Just another church? Utrecht to close its cathedral

An archdiocese closing its cathedral. An unheard of development, surely? Not so in Utrecht, and it really is a logical conclusion in a diocese which is merging parishes and selling excess property: when it may be expected from a rural parish somewhere along the German border, why not from the inner-city parish where the archbishop happens to live?

catharinakathedraal utrechtIt must be added that no decision to actually secularise and sell the cathedral of St. Catherine has yet been made. But the parish council has seemingly announced its plan to ask the archdiocese to allow the secularisation and sale of the ancient church, in order to solve the financial dire straits the parish, which encompasses all of the inner city of Utrecht, finds itself in. The final decision lies with the archbishop, Cardinal Willem Eijk, who usually agrees with such requests if the parish’s reasoning is sound. In this context, before anyone accuses the cardinal of willfully closing churches, even his own cathedral, it must be recalled that the archdiocese does not own her churches: the parish usually does, and they must finance the upkeep of sometimes ancient and monumental buildings in a time of decreasing church attendance and financial support from faithful.

Surely, the loss of its cathedral is a monumental event for a diocese, and it does not happen frequently or easily. In the case of the Archdiocese of Utrecht, it will have to find a new cathedral for the first time since 1853: St. Catherine’s was the only choice to become the cathedral of the newly-established archdiocese as it was the only Protestant church in Utrecht given over to the Catholics in 1842. The Protestants had used the current cathedral since 1636, and before that it had a secular use. It had in fact only been Catholic for only the first 20 years since its completion in 1560.

In other dioceses, the bishop’s seat has also been relocated to different churches in the past. A chronological overview:

  • 1559: The church of St. John the Evangelist becomes the cathedral of the newly established Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In Roermond, the church of the Holy Spirit is the new cathedral.
  • 1661: St, Christopher’s in Roermond becomes a cathedral for the first time.
  • 1801: Roermond is suppressed as a diocese, so St. Christopher’s ceases to be a cathedral.
  • 1853: In Haarlem, the church of St. Joseph becomes the cathedral of the newly-established diocese of Haarlem. In Breda, The church of St. Anthony of Padua becomes the new cathedral, and in Roermond, the bishop’s seat is again established in St. Christopher’s.
  • 1876: Breda’s cathedral of St. Anthony becomes a parish church again and the bishop’s seat moves to St. Barbara’s.
  • 1898: The cathedral of St. Bavo in Haarlem, still under construction, becomes the cathedral of the Diocese of Haarlem, the only current Dutch cathedral built as a cathedral.
  • 1956: The church of St. Martin in Groningen becomes the cathedral of the eponymous diocese. At the same time, in Rotterdam, the church of St. Ignace becomes that diocese’s cathedral and is renamed as Ss. Lawrence & Ignace.
  • 1967: Rotterdam’s church of St. Elisabeth becomes the cathedral of Ss. Lawrence and Elisabeth.
  • 1968: St. Michael’s becomes the new cathedral of Breda.
  • 1970: The cathedral of St. Martin of the Diocese of Groningen is secularised, and later demolished.
  • 1981: The church of St. Joseph in Groningen becomes the new cathedral of the diocese of the same name.
  • 2001: The seat of the bishop of Breda returns to St. Anthony of Padua, which resumes the title of cathedral after having lost it in 1876.

In the past centuries, there have been some changes in cathedrals in the Netherlands, with the Diocese of Breda taking the cake in number of switches: it has had three cathedrals – one of which twice – since 1853. Only in the southern dioceses of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Roermond there has been significant stability. The only direct comparison to the developing situation regarding the cathedral of Utrecht is what transpired in Groningen in the 1970’s: the cathedral of St. Martin was closed in 1970, but remained the official cathedral until 1981, when it was demolished after having been deemed unsuitably to be rebuilt into the new university library. For 11 years, the Diocese of Groningen had a cathedral it no longer used, before another church took over the mantle. If Utrecht’s cathedral is closed and eventually secularised and sold, it is to be hoped that a new cathedral is found rather quicker. The most likely candidate is the church of St. Augustine, also located in the inner city of Utrecht, and the only other church in use by the city parish.

In the meantime, the announcement, which has not yet appeared officially in online media, has been met with sadness and disappointment, and the accusation that finances are the only reason for closing the cathedral, while its historical and religious importance for Catholics in Utrecht and beyond, as well as for all inhabitants of the city where St. Willibrord first established his see in the late 7th century, is being ignored.

EDIT: Shortly after my posting this, the cooperating parishes of Utrecht published a statement on their website. In it, they state an annual deficit of more than 400.000 euros, with building maintenance costs as one of the major posts, as the main reason to want to close St. Catherine’s cathedral. The parish of San Salvator, which owns and uses both the cathedral and the church of St. Augustine, is not able to keep both churches open. The cathedral is substantially more expensive than St. Augustine’s, so the parish will, in due course, request that the archbishop relegate it to profane use, per CIC §1222. The parish has extended feelers to the Catharijneconvent museum, which owns the former convent buildings adjacent to the cathedral, as a possible future owner. Moving the function of cathedral to St. Augustine’s is a process which will involve the Holy See. The entire process is still in a preliminary phase and may take several more years to complete.

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Tiptoeing towards understanding – Bishop co-hosts meeting between Church and LGBT community

Almost one year ago, an ecumenical prayer service in a Catholic cathedral to open a gay pride festival, and including a blessing by the bishop, was a bridge too far. This year, more exactly last night, the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch co-hosted the first of three dialogue meetings about faith and sexual diversity. Participating in the private meeting, characterised by an atmosphere of “security, openness and honesty”, were Bishop Gerard de Korte, cathedral administrator Fr. Geertjan van Rossem as well as representatives from the churches in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and from the political world.

Dialoogbijeenkomst rond geloof en seksuele diversiteit

The meeting was promised by the bishop as he announced last year’s plan to host the ecumenical prayer service on Pink Saturday at the cathedral of St. John. Those plans were later cancelled after significant protests, and the service was relocated to the Protestant Grote Kerk. Fr. Van Rossem did participate in it, but Bishop de Korte did not.

The focus of the meeting was to foster understanding. The participants spoke in groups of ten, and the bishops joined several of these groups. “What struck me in the conversations was the willingness to really listen respectfully to each other’s experiences. The participants were courteous, did not look for discussion, but spoke about what they had experienced themselves.”

Mr. Ivo van Harmelen, former Pink Saturday program manager and co-organiser of the dialogue meeting, said: “From the conversation the wish to remain in contact manifested itself especially. First show love, begin a dialogue and try to find each other in that way.” As such, the meeting had no ideological character. It was intended to listen, to create some form of connection and understanding, which can be the basis for further developments.

The interests of Christians and people who identify themselves in sexually different ways are often strained and usually diametrically opposed. The contacts between, if any, are often hostile and judgmental. But both also want to convince the other of their beliefs. Fighting and condemnation will not do that. If there is any hope of dialogue and understanding, there must be a foundation first. These meetings are an attempt to achieve that.

Two more meetings are planned for tonight and tomorrow evening, between faithful, pastors and representatives of various sexual diversity communities.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

The Church grows, if slowly

baptismEaster is the time for Baptism, and every year, the Church rejoices in welcoming new faithful to her flock. Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad asked the seven Dutch dioceses how many Baptisms they added to the books at Easter this year. The number: at least 147.

The standout diocese is Rotterdam, with 80 new Catholics. They are followed by Haarlem-Amsterdam with 48, Groningen-Leeuwarden with 13 and Breda with 6. The Archdiocese of Utrecht and the Dioceses of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Roermond provided no exact numbers.

Like myself 11 years ago, the majority of new Catholics also received the sacraments of Confirmation and first Holy Communion. The number mentioned above does not, however, consist solely of newly baptised. Some people had aready been baptised in other church communities and now entered the Catholic Church.

For Belgium the number stands at 239, Kerknet reports. The numbers only refer to (young) adults becoming Catholic.

Outreach – Bishop de Korte explains why his cathedral hosts a prayer service to open a gay pride event

Recently trickling into international Catholic media was the planned ecumenical prayer service at ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s cathedral basilica of St. John the Evangelist, planned expressly to open the annual Pink Saturday gay pride event. There has been much concern and criticism that a catholic church, a cathedral even, is used in a manifestitation that revolves around something that is so at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Some feared that the service could be construed as a form of support of the extravagant lifestyle so often associated with pride manifestations.

Following the first meeting of his new presbyteral council, and upon that council’s request, Bishop Gerard de Korte has written the following letter to not only explain the reasoning behind holding the prayer service, but also to delve into the Catholic Church’s teachings surrounding homosexuality and the balance between doctrine and life.

It is a careful letter, but one that should be admired for the bishop’s sensitive treatment of the issue, and attitude that is often lacking in debates about this issue. The bishop acknowledges his own duties as shepherd and has stressed that the prayer service can not contain anything that is contrary to Catholic doctrine.

In the end, the cathedral administrator and the bishop have made one of two choices. They could have kept far away from any acknowledgement of the pride events taking place in their city, or they could have taken the bold step towards some form of dialogue. They have chosen the latter. A prayer service is in the first place about meeting God, the bishop argues, and not supporting or protesting anything.

The location, St. John’s, is also striking since in 2010 it was the site of protests, supported by gay right activists and even some politicians, during Mass against the denial of Holy Communion to a practising homosexual.

bisschop-de-korte“Brothers and sisters,

On Thursday 1 June the new presbyeral council met for the first time. Among other things, we discussed the ecumenical prayer service which will be held at the start of Pink Saturday (24 June) in the cathedral. Some priests were concerned; others were glad about the breathing room provided. The planned ecumenical prayer service not only triggered discussion among priests, but also among other faithful. Homosexuality remains a sensitive topic in our Church, leading to much emotion. The presbyteral council has asked me to clarify my own position in a letter. It will in the first place be about the prayer service in St. John’s, but also about the topic of Church and homosexuality in a broader sense.

Ecumenical prayer service

The ecumenical prayer service at the cathedral is the primary responsibility of the pastoral team, especially the cathedral administrator. I know that administrator Van Rossem carefully deliberated it. He obviously discussed the service with the church council, but also with me. The cathedral is, after all, the bishop’s church. I left the decision with the administrator, under the condition that nothing will be said during the prayer service that goes against Church teaching. The contents of the prayer service can not be allowed to hurt the religious feelings of our faithful.

The cathedral administrator ultimately made a positive decision. It is very important that the service is prepared by the administrator and three preachers from ‘s-Hertogenbosch. They trust each other and are aware of the concerns of a part of the faithful. I have full confidence that the service will be serene. Every worship service revolves around the worship of and encounter with God. Liturgy requires stillness and can never be used for protests or demonstrations. Those present at the prayer service will hopefully be encouraged and strengthened in their faith that God loves us unconditionally in Christ. The cathedral administrator and the preachers have asked me, as bishop, to conclude the service with a brief word and a blessing.

During Pink Saturday there will probably be things taking place in the city which are strongly disapproved of by Catholics and other Christians, including homosexual Christians. In that regard I recall the remark of one of our priests during the presbyteral council meeting on 1 June. During the days of carnival there are also things taking place which are hard to reconcile with Catholic ethics. That is, however, no reason to abandon carnival services.

Church and homosexuality

I have the need to not only discuss the planned ecumenical prayer service in this letter, but also the topic of Church and homosexuality. In the Roman Catholic view marriage, the life bond between man and woman, is the framework of an ordered experience of sexuality. The unconditional love and faithfulness of God as thus reflected in marriage. Other forms of sexuality are considered disordered. As a Roman Catholic bishop I am called to uphold this teaching.

This vision is, however, at odds with the dominant ideas about relationships and sexuality in modern Netherlands. A great part of our own Church people is influenced by modern secular culture. The result is a deep chasm between the word of the Church and the experience of many outside, but also inside our Church. One thing and another often leads to misunderstanding, anger and regret. As a bishop, however, I feel called to continue seeking out dialogue, no matter how difficult it often is.

Every bishop, but also every priest, is not only a teacher, but also a shepherd. He is aware of the tensions between teachings and life, also and especially in the area of sexuality. The Church’s ideal and stubborn reality regularly clash. It is pastoral wisdom to not use the teachings of the Church as a stick to strike with, but as a staff to lean on.

Traditionally the Church has known the saying: a lion in the pulpit, a lamb in the confessional. This implies that a wise shepherd tries to find an accessible way with every faithful. The Church’s norms are rarely achieved in concrete existence. In those cases we are not called to throw stones. When God starts counting sins, no one remains standing. But God is forgiveness and that nourishes us. We can and must appear before the face of the Lord with all the rough edges of a life lived.

Now what?

Faithful homosexuals, but also their parents and other family, often struggle with many questions. Which way to go? Is it possible to find a relationship of love and trust within the limits of Catholic morality? The Church asks homosexual people to live in abstinence. Such a life can only be lived healthily and happily when one experiences true friendship with other people and with God. This is also a duty for our parishes. Within the Catholic community, homosexuals should find kindness and friendship. Christians are called to honest charity. It is about the acceptance of every person as God’s creature.

The Church’s norms about experiencing sexuality are clear and the bar is set high, certainly according to dominant Dutch culture. Faithful are called to relate to the norms of the Church and form their conscience. Every faithful goes his or her way with God and conscience is the final and ultimate authority. A tension may possibly continue to exist between the truth of the Church and the conscience of every individual faithful. When parents find that one of their children is homosexual, they are called to surround that child with all care and love. The same is, I am convinced, true for the Church as mother.

United in Christ,

Msgr. dr. Gerard de Korte
Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch”

Kevelaer provides a bishop again, bringing Münster back to five

This week, the Diocese of Münster saw the its full roster of auxiliary bishops, no less than five of them, completed again. And like the last time, it is the rector of the Marian Shrine of Kevelaer who gets to wear the mitre.

Lohmann1130

^Rolf Lohmann, the newest auxiliary bishop of Münster, before the chapel in Kevelaer holding the image of Our Lady, which launched alomst four centuries of pilgrimages.

Msgr. Rolf Lohmann was appointed on Tuesday following the transfer, in April of last year, of Bishop Heinrich Timmerevers to Dresden-Meißen. As mentioned before, there is a strong tradition in German dioceses for the vicars of the various pastoral areas to be made auxiliary bishops. Münster has five of these pastoral areas, and thus also five auxiliary bishops.

Bishop-elect Lohmann will be assigned to the pastoral area of Niederrhein, the southwestern-most part of the diocese, adjacent to the Dutch diocese of Roermond and ‘s-Hertogenbosch (and a small part of the Archdiocese of Utrecht). This includes the old cities of Kleve, Wesel and Xanten, as well as Kevelaer, the major pilgrimage site dedicated to the Blessed Virgin in northwestern Germany, which continues to draw large numbers of pilgrims.

The new auxiliary bishop was ordained in 1989 and served in various parishes until 1997, when he was appointed as rector of the shrine of St. Ida in Lippetal-Herzfeld. In 2007 he became a member of the cathedral chapter and in 2011 he succeeded the then newly-appointed auxiliary Bishop Stefan Zekorn as rector of Kevelaer.

Bishop-elect Lohmann enjoys a close friendship with another auxiliary bishop of Münster, Wilfried Thiesing, who he succeeds in Niederrhein. Bishop Thiesing now resides in Vechta as episcopal vicar for the northern Oldenburg area, but comes from Niederrhein. The friendship between Thiesing in the north and Lohmann in the south should serve to bring the diocese closer together, Bishop Thiesing joked.

The appointment comes at a special time for Msgr. Lohmann. As rector of Kevelaer he has been preparing and looking forward to the 375th anniversary of the Kevelaer pilgrimage, to be celebrated at the end of May and beginning of June. With his new assignment, his role in that celebration will be different than he expected. Bishop-elect Lohmann considers the pilgrimage to be the future of the Church. As bishop, he wishes to continue contributing to a renaissance of pilgrims.

As bishop, Msgr. Lohmann will hold the titular see of Gor, in modern Tunisia. A date for his consecration is yet to be announced, but it will robably be before the summer holidays. Canon law dictates that a bishop must be consecrated within three months after the announcement of his appointment.

Photo credit: Michael Bönte

In exile? – A motto for the new bishop

Now that a new bishop for Groningen-Leeuwarden has finally been appointed, a period of  months begins until his consecration. Set for 3 June at St. Joseph’s cathedral, Msgr. Ron van den Hout will be the first bishop consecrated there since 1999, and only the second one ever. The new bishops’ predecessor, Msgr. de Korte, was already a bishop when appointed to the northern diocese in 2008, so he was only installed as ordinary. It is not yet known who the consecrating bishops will be, but I would not be surprised if Bishop Gerard de Korte would serve as chief consecrator. Bishop-elect van den Hout not only succeeds him as bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden, but also served as his vicar general in ‘s-Hertogenbosch for a year. The bishop who initially appointed Msgr. van den Hout as his vicar general, Msgr. Antoon Hurkmans, could also be invited to travel north from Rome to be one of the two co-consecrators.

f035fdc6-a42b-4ea3-ac5c-e1382f1d2d97Following his presentation at the diocesan offices yesterday, Msgr. van den Hout revealed the motto he has chosen to grace his coat of arms (still to be designed): In exilio spes (Hope in exile). At first glance perhaps a reflection of his being sent far away from home, to a diocese with significantly fewer Catholics (noting the contrast with his home diocese, the bishop-elect said, “I know that there are few religious, there is no Catholic university, there are no guilds”), the true reason is different. Msgr. van den Hout explains:

“One of the Eucharistic prayers says, “Confirm your Church in exile. Make her one in love and faith” [literal translation from the Dutch text – MV]. In my lectures the topic of exile was frequently addressed. In exegesis, the time of the Persian and the exile has been given more attention.

Difficult times are Always a phase in salvation history. Israel survived the exile because it was willing to seek out God once again.”

His soon-to-be brother bishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary bishop of Haarlem-Amsterdam, sheds some more light on the motto:

“With it, he, as an exegete, links to a topic which is close to his heart, as well as to the words of Pope Francis during the last Ad limina visit. The Pope compared the situation of the Church in our country with that of the exile of the Jewish people: there can be a tendency to look back to a glorious past, but the mission – which the prophets then pointed out to the Jewish people – is to look ahead, to seek out God and work towards the future with confidence and perseverence.”

Upon the news of Bishop-elect Van den Hout’s appointment, which was, perhaps unavoidably leaked several hours in advance, the Bishops’ Conference welcomed him into their ranks. Via conference president Bishop Hans van den Hende, they assured him of their prayers, especially in the weeks towards his consecration and installation.

In a letter to the priests and pastoral workers of his diocese, Bishop Gerard de Korte reacted with sadness and joy to the new mission of his vicar general, writing:

naamloos“Pope Francis’ choice means a great sacrifice for our Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In the past year I have gotten to know Ron as a jovial priest of Brabant.

Through the appointment of Dr. Van den Hout as new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden I lose a reliable and hard-working coworker. But I get him back as a colleague in the bishops’ conference.

I congratulate the faithful of my old diocese with the new bishop, and hope and expect that they will greet him warmly.”

Photo credit: [1] Bisdom Groningen-Leeuwarden, [2] Ramon Mangold

Bishops coming, bishops going – a look ahead at 2017

On the threshold of 2017, a look ahead at what we may expect when it comes to the leadership of the various dioceses in Northwestern Europe.

266px-BisdomGroningenLocatieThere have been years when the changes were rather significant, but 2017 does not look to be one of those. At the start of the new year, three dioceses are without a bishop: Groningen-Leeuwarden in the Netherlands (map at right), Mainz in Germany and the Territorial Prelature of Trondheim in Norway. It is a safe bet that the first two will receive their new bishops in 2017, but Trondheim may well be left as it has been for the past seven years: without a bishop, and with the bishop of Oslo serving as Apostolic Administrator. But on the other hand, for a see that just built and consecrated its new cathedral, and which, like the rest of Norway, has seen a significant increase in Catholic faithful, this does not seem like a situation that will continue forever. So who knows what the year will bring.

In Groningen-Leeuwarden, the new bishop will succeed Bishop Gerard de Korte, who was appointed to ‘s-Hertogenbosch in March. Almost ten months in, the vacancy is the longest for the Dutch Catholic Church in recent years. The new bishop of Mainz will follow in the footsteps of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who led that ancient see for 33 years.

Bischof-Norbert-Trelle-Foto-Bernward-MedienThere are a few bishops who will reach the age of 75 in 2017, and thus will offer their resignation. In Germany, these are Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann of Würzburg on 12 May and Norbert Trelle (at left) of Hildesheim on 5 September. Joining them is Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond in the Netherlands. He will be 75 on 2 December, but I would not be surprised if his retirement will be accepted earlier, as the bishop has been struggling with eye-related health problems.

There is one bishop serving past the age of 75. Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent has been asked to continue serving for another two years, so that Belgian see will remain occupied for the duration of 2017.

A less certain area to make predictions about is the appointment of auxiliary bishops. I expect, however, that two German dioceses will receive one auxiliary each. The Archdiocese of Hamburg has been without auxiliary bishops since October, when Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke retired. As the archdiocese is being reorganised, the number of auxiliary bishops will be decreased from two to one, and we may well see one of the three new area deans (representing the archdiocese’s constituent areas of Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg) to be made a bishop. Further south, the Diocese of Münster has confirmed its request for a new auxiliary bishop after Heinrich Timmerevers was appointed to Dresden-Meißen in April. This will bring the number of auxiliary bishops back up to five, one for each pastoral area.

vilniaus_arkivyskupas_metropolitas_audrys_juozas_backis_2In Rome, lastly, there will be no new consistory. Only four cardinals will reach the age of 80 and so cease to be electors. They are Audrys Backis, Archbishop emeritus of Vilnius, Lithuania (and former Nuncio to the Netherlands) (at right); Raymundo Damasceno Assis, Archbishop emeritus of Aparecida, Brazil; Attilio Nicora, Pontifical Legate to the Basilicas in Assisi, Italy; and Lluís Martínez Sistach, Archbishop emeritus of Barcelona, Spain. The number of cardinals who will be able to participate in a conclave will still be 116 at the end of next year, so there will be no need to bring their numbers up.