Yesterday the sole Dutch bishop serving abroad was giving his second assignment. Archbishop Bert van Megen, who comes from the Diocese of Roermond, was appointed as Aostolic Nuncio to Kenya. Since 2014, he had been serving as nuncio to Sudan and Eritrea.
In Kenya, he succeeds American Archbishop Daniel Balvo, who was appointed to the Czech Republic last September. Archbishop van Megen is the fourth nuncio to Kenya, and the ninth high-level Holy See representative in that country overall (there were five Pro-Nuncios before there were Nuncios to Kenya).
The post of Apostolic Nuncio to Kenya is sometimes combined with other posts. Archbishop van Megen’s three immediate predecessors also served as Permanent Observer to the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-Habitat), which is headquartered in Nairobi. Additionally, Archbishop Balvo, the previous nuncio, also served as the Apostolic Nuncio to South Sudan. As that position is currently also vacant, it is not unlikely for Archbishop van Megen to soon be appointed to that country as well.
One of the most visible tasks for a nuncio is to facilitate to the appointment of new bishops. In most countries the nuncio plays a key role, as he not only communicates the wishes of the other bishops, but also adds his own choices an advice. In Kenya, Archbishop van Megen will have enough work to do in that area. Of the country’s 26 (arch)dioceses, six are vacant, two, including Nairobi, have bishops serving over the age of 75, and three have bishops who will reach that age within the next three years.
Apostolic Nuncios are moved to new positions every five years or so, so this new assignment for Archbishop van Megen was in the books. It is rare for a nuncio to be moved over such a short distance, though, but those are the vagaries of chance.
The announcement had been long expected, but it was a surprise nonetheless, coming as it did just before year’s end, and only weeks after another new bishop’s installation (in a country as small as the Netherlands, a fairly rare event) in Roermond.
Last Monday morning, the pope’s birthday,, Bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop and vicar general of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam, received a phone call from the nunciature in The Hague, informing him that he was appointed as bishop coadjutor of Haarlem-Amsterdam. With the nuncio, Archbishop Cavalli, being in Rome, a Wednesday meeting with the secretary, Msgr. Mendez, resulted in yesterday’s announcement. Bishop Hendriks suggests in his blog that the timing is due to other appointments – ‘s-Hertogenbosch in March of 2016, Groningen-Leeuwarden in April of 2017 and Roermond in October of this year. “It is clear that Rome – since everything is connected in a small country like the Netherlands – has wanted to wait for these appointments,” the bishop writes.
As coadjutor bishop, Msgr. Hendriks remains an auxiliary bishop, but is assured of becoming the new bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam upon the retirement of Bishop Jos Punt, the current ordinary. His name had been whispered for other positions over the past years, but Haarlem-Amsterdam is the perfect fit for Bishop Hendriks, familiar as he is with the diocese. His appointment can be seen as a natural culmination of his previous ‘career’: from parish priest to seminary rector to auxiliary bishop and vicar general.
“I presented this request to the pope some time ago, after my second stroke. I have been carrying the final responsibility for our beautiful diocese for more than 20 years now. Much has happened in that time and I do my work with love, but I have been struggling with my health for several years. The appointment of Msgr. Hendriks as coadjutor gives me the opportunity to gradually transfer more managerial tasks to him, and also assures the continuity of management and policy. With his experience as rector, and the last few years as auxiliary bishop and vicar general, he knows the diocese like not other, and is widely respected.”
While no one can be sure when exactly Bishop Hendriks will succeed Bishop Punt, the latter suggests a tie frame in the aforementioned letter, saying “when my time comes, at most in two years time when I reach the age of 75, he will be the new bishop of our beloved Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam.” Given Bishop Punt’s health issues, an early retirement seems a distinct possibility, but it will likely take place no later than 10 January 2021, when Bishop Punt will turn 75, and it will probably be a quick succession at that. There is no need for the new bishop to be chosen after a retirement letter has been received in Rome, nor does he have to be consecrated, as he is already a bishop. And his installation can be planned ahead of time.
Coadjutor bishops are fairly rare in the Netherlands. There have been 11 in the past century, with the most recent being Bishop Hans van den Hende, who was coadjutor of Breda in 2006 and 2007. Haarlem-Amsterdam had one in 1983 (Bishop Hendrik Bomers, who succeeded Bishop Zwartkruis after a mere two days as coadjutor bishop) and from 1958 to 1960 (Bishop van Dodewaard).
Bishop Hendriks continues his duties as auxiliary bishop and vicar general in the diocese, and also serves as consultor to the Congregation for the Clergy and as a judge in the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, both in Rome.
Bishop Jos Punt has served as Bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam since 2001. Before that he had been the apostolic administrator from 1998 to 2011 and auxiliary bishop since 1995. He has also been the apostolic administrator of the Military Ordinariate of the Netherlands since 1995.
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.
^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.
The 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.
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?
It 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.
Easter 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.
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.
Now, 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.
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.
The 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
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.
Speaking 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.
In 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:  Bistum Fulda,  Fotos Presidencia El Salvador/Wikipedia