Remembering the dead, not just a thing of the past

Yesterday I watched a movie befitting the national day of remembrance we mark every May the 4th in the Netherlands. Sarah’s Key deals with a journalist investigation into the fate of a French Jewish girl whose family used to live in the house she and her husband have just bought. The girl’s entire family was deported to and killed in the Polish death camps, but of the girl and her brother there is no trace in the records. A story, therefore, about a girl who was deemed unwanted, but fought and managed to survive her would-be captors and murderers’ efforts to see her dead.

One storyline deals with the lead character’s unexpected pregnancy. As she and her husband have tried for years to conceive and are now somewhat older than the average first-time parents, there is some conflict about what to do. She wants to keep the child, he pushes for abortion.

In a movie about the Holocaust this is an extremely poignant topic. The one lies in the past, the other is very current, but both are centered around death. Public opinion about the Holocaust is, rightly, one of horror and unanimous rejection, but abortion is extremely well-accepted in modern society: it is a medical procedure and an expression about a person’s control over and right to her own body. Or so many genuinely believe.

But put both side by side and compare them: the Holocaust was the conscious and wilful murder of persons that some decided were unwanted, not worthy of life and without a place in their world order. Abortion is the wilful killing of an unborn person that one or more people have decided is not wanted, should not be allowed to burden other’s lives and has no place in their world.

There may be seemingly mitigating circumstances in many cases of abortion, but those guilty of the Holocaust would have said the very same thing. “We had no choice, we were under orders, what could I do?” Today we hear, “I can’t take care of a child, there is no place for a child in my life at this moment, I have no choice.” And so human lives are daily sacrificed to other people’s rights, choices and (perceived) limitations.

When talking about the Holocaust we do not accept this: the murder of countless people is not suddenly alright because others wanted to exercise their rights or choices, and not even because they were forced to. The murders are not suddenly okay.

The same should be true when we talk about abortion (and, for that matter, euthanasia). Murder is never alright. Mitigating circumstances don’t make it so. It is certainly never a clinical procedure, an industry as the Holocaust was in the past, and abortion is today.

Remembering the dead, as we did yesterday in this country, must never be a safe ritual which only refers to the past. There are organisations which rightly emphasise that many of the atrocities we remember still happen today in other parts of the world. But we are not exempt from that realisation. In our society there is also still a Holocaust taking place every day: a Holocaust against the unborn.

And those unborn are persons, just like the Jews and other unwanted persons during the Holocaust never stopped being persons. Many would wish it so, but there is no magical transition during birth which make a fetus a person. A person is a person is a person from the get go. Killing a person is never alright, never a medical procedure, never an industry.

Time to stop the Holocaust.

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Synod of Bishops – Day Eight

With the Sunday off, the Synod skipped to day eight on Monday, with Cardinal John Tong Hon (at left pictured with the Holy Father) taking up the day’s presiding duties. and 251 Synod fathers in attendance. 26 fathers offered five-minute interventions during the morning session.

Lluís Cardinal Martínez Sistach, the archbishop of Barcelona, gave a few points to focus on in the new evangelisation, one of which was “[t]o improve Sunday Mass so that it will be a benchmark for the New Evangelization”. As source and summit of Christian life, the Mass can not be emphasised enough. If we don’t improve our celebration and participation in it to the utmost, any other undertaking, including the new evangelisation, has little chance of succeeding. Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, also noted this in his intervention.

Francesco Cardinal Coccopalmerio (pictured at right), president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, asked the following question: “[I]n carrying out the task of the new evangelization, would it be possible to consider some form of co-operation between the Catholic Church and the other Churches and ecclesial Communities?” adding, “I believe that an affirmative answer must be given to this question.”

The cardinal added that the division between Churches and church communities is “not entirely innocent in terms of the de-christianization of the Old Continent”. He emphasised that ecumenism or at least increased cooperation with the Orthodox Churches of the east is “particularly pressing” as both the Catholic and Orthodox Church now face similar challenges. “It would […] seem very evident that a great ecumenical advantage would derive from such cooperation, and it would greatly consolidate the front of the forces fighting against secularization. It would also present an extraordinary sign to Islam,” he concluded.

Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, of Poznan in Poland, outlined a pressing issue regarding the youth in the heavily secularised world we live in.

“Our youth today find themselves in an unsustainable condition. On the one hand, they are thrown long before the appropriate mental age into a world rich in information, knowledge, sensations, and opportunities for encounters, but on the other hand, they are left alone by adults on the path of their formation.”

This is a recognisable fact for anyone working with young people, for example in education. The archbishop draws a possible solution from his own experience (and this is the strength of the Synod; the gathering of experiences from all over the world to benefit the Church):

“This situation requires an adequate response. Adults – in particular those who have drifted away from the Church – must reassume their responsibility.
In our diocese we have sought to help them in this, proposing a catechism for adults carried out by other adults. Inasmuch as the younger generations usually compare their faith with that of adults, baptized parents may again – for the love of their children – become their first and indispensable catechists.
Adult catechists, as witnesses of faith and bearers of the content of faith, are often better than priests at preparing other adults for their educative role.”

Cardinal John Njue (pictured at left), archbishop of Nairobi in Kenya, pointed at that it is not enough to have faith or even the intention to be faithful.

“Today, for a good number of people, God is not denied, but is unknown. Is it not necessary to examine, from this unique perspective, the present crisis in which society finds itself? It is time to throw open wide the doors of our Churches and to return to announcing the resurrection of Christ, whose witnesses we are. As the holy bishop Ignatius wrote, “It is not enough to be called Christians; we must be Christians by our witness.” If someone today wants to recognize Christians, he must be able to do so not on the basis of their intentions, but on the basis of their commitment in the faith. We have the duty to shape the whole of society with Christ’s teachings and spirit.”

Archbishop William Slattery, of Pretoria in South Africa, asked about the proper formation of seminarians, but also devoted a few words to how the Church makes use of the media, stating, “I like the policy of the English Church prior to the papal visit when they carefully selected and trained bright young people to defend and explain their faith. An attractive young lady doctor is much more effective in media propounding on medical issues than an elderly unmarried bishop.”

In the afternoon session there were 16 more interventions, among them those by Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg im Breisgau and Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück.

About the new media, Bishop Emmanuel Badejo, of Oyo in Nigeria, said the following:

“I would like this Synod to strongly reaffirm the role and responsibility of Catholic media professionals and practitioners in the New Evangelization and the need to pay particular attention to their spiritual development. Millions of youth all over the world are sharing the same stories, experiences and challenges, irrespective of their location, thanks to the new social, personal and digital media. The Church must humbly seek their confidence and trust knowing that youth prefer a co-communicator relationship to the old teacher-learner, speaker-listener model. When they feel like allies with the Church they can with the right format and language bring their Christian faith and values to the new social forums.”

At the end of the afternoon session, the Synod fathers were shown a film about the faith in Europe. Titled ‘Bells of Europe’, it features interviews with several important players in the field of faith, including Pope Benedict XVI. His contribution may be read here.

Photo credit: [1] L’Osservatore Romano, [2] nava m K0

The great artificial conflict – science versus faith

Yesterday I was able to attend the showing of a movie about the story of the creation as we find in it in chapter 1 of Genesis. With a voice over reading the various verses from that story, we were treated to all kinds of footage illustrating what we heard. Some lovely scenes of nature and the world wrapped in about an hour. Perhaps it dragged a bit here and there, but in the end there was little to complain about. But there was also nothing remarkable either – we see much the same footage daily on Discovery Channel, for example, albeit without the Biblical narration.

Before the showing of the movie, titled ‘De Schepping – de aarde is getuige’ (Creation – the world is a witness), we were treated to a taped presentation in German by South African Professor Walter Veith. Professor Veith – a highly dubious person, as a quick Google search reveals – spoke about how faith and evolution were in conflict, how anyone who professed faith in God had no business taking the theory of evolution seriously. His was a rather rambling talk without much focus, and therefore hard to follow, but the gist of it was what I outlined above. Professor Veith showed a rather dubious grasp of such sciences as genetics and biology (something my girlfriend, who happens to be a biologist, confirmed) and most significantly failed to communicate what the theory of evolution is actually about. For someone who claims to be a scientist, these are serious mistakes. His unspoken but very clear argument that all evolutionist are basically clones of Richard Dawkins didn’t help either.

Sadly, his words were lapped up by the 1,400 spectators. Not barred by much scientific knowledge, as some overheard conversations revealed, many happily denounced anything approaching science in favour of a faith in something that I would like to call a magician God.

The creationist agenda, which was obviously heavily pushed last night, creates, if you’ll pardon a pun, a conflict where none exists. It treats science as the great enemy, which is out to establish a world without God or any religious faith. The theory of evolution, which obviously plays a major part in this argument, is presented as a life philosophy, a faith if you will. Evolution, creationists say, is out to destroy the world that God created, since it has no focus on an ultimate destination. This, Professor Veith says, is because Charles Darwin had an unhealthy focus on death. That is obviously hogwash as any reading of Darwin’s letters and books will show. The fact that he struggled to understand the existence of the death and decay he saw on his travels in the light of loving and benevolent God is not the same as being obsessed with death. Darwin’s writings instead show a man with a keen interest in the natural world and a desire of understanding it, coupled with a great admiration of its workings.

Like other scientific theories, whether they be well-established or only recently formulated, the theory of evolution describes processes and visible phenomena. Over the course of more than 150 years, it has come up with a very good description of how and why organisms develop the way they do. The survival of the fittest and adaptation to the environment are key elements in that, and later the science of genetics played a major part in that. The fact that creatures change and different genes work at different times in an organism’s life is obviously not in conflict with those organisms being the result of a creative action by God.

The Bible tells us two different creation stories, but none of these are to be taken as literal accounts.We can’t take both literally, not least because they contradict each other. What we can take from the stories in Genesis is the knowledge that God created this earth and all the organisms in it, that each being has its place in it, that man has a special role of responsibility for creation, and that we are created in God’s likeness. Genesis does not tell us exactly how God did all this and how much time He took. The seven days mentioned must be read within the strong numerological tradition of the Jewish author(s), where the number seven indicates the special truth and completeness of the statements made.

Faith and science are not in conflict as truth and truth are not in conflict. Science lets us understand the world that we live in and, through the theory of evolution and the sciences of geology and paleontology we can find out much about the processes of the past, in organisms and the planet, that led to the world we see around us today. This, for me at least, is not in conflict with a Creator God who has a purpose with this world. To pretend otherwise is irresponsible.

Stats for December 2011, and the entire year

With 5,496 views in December, 2011 closed off quite well when it comes to the traffic this blog received. For the third month in a row, it’s been well over 5,000. In the top 10 we find various topics, both positive and negative. Since the month’s been quite a ride, I am actually glad that it’s not all bad news. Let’s take a look:

1: The heart of the report: “What on earth has gone wrong?” 76
2: Approaching the bottom line – looking ahead to a 2012 consistory 73
3:  Het probleem Medjugorje & Communication problems, or avoiding communicating the polar opposite of what we want to say 50
4: The weak case of the disobedient priests & “By popular demand”, Bishop Punt’s excellent homily 47
5: The Dutch Church’s emotional storm 45
6: Homily at the episcopal consecration of Msgr. Jan Hendriks 44
7: Why Belgium needs Msgr. Léonard 37
8: The mistakes of Father Peijnenburg 34
9: O Adonai! 31
10: The most damning indictment against a Dutch bishop yet 30

Naturally, when we look back at the whole of 2011, the numbers are higher, if a little lower than those for 2010. But that may be explained by the unusual peak of July 2010, which led to some 4,000 more visitors than 2011’s final tally of 59,496. The 2011 top 10 is nicely varied and includes a number of posts from the previous year. Here it is:

1: The Stations of the Cross 592
2: Het probleem Medjugorje 572
3: First EF Mass in Groningen off to a good start 421
4: The weak case of the disobedient priests 406
5: Dutch missionary bishop in the dock 292
6: Under the Roman Sky 273
7: Cardinals according to John Allen 268
8: Berlin is vacant: herald of things to come? 258
9: A real church, “not one of those multifunctional things” 254
10: Adoro te devote, two versions and a translation 233

In August of last year we welcomed the 100,000th visitor. The number now stands at 123,945. Who knows, maybe we’ll reach 200,000 in this year?

Hermit on film, part 2

In June I wrote about a documentary about diocesan hermit Brother Hugo, shot for a film festival in Amsterdam. The documentary was shown on national TV last Sunday and is now available via the website of the hermitage. Although the small amount of dialogue is in Dutch, most of the footage is silent. As such it is a reflection of the life of a hermit: solitude with God, in prayer and in the daily chores, interspersed with encounters with all kinds of people – villagers, workmen installing new clock-faces on the tower, and faithful at a Christmas celebration – and Brother Hugo’s trademark dry wit.

The documentary is a quiet portrait which doesn’t delve too deeply into the life of a hermit (I especially missed the role of prayer in a hermit’s life, which doesn’t appear until well into the second half) but offers some beautiful footage of the wide landscapes in summer and winter, where one man takes care of a haven of prayer and tranquillity, as well as northern down-to-earthness.

The first Advent letter of 2011

With Advent soon upon us, the annual Advent letters from the country’s bishops will start appearing. One, in fact, already has. Almost like last year, when Archbishop Eijk and Bishop Wiertz were virtually equally fast, Bishop Gerard de Korte of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden is first out of the gates with his letter to the faithful, which he devotes to the topic of peace. It should come as no surprise, as the topic, which the bishop explains also includes our manner of behaviour towards one another, is one dear to his heart. A key passage in that regard is the following: “We often speak or write harsh words about one another. How often is the good name of a fellow human being trampled in the dirt? Yes, their is a lot of violence and discontent in our hearts.”

The letter, which can be read in English here, draws in such elements as religious movies and the sexual abuse crisis, and claims the time of Advent, the time leading up to the birth of Christ, as a time leading up to peace. And from that claim comes the invitation  the challenge, that the bishop extends: “On the feast of Christmas we meet Christ as the King of Peace. He wants to free us from the violence and discontent. We must allow this King of Peace into our own existence. Christ is born in Bethlehem, more than 2,000 years ago. The great question of this time of Advent is: can He also be born in our own lives?”

The Night of Mary

Last weekend I took part in the first event by the Guild of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed aimed at young adults: the Night of Mary. We gathered in the small hamlet of Warfhuizen, home of the shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed, for shared lunch and dinner, companionship, an introduction by hermit Brother Hugo on the topic of night, an afternoon walk through the Groninger countryside (below) to stretch the limbs and an evening candlelit procession to Our Lady at the shrine.

About a dozen young people came to spend the afternoon and take part in the procession, which was also open to adult pilgrims. We processed under a starlit sky, around the village cemetery and a field behind it (the only option in the village to walk a circle, unless we took a 15-kilometer detour in order to cross the canal), followed by a couple of very curious horses which managed to disrupt the prayer of Deacon Patrick, Brother Hugo and seminarian Sander leading the procession (the three fell into helpless laughter after a horse nuzzled the back of the deacon’s neck… a bit of a shocker in the dark!). At the shrine, we had exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and a lot of personal prayer intentions. These intentions are not new at Holy Hour at the shrine, but the sheer number of them was.

For something of an impression, Ingrid created this short film:

There are some photos available at the website of the shrine, here.

Photo credit: Mercèdès Terlaak