Impressions from the Catholic Youth Day 2010

A couple of hundred children and young people gathered in ‘s-Hertogenbosch yesterday for the annual Catholic Youth Day. The photo below is an impression of the information market that was open all day and filled with stands of anything from religious orders to dioceses, universities and schools, movements and individual faithful who had something to share with young Catholics from all over the country.

I attended with a small group from my own diocese, and for me it was very much a chance to meet people, clergy and laity alike, I don’t get a chance to see regularly. Some of those encounters were high points of the day. I mention a short chat with Father Harm Schilder, comparing notes with media entrepreneur Eric van den Berg of Catholic Internet portal Isidorusweb, Archbishop Wim Eijk responding positively to me and my girlfriend’s request to bless our relationship, a chance to catch up with my own bishop, Msgr. Gerard de Korte, and a quick hello to Father Roderick, who was recording a radio show.

Bishops Everard de Jong (auxiliary Roermond), Jos Punt (Haarlem-Amsterdam), Gerard de Korte (Groningen-Leeuwarden), Hans van den Hende (Breda), Adrianus Cardinal Simonis (emeritus Utrecht), Antoon Hurkmans ('s-Hertogenbosch) and Archbishop Wim Eijk (Utrecht)

The day ended with a Mass offered by ten bishops and few dozen priests in concelebration. ‘s-Hertogenbosch ordinary Bishop Hurkmans was the main celebrant, and his auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts was the homilist. The latter proved to be an eloquent speaker, able to engage his audience and keep their attention. His natural emphasis on the importance of the Eucharist as opposed to ‘weak alternatives’ was also not unwelcome. Of course, as is sadly still normal for the big public Masses in this country, there were abuses (and some things that simply weren’t to my taste). Popularity and accessibility still prevail over sanctity, it seems, while sanctity can be accessible without being played down.

Anyway, not to put a damper on what was indeed a very goo day, here are some photographic impressions:

The delegation from Groningen arrives on this cold and drizzly autumn morning.
A room was converted into a chapel where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed all day. I took my photo after the Sacrament had been returned to the tabernacle.
Bishop Mutsaerts, homilist
Archbishop Eijk hands out Communion. Purely by chance, it is me kneeling to receive Christ in this photo.

Photo credit: 1, 3, 4 and 5 by me; 2,6 and 7 by Ramon Mangold for Jongkatholiek.nl

The Church as an island?

From a distance, I’ve been following the discussion that has developed around the suggestion from theologian Frank Bosman and information scientist Eric van den Berg that churches across the country ring their bells should the Dutch football team be victorious in the World Cup final. Of course, that point is moot now, but the suggestion and the discussion it raised is interesting. Bosman and Van den Berg offer their own analysis here (in Dutch).

They list a number of positive responses from the Remonstrants, the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, staff members of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Father Harm Schilder and even the Church of Santi Michele e Magno, better known as the Church of the Frisians, in Rome.

But it is some of the negative responses which lead me to what I want to discuss. People say that the Church should not concern itself with anything popular or worldly, that church bells should only be used to call people to prayer or service, and that this involvement with the World Cup in some way supports idolatry since, some say football players are then treated as gods themselves.

For the vast majority of people, church bells are the main and often only visible sign of the Church in daily life. They hear them in the morning when they ring to call people to Mass, when it is time to pray the Angelus and even when another hour has passed. That alone shows that church bells have long outgrown a strictly liturgical or ecclesiastical use. They are social and cultural phenomena which play a part in the daily life of both christians and others. All of which does not imply that their function of calling people to prayer and Mass is any less important.

The Church is a part of society, even when we try to abide to Christ’s words when he said that we do not belong to this world (cf John 17: 16-18). The simple fact is that we do live and function is this world, even if our fate lies beyond it. Christ has even sent us to follow our vocation in this world. That vocation, our christian identity, should also be the foundation and deciding fact of what we do, but it does not preclude an expansion of activities. Ringing a church bell to celebrate something or other (be it a football victory, the Queen’s birthday or New Year) that plays a major part in the life of many people or which has an important role in society does not bring us down to some lower level, but may ultimately function to raise others up.

It’s ultimately a simply choice: we, as a Church, fall utterly silent and retreat to our own isolated world, thus ignoring Jesus’ call “that the world may believe” (John 17: 21), or we remain present, in both simple and significant ways, but ultimately in the lives of people. It is through the Church that God’s salvation works. That Church must therefore always let her voice be heard, on serious matters of life and death, but also in pure joy and celebration.

The Catholic faith reflects the full human experience, and more. Prayer, knowledge, wisdom and contemplation, but also laughter, celebration, sadness, compassion and the whole spectrum of human emotion.  I see many who seem to advocate a serious, dark and grim Catholicism. The reason, they appear to say, is that the problems we face are serious and grim. Well, no doubt about it. But such a faith has more in common with some isolationist and restrictive Protestant communities which deny basic human emotions and conditions than it does with the full range of human and divine life that comes to us through the Church.

The Catholic Church can’t allow itself to be an island, “entire of itself” (to quote John Donne). She must be seen and heard, because Christ must be seen and heard. With the christian identity as a form foundation, the Catholic Church can weather a joyful celebration here and there. She may even grow from it.

Church and politics

Johannes Cardinal de Jong (1885-1955) was chairman of the Dutch bishops'conference when the mandate of 1954 was published.

Since the counterproductive reception of the episcopal mandate of 1954 – which, among rather a lot else, forbade Catholics to be members of socialist parties and unions – the Dutch bishops have refrained from giving any advice on how to vote. An understandable thing to do, perhaps, certainly considering the climate of the decades to follow: Vatican II and the minor storm of iconoclasm that followed, and the general distrust of anything organised, including religion, in the 1960s. But at the same time, it is at odds with the bishops’ duties as shepherds. They are tasked to lead Christ’s flock, after all, in all things faith-related. Deciding on who to vote for may certainly be influenced by a person’s beliefs, so an episcopal declaration on what parties are more in line with Catholic thought and which are not would not be too strange.

Before the good old ‘separation of Church and State’ is dragged out again, it would be good to realise that no such thing actually exists in the Dutch constitution. As Tom Zwitser points out, the constitution speaks of a much more diffuse relation between Church and State. The concept of freedom of religion – which is a constitutional right – is much more applicable here. Of course, Church and State should not be at odds with one another, but in certain cases the relation between can certainly be mutually beneficial. And as for the individual voter: he or she gets inundated with all manner of advice on who to vote for anyway…

That said, the bishops’ conference maintains their position of not officially indicating parties that Catholics should not vote for, although they can certainly offer their own personal opinions. Bishop Gerard de Korte did so quite recently, and while he did warn against the trend of populism in politics (as he has done since 2007), no party is to be expressly excluded, he says.

Fr. Harm Schilder

Although the bishops reiterated their position in 2006, saying that it is not up to the Church to recommend specific parties,  “but to put forward those issues that the Church considers important”, individual priests do sometimes speak out against specific parties. Recently, Father Harm Schilder, parish priest in Tilburg and focus of a long-running conflict about his church bells and the volume they are said to produce before early morning Mass, did so in his homily on Sunday:

“The parties who were expressly against the ringing of the church bells were the PvdA, Greenleft and the SP [left wing parties all]. They are also against the Church. They are allowed to. But it is desireable that churchgoers do not fall for that at the upcoming elections. As the old saying goes: do not kiss the hand of he who hits you.”

Although this is clearly an advice based on a specific local issue, it’s no less valid for it. Local politics will slightly differ per city and from national politics, but they do affect each other. The PvdA leading the call for protests at Mass in ‘s Hertogenbosch, for example, is in my opinion a clear indication that I can’t in good conscience vote for them in tomorrow’s municipal elections (if I was thinking of doing that, I might add).

The importance of politics and elections is for me a natural reason to look for advice and guidance from the corners that also help me in other situations. The Church in her teachings and personified in priests and bishops is one of those. I believe there is much to be gained with a bishops’ conference that is not afraid to speak out clearly and publically on matters, to offer advice when needed. That will certainly lead to much resentment initially, both within and without the Church. After all, we are a people that does not like being told what to do. But sometimes we need it. We needed it as children, and since we never stop growing up and learning, we will always need it.

In the temple in Jerusalem, old Simeon warned the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph that Jesus would be “a sign that is opposed” (Luke 2, 34). The same will be true for anyone who chooses to follow Him.