, in eastern and central Groningen and in Leeuwarden. Perhaps new appointments will now be placed in central Drenthe, although much of Friesland is also an option.
The second St. Martin’s conference about the diaconate is being held at the Oosterpoort conference centre today and I have been tasked with making sure that the two work groups which will use the parish house are supplied with a steady stream of coffee and tea. That’ll take the better part of the afternoon, and it’s going to be followed by the English Mass where I may or may not be asked to do the intercessions.
Still debating about tomorrow: Den Bosch or not?