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 Not once do we feel that those expectations are unnecessary or outdated.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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Heading for a Roman answer, German bishops prepare

In two days’ time, on Thursday 3 May, the much anticipated meeting between representatives of the German episcopate and the heads of several Holy See dicasteries will take place, to discuss the question of Communion for non-Catholics. In February, the majority of German bishops voted in favour of devising a pastoral approach in which non-Catholic spouses of Catholic faithful could receive Holy Communion alongside their partner in certain specific cases. Seven German bishops then wrote to the Holy See to find out if this is a decision that could be taken by a bishops’ conference on its own, or if it involved doctrine and Church unity to such an extent that it is something best left to Rome.

Originally, the invitation for the meeting was extended to Cardinals Reinhard Marx and Rainer Maria Woelki, as well as Bishop Felix Genn, with Woelki as the sole representative of the bishops who signed the letter to Rome. Marx was included as president of the bishops’ conference, while Bishop Genn remains uncertain as to why he was invited. He doesn’t believe it is because of his membership of the Congregation for Bishops, though. Joining these three are Bishops Karl-Heinz Wiesemann and Rudolf Voderholzer, president and vice-president of the doctrinal commission of the German Bishops’ Conference; Bishop Gerhard Feige, president of the ecumenism commission; and Fr. Hans Langendörfer, secretary general of the bishops’ conference. The Roman side of the discussion will consist of Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; Msgr. Markus Graulich, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts; and Fr. Hermann Geissler, office head of the doctrinal section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A team with a heavy focus on doctrinal and legislative expertise, then.

The inclusion of Bishop Voderholzer means that Cardinal Woelki is not the only prelate in the delegation who expressed reservations about the issue. In a recent interview, the bishop of Regensburg explained his reasoning for signing the letter to Rome:

bischof-rudolf-voderholzer-gehend“Let me say two things in advance: I consider ecumenism as a fundamental mission from Christ Himself. In the Gospel of John, Christ prays to the Father, “that they may be one, as we are one… that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me” (John 17: 22b, 23). We must remain true to this fundamental mission of Christ. It’s not a matter of ecumenism yes or no, but of the path of ecumenism, the path to unity. We all yearn for this unity – as do I!

Allow me to add another thing: I am aware of the needs and problems which occur in the education of children in confessional marriages, but also in the religious lives of the spouses. I am also aware of the tensions which come from this and which can be hurtful. I know this from conversations with people in these situations and also from my family. I take that with me as bishop.

The point of the letter which I have written with my brother bishops is to find a way which takes the needs of people seriously and which at the same time provides assistance. We are, however, of the opinion that the pastoral “outreach” sought for by the majority of the bishops’ conference, which allows evangelical spouses to receive Communion, does not resolve these problems and needs. It also does not do justice to the meaning of the sacrament of the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the “outreach” does not sufficiently take into account the different understandings of the various confessions regarding the Eucharist on the one hand, and the Last Supper on the other.

In the question of ecumenism we must, lastly, also take the views of the eastern churches into account. They regard the bond between Church community and Eucharistic community even deeper than in the western churches. When the Catholic Church hides this view, she significantly deepens the split with the orthodox churches.”

feigeOpposing the actions of the seven bishops is Bishop Gerhard Feige, bishop of Magdeburg and president of the ecumenism commission of the German Bishops’ Conference. In a contribution to Der Zeit last Thursday, Msgr. Feige stated that not taking the chance to help people deepen the joy of the faith and their participation in the Eucharist, as well as promoting ecumenical encounters and strengthening the marriage bond would be “macabre and shameful”. Contrary to other bishops, Msgr. Feige insists that the pastoral outreach exists within modern theological and legal possibilities, referring to the canon law paragraphs which allow local bishops to decide under which circumstances non-Catholic can receive Communion. These circumstances, however, are emergency situations in which the danger of death and the unavailability of ministers of a person’s own denomination play key roles.

Bishop Feige, who, as mentioned above, will also travel to Rome on Thursday, also expressed strong criticism against the seven bishops who wrote to Rome. He describes his impression

“that the labourious search for a responsible pastoral solution for individuals did not determine their interest, but rather the fundamental fear of not being truly Catholic anymore. Some still seem to be attached to a pre-Conciliar image of the Church and have little internalised the Catholic principles of ecumenism.”

With these words, Bishop Feige seems to be the one who is rather set in his ways, and it hard to see how such an attitude towards his brother bishops will be helpful in Thursday meeting.

rubrikteaserMünster’s Bishop Felix Genn is hopeful of finding a consensus. While the way in which the seven bishops expressed their difficulties with the conference’s vote did not make him happy, he understands their questions of conscience. In an interview for WDR radio Bishop Genn expressed his happiness about the way in which the standing council of the bishops’ conference discussed the issue last week. And although he would have preferred that the seven bishops had first informed the others about their letter before sending it, Bishop Genn’s attitude is perhaps the most consensus-minded in the delegation, which may be a reason for his inclusion. The bishop, for his part, simply thought of his mother’s motto when hearing about being included in the delegation: “One has never got enough work to do.”

Regardless of its outcome, Thursday’s meeting will not only be significant for the German bishops, but for the entire Church, and the entire ecumenical project. For the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith this will be the first major test under the new leadership of Archbishop Ladaria Ferrer. Likewise, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, although represented by its undersecretary, has recently come under new leadership as Archbishop Filippo Iannone succeeded Cardinal Coccopalmerio as president in early April. The question of the role of doctrine and law in a papacy devoted in the first place to pastoral care and mercy will receive a resounding answer.

For Hildesheim, the new bishop comes from Rome

csm_Heiner_Wilmer_2_9bf3e15c8cWhat’s it like for a priest to be told that the Pope wants him to be a bishop? The newly-appointed bishop of Hildesheim, Fr. Heiner Wilmer SCJ tells his story:

“On Monday afternoon, 5 March, I was in Manchester (Stockport), on an official pastoral visit to my fellow brothers. On the evening before I had extensively spoken with the Sacred Heart priests (Dehonians) about the young Friedrich Engels and the suffering of the workers in the Manchester textile mills, as well as the successes of football club Manchester United. I had had a good breakfast that morning, and the short homily I had prepared about the Syrian Naaman, from the second book of Kings, was also ready for the 9:30 Mass. I wanted to speak about the God of surprises and that things could turn out different from what one expects.

There was a note with a strange phone number from Germany on my desk, with a cryptic name, half-Italian, half-German. “Signore Heinz-Guntr asks you to ring him back”. At first I wanted to leave it, as I dislike ringing back strange numbers without reasonable names. But then I thought, let’s just call back quickly, and have it done with. And then everything changed completely.

On the other end of the line was auxiliary Bishop Heinz-Günter Bongartz. Even though I had not met him before, his northern German tongue was immediately familiar to me. After a brief introduction he came to the point: “Dear Father Wilmer! The cathedral chapter of Hildesheim has elected you as new bishop. The Holy Father sent us your name in a list of three. We ask you to accept the election.” – “What? Just a moment. This can’t be true. I am a man of the Order. Three years ago I was elected as superior general of our order. I promised the brothers to give my best for the next six years…” Oh well, a lot could be said about this. In short: I told him that I needed time. I didn’t understand any of it. I let Monday pass, and Tuesday as well.

On Wednesday morning, at five a.m., I wrote a letter to Pope Francis. I was in Dublin by then. Also on a pastoral visit. I wrote the Pope that the Diocese of Hildesheim’s trust in me moved me, but that it troubled me to have to leave my brothers during my time in office. I also asked for his paternal counsel. In the course of the afternoon I sent the letter to the Congregation for Bishops. There they told me that Cardinal Ouellet would personally give it to Pope Francis in three days, and that I could expect a response in five to seven days.

But the Holy Father also surprised me. On the same Wednesday, only a few hours later, he rang me on my mobile. He understood my conflict of conscience. He said. “I know your community. I will not pressure you. Pray to your founder Father Dehon. Go to the chapel. Have Adoration, which is so important in your community and think of the brothers in your order who were bold and courageous in the past.” So I did. I understood. Late that evening I rang Bishop Bongartz and agreed.”

The appointment of Bishop-elect Heiner Wilmer was announced at noon today. He succeeds Bishop Norbert Trelle, who led the Diocese of Hildesheim for 12 years until his retirement in September of last year. In a rare occurance, the choice did not fall on a priest or bishop from Hildesheim or one of the other German dioceses. The new bishop, although a native German, comes to Hildesheim from Rome, where he worked as Superior General of the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, also known, after their founder, as the Dehonians. This order is focussed on working for the poor and the young, using “education, social work, missions, spirituality and media to announce the kingdom of God.” They live in communities where Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament plays an important part.

Heiner Wilmer was born on April 9 1961 (his appointment comes three days before his 57th birthday) in Schapen, a town of some 2,000 inhabitans in the Emsland, Diocese of Osnabrück, which borders Hildesheim to the west. In 1980, Wilmer entered the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, spending his novitiate in Freiburg im Breisgau. He made his permanent vows in 1985. Preparing for his ordination to the priesthood in 1987, he studied theology in Freiburg and Romanistics in Paris, receiving his pastoral formation in St. Peter’s seminary in Schwarzwald. As a priest, Fr. Heiner remained devotied to his studies. He studied French philosophy in Rome from 1987 to 1989, received a promotion in fundamental theology in Freiburg in  1991, studied history there from 1991 to 1993, concluding it with his first state exam in history and theology. From 1993 to 1995 he worked as a teacher in training at the Windthorst Gymnasium in Meppen. After his second state exam, he was a full-fledged teacher at the Liebfrauenschule in Vechta. In 1997 and 1998, Fr. Heiner worked as a teacher of German and history at the Fordham Preparatory School of the Jesuit High School in the Bronx, New York. From 1998 to 2007 he led the Gymnasium Leoninum in Handrup, a private Catholic school run by the Dehonians. In the latter year he was appointed as provincial of the German province of his order, seated in Bonn, and in 2015 he was elected as Superior General of the Dehonians, relocating to Rome. Hildesheim’s 71st bishop is a man of learning, and of the world.

Despite his travels, the Diocese of Hildesheim is largely new territory for Bishop-elect Wilmer, although he visited it when he was head of the Handrup school, visiting schools in Hannover and other places. His last visit was in the summer of 2017, when he spent his holiday in Celle, northeast of Hannover. “I remember best having ice cream in the shadow of Wienhausen Monastery, despite the rain.”

Asked what he will bring to Hildesheim, the bishop-elect says:

“An open ear. That is the most important to me. I want to listen, to understand, to enquire. The old tradition of the “Sh’ma Israel” (Hear, Israel!) has characterised my religious life from the beginning.

[…]

Central to me is the adoration of the Heart of Jesus and through that the devotion to a God who became man. Hence it is important to me that every person comes into himself, becomes fully himself. Daily Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, time for silence and contemplation characterise my daily rhythm and keep me from chaos and activism.”

From his time in Rome, where he lived with 61 from 20 countries he brings a confidence in the other and an eye for strangers in a strange land.

“And what also formed me as a northern German in Rome is the Italian “serenità”: a cheerful serenity and a serene cheerfulness. A northern German comes from the south. One who is confident that God goes with him!”

Bishop-elect Wilmer will be the fourth German bishop who is a member of a religious order. He joins Bishops Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstatt and Dominicus Meier, auxiliary of Paderborn, who are both Benedictines, and Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, a Salesian.

The consecration and installation of the new bishop will probably take place in September, but an exact date is yet to be announced.

With today’s appointment, all vacant dioceses in Germany are filled again. But this is not a situation that is not likely to last long. In Fulda, Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen turned 75 in February, and his already sent his resignation to Rome.


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End of an era, as the Great One goes

bischof-em-karl-kardinal-lehmannAlthough not unexpected following the prayer request for his health, issued last week by Bishop Peter Kohlgraf, the death of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, early yesterday morning, is a sad conclusion to a long lifetime of service to the Church, one that coincided with and shaped the past decades of her life and development.

Cardinal Lehmann had been bedridden since suffering a stroke last September, weeks after consecrating his successor, the aforementioned Bishop Kohlgraf. After serving for 33 years at the helm of the Diocese of Mainz, it seems sad that his well-earned retirement was so short.

The life of Karl, der Grosse

Karl Lehmann was born in 1936 in Sigmaringen, the son of a teacher and his wife. After his school years, which partially overlapped with the Second World War, he went to study philosophy and theology in Freiburg and Rome. In 1963 he was ordained to the priesthood in Rome by Cardinal Julius Döpfner, then the archbishop of München und Freising. In the 1960s, Karl Lehmann earned two doctorates in philosophy and theology, but his most noteworthy work in that time was as assistant of Fr. Karl Rahner at the the universities of Munich and Münster, and also as the Second Vatican Council. At the age of 32, in 1968, he was appointed as professor in Mainz and three years later also in Freiburg im Breisgau.

Karl Lehmann became bishop of Mainz in 1983, vice-president of the German Bishops’ Conference in 1985 and president of the same body in 1987. He was re-elected as such three times and stepped down, for health reasons, in 2008. In 2011, he was named a cardinal with the title church of San Leone I. Cardinal Lehmann participated in the conclaves that elected Popes Benedict XVI and Francis. He submitted his resignation as bishop of Mainz to Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, but this was only accepted upon his 80th birthday by Pope Francis.

He held numerous other positions as a priest and bishop of Mainz as well. A short list:

  • 1969-1983: Member of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK)
  • 1971-1975: Member of the General Synod of German Dioceses
  • 1974-1984: Member of the International Theological Commission in Rome
  • 1986-1998: Member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
  • 1993-2001: First vice-president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE)
  • 1997-2011: Member of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See
  • 1998-2012: Member of the Congregation for Bishops
  • 2002-2011: Member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
  • 2008-2011: Member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications
  • 2008-2014: Member of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches

In his lifetime, Cardinal Lehmann received eight honourary doctorates, the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and the honourary citizenship of the city of Mainz.

Over the course of yesterday the tributes to the late cardinal poured in, from bishops, priests, prelates of other churches, lay faithful and politicians alike. Bishop Peter Kohlgraf, who broke the news on social media, remembered Cardinal Lehmann as “a great personality, a great loveable human being.” Later on the day, after the Vespers of the dead had been prayed at Mainz cathedral, he commented: “I am grateful for the many meetings and conversations, his warmth and affection. He gave me a lot of courage for a difficult task.”

On Monday, Pope Francis sent a telegram to Bishop Kohlgraf:

“What sadness I received the news of the passing of Cardinal Karl Lehmann. I assure you and all the faithful of the Diocese of Mainz of my deepest sympathies and my prayer fort he deceased, whom God the Lord called to Him after serious illness and suffering. In his many years of work as theologian and bishop, as well as president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Lehmann has helped shape the life of Church and society. It was always his concern to be open to the questions and challenges of the time and to give answers and direction based on the message of Christ, to accompany people on their way, and to find unity across the boundaries of confessions, convictions and countries. May Jesus, the Good Shepherd, grant His faithful servant the completeness and fullness of life in His heavenly Kingdom. A gladly grant you and all who mourn Cardinal Lehmann, and remember him in prayer, the apostolic blessing.”

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, currently president of the German Bishops’ Conference, characterised Cardinal Lehmann as a “great theologian, bishop and friend of humanity.” He added, “The Church in Germany bows its head to a personality who has significantly shaped the Catholic Church worldwide.’ Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin shared Cardinal Marx’s comments: “I bow my head to a great bishop and theologian, who has always been an example to me.”

The passing of Cardinal Lehmann is something of an end to an era, as Bishop Felix Genn of Münster also acknowledges. “After the death of Joachim Cardinal Meisner last year, the death of Karl Cardinal Lehmann equally marks the end of an ecclesiastical era, which he significantly helped to shape.” Considering the cardinal’s personal history, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck saw him as “a walking and commenting lexicon of [the Second Vatican] Council.”

Cardinal Lehmann is also seen as a major player in ecumenism. Limburg’s Bishop Georg Bätzing said: “With him the Catholic Church in Germany loses a great bridge builder. The bridges that he has established are solid and can be strengthened further. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, the chairman of the Evanglical Church in Germany, shares these thoughts, saying, “In the past decades he was a very important partner for the evangelical church and co-advocate for ecumenical cooperation.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel also reacted to the death of Cardinal Lehmann, saying, “I am greatly saddened by the death of Karl Cardinal Lehmann. Today, I think with gratitude of our good conversations and meetings over the course of many years. He has inspired me with his intellectual and theological strength and always also remained a person full of eartly vitality”. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier characterised the cardinals as “a man of clear words who, despite his thoughtfulness and conciliation, did not shy way from political controversy.” It was clear to people who met him, the president added, that the cardinal did not only rely on his own strength, but also on the grace of God.

Another important thread in Cardinal Lehmann’s life was Europe. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, lauds the cardinal as a “true friend of Europe”. He showed us the way as a moral compass and reminded us of the values that make Europe special.”

The many faithful who visited Mainz cathedral to share their condolences unanimously remember “our Karl”, as he was affectinately known in his diocese, as “sympathetic”, “human, open […] and with his humour”, “a fine Christian”, “a man who acted what he preached”.

Cardinal Lehmann will be buried on Wednesday 21 March. The spiritual testament he has left behind will be read out on that day, Bishop Kohlgraf said yesterday.

 

 

 

 

Photo credit: [1] Bistum Mainz

 

In Message for World Communications Day, Pope Francis emphasises the importance of independence, objectivity and truthfulness in media

Yesterday’s message for the World Communications Day, in which Pope Francis focuses on the topic of fake news. A topical buzzword, understood here as ‘news’ that deceives and is not in service to the truth.

“The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Communication is part of God’s plan for us and an essential way to experience fellowship. Made in the image and likeness of our Creator, we are able to express and share all that is true, good, and beautiful. We are able to describe our own experiences and the world around us, and thus to create historical memory and the understanding of events. But when we yield to our own pride and selfishness, we can also distort the way we use our ability to communicate. This can be seen from the earliest times, in the biblical stories of Cain and Abel and the Tower of Babel (cf. Gen 4:4-16; 11:1-9). The capacity to twist the truth is symptomatic of our condition, both as individuals and communities. On the other hand, when we are faithful to God’s plan, communication becomes an effective expression of our responsible search for truth and our pursuit of goodness.

In today’s fast-changing world of communications and digital systems, we are witnessing the spread of what has come to be known as “fake news”. This calls for reflection, which is why I have decided to return in this World Communications Day Message to the issue of truth, which was raised time and time again by my predecessors, beginning with Pope Paul VI, whose 1972 Message took as its theme: “Social Communications at the Service of Truth”. In this way, I would like to contribute to our shared commitment to stemming the spread of fake news and to rediscovering the dignity of journalism and the personal responsibility of journalists to communicate the truth.

1. What is “fake” about fake news?

The term “fake news” has been the object of great discussion and debate. In general, it refers to the spreading of disinformationon line or in the traditional media. It has to do with false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader. Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests.

The effectiveness of fake news is primarily due to its ability to mimic real news, to seem plausible. Secondly, this false but believable news is “captious”, inasmuch as it grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices, and exploiting instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration. The ability to spread such fake news often relies on a manipulative use of the social networks and the way they function. Untrue stories can spread so quickly that even authoritative denials fail to contain the damage.

The difficulty of unmasking and eliminating fake news is due also to the fact that many people interact in homogeneous digital environments impervious to differing perspectives and opinions. Disinformation thus thrives on the absence of healthy confrontation with other sources of information that could effectively challenge prejudices and generate constructive dialogue; instead, it risks turning people into unwilling accomplices in spreading biased and baseless ideas. The tragedy of disinformation is that it discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict. Fake news is a sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes, and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred. That is the end result of untruth.

2. How can we recognize fake news?

None of us can feel exempted from the duty of countering these falsehoods. This is no easy task, since disinformation is often based on deliberately evasive and subtly misleading rhetoric and at times the use of sophisticated psychological mechanisms. Praiseworthy efforts are being made to create educational programmes aimed at helping people to interpret and assess information provided by the media, and teaching them to take an active part in unmasking falsehoods, rather than unwittingly contributing to the spread of disinformation. Praiseworthy too are those institutional and legal initiatives aimed at developing regulations for curbing the phenomenon, to say nothing of the work being done by tech and media companies in coming up with new criteria for verifying the personal identities concealed behind millions of digital profiles.

Yet preventing and identifying the way disinformation works also calls for a profound and careful process of discernment. We need to unmask what could be called the “snake-tactics” used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place. This was the strategy employed by the “crafty serpent” in the Book of Genesis, who, at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news (cf. Gen 3:1-15), which began the tragic history of human sin, beginning with the first fratricide (cf. Gen 4) and issuing in the countless other evils committed against God, neighbour, society and creation. The strategy of this skilled “Father of Lies” (Jn 8:44) is precisely mimicry, that sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments.

In the account of the first sin, the tempter approaches the woman by pretending to be her friend, concerned only for her welfare, and begins by saying something only partly true: “Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” (Gen 3:1). In fact, God never told Adam not to eat from any tree, but only from the one tree: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat” (Gen 2:17). The woman corrects the serpent, but lets herself be taken in by his provocation: “Of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden God said, “You must not eat it nor touch it, under pain of death” (Gen 3:2). Her answer is couched in legalistic and negative terms; after listening to the deceiver and letting herself be taken in by his version of the facts, the woman is misled. So she heeds his words of reassurance: “You will not die!” (Gen 3:4).

The tempter’s “deconstruction” then takes on an appearance of truth: “God knows that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). God’s paternal command, meant for their good, is discredited by the seductive enticement of the enemy: “The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye and desirable” (Gen 3:6). This biblical episode brings to light an essential element for our reflection: there is no such thing as harmless disinformation; on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences. Even a seemingly slight distortion of the truth can have dangerous effects.

What is at stake is our greed. Fake news often goes viral, spreading so fast that it is hard to stop, not because of the sense of sharing that inspires the social media, but because it appeals to the insatiable greed so easily aroused in human beings. The economic and manipulative aims that feed disinformation are rooted in a thirst for power, a desire to possess and enjoy, which ultimately makes us victims of something much more tragic: the deceptive power of evil that moves from one lie to another in order to rob us of our interior freedom. That is why education for truth means teaching people how to discern, evaluate and understand our deepest desires and inclinations, lest we lose sight of what is good and yield to every temptation.

3. “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32)

Constant contamination by deceptive language can end up darkening our interior life. Dostoevsky’s observation is illuminating: “People who lie to themselves and listen to their own lie come to such a pass that they cannot distinguish the truth within them, or around them, and so lose all respect for themselves and for others. And having no respect, they cease to love, and in order to occupy and distract themselves without love they give way to passions and to coarse pleasures, and sink to bestiality in their vices, all from continual lying to others and to themselves.” (The Brothers Karamazov, II, 2).

So how do we defend ourselves? The most radical antidote to the virus of falsehood is purification by the truth. In Christianity, truth is not just a conceptual reality that regards how we judge things, defining them as true or false. The truth is not just bringing to light things that are concealed, “revealing reality”, as the ancient Greek term aletheia (from a-lethès, “not hidden”) might lead us to believe. Truth involves our whole life. In the Bible, it carries with it the sense of support, solidity, and trust, as implied by the root ‘aman, the source of our liturgical expression Amen. Truth is something you can lean on, so as not to fall. In this relational sense, the only truly reliable and trustworthy One – the One on whom we can count – is the living God. Hence, Jesus can say: “I am the truth” (Jn 14:6). We discover and rediscover the truth when we experience it within ourselves in the loyalty and trustworthiness of the One who loves us. This alone can liberate us: “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32).

Freedom from falsehood and the search for relationship: these two ingredients cannot be lacking if our words and gestures are to be true, authentic, and trustworthy. To discern the truth, we need to discern everything that encourages communion and promotes goodness from whatever instead tends to isolate, divide, and oppose. Truth, therefore, is not really grasped when it is imposed from without as something impersonal, but only when it flows from free relationships between persons, from listening to one another. Nor can we ever stop seeking the truth, because falsehood can always creep in, even when we state things that are true. An impeccable argument can indeed rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful. We can recognize the truth of statements from their fruits: whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.

4. Peace is the true news

The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people: people who are not greedy but ready to listen, people who make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge; people who are attracted by goodness and take responsibility for how they use language. If responsibility is the answer to the spread of fake news, then a weighty responsibility rests on the shoulders of those whose job is to provide information, namely, journalists, the protectors of news. In today’s world, theirs is, in every sense, not just a job; it is a mission. Amid feeding frenzies and the mad rush for a scoop, they must remember that the heart of information is not the speed with which it is reported or its audience impact, but persons. Informing others means forming others; it means being in touch with people’s lives. That is why ensuring the accuracy of sources and protecting communication are real means of promoting goodness, generating trust, and opening the way to communion and peace.

I would like, then, to invite everyone to promote a journalism of peace. By that, I do not mean the saccharine kind of journalism that refuses to acknowledge the existence of serious problems or smacks of sentimentalism. On the contrary, I mean a journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines. A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all, especially those – and they are the majority in our world – who have no voice. A journalism less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts, in order to promote deeper understanding and contribute to their resolution by setting in place virtuous processes. A journalism committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.

To this end, drawing inspiration from a Franciscan prayer, we might turn to the Truth in person:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion.
Help us to remove the venom from our judgements.
Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters.
You are faithful and trustworthy; may our words be seeds of goodness for the world:
where there is shouting, let us practise listening;
where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony;
where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity;
where there is exclusion, let us offer solidarity;
where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety;
where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions;
where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust;
where there is hostility, let us bring respect;
where there is falsehood, let us bring truth.
Amen.

From the Vatican, 24 January 2018, the Memorial of Saint Francis de Sales.

FRANCIS

Seminary too small? Close or merge it, says Rome

DSC_0034Through Archbishop Jorge Carlos Patrón Wong, Rome has revealed a minimal number of seminarians that a seminary needs to be “a veritable training community”, La Croix reports. The most recent Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, the document outlining the guidelines for the formation of future priests, did urge that seminaries need to be of sufficient size to function as a community in which priestly formations could flourish and develop, it refrained from mentioning an actual number. Last Monday, in a  meeting with the bishops of France, Archbishop Patrón Wong, the secretary for seminaries of the of the Congregation for Clergy, reiterated this guideline, but left it to Bishop Jérôme Beau, auxiliary bishop of Paris, to state a minimum number of 17 to 20.

While Bishop Beau conceivably arrived at this number from a French perspective (in that country, only fifteen of the thirty-two seminaries reach the minimum of seventeen seminarians), it could have repercussions for other countries as well.

The Vatican guidelines make no demands about numbers, merely inviting bishops’ conferences to “consider” a minumum number for seminaries to remain open, and Archbishop Patrón Wong seemingly expressed his personal opinion that seminaries who do not manage to reach that number should be closed or merged.

Should the Congregation for Clergy move from an urging to a demand, what would the consequences for the Dutch dioceses and seminaries be? A question that is especially interesting considering the question that flares up every now and then of whether the Dutch seminaries shouldn’t merge anyway.

There are currently seven seminaries and other places for the training of future deacons and priests in the Netherlands: The Ariënsinstituut in Utrecht, St. Willibrord seminary in Heiloo (Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam), Vronesteyn in Voorburg, (Diocese of Rotterdam), Bovendonk in Hoeven (Diocese of Breda), St. John’s Centre (Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch) and Rolduc (Diocese of Roermond), as well as two seminaries of the Neocatechumenal Way, in Cadier en Keer (Roermond) and Nieuwe Niedorp (Haarlem-Amsterdam). Most of these already cooperate closely, with teaching staff working at several seminaries and seminarians from various dioceses living and working in one place. Bovendonk caters especially to late vocations, offering a curriculum for students that is compatible with their day jobs.

Of these seminaries there is only one which would be able to continue independently, and that is Rolduc, and then only if we combine the numbers of the diocesan seminary with that of the Neocatechumenal Way seminary, which makes sense since they already share facilities. Together, they have some 40 seminarians from 17 different countries. Only four of these hail from the Diocese of Roermond itself, while others were invited from India and Sri Lanka by Bishop Frans Wiertz. The Neocatechumenal Way seminary in Nieuwe Niedorp has 16 seminarians, just below the minimum suggested. Rotterdam’s Vronesteyn seminary has 13 students, 8 of whom study at Bovendonk and three in Utrecht. Only five seminarians live at Vronesteyn. Utrecht’s Ariënstituut has 10 students, and Haarlem-Amsterdam’s St. Willibrord seminary has 8, with one young man in a year of orientation for a future entrance. The St. John’s Centre does not offer current numbers on their website.

Merging the existing seminaries into one or two larger ones is an idea that has been floated in the past, with some staff in favour and others opposed. Merging all seminaries into one would result in a community of at least 87 seminarians. More realistically, the Neocatechumenal Way would not be involved in a merger, thus creating a seminary of between 40 and 50 seminarians. Perhaps more likely, if a merger would ever happen in the foreseeable future, there will be two seminaries with student numbers somewhere in the 20s for both.

But this is theory. For it to become reality, something more than a directive from Rome is needed. A merger would present its share of logistical and ideological problems as well, the resolution of which could initially be more divisive than unifying.

 

Photo credit: [1] Eglise.catholique.fr

Man of peace – Bishop Ernst passes away

“With his down-to-earth faith and his dedication to his mission, Msgr. Ernst meant a lot to many people. Since my installation in 2012 I was able to visit him more often. His health was fragile, but his mind was strong. At the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, in 2016, he was barely mobile, but he very much wanted to concelebrate the Eucharist. The Franciscan sisters increasingly watched over him in the past months. He was able to entrust himself to God. He reflected on his fragility and death very soberly. During a visit last year he told me that someone had advised him to prepare for the end of his life. It was a sign of his vitality that he responded with, “Perhaps it is time to do so”.”

2016-06-07%20Breda_MgrErnst_©RamonMangold_WEB01_410Bishop Jan Liesen responds to the news of the passing of Bishop Hubertus Cornelis Antonius Ernst, emeritus bishop of Breda, six weeks after celebrating his 100th birthday. The most senior of the Dutch bishops passed away late in the evening on Friday 19 May.

Bishop Huub Ernst was the 8th bishop of Breda, from 1967 to 1992, after which he served for two more years as apostolic administrator. He lived long enough to see three bishops succeed him: the late Tiny Muskens in 1994, Hans van den Hende, now of Rotterdam, in 2007, and Jan Liesen in 2012. Bishop van den Hende, in his capacity of president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, reacted to the passing of Msgr. Ernst on behalf of the other bishops, saying:

ernst van den hende 7-11-2015“Into very old age Bishop Huub Ernst was vital and concerned with his diocese, the Church province and society as a whole. He was consecrated as a bishop almost fifty years ago. Recently, we were able to congratulate him with his 100th birthday. Bishop Ernst was our older brother in the office of bishop, possessing a great heart for charity and the work of peace.”

Generally respected as a wise and well-spoken man, Bishop Ernst nonetheless never received a university education. In some quarters he was also seen a progressive bishop, which he was to a certain extent on the classic topics like celibacy, homosexuality and women, although he failed to get along with the liberal 8 May movement after this group ignored his advice and used a ‘table prayer’ of their own making at their annual manifestation.

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Bishop Ernst in 1967

Bishop Ernst chaired Pax Christi Netherlands from 1976 to 1994, reflecting his concern with the projects of peace in the world. Under his guidance, Pax Christi and the Catholic Church in the Netherlands threw their support behind protests against the presence of nuclear weapons in the Netherlands and the world. In 1983, he spoke before 550,000 protestors in The Hague on this topic. He would later also be highly critical of the war against terrorism waged by the international coalition led by the United States. He based these positions in Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical on peace in the world.

One of Bishop Ernst lasting achievements is considered to be the establishment of Bovendonk seminary in Hoeven near Breda. At his installation in Breda, the Theological Faculty Tilburg was responsible for the formation of priests. In 1983, Bishop Ernst estaiblished Bovendonk specifically for late vocations: men are educated and formed for the permanent and transitional diaconate, as well as the priesthood, initially while also holding their day job. Graduates from Bovendonk currently work in all dioceses of the Netherlands.

The period of Bishop Ernst’s mission leading the Diocese of Breda coincided with a time of great change in Church and society. Over the course of the 1970s, he developed a program based on three observations: a decrease in the number of faithful; the presence of core group of faithful willing to carry responsibility in the Church; and a decrease in the number of priests, deacons and religious. Towards the end of his time in office he had concluded that the Church in the Netherlands was in a missionary situation and a minority in society. Bishop Ernst believed that the Church should distinguish itself through charity and displaying the contents of her faith through language, liturgy and the behaviour of faithful.

Bishop Ernst tried to find a balance between Church doctrine and respect for the conscience of individual people. As such, he participated in the Synod of Bishops meeting of marriage and family in 1980.

Following his restirement, Bishop Ernst continued to speak on topics of ethics and philosophy. In 2007, he reviewed a publication by the Dutch Dominicans calling for lay priests from among the faithful to offer the Eucharist when a real priest was unavailable. Bishop Ernst called this “incorrect, not sensible and not the right solution”.

In 2011, Bishop Ernst was called to testify in a court case against an abusive Salesian priest. The bishop’s claimed to not have been informed about the priest’s past transgressions and found it unimaginable that the Salesians withheld essential information from him when he was asked to appoint the priest in his diocese.

A short overview of the life of Bishop Ernst

  • 1917: Born as oldest child of three in a Catholic family in Breda. He attended primary school at the parish school and the Huijbergen brothers. Subsequently, he went to minor seminary in Ypelaar and then the major seminary in Bovendonk.
  • 1941: Ordained by Bishop Pieter Hopmans. He was appointed as parish assistant in Leur.
  • 1943: Appointed as conrector of the Franciscan sisters in Etten.
  • 1947: Moved to Bovendonk to teach moral theology there.
  • 1957: Appointed as chairman of the (wonderfully-named) Society of Catechists of the Eucharistic Crusade.
  • 1962: Appointed as vicar general of Breda by Bishop Gerard de Vet.
  • 1967: Following the unexpected death of Bishop de Vet, vicar general Ernst succeeds him as bishop. He is consecrated by the archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Alfrink.
  • 1980: Bishop Ernst participates in the Synod of Bishops on marriage and family, representing the Dutch episcopate.
  • 1992: Bishop Ernst offers his resignation upon reaching the age of 75. Pope John Paul II appoints him as apostolic administrator pending the appointment of his successor.
  • 1994: Bishop Ernst retires as apostolic administrator upon the appointment of Bishop Tiny Muskens.

Bishop Ernst was main consecrator of his successor, Bishop Muskens, and served as co-consecrator of Bishop Johann Möller (Groningen, 1969), Jos Lescrauwaet (Haarlem, 1984), Ad van Luyn (Rotterdam, 1994) and Hans van den Hende (Breda, 2007).

Bishop Ernst was the oldest Dutch bishop alive. On his death, that mantle passes to Ronald Philippe Bär, emeritus bishop of Rotterdam, who will be 89 in July.

Phot credit: [1, 2] Ramon Mangold