Just before the announcement, an interview with Archbishop De Kesel

Minutes before today’s announcement and presentation of the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Kerknet had the chance to sit down and ask a few questions to Archbishop-elect Jozef De Kesel. The interview about memories of the past and hopes for the future gives some idea of who Msgr. De Kesel is.

In my translation:

aartsbisschop-jozef-de-keselAt your ordination as priest you were surrounded by priests of the family, and especially also your uncle, Leo De Kesel [auxiliary bishop of Ghent from 1960 to 1991, who ordained his nephew]. Was it a matter of course for you to follow in their footsteps?

“The well-known Uncle Fons, a Norbertine from Averbode Abbey, was also there. But no, in 1965 it was already not a matter of course anymore. My vocation comes in part from the family context, but also from my involvement in the Catholic Social Action and in the parish, where a group of us studied the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council.”

Who were your mentors?

“In that time we read, for example, Romano Guardini. I also followed the movement around Charles de Foucauld. Later, when I studied theology, I read with interest the Jesus book and other literature of Msgr. Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner and Willem Barnard.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also a great source of inspiration for me. I mostly discovered him when I was responsible for the Higher Institute of Religion in Ghent. I was so fascinated by Letters and Papers from Prison that I subsequently read all his works.”

What connects these inspirations?

“The theologians teach me that the Christian faith is a great treasure with a rich content and tradition. Bonhoeffer teaches me to understand that this tradition can be experienced in different contexts.

We no longer live in the  homogenous Christian society of the past. But the comfortable situation of that time is not the only context in which to experience your faith.”

As bishop you chose the motto “with you I am a Christian” in 2002. What did you mean by that?

“The first part of the quote by St. Augustine is, “For you I am a bishop”. By choosing only the second part I clearly state that my first calling as a bishop is to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus. Everything else follows from that. For me it is important to jointly take responsibility. That responsibility binds us as a society. The quote is also a clear choice for collegiality in exercising authority. I am very happy with the three auxiliary bishops that I can count on in the archdiocese.”

What are the great challenges for the Church today?

“The question is not so much how many priests we need and how to organise ourselves. But: what do we have to say to society? Formation and the introduction into the faith are very important for that. It is not a question of having to take an exam in order to be a part of it. There can be many degrees of belonging. But we can assume that there is a certain question or desire when people come to Church.

Don’t misunderstand me. A smaller Church must also be an open Church and relevant for society.”

What sort of Church do you dream of?

“A Church that accepts that she is getting smaller. The Church is in a great process of change and that sometimes hurts. But that does not mean that there is decay. There have been times in which the Church was in decay while triumphing.

I dream of a Church that radiates a conviction, that radiates the person of Jesus Christ. Of an open Church which is not only occupied with religious questions, but also with social problems such as the refugee crisis.

Politics have to be neutral, but society is not. Christians are a part of that and should express themselves.”

You did not take part in the Synod on the family, but will probably get to work with its proposals. What will stay with you from this Synod?

“The Synod may not have brought the concrete results that were hoped for, such as allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. But it is unbelievable how much it was a sign of a Church that has changed. The mentality is really not the same anymore.

I may be a careful person, but I do not think we should be marking time. Mercy is an important word for me, but in one way or another it is still  somewhat condescending. I like to take words like respect and esteem for man as my starting point. And that may be a value that we, as Christians, share with prevailing culture.”

May we assume that you will take up the thread of Cardinal Danneels?

“It is of course not my duty to imitate him, but I have certainly learned much from him. Also from Msgr. Luysterman [Bishop of Ghent from 1991 to 2003], by the way, with whom I have long worked in Ghent.”

Your predecessor liked to court controversy in the media. Pope Francis stands out for his human style. What is the style we may expect from you?

“In the papers I have already been profiled as not mediagenic. We will see. For my part, I will at least approach the media openly and confident.”

Will you be living in Brussels, like Msgr. Léonard, or will you choose the archbishop’s palace in Mechelen?

“Msgr. Léonard will be staying in Brussels for a while, so my first home will be Mechelen. I think it would be interesting to alternate and also have a place in Brussels.”

You like Brussels, don’t you? And Brussels likes you.

“The love is mutual, yes. I am certainly no stranger to the French speaking community in our country.”

The Church in Brussels announced this week that Confirmation and First Communion will now be celebrated at the same time, at the age of ten. A renewal you can agree with?

“I wrote the brochure about the renewal of the sacraments of initiation myself, and I conclude that Brussels interprets my text to the full. I am very happy about that. Brussels immediately shows itself as the laboratory of renewal that I so appreciate about it.”

The five years in Bruges were not easy. How have they changed you as a man or what did you learn from them?

“In Bruges I had final responsibility in an environment I did not know well. As auxiliary bishop I was happy to often discuss things with the archbishop, and now I was more on my own. As archbishop I am very happy to be able to rely on three good auxiliary bishops with whom I will be pleased to discuss matters. Like my time as episcopal vicar in Ghent and as auxiliary bishop in Brussels, I consider the past five years as an important learning experience.”

‘A courageous bishop’

A surprising article on the website of Katholiek Nieuwsblad. Surprising in that the author, Jan Peeters, takes the unpopular position and manages to given an overview of the recent decisions of Archbishop Eijk, which have caused so much discussion in his archdiocese these past months. Peeters’ position is, in my opinion, the unpopular one, in that he defends the archbishop who has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism. Granted, not all of that criticism was unjust, but the article below shows that much can be defended.

I agree with the main point that Peeters makes; that the Dutch Church needs a doctor who is able to make the drastic decisions to heal things. And such decisions rarely make anyone popular, certainly not immediately.

That’s not to say that I agree with everything in the article. Especially the points he makes about Ms Stienstra and her reasons for acting the way she did are, in my opinion, unverifiable by anyone but herself.

In closing, an article that shows the big picture, although some emotion, or should I say frustration, shines through here and there.

A courageous bishop

Church historian Peter Nissen is a strange man: his long-held wish dream of a ‘bishop with balls’ has finally come true, and it’s still not right, because he is immediately ‘stalinist’.

For the strangers in Jerusalem: it concerns Wim Eijk, de archbishop of Utrecht, who was sharply attacked in Trouw over his policies. Eijk has the thankless task to safeguard the archdiocese, with drastic measures, from bankruptcy. He also considers I his task to have the financial side secure enough to assure continued wellbeing for the next ten years.

Eijk is probably the first Dutch bishop who has publicly indicated that the situation of the Catholic Church has gotten so precarious that he lets money flow back to local faith communities, through cuts in staff and supporting services. How hard the times are for them is something we’ll hear in the coming week during the start of the Kerkbalans fundraising campaign.

Hard reality

Or simply from the numbers: Between 1998 and 2008 the number of Churchgoing Catholics in Utrecht dropped with 41.9 percent to a meager 55,400 per week. These have to support 306 parishes: on average 181 often elderly parishioners per parish.

Eijk is the first to couple action to all concerned mutterings by turning every penny from the pockets of the faithful twice. Sadly and unavoidably that leads to job cuts. Even our national unions can’t avoid that. Eijk’s willingness to take that step shows backbone, because it is not easy and provides ammunition to his opponents.

A ‘bishop with balls’ therefore, to use the vocabulary of Peter Nissen. The image of a cold sanitiser that this creates works strongly to his disadvantage. We see another man than the likeable one in the interview after his long illness.

Playtime is over

The fact that Nissen does not welcome Eijk’s deciseveness may have to do with the fact that he became a ‘victim’ of it himself. Eijk’s opponents may shout that he can’t handle criticism, but on the other, the people are unable to deal with shepherd who truly lead. The playtime that has paralysed the Dutch Church province for the past forty years seems to be over now that there is an archbishop who firmly takes control. That is relatively new.

Nissen probably expected Eijk to concede when he pulled the university of Nijmegen out of the partnership with the Catholic universities of Utrecht and Tilburg which would lead to the Faculty of Catholic Theology. But he lost for his own university the long-desired Vatican recognition: Eijk was not fooled. Nissen is therefore not the objective oberser people take him for.

Resentful of consisten?

The same goes just as much for fellow church historian Ton van Schaik. He too has some unfinished business with Eijk. The latter, when he was bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden, though it unacceptable that a certain Van Schaik, who had publicly declared that Eijk was unfit to be not only a bishop, but even a priest, was a teacher at the Bovendonk seminary in which the diocese participated. He lost his position as teacher.

In Trouw Nissen calls these actions “almost stalinist practices. You may cheer for the leader and agree with his policies, or you’re out.” Disregarding the fact that the qualification ‘almost stalinist’ is a grave one for any historian, let alone a Catholic one, the reaction, no matter how ridiculous, is understandable in the Dutch context.

Anarchy

Our native Church is stuck in the anti-authoritarian attidude of the 1970s, when bishops barely acted out of fear for attack, as happened to Bishop Gijssen of Roermond and, later, his colleague Bomers in Haarlem, who suffered a fullblown coup.

The ultimate example is the affair around the recently deceased theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, who had received an official Vatican conviction for heretical ideas, but who was not sanctioned in any way, neither against his person nor his ‘teachings’. He was even given, with the support of several bishops, a university chair, which was then rapidly turned back by Rome.

Cultural difference

In this context the rumoured friction between the current and previous archbishops is not unthinkable. But is that not primarily a confrontation between two cultures? One who think that you can’t take drastic measures, and the other considering lack of action unacceptable? Eijk did not just inherit a financial mess, but also an atmosphere of everyone going their own way.

It is well know that Cardinal Simonis worked towards at least one weekly Eucharist in each parish, but encountered shrugs and mockery in his own diocesan council.

Changing of the guard

It is fully understandable that newly-arrived Eijk wanted to clean up. A new policy requires new people, and that causes resistance by definition, since for certain people it will mean a loss of power. It is foolish to accuse the archbishop of ‘power politics’ en ‘power concentration’ when he used his responsibility and makes decision. As if the former deans who formed the diocesan council did not play power politics or, according to some, even had the actual power. Together they were responsible for the policy of squandering that brought the archdiocese to the edge of bankruptcy. Former economist Jacques Klok’s statements in Trouw, that the diocese pumped 1.5 million euros annually into the ‘missionairy Church’, are evidence of utter recknlessness.

‘It wasn’t me’

Klok thinks it not opportune for Eijk to constantly nag about the financial mismanagement under Cardinal Simonis, but wasn’t that first and foremost Klok’s responsibility, who was the financial genius at the head of the economic council of the Dutch dioceses for years?

Did not Klok in 2003 gather a surprised press corps to deny that the archdiocese was bankrupt? It seems that Jacques Klok is trying to clear his own conscience to the detriment of the cardinal.

Well-considered

What some consider not calssy, let alone sympathetic is Eijk’s mentioning of impending bankruptcy at his installation. Was that kick at the departing people or an emphasis that the required measures were not his fault? Or was to wake everyone up to the looming measures? It worked, because the dismissal of the diocesan council caused very little discussion among the fauithful. That was well thought-out.

Tiltenberg substandard?

What does not fit in the negative image of Eijk as ‘ambitious job hunter’, is the closing of his own seminary, always a bit of prestige for a bishop. Some priests replied to the violent reactions with the understatement that they ‘never knew the konvikt was that good.’ There were three equal elements in the decision: lack of funds, too hew students and a good alternative, at least second best: the Tiltenberg seminary in Haarlem.

Out of the backyard

The archbishop also yielded his much-appreciated rector, Norbert Schnell, to the Bovendonk seminary, which had gone without a rector for two years, and which also delivered priests for Utrecht. Was that an attemopt to ‘buy off’ his colleague Van den Hende, or did he really want to optimally use his few means, even outside the boundaries of his own diocese? That is highly unusual in the Netherlands.

Everyone admits that seven seminaries for the Netherlands is foolish, but the willingness to end that waste of energy, manpower and means was missing until now.

And that is how the archbishop was the first to do what many thought should have been done a long time ago: concentrate the seminaries in one or two locations. Until now no bishop wanted to be the first. That too is being courageous.

Circle Hendriksen

CRK chair Nelly Stienstra sees this all very differently. Cardinal Simonis was a regular visitor, just like Wim Eijk who was a ‘friend’. Those relations originated with former auxiliary bishop of Utrecht Th.G.A. Hendriksen, with whom Stienstra had a special bond and who became her housemate. That is how she became involved with the circle of orthodox priests and later bishops around Hendriksen. Those relations continued after his death in 2001 and next to cordial and fruitful contacts, resulted in open doors and influence for Ms Stienstra. That was also the case for the Ariënskonvikt: Stienstra lived across the street from one of its locations where she often came, went to Mass daily and which was a window into the heart of the archdiocese for her. Its closure abruptly ended that and the cordial contacts at the Maliebaan [location of the diocesan offices] are for now also seriously disrupted.

Complicating factor is the fact that Msgr. Hendriksen saw the konvikt as one of the two seminaries for the Netherlands. That made Stienstra’s objections against its closure intensely personal. It must have been an enormous loss for her.

The bishop lies?

In late December Eijk removed Ms Stienstra as a volunteer from his cathedral, because she had publicly declared that there were millions available for the konvikt. These statements have not been proven yet. She also accused the archbishop of “abuse of power and lack of humanity”.

She accuses the archbishop of being a despot, now that he has removed her for her criticism, after so much work on her part and despite their ‘friendship’. But wasn’t it ‘friendly’ Nelly Stienstra herself who initially publicly doubted the integrity of the archbishop and accused him in Trouw of “abuse of power and lack of humanity”?

Crisis of authority

Are Eijk’s actions truly vindictive, ‘stalinist’ or ‘despotic’? Or does the archbishop tyr to make clear that not everything should just be said? That some acts are not without consequence? He makes clear that he won’t be mocked. And that had became habit in the past forty years.

In 1984, Archbishop Simonis told young Catholics in Utrecht that there was not crisis of faith, but a crisis of authority in the Church. His succesor now tries to reassert that authority. That takes getting used to. That is necessary. Our terminally ill Church province, that saw the average percentage of regular churchgoes drop from 23.7 percent to a paltry 7.1 percent in 28 years, urgently needs a doctor. An able surgeon who saves what can be saved and removes what’s necessary and who does what is medically best. A cool person you can trust with your life. The rest is secondary for now.

A challenging and difficult theologian

On the last day of 2009, theologian Edward Schillebeeckx was buried in Nijmegen. The funeral of the controversial Dominican was attended by a fair number of fewllo theologians and representatives of the Church. This despite the often difficult relations between Schillebeeckx and the authorities. On behalf of the Dutch bishops, Msgr. Gerard de Korte attended the funeral, and he writes about it in his column at rkk.nl.

On the death of Father Schillebeeckx
Just before Christmas the Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx died at a very high age. On new Year’s Eve he was buried in Nijmegen. I, representing the Dutch bishops, also gave my last regards to this influential theologian. Memorial articles appeared in the media, very soon after his death. As during his life he remains a controversial theologian after his death.

Discussed
An orthodox protestant theologian called him a ‘liberal whistle-blower’. Conservative Catholic websites speak of an ‘heretic’. Through their chairman, Bishop van Luyn, the Dutch bishops utter careful words. They recall with appreciation the major role of Father Schillebeeckx during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). He remained, in the words of Bishop van Luyn, an influential theologian in the years following, both within the Netherlands and without.

Difficult theologian
I would call Schillebeeckx a challenging and especially difficult theologian. In the first place difficult to read. Incorrect interpretations were easily made, not just because of the erudition of the books but sometimes also because of the long and convoluted sentences. Schillebeeckx also became increasingly difficult for Church authorities, in Rome and in the Netherlands. Looking back I can only consider it tragic that bishops and theologians of Father Schillebeeckx’ stature ended up fruitlessly opposite one another.

The early Schillebeeckx
As far as I can recall, Christ, the sacrament of the encounter with God was the first of Schillebeeckx’ works that I read. It is a work by the early Schillebeeckx from the 1950s. I read it as a history student and was gripped by its piety. The relational approach struck me. Our faith is ultimately about the personal relation of God who came to us in Christ. Schillebeeckx calls Christ the primordial sacrament. The encounter with God is deeply connected with our encounter with Christ, prime access to the Father. In the Church, and especially in the sacraments of the Church, Christ approaches us visibly and tangibly.

Critical about tradition
After my graduation as a historian I became a seminarian and read, among others, his famed book Jesus: an experiment in Christology. Schillebeeckx had become a systematic theologian who wanted to do justice to the results of the study of the Bible. In his own words, he wanted to be an orthodox theologian who was critical about tradition. He emphasised the importance of hermeneutics. A repetition without context of the dogmatic formulae of the past is not fruitful for a living faith. A good explanation and presentation are exceedingly important. What did the early Church say about the mystery of God and the person of Jesus Christ? How can the old faith be put in such words that it is relevant for modern Christians? In this light theology had a deeply pastoral motive for Schillebeeckx: how can I help modern people to achieve the faith in Jesus that the Church wants to express in her christological dogma?

The later Schillebeeckx
In Schillebeeckx later works current events became important, next to tradition. He said God’s salvation far beyond the boundaries of the Church. People are the words with which God write His story. This support of the broad working of God’s Spirit leads to both agreement and questions. Is God’s unique salvation through Jesus Christ still done enough justice?

Discussion about holy orders
Recently there has been some tension between the bishops and the Dutch Dominicans about a brochure about holy orders. Especially the notion that a local community could let someone who was not a priest celebrate the Eucharist was a bridge too far for the bishops. The word schismatic was unavoidable in this context. One could wonder in how far Father Schillebeeckx, with his critical publications about holy orders, stimulated this vision.

Critical evaluation
In his response, Bishop van Luyn, as chair of the bishops’ conference, rightly says that Professor Schillebeeckx’ new way of practicing theology led to discussion. Future research will have to clarify the definitive role of Father Schillebeeckx. Personally, I see important questions for a theological evaluation. Does his later theology do enough justice to early Christian declarations about the triune God and Jesus Christ? And the many questions that his theology of holy orders has caused remains interesting.

At the grave
Standing at Father Schillebeeckx’ grave, however, I did not bid farewell to a difficult theologian but first of all a brother in Christ. Theological concepts and disagreements are exceedingly relative. I had to think about an experience that Saint Thomas Aquinas related. After an intense experience of the Eucharist the great medieval theologian is said to have called his imposing work nothing more than straw. All our knowing is temporal. On the other side of death we will fully know as we are known now. Edward Schillebeeckx need no longer look into a mirror darkly, but can now see face to face (1 Cor. 13,12). He died with great faith. On the day of his death he felt that God was calling him. Some hours before his passing he said, “I see a door, half open, and much light”.
His death announcement mentions a looking forward to the encounter with God as the Living and the Merciful of all people. We prayed that Father Schillebeeckx is secure with God, who came so very close to us in Christ. May he rest in peace.

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