The exorcising Pope

The big question in certain Italian media circles yesterday, a question that also made some headlines as far as the Netherlands, was: did Pope Francis perform an exorcism on Sunday?

r-POPE-FRANCIS-EXORCISM-large570Footage shows the Holy Father conversing with a young man in a wheelchair and the priest accompanying him, before placing his hands on the boy’s head and praying for a short while. While the footage is blurred to protect the boy’s identity, we can see him reacting, his mouth open, as the pope prays. It’s a short encounter, but one in which certain people have read much. They point out that the Pope, upon hearing the aforementioned priest seemingly describing what ails the boy, looks suddenly very concerned and immediately places his hands on the boy’s head. The look, the intensity of the prayer and the boy’s reaction, they say, indicate that an exorcism was performed.

But there are some serious questions to be asked about this reading of events. In the first place, Vatican sources have denied that what occurred was anything but prayer and blessing – in itself powerful and moving enough. Furthermore, as Father Anton ten Klooster has pointed out, an exorcism will most likely never take place on such short notice, in such a public location and by a priest (in this case, the Pope), who is unprepared to do it.

An example of wishful thinking fueled by enthusiasm, it would seem. But it does point towards something interesting: exorcisms are a reality. They do take place, although probably not in the same way certain movies would have us believe. Pope Francis has referred several times to the devil, in very clear terms. It is an uncomfortable thing to believe, but as Catholics we are asked to do so. The devil is a reality, and so are possessions.

So, can the Pope exorcise demons? With the right preparation, certainly. Did he so in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday? Definitely not.

Stats for April 2012

At the tail end of it, the month became quite interesting, as my translation of the pope’s letter to the German bishops was picked by numerous blogs and websites, resulting in more than 2,000 page views in one day. Not surprisingly, the blog easily broke the 10,000 page view ceiling and peaked at 10,992. I know this blogging game is not about numbers, but still: wow.

Without further ado, here’s the top 10 of last month:

1: Letter to the German Bishops’ Conference 3,120
2: Priest in space 129
3: Cardinal Watch: Cardinal Daoud passes away 84
4: Cardinal Watch: Cardinal Aponte Martínez passes away 82
5: Seventh Station: Jesus falls for the second time 80
6: For all or many – Pope Benedict enters the debate 68
7: The Stations of the Cross 66
8: Happy birthday, Holy Father! 64
9: A blackbook for Bishop Mutsaerts 57
10: “A desperate push” – Holy Father corrects disobedient priests 54

Although the numbers above are obviously a sign of appreciation that is very welcome and, er, appreciated, there are other ways to show support for this blog. One of them is via the donation button below.

Priest in space

Although the Netherlands is currently well-represented in space, as astronaut André Kuipers is one of six crew members of the International Space Station, soon the burgeoning space tourism industry could increase the Dutch representation, and the Catholic one too.

Free daily newspaper Metro is in the process of running a contest that allows to winner to make a short hop into space from a space port on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao. The number of contestants has been narrowed down to 20, and among them is Father Anton ten Klooster, priest of the Archdiocese of Utrecht. In his own words on the contest website:

“Metro is sending someone into the heavens! You might as well immediately send a priest, who already has his contacts there. The Netherlands has the chance to be the first country in the world to do this. And you have to admit: no one would expect that from US, right? Surprise the world, vote for me :)”

Voting is now closed, so all we can do is wait until tomorrow and see if the numbers of votes cast and Fr. ten Klooster’s motivation will lead, via an international finale, to the first cleric in space.

Artwork credit: Fr. Roderick/SQPN

The archbishop and the pastoral worker, two sides of the same coin

A fairly small news item earlier this week – about Archbishop Wim Eijk of Utrecht asking a parish council to terminate the employment of pastoral worker Tejo van der Meulen – has led to much debate about the role of pastoral workers and the lines they, in more than one person’s opinion, routinely seem to cross.

At first, the piece of information seemed innocent enough: an issue that concerned one parish, but we’ve seen several times already that not all of these issues keep to the boundaries of the parish they originate in. Both secular and Catholic media have made much of it, taken the fact as a reason to write in favour of or against the existence of, the duties of, or the liberties taken by pastoral workers. The case of Mr. van der Meulen is used as a starting point of the debate, and as evidence that pastoral workers routinely ‘play priest’.

Without going into too much detail about the situation of Mr. van der Meulen and the reasons that Archbishop Eijk had for rescinding his mission, it does shed a light on the status of pastoral workers in the dioceses of the Netherlands. Pastoral workers are lay people who are sent by the bishop to a specific parish or area to perform pastoral duties, usually in cooperation with a priest and parish council, although in some areas, for example in the north, priests may be few and pastoral workers will have managerial duties that are usually reserved for parish priests in other areas. Here, pastoral workers also lead the faithful in prayer services, as well as services of the Word and even Communion services. While the Church does require pastoral workers to attend Mass before being sent out to lead a service somewhere else, this does not always happen. Sometimes that is because the pastoral workers in question does not have the opportunity to go to Mass, but that can’t always be the case.

As the above indicates, theory does not always equal practice. And, more often than many would like, we’ve seen liturgical abuses crop up, because the boundaries between priest and pastoral worker vanished. A single clear cause is difficult to indicate, but the lack of priests and a limited knowledge of the faculties and duties of priest and laity are certainly among them. And then we see situation like in the case of Mr. van der Meulen, where the pastoral worker joins the priest at the altar for the Eucharistic prayer, or where the pastoral worker reads the Gospel at Mass. Indications that there is no awareness of what a priest or lay person can or can’t do, and a pretense that the one is the same as the other. And that is something that, I believe, Archbishop Eijk tries to combat. And he should be joined by all other bishops in that, as Blessed Pope John Paul II called them to do as far back as 1980.

Priests and pastoral workers are two sides of the same coin; I often have the impression that pastoral workers work from a strong pastoral concern for the people. A good priest will have that same concern, but will be called to express that concern by means of the sacraments and the proclamation of the Word of God. Together, they can and should work fruitfully together for the faithful under their care, which is possible when they know duties, abilities and limitations, as Father Anton ten Klooster points out.

Actually, come to think of it, pastoral workers and priests who pretend they are something they are not, are mostly doing a disservice to themselves. They have each been given a specific mission in the Church, in which they each can be bearers of the Good News, each in their own unique way. Why throw that gift aside, or switch it for someone else’s?

We are all workers in God’s vineyard, not in our own. Let’s reflect that in our work and vocation.

Saturday’s ordination

Vatican flags are out at the entrance of the cathedral of St. Catherine in Utrecht

On Saturday I had the pleasure of being present at the presbyteral ordination of Father Anton ten Klooster and Father Wouter de Paepe in Utrecht. Travelling down there with a friend meant getting up quite early, but I always think that an occasion of such value for the Church in the Netherlands is worth getting up early for. New priests were also ordained in Haarlem, Den Bosch and Roermond. 

Archbishop Eijk lays his hands on Anton ten Klooster, ordaining him to the priesthood

It was a long Mass, as is usual for such occasions, celebrated by Archbishop Wim Eijk in concelebration with Father Patrick Kuipers and Father Norbert Schnell, the current and former rectors of the Ariënskonvikt, as well as the priests working in the parishes where both new priests also already work. Many other priests of the archdiocese, as well as the two auxiliary bishops, were also present in the sanctuary. 

The congregation was large, filling up the entire cathedral. That is sadly a rare occurrence, but it was comforting to see that many people had come to witness the ordination of their future pastors. 

This is just the part of the cathedral in front of us. More people were in the back half.

The magnificent cathedral choir added much to the dignity and festivity of the Mass. Their contribution was beautiful. 

Another beautiful moment in any ordination Mass happens just after the reading from the Gospel (Mark 11: 27-33 that day). Father Kuipers asked both men to come forward and declare their presence and then formally asked the archbishop to ordain them for the heavy task of the priesthood. The archbishop then asked if they are worthy, to which the reply is hat, based upon the questioning of the people and the judgement of those responsible they have been found worthy. That moment, after six years of education and formation, and many more years of discernment, is the moment a man knows that he his indeed called to the priesthood: the Church confirms it, and the bishop formally elects them for the order of the priesthood. 

After the homily, the future priests are formally asked to make the necessary vows – to shepherd the flock of the Lord, to preach the Gospel and explain the Catholic faith with dignity and wisdom, to celebrate the mysteries of Christ with dedication and loyalty, especially in the sacrifice of the Eucharist and sacrament of reconciliation, to pray for God’s mercy over the people entrusted to them by following the Lord’s commandment to ceaselessly pray, and to join closer to Christ every day – and promises – of loyalty and respect to the bishop and his successors. Then the intercession of all the saints is requested through the Litany of All Saints. During that the archbishop kneels in front of altar, while the future priests lie facedown on the ground behind him – a gesture of total submission to God. Then the bishop silently places his hands on the head of the future priests and then prays that God may ordain them in a lengthy prayer. After that, both men are dressed in stole and chasuble, the outward apparel of the priest. 

During that whole process it is so clear, through the words and the rituals, that this is more than a matter between people. The Holy Spirit is at work then, and through the consecration of the bishop the spirit descends over two men, elevating them to the priesthood, to act as alter Christus among His people. 

During this Mass, the choir sang Here I am, Lord, a song I didn’t know and the style of which is usually not really my taste, but emotionally it was perfect at that place in the liturgy. The video below is the best version I could find which was not a solo version of the song. 


Once in full priestly regalia and taken into the ranks of their brother priests, the two new priests’ hands are anointed and they receive the gifts which they will sacrifice to the Lord for the rest of their lives: the bread and wine which may now be consecrated through their hands. 

Mass then continues as usual with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, albeit extra solemn and festive of course. The new priests’ joy and gratitude must’ve been visible to those around them: it certainly was to everyone as they processed out: especially Father Wouter sported a large smile. 

The reception, where everyone had the chance to congratulate the new priests was in a church down the street: a protestant church which nonetheless housed an icon of St. Nicholas…