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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For Groningen-Leeuwarden, a new religious community

holy ghost fathers logoSurprising and inspiring news yesterday, when the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden announced that it would entrust the parish of Saints Peter and Paul in south-central Friesland, which includes the city of Heerenveen, to the Holy Ghost Fathers. Three priests from this religious congregation will take care of the pastoral needs of the faithful there, with the first, Father Charles Eba’a C.S.Sp, arriving to succeed Father Anton de Vries as parish priest. The latter is currently recovering from heart surgery and retiring on age and health grounds. Fr. Eba’a, 43, will be joined on short notice by 70-year-old Father Leo Gottenbos C.SS.Sp. A third Holy Ghost Father, possibly also of African decent, will arrive in 2016, although no one has been named yet.

The Holy Ghost Fathers, or in full the Congregation of the Holy Spirit under the protection of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, were founded in 1703 in Paris by then-seminarian Claude Poullart des Places, and barely survived the French Revolution. Today, the congregation is dedicated to spreading the Good News and working with the poor and ministering in areas and situations “where the Church has difficulty in finding ministers”. The north of the Netherlands certainly qualifies in that respect.

charles eba'aFr. Charles Eba’a, pictured at right, originally comes from Cameroon and has worked in parishes in the Diocese of Rotterdam for the past ten years, most recently as parish priest in the parish federation of St. Mary Magdalen in the Southern part of the city of Rotterdam and adjacent towns. Fr. Leo Gottenbos returned in September from 40 years’ ministry in Brazil.

The initiative for their arrival was taken by the Holy Ghost fathers two years ago, when the province contact Bishop Gerard de Korte to see if an international community of three fathers could be established somewhere in the diocese. The parish in and around Heerenveen was selected because of the upcoming retirement of the parish priest, the focus on service and the planned function of the parish house as meeting place in the city. The community will the congregation’s fifth in the Netherlands.

The Holy Ghost Fathers will be the only religious community in the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, although a second one is planned: the coming of the Cistercians of Sion Abbey to Schiermonnikoog, which I wrote about before. A third religious establishment is the shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed, maintained by hermit Father Hugo, in Warfhuizen.

Not just Brother anymore – a hermit ordained

Yesterday I was honoured to be present at the ordination to the priesthood of Father Hugo (until today know here on the blog and elsewhere as Brother Hugo). The two-hour ordination Mass, celebrated by Bishop Gerard de Korte in concelebration with members of the diocesan curia, two visiting bishops, the Altvater of the hermits’  association of Frauenbründl, the cathedral administrator and personal priest friends of Fr. Hugo, was attended by, at rough estimate, some 400 people. It was a celebration befitting the contemplative life that Fr. Hugo exemplifies as a hermit, with musical accompaniment from a four-man schola, who sung the set parts of the Mass in Latin, as well as the Veni Sancti Spiritus, a long Litany of the Saints (with many local saints and holy hermits asked for their intercession) and Deus ibi est. The readings were Isaiah 61:1-3a, 6a; Hebrews 5:1-10; and Matthew 20:25-28.

ordination father hugo

 Bishop de Korte spoke in his homily about the three elements of Father Hugo’s pastoral care. As a hermit, Fr. Hugo will not be assigned to a parish, but remain (according to the bishop, because of his young age, for many more years to come) at the shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed. The three elements (perhaps inspired by Pope Francis’ tendency to highlight three main points in his homilies?) are prayer, comfort and mercy.

Fr. Hugo’s life is marked by prayer, and he prays for and on behalf of all those who can’t pray, don’t know how to pray, don’t make the time to pray.

The shrine draws many people who have experienced sorrow, or continue to do so. In his pastoral care, Fr,. Hugo offers the comfort that the Lord also offers, not least through Our Lady, who has known sorrow in her own life.

As a priest, Fr. Hugo can now offer the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation in addition to the pastoral conversation he already has with many people, faithful and otherwise. In this way, God is merciful and always gives us the chance to start anew.

Following the ordination Mass there was a reception in a nearby hotel, at which Father Hugo (a name more thana  few, including the new priest himself, will have to get used to) spent most of his time shaking hands and receiving well-wishes and gifts.

On my part, I am curious to see what the future holds for Fr. Hugo and the shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed. If the past is any indication, any guess is bound to be overtaken by reality pretty soon.

Lastly then, some photos:

ordination father hugo

^His hands in the hands of the bishop, then-Brother Hugo promises his respect and obedience to the bishop and his successors.

ordination father hugo

^During the Litany of the Saints (long enough to take up four pages in the liturgy booklet), Brother Hugo lies flat before the sanctuary as bishops, priests and faithful pray on his behalf.
ordination father hugo

^First step of the actual ordination, the bishop lies his hands on Brother Hugo. This is followed by the other bishops and priests present doing the same, and the bishop praying the prayer of ordination.

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^One of the two bishops present was Bishop Hans van den Hende of Rotterdam, himself born and raised in Groningen.
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^Father Johannes Schuster leads the hermits’ association of Frauenbründl in Bavaria, of which Warfhuizen is the most distant outpost. As such, he presented Fr. Hugo for ordination and clothed him in stole and chasuble, the signs of his priesthood.

Photo credit: [1-4] Marjo Antonissen Steenvoorde, [5-6] Marlies Bosch