For clarity – Pope Francis and female deacons

deacon ordinationPope Francis’ recent suggestion that a commission should be formed to study the form and fucntion of female deacons in the early Church (with, one would think, an eye on their possible re-introduction into the life of the Church today) has led to much enthusiasm and outrage, both for all the wrong reasons.

The papal comments came as an answer to the question if the permanent diaconate could not be open to men and women alike. It being a spontaneous question-and-answer session, the Holy Father obviously did not have all the necessary information at the ready, so he chose to share what he recalled from conversations with a Syrian theologian he used to meet in Rome, well before he became Pope.

And those recollections immediately point out some of the problems in equating male and theoretical female deacons. The latter’s role was found in sensitive and private situations between women: baptism, which at that time was performed by full immersion, but also cases in which a woman would have to present the physical evidence of an abusive husband! The differences with the duties of a male deacon – who has financial and charitable responsibilities, as well as clearly-defined duties in the liturgy of the Mass – are clear.

A 2002 study by the International Theological Commission, summarised here, also states this, and further reaffirms the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders – the grades of deacon, priest and bishop. A deacon is, at least in theory, able to be ordained as priest and bishop. The Church only has the authority to ordain men, not women (as Pope Francis has pointed out more than once), so in regard to the sacrament, female deacons are not possible.

Many of the duties of a deacon can be performed perfectly well by a woman. In fact, as Father Dwight Longenecker points out, in many parishes, women are already in charge of finances and run the charitable efforts of the community. You don’t need to be ordained for that. Pope Francis is not wrong when he started his answer with the half-joke that the female deacons of the Church are the religious sisters.

That leaves the duties for which ordination is a prerequisite: the liturgy of Holy Mass, such as, for example, reading the Gospel and giving the homily. Here, the deacon or priest does not do anything for himself: he performs the duties of proclamation and teaching of Christ. He is an alter Christus. The Church teaches that this is no act or show, but a sacramental reality, which we are asked to acknowledge in faith.

Some have chosen to see Pope Francis willingness to look into this matter as evidence that he wants female deacons, which is a ridiculous conclusion to draw. By that reasoning, Pope St. John Paul II wanted the same thing when he asked to International Theological Commission to study the matter…

Pope Francis said he wants clarification in this matter, and a conclusion along the lines of the 2002 study is no less a clarification than one that says, yes, there can be female deacons. But, it has to be said, all signs indicate that we should not expect the latter conclusion to be drawn.

It starts with sorry – another Catholic apology in Lund?

“I do not have a direct line with the Pope, but I certainly expect that there will be a Lund Declaration”. Words from Bishop Gerard de Korte about Pope Francis’ October visit to Sweden, where he will attend a joint Catholic-Lutheran commemoration of the Reformation. From protestant circles comes the hope that this declaration will include a Catholic acknowledgement of past mistakes  in dealing with the church communities that came of the Reformation (and also with Martin Luther himself). I have to wonder if the recent apologies made by Pope Francis, and those made by Popes Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II before him, are anything like the acknowledgements hoped for?

Fact is that the Catholic Church has long been aware and honest about mistakes made in the past. Have the Protestant churches done anything similar? I know of none. Father Dwight Longenecker had a thoughtful blog post about that recently.

We can make all the declarations, acknowledgements and apologies we want, but if it ends with that, ecumenism is going nowhere.  They are a starting point, and as such we shouldn’t repeat them over and over. An apology once made remains valid, of course. After acknowledging our past, we can proceed to the future. With Father Dwight I wonder, are the Protestants that far yet? Maybe what we should hope for is a declaration in which they also honestly acknowledge their mistakes and apologise for them, and not always look at the Catholic Church to repeat how wrong they have been. We know. We have said so. We regret it and are now looking forward to right the wrongs. In that way the Reformation can be commemorated for what it is: not a reason to celebrate, but a very painful rupture in the unity of the Christian church.

Business as usual – Pope Benedict’s last weeks

benedictIn a third press briefing in as many days, Fr. Federico Lombardi shared the schedule of Pope Benedict’s final days as Pope. As indicated earlier it is nothing out of the ordinary (if you can call such a busy schedule normal for a man of almost 86…) and befitting the personality of the Holy Father. His decision to abdicate, momentous as it is, is also an exercise in humility.  And, if anything, Pope Benedict is a humble man, never working for himself, never seeking the spotlight. Reflecting this, Fr. Dwight Longenecker has a lovely anecdote:

“I met Joseph Ratzinger once on a visit to Rome. I was walking across St Peter’s Square when I noticed the famous figure of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith heading across the square wearing a cassock, overcoat and simple black beret. I smiled and bid him good morning. He smiled back politely and nodded and went on his way to the office. He always did seem better behind the scenes.

His farewell this week was rather like my meeting with him. A simple man walking across the public square of history–happy to be headed to the privacy of his study–where he has some work to do.”

Anyway, on to the schedule:

ash wednesday st. peter's squareWednesday 13 February, Ash Wednesday: In his last public liturgical celebration, Pope Benedict XVI will offer Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Thousands of people are already queueing on St. Peter’s Square to attend this Mass, as pictured at right.

Thursday 14 February: The Holy Father will meet with priests of the Diocese of Rome.

Friday 15 February: A meeting with President Traian Basescu of Romania, followed by a group of Italian bishops on their ad limina visit.

Saturday 16 February: Meetings with President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala, a group of Italian bishops on their ad limina visit, and Prime Minister Mario Monti of Italy.

Sunday 17 February: Pope Benedict will pray the Angelus with faithful in St. Peter’s Square, and in the evening he and members of the Curia will start their Lenten retreat. Cardinal Ravasi will lead this retreat, and no activities are planned until the 24th.

Sunday 24 February: Pope Benedict will pray the Angelus with faithful in St. Peter’s Square.

Monday 25 February: A meeting with several cardinals.

Wednesday 27 February: Pope Benedict will hold his final general audience in St. Peter’s Square.

Thursday 28 February: Following a farewell address to the College of Cardinals, a helicopter will take the Pope to Castel Gandolfo at 5pm. At 8 o’clock in the evening, the See of Peter falls vacant.

Photo credit: [1] l’Osservatore Romano, [2] Catholic News Service

The spirituality of serving at the altar

An interesting film which reveals the spirituality behind the duties of altar servers., which are not just some tasks which need doing. Like so many elements of our Catholic life, it is based in a well-developed spirituality, and in turn, feeds that spirituality on a  very personal level.

This is one of the beautiful things about our faith: holiness is achievable by simply doing it. Physical actions, like the speaker in the film says, can help us achieve an inner disposition on the road to personal holiness.

We live in an age where people appreciate spirituality, the transcending elements that we can strive for. Often, this appreciation is manifested in the popularity of self-help books, paranormal events and elements of the eastern religions. Our own Catholic faith also has spirituality on offer, a spirituality which is mature, deep and continuously challenging, but which is attainable for all of us if we would just devote some time and effort to it.

HT to Fr. Dwight Longenecker.

The ‘problem’ of celibacy and male priests, once more

Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp has no problem with married priests. He also thinks the Belgian faithful would welcome women priests. Well, that’s nice for him and them. No really, what more can be said about it?

While some things are certainly subject to desires and wishes, these two issues, for the most part, are not. I say for the most part, because the rule of priestly celibacy at least can theoretically be changed at some future time. Unlike the ordination of men only, it is not part of the body of faith that was handed down to us by Jesus Christ. Priestly celibacy was instituted for different reasons and, over the course of the centuries, turned out to have rather a few spiritual and practical benefits.

Today, for different reasons, priests are required to be men and live celibate*. Why both these topics need to be rehashed time and again is, quite frankly, beyond me. Stating one’s objections to them will not change them. It’ll only add to the confusion, especially when, as in this case, it is a bishop saying it. For many faithful, the bishop is the face of the Church, and rightly so. With his priests, it is he who teaches, explains and defends the faith and he may be expected to do so in accordance with the faith as given by Christ to the Church to spread and defend. So, what a bishop says will by many people be understood as something that the Church says, thinks and believes. In the case of Bishop Bonny that clearly isn’t so.

These times call for clear voices that can explain, communicate and, if need be, defend the faith and the teachings of the Church that flow from that faith. Rather than saying that, yes, he too would love to see married priests and women ordained, a bishop should rather explain in charity why this can’t be the case. Failing to do so only works to enhance the sheer ignorance about these topics that many people, faithful and non-faithful alike, sadly have.

*There are exceptions to the rule of celibacy. Fr. Dwight Longenecker explains.

The wide reach of Anders Breivik

Observant readers may have noticed that  I have not yet written about the horrible murders that hit Norway a week ago today. There is a reason for that, and that is that I try to stick to a fairly narrow field of interest in this blog – Catholic news from the Netherlands and the countries around it. But I also don’t want to pretend that Catholic news is segregated from other news. So attention to the gruesome events that left 77 people dead does seem warranted. After all, I did so as well when other types of disasters – natural ones – hit Haiti, Japan and New Zealand. But there is one obstacle with two sides that kept me from writing: the fact that I know not nearly enough about the political leanings of the murderer, which do play a major part in the story, and that other writers have written about it much better than I can.

Flowers on the shore of Utøya, where 68 people where murdered

But one part of the entire story did present itself to me these past few days, and I think that that is well-suited to be discussed here. It’s the effect that the perpetrator of the attacks, Anders Behring Breivik, had on Catholic media and Catholic blogs over here and abroad.

The first example of Breivik’s twisted thoughts and acts affecting a fellow blogger came to me a few days ago. Father Dwight Longenecker discovered that Breivik read his blog, via a link from a Norwegian website that the killer contributed to. The comments that Breivik made about a post by Fr. Longenecker were

“nothing extreme or weird in itself.

Nevertheless, to think that my blog is out there as part of this new global publishing phenomenon and that anybody at all can read it is always amazing. To think that this madman read at least one post on my blog was disturbing at first. Naturally I wondered if I had written anything to prompt such hatred and violence.

I don’t think I have.” [Blog post Creepy and Disturbing]

Fr. Longenecker concludes that all we can do is “be silent and pray”. Which is a bit harder when the link between the murderer and you becomes even more personal, which happened to Catholica editor Tom Zwitser and contributor Erik van Goor. The politically conservative and Catholic orthodox writers both received the 1,600-page manifesto that Breivik had e-mailed to what he assumed were ‘kindred spirits’. Zwitser seemingly shrugged it off, although he does conclude that Breivik consciously tried to harm him and other conservative authors and politicians, since the list of recipients consisted of people Breivik did not know personally, but who are now linked to the criminal acts of 22 July. On 27 July, Zwitser wrote on Twitter:

My email address is public. Breivik, who has never read a word from me, thought that I would have any interest in his twisted ideas. Should I now start tweeting and blogging in Norwegian that I have more in common with a proper Muslim than with a dangerous liberal/neocon like him?

For Erik van Goor, the link between Breivik and him was even more of a surprise, and the consequences go farther. As he writes in an announcement, when the attacks happened, Van Goor was on vacation, and only upon coming home did he hear that his name was among those to whom the manifesto was sent. He writes:

“Even though many people, among them numerous friends, have assured me that I don carry any blame (my email address appeared and appears to be circulating freely on the Internet), this whole affair is to me a continuous stone which does not simply go away. The association between my name and the events in Norway may be reasoned away, but emotionally it makes me sick.”

With the ensuing flood of media attention for him, Van Goor decides to step back for now as contributor to Catholica and focus on his duties as husband and father until this storm abates.

And so, on an unprecedented large scale, Catholic bloggers and writers are hit by the backlash of one man’s gruesome actions. I don’t know why Breivik selected Fr. Longenecker, Tom Zwitser, Erik van Goor and all those others to be inspired by or to drag into his ‘project’ (for it does seem to be a well-planned socio-political endeavour), but it does make them into victims, especially since more than a few people now do exactly what Breivik wanted: linking them recipients of his manifesto to the horrible murders committed by him, as if to show that a certain school of thought automatically leads to murder.

I agree with Fr. Longenecker when he says that all we can do is be silent and pray. But while we, as Catholics, as bloggers, as people who made a small corner of the Internet their own, do that, we can take a lesson from all this. Our writings are out there for the world to read. And sometimes they are read – even commented on and written about – by people who do stupid and terrible things. But as long as we take the following words by Pope Benedict XVI to heart, I don’t think we need to worry about that too much.

It follows that there exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world: this takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others. To proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms, but also to witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preferences and judgements that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically. Furthermore, it is also true in the digital world that a message cannot be proclaimed without a consistent witness on the part of the one who proclaims it. In these new circumstances and with these new forms of expression, Christian are once again called to offer a response to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is within them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). [Message for the 45th World Day of Communications].

But all the same, such events do affect us personally. We may be able to reason much of it away, but they are a small cross we nonetheless bear, at least temporarily.

As Norway mourns and buries her dead, and as Anders Breivik goes to meet his earthly judgement, may all those unwillingly linked to horror and death be given the time and chance to process all of this.

Photo credit: [1] Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay

Immaculate Conception

The Immaculate Conception by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1767-1769

Today the Church celebrates the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While the words are not unfamiliar, many people assume that they refer to the birth of Jesus, who was ‘without sin’. In reality, though, the sinless one in this case is His mother.

Father Dwight Longenecker explains the Catholic teaching about “Mary, full of grace” in his blog:

“Protestant says, “You Catholics hold to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but it’s totally un-Biblical.” So we refer them the story of the annunciation where Mary is greeted with the term ‘full of grace’. (Luke 1.28) We conclude that if she was ‘full of grace’ then she had no sin for the Biblical definition of sin is to “fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) If she was “full of grace” then we only have to ask when this fullness started and we conclude logically that it must have started when her life started, and life starts at conception so she must have been conceived without sin.” [More at Standing On My Head]

A family connection?

Among the blogs I regularly read are Standing on my Head by Fr. Dwight Longenecker and Fr. Ray Blake’s Saint Mary Magdalen blog (both recommended reads, by the way). The former has a picture of St. John Bosco in the left side bar, (scroll down a bit) while the latter features an image of the author in a similar location (if on the other side), and I have to wonder: is there a well-hidden family connection there somewhere, between the Italian saint and Father Blake?

You be the judge:

Saint John Bosco

Fr. Ray Blake

One wonders…

Late answer to early vocation

A vocation story from Steven de Koning, deacon in the diocese of Breda, who will be ordained later this month. To quote Fr. Dwight: Chust for nice. 

——————- 

Steven de Koning's ordination to the diaconate

On 23 January 2010 Bishop van den Hende will ordain Steven de Koning to the priesthood. Steven de Koning looks back at his vocation as a late answer to an early vocation. 

As priest he wants to be a mediator of faith and faith experiences and be near to people with questions on their path through life. He clarifies: “In our time many people have lost their awe for Holiness. Throughs, through sacraments, conversation and also silence I want to give room to the Holy in their life, let it speak. In silence we can experience that questions are not always answered and that can hurt. The pain and the unanswered questions invite us to be part of life.” Steven de Koning also experienced that pain and those questions in his own life. “My youngest brother has become a widower twice. Both his first and second wife died young. That makes you ask why.” 

Vocation 

My work as a lawyer for the government assumed a makeable world, but in moments like that you find that we don’t know so much, that life is a mystery. I see life more as a gift from God. Life is filled with God’s presence and He invites us to enter into a relationship with Him. That awreness has become more profound throughout my life and has led to my late answer. I have long wondered if I had a vocation. Wasn’t it just a psychological urge? At a certain point I dared to trust that presence of God and His calling.” 

Postponed choice 

Steven comes from a Catholic family from Breda. He ws born in 1953. At twelve years of age he had his first experience of a vocation. “My father’s family included several religious, among them a Marist father. At twelve I had a certain interest for the priesthood. An ‘ambassador’ from the Marists came to visit, and it turned out I was to go to the seminary in Lievelde. That scared me away.” In that time too, society had many questions about mandatory celibacy and the future of the priesthood. That made the choice for priesthood more difficult. He postponed the decision and postponement turned into cancellation. Steven de Koning went to studt law and had a good career as a lawyer with the Departments of Culture, Recreation and Social Work, as well as Justice. 

Dormant desire 

Steven de Koning always felt close to the Church. He freely admits that, as a student, he didn’t go to Church weekly. In The Hague, the self-evidence of the Catholic faith was broken. “I came in contact with Protestants and andere religions. The urge for development in my own faith grew because of that. I became a volunteer in my own parish, took part in catechetical groups, first as participant, later as group leader. In the mid-1990s my employer gave me a chance to reorient myself, because of internal reorganisations. That awake the dormant desire to be a priest. Around 2000 I had various indications that God really did call me. 

God still calls 

A Protestant friend gave me a novena candle. I lit it at Ascension. In my parish at Pentecost that year, I picked up a copy of the diocesan magazine of Rotterdam, which had an article entitled God still calls. It was about men who were called to be priests at a later age. That deeply touched me. I went to find out the origins of the novena candle and ended up in the Vredeskerk in Amsterdam. The priest of that parish invited me to take part in a discussion group about vocations, which he had just created. That was for me a safe place, far away from The Hague, to think about my answer,” Steven smiles. “After a year I decided to study theology at the Catholic Theological University in Utrecht. I had a great time studying there and still have many friends from there.” 

Coming to Breda 

In 2002 Steven de Koning left The Hague and moved to Nijmegen. His youngest brother had become a widower and Steven would be taking care for his three young children. Steven continued his studies and became actief in the Heilig Landstichting parish. The priest there heard of his vocation and encouraged him to get in touch with Bishop Muskens. A meeting with the bishop led to a “heartfelt welcome as seminarian for the diocese”.  Steven contacts then-recot Ham. He was admitted to the seminary Bovendonk where he continued his studies in 2005. 

Bovendonk 

Steven felt at home at Bovendonk and speaks with much appreciation about Rector Ham and the other teachers. “They and Rector Ham especially made it clear to me that studying theology is not the some as becoming a priest. A re-experienced my vocation and strengthened my answer. I increasignyl experience it as a surrender and want to witness more to my faith.” 

Steven de Koning works in the region of Oost-Zeeuws-Vlaanderen. After his ordination he’ll continue to the first responsible for Clinge, Graauw and Nieuw-Namen. On 24 January 2010, at 10:30, he will celebrate his first Holy Mass in the basilica of St. Willibrord in Hulst.