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On 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.
The 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
He 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.
Joachim 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!”
And 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.
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.
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.
On 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.”
Happy anniversary to Bishop Franciscus Jozef Maria Wiertz, who today marks the 20th anniversary of his consecration as bishop.
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 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 was born in Eindhoven, and became a priest and later auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Roermond.
Bishop 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.
Bishop 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.
^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:  Bisdom Roermond,  arsacal.nl,  Dagblad De Limburger
The Diocese of Roermond reports the passing of Bishop Jo Gijsen today. More news as it becomes available.
Joannes Baptist Matthijs Gijsen was the bishop of Roermond from 1972 to 1993. Three years after his retirement, he was appointed as bishop of Reykjavik in Iceland. He retired from that see in 2007, and returned to the Netherlands to spend his final years with his sister in the city of Sittard, Diocese of Roermond. Bishop Gijsen was 80 years old.
Photo credit, Msgr. Gijsen pictured in front of Reykjavik’s Cathedral of Christ the King: Gerard Klaasen/RKK