Bishop in the pub – making the conference more present

dbk logoA month from now, the German bishops will be meeting for their spring plenary in the city of Hildesheim, but on the eve of that meeting on the 23rd of February, seven bishops will participate in debates about various topics in seven pubs throughout the city. Whereas plenary meetings of bishops’ conferences are usually far removed from the daily lives of the faithful, they do influence it and are an arena where important issues and plans are discussed and decided. By holding such pub debates, as it were, both the conference and their topics take a few steps towards the faithful, closing the gap between them. This is, of course, further helped by the fact that entrance is free (although some pubs have a space limit)…

The plan seems to be the brainchild of Bishop Norbert Trelle, host of the meeting and vice-president of the bishops’ conference. The Diocese of Hildesheim celebrates the 1200th anniversary of its foundation this year and its 11th century cathedral has just come out of an extensive renovation.

These are the seven bishops speaking at various pubs: Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier will speak about peace and justice; Bishop Franz-Josef Bode (Osnabrück) about the communication of faith; Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann (Würzburg) about art and religion; Bishop Heiner Koch (Dresden-Meißen) about marriage and family; Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck (Essen) about business ethics; Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki (Cologne) about poverty; and Bishop Norbert Trelle (Hildesheim) about immigration and human rights.

An example worth following by bishops in other countries.

The fluidity of doctrine – looking back at the Synod

Bishop Gerard de Korte looks back on the Synod:

bisschop de korte“Pope Francis’ thinking is process-oriented. The Synod (‘journeying together’) which has now ended was a moment on the way. The Church is on her way to a new Synod in October of 2015. In the meanwhile the thinking about sexuality, marriage and family continues in the worldwide community of faith.

Building bridges, not destroying them, as Church is in the spirit of Pope Francis and the Synod. Personally I advocate a ‘ministry of encounter’.

We can’t kick people with marriage problems or other relational worries when they’re down, but we should stand with and help them. In that way we follow in the footsteps of Christ who, as the Good Samaritan, seeks out and heals people who lie wounded on the side of the way of life. Catholic ministry will not repel or write off people but try and meet them in the places where they are. In that, the Catholic shepherd is called to manifest God’s unconditional love for imperfect people.

Media report that the Church wants to be more merciful but that doctrine is unchangeable. I think that is too simplistic. Life means growth and change. That is also true for the life of the Church. Christian teaching knows development (Cardinal John Henry Newman). When our thinking is historical-organical it becomes clear how important the hermeneutic questions are. The doctrine of the Church must continuously be interpreted and communicated. Of course, the spirit of the times can never be a deciding factor in that. He who marries the spirit of the times, is soon widowed. But we should wonder of we have sufficiently probed the wealth of Scripture and Catholic Tradition (Cardinal Reinhard Marx). In that sense the doctrine of the Church must always be actualised to stay close to life.

Going towards the Synod of October 2015, there are important questions on the Church’s agenda. How can we help young people to grow towards the sacrament of marriage? How do we help couples to strengthen and deepen their marriage bond? How do we stand with people who failed and were unable to fulfill their word of faithfulness?

An important questions, it seems to me, is also how love, friendship and affection can take shape for people who do not live within the bond of marriage. In our country millions of people live outside of marriage. The Church traditionally asks them to live in abstinence. But what does this mean in real situations, certainly when we realise that celibate life is a charisma, a gift from God, which few people receive. When we acknowledge that the questions of relationship ‘within the boundaries of Catholic morality become all the more exiting. In short, there is much work to do for the faith community.

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte”

The bishop raises good questions, ones that certainly need answering. But not just theoretical answers. These questions instead need practical solutions, they need to become visible in how the Church acts and speaks, not just how she thinks. That’s what the Synod is about, too: the question of how teachings become reality for people living in the world.

The doctrine of the Church, the rich body of faith that she protects and communicates, is neither completely solid nor completely fluid. Comments about doctrine continuously needing to be interpreted, as made by Bishop de Korte above, are often understood to mean that what the Church once believed to be true, need not be believed anymore (not that am I saying that the bishop holds to this). That is quite simply wrong.

In his most recent blog post, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York writes:

Cardinal-Timothy-Dolan“We Catholics pledge allegiance to what is called a “revealed religion”.  That simply means that we believe that God has told us (“revealed”) certain things about Himself and ourselves through the Bible, through our own nature, especially through His Son, all celebrated and taught by His Church.”

We find this everywhere in the Bible. God reveals Himself to people and over the course of history we get to know Him more and more, and our relationship with Him develops. But at the start, there are certain truths which we know because they have been revealed. These divine truths are unchangeable, as they exist independent of us. So when we say that we must interpret or develop doctrine, we always have these revealed truths as our solid basis. Does that limit us? Perhaps it does, but only because it’s not only about us. God is the other party in the relationship and His contributions, His truth about Himself, creation and human nature and purpose, must equally be acknowledged.

Developing doctrine must be understood as increasing our knowledge and understanding of it, building on what we already know. That deeper understanding is one step, the communication and manifestation of it is another. And that, again, is what the Synod is intended to encourage.

But, as a final aside, not every doctrine is dogmatic (ie. held to be absolutely and unchanging true). Non-dogmatic teachings and practices, such as certain rituals and traditions of the Church, can certainly change. But if we want to change them, we must always ask ourselves: why do want them to change, and why do we have them in the first place? Perhaps then we’ll find that it is sometimes better to hold onto teachings, instead of doing away with them.

Forget the sensational headlines – What the Synod is really about

Today, it seemed as if the Church has turned a whole bundle of pages, made a full 180 on several high profile subjects and basically “got with the times”. Of course, reality is quite different, but you wouldn’t know it from certain sources, both left and right.

Peter+Erdo+Synod+Themes+Family+3tjyhEsy4E_lThe Relatio post disceptationem, which was presented today by Cardinal Péter Erdö, summarises the discussions and presentations of the first week of the Synod, and tries to paint a picture of the major topics discussed and field of further study and development identified. As such there is nothing conclusive in it, nothing authoritative, nothing but a update on where the discussion now stand.

In order to understand what the contents of the document mean, it is always good to read all of it. Not just part 3, which outlines the pastoral areas that the discussion will focus on, but also part 1 (the challenges of the family in our modern world) and part 2 (the Biblical and traditional basis of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family). Only when read together can each part be understood fully and flights of fancy and wishful thinking be avoided.

We must never forget the theme of this assembly of the Synod: The pastoral challenges of the family on the context of evangelisation. There are several keywords here: The Synod participants will deal with pastoral challenges, not dogmatic. The teachings of the Church are not under discussion. It is about the family: their challenges, not the teachings, are what dictate the discussions. The context is that of evangelisation: pastoral care for families, the ways of facing their challenges, has evangelisation as its goal.

The outlines, which are not recommendations, and certainly not changes in the Church’s teaching, deal with people, and the Church has never ceased encouraging the innate dignity of human beings and the respect we are obliged to have for it. That is regardless of their gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, language or whatever element of their being you’d care to mention. It’s in the catechism, so anyone displaying surprise as the Relatio‘s emphasis on respect for all people, has some reading up to do.

The Relatio post disceptationem is interesting, worth reading and studying, and a good reminder of the importance of mercy, but it is not the earthquake some have made it out to be.

Read it, all of it. Don’t be satisfied with headlines.

Photo credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images Europe

With a strong reminder, Pope Francis launches the Synod

synod eijk

Serious and solemn faces this morning in St. Peter’s Basilica – solemn for Mass and serious in the face of the duties lying ahead for the participants in the Synod, among them Cardinal Wim Eijk (sixth from the left, next to Italian Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco).

The actual discussions will start tomorrow, but as ever, the Synod really began at the source and the summit: Jesus Christ in the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist.

In his brief homily, Pope Francis reminded all present about what the Synod participants are to do (or, as the case may be, not do):

“We too, in the Synod of Bishops, are called to work for the Lord’s vineyard. Synod Assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent… They are meant to better nurture and tend the Lord’s vineyard, to help realize his dream, his loving plan for his people. In this case the Lord is asking us to care for the family, which has been from the beginning an integral part of his loving plan for humanity.

We are all sinners and can also be tempted to “take over” the vineyard, because of that greed which is always present in us human beings. God’s dream always clashes with the hypocrisy of some of his servants. We can “thwart” God’s dream if we fail to let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us that wisdom which surpasses knowledge, and enables us to work generously with authentic freedom and humble creativity.

My Synod brothers, to do a good job of nurturing and tending the vineyard, our hearts and our minds must be kept in Jesus Christ by “the peace of God which passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7). In this way our thoughts and plans will correspond to God’s dream: to form a holy people who are his own and produce the fruits of the kingdom of God (cf. Mt 21:43).”

Cardinal Erdö – “Europe needs Christ!”

Cardinal Péter Erdö, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest in Hungary, Relator General of the upcoming Synod of Bishops, but today in the first place president of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (CCEE) had some choice words to say in order to describe the need for Christ in Europe. The full text of his greeting to Pope Francis is available here.

péter erdöHoly Father, Europe needs Christ! Today when a lot is said about the economic crisis, we know that even before Europe was suffering a crisis of humanity and the lack of hope and a perspective on life, which only God can give.

Our very aged society, which focuses more on individualism than on the family, which looks to the world just with the eyes of the economy, reducing everything to profit and usefulness, which has difficulty in welcoming nascent life, the elderly or the disabled, this our European society studded with so many existential margins and disorientated in the search for what is good, true and beautiful, needs Jesus. Our compatriots, even when they are not aware of this, need to find the living and vibrant Jesus Christ in the life of the Church, His Body and His Family.

How many times is the Church really the only reality which remains present and close to the poor, to the elderly, to the pregnant and abandoned mothers, to the young people who are perhaps seeking, but without great hope, meaning for their lives? And we want to be more present! But if faith is lacking, on what will our presence be based?  (Cfr. Matt 5:13-14)”

In the run-up to the Synod, the presidents of the European bishops’ conferences are in Rome for their plenary meeting, which has “the family and the future of Europe” as its theme. Most conference presidents were present, although some had sent delegates. For some reason Cardinal Wim Eijk did not attend, nor was a delegate of his listed among the participants. Cardinal Eijk will, however, be in Rome for the Synod. But a permanent Dutch presence in the CCEE is assured by its Vice Secretary General, Father Michel Remery, a priest of the Diocese of Rotterdam.

New words and a ministry of mercy – Bishop de Korte on the Synod

My own bishop, Msgr. Gerard de Korte, has also released a short statement about the Synod. His hopes and expectations are realistic and, I think, what we should expect from the Synod. Bishop de Korte holds the portfolio for Church and society in the bishops’ conference.

mgr_de_Korte3“In the media there has, rightly, been much attention for the tension between current Church teachings about sexuality, marriage and the family, and the concrete realities of stubborn life. For many modern Catholics much of the teaching about marriage and family have become incomprehensible and petrified.

That is why I very much hope that the Synod will choose a third way. Not a repetition of words which no longer express anything, but neither an adaptation to modern liberal culture. It will have to be about putting the Catholic wisdom about marriage and family into comprehensible words. For without a clear teaching which is near to life, many (young) Catholics receive no spiritual guidance in the fields of sexuality and forming families. They very easily go along with the ethics as shown in movies, video clips and soap operas. Those are often ethics of brief pleasure and fleeting relationships. The Church faces the challenge of speaking clearly about the importance of faithful love, especially for the happiness of people. Within marriage the Golden Rule is of great import: treat your neighbour as you would want to be treated.

The Synod will undoubtedly maintain the indissolubility of marriage. The teaching of Christ on this point is clear. Marriage is a covenant for life: not a temporary contract. But we can’t close our eyes to the enormous marriage crisis in our modern (western)  world. In our country one in every three marriages ends in divorce. Against that background the Synod will probably and rightly plead for a more intense marriage preparation.

For the many people who fail in marital fidelity the Synod will hopefully choose a ‘ministry of mercy’. Like the youngest son in the parable, God is also a father for people who divorce, a father who watches for and embraces with unconditional love. That may hopefully be a source of comfort for people in a relationship crisis. God remains faithful, also for failing and sinful people.”

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte

The bigger question – Bishop Mutsaerts on the Synod

The Dutch bishops have not yet spoken much in public about the upcoming Synod, but today Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, auxiliary of ‘s Hertogenbosch, does. And he makes a point that has been emphasised before by both Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Burke: the Synod is not about divorce, remarriage and admission to the Eucharist. The question is a bigger one, as Bishop Mutsaerts explains:

Bisschop Rob Mutsaerts“With the extraordinary Synod of the Family which opens on 5 October, Pope Francis mostly aims for a greater appreciation of the Christian marriage as a sacrament. It is clear that in today’s culture the Biblical vision on marriage and family is considered to be virtually unattainable, and is seen more as a burden than as good news. Perhaps that is the reason for Pope Francis to have scheduled the beatification of Paul VI at the end of the Synod, as a closing statement.

Paul VI was a staunch defender of Christian marriage. His famed and infamous encyclical Humanae Vitae, however, achieved the opposite according to public opinion. The Biblical ideal was almost completely forgotten. It is to be hoped that October’s  Synod will not result in a repetition of Humanae Vitae. Expectations, after all, are high. Some fervently hope that the Pope will change the Church’s teaching about divorced and remarried people; others fear he will. That would result in a repetition of Humanae Vitae. And that is exactly what Pope Francis is afraid of: “I have not been happy that so many people – even church people, priests – have said: “Ah, the Synod will be about giving communion to the divorced”, and went straight to that point”, the Pope told reporters on the return flight from Israel.

The questions is much broader. The family is in crisis. Young people rarely choose marriage. They choose others ways of living together. The family is in crisis because marriage is in crisis, according to the firm opinion of Francis.

I hope that the Pope will get the Synod he has in mind, and not the Synod which is mainly concerned with the single question of divorced and remarried faithful. That is certainly a genuine problem, but a far more complex problem lies at its root: few understand marriage as a Christian vocation, strengthened by sacramental mercy. Not without reason did the Pope give  it “The pastoral challenges for the family in the context of evangelisation” as title, and he placed it as such emphatically within the context of evangelisation. Evangelisation is without meaning if we consider it without the Gospel. The words of Jesus to both the Samaritan woman and the woman caught in adultery was hard to accept for those who heard it then and those who hear it now. Don’t forget that the Apostles thought that Jesus’ teachings about marriage were so difficult that it would be better not to marry. If the Synod is true to the Gospel – can she be otherwise? – she can expect the same response, and it will be her duty to inspire confidence that the Christian marriage is still recommendable.

Pope Francis is keen to emphasise that Christian marriage is a sacrament. Much of the confusion surrounding marriage and divorce arises when we lose sight of the fact that marriage is a sacrament. Marriage is not indissoluble because two people make a promise for life. The Church can dispense people from their promises. That is een true for the vows of religious. But the Church can’t undo a sacrament. Marriage is indissoluble for the same reason that we have tabernacles: a consecrated host can’t be ‘deconsecrated’, just like Baptism or the ordination of a priest can’t be undone. Even a priest who has ben laicised remains a priest, even though he can’t exercise the office of priest (although he can hear confessions in emergencies). Nobody, no Synod and also no Pope, can undo a valid sacrament. That’s simply how it is. We shouldn’t therefore expect a relaxation of rules regarding divorced and remarried people in regard to their receiving Holy Communion. Those who do expect this will be disappointed from the outset.

Most Catholics are unaware of the sacramental character of their marriage. Marriage, by the way, is the only of the seven sacrament which is not administered by a priest or deacon, but by lay people, by husband and wife when they say yes to each other. This is the sacrament that gives strength and mercy to be able to keep promises. That is what it is about for the Pope.”