No April Fool – 13 months in, the vacancy ends

End of a long sede vacante

It took thirteen months, an almost unprecented long time, but the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden will soon have a bishop again. The Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Aldo Cavalli, had already stated that the name would be known before Easter. With tomorrow being the fifth Sunday of Lent, he was cutting it a bit close. The long time between bishops gave rise to some speculation and rumours, which I wrote about here. These speculations will undoubtedly continue now that there is a new bishop. Many will choose to see the selection, which was ultimately made by Pope Francis, in political terms: the new bishop is either a man in the vein of the Holy Father, which means he is a pastoral figure with an eye for the people instead of the law; or he fits the mold of Cardinal Eijk, which means he is a dogmatic, a stickler for rules. Reality, as often, is more nuanced.

20170330_sHertogenbosch_Bisschoppen_©RamonMangold_03The new bishop

The new bishop comes from the south, and thus, in a way, makes the opposite move than his predecessor, who went from Groningen-Leeuwarden to ‘s-Hertogenbosch. From that later see comes its vicar general, Msgr. Ron van den Hout, to take over the reins of this country’s most northern diocese.

Bishop-elect Van den Hout is 52, not extraordinarily young or old when compared with his predecessors. He has been vicar general of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch since 2012. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1993, studied in Rome and Nijmegen, and most recently taught Bible studies at three seminaries, in addition to serving as temporary pastor in the Bommelerwaard region, in the north of the diocese.

The Diocese

The new bisdom inherits a diocese wich, in some ways, is a work in progress. In the eight years (from 2008 to 2016) that Msgr. de Korte was ordinary, the diocese underwent a process of change which saw the number of parish decrease from 84 to 19. While the previous bishop made it policy to maintain the old parishes as communities in the new larger parishes, it is up to the new bishop to see the process to its conclusion and his choice to keep Bishop de Korte’s vision intact or adapt it as he sees fit. With one parish, which includes the cathedral in Groningen, exempt from the mergers, only two new parishes are awaiting establishment,  while a third is already merged, but will see one more old parish join at a later date. The entire process is expected to be concluded by 1 January 2018.

In the years that Bishop de Korte led the diocese, the number of religious establishments within its boundaries tripled. A relatively large increase, in absolute numbers it is perhaps somewhat less impressive: from one to three. In addition to the shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed in Warfhuizen, which is under the care of hermit Father Hugo, the Holy Ghost Fathers have established themselves in Heerenveen, while the Cistercians from Sion Abbey are working to build a monastery on the island of Schiermonnikoog. Bishop de Korte actively encouraged this trend, and his successor could do worse than do likewise.

The Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden is one of the two youngest in the Netherlands, having been established in 1955, it is the second largest in size, and the smallest by number of Catholics (a little over 100,000, of whom some 10% attend a Mass or celebration over the course of one weekend)*. It covers the three northern provinces of the Netherlands (Fryslân, Groningen and Drenthe) as well as the northern third of the province of Flevoland. Its population varies from traditionally left-wing in the former Communist stronghold of eastern Groningen, to traditionally Catholic along the German border from the southeastern tip of Groningen to the south of Drenthe. Major cities are few, but include the university city of Groningen, which is also home to the cathedral of St. Joseph and the diocesan offices (relocated there by then-Bishop Willem Eijk, bishop from 1999 to 2008). Catholic faithful are clustered in various places, but in general the parish, especially in the countryside, are expansive. Coupled with a relative low number of priests this means that clergy has to be able and willing to travel.

Bishop van den Hout Will be the fifth bishop of the Groningen-Leeuwarden. Two of his predecessors are still active: Cardinal Willem Eijk as archbishop of Utrecht, and Msgr. Gerard de Korte as bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Bishop Hans van den Hende of Rotterdam is a former priest and vicar general of the diocese, and his immediate predecessor, Msgr. Ad van Luyn, was born in Groningen.

In the past eleven months, since the installation of Bishop de Korte in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the diocese has been run by diocesan administrator Fr. Peter Wellen, vicar general under the previous bishop, and general delegate Fr. Arjen Bultsma, formerly the episcopal vicar for Fryslân and the Noordoostpolder.

Reactions

Bishop-elect van den Hout was informed about his appointment last week, and accepted it on Wednesday. His initial reaction was hesitant, but he realised that it was “something that had come his way, and I was obliged to cooperate gladly”.

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^The new bishop, at left, receives a welcome present from diocesan administrator Fr. Peter Wellen.

As for the future, the new bishop sees himself as a man of the parish. “The life of the Church must be realised in the parishes,” he said. “The faithful must take their baptism seriously, while the diocesan curia serves to support this.” As yet unfamiliar with his new diocese, the bishop-elect intends to start visiting the parishes soon after his consecration, which is scheduled for 3 June. Asked about his predecessors and how he compares to them, Msgr. van den Hout said that he simply wants to be himself, to be there for the people. He hasn’t taken up a position on how the diocese should be run, as this depends on the specific  local situation. He is curious and open about the Catholic life in the parishes of his new diocese, and will make any decisions based on what he finds.

More to come.

*Statistics date from 2008. The expectation is that the actual and current numbers are lower).

Photo credit: [1] Ramon Mangold, [2] Mark de Vries

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A Franciscan first – Groningen-Leeuwarden gets a basilica

It may still not have a bishop, but as of today, the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden does have a minor basilica. Well, at least when the proclamation is officially made on an as yet unspecified date.

franciscuskerk-bolsward

The church of St. Francis in Bolsward is elevated to the dignity of a minor basilica per a papal bull dated on 26 November of last year. Signed by Cardinal Robert Sarah, it is nonetheless a decision from the Pope.

There are several reasons for the elevation of this particular church, which was built in 1932. It is a pilgrimage site to Our Lady of Sevenwouden, a statue of whom was the focal point of a procession, the first in four centuries, through the heart of Bolsward in 2015; it is also the centre of a devotion to Blessed Titus Brandsma, the martyr to the Nazis who was born in Bolsward.

Bishop Gerard de Korte, at that time still bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden, made the official request to Rome in 2015, supported by the rest of the Bishops’ Conference. The Congregation for Divine Worship then conducted an investigation, looking at the quality of the liturgy, catechesis and charity. The elevation of the church is therefore not just a honour for the building, but also for the faith community it houses.

As a sign of it being a basilica, the church will be allowed to use the papal insignia of the two keys, and it will house a conopeum and a tintinnabulum, a canopy and bell to signify the close bond with the Pope. The local community will also be celebrating a number of extra feasts, including the anniversary of the election of the Pope, and it will be obliged to maintain the vitality and meaning of its activities and life.

The future Basilica of St. Francis is the first for Groningen-Leeuwarden, the 27th for the Netherlands and the most northern. Like the vast majority of basilicas in the world, it is a minor basilica. There are only four major basilicas, all in Rome. The basilica is located in Bolsward, in western Friesland, and is one church location in the parish of Blessed Titus Brandsma. Parish priest is Fr. Arjen Bultsma, episcopal vicar for Friesland and the Noordoostpolder under Bishop de Korte.

In gratitude – Brother Hugo makes his perpetual vows

Congratulations, prayers, best wishes, but above all gratitude to Brother Hugo, who yesterday made his perpetual vows as a hermit to our bishop, Msgr. Gerard de Korte.

A very well-attended Mass at the cathedral of St. Joseph in Groningen was the setting for this very unique occasion. Unique, since Brother Hugo is the sole contemplative religious within the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. Invited guests – priests, religious and laity – from both the north and the south of the country, both areas being places where major parts of Brother Hugo’s recent history took place, filled the pews, while the diocesan curia (Bishop de Korte, vicar general Msgr. Peter Wellen, diocesan vicar Fr. Arjen Bultsma and cathedral administrator F. Rolf Wagenaar concelebrated, with many priests attending in choir.

Brother Hugo resides as a hermit in the tiny countryside hamlet of Warfhuizen, where he lives in and maintains the shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed, housed in the village church. He has done so for the past 11 years.

In Canon 603 of the Code of Canon Law we read the following about hermits:

§1 Besides institutes of consecrated life, the Church recognises the life of hermits or anchorites, in which Christ’s faithful withdraw further from the world and devote their lives to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through the silence of solitude and through constant prayer and penance.

§2 Hermits are recognised by law as dedicated to God in consecrated life if, in the hands of the diocesan Bishop, they publicly profess, by a vow or some other sacred bond, the three evangelical counsels, and then lead their particular form of life under the guidance of the diocesan Bishop .

What’s described in Paragraph 2 is what the Church, through the diocesan bishop, has now done. In essence, Brother Hugo is now fully a part of the assets of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, not only because he lives his life of prayer and penance under the direction of the diocesan bishop, but also because his prayer and life as a hermit is specifically geared towards the benefit of the diocese and the Church in the entire Netherlands.

And as such, we can be nothing but grateful. Grateful that Brother Hugo has been willing and able to answer God’s call so radically, and for us as members of the Church in the north of the Netherlands.

Under the gaze of Bishop de Korte, Brother Hugo signs his vows on the altar of the cathedral

Photo credit: [1] O.L.V. van de Besloten Tuin, [2] Jan Willem van Vliet/DVHN

The bishop and the blogger

“I am known as the ecumenical bishop, although some bloggers are none too happy about that. So be it.”

Words from Bishop Gerard de Korte in his homily on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. The festive Mass, offered by the bishop in concelebration with the diocesan vicars and the cathedral administrator, and attended by the majority of the diocesan clergy and the bishops Punt, Van den Hende and Woorts, as well as Cardinal Simonis, took place on Saturday morning. Bishop de Korte looked back on the past 25 years, but also ahead to the years that are coming.

Ecumenism is  major theme for the bishop; it is, one could say, a defining characteristic. As an illustration, among the guests at the Mass were representatives of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands and the Old Catholic Church, whom the bishop regards as “friends in the faith”. But this ecumenical focus has also caused some to look with wary eyes at his activities. And among these, there are some very vocal bloggers and users of other social media.

Bishop de Korte, quite possibly because of these wary – and often rather aggressive and personal – comments, has been rather critical about Catholic bloggers in the Netherlands. In the past he has written about the need for bloggers to remain charitable and be careful for what they commit to the screen, which, sadly, led to a renewed round of criticism and attacks, not only aimed at Bishop de Korte, but also at those who dared to express support, like yours truly. Accusations of slander were even leveled at me at one point. Just an illustration.

Regarding the above, Bishop de Korte’s apparent opinion of bloggers and users of social media, illustrated by the quote I shared above, can be explained. But it is sad that he has been given this impression. For not all bloggers are hostile to priests and bishops, even if they can, at times, be quite critical of their words and actions.

Should we then reply with a similar “so be it”? I don’t think so. Bloggers have things to say. Not to blow my own trumpet here, but let’s face it: you don’t  start a blog and devote time to it, sometimes for many years, without having a thing or two to say. We should then look at how we communicate. If our way of communication causes people to ignore the message and even consider bloggers to be peripheral, we are doing something wrong.

Of course we should not simply be quiet when we disagree, but neither should we resort to personal attacks and name-calling. Any possibility of a quick resolution will go straight out the window in that case. I may personally regret that my bishop chooses to focus so much on ecumenism instead of a clear Catholic teaching in our secular society, but that does not mean I’ll denounce him as a heretic or worse, as some do.

Photo credit: Marlies Bosch/Bisdom Groningen-Leeuwarden

Congratulations to the new diocesan vicar

The Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden announced yesterday the name of the priest who succeeds Vicar General Johan te Velde, not as vicar general, but as regional vicar. He is 35-year-old Father Arjen Bultsma.

Msgr. te Velde recently announced that he would lay down his function as one of the diocese’s two vicars general in order to become a Benedictine monk. Msgr. Peter Wellen remains as the single vicar general, and is also a regional vicar for the provinces of Groningen and Drenthe. Fr. Bultsma will be regional vicar for the province of Friesland and the Noordoostpolder, basically the western half of the diocese. He also remains in fucntion as parish priest in four parishes in western Friesland.

Despite his young age, the new vicar accepted the assignment after a few days’ consideration, and says he sees it as a vote of confidence from the bishop. As a focal point for his work as regional vicar, Fr. Bultsma mentions a serious understanding of the lessons of Vatican II, especially the baptismal or common priesthood of all the faithful:

“Who are they, how and where do they live and what are their talents. And then: what is needed to keep building up the Church and proclaim the Gospel with that. This approach brings the people in the church together, laity and clergy, in a necessarily communicative, but also mutually reinforcing way.”

Photo credit: Marlies Bosch

Brick by brick in Groningen-Leeuwarden

Last Friday, Fathers Arjen Bultsma, Victor Maagd and John de Zwart led some 150 of their parishioners on a pilgrimage to the German Marian shrine at Kevelaer. The website of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden presents this as the revival of an old tradition, and it would seem that the three priests plan another pilgrimage next year. There is a photo report of here, One photo struck me. Taken from the choir loft it shows people coming forward to receive Communion at the communion rail.

While not unknown in certain parishes in the diocese, this way of receiving is rare enough to be remarkable, certainly on a pilgrimage like this, which included people of all generations.

I happen to know the three priests in question as liturgically fairly sensible men (some more than others, but name me any group of three people in which all are identical), but it was certainly nice to see. And yes, I do notice that not everyone in the photo receives kneeling. But, as they say, brick by brick, and as long as reception on the hand is a valid way of receiving I won’t tell anyone off for doing it.

Looking back in gratitude

I spent my Palm Sunday weekend with the youth platform of my diocese, Groningen-Leeuwarden. For 25 years now, Palm Sunday is also World Youth Day, so the youth platform hosts a weekend of fun and games, but also catechesis, for young people between 16 and 30.

Notes left on a flipover, after youth worker Hao Tran spoke about the nature of God's love for His people

It was not only a chance to be away from the relentless media assault on the Church, but also an opportunity to meet people I hadn’t seen in too long. I was sorry that it only last one and a half days, to be honest.

Local hermit Brother Hugo visited
On Sunday afternoon, there was the opportunity to go canoeing

On Sunday afternoon, Bishop de Korte visited to celebrate Mass together with Fathers Arjen and Victor. I had the honour of serving at that Mass, and almost nothing went wrong… 😉

Before Mass, we processed to the church, carrying buxus branches in lieu of palm fronds.   

The church in Wehe Den Hoorn, the small village where we stayed, is small but rather nice. Aspects of the sanctuary, though , are mirrored to what I used to: the credence table is at the other side, which totally turns one’s orientation to the altar around.

The interior of the St. Boniface church
An impromptu welcome sign for Bishop de Korte

The weekend reminded me that the Church and the faith are so much bigger than what the media presents it as. It truly transcends it.

I am thankful for these past two days. Let’s remember the things to be thankful for in this Holy Week. It grounds us in and elevates us to Easter, less than a week away.