Communion – Understanding Pope Francis

EDIT: At the bottom of this post, I have added some thoughts about the story Pope Francis told about a bishop he knew, a story that initially caused some confusion.

During a question round in the Lutheran church community in Rome, yesterday, Pope Francis was asked about the sensitive topic of receiving Communion as a non-Catholic. The person asking the question was a Lutheran lady with a Catholic husband, and she wondered when it was possible for them to receive Communion together. As both the Catholic and Lutheran churches have this sacrament, it is unclear if she was referring to receiving in a Catholic Mass or a Lutheran service. Basically, she could have been asking how she, a Lutheran, could receive Communion in a Catholic Mass, or how her husband, a Catholic, could receive the bread in a Lutheran service. Both are different situations, but revolve around the same problem: receiving the sacraments while not fully accepting the belief that comes with it.

pope francis lutherans

Pope Francis’ answer, provided here by Rocco Palmo*, is quite difficult to follow. The Holy Father is sometimes a challenge to understand (that’s  what you get with a man who speak from the heart, and often spontaneously – and this is not a slight against him), but now he left me scratching my head. In short, he leaves the decision to receive Communion to the woman’s conscience, but also mentions that the choice should be made “only if one is sincere with oneself and the little theological light one has”. In other words, with a formed conscience. There is no mention of the importance of truly understanding what Communion in Catholic teaching is. This could possibly be off-putting in this context, but on the other hand, we can’t  go around pretending that Communion, the receiving of the very Body and Blood of the Lord, is a matter that can be decided by people individually… With that I mean that, while every person must make an examination of conscience and decide whether or not to receive, no one can decide that he or she can receive in circumstances that another can not.

It is also interesting to note that Pope Francis immediately stated that he is not competent to decide if a non-Catholic can receive Communion in a Catholic Church. Well, if the Pope can’t, who can?

This underlines how important an issue this is: we are talking about the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and the honour and worship that this is due. Not allowing people to receive is neither a matter of denying a right to them, nor a punishment for sins committed. It is not rooted in human failings, but in the honour of glory of God, whom we should not receive without accepting Him fully. There are no ifs and buts in allowing the Lord to make us His own. To receive Him conditionally, which is what we do when we known that He can not fully inhabit us (because there are certain obstacles in our path towards Him), disgraces both Him and us. We are called to so much more than that.

This leaves open another question that Pope Francis asks: “To share the Lord’s banquet: is it the goal of the path or is it the viaticum [etym. “to accompany you on the journey”] for walking together?” In other words, is it a prize at the end of the road, or a support to help us walk the path? Maybe Communion is just the start of a path, of a journey with God? We all know that no one who receives Communion is automatically perfect, not even when they have made an examination of their conscience and found there is nothing to prevent them come forward and receive the Body and Blood of Christ. There are very few saints walking back to the pew afterwards. For us, in our imperfections and failings, Communion is a viaticum. But even a viaticum must be allowed to work. And, this is important, God’s mercy and support is not limited to Communion. In the debates about who should and should not receive, it often seems as if God’s mercy takes the exclusive form of consecrated bread and wine. It does not.

As a final aside, we also receive Communion as part of the community. Our coming forward and receiving, our saying “Amen” after the priest holds up the host with the words “The Body of Christ”, is an acknowledgement of our belief in that dogma and the entire faith that comes from that – the Eucharist, after all, is the source and summit of our faith. Someone who is a faithful Protestant with significant differences in belief, can’t pretend to acknowledge the Catholic faith. Neither can a Catholic acknowledge the faith of another church community with teachings that disagree fundamentally with those of the Catholic Church.

* The translation provided by Zenit offers more clarity than the one I linked to above, not least about what the Pope said about a bishop he knew: “I had a great friendship with an Episcopalian Bishop, 48, married, with two children, and he had this anxiety: his wife was Catholic, his children were Catholics, he was a Bishop. On Sundays he accompanied his wife and his children to Mass and then he went to worship with his community. It was a step of participation in the Lord’s Supper. Then he went on, the Lord called him, a righteous man.” This would then be Episcopalian Bishop Tony Palmer, who had the desire to become Catholic. He was good friends with Pope Francis and died after a motorcycle accident in 2014. Previously, it was assumed that the Holy Father was referring to Argentine Bishop Jerónimo Podestá, who married and was subsequently removed as bishop and barred from exercising his priestly ministry. On his deathbed in 2000, then-Archbishop Bergoglio reached out to him, the only Argentine prelate to do so. A friend refers to the following passages from magisterial documents that are relevant in this context: Ecclesia de Eucharistia 46 and 46, Ut Unum Sint 56 and Sacramentum Caritatis 56. These texts discuss the existing possibility for members of other church communities to receive the Eucharist, when they “greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments. Conversely, in specific cases and in particular circumstances, Catholics too can request these same sacraments from ministers of Churches in which these sacraments are valid” (Ut Unum Sint, 46).

Some have said that Pope Francis only spoke about the Lutheran Last Supper, but the example of Bishop Palmer, who accompanied his wife and children to Mass (there is no mention of him receiving communion, so the Pope carefully steers clear of commenting on that). This is undoubtedly similar to the problem faced by the woman who asked the question. The Pope does not just speak about Catholics receiving sacraments in other Church communities, but just as much, if not more, about non-Catholics receiving Catholic sacraments.

Further on up the road – the German Synod fathers look back and ahead

They continue to be the subject of much criticism. Some claim their views have been victorious at the Synod, others say they have not. Some say they are manipulating the media, relishing in their rebelliousness… Well, that’s all fine to write lengthy articles, opinion pieces and blogs about, but I continue detesting conspiracy theories, and rather take people at face value and at their word (which does not mean I agree with them on all matters). On that note, here is my translation of the message of the German bishops who participated in the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop Heiner Koch and Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, at the conclusion of said meeting:

Dt Synodenteilnehmer

^The German participants in the Synod: Aloys and Petra Buch, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop Heiner Koch and Archabbot Jeremias Schröder OSB

“We conclude the Synod of Bishops in Rome with gratitude. For three weeks we have debated and struggled intensively and encouragingly, controversially and honestly with representatives from all over the world, dug into theological questions and addressed the realities of life of the family. Above all, these weeks were a spiritual wealth: in the celebration of the Eucharist, in common prayer and fraternal conversation we have sought ways in which the mission of the family in Church and world can succeed.

At the basis of our deliberations, next to Holy Scripture and Tradition, were the words of the Second Vatican Council: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (Gaudium et spes, 1). In this spirit we grappled theologically and practically with the needs of the family.

The Synod of Bishops took seriously the situation of families as they are: open, honestly, differentiated globally, but similar in many ways. Across all cultural divides, marriage and family are a constant value of human coexistence. We are therefore grateful to Pope Francis that he followed the synodal way on this topic. It began with the worldwide questionnaire of the Vatican and the Synod of last year. The current conclusion is not the end, but a colon. We must continue on this road for and with the family. No other global institution undertakes such a global contemplation with worldwide participation on the topic of the family.

The Synod has shown the great importance that the Church attaches to marriage and family. There was already a great consensus on this question during the deliberations. The Church encourages people to live marriage and family and the make an effort to continue faithfully on this way and endure difficulties. The Synod emphasised that the normal everyday life of the family is a witness. At the same time we are called to find ways to strengthen and accompany the family. This can happen, for example, by advocating in favour of the family in social policies, especially also for large families or single parents, using state legislation to promote the family and recognising its value for society. This must also and especially happen within the Church, for example through the corresponding training of pastoral workers to accompany families, through better marriage preparation and guidance, especially in the first years of marriage, but also through counselling services and facilities.

It became clear during the Synod that Church guidance is required, especially during times of hardship, for example when raising children is difficult, when family members are ill or disabled, requiring much care and attention, when spouses are fighting, when people are separated and remarry. Here it is important to recognise not only what the Church does, but also to say honestly where we have failed as Church: misconceived efforts to uphold Church teachings have repeatedly led to harsh and merciless attitudes, which caused people pain, especially single mothers and children born outside of marriage, people living together before or in place of marriage, people with homosexual orientation and divorced and remarried people. As bishops we ask these people for forgiveness, as we formulated in our working group.

We are grateful that the Synod has expressed  an appreciation for interfaith marriages and underlined the character of the path of life in marriage and family, while a more positive view of the path before marriage was also discussed. On the topic of divorced and remarried people the necessary distinctions of situations were addressed in the text. It was attempted to avoid generalisations. The Synod is clear that every situation in life must be considered individually. In hindsight we would have wished for more courage to deal with the realities more intensively and recognise them as signs of the times in which God wants to tell us something, but we also recognise that we have learned to go along with other cultures and experiences.

The Synod of Bishops advises the Pope. We will accompany the way forward with our prayers. Pope Francis now has the task to use the wealth of results for the Church. The Holy Father can only take decisions for the entire Church, where he always stand for the unity of the Church and the further synodal path, as he said himself in his historic speech last week.

What was considered in the Synod, we will develop and make concrete at home. As Church we accompany and live with the people, the spouses, the families, especially also with the oppressed, with their joys and hopes, sorrows and fears. Questions which occupy us now are these: How do we open, and not close, the way towards Christ? How do we fully integrate people in the Church? How do we become a Church with open doors? And how do we relate to families in the most difficult situations, such as refugee families, to make a life in dignity possible for them, as the Gospel shows? How can we encourage a new spring in the pastoral care of families in general?

The final text of the Synod of Bishops opens perspectives for action and gives impulses for further theological thought. That will also be incorporated in the message of the German bishops about marriage and family, which we are currently working on. What is important is this: the synodal path of the Church continues. Perhaps it has only just begun. The Church stays on the path and with the people, also in the questions of marriage and family. We, as Church in Germany, want to continue on this road with Pope Francis. Encouraged and strengthened we return to our dioceses.”

Photo credit: KNA

The tension between doctrine and reality – Cardinal Marx’s intervention

Earlier today we had a short Synod intervention from Cardinal Danneels, and now one of the longest, from Cardinal Reinhard Marx. It’s also one of the most fearless, as the German cardinal talks about some of the topics that he has been criticised heavily for: Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and graduality.

Like the intervention of Bishop Bode, Cardinal Marx’s text is based heavily on the life experiences of the faithful concerned. And while it is essential for the Church to meet people where they are, I do miss the essential aspect of our faith: that is a revelation faith. Its foundation is objective truth, and while the way we relate to that truth, communicate it and help people achieve it (acknowledged by Cardinal Marx as he discusses our call to holiness) can and should vary according to circumstances, that truth does and can not. In the debate about Communion for divorced and remarried faithful (a circumstance consequently referred to in this intervention as only possible when we are talking about civil divorce and marriage) this is something that we must keep in mind. It defines what we can do pastorally.

Anyway, the intervention. The original German text is here.

marxFifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council once again made the Gospel a source of inspiration for the life of individuals and society. The same is true for the “Gospel of the family” (Pope Francis). In the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes (GS) it developed a doctrine of marriage which was further developed by the Popes after the Council. Even when the Council did not the answer all the questions which concern us now, it did lay a theological foundation which helps us to answer our current questions.

The Council understands marriage as an “intimate partnership of married life and love” (GS, 48) and develops the doctrine of marriage in the context of a theology of love. The love between man and woman “is directed from one person to another through an affection of the will; it involves the good of the whole person, and therefore can enrich the expressions of body and mind with a unique dignity, ennobling these expressions as special ingredients and signs of the friendship distinctive of marriage”. This love “pervades the whole of their lives: indeed by its busy generosity it grows better and grows greater” (GS, 49). The Council emphasises that this love between man and woman requires the institutional and legal framework of marriage, to develop and keep it permanently in good and bad days. Not in the last place does the institution of marriage serve the wellbeing of children (cf. GS, 50).

With the help of this theology of love and also the theology of the covenant, which can only be insufficiently outlined here, the Council succeeded in making the sacramentality of marriage understandable again. Marital love becomes an image of the love of Christ for His Church and the place where the love of Christ becomes tangible. In order to also express this connection between the divine and the human verbally, the Council speaks of the covenant of marriage. Finally, the indissoluble fidelity is an efficacious sign of Christ’s love in this world.

In the end, the Council sees human sexuality as an expression of love and suggests a new direction in sexual ethics. “This love is uniquely expressed and perfected through the appropriate enterprise of matrimony. The actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones. Expressed in a manner which is truly human, these actions promote that mutual self-giving by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and a ready will” (GS, 49). To this richness belong without doubt also, but not only, the conception and education of children. For the Council fathers expressly emphasise that marriage without children also “persists as a whole manner and communion of life, and maintains its value and indissolubility”(GS, 50).

It is this Synod of Bishops’ task to deepen and develop this theology of respectively love and the covenant, which the Council has established in basic features, but which is not yet completely reflected in canon law, with an eye on the current challenges in the pastoral care regarding marriage and family. I would like to focus on two challenges: marriage preparation and guidance, and the question of reasonably dealing with those faithful whose marriage has failed and those – not a few – who have divorced and are civilly remarried.

It is no coincidence that the Council speaks of growing in love. That is true for living together in marriage; but it is equally so for the time of preparation for marriage. Pastoral care should be developed which shows clearer than before the travelling aspect of being Christian, also in relation to marriage and family. We are all called to holiness (cf. Lumen gentium, 39), but the road towards holiness only ends on the Last Day, when we stand before the judgement seat of Christ. This path is not always straight and does not always lead directly to the intended goal. In other words: the path of life of the spouses has times of intense feelings and times of disappointment, of successful joint projects and failed plans, times of closeness and times of alienation. Often the difficulties and crises, when they are overcome together, are the ones that strengthen and consolidate the marriage bond. The Church’s marriage preparation and guidance can not be determined by moralistic perfectionism. It should not be a program of “all or nothing”. What is more important is that we see the various life situations and experiences of people in a differentiated way. We should look less at what has not (yet) been achieved in life, or perhaps what has thoroughly failed, but more at what has already been achieved. People are usually not motivated by the raised finger to go forward on the road to holiness, but by the outstretched hand. We need pastoral care which values the experiences of people in loving relationships and which is able to awaken a spiritual longing. The sacrament of marriage should in the first place be proclaimed as a gift that enriches and strengthens marriage and family life, and less as an ideal that can not be attained by human achievement. As indispensable as lifelong loyalty is for the development of love, so the sacramentality of marriage should not be reduced to its indissolubility. It is a comprehensive relationship which unfolds.

The moment of receiving the sacrament of marriage is indeed the beginning of the way. The sacrament not only happens at the moment of marrying, in which both spouses express their mutual love and loyalty, but unfolds in the road they take together. Giving shape to common life in marriage is the responsibility of the spouses. The Church’s pastoral care can and should support the spouses, but must respect their responsibility. We should give more space to the consciences of the spouses in proclamation and pastoral care. Certainly, it is the Church’s duty to form the consciences of the faithful, but people’s judgement of conscience can not be replaced. That is especially true in situations in which the spouses must make a decision in a conflict of values, such as when the openness to conceiving children and the preservation of marriage and family life are in conflict with each other.

But appreciative and supportive pastoral care can also not prevent all marriages from failing, spouses from ending their covenant of life and love and separating. The new process of establishing the nullity of a marriage can also not cover all cases in the right way. Often the end of a marriage is neither the result of human immaturity, nor of a lack of willingness in marriage. Dealing with faithful whose marriages have failed and who, often enough, entered a new civil marriage after a civil divorce, remains therefore a pressing pastoral problem in many parts of the world. For many faithful – including those whose marriages are intact – it is a matter of credibility of the Church. I know this from many conversations and letters.

Thankfully, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI left it no doubt that civilly divorced and remarried faithful are also part of the Church, and repeatedly invited them to take an active part in the life of the Church. It is therefore our duty to develop welcoming pastoral care for these faithful and involve them ever more in the life of communities. To them the Church has to witness of the love of Christ, which applies in the first place to those who have failed in their intentions and efforts. For “it is not those who are in health that have need of the physician, it is those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). It is the mission of the Church to heal the wounds caused by the failing of a marriage and the separation of spouses, and show them that God is with them, also in these difficult times. Can we really heal without allowing the sacrament of Reconciliation?

With an eye on the civilly divorced and remarried faithful who take an active part in community life, many faithful ask why the Church refuses them, without exception, participation in sacramental Communion. Many in our communities can not understand how one can be in full community with the Church and at the same time excluded from the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. The fact that civilly divorced and remarried faithful objectively live in adultery and as such are in contradiction to what is presented emblematically in the Eucharist, the faithfulness of Christ to His Church, is given as reason. But does this answer do justice to the situation of those concerned? And is it sacramental-theologically compelling? Can people who are considered to be in a situation of grave sin truly have the feeling of belonging completely to us?

In the German Bishops’ Conference we have also occupied ourselves intensively over the past years with the theology and pastoral ministry of marriage and family. We took the Holy Father’s assignment seriously, to think about the topic, discuss and deepen it, in the time between the Synods. The German Bishops’ Conference has organised a day of study about this, together with the Bishops’ Conferences of France and Switzerland, in May of 2015, the contributions of which have also been published. In the theological faculties too, the topics were taken up and debated in biblical-theological, exegetical, canonical and pastoral-theological perspectives. Additionally, there were conversations with theologians and publications. We have learned that the theological work about this must continue in the future.

About the topic of civilly divorced and remarried faithful the German bishops have themselves published in June of last year further considerations and question, which I would like to outline briefly.

Someone who, after the failure of a marriage has entered into a new civil marriage, from which often children were born, has a moral responsibility to the new partner and the children which he or she can not denounce without being burdened with new guilt. Even if a renewal of the previous relationship were possible – which it generally isn’t –  the person concerned finds himself in an objective moral dilemma from which there is no clear moral theological way out. The advise to refrain from sexual acts in the new relationship seems unreasonable to many. There is also the question if sexual acts can be judged in isolation from the context of life. Can we assess sexual acts in a second civil marriage as adultery without exception? Independent of an assessment of the particular situation?

In sacramental-theological regard two things should be considered. Can we, in all cases and with a clear conscience, exclude faithful who are civilly divorced and remarried from the sacrament of Reconciliation? Can we refuse them the reconciliation with God and the sacramental experience of the mercy of God even when they sincerely regret their guilt in the failure of marriage? Regarding the question of allowing sacramental Communion, it must be considered that the Eucharist not only makes present the covenant of Christ with His Church, but also always renews it and strengthens the faithful on their way to holiness. The two principles of admission to the Eucharist, namely the testimony of unity of the Church and the participation in the means of grace, can at times be at odds with one another. In the Declaration Unitatis redintegratio (N. 8), the Council says: “Witness to the unity of the Church very generally forbids common worship to Christians, but the grace to be had from it sometimes commends this practice”. Beyond ecumenism, this statement is also of fundamental pastoral importance. In his Apostolic Letter Evangelii gaudium the Holy Father adds, with reference to the teachings of the Fathers of the Church: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness” (N. 47).

Starting from the theological foundations established by the Second Vatican Council we should seriously consider the possibility – based on the individual case and not in a general way – of allowing civilly divorced and remarried faithful to receive the sacraments of Confession and Communion, when common life in the canonically valid marriage has definitively failed and this marriage can not be nullified, the commitments of this marriage are settled, there is regret for the guilt of the end of this marital common life and there is the honest will to live the second civil marriage in faith and raise the children in the faith.

Building up from reality – Bishop Bode’s intervention

It’s almost a week ago, but here is the translation of the intervention by Bishop Franz-Josef Bode. Reading it, it becomes clear that some of his points have been used in the German language groups’ report on Part II, which I shared in translation earlier.

Like Archbishop Koch before him, Bishop Bode bases his thought on his experiences as bishop and official in the German Bishops’ Conference, as he makes clear in his opening paragraph. While not averse to theology, he underlines that the Church must meet the people where they are, in their less-than-perfect situations and with their experiences, questions and feelings.

Bishop Bode has been criticised heavily, and while I share some of that criticism, it is important to recognise what he is doing here: asking questions about what the Church is doing. Is it really effective, he wonders, and do we achieve what we set out to do?

Read the German text here, and my translation below:

bode_purpur_240I have been a bishop now for four decades, and for 20 years of those I have been ordinary of Osnabrück. Since 2010 I have also been leading the pastoral commission of the German Bishops’ Conference, and before that I was the chairman of the youth commission for fourteen years. In that capacity I speak to you:

It is a great challenge for the Church to convey her high esteem of marriage, which as sacrament is a life fulfilment of the Church, to the people of our time. There where marriage succeeds as a lifelong Union, where this “eminently human” love is experienced “from one person to another through an affection of the will” (Gaudium et Spes, 49), where spouses remain faithful, remain inclined to one another, give life to and raise children and pass on the love received, there the Church is ever new and something more than the salt of the earth and the city on the mountain. “The Church is a blessing for the family and the family is blessing for the Church”, says the Instrumentum laboris (59).

In order to bring the Catholic understanding of marriage closer to the faithful and in extension to all people of good will, and convince them in a lasting way, it is crucial to respond to each person’s individual life story, to the realities of life and their histories. Man is a historical being. He always relates to us as formed by experience, never als a neutral recipient of a message that he needs to align to. This acknowledgement of his biography is not a pastoral strategy or a methodical trick. Rather, the acknowledgement of individual life histories is itself part of Catholic teaching. The Second Vatican Council, in the opening words of Gaudium et Spes speaks of it, that there is nothing genuinely human which does not raise an echo in their hearts (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 1). The Instrumentum laboris of this Synod takes on this thought when it speaks of “divine pedagogy” (39). Relating ever anew to the biography of people is an essential task, if the general and basic principles of a doctrine – especially the doctrines of marriage and family – want to have space and form in human lives. Thomas Aquinas explained the necessity of a concrete application, for example when he says, “To prudence belongs not only the consideration of reason, but also the application to action, which is the goal of practical reason” (STh II-II-47, 3: “ad prudentiam pertinet non solum consideratio rationis, sed etiam applicatio ad opus, quae est finis practicae rationis“). This application can, however, not succeed without including the circumstances in the concrete action.

Tying onto the history and form of life is in that regard not possible without going to the persons, to the people, understanding their thoughts and motives, and not without concretisation of the general guiding principles to the particular life situation as far as possible. That is also a service to the truth. “The faithful’s attitude towards people who have not yet come to an understanding of the importance of the Sacrament of Marriage is expressed primarily in a personal, friendly relationship which accepts another as he/she is, without judging, and seeks to meet his/her basic needs and, at the same time, witnessing to God’s love and mercy. It is important to be clearly aware that everyone is weak and that each person is a sinner like everyone else, yet not failing to affirm the blessings and values of a Christian marriage. Moreover, people need to become aware that in God’s plan the family is not a duty but a gift, and that today the decision to enter into the Sacrament of Marriage is not a foregone conclusion but something to be developed and a goal to be achieved” (Instrumentum laboris, 61). And it is always good to take particular aspects into account and deal with material conflicts. Often enough, it is a search for the “minus malum“, the lesser evil.

Not in the last place, we should see people as being on the road to something better, for the sake of a “joyful and optimistic proclamation of the truths of the faith concerning the family” (Instrumentum laboris, 79). So questions regarding the pastoral approach to marriage and family such as the following were raised:

  • Can we really convince couples who – not only in Germany – usually first live together outside of the marriage bond, of the value of marriage, when we uphold to them: You are living in grave sin?
  • Are we sufficiently aware of the chances which are there, when couples return to the Church after a long time, with the desire for a Church wedding? Do we maintain an “open doors” culture (cf. Evangelii gaudium, 47)? Do we offer them good and long marriage preparation, a path we travel together with them?
  • Do we offer sustained spiritual help and guidance to couples and families who, for various reasons, have a hard time integrating the Good News and the faith in their lives?
  • How do meet couples in relationship crises and breaking relationships? Do we accompany these people unconditionally or do we only exert additional pressure through moral teachings?
  • And not in the least: Do we show our sisters and brothers in Christ who have entered into a new relationship after the previous one ended that they too belong to the Church? A Church with open doors, a mother with an open heart (cf. Evangelii gaudium, 46)?
  • Do we actually see the individual cases sufficiently differentiated enough? Can access to the sacraments of Confession and Eucharist really be categorically denied in every case?

From this Synod, I especially hope that the results of our discussions will send out a clear signal of support for the beneficial efforts of the Holy Father and the salvation of people.

I thank all Synod father as well the auditors for what they have already done in this regard.

Rome, 10 October 2015

Franz-Josef Bode
Bishop of Osnabrück

Mercy for all – in major letter, Pope Francis outlines the Jubilee

“This Jubilee Year of Mercy excludes no one,” could be the simple and rather accurate summary of the letter that Pope Francis sent to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, outlining some points he wishes to focus on during the Jubilee of Mercy which starts in December. That these are not just words becomes clear when we take a closer look at some of those points.

Of course, the Holy Father first speaks about the faithful, who are called to make a brief pilgrimage to the Holy Door, in every cathedral or other church designated by the local bishop, and in the four papal basilicas in Rome, in order to receive the Jubilee Indulgence. This pilgrimage is, the Pope writes, “a sign of the deep desire for true conversion”. The pilgrimage should also be linked to the Sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist, and feature  the profession of faith and prayers for the Pope and his intentions.

But there are also those who are unable to make this pilgrimage: the sick, the elderly, the lonely, even prisoners. God does not ask us for the impossible, so these people can obtain the indulgence by living their time of trial with hope and faith, by receiving Communion or attending Mass or community prayer, even through all forms of communication channels. Prisoners can receive the indulgence in prison chapels.

The Church as a whole is also called to perform the spiritual and corporeal works of mercy*. By making the mercy received from God visible as we extend it to others, the indulgence is surely also obtained, Pope Francis writes.

Even the deceased can obtain the indulgence, not through their own actions, of course, but through ours. We do this by praying for them in the liturgy of the Mass.

The big point, according to all media, has to do with abortion. Pope Francis has decide to give all priests across the world the faculties of giving absolution to all who have procured an abortion and who seek forgiveness for it. This does not mean that abortion is no longer a sin, or that it no longer leads to automatic excommunication. That is unchanged. But the mercy we receive calls us to be merciful to others, and to allow them to be forgiven. The door to that forgiveness has now been opened wider for the course of the Jubilee.

Lastly, this same forgiveness and absolution may now also be obtained from priests of the Society of Saint Pius X. While these priests remain in a sort of limbo, since their ordinations are valid but not licit (ie. they do not have permission from the Church to exercise their priestly faculties), they have now received a temporary permission to hear confession and offer absolution to the faithful. This in its own is a major step on the road to a future reconciliation.

The letter is an interesting piece of work, and one with major repercussions. Confession and absolution is what it’s all about: we receive Gods mercy when we acknowledge our sins and errors, and when we are contrite. God forgives readily those who ask Him. And once that mercy has been received, we are to share it, pass it on to those around us.

*Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, ransom the captive, bury the dead, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offences willingly, comfort the afflicted and pray for the living and the dead.

I have made a first Dutch translation of the letter, which is available here. I did notice, however, that the English text is rather clumsy and unclear in places. I resorted to the German text to clear up some passages. Others may want to do likewise, depending on their fluency in Italian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese or Polish.

Corpus Christi – The Eucharist as source and summit

While it is celebrated in the Netherlands next Sunday, today is the actual day of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Corpus Christi, the feast day devoted to one of the most mysterious truths of our faith: the Real Presence of Our Lord in the consecrated bread and wine.

My parish priest asked my to translate his homily for the feast day for use in the English-language Mass on Saturday, and I was given his permission to share it here in my blog (in a slightly edited form).

eucharist“”What is the Holy Mass, the celebration of the Eucharist?”, was the question asked in a Catholic group. Silence. “We come together to pray”, someone eventually mumbled. “To honour God”, someone added, “and to ask for His assistance”.

That is all true, but we always do that when we pray, in Vespers or Adoration or whatever communal prayer we have. But what is the unique element of a Mass? Why is Holy Mass the central and most characteristic celebration of the Catholic Church and, by the way, also of the Orthodox Churches of the East? Because in it we remember the Easter of Jesus – His death and resurrection – and make it present in the signs of bread and wine. It is the celebration of the heart of our faith.

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, they come together in the Eucharist. The one sacrifice on the Cross of Good Friday remains present among us in the signs of bread and wine, as at the Last Supper Jesus said about the bread: “Take this, all of you, and eat of it: for this is my body which will be given up for you”, and about the chalice of wine: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: for this is the chalice of my blood, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”.  And so, the next day He gave up His Body and Blood for us on the Cross. And at the Last Supper, Jesus added: “Do this in memory of me.”

He wanted the one sacrifice on the Cross – literally the crucial moment in the history of God with people – to remain among us in this way, sacramentally, which means in signs but also real, as each sacrament achieves in signs (for example, the water at Baptism) what it indicates.

All sacraments, the entire sacramental life of the Church, is contained in the Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross, in the Eucharistic sacrifice that our Saviour established in the night that He was betrayed, to let the sacrifice continue through all the ages, until He comes again.

That is why the Eucharist is source and summit of all the sacraments, of all of Christian life. Everything flows from it and everything leads back to it. It is supper and  sacrifice. Bread and wine are at the heart of creation. They contain what the earth has to offer. Bread gives life and existence to man, wine gives him joy. Gifts of creation, work of our hands and from them we offer to God – a sacrifice, but the true sacrifice is the gift of self.

At the multiplication of loaves it already became clear how Jesus saves all from distress and gives in abundance. At the wedding at Cana it was the same: abundance and the best – the new, second creation already shows itself. All lines come together at the Last Supper: the lines of bread and wine, of supper and sacrifice, of gift and gift of self, of creation and salvation, of past, present and future – until He comes again.

Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, through the power of His word and the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit is continuously implored, and especially through the laying on of hands to bring to life, in the Eucharist, and at ordinations. Of course Christ is present in the Church in many ways: in His word, in her prayer (“where two or three are gathered in My name…”), also in the poor, the sick and prisoners (“what you have done for the least of Mine…”), in the sacraments, in the person of the priest.  But nowhere in that intense way as in bread and wine. In bread and wine Christ himself is completely present. That is why we kneel at the Eucharistic prayer, and the priest kneels after the words of consecration: not for bread and wine, but for Christ in the signs of bread and wine – through Christ’s own words.

When we have received Him like this in Holy Communion, we abide with Him in a silent and intimate conversation. Yes, we believe in the continuing presence of Jesus in the Blessed Hosts that remain and which have traditionally been given to the sick and which are again given at the next Mass. Since the 13th century that was expanded into the adoration of the Eucharistic Lord in the monstrance. We will conclude this Eucharist with a short time of silent adoration and a blessing with the Blessed Sacrament.


Father Rolf Wagenaar is parish priest of St. Martin’s parish in Groningen and cathedral administrator of the Cathedral of Saints Joseph and Martin, Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden.

2014, a year in review

As the year ends, it is once more time to look back at the past year in this blog. It wasn’t quite 2013, but there was still enough to write and think about. I have been a bit less active in writing, for reasons of real life, but the number of page views in 2014 still topped out at close to 100,000. An altogether satisfactory number.

In this review of the year, I will look back on various topics that kept us busy in 2014.

The Catholic Church in the Netherlands

jaimeThere have been many interesting things going in locally, some positive, some negative, but together they reflect the life of the Catholic Church in this country. From Roermond, the case of Bishop Frans Schraven, a martyr for the faith in China, was sent to Rome in light of a future beatification. The financial numbers of 2012 were published and showed a continued downward slope. The Dutch government sent a new – and royal – ambassador (pictured at left) to the Holy See. The Congregation for the Religious sent their second man to meet representatives of religious orders in the Netherlands. Monks of a declining abbey announced that they would be moving to a small island of the northern coast of the country. Personally, I experienced aprocession warfhuizen rain-soaked but satisfying pilgrimage (at right) to another religious site in the north. The Dutch bishops felt the need to stand up against a resurgence of anti-Semitism, and they also announced the upcoming publication of a new Missal translation. My own diocese saw the ordination of two new transitional deacons, while the sole hermit residing in that same diocese also announced the good news of his own upcoming ordination. Protestant clergy discovered the benefits, if not the deeper meaning, of the Roman collar. A community fighting the biography simonisclosing of their local Church appeal to the Pope. Catholic Voices, the successful communications initiative from the UK, launches a Dutch chapter. The retired archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Ad Simonis, is the subject of a major biography (cover at left). And in Nijmegen, the Diocese announces changes to the local university chaplaincy.

Cardinal Eijk

eijkThe archbishop of Utrecht remains unenviable as he continues in his work as president of the Bishops’ Conference, member of the Curia in Rome, and all too often a scapegoat. This year, he made headlines when stating that the decisions of the Council of Trent are still current, which caused resentment among ecumenical partners. He was also accused of vetoing a papal visit to the Netherlands, which turned out to be quite untrue, and the bishops ended the rumours by releasing a joint statement.

The seminaries

ariënsinstituut seminariansBy the end of summer, a debate erupted about the future of the seminaries in the Netherlands. Some parties advocated the creation of one or two major seminaries, while others were in favour of continuing with the current six. The majority of seminary directors seemed to favour the first option. Earlier in the year, the Archdiocese of Utrecht, restarted its own seminary (first class, staff and family at left).

Pope Francis

cardinals consistoryThe world remains interested in Pope Francis, and it was no different in this blog. First up, there was his first consistory, in which he created 16 new cardinals, including a fair few unexpected ones. The Holy Father was interviewed by young people from Belgium (at left), an interview that was also televised. Later, the verse vis,luc van looy, francisPope also sent a personal note to the Netherlands, to the participants and organisation of the Catholic Youth Festival. 50,000 altar servers from Germany made a pilgrimage to Rome, where Pope Francis spoke to them. The national Church of the Dutch, the Church of the Frisians, marked the anniversary of its dedication, and Pope Francis sent a note of congratulations. The Pope’s decision to terminate the appointment of the commander of the Swiss Guard led to much rumour, which proved pope francis curia christmas addressunfounded later. Pope Francis clarified this and other questions in a new interview. By the end of the year, Pope Francis announced his second consistory. Finally, his Christmas address to the Curia caused new shockwaves, but deserves a good reading by everyone.

New appointments

101020marx250There has been a fair amount of new appointments in 2014, and especially in Germany. First Fr. Herwig Gössl was appointed as auxiliary bishop of Bamberg. Cardinal Reinhard Marx (at left) was elected as the new president of the German Bishops’ Conference, in addition to his many other duties. In Essen, Bishop Franz Vorrath retired and Fr Wilhelm Zimmermann was appointed as new auxiliary bishop. Archbishop Werner Thissen of Hamburg retired while his successor remains to be appointed. Fr. Stefan Oster was woelki32appointed as the new Bishop of Passau, and Fr. Stefan Burger was the new Archbishop of Freiburg im Breisgau. The Diocese of Erfurt was finally given a new bishop in the person of Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr, after waiting for two years. The biggest appointment of the year was in Cologne, where Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki (at right) returned from Berlin to succeed Cardinal Joachim Meisner.

Mgr%20Bert%20van%20Megen2-loreWhile there were no new bishops in the Netherlands, a Dutch priest was appointed to represent the Holy See in Sudan and Eritrea. Father Bert van Megen (at left) was consecrated by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

In Rome, there were also some notable appointments: Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera left the Congregation or Divine Worship to become Archbishop of his native Valencia. He was later succeeded by Cardinal Robert Sarah. Lastly, Pope Francis appointed a new camerlengo and vice-camerlengo.

The Synod

eijk synodThe big topic in the second half of the year was the Synod of Bishops’ Extraordinary Assembly on the family. In the eyes of the rest of the world, Germany remains a focal point of liberal trends that are at odds with Catholic teaching. That is not always true, but some bishops did strengthen that opinion. Bishop Ackermann of Trier was the first to be criticised for his comments on marriage and sexuality. From Brazil, Austrian-born Bishop Kräutler made comments on celibacy, the ordination of women and the Eucharist, and is said to have the Pope’s blessing to develop these ideas further in johan-bonnyBrazil. In Belgium, Bishop Johan Bonny (at left)was the loudest voice to advocate changes in the teachings on marriage, both before and after the Synod. At the Synod, Belgian Cardinal Danneels spoke in favour of mercy, but did not go as far as Bishop Bonny. In the Netherlands, Bishop Rob Mutsaerts explained that the Synod was not about changing doctrine, and Bishop Gerard de Korte stressed the importance of mercy and finding new words to reach people. How doctrine can change remains an important question.


tebartzSpilling over from last year, the final acts of the case of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst (at right) and the Diocese of Limburg played out as it became clear that the Vatican did not want the bishop to stay. He was to retire and Bishop Manfred Grothe, auxiliary bishop of neighbouring Paderborn was appointed as Apostolic Administrator. The last statement of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst spoke of forgiveness and a new beginning. Bishop Grothe presented an overview of the situation since then in his letter for Advent.

Sexual abuse

gijsenThe sexual abuse crisis, while quieter than in the past, still continues, with a few shocking revelations and continuing developments in helping the victims. In 2014, three claims of abuse against the late Bishop Gijsen (at left) were deemed plausible, and the late Bishop Niënhaus, auxiliary of Utrecht, was revealed to have been guilty of sexual abuse. Shortly after the news about Bishop Gijsen, Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond offered a Mass of penance and reconciliation and said that there is no excuse for sexual abuse by people of the Church. Later, a court decision forced the bishops to continue accepting new claims of abuse by deceased perpetrators, or cases which happened too long ago to be pursued by a court, until well into 2015.

International events

frans van der lugtThis blog has a clear focus on the local Church in Northwestern Europe, and also on Rome of course, but sometimes events in other parts of the world deserve a place here. In fact, the most-read blog post of the year, with more than 3,900 views, is in this category. It is the sad news of the death of Fr. Frans van der Lugt (at right) in Syria. Another death, this time because of a car crash, was vital wilderinkthat of Dutch-born Bishop Vital Wilderink (at left) in Brazil. Also in South America, the retirement of the Bishop of Paramaribo, also a Dutchman, mad me wonder of his successor would be a native son of Suriname. And then there was the shocking crash of flight MH17 in Ukraine, shot down by rebels, killing 298 people.

From Rome

marriageAnd lastly, Rome also had its say in various developments and decisions which came down to us. The Congregation or Divine Worship urged for restraint in the sign of peace during Mass, Pope Francis married 20 Roman couples and changes in the Curia gave some indications of the future.


In 2014 the following cardinals returned to the Father:

  • José da Cruz Cardinal Policarpo, Cardinal-priest of San Antonio in Campo Marzio, Patriarch emeritus of Lisbon
  • Emmanuel III Cardinal Delly, Cardinal-Patriarch, Patriarch emeritus of Babylon of the Chaldeans
  • Marco Cardinal Cé, Cardinal-Priest of San Marco, Patriarch emeritus of Venice
  • Duraisamy Simon Cardinal Lourdusamy, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria della Grazie alle Fornaci fuori Porta Cavalleggeri, Prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches and Archbishop emeritus of Bangalore
  • Bernard Cardinal Agré, Cardinal-Priest of San Giovanni Crisostomo a Monte Sacro Alto, Archbishop emeritus of Abidjan
  • Francesco Cardinal Marchisano, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Lucia del Gonfalone, President emeritus of the Labour Office of the Apostolic See
  • Edward Bede Cardinal Clancy, Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria in Vallicella, Archbishop emeritus of Sydney
  • Edmund Casimir Cardinal Szoka, Cardinal-Priest of Santi Andrea e Gregorio  al Monte Celio, Archbishop emeritus of Detroit, President emeritus of the Governorate of the Vatican City State, President emeritus of the Pontifical Commission or the Vatican City State
  • Fiorenzo Cardinal Angelini, Cardinal-Priest of Santo Spirito  in Sassia, President emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers
  • Jorge María Cardinal Mejía, Cardinal-Priest of San Girolamo della Carità, Librarian emeritus of the Vatican Apostolic Library and Archivist emeritus of the Vatican Secret Archives

Whereas 2013 saw the death of more than a few bishops in Northwestern Europa, in 2014 we lost only two:

  • Bishop Hubert Luthe, Bishop emeritus of Essen
  • Bishop Wolfgang Kirchgässner, Titular Bishop of Druas, Auxiliary Bishop emeritus of Freiburg im Breisgau