In Roermond, an experienced native son takes the seat

After a ten-month vacancy (another fairly lengthy one, which unavoidably gave rise to theories of episcopal disagreements reaching as far as the Vatican itself), the Diocese of Roermond has a bishop again. Stepping into the shoes  of Frans Wiertz, who led the diocese for 24 years is Father Harrie Smeets, 57, until now the dean of Venray.

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^The cathedral chapter of Roermond upon the appointment of Dean Smeets to that body in 2015. The new bishop of Roermond can be seen to the right of then-Bishop Frans Wiertz.

BisdomRoermondLocatieThe Diocese of Roermond coincides with the province of Limburg and is located in the south-east of the Netherlands, wedged in between Belgium and Germany, bordering the Dutch (arch)dioceses of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Utrecht, Hasselt and Liège in Belgium and Aachen and Münster in Germany. It shares much of its history with its neighbours, as it was first established in 1559 from territories belonging to Cologne and Liège. It was suppressed under Napoleon and re-established in 1840, again from Cologne and Liège. it has been a full diocese since 1853. The  Catholic history, however, goes far further back, as the diocese also includes the city of Maastricht, which was the seat of a diocese as far back as 530.

The new bishop will be assisted in his work by the longest-seated auxiliary bishop in the Netehrlands, Msgr. Everard de Jong currently in Rome to participate in the Synod of Bishops.

Bishop-elect Smeets will be the tenth bishop of Roermond since 1853. He has served as area dean of Venray, tbe northernmost of Roermond’s thirteen deaneries, since 2004. He has been a priest for more than 25 years and a member of the cathedral chapter since 2015. As such played a part in his own appointment, although one may wonder if the office of bishops is something that any good priest willingly seeks. Until 2011, Bishop-elect Smeets offered televised Masses, which were broadcast on national television live, 14 times. Leo Fijen, TV presenter and head of religious/spiritual programming for broadcaster KRO/NCRV, knows Fr. Smeets well and describes him thus:

“A priest from Limburg, a man of these times, a teacher who speaks the language of the young, a manager willing to make decisions, but also a man seeking God and doing what this pope considers important: opening the doors of the church and seeking out Christ in the neighbours outside the church.”

The exact time and date of Bishop Smeets’ consecration remains to be announced.

Photo credit: Bisdom Roermond

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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.

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.

An archbishop for Maastricht

While the actual diocese it is a part of remains vacant, the southern Dutch city of Maastricht had an archbishop appointed yesterday. Maastricht was among the first cities in what would later become the Netherlands to have a resident bishop, when it was established as a diocese in 530 (before that it had been a part of the Diocese of Tongres and Maastricht since the early 4th century). For almost two centuries it was the heart of the Catholic Church in the Limburg area, until it was suppressed in 720, its territory then falling under Liège. In 1971, Maastricht was re-established, but as a titular see, a diocese in name only, held by a bishop who was elsewhere active as an auxiliary bishop somewhere, in the Holy See diplomatic service or in the Roman Curia.

Ks_Sommertag_WSDNow, for the first time, the new titular bishop is an archbishop. He is the newly-appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Nicaragua, Msgr. Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag. He is appointed after a six-year vacancy of the titular see. His predecessors were Marcos Pérez Caicedo (2006-2010), now the archbishop of Cuenca in Ecuador; Bishop Joannes Gijsen (1993-1996), who was the titular bishop of Maastricht after retiring from Roermond and before being appointed to Reykjavik; and Bishop Petrus Moors (1970-1980), who became the titular bishop upon retiring as bishop of Roermond (a practice since abolished: retiring bishops of a diocese are no longer appointed to a titular see, simply being styled the bishop emeritus of their erstwhile diocese).

Archbishop-elect Sommertag is 50 years old and was born in Wiecbork, Poland. A priest of the Diocese of Pelplin, he has been in the diplomatic service of the Holy See since 2000, having served in Tanzania, Nicaragua, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Israel, Palestine and Cyprus as well as in the Section for Relations with States of the Secretariat of State. As Apostolic Nuncio to Nicaragua he will naturally work in that middle-American country, and he is bishop of Maastricht in name only, without any rights or duties in our country.

The Diocese of Maastricht is usually traced back to St. Servatius, whose remains are still buried in the city. The first historical source referring to the diocese dates from 535. It is unknown how far the influence of the bishops of Maastricht reached, but the diocesan borders may have somewhat coincided with those of the later Diocese of Liège, which means that it stretched from the Luxembourg Ardennes to northwestern Brabant, amking it equal to the later Diocese of Utrecht in the northern Netherlands. The cathedral of the diocese was one of the two ancient churches that still stand in Maastricht: the basilica of St. Servatius and the basilica of Our Lady.

Photo credit: Krzysztof Mania/KFP

Looking ahead at a new year

Midway through the last month of the year, it is a good time to look ahead to the new year. 2018 will undoubtedly feature its share of Catholic news, developments and, not least, opinions in social media. Every year since the launch of this blog has had had more than a few surprises, so a look at the future can’t be anything but incomplete, but there are a few things which we know will happen.

Algermissen2The retirement and appointment of bishops is pretty easy to predict, as bishops are legally bound to offer their resignation when they reach the age of 75. Locally, there are currently three dioceses without a bishop: Roermond in the Netherlands, and Hildesheim and Würzburg in Germany. In 2018, two more will likely join these: in Fulda, Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen (at right) will celebrate his 75th on 15 February, and in Namur, Bishop Remy Vancottem will do likewise on 25 July. A third likely diocese to fall vacant in Ghent. Bishop Luc van Looy will turn 77 on 28 September. Upon his 75th birthday, the diocese made it known that Pope Francis had requested the bishop stay on for two more years, and that extension is up this year.

Other predictable events include the 80th birthdays of cardinals, the age at which they cease their duties in the Roman Curia and are no longer able to participate in a conclave. In 2018, six cardinals will mark this milestone:

  • Antonio Maria Cardinal Vegliò on 3 February
  • Paolo Cardinal Romeo on 20 February
  • Francesco Cardinal Coccopalmerio on 6 March
  • Manuel Cardinal Monteiro de Castro on 29 March
  • Pierre Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Nhơn on 1 April
  • Angelo Cardinal Amato on 8 June

Visita_de_Cardenal_Angelo_Amato_-_17792469768_(cropped)While all hold memberships in various dicasteries in the curia, two of these sit at the head of them: Cardinal Coccopalmerio is president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and Cardinal Amato (at left) is the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Nhơn remains active as archbishop of Hanoi. All will undoubtedly retire upon their 80th birthday, opening up some interesting positions in the curia. Barring any deaths, the number of cardinal electors will stand at 114 by mid-2018. Possibly not low enough for a new consistory by itself, but considering the fact that a further 10 ill age out in 2019, Pope Francis may decide to be proactive and call a consistory in autumn for the creation of anywhere between 6 and 16 new cardinals.

World-Meeting-of-Families-2018Speaking about the pope, he will, despite the fact that he has no love for travelling, visit several countries in 2018. In January, he will once again return to South America, visiting Peru and Chile. Ireland is on the schedule in August, when the Holy Father will attend the World Meeting of Families taking place in Dublin (logo at right). Visits not yet confirmed are to the Baltic countries in September and to Romania in December. A visit to India also remains an option, but as Pope Francis has just wrapped a visit to India’s neighbouring countries of Myanmar and Bangladesh, it may not be at the top of the list.

synod of bishopsIn the latter part of the year, all eyes will be on the Synod of Bishops again, this while the reverberations of the last two assemblies of that body are still being felt. The October 2018 Fifteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops while focus on “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment”. To this assembly, each bishops’ conference will elect one or more (depending on their size) delegates, while the Pope will also make a personal selection of delegates. One of these personal choices has already been made: Sérgio Cardinal Da Rocha, the archbishop of Brasília, was appointed as Relator General of next year’s assembly. He will outline the theme at the start of the assembly and summarise the delegates’ speeches so they can be condensed into concrete proposals.

Photo credit: [1] Bistum Fulda, [2] Fotos Presidencia El Salvador/Wikipedia

Last Advent – Bishop Wiertz looks back

In his final letter for Advent, Bishop Frans Wiertz, until last week bishop of Roermond, looks back on his almost 25 years at the helm of the southernmost diocese of the Netherlands. The letter will be read out in churches throughout the diocese this weekend.

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^Bishop Wiertz, front row centre, is pictured with priests and seminarians of the Diocese of Roermond at Rolduc, yesterday. In this final meeting with them, he urged them to be missionary and to listen to people.

“Brothers and sisters,

On Saturday 2 December I celebrated my 75th birthday. On that day, as requested, Pope Francis has allowed me to retire as bishop of Roermond. I bade my farewells over this weekend and entered retirement. The pope will appoint a new bishop for our diocese in some time.

You can imagine that I have been thinking a lot over the past months about the almost 25 years that I was your bishop. I especially recall the many visits to parishes, during which the confirmations have always been especially impressive. On one of those occasions a confirmand once asked me, “Do you like being a bishop?” To which I gladly answered ‘yes’.

And also now, as I am stepping back, I can say, “yes, I have gladly been your bishop”. Because you are not a bishop for yourself, but for the people in the diocese with whom you share the same faith. Saint Augustine said it as follows, “I am a Christian with you and a bishop for you.”

No one applies for being a bishop. It appears on your path. When it became clear it would also be asked of me, it was rather frightening. “Can I do this? Is there no one better?” But when Pope John Paul II indicated that he wanted to appoint me, I said ‘yes’ with all my heart.

I was confident that things would turn out fine. I took that confidence in the first place, of course, from Christ, who called me to this office. When He places something on your path, He will also help you to fulfill the mission. Did He also not help the Apostles to fulfill their mission? “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” He reminded His disciples.

But I also feel the support of a number of saints. In the first place Saint Francis de Sales, my patron saint. From him comes the quote, “God is God of the human heart”. With these simple words he drew a link between God and man. He loved people and was united to them. From an inner faith, Francis de Sales could pass on God’s love. I also tried to do so.

There are two others saints who have shown me my way as bishop: Saint Servatius and Saint Willibrord. Upon the grave of the first in Maastricht we built the Basilica of St. Servatius. This holy Armenian came to our parts in the fourth century to proclaim here the faith in the triune God. He was later followed by Willibrord, who came from Ireland.

These saints, who came from far to proclaim the faith in our country, made me aware that we belong to a world church. Within that greater body of the world church, local faith communities can help and support each other in difficult times. That is why I made mission trips to various countries. I was able to visit flourishing churches there, and I was a guest in churches who exist under the cross, but where the faithful fire of the people touched me deeply.

Just like Servatius and Willibrord came to us, I went from here to other countries. I asked for priests there, who will make sure the God’s voice does not fall silent and that the holy sacraments will continue to be celebrated in the future.

I am exceedingly grateful that, at this moment, 45 young men from various countries are studying for the priesthood at Rolduc. With our own priests from Limburg that can create the link between people and God and God and people in the future. Their enthousiasm and honest inspiration fill me with great joy.

Finally, in the years that I was your bishop, I always knew I was supported by Our Lady, who we invoke here in Limburg with the title ‘Star of the Sea’. She is connected to the Diocese of Roermond in a special way. Her statue in Maastricht draws a continuous stream of people, who light a candle before her and pray a couple of Hail Marys.

Like at the wedding at Cana, Mary has always whispered to me, “Do as Jesus tells you to.” I listened to His word every day in the liturgy and I let myself by nourished by Him every day in the holy Eucharist. I also gladly celebrated the other sacraments and so continued Jesus’ work of salvation for us.

“Do as Jesus tells you to”. That was the way I was shown at my ordination as priest and bishop. The person of Jesus and what He does for people was always the guiding principle in the difficult questions which appeared on my path.

That is why I am so saddened by the fact to so many people have given up their membership of our Church. I want to say to them, that they have not been written off and that the Church knows that, in many cases, she is party to their decision. But I also hope for many to return. The door is always open.

Mary also always inspired me to pray to the Holy Spirit, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles.When the disciples flee every which way after Good Friday, it is Mary who calls them back together and says, “Let us pray! Let us pray to the Holy Spirit!” At Pentecost the Apostles receive the courage to go out to all parts of the world. They can no longer remain silent. A missionary Church is born.

As members of that missionary Church we are in this Advent on our way to Christmas. In a few weeks we will celebrate that we were introduced, through Mary, to the Son of God. It was she who brought the world into contact with Jesus. Seen like this, Mary was the first missionary. I would like to urge you to be missionary with here and spread God’s love throughout the world.

“Do you like being a bishop”? the confirmand asked. In response I can say that I have gladly been your bishop. And also that I have been a happy bishop because of that. Through the inspiration of Jesus, His mother Mary and the other saints.

As bishop emeritus, because of my increasing physical limitations, I can no longer be active. Just like many religious become contemplative when they grow older, I will also remain united in prayer with you and the Lord, who entrusted me with the office of bishop almost 25 years ago.

Let us pray to the Holy Spirit for love and faith.

Roermond, 2 December 2017

+ Frans Wiertz,
bishop emeritus of Roermond”

Seminary too small? Close or merge it, says Rome

DSC_0034Through Archbishop Jorge Carlos Patrón Wong, Rome has revealed a minimal number of seminarians that a seminary needs to be “a veritable training community”, La Croix reports. The most recent Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, the document outlining the guidelines for the formation of future priests, did urge that seminaries need to be of sufficient size to function as a community in which priestly formations could flourish and develop, it refrained from mentioning an actual number. Last Monday, in a  meeting with the bishops of France, Archbishop Patrón Wong, the secretary for seminaries of the of the Congregation for Clergy, reiterated this guideline, but left it to Bishop Jérôme Beau, auxiliary bishop of Paris, to state a minimum number of 17 to 20.

While Bishop Beau conceivably arrived at this number from a French perspective (in that country, only fifteen of the thirty-two seminaries reach the minimum of seventeen seminarians), it could have repercussions for other countries as well.

The Vatican guidelines make no demands about numbers, merely inviting bishops’ conferences to “consider” a minumum number for seminaries to remain open, and Archbishop Patrón Wong seemingly expressed his personal opinion that seminaries who do not manage to reach that number should be closed or merged.

Should the Congregation for Clergy move from an urging to a demand, what would the consequences for the Dutch dioceses and seminaries be? A question that is especially interesting considering the question that flares up every now and then of whether the Dutch seminaries shouldn’t merge anyway.

There are currently seven seminaries and other places for the training of future deacons and priests in the Netherlands: The Ariënsinstituut in Utrecht, St. Willibrord seminary in Heiloo (Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam), Vronesteyn in Voorburg, (Diocese of Rotterdam), Bovendonk in Hoeven (Diocese of Breda), St. John’s Centre (Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch) and Rolduc (Diocese of Roermond), as well as two seminaries of the Neocatechumenal Way, in Cadier en Keer (Roermond) and Nieuwe Niedorp (Haarlem-Amsterdam). Most of these already cooperate closely, with teaching staff working at several seminaries and seminarians from various dioceses living and working in one place. Bovendonk caters especially to late vocations, offering a curriculum for students that is compatible with their day jobs.

Of these seminaries there is only one which would be able to continue independently, and that is Rolduc, and then only if we combine the numbers of the diocesan seminary with that of the Neocatechumenal Way seminary, which makes sense since they already share facilities. Together, they have some 40 seminarians from 17 different countries. Only four of these hail from the Diocese of Roermond itself, while others were invited from India and Sri Lanka by Bishop Frans Wiertz. The Neocatechumenal Way seminary in Nieuwe Niedorp has 16 seminarians, just below the minimum suggested. Rotterdam’s Vronesteyn seminary has 13 students, 8 of whom study at Bovendonk and three in Utrecht. Only five seminarians live at Vronesteyn. Utrecht’s Ariënstituut has 10 students, and Haarlem-Amsterdam’s St. Willibrord seminary has 8, with one young man in a year of orientation for a future entrance. The St. John’s Centre does not offer current numbers on their website.

Merging the existing seminaries into one or two larger ones is an idea that has been floated in the past, with some staff in favour and others opposed. Merging all seminaries into one would result in a community of at least 87 seminarians. More realistically, the Neocatechumenal Way would not be involved in a merger, thus creating a seminary of between 40 and 50 seminarians. Perhaps more likely, if a merger would ever happen in the foreseeable future, there will be two seminaries with student numbers somewhere in the 20s for both.

But this is theory. For it to become reality, something more than a directive from Rome is needed. A merger would present its share of logistical and ideological problems as well, the resolution of which could initially be more divisive than unifying.

 

Photo credit: [1] Eglise.catholique.fr