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.

The hope of Easter

Father Wagenaar blesses the new fire

Both Anna Arco and Father John Boyle write that Church attendance seems to have been up this Easter. I can certainly say the same when I look back at the Easter Vigil here in Groningen. The number of baptisms and confirmations was at a steady nine this year (although Pentecost will see some more, especially confirmations), but the cathedral especially was well filled. Some people stayed at home because of the rain, but they made up for it by making Mass on the Sunday morning well-attended.  

Of course, this year Easter has been overshadowed by the crisis the Church finds herself in, a fact not ignored in the various homilies I heard. I am happy to see, though, that the media does not always succeed in its attacks on the Church or the pope (at least those that try). The letter composed by Eric van den Berg and Frank Bosman has reached over 1,000 signatures now, local parishioners interviewed outside the cathedral remained supportive of the pope and the Church, a short article in a local newspaper echoed the same, and last night Fr. Antoine Bodar offered a well-spoken defence of the pope on television. 

Of course, some media got in a huff about the fact that the pope did not mention or apologise for the abuse during his Urbi et Orbi speech. Apparently, some believe that the pope must make renewed apologies at every public appearance. But at the same time they refuse to acknowledge the apologies he and others already have made. It’s a no-win situation and one best not given too much attention.  

It’s a crazy Easter, but one that is not even close to being overwhelmed. The resurrection of Christ, His defeat of death, continues to shine brightly in our lives even if, as my bishop said, the Cross of Good Friday is still firmly present in the Church and in our hearts.  

Below are a few more impressions of the Easter Vigil at St. Joseph’s cathedral in Groningen.  

Darkness in the cathedral
A fire burns brightly
The lights in the sanctuary slowly come on as Fr. Wagenaar incenses the paschal candle
The credence table
The twelve consecration crosses are also illuminated
The elevation of the Blood of Christ

We remain Catholic

Possibly following the example of the open letter to the NCRV, two Dutch Catholics, Eric van den Berg (information scientist) and Frank Bosman (theologian) have published a press release in which they express their concern about the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Their initiative is called ‘Wij blijven katholiek’ (‘We remain Catholic’) and stresses the importance of trying to resolve the crisis by not leaving the Church, as a fair number of people have done in recent weeks.

Read the (Dutch) letter here, and sign it.

I signed it because I think it’s a good way of balancing the very skewed media reporting, and the vocal minority that uses their leaving the Church* as a way to protest. I also really appreciate the express desire to remain loyal to the Church, and await the conclusions of the independent investigation proposed by the bishops.

*Leaving the Church is not as easy as it sounds. Sure, the administrative side is quite normal – just a matter of removing one’s information from the books. But the sacraments can’t be removed. Once baptised or confirmed, always baptised or confirmed. And that is something many people forget.