Small miracles – In Lourdes, Bishop Wiertz gets personal

Visiting Lourdes with faithful from his diocese last week, Roermond’s Bishop Frans Wiertz related a personal story about his deteriorating eyesight. The 73-year-old bishop, the most senior of the active bishops in the Netherlands, has been suffering from an increasing loss of his sight for a while now. And, as he puts it, “it will not get better”.

Perhaps Lourdes was the perfect place to share such a personal experience of a physical ailment. Here, where the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous, thousands of pilgrims come every year to seek healing from what ails them, and the diocesan pilgrimage led by Bishop Wiertz (together with Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, recently retired from ‘s-Hertogenbosch) was no different.

Bishop Wiertz gives no indication that it prevents him from doing his duties as bishop. As he explains, it forces him to focus more on listening instead of watching, and each word he reads requires more time, so perhaps he has to take things a little bit slower. But he has an auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Everard de Jong, at his side to lead the Diocese of Roermond with its 1 million faithful. For now, we need not expect yet another round of bishop appointments.

The full text of Bishop Wiertz’s homily follows below:

“You may have noticed this week that I always read my text with a little light. That is because I can no longer see very well. I will turn 74 this year and even bishops are not safe from all sort of old age ailments. But you need not feel sorry for me: I am in good health for my age. Except for those eyes. Sight is failing. And it will not get better.

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A while ago this bothered me, as I have to read, and read out, much. And in my free time I like to read books: novels, history, theology. I manage with those lights, but I’m not as fast as I used to be. That is no disaster, but it is a nuisance. Until I discovered something a few months ago. Since I have to read more slowly, I also read with more attention. Every word becomes clearer, so to speak. It sticks more and I reflect on its meaning more.

Walking around here in Lourdes, I wonder if this eye problem does not also have a deeper meaning. I may see a little less, but I also got something in return. A more intense awareness of the meaning of words. And in conversation listening becomes more important than looking.

God lets us have new experiences before we realise it ourselves. I do not mean to say that all illnesses or physical defects are a good thing. Not at all. Over the course of the years I have spoken to more than enough people who really suffer. My ailment is like nothing in comparison. But I have also learned from these sick and handicapped people – here in Lourdes, but also in the parishes where I have worked – that there is only one way to overcome suffering: by going through it. And at the same time look for support with God.

Luckily, nowadays doctors can do a lot to cure people are make physical suffering more bearable. But the best way to learn and accept your situation is through prayer. “Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray,” we heard in the first reading. It doesn’t make you better in the literal sense of the word, but it can help you feel better.

God heals in a different way. He helps you discover things in your illness of handicap, things you weren’t aware of before. Call them small miracles who help you every day to handle life.

Many people know Lourdes because of the great miracles. But in all the years that I have been coming here I have never seen those. I did witness many small miracles. People who can handle things again after a pilgrimage. People who find out, here in Lourdes, that they can still do a lot of things themselves. Like me with my more intense readings and more intensive listening. A small miracle. It is nothing compared to the miracle Jesus performs for the royal official in the Gospel. His son lives again even before he realises it himself. And why? What did he do? Nothing more than taking Jesus’ word for it. We can have faith in Jesus, that all that we experience in our lives has meaning. Even when we do not see it ourselves.

That is why we can look for the small positive things that cheer us up. Small things which help us through the day, who make us able able to handle things for a while. The smile of someone we know. A kind word. The good care of volunteers. The fact that we are making such a beautiful trip together. These are small miracles that God gives us. Winks from heaven, which He uses to show us that He thinks of us and grants everyone healing in His very own way.

You will shortly recieve the laying on of hands. You may experience that as a sign that God is with you, that He gives you strength and helps you. Perhaps in a way that you haven’t thought of yourself. Let us always be open to God, who walks His own paths in healing, but never leaves us.

Amen.”

Photo credit: Organisatie Limburgse Bedevaarten

An end in sight? Taking responsibility for and compensating victims of sexual abuse

In the past five years, the Catholic Church in the Netherlands, in the form of her various dioceses and religious congregations, processed a total of 3,656 reports of sexual abuse by clergy and other representatives of the Church, paying out almost 21 million euros in 699 of those cases. The expectation is that the final compensations will be awarded in 2017, which will be the end of the abuse crisis which broke in 2010 and mainly revolved around abuse which took place between 1945 and 1980.

The largest total amounts were paid out by the (Arch)dioceses of Utrecht, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Haarlem-Amsterdam and Roermond, as well as the Brothers CMM (which tops the list with 1,885,000 euros paid out in 64 cases).

Of the 3,656 initial reports of sexual abuse, roughly half (1,815) became actual cases (some of the initial claimants either never pressed charges or later withdrew them), and of these, 699 have resulted in a financial compensation in some form (out of 820 requests received – some of these are still to be processed and will receive a compensation in the future). This number does not include the cases which were settled in private between the parties involved, or those that were settled with the help of an independent mediator. In a significant number of cases, victims never requested financial compensation.

The annual report of the Meldpunt for sexual abuse in the Church, from which these statistics come, emphasises that secrecy in these settlements is standard. Several weeks ago, there was some consternation about Church entities requiring victims to remain silent about the settlement and the nature of the abuse they suffered. Evidence about perpetrators which becomes known through settlements can and is being used as supporting evidence in other cases, and the Meldpunt has frequently reminded Church institutions and victims’ groups of the need to inform them of settlements made, for that purpose. The Brothers CMM, the Salesians, the Brothers of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, the Brothers FIC and the Brothers of Charity have settled the largest number of reports and cases. This does not indicate any form of secrecy of protection of reputation, unless the secrecy clause was imposed against the victims’ wishes. If that has happened, they were free to settle a case outside the available channels provided by the Church, as some have done. If there were institutions who enforced secrecy, these should have a long hard think about their conduct…

It is clear that the damage done by abusive priests, religious and other Church workers has been great. The Church’s response has been likewise. In many cases the abusers are deceased, so this response must necessarily be given by their current representatives, even when those are innocent themselves. And it has been given willingly in most cases, in a structered and legal way. This approach has sometimes clashed with the inherently emotional nature of the acts and their lifelong effects on the victims. The Church has been accused of being clinical, slow and bureaucratic in dealing with abuse, and perhaps she has sometimes failed in being sufficiently open and pastoral towards victims. But she has taken responsibility, albeit too late in more than a few cases: abuse should never have been denied and hidden in the first place.

The fact remains that in many parts of society this is exactly what continues happening now. The Catholic Church has a reputation of being a haven for abusers, and as painful and wrong as that may be, it is something we must live with for now. The Church has accepted this burden and carries it, with an eye first on the victims and their rights and needs. That is something that other sectors of society could learn from. Sexual abuse of minors has happened and continues to happen, in families, schools, hospitals and other care facilities, sports clubs… Are the victims of that abuse heard? Do those people and institutions also take their responsibility, regardless of their reputation?

Thoughts about the next bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

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.

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Bishops de Korte and Hurkmans in Den Bosch, on Saturday. Behind them Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts.

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

dejong_hulpbisschop_0Of 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.

bishop van den hendeThis 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.

Photo credit: [1] Chris Korsten

Guardian of unity – the papacy in Bishop Wiertz’s Lent message

In his message for Lent, which was read out in parishes in the Diocese of Roermond last weekend, Bishop Frans Wiertz discusses the importance of the papacy. It is a guardian of the unity of our Church, and as such it, and especially the way that Pope Francis fulfills his Petrine ministry, should serve as an example for the unity in our families, despite differing opinions and even arguments.

aa%20Staatsiefoto%20Mgr_%20Wiertz%201_06KLEIN“Brothers and sisters,

We often keep family photos on the walls of our living rooms. They are a sign of a close mutual bond. In churches and homes with a definitive Catholic identity a portrait of the Pope may often be found. As a sign of our close unity with him and, through him, with the inclusive “family bond” that we call Church.

Despite the solidarity in our families there are often tensions. As many opinions as there are people. Sometimes there are differences of opinion, various ideas, also abut very important matters. Mutual cohesion is sometimes at risk.

It is no different in the faith community of the Church. We still recall how much damage the polarisation of several decades ago has done to the Church’s credibility. The Church’s unity is one of the indispensable characteristics of the Church as intended by Jesus. Everything that detracts from that is a shame.

That is why the papacy, recently also often called the Petrine office, has such an important place in our Catholic faith community. To the Apostle Peter and his successors, the bishops of Rome, the Lord entrusted the task to watch over that unity. The Pope performs this duty in communion with the local bishops.

Peter was the first to officially make a confession of faith. He said to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. He did not do so on his own, but out of the mercy of God. And Jesus answered him, “It was no human agency that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 16:16-17). This confession has become the foundation – the rock – on which the Church of Christ has been built.

This witness of Peter and his successors became the guarantee of a reliable body of faith. Through the ages until today. This can be emphasised once more, also in our own time: the Petrine office within the Church is the guardian of unity in doctrine and life. It is the touchstone on which the Church community can always reassess her truth and truthfulness.

We can be grateful for the Popes who in recent times have gone ahead of us as holy shepherds in the faith. Especially through the road map of the Second Vatican Council, they have piloted the ship of the Church on the right course; sometimes in tumultuous and stormy times. We can be especially thank God for the, in every way exemplary, shepherd which He has given us in Pope Francis.

We are living in a turning point of time. Distances and borders are disappearing because of globalisation. In all, especially technological, progress we can not be blind to the shadow sides of this new development. It seems as all material wealth is accompanied by a great spiritual emptiness and indiffirence. The process of secularisation continues and challenges us, as faith community, to a renewed evangelisation.

Amidst this difficult situation the words and actions of Pope Francis remain an example. Within the Church and far beyond it. Tirelessly the Pope proclaims his message of the merciful love of God day after day; in simple words which touch the hearts of people and which are drawn, without many detours, directly from the source of our faith itself: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A proclamation which answers questions and problems of modern man; including with the teachings of the Church, especially her moral teachings.

Pope Francis avoids no question. He seeks an answers in the direct relationship with people in need, with the poor, where the Gospel of God’s  mercy is the first criterium. For that purpose, he goes unbeaten paths.

Not everyone in the Church is familiar with this approach. But Francis, the guardian of unity, continues his efforts to reform the Church. He looks for ways to achieve unity between the teaching that has been passed down and modern life. A difficult task, as he needs to take divergent religious and moral opinions in different cultures into account.

What matters in our families is not to avoid our questions, but – despite differences of opinion – to maintain the bond of solidarity. It is no different in the family that is the Church. Pope Francis guarantees unity.

In this Lent in the Holy Year of Mercy I ask your special prayer for Pope Francis. That he may continue leading our church with strength and wisdom; and that we – led by him as our shepherd – may follow, with conviction and of one mind.

+ Frans Wiertz,
Bishop of Roermond”

Sent out into the world for mercy

logoWednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent (yes, it’s almost Lent already), and in this Holy Year of Mercy it is also the day of another notable event: the day on which more than one thousand special “missionaries of mercy” are sent out by the Pope into the world, to manifest God’s mercy in a specific way, by their ability to forgive the most grave of sins, which are usually beholden to bishops or the Pope alone.

Earlier, we already learned that all priests in the world have been given to authority to forgive the sin of abortion (normally residing with the bishop, all Dutch priests have had this faculty already). Archbishop Rino Fisichella, who is the chief organiser of the events of the Holy Year, outlines the five sins which can only be forgiven by the special missionaries of mercy. These are:

  • Desecration of the Eucharist
  • Breaking the seal of confession
  • Consecrating a bishop without papal approval
  • Sexual contacts by a priest and the person he has those contacts with
  • Violent actions against the Pope

Of course, some of these are more likely to happen than others, but they all touch upon the core values of our faith and Church: the sanctity of sacraments, the unity of the Church and the seriousness of vows and promises. By making the forgiveness for such sins more easily available, Pope Francis wants to emphasise that, even in such serious matters, mercy comes first (with the caveat that true mercy always incorporates justice).

12647487_441962256013964_8703646690579720740_n13 priests from the Netherlands and 33 from Belgium (11 from Flanders, 22 from Wallonia) will be appointed as missionaries of mercy. One of the Dutch priests is Fr. Johannes van Voorst, of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam (one of seven from that diocese; the other six come from the Diocese of Roermond). Fr. Johannes (seen above offering Mass at St. Paul Outside the Walls today) will be going to Rome to receive his mandate, together with some 700 of his brother priests (the remaining 350 or so will receive their mandate at home). His adventures in Rome can be followed via his Facebook page, where he also posts in English.

After receiving their mission, the names of the missionaries will be made known, so that they can be at the disposal of the faithful in the country.

Ordination season – eleven deacons and a priest

The first half of November is ordination season in the Dutch dioceses, with this year one priest and eleven deacons (six transitional and five permanent) being ordained in five dioceses.

On 31 October, Bishop Frans Wiertz ordained Deacon Miguel Ángel Pascual Coello, for the Neocatechumenal Way in the Diocese of Roermond. He will be ordained to the priesthood next year.

Last Saturday, November 7th, Father Jochem van Velthoven was ordained Bishop Jan Liesen for the Diocese of Breda.

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^Newly-ordained Fr. van Velthoven with Bishop Jan Liesen (photo: J. Wouters)

In the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, retiring Bishop Antoon Hurkmans ordained five deacons: Hans Beks, Gideon van Meeteren, Henri Vermeulen, Rien van der Zanden and Pieter Zimmermann. Deacons Gideon and Pieter are transitional deacons.

deacons den bosch

^Five new deacons for ‘s -Hertogenbosch (photo: Wim Koopman)

On Sunday, Bishop Hans van den Hende ordained Deacon Boris Plavčić for Rotterdam. He is also a transitional deacon. Deacon Boris is of Croatian decent and speaks of the difference between Croatian and western European culture in an interview before his ordination: “The Netherlands and Croatia are two different cultures and I feel at home in both. When I am here in the Croatian parish, or in Bosnia where I grew up, I find that my vocation can shine, so to speak, through the way in which the faith is lived and shared there. I will be ordained for the Diocese of Rotterdam. Here you find the challenge to bring God where He does not automatically gets the time from people.”

Next weekend will see the last group of deacons being ordained, in the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam. They are: Paul Leferink, Jeroen Hoekstra, Jan-Jaap van Peperstraten and Mariusz Momot, with the latter two proceeding on to the priesthood next year.

Prayers for the newly-ordained, the soon-to-be ordained and all who may be called by the Lord to serve Him in the vineyard of His Church.

ernst van den hende 7-11-2015

^In closing, a very sweet photo of the oldest and youngest bishops of the Netherlands at the ordination of Fr. van Velthoven: 98-year-old Huub Ernst and 51-year-old Hans van den Hende. Both were bishops of Breda in the past. (Photo: J. Wouters)

A young voice at the Synod

He’s the star of the Synod, and he’s only four months old. Little Davide Paloni has accompanied his parents to the sessions of the Synod, underlining the speeches, prayers and liturgy with his own utterances. A fitting contribution to a long assembly about the family.
davide paloni

Davide’s parents, Patricia and Massimo, are members of the Neocatechumenal Way and attend the Synod as auditors. The couple, who have eleven more children in addition to young Davide, have been living in Maastricht, Diocese of Roermond, since 2004, when Bishop Frans Wiertz invited them to serve the new evangelisation. They have been itinerant catechists for the past few years.

Photo credit: ansa