Tiptoeing towards understanding – Bishop co-hosts meeting between Church and LGBT community

Almost one year ago, an ecumenical prayer service in a Catholic cathedral to open a gay pride festival, and including a blessing by the bishop, was a bridge too far. This year, more exactly last night, the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch co-hosted the first of three dialogue meetings about faith and sexual diversity. Participating in the private meeting, characterised by an atmosphere of “security, openness and honesty”, were Bishop Gerard de Korte, cathedral administrator Fr. Geertjan van Rossem as well as representatives from the churches in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and from the political world.

Dialoogbijeenkomst rond geloof en seksuele diversiteit

The meeting was promised by the bishop as he announced last year’s plan to host the ecumenical prayer service on Pink Saturday at the cathedral of St. John. Those plans were later cancelled after significant protests, and the service was relocated to the Protestant Grote Kerk. Fr. Van Rossem did participate in it, but Bishop de Korte did not.

The focus of the meeting was to foster understanding. The participants spoke in groups of ten, and the bishops joined several of these groups. “What struck me in the conversations was the willingness to really listen respectfully to each other’s experiences. The participants were courteous, did not look for discussion, but spoke about what they had experienced themselves.”

Mr. Ivo van Harmelen, former Pink Saturday program manager and co-organiser of the dialogue meeting, said: “From the conversation the wish to remain in contact manifested itself especially. First show love, begin a dialogue and try to find each other in that way.” As such, the meeting had no ideological character. It was intended to listen, to create some form of connection and understanding, which can be the basis for further developments.

The interests of Christians and people who identify themselves in sexually different ways are often strained and usually diametrically opposed. The contacts between, if any, are often hostile and judgmental. But both also want to convince the other of their beliefs. Fighting and condemnation will not do that. If there is any hope of dialogue and understanding, there must be a foundation first. These meetings are an attempt to achieve that.

Two more meetings are planned for tonight and tomorrow evening, between faithful, pastors and representatives of various sexual diversity communities.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

Permission withdrawn – Bishop de Korte says no to gay pride prayer service at his cathedral

downloadLast week, Bishop Gerard de Korte wrote a letter to explain his decision to allow an ecumenical prayer service to open the gay pride Pink Saturday event at ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s cathedral. I shared that letter in an English translation in the post linked above. Sadly, that letter did not have the effect hoped for the by the bishop, and today he announces that he withdraws his permission for the prayer service in his cathedral.

In his second letter, the bishop states that he failed to remove the tensions that arose in his diocese following the announcement of the prayer event. “My nuanced doctrinal and pastoral letter was not accepted by many,” he writes, and adds, “Homosexuality remains a sensitive issue in our Church.”

Bishop de Korte then explains his decision to withdraw permissions:

“Until today, priests and other faithful have protested the prayer service at St. John’s. Although I personally completely trust the prayer leaders, I must conclude that, even before the service has begun, the religious feelings of many Catholics have been deeply affected. To the, the cathedral is the symbol of our diocese and they cannot believe that the service’s serenity is guaranteed. This is a serious state of affairs. I cannot hurt the conscience of faithful and must not cause scandal to my brothers and sisters.

The commotion surrounding the intended prayer service is such that the good relationships within the faith community are at stake. In that context I feel, after careful deliberation, forced to withdraw my permission for the ecumenical prayer service in our cathedral. I really that this new decision is a disappointment to more than a few. But because of the unity in our diocese I believe I can do no other.”

This decision, the bishop explains, does in no way mean that there should be no outreach from the Church to the gay community. I think that was at the core of the intended prayer service, hence the title of my previous post on the issue beginning with that word ‘outreach’.

Bishop de Korte writes:

“Dominant secular culture is directly contrary to Catholicism on the correct experience of sexuality in general and homosexuality especially. Catholic faithful live in modern culture and are deeply influenced by it.

As I concluded in my Pentecost letter, this often leads to misunderstanding, anger and sadness. As a bishop, I will keep looking for a proper form of dialogue, both internally and externally, no matter how difficult and thankless that may often be. People, of any orientation, should find, in our Catholic community at least, kindness, security and friendship. Every person is welcome in our faith community.”

The sense of disappointment is tangible in the bishop’s words, and that is shared by many who have commented on social media tonight. What we should watch out for is fingerpointing, however. Bishop de Korte felt forced to make this decision, but he did so out his sense of duty to all the faithful entrusted to his pastoral care, not just those who may happen to agree with him on this issue. Personally, I initially had some trepidations about the wisdom of the prayer service, but on the other hand, as the bishop says, we can’t ignore the society we live in. It is in that society that we must reach people: it is impossible to remain outside it and expect to be a Church with any kind of influence or voice. The Church will simply be ignored, even more than it is already, by faithful and non-faithful alike.

Bishop de Korte concludes his letter with a sense of hope.

“When I was installed as bishop in the cathedral, on Saturday 14 May 2016, I spoke about the importance of mutual trust and unity. I strife for an clear but also hospitable and friendly Church. I hope and pray that every faithful in our diocese wants to contribute to that, especially at this moment. Especially now, we are called to hold on to each other as a community around the living Lord.”

The ecumenical prayer service is not cancelled, but will relocate to a nearby Protestant church. Cathedral administrator Father Geertjan van Rossem will be one of the celebrants of the serive, but Bishop de Korte won’t attend.

Photo credit: Marc Bolsius

Outreach – Bishop de Korte explains why his cathedral hosts a prayer service to open a gay pride event

Recently trickling into international Catholic media was the planned ecumenical prayer service at ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s cathedral basilica of St. John the Evangelist, planned expressly to open the annual Pink Saturday gay pride event. There has been much concern and criticism that a catholic church, a cathedral even, is used in a manifestitation that revolves around something that is so at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Some feared that the service could be construed as a form of support of the extravagant lifestyle so often associated with pride manifestations.

Following the first meeting of his new presbyteral council, and upon that council’s request, Bishop Gerard de Korte has written the following letter to not only explain the reasoning behind holding the prayer service, but also to delve into the Catholic Church’s teachings surrounding homosexuality and the balance between doctrine and life.

It is a careful letter, but one that should be admired for the bishop’s sensitive treatment of the issue, and attitude that is often lacking in debates about this issue. The bishop acknowledges his own duties as shepherd and has stressed that the prayer service can not contain anything that is contrary to Catholic doctrine.

In the end, the cathedral administrator and the bishop have made one of two choices. They could have kept far away from any acknowledgement of the pride events taking place in their city, or they could have taken the bold step towards some form of dialogue. They have chosen the latter. A prayer service is in the first place about meeting God, the bishop argues, and not supporting or protesting anything.

The location, St. John’s, is also striking since in 2010 it was the site of protests, supported by gay right activists and even some politicians, during Mass against the denial of Holy Communion to a practising homosexual.

bisschop-de-korte“Brothers and sisters,

On Thursday 1 June the new presbyeral council met for the first time. Among other things, we discussed the ecumenical prayer service which will be held at the start of Pink Saturday (24 June) in the cathedral. Some priests were concerned; others were glad about the breathing room provided. The planned ecumenical prayer service not only triggered discussion among priests, but also among other faithful. Homosexuality remains a sensitive topic in our Church, leading to much emotion. The presbyteral council has asked me to clarify my own position in a letter. It will in the first place be about the prayer service in St. John’s, but also about the topic of Church and homosexuality in a broader sense.

Ecumenical prayer service

The ecumenical prayer service at the cathedral is the primary responsibility of the pastoral team, especially the cathedral administrator. I know that administrator Van Rossem carefully deliberated it. He obviously discussed the service with the church council, but also with me. The cathedral is, after all, the bishop’s church. I left the decision with the administrator, under the condition that nothing will be said during the prayer service that goes against Church teaching. The contents of the prayer service can not be allowed to hurt the religious feelings of our faithful.

The cathedral administrator ultimately made a positive decision. It is very important that the service is prepared by the administrator and three preachers from ‘s-Hertogenbosch. They trust each other and are aware of the concerns of a part of the faithful. I have full confidence that the service will be serene. Every worship service revolves around the worship of and encounter with God. Liturgy requires stillness and can never be used for protests or demonstrations. Those present at the prayer service will hopefully be encouraged and strengthened in their faith that God loves us unconditionally in Christ. The cathedral administrator and the preachers have asked me, as bishop, to conclude the service with a brief word and a blessing.

During Pink Saturday there will probably be things taking place in the city which are strongly disapproved of by Catholics and other Christians, including homosexual Christians. In that regard I recall the remark of one of our priests during the presbyteral council meeting on 1 June. During the days of carnival there are also things taking place which are hard to reconcile with Catholic ethics. That is, however, no reason to abandon carnival services.

Church and homosexuality

I have the need to not only discuss the planned ecumenical prayer service in this letter, but also the topic of Church and homosexuality. In the Roman Catholic view marriage, the life bond between man and woman, is the framework of an ordered experience of sexuality. The unconditional love and faithfulness of God as thus reflected in marriage. Other forms of sexuality are considered disordered. As a Roman Catholic bishop I am called to uphold this teaching.

This vision is, however, at odds with the dominant ideas about relationships and sexuality in modern Netherlands. A great part of our own Church people is influenced by modern secular culture. The result is a deep chasm between the word of the Church and the experience of many outside, but also inside our Church. One thing and another often leads to misunderstanding, anger and regret. As a bishop, however, I feel called to continue seeking out dialogue, no matter how difficult it often is.

Every bishop, but also every priest, is not only a teacher, but also a shepherd. He is aware of the tensions between teachings and life, also and especially in the area of sexuality. The Church’s ideal and stubborn reality regularly clash. It is pastoral wisdom to not use the teachings of the Church as a stick to strike with, but as a staff to lean on.

Traditionally the Church has known the saying: a lion in the pulpit, a lamb in the confessional. This implies that a wise shepherd tries to find an accessible way with every faithful. The Church’s norms are rarely achieved in concrete existence. In those cases we are not called to throw stones. When God starts counting sins, no one remains standing. But God is forgiveness and that nourishes us. We can and must appear before the face of the Lord with all the rough edges of a life lived.

Now what?

Faithful homosexuals, but also their parents and other family, often struggle with many questions. Which way to go? Is it possible to find a relationship of love and trust within the limits of Catholic morality? The Church asks homosexual people to live in abstinence. Such a life can only be lived healthily and happily when one experiences true friendship with other people and with God. This is also a duty for our parishes. Within the Catholic community, homosexuals should find kindness and friendship. Christians are called to honest charity. It is about the acceptance of every person as God’s creature.

The Church’s norms about experiencing sexuality are clear and the bar is set high, certainly according to dominant Dutch culture. Faithful are called to relate to the norms of the Church and form their conscience. Every faithful goes his or her way with God and conscience is the final and ultimate authority. A tension may possibly continue to exist between the truth of the Church and the conscience of every individual faithful. When parents find that one of their children is homosexual, they are called to surround that child with all care and love. The same is, I am convinced, true for the Church as mother.

United in Christ,

Msgr. dr. Gerard de Korte
Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch”

Diocese is playing it hard in conflict with rebellious priest

Yet another conflict erupts in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch as the diocese removes a priest and a deacon from their parish. The reason: they refuse to cooperate with the diocese’s plans to merge parishes. As has become standard, it seems, in these situations, the parish council has resigned and the clergymen announced to hold and alternative Mass in a nearby school, despite the diocese’s decision to remove both men from active ministry for now.

Richard Schreurs smmBut Father Richard Schreurs (pictured) and Deacon Hans van der Laar, formerly of the parish of St. Anthony in Best, have relented from doing the latter after the diocese pointed out that, in holding alternative services, both men would place themselves and their faithful outside the Church, which can be understood as being excommunicated. It is important to note here that the diocese does not threaten to punish the priest and deacon, but excommunication is something that we call upon ourselves by our actions, without any formal declaration from ecclesiastical authorities. In that sense, it is not so much a punishment levelled against a person by a priest, bishop, or even the Pope, but the recognition, by the Church, of a situation that has come into being.

In the past few years there have been several instances of local clergy, faithful and communities disagreeing quite audibly with the diocese. In more than a few cases, this was triggered by the diocese acting against trends which had been allowed to develop for years, but it’s not completely honest to lay the blame with the diocese. Reinforcing Catholic teaching and spiritual life can only be a good thing, but it is also understandable that feelings get hurt if people have the impression that things that seemed to have been allowed for years are suddenly no longer allowed. The standard Catholic situation has, in the minds of the people, become the exception, after all.

st. antonius, bestThe situation outlined above is somewhat different, however – not a difference in teaching and practice, but a refusal to go along with the wishes of the diocese – but the way both parties act is quite the same. And much of the reason why this happens must be a clear lack of communication to the outside world. If people feel misunderstood and attacked by the other party, like in St. Anthony’s (church pictured), they turn to others to have their stories heard. In this case that is often the media who, sadly, often spin the stories in their own ways. Of course, conflicts needs to be able to be resolved by the parties involved, if necessary through mediation by a third party. This situation has somewhat escalated, so it may be a bit more difficult to resolve as it should be. Part of that resolution is a clear understanding by the parish in question that it is not an island, but part of a diocese. Likewise, the clergy must realise they owe a level of obedience to their bishop and can’t just strike out on their own. On the other hand, diocese and bishop must work towards the best resolution for the conflict, and that includes making sure that a level o trust and confidence is maintained. If the other party feels to need to go public with their story, some of that confidence has already been lost.

salvatorIs that the end of the story, then? Happily, it is not. We need only look back at some other recent conflicts in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch. In the parish of San Salvator, faithful refused access to Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, who had been appointed as administrator of the rather liberal parish. Faithful broke away and held their own services just around the corner. Today, the parish is young and alive under the guidance of Fr. Geertjan van Rossem and recently ordained Fr. Patrick Kuis (both pictured, with a group of children preparing for their First Communion), is active in social media and has a newly refurbished church as the architect intended. But, it must be added, the breakaway community still exists and continues to be active outside the Church.

Similarly, in Tilburg, the student chaplaincy received a new priest who intended to return Catholic practice and faith to the daily proceedings of the community, which lead, once again, to the parish council resigning and many hurt feelings displayed in the media, even before the new priest, Fr. Michiel Peeters, had been able to start his work for the chaplaincy. In this case, the faithful who quit did not take a group of faithful with them, but the ‘success’ of Fr. Peeters’ appointment and the new direction of the chaplaincy still remains to be seen, although it seems that there is definitely some successful outreach to students.

Photo credit: [1] montfortanen.nl, [2] Irene Wouters, [3] San Salvatorparochie

Bishop and clergy of ‘s-Hertogenbosch not to be prosecuted

Fr. van Rossem

Coming full circle, a topic from the start of the year reaches a conclusion at the end of it. Bishop Antoon Hurkmans and Fathers Cor Mennen, Luc Buyens and Geert-Jan van Rossem will not be prosecuted for denying Communion to practising homosexuals and for defending that Church law.

Two men had lodged complaints in the wake of Fr. Buyens’ decision and the subsequent protests during Mass at the cathedral of St. John in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. They accused the priest, his bishop, the cathedral administrator Fr. van Rossem and blogging priest Fr. Mennen for discrimination and incitement to hatred. But the court decided yesterday that there is no case of this according to criminal law. Church law is outside the court’s jurisdiction.

Father Mennen’s blog posts fall under his right to express his convictions. He didn’t address homosexuals in general, the court ruled, but discussed a case within the Church which he considers unacceptable. That is his right.

Source

Not giving in

Following a meeting between Father Geertjan van Rossem, cathedral administrator of the cathedral of St. John in ‘s Hertogenbosch, and two representatives of the COC and the Gaykrant, the parish in Den Bosch released a statement which explained that next Sunday, receiving Communion will be left to the individual consciences of the faithful, regardless of their sexual orientation or practices, or any other condition.

While this is canonically sound, pastorally it isn’t. As I’ve explained in an earlier post, one’s conscience is the first and usually only determiner of whether or not one is in a state of grace and can receive Communion. Only in situations where he knows without doubt that that is not the case, can the priest deny Communion to a person. This is understandable very rare.

However, with the deplorable state of Catholic education and catechesis in this country, many people don’t know this. As I’ve also said before, many consider Communion a right, a symbol, something that everyone does.

The parish’s announcement, while understandable in light of last Sunday’s protests, sends out the wrong message. It basically says that sin or grace don’t matter, that Communion is indeed for everyone, and that it comes without strings attached. Indeed, for many it may also be reason to think that it is not really Christ they receive.

A second problem is that the media (secular and Catholic, heterosexual and homosexual) present this as the Church giving in. The Church does not, even though the parish seems to be. The rules have not changed, so there is ‘giving in’. The parish simply chooses not to follow them. And that is a serious problem.

Like I said, pastorally it is understandable; last Sunday’s Mass was traumatic for many parishioners. The protests were simply scandalous. So I can understand that the parish does not want a repeat of that experience. But the choice does damage the Church a lot. Rather than standing for the faith, it shows that protests work, that outsiders can dictate what the Church should do.

A number of well-read Dutch bloggers have written about it, and called for the diocese to restate the teachings of the Church and to implement them: Communion requires a state of grace for all believers. And this should go hand in hand with proper catechesis, to allow people to actually know the faith they profess.

This situation is a chance for the Church to step out of the shadow, to let her voice be heard and allow people to get to know her instead of what they think they know of her. That requires steadfast priests, bishops and faithful, and it will not be easy by any means. But Christ never claimed it would be. We are ‘a sign that is opposed’.

The bishops’ conference is meeting on 9 March. I sincerely hope for at least some statement about this from them.

Two homilies

Two homilies, one from Den Bosch, the other from Brussels. Delivered under radically different circumstances too. The first is Fr. van Rossem’s homily that he delivered yesterday morning. I doubt many people heard it all, because certain people decided they weren’t getting enough attention. At the end of Mass, Father van Rossem said he’d put his homily online, and he did. The original is here and my translation can be read here.

The second homily is a far more festive one. It was delivered by Archbishop Léonard at his installation Mass. In it, he engages everyone in his archdiocese to work with him in the Church. How anyone could read this as distant, cold and hostile is a big question, but many people in Belgium accuse Msgr. Léonard of just that. But judging by this homily, he is a man with a job to do, and a willingness to do that job with everyone involved. Read the original or my translation.