There was some hope that October would see the appointment of a new bishop for the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, but as the month progresses, it seems increasingly likely that Bishop Gerard de Korte, who was transferred from Groningen-Leeuwarden to ‘s Hertogenbosch in March, was more accurate when he said that a new bishop would come before the end of the year. And the year still has more than two months to go.
A recent article in the Leeuwarder Courant claims to know where the problem lies: the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Aldo Cavalli, is faced with two contrasting ternae, which he has somehow to merge into one to send on to Rome. The first terna, a list of three names of possible candidates to succeed Bishop de Korte, was compiled by the cathedral chapter and consists, the article has it, of the names of three priests, all from outside the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. One of these is Fr. Ad van der Helm, former Dean of The Hague and currently parttime professor of Canon Law at the Catholic University of Louvain. The other terna comes from the bishops’ conference, and consists, it is said, of three currently serving auxiliary bishops, of whom Bishop Herman Woorts, auxiliary of Utrecht, has the best chances. He, the article states, is the preferred choice of Cardinal Eijk.
If the two lists show no overlap it would mean extra work for the Nuncio (pictured at right), who has to create a file on each candidate, add his own opinions and advice and then send it to the Congregation for Bishops. And the appointment of a new bishop would consequently take more time. The article mentioned above, however, chooses to see evidence of infighting among the bishops in it…
Cardinal Eijk, it is suggested, is blocking, or at least strongly opposed to, any of the candidates of the cathedral chapter. That is his right, but there is nothing he can change about it (and I suspect he is well aware of this). As a member of the bishops’ conference, the cardinal has a voice in creating the terna of the conference, but that is about where it all ends. He has no influence on the ultimate choice and can not block it. That choice lies with the Pope, who makes it based on the information provided by the Nuncio and the Congregation for Bishops, who in turn base themselves on their own investigations and the advice of the cathedral chapter and the other bishops of the Netherlands.
Why the cardinal is singled out to explain the choice of the bishops’ conference has probably more to do with his perceived influence than anything else. Cardinal Eijk is no longer the conference president, but just a member. The other members have equal influence in the process, and while some bishops will have similar preferences as the cardinal, others will not.
Besides, if, as the article claims, there are two ternae on the Nuncio’s desk, it is there were the slowdown lies, not with any perceived infighting or disagreements among bishops or cathedral chapter members.
Whoever our new bishop will be, be he a priest from The Hague or an auxiliary bishop from Utrecht, or someone else altogether, his appointment will be the end of a long and careful process in which many people have an advisory capacity. This process sometimes takes longer than expected, and the reason may lie either in the diocese in question, with the bishops’ conference or the Nuncio, or in Rome. Whatever the case may be, the vacancy of Groningen-Leeuwarden is close to becoming the longest in the last decade. Only Utrecht was without an archbishop for longer: 8 months in 2007.
While the Mass for his installation as bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch has begun, here is my translation of Bishop Gerard de Korte’s final message to the faithful of Groningen-Leeuwarden, the diocese he leaves behind:
“On Monday 29 February, around 10:30, the Papal Nuncio, Msgr. Aldo Cavalli, rang and asked if he could come to Groningen that day. He wanted to discuss an “important topic”. I knew then that it would be about the succession of Bishop Hurkmans of Den Bosch. And my intuition was confirmed that afternoon. The Nuncio told me that Pope Francis had appointed me as the new bishop of Den Bishop. The news led to some necessary chaos, both for me as for many faithful in our diocese.
In september of 2008 I was installed in the cathedral as bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. Despite all sorts of great and small concerns – when is our earthly life ever without clouds? – I look back on the years behind me with gratitude. A few years ago, the downsizing of the diocesan offices caused many concerns. Especially the letting go of several respected employees, solely for economic reasons, was a difficult but also necessary decision.
A lot has happened in the past years. Almost automatically, I recall the merger of parishes and caritas groups. After a long period of preparation and a broad consultation of pastoral teams and parish councils, the decision was made in autumn of 2011 to merge the 80 parishes into some 20 new parishes. This process must be completed on 1 January 2018. Starting point is the vision to combine administrative upscaling with pastoral downsizing. In the large diocese of the north we must try and maintain as many of the 80 faith communities as possible. In my letter “The years of truth” (January 2015) I made a distinction between church building and faith community. When it is no longer possible to maintain a church building, but the local faith community is still (relatively…) alive, the faithful can choose to continue coming together for the liturgy and other activities. The core thought here is: keeping the Church as close to the faithful as possible.
By now, I have moved to ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Moving is an exercise in the art of letting go. I have to say goodbye to a nice house, a great team of coworkers and so many other good people. In recent days I have spoken of an Abrahamic experience. Like the father of our faith I must leave the good and familiar country and go into the unknown in the hope that it will be good to be there as well. By the way, I am confident that I will soon find a true home again in Den Bosch.
You will go on as Catholics of the north. A small but conscious minority. I gladly repeat the call from my letter “The years of truth”: Catholics, take your responsibility. You are called to manifest the faith of your baptism. Pope Francis urges Catholics not to remain hidden in the sacristy or church building. Vital faith communities are missionary communities with open doors. All things being equal, we gather in out church buildings for the celebration of the Eucharist and other forms of liturgy. This feeds our soul and gives us the strength to give form to the imitation of Christ in our daily lives. Pope Francis frequently speaks of a Church which looks towards all of society. A Church that prefers to be dirty because she has spent too much time in the streets, instead of sick because she has been inside too much.
Finally, I would invite you to pray for each other. Hopefully you are willing to pray for the success of my new mission in the south. My task will not always be easy, but much is possible in the power of God’s Spirit. In the south I pray for wisdom for Pope Francis and all who are preparing the appointment of a new bishop. I hope for a new bishop who will work for a warm and hospitable Church around Christ as our living Lord. I wish you all the best and God’s blessing. Continue on the path of faith, hope and especially love “trusting in Christ”.
In preparation for Saturday’s installation, Bishop Gerard de Korte’s (redesigned) coat of arms is placed above the cathedra in the cathedral basilica of St. John the Evangelist in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
In a couple more days, ‘s-Hertogenbosch will have its new bishop while Groningen-Leeuwarden will welcome its temporary diocesan administrator. This administrator, most likely vicar general Msgr. Peter Wellen, is to manage current affairs in the diocese until the new bishop arrives. The next step of the selection of that new bishop now lies with the Nuncio, Archbishop Aldo Cavalli. The cathedral chapter of Groningen-Leeuwarden has sent him their list of three candidates, the so-called terna, and it is the Nuncio’s task to collect information on the men on it, as well as collecting the advice and suggestions of the others bishops in the country. The list and information will then be sent to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, after which Pope Francis will make the final choice. For now, I expect one of the auxiliary bishops of Utrecht, Herman Woorts or Theodorus Hoogenboom, to come to Groningen-Leeuwarden. Yes, that is slight change in previous ideas on my part.
Whoever it will be, his appointment will probably take place after the summer, which means that the diocese’s major annual event, the St. Boniface Days in Dokkum on 10 to 12 June, will happen without a resident bishop. Under Bishop de Korte, this event has seen a significant development, and this year it will for the first time expand beyond Catholic boundaries, containing a significant ecumenical element in the participation of local Protestant churches. Bishop de Korte will attend and offer the Mass at the procession park in Dokkum on the final day. He may also participate in the preceding procession, but an episcopal presence is at least assured in the person of Bishop Karlheinz Diez, auxiliary of Fulda. Both Groningen-Leeuwarden and Fulda have events dedicated to St. Boniface, being the places where he was respectively killed and lies buried, and Bishop de Korte has previously attended the Fulda festivities.
Groningen-Leeuwarden, in the mean time, has taken every opportunity in bidding their beloved bishop farewell, not least during the diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes earlier this month, as well as in a special edition of the diocesan magazine.
This photo is doing the rounds on various Christian websites and blogs, mostly in America. It’s been online since 2014, but I’ve come across it twice in the past few days. Perhaps an indication of increasing popularity?
But what’s so special about this photo? It’s an atmospherically-lit view of the sanctuary of a Catholic church, emphasising the vertical dimension of the building. An image you can probably take in countless churches across the world (well, churches of a certain age and architectural sophistication, at least).
It’s special in only one way, and only to a select group of people. The church in the photo is the church I attend, the Cathedral Church of Saint Joseph in Groningen, seat of the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden (well, as soon as we have one again…). The photo was uploaded on Skitterphoto, a website collecting stock photos that may be used for free (one of the reasons it has made more than a few appearances on websites and blogs).
Seeing such a familiar view pop up on different websites made me look twice and wonder what the reason behind it was. It’s not a very exciting reason, granted, but it’s a nice idea that ‘my’ church can be appreciated by people across the world. Because it is a rather nice church, to be honest.
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.
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
Of 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.
This 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.
It has been a busy day for Bishop Gerard de Korte, the culmination of what he himself calls a “confusing and hectic” week, but a day on which he also made a positive impression in his new diocese. The official announcement of his appointment came in a press conference where he, flanked by his new auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts and his predecessor Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, emphasised several times that the focus of his first year will be to get to know his new diocese and its people. And since he only learned of his appointment on Monday, he will not have spent his days formulating his policies before seeing where he was to be a bishop. Following the answering of questions from some 25 reporters assembled in the bishop’s house adjacent to the Basilica of St. John, Bishop de Korte met with the mayor of his new home city and then got a tour of the buttresses and rooftops of the basilica.
In a letter to the priests, deacons and pastoral workers of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, Bishop de Korte describes his feelings and hopes for the coming time:
“Dear priests, deacons and pastoral workers
Dear ladies and gentlemen,
Last Monday our Nuncio, Msgr. Aldo Cavalli, came to Groningen to inform me that Pope Francis had appointed me as bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
You will understand that the past days have been confusing and hectic for me. After seven and a half years I have to let go of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, which is very dear to me. Confident in Christ, you know my episcopal motto, and hoping for a friendly welcome in the new diocese, I accept this new assignment.
My appointment will also raise questions among you. What will happen now? Who will be the new bishop? At this time a few things are clear.
Until Saturday 14 May, the day of my installation in Den Bosch, the Pope has appointed me as Apostolic Administrator and I will continue to have final responsibility for the management of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden.
A major responsibility will by for the cathedral chapter in the coming time. The canons must choose a diocesan administrator for the period from 14 May until the installation of the new bishop. They also have the duty to create a terna, a list of three suitable candidate bishops.
For now I ask you to pray for me, that I may have the strength to continue working on the proclamation of the Gospel and the harmonious building of the Christian community. And to pray that the canons may make good decisions in wisdom.
I pray for a good future of our diocese and for a good successor who will want to work for a cordial and clear faith community.
With kind greetings and united with you in Christ,
+ Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte”
The Dutch Bishops’ Conference congratulated Bishop de Korte on his appointment. Conference president, Cardinal Eijk, said:
“We know Msgr. De Korte as a colleague who greatly committed himself for his diocese and provided with conviction an important Catholic voice in the social debate as holder of the portfolio for Church and Society on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference. We pray for and with him that he may be a blessing for the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and sincerely congratulate this diocese with this appointment.”
Bishop de Korte spoke with the cardinal, who is in Rome for meetings of the Pontifical Academy for Life, over the phone and said that the latter congratulated him most kindly. But of course, the rumours that the bishop and the cardinal can’t stand each other remain…
Judging from the reactions on social media, people in ‘s-Hertogenbosch are over the moon with their new bishop, and in Groningen-Leeuwarden they are sad to see him go. Of course, there are other opinions of well. Father Cor Mennen, parish priest and member of the cathedral chapter of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, and well-known for his orthodox standpoints, said that he is not cheering just yet. And, speaking as a Catholic in Groningen-Leeuwarden, I would say sadness is not the emotion I associate with the bishop’s leaving (but I am also not glad about it, either). I find myself looking forward instead of back: it is an exciting time as we await who the new bishop will be, and it interesting to see what the future will bring for Bishop de Korte and the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
It was one of the more unexpected choices, and for the new bishop the change will be big in several ways: he goes from the north to the south of the country, from a diocese with few Catholics to one with many, from a part of the country where people are fairly down to earth, to one where the Dutch concept of ‘gezelligheid’ has a natural home and where people are sometimes brutally honest. It will be interesting to see what bishop and diocese bring each other.
The new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch is 60-year-old Gerard de Korte, until today the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. And this scribe’s bishop at that. In yesterday’s blog post I already characterised Bishop de Korte as a popular shepherd. He is personable, interested, with a keen sense of the hearts and minds of other people. That makes him well suited to represent the Catholic Church in relations with other Christians, a talent he has made one of the focal points of his mission. In Groningen-Leeuwarden, such ecumenical effort is a necessity and a value. How it will take shape in ‘s-Hertogenbosch will be very interesting to see.
In a message leaked prematurely via Twitter, Bishop Hurkmans congratulated Bishop de Korte, and expresses a few wishes to him and the faithful of ‘s-Hertogenbosch:
“I wish very much that you, as a society, may live in confidence with the new bishop. You and I, we, live in a time of many and great changes. Especially now it is good to stand on the solid ground the faith offers us. God is our Creator and Father. He wanted all of us and included us in His plan of love.
Secondly, I wish for you all that you may remain hopeful with the new bishop. Evil and death are in the way of us all. They supplant hope. Jesus Christ broke the power of sin and opened the way to life. We celebrate this in the Eucharist and from it we draw hope every time. With that, as a new community around Christ, we can be a sign of hope in our society.
Lastly, I wish for the new bishop and you all to remain in love. That this may be the basis of your life. The Holy Spirit lives in us. He plants love in us and continuously strengthens the divine life. This makes love bloom in us. Love can reinforce our community. Love will let us live for each other in the Church and in the world.
Remaining in faith, hope and love is more than guaranteed when we participate in unity in a healthy life of the Church. I gladly wish Msgr. Gerard de Korte people who say yes to their vocation to the priesthood, the diaconate and the religious life, people who will work with him in the life of the Church, people who make the Church present in the world. People who support him in his prayer and proclamation, on being close to people and managing the diocese.”
Bishop Hurmans, now bishop emeritus, closes with a word of gratitude, despite beginning his letter by saying that he has said enough about his retirement.
“I thank you all for the faith, the hope and the love which I was able to keep among you. I hope to be able to be a witness of that in a simple way, trusting in the Sweet Mother of Den Bosch and living from the Holy Eucharist, until my death.”
Bishop de Korte has been the bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden since 2008. Before that, from 2001 to 2008, he was auxiliary bishop of Utrecht, where he also worked as a priest since his ordination in 1987. He is a historian and served as seminary rector before his appointment as bishop. In Groningen-Leeuwarden he was a bishop on the road, travelling to every corner and sharing the major celebrations of Easter and Christmas between the cathedral in Groningen and the church of St. Boniface in Leeuwarden. Ordinations were also shared between the two cities: those of deacons, as pictured at left, in Leeuwarden, and priests in Groningen. He leaves a diocese in the midst of the greatest reorganisation in recent history: the reduction of its 84 parishes to 19. May the vacancy of the seat in St. Joseph’s cathedral in Groningen be a short one.
In my blog, Bishop de Korte has made frequent appearances, and translations of his writing may be found via the tag cloud in the left sidebar. Just click on the tag ‘Bishop Gerard de Korte’.
Despite the appointment coming before Easter, Bishop de Korte will mark the Church’s greatest week in Groningen-Leeuwarden. His installation in ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Evangelist will follow on 14 May.
In hindsight, this was perhaps the most Franciscan option in the Netherlands. Bishop de Korte fits the profile of what Pope Francis wants in a bishop (although other bishops are often unfairly depicted as being in opposition to the Holy Father): an open communicator, close to the people, a shepherd who smells like the sheep. These qualities may go a long way in resolving the polarisation that plagues parts of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In recent years more than one community has broken with the diocese, and the person and approach of Bishop de Korte, a man of dialogue and a strong voice against hate and distrust, may go a long way in setting them back on a course towards reconciliation.
In his new diocese, Bishop de Korte will undoubtedly continue to stress the importance of catechesis. Back in 2012 he said, “It may sound dramatic, but I sometimes feel that only a great catechetical offensive can secure Catholicism in our country. Without it, the strength of our faith seems to continue to weaken and Catholics become more and more religious humanists for whom important aspects of classic Catholicism have become unfamiliar.” Other emphases of his new task will be ecumenism, religious life and active Catholic communities.
In the Dutch Bishops’ Conference this appointment does not change much, although several commentators have chosen to see it as a blow for Cardinal Eijk, outgoing president and predecessor of Bishop de Korte in Groningen. The two prelates have not always seen eye to eye, and they have clashed on occasion, although how much actual truth there is behind the rumours will probably remain guesswork. In the conference, Bishop de Korte retains his one voice, and continues to hold the portfolios that formulate Church relations with the elderly, women and society. Actual change will only occur when a new bishop is appointed for Groningen-Leeuwarden, and perhaps not even then: if the new ordinary up north is one of the current auxiliary bishops in the country, the composition of the bishops’ conference remains the same as it is now.
Now, we could make the assumption that Cardinal Eijk would have liked to see a bishop in ‘s-Hertogenbosch who was more in line with himself, but that is guesswork. And besides, as I have pointed out before, the cardinal and the bishop may have different personalities and talents, their policies (for example, about the closing of churches and merging of parishes) are not always all that different.
In recent years, Bishop de Korte has appeared as the voice of the bishops’ conference, especially in the wake of the abuse crisis. This will not change, I imagine, even if the crisis has abated somewhat. Although the bishops in general remain hesitant to embrace the resources of the media, Bishop de Korte is the one whose face and name appears most frequently. He is a blogger on the diocesan website, writes books and articles and even appears on television every now and then. This is something that he should continue to do so: he is well-liked by many in and outside the Church, and knows how to communicate to both. And that is a value we need in our Church today.
More to come.
Photo credit:  ANP RAMON MANGOLD,  Roy Lazet,  Leeuwarder Courant, , ANP,  edited by author