For Advent, Bishop Bonny looks to the martyrs of Algeria

Today, nineteen martyrs of the faith will be beatified in Algeria. It’s a varied group of priests, religious sisters and a bishop and their martyrdom is not an ancient event. Rather, they were killed for being Christians in living memory, in te last decade of the 20th century.

In his Advent letter, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp presents us one of the soon-to-be Blesseds. Belgian-born White Father Charles Deckers. He, the bishop says, provides a modern face to Advent, a time of hope and expectation. These are what motivated Fr. Charles and the other martyrs in life, and these still remain.

bonny“What are we waiting for? A justifiable question. Every year it is Advent. Every year we dream about peace and reconciliation. Every years we read pages full of hope and expectation in the Prophets. Every year we construct a nativity scene with a child in the manger. Not once do we feel that those expectations are unnecessary or outdated. On the contrary, year after year current events bring new disappointments or challenges. Our greatest expectations still remain hidden as seeds in the earth, waiting for a better season.

In the middle of Advent, on 8 December, the Antwerp-born White Father Charles Deckers will be beatified in Oran, Algeria, together with eighteen other martyrs. This group of Algerian martyrs also includes a bishop, six sisters, three other White Father and seven Trappists. We know the latter from the movie Des Hommes et de Dieux.

Charles Deckers was born in Antwerp on 26 December 1924. He follows his secondary education at the college of Our Lady. During the Second World War the Jesuits implore their students to aid the needy inhabitants of the city. It marks Charles Deckers for life. After his secondary education he decides to become a missionary in Africa. He ends up in Algeria, then still a French colony. He studies Islam and learns both Arabic and Berber. In Tizi Ouzou, where he lives and works for the longest time, he has a special eye for the young. He establish a technical school where young people can learn a profession. During the Algerian War (1954-1962) he does everything to prevent young people from joining extremist or violent groups. Because the civil authorities do no appreciate his impact on Algeria’s youth, he is forced to leave the country in 1977.

He remains abroad for ten years: five years in Brussels and five years in Yemen. In Brussels he takes part in the establishment of El Kalima, a centre of encounter and dialogue between Christians and Muslims. He is finally able to return to Algeria in 1987. As priest he is attached to the Basilica of Notre-Dame d’Afrique in the capital Algiers. Again, he works for encounter and dialogue, especially among the young. And again, he establishes a polytechnic.

After 1990, political tensions in Algeria steadily increase. Fundamentalist Muslim groups commit deathly attacks against anyone working for peace and reconciliation in the country. Violence against Christians also increases. Despite the threats, most priests and religious decide to remain in the country. Charles Deckers also wants to stay, out of solidarity with the persecuted Christians and his threatened Muslim friends. It is a conscious decision, supported by a deep spirituality. On 26 December 1994 he celebrates his 70th birthday in Algiers. Days later he leaves for Tizi Ouzou, to visit his brother priests. Less than half an hour after his arrival a group of armed commandos break into the building and kill the four White Fathers present, among them Charles Deckers.

Expectation is not giving in to despair or bitterness. It is continued hope for what seems impossible.

After all, humanity’s most beautiful expectations are still hidden like seeds in the earth, waiting for better seasons. When will that hidden seed be able to sprout, grow and flower? It is an open question.

This year, the martyrs of Algeria provide a modern face to Advent.

Their hope and expectations have not vanished. They lie in the earth – also among us – waiting for better times. Advent’s question is not when God will come, but when man will receive Him. It is harder to wait for man that it is to wait for God.”

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Three weeks before the Synod, the list is out

Few surprises in the list of participants in next month’s Synod of Bishops on youth of vocation, which was published on Saturday. As is par of the course for such assemblies, the bulk of the delegates is elected by their own bishops’ conferences and the heads of the Curia departments. The pope chooses a number of delegates himself, as well as representatives from other churches and church communities and experts on the topic of the Synod.

kockerolsAs announced earlier, the Dutch and Belgian bishops have each chosen an auxiliary bishop from among them to go to Rome: Bishops Rob Mutsaerts and Jean Kockerols (pictured) respectively. A second Belgian bishop was chosen by Pope Francis, however, As in the previous Synod on marriage and family, Ghent’s Bishop Luc Van Looy will also take part in the proceedings. It will probably be his last major role on the world stage, as he will reach the age of 77 at the end of this month, and, on papal request, his retirement has already been postponed by two years. Pope Francis also chose a second Benelux bishop, who is not a member of any bishops’ conference. Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, who also serves as president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU, the COMECE.

The German bishops’ conference, being rather larger than those of Belgium or the Netherlands, have elected three bishops to represent them: Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, Bishop Felix Genn of Münster and Bishop Johannes Wübbe, auxiliary of Osnabrück.

The Nordic bishops have chosen the bishop of Reykjavik, Msgr. David Tencer.

With two exceptions, all the cardinals in Pope Francis’ own selection of delegates are ones he created himself. Some have chosen to see this as Francis ‘stacking the deck’, but that is a nonsensical conclusion. Of course the pope sees potential in these cardinals, and wants to make use of their abilities, or he wouldn’t have made them cardinals in the first place.

 

 

A pleasant meeting, criticism allowed – Scandinavian bishops on Ad Limina

The bishops of Scandinavia are wrapping up their ad limina visit to Rome these days. Tomorrow will be the last of their six-day program, which included an audience with Pope Francis on Thursday. It is the first time the entire conference met with Pope Francis to discuss the state of affairs in their countries.

The Nordic Bishops’ Conference is made up of the bishops of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland, and has six members: Bishop Czeslaw Kozon of Copenhagen, Bishop Anders Cardinal Arborelius of Stockholm, Bishop Bernt Eidsvig of Oslo and Trondheim, Bishop Berislav Grgic of Troms∅, Bishop David Tencer of Reykjavik and Bishop Teemu Sippo of Helsinki. This ad limina is the first time that they have a cardinal among them: Stockholm’s Cardinal Arborelius, and one of the daily Masses celebrated by the bishops took place in the cardinal’s title church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. In an interview with Domradio, Cardinal Arborelius commented:

“One could say that that is my home in Rome. As cardinal one is connected in a special way to Rome, to Peter, the Holy See. And that is why every cardinal has the privilege of a church of his own in Rome. I feel somehow at home here, which is a strange but beautiful experience.

[…]

[In this church] they really try and bring the social teachings of the Church to life. People in need are helped here, and that is a prophetic message for the entire Church. We should be concerned more about those in need.”

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The bishops visited most of the dicasteries of the curia, starting with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (pictured above). Prefect Cardinal Robert Sarah encouraged them to use the liturgy as an instrument of evangelisation and to promote its appreciation. Archbishop Arthur Roche, the secretary, lauded the high standards of the translations of the liturgical texts into the various Scandinavian languages.

On Thursday the bishops met with Pope Francis for ninety minutes in an informal setting. Joining them was Bishop Peter Bürcher, emeritus bishop of Reykjavik. Cardinal Arborelius:

“[Pope Francis] was very personable and said, “You may speak very openly with me and even be critical. It is allowed to criticise the pope here, but not beyond the walls of this room. But he said so in jest. It was a very open and also pleasant conversation.”

Some of the topics discussed were the question of youth and how they may be integrated in the life of the Church, with an eye on the upcoming Synod of Bishops assembly on youth and vocation; but also the situation of migrants, which is especially noteworthy for the Church in Scandinavia, as she grows there thanks to immigrants. Pope Francis also asked about the celebration of the sacraments, vocations, ecumenism and the life of priests in Scandinavia. The bishops and the pope also looked back on the papal visit to Lund, which, the bishops said, left a great impression, among both Catholics and Lutherans.

Bishop Czeslaw Kozon of Copenhagen, and also president of the bishops’ conference, summarised a part of the audience with the pope in this video from Vatican News:

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^On the first day of their ad limina visit, the Nordic bishops celebrated Mass above the tomb of St. Peter, underneath St. Peter’s Basilica.

Seventeen years in the see of Boniface – Heinz-Josef Algermissen retires

It couldn’t have come on a more fitting day for the Diocese of Fulda. On 5 June they celebrated the feast day of their patron St. Boniface, which was celebrated over the weekend with the annual Bonifatius Fest which drew some 8,000 visitors, among them the bishop of that other diocese closely linked to St Boniface: Msgr. Ron van den Hout of Groningen-Leeuwarden.

Algermissen2On the same 5th of June it was announced this had been the last such day presided over by Bishop Heinz Joshistef Algermissen. That was not unexpected, as the bishop reached the age of 75 in February, and there was no reason to assume that his retirement would not be accepted within the following months. Bishop Algermissen led the Diocese of Fulda since 2001. Before that he served as an auxiliary bishop of Paderborn for five years.

The Diocese of Fulda, which traces its origins to the establishment of a monastery by the aforementioned St. Boniface in 744. In 751 the monastery became an abacy nullius under the direct responsibility of the Holy See, making the abbots independent from the local bishops. The prosperity of the abbacy grew, in 1220 it became an abbey-principality, and in 1752 it became a diocese in its own right, taking the name of Fulda. Over the subsequent centuries its borders were changed repeatedly, gaining territory in 1821 and 1929, and losing it in 1930 and 1973. The last change was a reflection of Cold War reality: parts of Fulda had been under Communist rule since the end of World War II, and in 1973 those parts, as well as parts of the Diocese of Würzburg, became a separate apostolic administration: Erfurt-Meiningen. In 1994 this became the Diocese of Erfurt.

Karte_Bistum_FuldaToday, the Diocese of Fulda covers the northerns and eastern parts of the Land of Hesse, a small part of Thuringia and and exclave in Bavaria. Within its 10,318 square kilometres live some 400,000 Catholics a little of 20% of the entire population. It remains a pilgrimage site because of St. Boniface’s wish to be buried there, instead of in Mainz or Utrecht. He had been killed in the Frisian swamps near what is now Dokkum in the Netherlands (hence the connection to the the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, hinted at above). With the acceptance of the retirement of Bishop Algermissen, and until the catedral chapter has chosen a diocesan administrator, Bishop Karlheinz Diez leads the diocese. He is Fulda’s sole auxiliary, making him the automatic choice for the role.

During his years in office, Bishop Algermissen had a clear eye on the future, creating 43 parish communities in ten deaneries by 2006, and in 2017 he created the strategy for the next decades until 2030. “When many today see an ever denser curtain blocking heaven from view and when the emancipation from God becomes a program, we are urgently called to establish a countermovement,” the bishop declared.

Commenting in Bishop Algermissen’s retirement, Cardinal Reinhard Marx expressed his gratitude for his service and hospitality (the German bishops meet in Fulda for their autumn plenary meetings), but also referred to his pro-life stance: “Regarding your work, I emphasise the special attention to unborn and dying life: protecting life from beginning to end has, also in public debates, always been a heartfelt concern for you.”

Bishop Algermissen was  a member of the Liturgy Commission and the Ecumenism Commission in the German Bishops’ Conference. He was vice-president of the latter commission.

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At last weekend’s Bonifatiusfest, a toast from Groningen-Leeuwarden canon Fr. Paul Verheijen to Bishop Algermissen (Credit: R. Leupolt)

The election of the new bishop follows the usual rules laid down in the Concordat between Prussia and the Holy See of 1929: the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, requests suggestions for the new bishop from the dioceses covering the former territory of Prussia and sends these to the pope. The pope, or rather the Congregation for Bishops, and following the collection of further information on the candidates by the nuncio, selects his three favoured candidates, and this list is then sent to the cathedral chapter, who elect their new bishop from that list. After approval from the governments of, in this case, Hesse and Thuringia, the cathedral chapter sends the name of the elected to the pope, who then appoints him. Following the publication of the name of the new bishop, a date for consecration (if the new appointee is not a bishop yet) and installation. The consecration of the new bishop falls to the metropolitan of the Church province of which Fulda is a part: Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker of Paderborn. Before this, however, the new bishop makes an oath of loyalty to the German state and the Länder of Hesse and Thuringia.

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^On the day that Bishop Algermissen retired, the newly-appointed bishop of Würzburg, Msgr. Franz Jung, made his oath of loyalty to the prime minister of Bavaria, Markus Söder. Bishop-elect Jung will be consecrated and installed on 10 June. (Credit: Markus Hauck (POW))

Getting (too far) ahead in ecumenism

“We must journey and continue: not with the enthusiasm of running ahead to reach coveted goals, but walking patiently together, under the gaze of God. Some themes – I think of the Church, the Eucharist and the ecclesial ministry – merit precise and well shared reflections.”

cq5dam.thumbnail.cropped.750.422Words from Pope Francis, in an audience with delegates from the German Lutheran Church yesterday. He was, not unexpectedly, speaking about ecumenism, urging continuing theological dialogue between various Christian churches and communities. The goals of ecumenism are often enticing, and this may cause some to get ahead of themselves. The themes Pope Francis mentioned – the Church, the Eucharist and the ecclesial ministry – reflect the goals of a shared understanding of what the Church is, a shared belief in the Eucharist and a shared understanding of the priesthood and other ministries in the Church, and which are often assumed to have been achieved already.

ladaria-ferrer.jpg_872573866This quote is especially interesting as a document was leaked yesterday which stated that the German bishops’ proposed pastoral outreach to interdenominational couples – which included the proposal to allow non-Catholic spouses to receive Communion under certain circumstances – is not fit to be published. The document is dated on the 25th of May, and was sent by the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, to the German bishops who participated in the meeting with the CDF and other dicasteries on 3 May. The letter makes it clear that it was sent with the express agreement of the Pope, who discussed the matter with Archbishop Ladaria in two separate audiences.

The prefect identifies three reasons why the proposal is problematic:

  1. “The question of allowing Evangelical Christians in interdenominational marriages  [to receive Communion] is a topic that affects the faith of the Church and is significant for the universal Church.”
  2. “This question also affects the ecumenical relationships with other churches and church communities, which cannot be underestimated.”
  3. “The topic concerns the law of the Church, above all the interpretation of canon 844. Because there are unanswered questions about this point in some parts of the Church, the competent dicasteries of the Holy See have already been tasked with bringing about a speedy clarification of these issues at the level of the unversal Church. It seems particularly appropriate to leave the judgement of the existence of an “urgent grace necessity” to the diocesan bishop.”

In short, the judgement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is much like what Cardinal Rainer Woelki said several days ago: “We in Germany do not live on an island of Blesseds. We are not a national church. We are a part of the great universal Church.”

Recently, Cardinal Woelki again explained his reasons for opposing to proposed outreach. He indicated the unwritten rule that a non-Catholic spouse presenting him- or herself for Communion is never sent away, but, the Cardinal said, these “pastorally motivated exceptions” can’t be “codified onto a new norm.” They belong in the “area of personal pastoral care, of spiritual guidance, of confession and the individual conscientious decision of the faithful” and can’t be formally tied into the status of interdenominational spouses.

Kardinal-Marx-beklagt-in-Weihnachtsbotschaft-sinkende-GeburtenratenCardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference and one of the supporters of the pastoral outreach, has admitted his surprise as the CDF letter. Perhaps rightly, he contrasts it with the initial request from the pope, that the bishops try and find a solution that is as unanimous as possible. Cardinal Marx said that that hasn’t been tried, let alone achieved, yet. He sees the need to discuss the topic in the meetings of the standing council of the conference and the autumn plenary meeting, but also with the dicasteries in Rome and with the Holy Father himself.

 

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

At the Katholikentag, German cardinals underline peace

With 90,000 participants* it was the largest edition of the event since 1990. The 101st biannual Katholikentag (despite its name, a multiple-day event) took place in Münster from 9 to 13 May this year, with “Suche Frieden” (look for peace) as its central theme. Peace on a global scale, but also in smaller ways, such as in families, parishes, and, yes, among bishops.

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^30,000 people gathered in Münster’s Schlossplatz for the closing Mass of the Katholikentag 2018. 

As the German bishops have been seemingly rather divided on the topic of Communion for non-Catholics, and despite the words from Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer that the Katholikentag should not be used to exert pressure on either side of the debate**, the topic was raised on more than a few occasions. Your author found Bishop Stefan Oster discussing questions regarding ecumenism in light of these recent developments in a question and answer session at his diocese’s stand at the Kirchenmeile (a massive information market for all manner of Catholic organisations, including the German dioceses), to name but one example.

The two main players in the debate, if only because of their red hats, are Cardinals Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne and Reinhard Marx of München und Freising (who also happens to chair the German Bishops’ Conference as president). Both cardinals have gone out of their way to express the importance of unanimity at the Katholikentag. Not in a response to the Communion debate, but in emphasising the continued fraternity and, yes, peaceful conditions among the bishops.

In his weekly “Wort des Bischofs” Youtube talk, Cardinal Woelki said yesterday:

“The many small wars in our communities, in our families, yes also among us bishops must also end in peace. That does mean that one can’t argue about the correct path. I am convinced that debate about a good cause is very necessary, even. But the goal, a fraternal living together at all human levels in harmony with God’s creation, is something that we must not lose sight of!”

urn-newsml-dpa-com-20090101-180513-99-284653-large-4-3In his homily at the closing Mass of the four-day event, Cardinal Marx reiterated that the Catholic Church must make its unity clear, and that includes its bishops.

The efforts of both cardinals, and other bishops as well, are clearly directed at changing the image of division that is the result of the planned pastoral outreach, the letter of the seven bishops and the meeting in Rome. At the same time, as Cardinal Woelki has stated in the quote above, the debate continues, with the added dimension that the papal directive to strive for unanimity has resulted in different interpretations that must be discussed as well.

Despite good intentions and fraternity, the story is far from over.

*This reflects only the number of tickets sold. While many outdoor events were free of charge, tickets gave access to workshops, exhibitions, discussions, tours and other events. The actual number of people who visited Münster for the Katholikentag will exceed 90,000.

**Regarding finding a solution to the question, with Pope Francis’ request in mind that the German bishops come to a unanimous decision, the bishop of Regensburg said on 9 May: “This task will not be an easy one, since the community of the Church transcends the borders of Germany. A possible unanimous decision can only be made in unity with the joint world episcopate, with the world Church, equally with the bishops’ conference of Canada and with that of Indonesia.”

Photo credit: [1] Guido Kirchner/dpa, [2] dpa/Rolf Vennenbernd