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Bishop GijsenIt’s hardly inconceivable anymore, but somehow it is still hard to believe accusations of sexual abuse against a generally well-respected bishop. And when the bishop denies and seems to be supported in that denial by the competent authorities, that is a relief. Just so in this case, but there’s preciously little room for such denial anymore.

A week after the death of Bishop Joannes Gijsen, formerly of Roermond, the institute charged with deciding if an accusation is founded or unfounded reopened the case against him. The bishops was accused of multiple cases of sexual abuse in the time late 1950s and early 1960s, when the future bishop was a young priest. The claims of two victims have now been deemed plausible, it was revealed today. In the first case there are accusations of forced oral sex and attempted or actual rape; while the second revolves around a single instance of improper touching. The complaints commission have decided that the cases of touching are plausible, whereas the (attempted) rape and oral sex can not be proven (which is not to say they didn’t take place, the commission stressed).

Instrumental in this decision was the appearance of a second complaint and the defence of the bishop, which was deemed highly implausible. In his defence, Bishop Gijsen claimed not to know the victim, while he was known to have regularly visited the victim and his family and to have received letters from the victim’s father.

As Bishop Gijsen is no longer alive, there is little that can be done, even if his crimes were not subject to the statute of limitations. Bishop Frans Wiertz, who succeeded Bishop Gijsen in 1993, apologised to the victims and expressed his regret and sorrow. When the complaints were first expressed, Bishop Wiertz immediately notified the relevant authorities and advised the victims to do the same. But even when having done what is possible this late, a feeling of powerlessness remains.

Sexual abuse, however long ago, does not simply go away. It lasts for the victims, and no less for all who have known them or the perpetrator. And when the latter is a priest or bishop, a moral example (even in hindsight), who turns out to have lied about what he did, that is all the worse.

Mgr%20Bert%20van%20Megen2-loreOn Saturday Pope Francis appointed Dutch Msgr. Hubertus Matheus Maria van Megen as Apostolic Nuncio to Sudan. A high-profile appointment, certainly for  a Dutch priest. Msgr. Bert van Megen is a priest of the Diocese of Roermond, and that diocese’s Bishop Frans Wiertz considers the appointment “a great honour.” As Nuncio, he will be similar to a country’s ambassador in another country, maintaining contact with the government and also with the local Church.

Archbishop-elect van Megen was born in 1961 in the town of Eygelshoven and was ordained to the priesthood in 1987, after studying at the diocesan seminary Rolduc, which produced more than one other bishop. After his ordination, Father van Megen was stationed in parishes in Nieuweinde and Schaesberg, both in the Diocese of Roermond. He entered the Holy See’s diplomatic service and subsequently worked at Nunciatures in Sudan, Brazil, Slovakia, Israel, the United Nations and most recently in Malawi, where he was chargé d’affaires.

Archbishop-elect van Megen joins a very select club, as he is only the fourth Dutch prelate to represent the Holy See at the highest level in a given country. The other members of this club are Archbishop Bernhard Gijlswijk (Apostolic Delegate to South Africa from 1922 to 1944), Archbishop Adriaan Smets (Apostolic Delegate to Persia from 1922 to 1930) and Archbishop Martin Lucas (Apostolic Delegate to South Africa from 1945-1952, Apostolic Internuncio to India from 1952 to 1959 and Apostolic Delegate to Scandinavia from 1959-1961). There are currently two other Dutch-born bishops active abroad: Bishop Willem de Bekker of Paramaribo, and Bishop John Oudeman, auxiliary of Brisbane. In addition, six more are retired.

sudan flagThe Apostolic Nunciature to Sudan was established in 1972 and seven archbishops have preceded Msgr. van Megen there. The most recent was Archbishop Leo Boccardi, who was transferred to Iran in July of last year. Previous Nuncios to Sudan also represented the Holy See in other parts of Africa at the same time, specifically Eritrea and Somalia. While Somalia currently has a Nuncio assigned, Eritrea has not, so Msgr. van Megen may eventually also be assigned to that country.

The Catholic Church in Sudan is covered by two circumscriptions; the Archdiocese of Khartoum and the Diocese of El Obeid. The archbishop of Khartoum, Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako is 73, so Msgr. van Megen will very likely be involved in the appointment of his successor.

About 5% of the population of Sudan is Catholic, mainly in the south and in Khartoum. Officially there is freedom of religion, but socially there is a strong pressure against conversion from Islam to Christianity. The violence and civil war that has affected the country in recent years makes for an interesting first posting for a new Nuncio.

Msgr. van Megen will probably be consecrated soon after Easter, but the location is not yet known, although Rome seems likely. If so, Pope Francis or Cardinal Parolin may well perform the consecration. But Mgr. van Megen has also said that he hopes that the ceremony will take place in the Netherlands. In that case I can imagine that Bishop Wiertz will consecrate him. As archbishop, Msgr. van Megen will hold the titular see of Novaliciana, located in modern Algeria. Previous holders of this see were, for example, Archbishop Faustino Sainz Muñoz, Nuncio to Great Britain from 2004 to 2010, and Cardinal Achille Silvestrini when he was Secretary of the Council for Public Affairs of the Church from 1979 to 1988

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Stefan_Hesse1_jpg_763125014He led a diocese for less than four hours, but Bishop Manfred Melzer probably won’t lose any sleep over it. It is simply standard procedure in Cologne: as the archbishop retires, leadership of the archdiocese falls automatically to the most senior auxiliary bishop. Until, that is, the cathedral chapter has picked a diocesan administrator, and they didn’t take very long to do that. Vicar General Msgr. Stefan Heβe (pronounced “Hesse”) (pictured at right) runs the ongoing affairs of the archdiocese until Pope Francis confirms the election of a successor to Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who retired today after 25 years, two months and a few days at the head of one of Germany’s oldest sees.

In 1988, Cardinal Meisner came to Cologne from Berlin, 14 months after the death of Cardinal Joseph Höffner. Today he becomes the first archbishop of Cologne in almost 129 years to retire, and he does so at the almost unprecedented age of 80. Cologne now joins three other German dioceses – Erfurt, Passau and Freiburg in Breisgau – which are also still awaiting a new bishop, in the case of the former two since October of 2012.

Cardinal Meisner leaves Cologne in the hands of diocesan administrator Msgr. Heβe, and Auxiliary Bishops Melzer, Dominik Schwaderlapp and Ansgar Puff. The diocesan administrator now had the duty to collect an expansive report on the state of the archdiocese and send that to the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic. In the meantime, the see of Cologne is Sede vacante nihil innovetur, in other words, while there is no new bishop, no changes may be made. In other respects, Msgr. Heβe has the same rights and duties as a diocesan bishop.

The Archdiocese of Cologne, or Köln as it is properly called, is the second oldest in Germany (only Trier is older), dating back to the year 200, and once dominated the western part of modern Germany as well as major parts of the Low Countries. The Dioceses of Roermond (Netherlands), Magdeburg, Aachen and Essen (Germany) and parts of Liège (Belgium) were at one time or another all part of Cologne.

The archbishops of Cologne were powerful men, in that rather German way that they were both spiritual and worldly leaders, being electors of the Holy Roman Empire. Today, while not the primatial see of Germany, Cologne remains important, being the largest diocese in number of faithful (some 2 million) and covering a significant part of the Industrial Ruhr area and including the major cities of Cologne, Bonn (former capital city of West Germany) and Düsseldorf. Cologne has produced 10 cardinals and 7 ordinaries who were declared saints.

meisner posterJoachim Meisner was born on Christmas Day 1933, in what is now Wroclaw in Poland, but at the time the city of Breslau in Germany, which was rapidly falling into the clutches of the Nazis. Having lived through the war as a child and young teenager, Joachim Meisner ultimately became a priest of the Diocese of Fulda in 1962, days before his 29th birthday. In 1975, he was appointed as Auxiliary Bishop of the Apostolic Administration of Erfurt-Meiningen, which has been established only two years before (tensions between communist East Germany and the Holy See meant that the former had almost no full-fledged dioceses). Bishop Meisner was also given the titular see of Vina. In 1980, he became the bishop of Berlin, which, because of the aforementioned tensions, was not yet an archdiocese. Bishop Meisner stayed there for eight years, being created a cardinal in 1983, before being called to Cologne in 1980 (a poster welcoming his arrival is pictured at left).

Coinciding with his retirement, Cardinal Meisner published his final Lenten letter, which is also a  farewell to his archdiocese and the faithful for whom he was pastorally responsible. He concludes the letter as follows:

Dear Sisters, dear Brothers,

I was allowed to serve you as Archbishop of Cologne for a quarter of a century. I have always wanted to testify to the peace of God and bring this across to you, since it is the strength of our hope. I thank you once again from my heart for all the strength which I found in that and beg you all very much for your forgiveness when my service were not a source of strength, but perhaps a source of irritation. The Lord will complete everything which was only fragmentary in my service. I will remain – God willing – among you until the hour of my death and will now have more time to pray for you all, and bring all your concerns and hopes to the heart of God.

The all-powerful God bless you all, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit!”

Nikola-EterovicAnd now? The Archdiocese of Cologne has already started the process of selecting a new archbishop by appointing a diocesan administrator. Possible candidates will now be chosen by several entities, all according to the Concordat that the Holy See signed in 1929 with Prussia, the state of which Cologne was then a part. Among these entities are Archbishop Eterovic (pictured) as the Papal Nuncio; the bishops of the other dioceses which were part of Prussia: Aachen, Berlin, Erfurt, Essen, Fulda, Görlitz, Hamburg, Hildesheim, Limburg, Magdeburg, Münster, Osnabrück, Paderborn and Trier; and the cathedral chapter of Cologne.

The Nuncio will then collect all proposed candidates and will create a list of three candidates which he considers the best choices. This so-called terna will be added to the other proposals and sent to Rome, where the Congregation for Bishops will draft its own terna based on the information provided. The list will then go to the Pope, who will either confirm it, or make some changes of his own. Then, the list goes back to the cathedral chapter of Cologne.

The cathedral chapter will elect the new archbishop from final terna. Voting continues until one candidate has an absolute majority of votes (at least 8 out of 15). After three voting rounds, only the two candidates who got the most votes continue. If all candidates have five votes after the second round, only the two oldest candidates continue on. For the fourth round of voting a simple majority is sufficient. Do both candidates still have the same amount of votes, the oldest candidate is elected.

After a new archbishop is elected, the governments of the States of Nordrhein-Westfalen and Rheinland-Pfalz can voice political concerns against the elected. The Nuncio must seek and obtain the permission of the elected for this. Once the governments agree, the Pope officially appoints the new archbishop.

meisner

In the Diocese of Roermond today, Bishop Frans Wiertz officially closed the diocesan phase of the case of Limburg-born Bishop Frans Schraven. The paperwork, documenting the bishop’s life and the reasons for a possible future beatification, is now to be sent to Rome, where the Congregation for the Causes of Saints will eventually present it to Pope Francis, who has the final say about what will happen next. The file includes the proposal to declare Bishop Schraven a martyr, which negates the need for a miracle before his beatification.

Schraven-3295

Franciscus Hubertus Schraven was born in Lottum, Diocese of Roermond, in 1873. At the age of 21 he joined the Congregation of the Mission, in which he was ordained a deacon (1898) and a priest (1899). In that year he departed Marseille for China, and in 1920 he was appointed as Vicar Apostolic of Southwestern Chi-Li in China, and consecrated bishop with the titular see of Amyclae. He led the community which is now the Diocese of Zhengding until 1937, when he died at the hands of Japanese troops engaged in the lengthy war with China that led into the Second World War in Asia.

Schraven%201925kleinOn 9 October 1937 the Japanese conquered the city of Zhengding where Bishop Schraven was responsible for the protection of some 4,000 refugees, mostly women and children. As the soldiers plundered the city and killed and raped at will. At length, the Japanese authorities demanded that Bishop Schraven hand over some women to fill the soldiers’ need for “comfort”, in other words, to serve as sex slaves. The bishop refused. In the evening of the day that the city fell, Bishop Schraven and nine priests were arrested and deported by truck. It took until 1973 before their fate was discovered: they had been burnt alive on a pyre…

In his homily today, Bishop Wiertz spoke the following words about Bishop Schraven:

“Someone who found out firsthand what it means to follow Jesus, is Monsignor Schraven, for whom we are gathered today. Because of his refusal to supply comfort girls, he chose in favour of  a human existence for some one Thousand women. He chose against seeing women as objects, as commodities. With that he also chose for a literal following of Jesus.

When Bishop Schraven met with the Japanese soldiers, he must have realised what the risks of his position were. He literally told the commander, “You may kill me if you want, but giving you what you want, never!” A courageous attitude, which fits completely with what he wrote earlier that year to his family here in Limburg: “Essential is that we are ready when God calls us”.

[...]

Sometimes it becomes clear that – surprisingly enough – different times have the exact same needs. Bishop Schraven resisted sexual abuse of women. In many places in the world this sort of abuse still takes place. As Church, as faithful people, it is our task to resist that in the name of Jesus.

In recent years there has been much to do about abuse by people of the Church herself. It was shameful to find that faithful were guilty of something like that. Bishop Schraven shows us that in the Church there have also Always been people who chose the good side, who condemned abuse and even gave their own lives if need be. In Monsignor Schraven we have an example of someone who radically stood up for the protection of girls and women from sexual violence.

Where we are able to support efforts who aim to do the same, we, as Church,  can’t fail to do so. We are obliged to do so in Jesus’ Holy Name. Hopefully we are soon able to invoke the intercession of Blessed Bishop Schraven, who gave his own life in imitation of Jesus in the fight against the abuse of people.”

There is a hierarchy of importance in many things, and the agenda of the Pope is no exception. This week the reforms of the Vatican bank and the next meeting of the Council of Cardinals take up much energy and time, and that has consequences for the ad limina visit of the Dutch bishops, due to start tomorrow.

The audience of the bishops with Pope Francis, originally scheduled for Thursday, has been moved forward to tomorrow morning (oddly enough at the same time as, per later reports, the Pope would be meeting with the Israeli prime minister… we’ll have to see how that turns out). That means that the high point of the visit, at least in the eyes of many on the outside, will take place right at the start. But of course that’s not the whole picture.

bishops ad liminaBar three (Bishops Liesen, de Jong and van Burgsteden, who had prior engagements and will arrive in Rome later), all bishops began the ad limina visit with a Holy Mass at the Church of the Frisians, the Dutch home base in Rome. Cardinal Eijk, who was the main celebrant, did not discuss the ad limina in his homily. Instead, he spoke about Advent, which began today. And in the great scheme of things, Advent easily trumps any ad limina visit, of course.

The first coming of Christ, the cardinal said, was not that different from His second coming, likened to that as a thief in the night, as described in the Gospel reading of today (Matt. 24:37-44). “The first coming of Christ took place when He, the Son of God, became man. For centuries, the Jewish people had been looking forward to Him as the prophesied Messiah. But, when He was born as a man, no one was expecting it. And no one was there to welcome Him. Neither the Roman Emperor Augustus, nor his people’s elite was aware of the great event which was taking place in a lonely stable near Bethlehem. Some angels advertised Him, leading to a group of shepherds coming to visit and adore Him. And three Magi came from the East to adore Him as well. And that was, for the moment, that.”

woorts hoogenboom ad limina

Several bishops, among them Utrecht’s auxiliaries Herman Woorts and Theodorus Hoogenboom (pictured above), attended Pope Francis’ Angelus in St. Peter’s Square.

Another change in the schedule of the visit is the cancellation of all personal audiences of the bishops with the Pope. Originally, Pope Francis had considered these, in part because of the relatively small size of the bishops’ conference (13 members). But, pressing engagements on the Holy Father’s  part have necessitated the cancellation of these audiences. Earlier, Bishop Gerard de Korte of Groningen-Leeuwarden had said he was looking forward to meeting with Pope Francis: “I haven’t decided exactly what I am going to say. Anyway, I think it will be very interesting to meet him. There are amazing stories about this Pope. We have never met yet.”

wiertzThe ad limina has also caused a small ripple effect in social media. The Diocese of Roermond has been sharing photos and stories on Facebook of what its two bishops, Ordinary Frans Wiertz (at right, being interviewed) and auxiliary Everard de Jong, have done and seen in Rome; the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden has become active on Twitter; and Haarlem-Amsterdam’s auxiliary Bishop Jan Hendriks is blogging from Rome.

Photo credits: [1] [2] RKK – Christian van der Heijden, [3] Bisdom Roermond on Facebook

Logo BisschoppenconferentieToday the Dutch Bishops’ Conference published the general report on the Catholic Church in the Netherlands that will be presented to Pope Francis during the ad limina visit that will take place from 2 to 7 December. This report comes accompanied by reports on every diocese, which the individual ordinaries will present. Those reports remain confidential, but the general report is public. In due time, I will be posting the entire report in English. For now, however,  a look at the first part, which aims to give an overview of the state of the Church in the Netherlands, and some of the ongoing developments that dictate current policy and trends.

The Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands

The time that the Roman Catholic Church was a great people’s church. lies some decades behind us. We are developing into a church of choice with, especially in the southern dioceses, elements of cultural Catholicism. Before us lies a future in which people who want to be Roman Catholic do so expressly out of a conscious choice. We are investing in the new evangelisation, deepening of the faith and of the personal relationship with Christ. In recent years we anchored ourselves clearly on the basics of our Catholic identity. The richness of the Roman Catholic Church, with her sacraments, social teaching, liturgy, documents and the diversity of offices and ministry has been painted and communicated more clearly and we will continue to work on that.

The Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands exists in a situation of decline, which has begun long ago. In 25 years the number of members dropped by 1 million to 4,044,000 Catholics. At this moment, 24.1 % of the total population is Roman Catholic, and that makes her the largest group of faithful in the Netherlands.

By merging parishes and stimulating cooperation between parishes and parish groups, we want to assure that the local parish remains or becomes a thriving and attractive faith community. From these larger parishes or parish groups missionary initiatives are undertaken, searching for new possibilities to familiarise people with Jesus Christ and His Gospel.

The Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands performs her mission in a strongly secularised society. In it she does not want to retreat as on an island, but remain in dialogue with government, society, other Christians and followers of other religions and philosophies.

1. Developments

  • The reorganisation of the Bishops’ Conference support structure was completed this year.  On the diocesan level there were reorganisations of the diocesan curia and a restructuring of ecclesiastical life. Ambitions, priorities and organisations must be adjusted to a decrease of available personal and financial means, the size of the faith community and the way in which one participates in the community. It makes the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands a “Church in conversion”.
  • knox_bible_openedThe bishops and their coworkers make parishes aware of their missionary duty and the importance of decent catechesis in the parishes, which makes, attuned to the various stages of life, people familiar with Holy Scripture and the doctrine of the Church. In the past fifty years there has not been enough attention for systematic education in the faith in accordance with the teaching of the Church. A multi-year religious education program for children, youth and young adults, developed by employees of the Diocese of Roermond, is also promoted in other dioceses. Much is being done for a good formation of the countless volunteers who take care of catechesis in the parishes. On multiple sides means of assistance are being developed, such as pastoral care with an emphasis on presence in the concrete lives of people, the use of new media, the Alpha Course and initiatives of new movements.
  • Within the context of the mergers of parishes, parochial caritas foundations are also being merged, creating larger and stronger caritas foundation able to create a diaconal face for the larger parishes. A missionary Church must also give clear witness of the Gospel in the diaconal works of love.
  • Mergers of parishes and decline – with the unavoidable consequence of closing church buildings – create unrest and pain in many places.
  • wydPolicy and the joining of forces regarding the pastoral care of young people have led to a successful Dutch participation in the World Youth Days in Cologne in 2005 (3,500 participants), Sydney in 2008 (700 participants), Madrid in 2011 (1,250 participants) and Rio de Janeiro in 2013 (300 participants). The World Youth Days in Rio de Janeiro drew fewer participants because of the distance and the high costs related to the journey. Additionally, the previous World Youth Days (Madrid) took place only two years earlier, which made the time to save money shorter. The annual Catholic Youth Day draws every years some 1,500 young people from all over the Netherlands. The World Youth Days especially deepened the Catholic faith of many participants, as well as the formation of their personal prayer life and active participation in Church life. There is special attention for the follow up of the World Youth Days through youth activities in the dioceses and on a national level. The dioceses also develop their own programs for youth activities.
  • The Passion is the name of a musical event organised by Roman Catholics and Protestants, in which the story of the passion of Christ and the Gospel of Easter take centre stage, and which since 2011 has taken place annually on Maundy Thursday, every time in a different location. It is broadcast live on television. Famous artists portray the roles of Christ and others who appear in the passion and the Easter Gospel. The event is a missionary chance to present the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ in a modern way to a large audience. In 2011 the event drew almost 1 million viewer. In 2012 there 1.7 million. In 2013 no less than 2.3 million viewers tuned in to The Passion.
  • There are some fifty Catholic immigrant communities and some thirty immigrant parishes (of which a few are Catholic parishes of the Eastern rite) These immigrant Catholic faith communities are often very vital and introduce experiences and expression of the Catholic faith from their country or culture of origin. In that way they contribute to a new momentum in the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands.
  • In words and action the bishops follow a clear policy regarding the ecclesiastical, liturgical and sacramental life concerning the position and duty of priests and deacons, as well as pastoral workers and other lay ministers.
  • RKK_logo_paars_magentaThe social relevance of the Church plays a role in her relation to the government, the society, the other churches and church communities, as well as to other religions and philosophies. An important tool is the allocated broadcast time for the Roman Catholic Church (RKK), which the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and the Katholieke Radio Omroep (KRO) fill in cooperation. National government carries the costs for the RKK. This time offers special opportunities to reach Catholics and non-Catholics. But the government has decided to stop financing the RKK and withdraw the licenses of all religious broadcasters, so also including the RKK, in 2016. That is why it is important that the KRO continues expressing her Catholic identity in her own broadcast time. In cooperation with the bishops, the KRO will take over the broadcast of the Sunday Eucharist and a few programmes of the RKK. In addition, the bishops are investigating if there are more affordable means to broadcast programmes with a Roman Catholic identity, for example via Internet television and radio.
  • Whereas the principle of the separation of Church and state originally guaranteed the prevention of state interference with Church affairs, this separation is now used by some to urge for a religious neutralisation of the public domain. This helps in the privatisation of religion and faith. The bishops are in favour of Church and state being clearly separate from one another, both administratively and organisationally. This does not, however, mean a separation between faith and conviction on the hand, and politics on the other. The Roman Catholic faith implies a clear and develop social doctrine, a rich source of inspiration for civilians and politics. The opinions of secular groups in society are, like religious opinions, not neutral.

This part of the report is fairly factual, although it does give an idea of where the priorities of the bishops lie. It is fairly policy-driven and therefore automatically rather far removed from the daily experience of faithful and their pastoral needs and wishes. That is an ongoing issue in the Church in the Netherlands: it is still difficult to make the step from policy to practice, from the discussions and plans of the bishops to the daily affairs and experiences of people. That is a gap that needs to be closed from both sides.

The bishops will have arrived in Rome by 1 December, when they will offer a Mass at the Church of the Frisians, with Cardinal Eijk as the main celebrant. This Mass will be broadcast live on television.

Happy anniversary to Bishop Franciscus Jozef Maria Wiertz, who today marks the 20th anniversary of his consecration as bishop.

Bisschop Wiertz

Bishop Wiertz is the bishop of Roermond. On 25 September 1993 he was consecrated by Adrianus Cardinal Simonis, at the time the archbishop of Utrecht, with Bishop Joannes ter Schure, then ordinary of ‘s Hertogenbosch, and Bishop Alphons Castermans, then auxiliary bishop of Roermond as co-consecrators.

Happy birthday to Bishop Johannes Wilhelmus Maria Liesen, who today marks his  53rd birthday.

Bishop Jan Liesen

Bishop Liesen was born in Oosterhout, Diocese of Breda and became a priest of the Diocese of Roermond and later Auxiliary Bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch and is now the Bishop of Breda.

Happy birthday to Bishop Everardus Johannes de Jong, who today marks his 55th birthday.

 Bishop de Jong

Bishop de Jong was born in Eindhoven, and became a priest and later auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Roermond.

gijsenBishop Joannes Gijsen, who passed away at the age of 80 today, has left a mark on the Church in the Netherlands. Virtually all elements of his service led to comments, criticism, questions and, also, admiration and support. From his appointment in 1972 to his sudden retirement in 1993, his troubled time as ordinary of Roermond and his efforts to maintain a form of Catholic education in the Netherlands, his surprise appointment to Reykjavik and the comparisons between life there and back home (which often saw the Dutch situation in a bad light); Bishop Gijsen made his share of ripples in the pond of the Church.

But in the very first place, Bishop Gijsen must be understood as a man of faith, Asked if he ever experienced any doubt about his faith, he said in an interview in 2007: “True doubt? No, never! I am convinced that the Roman Catholic faith holds the fullness of all knowledge of God and man.”

He lived his life as a bishop that way, as he illustrated in that same interview:

“We’re all priests of the Catholic Church, and especially a bishop has responsibility for the entire Church. You must be able to be deployed anywhere. Of course, it is something else if you can’t because of health or something. But if you’re healthy, you can never say “no”.”

“If, somewhere in northern Iceland, there are a few Catholics who are interested in the Catholic faith, you must be able to offer it to them. Our Lord didn’t say: I want to convert the entire world in one go. He went to backward little Palestine and walked around there for three years, if not less. He reached only a few people. But that nonetheless became the foundation of the faith that reached the entire world.”

Joannes Baptist Matthijs Gijsen was born on 7 October 1937 in Oeffelt, a village in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, just on the border with the Diocese of Roermond. He was ordained for that latter diocese in 1957, by Bishop Joseph Lemmens. Although he spent some time in the parish, he was mainly a teacher at the seminaries in Kerkrade and Maastricht, and a student of theology and Church history in Münster and Bonn. In 1972, he was appointed as the 22nd bishop of Roermond, a move that was quite controversial, as the new bishop was known as conservative and his appointment as one imposed from Rome. Reflecting the latter, Bishop Gijsen was consecrated by Pope Paul VI in Rome, with the archbishops of Utrecht and Armagh serving as co-consecrators. Cardinal Alfrink, the archbishop of Utrecht, would have preferred a consecration in Roermond as a first step towards reconciliation, but was evidently overruled. Bishop Gijsen was installed at St. Christopher’s Cathedral in Roermond on 4 March 1972.

As bishop, he modernised the diocese in the line of the Second Vatican Council,determined as he was to put the Council’s documents into practice. In that sense, Bishop Gijsen was not so much a man of the “spirit of Vatican II”, but of the true Council. As a former teacher himself, he worked to maintain some form of true Catholic education in his diocese, with mixed results.

mgrgijsenoverledenBishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary of Haarlem-Amsterdam, today describes Bishop Gijsen as follows:

“He was a bishop with a vision, not conservative in the sense that he wanted to return to the time before the Second Vatican Council. On the contrary, with heart and soul he wanted to be a bishop who stood in and for that council and wanted to put it into practice. He wanted to be loyal to the Pope and the Church. He wanted “to prepare the way for the Lord”, as his motto was. That moved him, among others, to start a seminary at Rolduc, which has formed some 175 priests, including five of today’s bishops (among them Msgr. J. Punt and myself). As Pope Paul VI hoped and expressed, that little plant has borne fruit for the entire country.”

Above: Bishop Gijsen, third from left, pictured with Bishops Punt (second from right) and Hendriks (far right) and several other priests educated at Rolduc, photographed in May of this year.

In January of 1993, Bishop Gijsen suddenly and unexpectedly retired as bishop of Roermond. He moved to Austria to become the rector of a convent. Although rumours abounded about the reasons, the bishop would later explain:

“I have never had Crohn’s Disease, and I have always enjoyed the support of the Vatican. I can deny rumours of that nature without a doubt. I left because the doctor told me: “If you stay for one more year, you’ll either have a stomach perforation or an intestinal disease from which you will not recover, or you’ll have an aneurysm or a stroke. There is no way you’ll be able to keep this up. You must stop now!” That was the reason why I quit so suddenly. It was sudden for me as well. Agreed, the danger of a collapse was also caused by the developments and the experiences of those twenty years [as bishop in Roermond]. But it was mostly exhaustion.”

Three years of recovery followed, after which Bishop Gijsen relayed his renewed availability to Rome. At that time, the Diocese of Reykjavik in Iceland had been vacant for more than two years, so Bishop Gijsen was sent to the see where his great uncle Bishop Meulenberg had served in the 1930s. He was initially sent to be Apostolic Administrator, but in 1996 he was appointment as diocesan bishop.

Where Roermond represented a time of struggle and management, Reykjavik was by far the more enjoyable of Bishop Gijsen’s appointments. In 2006, he spoke in an interview about his appreciation for the country and the Icelandic people:

“I encountered much understanding. Seen from Rome, Iceland, land of the Vikings, seems a barren and terrifying place. But it most certainly is not. Consider, for one, the weather: here in the city, in the shadow of the mountains, the temperature rarely drops below -5°C. [...] From the very start I liked it here. I am very pleased with this place. Life at 66 degrees north is not that different from life in he Netherlands, at 53 degrees. But life is much more organised.”

In 2007, Bishop Gijsen returned home to the Diocese of Roermond and to his family. He moved in with one of his sisters in Sittard, and took on the pastoral care of a small convent. He shunned the media since then, devoting himself, no doubt, to his books and whoever came for a visit.

Looking back on his own life, something he was not too keen to do, Bishop Gijsen said, in the same 2007 interview quoted above:

“I have always tried to simply think along the same line as the Church. I have mainly tried to act on the basis of the Second Vatican Council, because that was our duty, especially for a bishop. I have done so with my abilities and with my inabilities and with the abilities of the people around me, and with their inabilities. We shouldn’t want to judge the result of that this soon. I think we should wait a while. I think you should never want to be your own judge, so I am not going to judge my own life; I’ll leave that to history.”

Today, many priests and bishops have been influenced in one way or another by Bishop Gijsen. As Bishop Hendriks said above, some 175 priests were educated at the seminary he started, but Bishop Gijsen also ordained and consecrated several bishops. In 1983, he ordained the future bishop Everard de Jong, and in 1985, the future Cardinal Wim Eijk. He also consecrated his own auxiliary bishops, Alphons Castermans in 1982, and Joannes ter Schure in 1984. The latter would become bishop of the neighbouring Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch almost exactly two months later.

Of course, Bishop Gijsen suffered his share of criticism, and he was not afraid to offer it himself. Shortly before his appointment as bishop of Roermond, he accused the Dutch bishops of having “set the faithful adrift” following the disastrous pastoral council of Noordwijkerhout. He went his own way, and this in part was reason for Blessed Pope John Paul II to call a Special Synod on the Netherlands in 1980.

kn_591232_gijsen-en-paus570

^Bishop Gijsen, right, with Pope John Paul II, during the latter’s visit to the Netherlands in 1985.

Most serious in his later years were several accusations that surfaced regarding sexual abuse, both in Roermond and in Reykjavik. While no accusations were deemed inadmissible in court, they do point towards serious mismanagement on the part of Bishop Gijsen.

Bishop Joannes Gijsen was not perfect. He had his flaws, but he was driven by an honest desire to be of service and to do what was needed. For that, especially during the 1970s and 80s, we should laud him.

The funeral is planned for 29 June, at 10:30 in the morning, from St. Christopher’s Cathedral in Roermond. On the eve of the funeral, there will be a vigil Mass for the late bishop at the Carmelite convent chapel in Sittard.

Photo credit: [1] Bisdom Roermond, [2] arsacal.nl, [3] Dagblad De Limburger

About this blog

I am a Dutch Catholic from the north of the Netherlands. In this blog I wish to provide accurate information on current affairs in the Church and the relation with society. It is important for Catholics to have knowledge about their own faith and Church, especially since these are frequently misrepresented in many places. My blog has two directions, although I use only English in my writings: on the one hand, I want to inform Dutch faithful - hence the presence of a page with Dutch translations of texts which I consider interesting or important -, and on the other hand, I want to inform the wider world of what is going on in the Church in the Netherlands.

It is sometimes tempting to be too negative about such topics. I don't want to do that: my approach is an inherently positive one, and loyal to the Magisterium of the Church. In many quarters this is an unfamiliar idea: criticism is often the standard approach to the Church, her bishops and priests and other representatives. I will be critical when that is warranted, but it is not my standard approach.

For a personal account about my reasons for becoming and remaining Catholic, go read my story: Why am I Catholic?

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The above means that I have the right to be recognised as the author of both the original blog posts, as well as any translations I make. Everyone is free to share my content, but with credit in the form of my name or a link to my blog.

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A complete list would be prohibitively long, so I'll limit myself to mentioning The Anchoress, Anton de Wit, Bisdom Haarlem-Amsterdam, The Break/SQPN, Caritas in Veritate, Catholic Culture, The Catholic Herald, EWTN, Fr. Ray Blake's Blog, Fr. Z's Blog, The Hermeneutic of Continuity, Katholiek Gezin, Katholiek.nl, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter, New Liturgical Movement, NOS, Protect the Pope, Reformatorisch Dagblad, The Remnant, RKS Ariëns, Rorate Caeli, The Spectator, Vatican Insider, Voorhof and Whispers in the Loggia.

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Sancta Maria, hortus conclusus, ora pro nobis!

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Pope Francis

Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Metropolitan Archbishop of the Province of Rome, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the Servants of God

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Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

Willem Cardinal Eijk

Cardinal-Priest of San Callisto, Metropolitan Archbishop of Utrecht

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