A preview of the pope’s trip to Cyprus

Tomorrow morning the pope departs for a three-day visit to Cyprus. What’s he going to do there and why is that important?

Before the trip to Portugal, John L. Allen already noted that this year’s papal visits seem to be “laid out in ascending order of difficulty”. Malta was a home game (although it included an unscheduled meeting with victims of sexual abuse), and Portugal was deemed a general success, nationally and internationally (although the Portuguese government did choose to allow same-sex marriage not even a week after the pope had spoken against it). Cyprus, though, seems of a different order of difficulty. Here, the Catholic Church is very much a minority. The 25,000 faithful in the island nation make up 3.15% of the entire population.

Archbishop Chrysostomos and the pope pictured at a meeting in 2007

It is the Orthodox Church which dictates the Christian landscape here. And there is protest in their ranks against the visit of Pope Benedict XVI: At least five of the eighteen members of the Holy Synod are opposed, causing Archbishop Chrysostomos II of Nova Justiniana and All Cyprus to issue a warning to these bishops that they place themselves outside the Church by not welcoming the pope as a visitor to Cyprus.

There is tension aplenty which dates back, in some respects, to the Great Schism of 1054. And while there has been rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches since the pontificates of Blessed John XXIII and Paul V (and a possible meeting between the pope and Moscow Patriarch Kirill I seemingly just over the horizon), the disagreements go deep, centering on the authority of the bishop of Rome and certain theological teachings, for example about the Trinity.

The visit to Cyprus will obviously have a very strong ecumenical nature, and the things discussed here will, at least on the short term, be quite important for the ongoing relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. For Pope Benedict, the Orthodox Christians, who are closest to us in faith, are natural partners in many matters facing the western world today. Ecumenism with them is therefore of prime importance.

Back to my first question: what’s the pope going to do in Cyprus? Well, there will obviously be the official receptions and meetings with heads of state and Church, as well as meetings with the Catholic community. The liturgical celebrations planned in Paphos and Nicosia are all described as ‘Ecumenical’ and ‘Eucharistic Celebrations’ – not Masses: a sign that representatives from the Orthodox Church will be involved, perhaps?

On Saturday, the pope will visit and have a luncheon with Archbishop Chrysostomos II and on Sunday morning the Instrumentum laboris of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, planned for this autumn, will be published. The fact that that publication will happen in the presence of the pope and in Cyprus, and island that in ecclesiastic history has always had close ties with the Holy Land and the rest of the Middle East, is an indication of the importance that Pope Benedict XVI attaches to this special assembly. The Instrumentum laboris (meaning ‘working instrument’), is basically an outline of the topics, with notes and addenda, to be discussed at the assembly).

The two ‘legs’ – ecumenism with the Orthodox and the future of the Church in the Middle East – will both have important repercussions for the near future. This weekend’s papal visit will be one to watch.

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Catholic participation in Refo500 as fruit of ecumenical approach

Last Tuesday Bishop Gerard de Korte spoke at a press conference to signal the start of Refo500, a series of activities leading up to 2017 and the celebration of 500 years of Reformation. Msgr. de Korte is a member of the project group of the Catholic Society for Ecumenism that participates in Refo500 on behalf of the Catholic Church.

I shared my thought about the Catholic participation in Refo500 in an earlier post and in his address, Msgr. de Korte raises some similar points concerning the importance of not ignoring the things that still separate us and, at the same time, of working with those things we share. Another interesting point raised below is the ‘smell of home’, of Christianity as a cultural and social mark.

Refo500 and the ecumenism discussed here is sometimes particularly Dutch. The bishop’s references to ‘Gristus’ and ‘Kristus’, for example, refer to the particular pronunciation in Dutch of the name of Christ: most Protestant use the throaty [x] sound, whereas Catholic use the Latin version [k]. They’re minute differences that carry a raft of social and cultural connotations.

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Ladies and gentlemen,

In the past half century a lot has happened in ecumenism. The old walls between Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians have been increasingly demolished. Yesterday’s papists and heretics have today become brothers and sisters in the one Lord. Personally I see this development as the work of God’s Spirit.

Of course there still are theological differences. Personally I think that many differences are concentrated around the topics of ‘sacramentality’ and especially around the concept of de Church, the sacrament, holy orders and Mary.

Besides theological differences the differences in the ‘smell of home’ are equally important for the average parishioner or the average community member. Our subcultures often still encourage mutual alienation. When a Protestant Christian speaks of ‘Gristus’ instead of ‘Kristus’ a Catholic senses a major distance. Likewise, Catholic usage of ‘Our Lord’ will be difficult for many Protestants.

It is not appropriate to deny or ignore all this. But we realise more and more our calling to search for unity. Only so do we answer the Lord’s desire that all His followers be one (cf. John 17). In th past half century we preferred to emphasise those things that Rome and the Reformation share instead of the things that still divide us. As a common heritage I mention Holy Scripture and the bond with God via the Scriptures; the Ten Commandments; the relationship with Jesus Christ, in Whom God revealed Himself in the fullness of time; the confessions of faith of the early Church; the confession of the Triune God and the theological and spiritual heritage of the first 1,500 years of the Church.

I consider the Catholic participation in Refo500 as fruit of the ecumenical movement. 500 years ago Roman Catholics and Protestant were often violently and irredeemably opposed. We even both used violence in name of our faith. But luckily we can now look back on the origins of Reformation in a more irenic atmosphere.

Historian and theologians from different traditions try to get a new and less biased  viewed on the time of the Reformation. En route to the Luther year in 2017, I hope to see many new historical and theological publications. In that way we can work on what Pope John Paul called “the purification of memory”.

But hopefully Refo500 won’t be just for historians and theologians. A clear view on the past can help every Christian in furthering ecumenical dialogue. In the Netherlands we live in a secular culture of the majority. Confessional Christians have become a minority. This further increases the importance of the ecumenical meeting between Christian of different backgrounds. Only when we continue to overcome our mutual divisions can we give a believable witness of Christ and His Gospel. We are facing the challenge to show that living in friendship with Christ make a real difference.

Msgr. Dr. G.J.N. De Korte

Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

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The above words were spoken at a press conference intended to promote Refo500, so they are naturally rather general and focussed on cooperation. I am personally quite interested to see how the Catholic identity becomes visible in the events. There are plans, it seems, for an exhibition about the Council of Trent, called in response to the Reformation and still very influential in the modern Church. That would be a very good element to include for the sake of creating a complete picture.

Cardinal Kasper’s ecumenical catechism

At the opening of  a three-day symposium on the future of ecumenism, Walter Cardinal Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, suggested the idea of creating an ‘ecumenical catechism’ as one of the products of 40 years of dialogue with Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and members of Reformed churches. The cardinal stressed the need to keep the fruits of the decades of dialogue alive and wishes to promote “an ecumenism of basics that identifies, reinforces and deepens the common foundation.” He fears that modern ecumenism “is perhaps in danger of becoming a matter for specialists and thus of moving away from the grassroots.”

It is as yet not really clear what the structure of this ecumenical catechism should be, but it does sound as if it is a good means to put the mutually shared tenets and beliefs in stone, so to speak. Once set, it could be a good foundation for further development.

Perhaps this ecumenical catechism can be coupled with a renewed effort to bring the cause of ecumenism back to the people. But if that happens, it will have to replace an existing idea of ecumenism as simply being together and sharing regardless of differences. Because that is the ecumenism as it is alive among many faithful now. There is a lack of knowledge of their identity, on both sides of the division.

Cardinal Kasper recognises the importance of not hiding the differences, when he says that we must not ignore the Catholic understanding of what the Church: “[T]he Catholic Church is the church of Christ and […] the Catholic Church is the true church.” And the Catholic Church does believe that “there are deficits in the other churches. […] Yet on another level there are deficits, or rather wounds stemming from division and wounds deriving from sin, also in the Catholic Church.”

The acknowledgement of differences and our own identity, as I have written before, is the only starting point for fruitful debate and ecumenism.

Source

Catholic involvement in the Reformation?

The title is a bit deceptive, I know, but it has some relevance. Nederlands Dagblad reports that the Catholic Church in the Netherlands will officially take part in the commemmoration of 500 years of Reformation. The program titled Refo500 builds up towards 2017, when it is 500 years since Martin Luther  published his Ninety-five Theses. Since then, of course, the various (and increasingly numerous) Protestant church communities have gone their own way.

Much can be said about the Reformation from a Catholic point of view and the question may be asked of how useful it is to partake in an event that seemingly celebrates the fact that a significant number of Christians are no longer part of the one Church. What possible merit could their be in a Catholic acknowledgement of the Reformation as a good thing (because that is the point of celebrating, of course)?

Speaking for the Catholic Society for Ecumenism, Mr. Geert van Dartel says, “We think it is important that this commemoration is not one-sided, from a reformed standpoint. […] The Reformation was a process of action and reaction.”

He has a point. The Reformation directly led to the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent, which was a major impulse for the Church, and its influence is still visible. However, the Counter-Reformation, as the name implies, was very much anti-Reformation.

Karla Apperloo of Refo500: “We did not describe the term ‘Reformation’ when it comes to content. That allows space for a Catholic partner to also shine a light on the Catholic Reformation.”

Let’s hope that this space will be used for more than a mere focus on how much we have in common. That is important, of course, and the commonalities between the Church and church communities must be the basis for future ecumenism, but the differences can’t be ignored. The simple fact is that the gap between the Catholic Church and the Protestant church communities is bigger than that among any two Protestant communities. A focus on the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the Catholic identity, at least from the Catholic parties, will do more for ecumenism then a celebration of mutual friendship.

The Society for Ecumenism als states that: “The divisive meaning of the great theological questions from the 16th century […] have been superseded by faith.”

And that is a bit worrying, because it seems to indicate that faith alone is left, and that all the problems and divisions are gone. But they are not. The understanding of what makes a Church is radically different between Catholics and Protestants.

I noticed that myself during the conference of Christian student groups in Groningen, a few weeks ago. The various Protestant groups seemed to consider their brands of Christianity to be mere ‘tastes’  or ‘preferences’: it doesn’t really matter what sort of Christian you are , as long as it suits you. That approach makes the individual believer, and not God, the arbitrator of what faith  and church are: they establish the church and decide what it should be. The Catholic sense of what the Church is is the total opposite: The Church has been instituted by Christ, and so He has the final power of decision. We are workers in His vineyard, but we can’t decide what His Church must be or do. The Holy Spirit does so through His people, but the initiative always lies with Him. The foundations of the Church have been given, not made by us. The Church is therefore much more than a taste of preference. It asks us to join Christ on His terms. It requires a certain level of faith and trust that through God we will find true freedom and life.

The differences are there, even in as summarised a version of the problem as mine above. We may share the same faith in Christ, but that does not mean we are all the same. In order to be the same, we must first now what ‘the same’ means.

Anyway, that’s a bit of a detour from the Refo500 events. Let’s hope and pray that a Catholic presence will make a difference. 500 years of Reformation is long enough. Time for the experiment to be over.

The bishop of Rome in East and West

Pope Benedict XVI and Ecumenical Patriarch Batholomew. Photo by Josh Trevino

In 2007, the mixed commission of Catholic and Orthodox theologians working towards greater ecumenism between both Churches, unanimously agreed upon a document about ‘authority and conciliarity’, the structure of the Church in East and West and their interdependency. In 2008, this Ravenna document, named after the city in which the commission met, was the basis of further discussions, which developed to focus specifically on the role of the bishop of Rome in the time when both Churches were still in communion; the first millennium. The basis of discussion was drafted into a text, whch has now been published for the first time. It is available here. It reads as a considered history lesson on the popes of the first 1,000 years of the Church and the question of primacy of Rome and Constantinopel especially. This is still a major point in the developing relations between East and West.

Future discussion will undoubtedly look at the second millennium, when the two Churches split and the papacy became ever more distinctly unique, far more than the Orthodox Church is willing to accept. However, the fact that the document mentioned above was unanimously agreed upon by both sides is very hopeful, far more so than anyone would have assumed possible.

A future restoration of the Communion between the two Eucharistic Churches of East and West seems a bit less impossible.

EDIT: The Vatican just released the following communique:

VATICAN CITY, 26 JAN 2010 (VIS) – The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity today published the following communique:

The council, the communique reads, “has learned with disappointment that a media outlet has published a test currently being examined by the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.

“The document published is a draft text consisting of a list of themes to be studied and examined in greater depth, and has been only minimally discussed by the said commission.

“In the last meeting of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, held in Paphos, Cyprus, last October, it was specifically established that the text would not be published until it had been fully and completely examined by the commission.

“As yet there is no agreed document and, hence, the text published has no authority or official status”.

Christian unity, past and future

During yesterday’s general audience, Pope Benedict XVI went into quite some detail when he discussed the progress made in ecumenism in 2009. It’s a fitting topic in the Week for Christian Unity.

Ecumenism is not as easy and straightforward as it is sometimes portrayed as. It is ultimately not about being nice to each other and respecting differences. That is merely the starting point. In the end, ecumenism is about unity, the unity that Christ prayed for.

Ecumenism is also not a human endeavour. Sure, we can do our very best and achieve a lot on our own, but, as the Holy Father explains, we are part of God’s Church, and therefrore He will create unity when He wants it and when He thinks us ready.

The English text is provided by Zenit, and my translation can be read here (and also via the Translations tab above, of course).

The Church in Suriname

Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond is visiting the diocese of Paramaribo in Suriname. Monsignor Wierts has been making work visits to different countries each year in January, to show the variety and scope of the world Church. In Suriname he’ll visit pastoral centres, schools, seminaries and various projects which his own diocese supports financially. He’ll also meet with various religious leaders and will administer the sacrament of Confirmation in two small villages in the west of the country.

Just before the trip the diocesan magazine of Roermond had an interview with the bishop of Paramaribo, the Dutch-born Msgr. Wim de Bekker.

An interesting look at a diocese that is both far away and closely connected to the Netherlands.

By Frans van Galen

Bishop Wiertz and Vicar Storcken of mission affairs are currently visiting the diocese of Paramaribo in Suriname. It is the country’s only diocese and consists of thirty parishes. Some 20 priests minister to about 110,000 people: a quarter of the population. The diocese is 51 years old and is led by Bishop Wim de Bekker (70), born in Helmond. Before Bishop Wiertz’s visit to his diocese, Bishop de Bekker was kind enough to give an impression of the state of the Church in Suriname.

What does the Church that they will meet look like?

“Luckily the Church in Suriname is not grey as we have sadly seen in the Netherlands. There is a lot happening on our diocese, which obviously pleases me greatly. There is a major focus on youth work, and this year we gained a special apostolate by the establishment of the cathedral choir school, consisting of some 60 children. A very special result of that is that a number of parishes now have their own youth choirs. In the coming year we’ll increasingly promote formation days for school children. Our diocese obviously also cares for the sick and elderly and provides Catholic education. The interior of Suriname is a separate chapter. We work with a large number of catechists who have followed a 5-year course, and who have an annual week of refresher courses. They are responsible for Church life in the villages. Msgr. Wiertz will be meeting a number of them when we go to western Suriname for the Confirmations.”

Are there striking differences between the Dutch and Surinam Church or also similarities?

“The Church is alive here. That is largely due to the fact that we cherish social contacts. And the participation of children and young people in the Masses should also not go unmentioned. The message of peace during the Eucharist is always a very warm moment. And of course there are differences in music and song. But there is still an inhertiance from the past, in the form of the familiar Dutch songs which often jar somewhat with the lighter and more rhythmic intonation of the Surinam an Caribean music. Because of the climate our churches are open to the wind, which also brings in street noises which can be a little disruptive, but we are used to it. We also have a shortage of priests. At the moment there are twenty for the entire country, and their average age is high. We have four Redemptorists from Brazil, a priest from Nigeria, two Belgian brother priests, a few Dutchmen and seven priests from Suriname. Too few to be able to be everywhere.”

What is the place of the Catholic Church in Surinam society?

“We are there. The Church has a solid place and is often consulted. I try to be present at special events as much as possible and people appreciate that. Radio and television take the word of the Church into account.”

How is the relationship with other denominations?

“The relationship with other denominations is good. The Roman Catholic Church takes part in the Committee of Christian Churches, and ecumenical cooperation with the Moravian Church, the Dutch Reformed Church in Suriname, the Lutheran church, the Anglican church and the Salvation Army. The committee was established in 1942 and therefore older than the World Council of Churches, and we’re quite proud of that. The Roman Catholic Church also works as part of the Interreligious Council in Suriname, which consists of two Muslim organisation, two Hindu organisations and the Catholic Church. Both groups meet monthly. We’re also trying to established some cooperation between them in the area of social problems. The upcoming elections play a part in that, but HIV and AIDS also demand our shared attention. Next year we want to create a chaplaincy for sailors.”

Are their specific new projects which require your attention?

The youth needs special attention. We want to modernise our formation center. When the accomodation is welcoming, the message can be brought across better and people will have good memories of it. The upgrading of our education institutes requires special attention now. We want to establish a polytechnic, and that is a lot of work. In January we are starting a second course for the diaconate and the classes for parish assistants.”

How about the support from your native country?

“I think we should speak of my former country instead of my native country. It is about Suriname and not my random connection to the Netherlands as a Dutchman. There are many needs, especially for the schools in the interior where a lot must be improved. There is a major shortage of housing for teachers and some schools need renovations. Sadly, education in Suriname is not equal, and faith-based schools get only limited grants from the government. Improvements and restorations are possible only through aid.”