Just another church? Utrecht to close its cathedral

An archdiocese closing its cathedral. An unheard of development, surely? Not so in Utrecht, and it really is a logical conclusion in a diocese which is merging parishes and selling excess property: when it may be expected from a rural parish somewhere along the German border, why not from the inner-city parish where the archbishop happens to live?

catharinakathedraal utrechtIt must be added that no decision to actually secularise and sell the cathedral of St. Catherine has yet been made. But the parish council has seemingly announced its plan to ask the archdiocese to allow the secularisation and sale of the ancient church, in order to solve the financial dire straits the parish, which encompasses all of the inner city of Utrecht, finds itself in. The final decision lies with the archbishop, Cardinal Willem Eijk, who usually agrees with such requests if the parish’s reasoning is sound. In this context, before anyone accuses the cardinal of willfully closing churches, even his own cathedral, it must be recalled that the archdiocese does not own her churches: the parish usually does, and they must finance the upkeep of sometimes ancient and monumental buildings in a time of decreasing church attendance and financial support from faithful.

Surely, the loss of its cathedral is a monumental event for a diocese, and it does not happen frequently or easily. In the case of the Archdiocese of Utrecht, it will have to find a new cathedral for the first time since 1853: St. Catherine’s was the only choice to become the cathedral of the newly-established archdiocese as it was the only Protestant church in Utrecht given over to the Catholics in 1842. The Protestants had used the current cathedral since 1636, and before that it had a secular use. It had in fact only been Catholic for only the first 20 years since its completion in 1560.

In other dioceses, the bishop’s seat has also been relocated to different churches in the past. A chronological overview:

  • 1559: The church of St. John the Evangelist becomes the cathedral of the newly established Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In Roermond, the church of the Holy Spirit is the new cathedral.
  • 1661: St, Christopher’s in Roermond becomes a cathedral for the first time.
  • 1801: Roermond is suppressed as a diocese, so St. Christopher’s ceases to be a cathedral.
  • 1853: In Haarlem, the church of St. Joseph becomes the cathedral of the newly-established diocese of Haarlem. In Breda, The church of St. Anthony of Padua becomes the new cathedral, and in Roermond, the bishop’s seat is again established in St. Christopher’s.
  • 1876: Breda’s cathedral of St. Anthony becomes a parish church again and the bishop’s seat moves to St. Barbara’s.
  • 1898: The cathedral of St. Bavo in Haarlem, still under construction, becomes the cathedral of the Diocese of Haarlem, the only current Dutch cathedral built as a cathedral.
  • 1956: The church of St. Martin in Groningen becomes the cathedral of the eponymous diocese. At the same time, in Rotterdam, the church of St. Ignace becomes that diocese’s cathedral and is renamed as Ss. Lawrence & Ignace.
  • 1967: Rotterdam’s church of St. Elisabeth becomes the cathedral of Ss. Lawrence and Elisabeth.
  • 1968: St. Michael’s becomes the new cathedral of Breda.
  • 1970: The cathedral of St. Martin of the Diocese of Groningen is secularised, and later demolished.
  • 1981: The church of St. Joseph in Groningen becomes the new cathedral of the diocese of the same name.
  • 2001: The seat of the bishop of Breda returns to St. Anthony of Padua, which resumes the title of cathedral after having lost it in 1876.

In the past centuries, there have been some changes in cathedrals in the Netherlands, with the Diocese of Breda taking the cake in number of switches: it has had three cathedrals – one of which twice – since 1853. Only in the southern dioceses of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Roermond there has been significant stability. The only direct comparison to the developing situation regarding the cathedral of Utrecht is what transpired in Groningen in the 1970’s: the cathedral of St. Martin was closed in 1970, but remained the official cathedral until 1981, when it was demolished after having been deemed unsuitably to be rebuilt into the new university library. For 11 years, the Diocese of Groningen had a cathedral it no longer used, before another church took over the mantle. If Utrecht’s cathedral is closed and eventually secularised and sold, it is to be hoped that a new cathedral is found rather quicker. The most likely candidate is the church of St. Augustine, also located in the inner city of Utrecht, and the only other church in use by the city parish.

In the meantime, the announcement, which has not yet appeared officially in online media, has been met with sadness and disappointment, and the accusation that finances are the only reason for closing the cathedral, while its historical and religious importance for Catholics in Utrecht and beyond, as well as for all inhabitants of the city where St. Willibrord first established his see in the late 7th century, is being ignored.

EDIT: Shortly after my posting this, the cooperating parishes of Utrecht published a statement on their website. In it, they state an annual deficit of more than 400.000 euros, with building maintenance costs as one of the major posts, as the main reason to want to close St. Catherine’s cathedral. The parish of San Salvator, which owns and uses both the cathedral and the church of St. Augustine, is not able to keep both churches open. The cathedral is substantially more expensive than St. Augustine’s, so the parish will, in due course, request that the archbishop relegate it to profane use, per CIC §1222. The parish has extended feelers to the Catharijneconvent museum, which owns the former convent buildings adjacent to the cathedral, as a possible future owner. Moving the function of cathedral to St. Augustine’s is a process which will involve the Holy See. The entire process is still in a preliminary phase and may take several more years to complete.

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The Church grows, if slowly

baptismEaster is the time for Baptism, and every year, the Church rejoices in welcoming new faithful to her flock. Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad asked the seven Dutch dioceses how many Baptisms they added to the books at Easter this year. The number: at least 147.

The standout diocese is Rotterdam, with 80 new Catholics. They are followed by Haarlem-Amsterdam with 48, Groningen-Leeuwarden with 13 and Breda with 6. The Archdiocese of Utrecht and the Dioceses of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Roermond provided no exact numbers.

Like myself 11 years ago, the majority of new Catholics also received the sacraments of Confirmation and first Holy Communion. The number mentioned above does not, however, consist solely of newly baptised. Some people had aready been baptised in other church communities and now entered the Catholic Church.

For Belgium the number stands at 239, Kerknet reports. The numbers only refer to (young) adults becoming Catholic.

A bit of history as a second titular see appears in the Netherlands

At about the same time that the titular diocese of Maastricht was occupied again, another titular see in the Netherlands was established, it turns out. The list of changes to the Annuario Pontificio 2017, which collects the statistical information of the Church, published on 28 February, includes 10 newly established titular dioceses (one of which is occupied, by the newly appointed apostolic nuncio to Korea and Mongolia, Msgr. Alfed Xuereb). Among these ten is the titular diocese of Middelburg.

Today Middelburg is the capital of the province of Zeeland, in the southwest of the Netherlands, and is part of the territory of the Diocese of Breda. From 1559 to 1603, however, it was one of the new dioceses established in part as a response to the rise of Protestantism.

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^A map of what is now the Netherlands shows the new dioceses established in 1559. Middelburg is located to the southwest of its metropolitan, the Archdiocese of Utrecht.

In the 44 years of its existence, Middelburg had three bishops. The first was Nicolaas van der Borcht from 1561 until his death in 1573. He was succeeded by Jan van Strijen from 1581 until his death in 1594. The last bishop of Middelburg was Karel-Filips de Rodoan from 1600 to 1603. He was transferred to Bruges when Middelburg was suppressed. The last two of these were never able to reside in their diocese because of the ongoing war between the Dutch Protestants and Spanish Catholics. The Diocese of Middelburg, naturally, chose the Spanish side. When Bishop van der Borcht died of dysentery in 1573, Middelburg was one year into a siege and it fell in 1574. The Catholic clergy fled to Antwerp. Although Bishop van Strijen was appointed to Middelburg, he never visited his diocese and died in Louvain. Bishop de Rodoan’s appointment was a theoretical one, and although he was duly consecrated a bishop, but the archduke of the southern Netherlands quickly went to find another see for him, and this was found in Bruges.

Middelburg was officially suppressed in 1603, only to reappear in January of this year as a titular diocese. In theory, it can be granted to a non-resident bishop (an auxiliary bishop or a bishop working in the curia in Rome or in the diplomatic service of the Holy See), but there is no reason to expect this to happen anytime soon.  There are more than 1,900 titular dioceses (and that’s not counting the titular archdioceses), of which some 800 are currently vacant. Makes you wonder why the Holy See saw the need to create 10 more in the first place…

Image credit: A cropped version of the original made by Hans Erren for Wikipedia, found here.

Man of peace – Bishop Ernst passes away

“With his down-to-earth faith and his dedication to his mission, Msgr. Ernst meant a lot to many people. Since my installation in 2012 I was able to visit him more often. His health was fragile, but his mind was strong. At the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, in 2016, he was barely mobile, but he very much wanted to concelebrate the Eucharist. The Franciscan sisters increasingly watched over him in the past months. He was able to entrust himself to God. He reflected on his fragility and death very soberly. During a visit last year he told me that someone had advised him to prepare for the end of his life. It was a sign of his vitality that he responded with, “Perhaps it is time to do so”.”

2016-06-07%20Breda_MgrErnst_©RamonMangold_WEB01_410Bishop Jan Liesen responds to the news of the passing of Bishop Hubertus Cornelis Antonius Ernst, emeritus bishop of Breda, six weeks after celebrating his 100th birthday. The most senior of the Dutch bishops passed away late in the evening on Friday 19 May.

Bishop Huub Ernst was the 8th bishop of Breda, from 1967 to 1992, after which he served for two more years as apostolic administrator. He lived long enough to see three bishops succeed him: the late Tiny Muskens in 1994, Hans van den Hende, now of Rotterdam, in 2007, and Jan Liesen in 2012. Bishop van den Hende, in his capacity of president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, reacted to the passing of Msgr. Ernst on behalf of the other bishops, saying:

ernst van den hende 7-11-2015“Into very old age Bishop Huub Ernst was vital and concerned with his diocese, the Church province and society as a whole. He was consecrated as a bishop almost fifty years ago. Recently, we were able to congratulate him with his 100th birthday. Bishop Ernst was our older brother in the office of bishop, possessing a great heart for charity and the work of peace.”

Generally respected as a wise and well-spoken man, Bishop Ernst nonetheless never received a university education. In some quarters he was also seen a progressive bishop, which he was to a certain extent on the classic topics like celibacy, homosexuality and women, although he failed to get along with the liberal 8 May movement after this group ignored his advice and used a ‘table prayer’ of their own making at their annual manifestation.

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Bishop Ernst in 1967

Bishop Ernst chaired Pax Christi Netherlands from 1976 to 1994, reflecting his concern with the projects of peace in the world. Under his guidance, Pax Christi and the Catholic Church in the Netherlands threw their support behind protests against the presence of nuclear weapons in the Netherlands and the world. In 1983, he spoke before 550,000 protestors in The Hague on this topic. He would later also be highly critical of the war against terrorism waged by the international coalition led by the United States. He based these positions in Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical on peace in the world.

One of Bishop Ernst lasting achievements is considered to be the establishment of Bovendonk seminary in Hoeven near Breda. At his installation in Breda, the Theological Faculty Tilburg was responsible for the formation of priests. In 1983, Bishop Ernst estaiblished Bovendonk specifically for late vocations: men are educated and formed for the permanent and transitional diaconate, as well as the priesthood, initially while also holding their day job. Graduates from Bovendonk currently work in all dioceses of the Netherlands.

The period of Bishop Ernst’s mission leading the Diocese of Breda coincided with a time of great change in Church and society. Over the course of the 1970s, he developed a program based on three observations: a decrease in the number of faithful; the presence of core group of faithful willing to carry responsibility in the Church; and a decrease in the number of priests, deacons and religious. Towards the end of his time in office he had concluded that the Church in the Netherlands was in a missionary situation and a minority in society. Bishop Ernst believed that the Church should distinguish itself through charity and displaying the contents of her faith through language, liturgy and the behaviour of faithful.

Bishop Ernst tried to find a balance between Church doctrine and respect for the conscience of individual people. As such, he participated in the Synod of Bishops meeting of marriage and family in 1980.

Following his restirement, Bishop Ernst continued to speak on topics of ethics and philosophy. In 2007, he reviewed a publication by the Dutch Dominicans calling for lay priests from among the faithful to offer the Eucharist when a real priest was unavailable. Bishop Ernst called this “incorrect, not sensible and not the right solution”.

In 2011, Bishop Ernst was called to testify in a court case against an abusive Salesian priest. The bishop’s claimed to not have been informed about the priest’s past transgressions and found it unimaginable that the Salesians withheld essential information from him when he was asked to appoint the priest in his diocese.

A short overview of the life of Bishop Ernst

  • 1917: Born as oldest child of three in a Catholic family in Breda. He attended primary school at the parish school and the Huijbergen brothers. Subsequently, he went to minor seminary in Ypelaar and then the major seminary in Bovendonk.
  • 1941: Ordained by Bishop Pieter Hopmans. He was appointed as parish assistant in Leur.
  • 1943: Appointed as conrector of the Franciscan sisters in Etten.
  • 1947: Moved to Bovendonk to teach moral theology there.
  • 1957: Appointed as chairman of the (wonderfully-named) Society of Catechists of the Eucharistic Crusade.
  • 1962: Appointed as vicar general of Breda by Bishop Gerard de Vet.
  • 1967: Following the unexpected death of Bishop de Vet, vicar general Ernst succeeds him as bishop. He is consecrated by the archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Alfrink.
  • 1980: Bishop Ernst participates in the Synod of Bishops on marriage and family, representing the Dutch episcopate.
  • 1992: Bishop Ernst offers his resignation upon reaching the age of 75. Pope John Paul II appoints him as apostolic administrator pending the appointment of his successor.
  • 1994: Bishop Ernst retires as apostolic administrator upon the appointment of Bishop Tiny Muskens.

Bishop Ernst was main consecrator of his successor, Bishop Muskens, and served as co-consecrator of Bishop Johann Möller (Groningen, 1969), Jos Lescrauwaet (Haarlem, 1984), Ad van Luyn (Rotterdam, 1994) and Hans van den Hende (Breda, 2007).

Bishop Ernst was the oldest Dutch bishop alive. On his death, that mantle passes to Ronald Philippe Bär, emeritus bishop of Rotterdam, who will be 89 in July.

Phot credit: [1, 2] Ramon Mangold

Happy 100th to Bishop Ernst

ernstThe fifth-oldest bishop of the world today marks his 100th birthday. Bishop Huub Ernst was bishop of Breda from 1967 to 1992, and apostolic administrator of the same diocese from 1992 to 1994.

In 2016 the bishop marked the 75th anniversary of his priestly ordination, at which tike he reflected:

“When I had to end my duties because of my age, I experienced that, while possessing a clear mind, I was definitely losing my physical strength. I concluded from that that my task would now be to stand in my own life for what I looked for in the offices. Experiencing this, I said, “Chaplain again, invisibly present. Without this being expressed amid the others who believe. The images I carry with me from my time in the chaplaincy express the relationship in which we live. It is a life of gratitude.””

This grateful and simple approach to his priestly ministry is also reflected in the bishop’s episcopal motto: a simple “Shalom“.

Bishop Ernst marks his birthday in private. On 4 April he was visited by Bishop Hans van den Hende, president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, on behalf of the other bishops. Bishop van den Hende was bishop of Breda from 2007 to 2011, after first serving as coadjutor bishop under Bishop Ernst’s successor, Bishop Muskens. Bishop Ernst was one of the co-consecrators of Bishop van den Hende in 2006.

Bishop Ernst marks 75 years of priesthood

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He is the nestor of the Dutch episcopate, and at 99 years of age Msgr. Huub Ernst is the 8th oldest bishop in the world today. Last Tuesday he marked the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, with a solemn Mass in the cathedral of St. Anthony* in Breda, the same church were he offered his first Mass in 1941. As the retired bishop of Breda is confined to a motorised wheelchair, he concelebrated the Mass, which was offered by Breda’s current bishop, Msgr. Jan Liesen. They were joined by Bishop Hans van den Hende, bishop of Breda from 2007 to 2011, as well as the current and retired vicars general of the diocese.

Bishop Ernst was one of two priests ordained by Bishop Petrus Hopmans on 7 June 1941. After two years working in the parish he was called to a life of study, education and management. He was vicar general under Bishop Gerard de Vet (bishop of Breda from 1962 to 1967) and succeeded him upon his untimely death. Bishop Ernst, considered a progressive (but not so much that the liberal 8 May Movement did not succeed in alienating him) but also a wise and well-spoken theologian, would remain in office until 1992, followed by an uncommonly long two and a half years as apostolic administrator, until Martinus Muskens was appointed as his successor in late 1994.

After his retirement, Bishop Ernst remained available for certain important events. Not only did he consecrate Bishop Muskens in 1994, but he was also one of the co-consecrators of Muskens’ successor, Hans van den Hende, in 2006. Bishop Ernst has lived long enough to see three bishops succeed him and survived his immediate successor. In 2007 he condemned the proposal of the Dominicans to have lay people be given the possibility to offer Mass as “incorrect, senseless and not the right solution”. In 2010 he was called to testify in a sexual abuse case, claiming that important information was withheld from him when he was asked to appoint a Salesian priest who would later abuse again, after which Bishop Ernst fired him.

While Bishop Ernst is one of the oldest living bishops, he is even higher on the list of most senior bishops by ordination to the priesthood. Only four living bishops were ordained before Bishop Ernst, and among them is another bishop from the Dutch language area. He is Belgian-born Bishop Jan Van Cauwelaert. Now at the age of 102, this Antwerp-born prelate of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was vicar apostolic and later bishop of Inongo, now in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

About his current life, Bishop Ernst said:

“When I had to end my duties because of my age, I experienced that, while possessing a clear mind, I was definitely losing my physical strength. I concluded from that that my task would now be to stand in my own life for what I looked for in the offices. Experiencing this, I said, “Chaplain again, invisibly present. Without this being expressed amid the others who believe. The images I carry with me from my time in the chaplaincy express the relationship in which we live. It is a life of gratitude.””

*It wasn’t the cathedral back then, although it had been between 1853 and 1876, and has been again since 2001.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

Thoughts about the next bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

Apparently there are people who look to me to predict who the new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden will be. Well, surprisingly, I don’t know. I am not privy to the deliberations of the seven-priest cathedral chapter of the diocese, let alone the thoughts of the other bishops, the nuncio or the Pope.

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Bishops de Korte and Hurkmans in Den Bosch, on Saturday. Behind them Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts.

But we can make guesses, for whatever that is worth. To do so, we can first take a look at the recent history of bishop appointments in the Netherlands. While auxiliary bishops are virtually always chosen from among priests and therefore need to be consecrated as bishops first, ordinaries – bishops who lead a diocese – rarely are. It is more usual for a new ordinary to be transferred from another diocese, as happened with Bishop de Korte on Saturday, or an auxiliary bishop being chosen. This happened, for example, when Bishop Jan Liesen was picked for the Diocese of Breda in 2011. He was auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch before that.

There are currently five auxiliary bishops in the Netherlands. In order of precedence they are:

  • Bishop Everard de Jong, 57, Titular Bishop of Cariana and Auxiliary Bishop of Roermond
  • Bishop Theodorus Hoogenboom, 55, Titular Bishop of Bistue and Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht
  • Bishop Herman Woorts, 52, Titular Bishop of Giufi Salaria and Auxiliary Bishop of Utrecht
  • Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, 57, Titular Bishop of Uccula and Auxiliary Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch
  • Bishop Jan Hendriks, 61, Titular Bishop of Arsacal and Auxiliary Bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam

dejong_hulpbisschop_0Of these, Bishop de Jong (at left) may have the best cards. A bishop for 17 years, he was allegedly in the running to succeed then-Bishop Eijk in Groningen-Leeuwarden back in 2008. Ultimately that appointment went to Bishop de Korte, but his time may now have come. Coming from a large diocese, he has relatively little experience with the process of parish mergers and consolidations as it is taking place in Groningen-Leeuwarden. This could speak against him.

Of the other four, most attention has been on Bishop Mutsaerts. Seen as the opposite of Bishop de Korte in several ways, many assume that he will be removed to another diocese fairly soon. The likely choice is, of course, Groningen-Leeuwarden. In how far there is a basis in fact for this assumption remains to be seen. It is said that Bishops Mutsaerts and De Korte get on fine personally, and the latter would see the advantage of having an auxiliary bishop at his side as he familiarises himself with his new diocese.

Bishops Hoogenboom, Woorts and Hendriks are possible choices to come to Groningen, but at the moment none really stands out as being more likely than the others. When it comes to the communication and opennes of Bishop de Korte, Bishop Hendriks perhaps comes closest. For the cathedral chapter he could be an option if they want to see the line of Bishop de Korte continue. The auxiliary bishops of Utrecht are reputed to be more in line with Cardinal Eijk.

Of the other ordinaries in the Netherlands two are certainly too old to be transferred to another diocese: Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam is 70 and Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond 73. With the mandatory retirement age of bishops set at 75, they can safely assume that they will remain in their dioceses. Another ordinary who will not be appointed is of course Cardinal Wim Eijk, the archbishop of Utrecht. He was the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden from 1999 to 2008 and as a rule bishops do not return for a second shift, so to speak (although canon law does not preclude it). A return would be seen as a demotion anyway, what with Eijk being an archbishop and cardinal.

bishop van den hendeThis leaves only two other ordinaries to be considered: Rotterdam’s Hans van den Hende (at right) and Breda’s Jan Liesen. Bishop van den Hende is a native of Groningen-Leeuwarden, serving as its vicar general before being appointed as coadjutor bishop of Breda in 2006. If he was to come home, it would mean his third appointment as ordinary, after Breda and Rotterdam. While not impossible, it is quite unlikely. And with only four years as bishop of Breda and almost five years and counting in Rotterdam, he may be excused for wanting to stay in one place for a while longer. That’s better for his diocese, too.

Bishop Jan Liesen has been in Breda since 2011 and before that he was auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch for a year and change. There is nothing really excluding him as an option for Groningen-Leeuwarden, except for his short time in Breda. Stability must be considered: it is probably not a good idea for the diocese to start looking for its third bishop in les than ten years.

So, in my expert opinion (ahem…), if the new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden is to be picked from among the other bishops of the Netherlands, Bishop Everard de Jong and Jan Hendriks have the best odds, with Bishops Liesen, Hoogenboom and Woorts as possible runners-up.

Pope Francis’ second Dutch appointment, which will certainly not happen before the end of May, and perhaps, as Bishop de Korte suggested, not before the year’s final months, could be a surprise. A priest native to Groningen-Leeuwarden may be a bridge too far just yet, but whatever will happen, it should be an interesting couple of months before us.

Photo credit: [1] Chris Korsten