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A bit of alternate history, or a look at how things could have been if history hadn’t gotten in the way…
A Church province of Mechelen covering what is now Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The Archbishop of Mechelen would have truly been Primate of the Netherlands: his archdiocese would have covered the provinces of Brabant (or modern Flemish and Walloon Brabant) and Antwerp. It would have had seven suffragan dioceses, some of which are similar to the ones we know today, while others would have been radically different in composition:
- Amsterdam: the provinces of Holland (modern North and South Holland), Utrecht, Overijssel, Friesland, Groningen and Drenthe
- Bois le Duc: the provinces of North Brabant, Gelderland and Zeeland
- Bruges: the province of West Flanders
- Ghent: the province of East Flanders
Liège: the provinces of Liège and Limburg (modern Belgian and Dutch Limburg)
- Namur: the provinces of Namur and Luxembourg (the modern Belgian province and the sovereign Grand Duchy)
- Tournai: the province of Hainault
Map of the Kingdom of the Netherlands as it existed from 1815 to 1830. Subdivisions depicted are provinces, not dioceses.
The bishops of all these dioceses would be appointed with royal consent and would swear and oath to the king upon their installation. Bishops and clergy would receive an income from the state.
All this could have been reality, had the Concordat between the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Holy See of 1827 become reality. The Belgian revolution and subsequent independence prevented this of course, and while the Belgian dioceses continued to exist and develop according to the descriptions in the Concordat, the Dutch dioceses would never become reality. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1853 when a whole different set of dioceses were created.
In that plan, which did become reality, the massive Diocese of Amsterdam (at 18,521 square kilometers taking up about one third of the total territory of the kingdom) had no place. In fact, no cathedral would ever be built in the Dutch capital, which instead became a part of the new Diocese of Haarlem. I described the recent Catholic history of Amsterdam in an earlier blog post.
The failed Concordat of 1827, which was signed by Pope Leo XII (and not Leo XIII, as I mistakenly wrote earlier) (pictured) and King William I, sheds an interesting light on what could have been. Whereas the Church in what is now Belgium and Luxembourg was predominant in society and had dioceses which had already been established (with the exception of Bruges, which would be split off from Ghent in 1832, and Luxembourg, separated from Namur in 1840), the northern Catholics lived in mission territory (the Mission ”sui iuris” of Batavia) and in four apostolic vicariates (‘s Hertogenbosch, Breda, Grave-Nijmegen and Ravenstein-Megen), three of which were less than thirty years old. Since the Reformation there had been no hierarchy to speak off in the modern Netherlands. The (often Italian) superiors of Batavia frequently didn’t even live in the territory they had pastoral responsibility, choosing Brussels or Cologne instead. The Concordat was, then, something of a diplomatic victory, especially since royalty and government were far from tolerant of the Catholic Church. Hence the oath to the king and the state control over clergy income. In fact, the creation of a mere two dioceses in areas where there were none yet (Bois le Duc and Amsterdam) would have helped as well: it meant there were only two extra bishops to contend with: in the southern part of the kingdom, there already were dioceses with bishops, so little would change there. The Concordat would simply solidify the relation between Church and state there.
If the Concordat had become reality, how would the map of the Dutch Church province look today? Assuming that Belgium would have become independent at one point or another, the province of Mechelen would be spread over two or even three countries (Luxembourg continued to exist in a personal union with the Netherlands through the same head of state, but since the Grand Duchy could not have a female head of state, the two nations would go their separate ways as soon as the first Queen inherited the Dutch throne). The Diocese of Liège as proposed in the Concordat could have gone both ways: split between Belgium and the Netherlands or wholly Belgian. The proposed Diocese of Bois le Duc would have been rather unmanageable, combining strong Catholic and Protestant parts of the country into one. The province of Gelderland would one day be split off, but to do what? Become an apostolic vicariate in its own right? Be merged with Amsterdam? The proposed Diocese of Amsterdam was also hard to control, split as it would be by the Zuiderzee: the part formed by Holland and Utrecht would be physically separated from the rest in the northern part of the kingdom. Perhaps the latter part would form a new diocese with Gelderland, with its cathedral in… Zwolle? Groningen? Deventer? Arnhem? Who’s to say? And what of Utrecht? That oldest of all sees in the northern Netherlands, once established by Saint Boniface as his base of operations from which to convert the Frisians. Now just a part of a new Diocese of Amsterdam… The Concordat of 1827 may have appeased the state for a while, but for the Church it would have been quite unmanageable and unrealistic.
The present layout of dioceses in the Netherlands
Perhaps it is a blessing that it never became reality. Today there are voices that there are too many dioceses in the Netherlands, but for the major part of their history, they have worked well enough. A Church province limited to a single country, with its own metropolitan see in the oldest Christian centre of the nation.
Marking the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, which becomes effective in the evening of 28 February, all Dutch and Flemish dioceses will be offering a thanksgiving Mass for his pontificate. With the exception of Haarlem-Amsterdam and Antwerp, all will do so on the day of abdication itself.
The two metropolitan archdioceses, Utrecht and Mechelen-Brussels, will feature the most extensive celebrations. In Utrecht, a Mass will be offered at 12:30 at St. Catherine’s cathedral, which will be followed by Holy Hour, a sung Rosary, Vespers and Benediction at 6. Whether Cardinal Eijk will attend this day is unclear. Mechelen-Brussels will offer no less than three Masses, all at 8pm: In Brussels by Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard and auxiliary Bishop Jean Kockerols, in Louvain (St. Peter’s) by auxiliary Bishop Leon Lemmens, and in Waver (St. John the Baptist) by auxiliary Bishop Jean-Luc Hudsyn.
The other thanksgiving Masses will take place at 6pm in Bruges (by Bishop Jozef De Kesel), at 7pm in Groningen (Bishop Gerard de Korte), Breda (Bishop Jan Liesen) and Roermond (Bishop Frans Wiertz), and at 8pm in Ghent (Bishop Luc Van Looy) and Hasselt (Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens). All Masses will be at the respective cathedrals of the dioceses, except in Breda, where the Mass will be offered at the chapel of the Bovendonk seminary in Hoeven, and Hasselt, where the Basilica of Our Lady will host the Mass
The next day, 1 March, auxiliary Bishop Jan Hendriks will offer a Mass at 7:30pm, and on 3 March, Antwerp’s Bishop Johan Bonny will offer one at 5pm.
In addition to these Masses, parishes, communities and other societies may of course also mark the abdication with Masses or prayer services.
“There are … good reasons to now invite the Christians, in our country and in our time, to the Eucharist in one of the places where it is celebrated, and to not diminish or negate that invitation by offering a Sunday prayer service at the same time in a location that i more nearby.”
So says Msgr. Paul Van Puyenbroeck, the vicar general of the Diocese of Ghent in Belgium. He is answering one of the questions that assorted priests and laity have posed, following the example of priests in Austria. They are wondering why there can’t be prayer services on Sunday when there is no priest available, and while Msgr. Van Puyenbroeck acknowledges that such a service can take place in such circumstances, he also warns against them becoming substitutes for the celebration of the Eucharist.
“They are a rich addition, next to the Eucharist, in the broad palette of the liturgy. But they are not intended or presented as an alternative for the Sunday Eucharist. This could be misleading, just like Communion in a prayer service can be misleading.”
Looks like this priest gets it, and understands where to be careful. In the past, prayer services were too eagerly organised in the absence of a priest, and now many faithful prefer going to their own church, even if the next church over hosts a Holy Mass.
While prayer, solitary or in a communal service, is a very valuable basis for and habit in our faith indeed, it should also be understood for what it is. The sacrifice of Christ, which is made present again in the Eucharist, is of a whole other order of magnitude, and should be presented and understood as such. The Lord’s sacrifice on the cross, by which He won our salvation can not be diminished and presented for less than it is. If we have to travel a bit further for it, so be it. It is always worth it.
“The main point we must consider is that a bishop isn’t just a bishop on his own. He is a bishop of a Church and that Church must be somewhere. In ancient times there were very many more dioceses, which were effectively swept away either by invasion of Muslims or the erosion of demographics, etc. In more modern times, in the “propaganda” countries, Sees were sometimes established, but the town lost importance for one reason or another and it became impractical to maintain the see there.”
Words from Father Z in this blog post, in which he answers a question about titular dioceses and the rights that bishops may or may not have in them. It prompted me to take a look at the titular sees in my neck of the woods, continental north western Europe. In nine countries (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden), it turns out, there are only seven of those. Compared to southern Europe, north Africa and the Middle East, that is very few indeed, but it does allow for an easy overview of which titular sees they are and who is appointed to them. In other words, who are the other bishops in these countries*?
Let’s take an alphabetical look.
We start way up north, in Iceland, with the titular see of Hólar. Currently all of Iceland is part of the Diocese of Reykjavík, but in the twelfth century there were two others, once of which was Hólar. It was suppressed in 1550, after which the island fell under various ecclesiastical jurisdictions. The village of Hólar lies on Iceland’s northern coast and nowadays is home to some 100 people. In the past it was the heart of Iceland’s Catholicism and a major centre of learning. Today, it is the titular see of Bishop Stanisław Budzik, auxiliary bishop of the Polish diocese of Tarnów.
Next is one of the two titular sees located in Belgium. Ieper (in Dutch) or Ypres (in French) was one of the dioceses established in answer to the Reformation in the Low Countries. Unlike the dioceses further north, it existed for a fair amount of time. It wasn’t until 1801, when it was suppressed to become part of the Diocese of Gent. The establishment of the diocese reflected its importance as a commercial trading city and also its origins as a French enclave in the Holy Roman Empire. Its current titular bishop is one of the three new auxiliary bishops of the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, Msgr. Jean Kockerols.
Not far from there lies the third see on our list, and the only Dutch titular see: Maastricht. It can trace its origins to the first arrival of Christianity in the Netherlands. It was created in 530 from the Diocese of Tongeren and Maastricht and survived for almost two centuries. In 720 it was incorporated into the powerful Diocese of Liège, an indication that the centre of Catholic gravity in that area had moved south. Bishop Marco Pérez Caicedo is the titular bishop of Maastricht. In daily life he is one of the auxiliary bishops of the Archdiocese of Guayaquil in Ecuador.
From Maastricht we go back to Scandinavia, to Norway where, in 1070, a Diocese of Selja was established. Also know as Selia, the titular see is based on a tiny island near the city of Bergen and is the predecessor of the Diocese of Bergen. In fact, it was named so only 10 years after its establishment, and survived until the Reformation. It was suppressed in 1537. The current titular bishop is Auxiliary Bishop Pero Sudar of Vrhbosna in Bosnia and Hercegovina.
Then back to Belgium it is, to the ancient titular see of Tongeren or Tongres. This is the oldest diocese in the Low Countries, established in 344 from Cologne. From here, the Diocese of Maastricht was established in 530, the same year that saw the end of Tongeren as a diocese. Later, it was one of the seeds for the powerful prince-bishopric of Liège. Like Belgium’s other titular see, a Belgian bishop holds it. He is Msgr. Pierre Warin, auxiliary of the nearby Diocese of Namur.
That leaves only two titular dioceses on our list, and both are currently vacant. The first is Chiemsee in Germany, that country’s only titular see. It’s been vacant for a long time: it’s last titular bishop was Bishop Sigmund Christoph, Count of Waldburg-Zeil-Trauchburg. His tenure ended in 1808.
The last diocese on our last takes us back to our starting point, Iceland. When Hólar was an important centre in the north, its equivalent in the south was the Diocese of Skálholt. It’s history is very similar to that of Hólar, although it is a few years older. It is vacant, but it hasn’t been for as long as Chiemsee. It’s last titular bishop died in 2008, and he was Dutch: Bishop Alphons Castermans, auxiliary of Roermond.
*Not that these bishops have any rights or duties in their titular sees, as Father Z explains in the aforementioned post.