Politicising a funeral message

19884123_1597082450303992_1991844372893705580_nPope emeritus Benedict XVI’s message for the funeral of Cardinal Joachim Meisner, read out at said funeral by his personal secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein (at right), has become the most discussed part of the impressive ceremony at Cologne cathedral. And it is a beautiful text, personal, full of fond memories of the late cardinal, outlining Cardinal Meisner as a prayeful man with a deep love for the sacraments, for the Eucharist Lord and for the Church of eastern Europe, but also as a passionate shepherd who found it hard to leave his office “at a time when the Church had a pressing need for shepherds who would oppose the dictatorship of the zeitgeist, fully resolved to act and think from a faith standpoint.”

The blogging bishop of Lancaster, Michael Campbell, has a good translation of the Pope emeritus’ words. One line that has been highlighted from this has been the following:

“Yet I have been all the more impressed that in this last period of his life he learned to let go, and live increasingly from the conviction that the Lord does not leave his Church, even if at times the ship is almost filled to the point of shipwreck.”

Although it is a line deserving of attention, it has been abused by too many who wanted to see it as a judgement on the current affairs in the Church, and especially as a criticism against Pope Francis. In my opinion, this is does not do justice to either Benedict XVI’s intentions or Cardinal Meisner’s memory.

What should we take away from that line? That the the ship of the Church is about to be shipwrecked (the original German text speaks of ‘Kentern’ – capsizing)? Or is it that God does not leave His Church? Surely it is the last, as that was the conviction of Cardinal Meisner, one he increasingly learned to live from and be inspired by. Yes, in Germany, and Europe as a whole, the future of the Church does not seem rosy. That is a reality that Cardinal Meisner had to live with, but certainly not one that can be attributed to recent events alone. The papacy of Pope Francis hardly stood at the cradly of the decline. In his own papacy, from the very beginning even, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of it as well. No one would read the lines quoted as a criticism against his own papacy. Because it’s not, and neither is it aimed at what Francis does or fails to do. Rather, it serves as a realistic image of what Cardinal Meisner struggled with and how, towards the end of his life, he learned to live with it: by seeing and understanding that, no  matter how bleak things seem, the Lord does not abandon His Church. Not when Francis is Pope, and not when Benedict was.

This is a lesson to be learned from the life of Joachim Meisner, not a tool to put two Popes in opposition against one another.

EDIT: In Italian daily Il Giornale, Archbishop Gänswein commented today on the misuse of Benedict XVI’s words, saying that the Pope emeritus intended no criticism against Pope Francis. “The Pope emeritus was arbitrarily exploited with this sentence which alludes to nothing concrete,” the archbishop said. He also repeated that Pope Benedict XVI’s words were written on the request of Cardinal Woelki, the archbishop of Cologne.

Photo credit: Erzbistum Köln on Facebook

On the death of Cardinal Meisner

Cardeal-Joachim-MeisnerUnexpected and sad new from Cologne this morning. Cardinal Joachim Meisner, archbishop of that see from 1988 to 2014, passed away this morning while on holiday in Bad Füssing, near Passau. The Pretiosa bell of Cologne cathedral just completed 15 minutes of tolling to mark the death of the cardinal, who passed away peacefully, according to a spokesman. He was 83 years old.

Cardinal Meisner recently visited the Netherlands on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the ordination of Cardinal Simonis, and he was of course on the eye of the media as one of the authors of the dubia regarding the interpretation of Amoris laetitia.

The late cardinal will remembered during today’s midday prayers at Cologne’s cathedral, and at the evening Mass offered by Cardinal Woelki, Cardinal Meisner’s successor as archbishop. This will be streamed live via Domradio.de at 18:30 local time. The archdiocese has opened a condolence book on their website here.

In a telegram to Cardinal Woelki, Pope Francis wrote:

“With inner sympathy I learned of the news that the merciful God has suddenly and unexpectedly called Cardinal Joachim Meisner from this world. I am one withh im and the faithful of the Archdiocese of Cologne in prayer for your deceased shepherd. Cardinal Meisner stood for the good news out of a deep faith and a sincere love for the Church. May Christ the Lord reward him for his loyal and unflinching work for the wellbeing of people in east and west, and may He grant him a part in the community of saints in heaven. I gladly grant all who remember the deceased in prayer and sacrifice, the apostolic blessing.”

Cardinal Woelki learned of the death of his predecessor this morning.

“I received a phone call this morning from auxiliary bishop Heinrich. The auxiliary bishop of Berlin is a friend of Cardinal Meisner and contacted us. He told me that Cardinal Meisner was found dead this morning by his friend Michael Schlede, while they were on vacation. The cardinal had sat there quite peacefully and had to have died immediately. He had wanted to celebrate Holy Mass with his friend, he had prepared everything for the celebration of the Eucharist and still had his breviary in his hands. He must have simply fallen asleep over it.”

For those who understand German, hear Cardinal Woelki reflect on the life of Cardinal Meisner:

The Archdiocese of Cologne has announced the program leading towards Cardinal Meisner’s funeral. From Friday 7 until the early morning of Saturday 15 July, the cardinal will lie in a closed coffin in the church of St. Gereon, at a fifteen-minute walk from the cathedral. The church will be open for the faithful until Monday the 10th. Cardinal Woelki will receive the deceased at Vespers on the Friday, and the liturgy of the hours will be prayed on each of those days. The church will open again on Friday, when a Vespers for the dead will be prayed. On Saturday the 15th, Cardinal Meisner will be carried in procession to the cathedral, where his funeral will take place at 10am. The cardinal will be buried in the crypt.

One of the last people to speak with Cardinal Meisner was Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who spoke with him over the phone on Tuesday evening: “He told me that he felt healthy, but that he was very concerned about the situation in the Catholic Church,” undoubtedly referring to the dubia, but also to Cardinal Müller’s retirement, which “upset” Cardinal Meisner.

More to come.

Episcopal highlights of November 2013

1about_bishops_Ethiopia_Theodoros%20Van%20Ruyven0 November: Bishop Theodorus van Ruyven (pictured) retires as Vicar Apostolic of Nekemte. The Dutch-born bishop of the Congregation of the Mission first became prefect of the Apostolic Prefecture of Jimma-Bingo (since elevated to an Apostolic Vicariate) in Ethiopia in 1998. In 2009 he was appointed is Vicar Apostolic of Nekemte, and with that appointment came an ordination as bishop. His titular see is Utimma. Earlier this year he co-consecrated his eventual successor, Bishop Varghese Thottamkara, as Coadjutor Vicar Apostolic.

11 November: Domenico Cardinal Bartolucci passes away. The highly respected retired director of the Sistine Chapel choir passed away at the age of 96. Pope Benedict XVI made him a cardinal in 2010, because of the work he had done for liturgical music in a career that spans as far back as the late 1940s. In addition to conducting and leading various choirs, Cardinal Bartolucci was also a composer. His funeral Mass was offered by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, with Pope Francis offering the final commendation. The Mass may be viewed here. There are now 200 cardinals, with 109 of them being electors

19 November: Bishop Joseph Lescrauwaet passes away.

wb_klug_gross60232521 November: Bishop Rainer Klug (pictured) retires as Auxiliary Bishop of Freiburg im Breisgau, a function he held since 2000. His retirement was granted less than a month before his 75th birthday, and comes shortly after the retirement of Freiburg’s Archbishop Zollitsch. He was a member of the commissions for liturgical questions and for discernment and education in the German Bishops’s Conference.

28 November: Bishop Max Georg von Twickel passes away at the age of 87. He was auxiliary bishop of Münster and titular bishop of Lugura. Bishop Heinrich Timmerevers, an auxiliary of the same diocese, remembers him for his sharp analytical mind and his sense of humour. Bishop Felix Genn, the ordinary, also adds his memory competence and highly developed theological knowledge. Bishop Von Twickel had been a priest of Münster from 1952 to 1973, when he was appointed as auxiliary bishop, a function he held until his retirement in 2001.

“It’s better in Heaven…” – On the death of Bishop Joseph Lescrauwaet

lescrauwaetLess than two weeks ago, a short tweet from a priest friend broke the news that Bishop Joseph Frans Lescrauwaet was coming to the end of his earthly life. That end came today. At the age of 90, the retired auxiliary bishop of Haarlem leaves a heritage of study, education and engagement in numerous fields, from Church politics to ecumenism. Bishop Lescrauwaet was the second most senior Dutch bishop, with only the emeritus Bishop of Breda, Huub Ernst, before him.

Joining the congregation of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart after a youth in Amsterdam, young Jos Lescrauwaet followed his formation as a priest during the war; his philosophical studies in Stein, Diocese of Roermond, and his theology in Raalte, Archdiocese of Utrecht. His ordination in 1948 was followed by a doctoral thesis in 1957 on a topic that would mark the rest of his active ministry: ecumenism. As a theologian, he taught systematic theology at the University of Tilburg and various subjects at the seminary of his congregation, also in Tilburg.

Originally one of the contributing authors to the journal Concilium, Fr. Lescrauwaet followed the example of Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar and started writing for the more orthodox Communio. He was one of the editors of the Dutch edition of that journal when it was launched in 1976.

Bishop Lescrauwaet’s theological expertise led to several high-profile appointments. In 1969 he became a member of the International Theological Commission. He was chairman of the council of the disastrous (though not disastrous through his fault) Dutch Pastoral Council (1966-1970) and secretary and expert during the Special Synod of the Bishops of the Netherlands, called by Pope John Paul II to repair some of the damage done in previous years.

lescrauwaetThis latter function played a part in his appointment as a bishop later on as it did for most other priests involved, such as the later bishop of Rotterdam, Ad van Luyn. In 1983, Fr. Lescrauwaet (at right, pictured around that time) was appointed as Auxiliary Bishop of Haarlem and Titular Bishop of Turres Concordiae. He was consecrated by the Coadjutor Bishop of Haarlem, Msgr. Henny Bomers, appointed on the very same day as Bishop Lescrauwaet (Bishop Bomers was already a bishop, having been ordained in 1978 as Vicar Apostolic of Gimma in Ethiopia). Bishop Ernst of Breda and Bishop Jan de Kok, Auxiliary of Utrecht, served as co-conserators.

As auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Lescrauwaet was active in many fields, and not necessary always only within the Diocese of Haarlem. These activities were often ecumenical in nature. In the final years before his retirement, Bishop Lescrauwaet was a member of the board of the Dutch Council of Churches.

It is said that there have always been tensions between Bishops Bomers and Lescrauwaet, and that these were the reason for the latter’s frequent absence from the diocese. Some blame the bishop for this absence, but those who knew him personally cherished him for his pastoral acumen and his sense of humour, which was evident even when discussing the most difficult of theological concepts.

lescrauwaetBishop Lescrauwaet retired in 1995 at the age of 71, for reasons of age and health, and returned to the south, where he had worked and lived before his appointment to Haarlem. He moved into the diocesan seminary of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, the St. John’s Centre, and picked up his old job of teaching theology again. He also served as spiritual counsellor of the seminary. At left, he is pictured with Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, during the celebration of his 90th birthday last year. Ultimately, in 2011, the bishop moved back to Tilburg, to live in the retirement home of his congregation.

The Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam announces that Bishop Lescrauwaet’s  funeral will take place from the Basilica of Saint John in Den Bosch, the cathedral near which he spent most of the years since his retirement, on 23 November. The Mass starts at 10:30. The day before, faithful will have the opportunity to visit the late bishop at the St. John’s Centre, the diocesan seminary around the corner from the basilica.

Photo credit: [1] Bisdom Haarlem-Amsterdam, [2] ANP – Cor Out, [3] Sint-Janscentrum

Interview with the archbishop – Léonard on, well, a lot

léonardSimply because it’s always good to read something by the great Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, I have translated an interview he gave to Belgian magazine Knack. The interview was conducted by Walter Pauli and subsequently shared in full on Facebook by Fr. Felix van Meerbergen, and covers such topics as foreign priests, Catholic funerals, the archbishop’s efforts to be everywhere in his archdiocese, the attacks on him by Femen and other leftwing loonies, homosexuality (of course), Pope Francis (including a theoretical papal visit to Brussels), and more.

A good read which shows some unexpected sides of the archbishop. Who knew he is apparently a good entertainer, and you have to admire his attitude towards the attacks against him, which I shared on Facebook yesterday:

“The Femen attack was the most enjoyable: I only got water on me. The pie I got in my face in the cathedral in 2010 was decorated with strawberries, and that tasted nice. Only in Louvain-la-Neuve it was mostly unpleasant: those pizzas were really greasy. Terrible.”

There’s more, so read my translation here.

Photo credit: Belga

Episcopal highlights of October 2013

  • 10 October: Bishop Georg Weinhold passes away at the age of 78. He was the titular bishop of Idicra and auxiliary bishop of the German Diocese of Meiβen from 1973 to 1979 and of the Diocese of Dresden-Meiβe from 1979 to 2008. Bishop Weinhold was ordained a priest in 1959 and spent his service in the diocese as a parish priest before his consecration in 1973. From 1997 to 2004 he was the vicar general of the diocese. The funeral Mass of Bishop Weinhold took place on 19 October. The bishop of Dresden-Meiβen, Heiner Koch, offered the Mass. Present among the bishops was Bishop Clemens Pickel, of Saratov in Russia. Born in the diocese, he considers Bishop Weinhold as one of his most important teachers. Bishop emeritus Joachim Reinelt credits the late auxiliary bishop with guiding the Church of Dresden through the difficult years of Communism.

funeral bishop weinhold

  • agnelo19 October: Geraldo Majella Cardinal Agnelo reaches the age of 80 and retires from active service in the College of Cardinals. The Brazilian cardinal, created by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 2001, was bishop of Toledo from 1978 to 1982, Archbishop of Londrina from 1982 to 1999, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments from 1991 to 1999 and Archbishop of São Salvador de Bahia from 1999 to 2011. Cardinal Agnelo, who was cardinal-priest of San Gregorio Magno alla Magliana Nuova, also served as vice president of CELAM, the Latin American Episcopal Council, from 1999 to 2003, and president of the Brazilian bishops’ conference from 2003 to 2007. There are now 109 electors among the 201 living cardinals.

Photo credit: [1] Michael Baudisch

The death problem – Church funerals

In the days after the funeral of Bishop Jan Bluyssen, last Thursday, I’ve been reading a fair amount of criticism on how the Mass was performed. It was not in line with how the late bishop would have wanted it, some say. The large number of representatives of Church and state, the guild members in their folkloristic costumes, the clerics in cardinal red and bishop’s purple… all this are not becoming a bishop who was close to the people, who was loath to portray himself as lording it over the laity, who was, for many, a man among men, trying his best to serve the Lord and His Church as a bishop.

It should be noted here, that the funeral Mass was offered according to the liturgy of the Church. Attending bishops and other clergy were there to pay their respects to Bishop Bluyssen and they did so as prelates of the Church, which is not a 9-to-5 job, but, in lieu of their ordination, their identity. Bishop Bluyssen would have worn his liturgical clothing for the very same reason.

Uitvaart Mgr. Bluyssen

^Bishops attending the funeral Mass of Bishop Bluyssen. Clockwise from the top: Frans Wiertz (Roermond), Gerard de Korte (Groningen-Leeuwarden), Everard de Jong (aux. Roermond), Theodorus Hoogenboom (aux. Utrecht) and Joseph Lescrauwaet (aux. em. of Haarlem-Amsterdam). Behind them Cardinal Simonis.

Funerals are important. They are the final moment in which friends and family can bid farewell to a loved one, and a time to mourn that person. In that light, it is understandable that people feel ill at ease when a funeral seems to be about something else than the person being mourned. But when the funeral takes place from a  Church, when the deceased (and hopefully his or her family and friends) are Catholic, there is an important element to the funeral that secular ceremonies lack. It is a Mass, so the first and most important focus is on Christ, and the deceased is seen and remembered in His light.

What does that mean for the Catholic Church funeral Mass? Is mourning and remembering out of the question? Certainly not, but there are two things we need to consider: death is not the end, and those left behind are not powerless in the face of death.

A person’s life on earth has ended, but we believe that the soul is immortal and will return to its Creator, barring any obstacles. Prayer is the most powerful tool we have to make sure those obstacles are removed or diminished, and that is where we, those left behind come in. Our prayer is an act of love for the person we miss.

The funeral Mass is a Mass. That means that it is primarily the remembrance and actualisation of Christ’s  sacrifice on the Cross, the single most redemptive event in our entire history. Christ defeated death by rising after three days. Our loved one who has passed away follows our Lord in death, in the hope of one day rising with Him. Here, our prayer comes in again.

Catholic funerals, then, are not first and foremost a remembrance or even a celebration of the life that has ended. It is our sending off the deceased into the hands of the One who defeated death once and for all, and the start of our duty of prayer towards him or her.

The funeral Mass should be considered, planned and discussed out of its identity as a Mass. All other elements, such as eulogies and music, must be measured against this. And then, sometimes, the conclusion must be made (by the person who is responsible for the liturgy of the Mass: the priest) that some things are not suitable for Mass, but can be more suitable for a separate occasion before or after the Mass.

The Mass is the Mass is the Mass: we leave our beloved in the hands of the Lord and help him or her with our prayers, in the faithful hope of being reunited one day, as we follow the example of the first to rise from the dead: Jesus Christ. This transcends any personal preferences or opinions. Jesus can’t be left out of the equation. In the end, a person’s life comes to fullness in the light of the Lord, and there is no better memory than entrusting him to that light and expecting a future reunion.

Uitvaart Mgr. Bluyssen

^ Bishop Hurkmans incenses the coffin and mortal remains of Bishop Bluyssen, just like the offerings to the Lord, and the Word we receive from Him, are incensed during the Mass.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

On the eve of a funeral, on Mary and John

Mgr. BluyssenYesterday, the body of Bishop Jan Bluyssen was moved from the monastery where he had lived for the past thirty years to the bishop’s house, in preparation for tomorrow’s funeral Mass. The transfer was preceded by a Mass offered by Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, who addressed the sisters of the Mariënburg monastery as follows in his homily:

“Sisters, you too are ‘disciples’ of the Lord. As John took Mary into his home, you took Bishop Bluyssen into your home. There is of course a great difference between giving someone a space to live and giving someone a home. You have done the latter. Monsignor knew himself to be truly at home with you. For almost thirty years, he enjoyed this to the fullest. He could always generously receive his family. You and those who worked with you took good care of him until the final day. He lived richly in your monastery. He studied, wrote, travelled, celebrated the liturgy and received many guests, This put a pressure on your household, but this was always possible as a matter of course. In his life with you, Monsignor remained faithful to what moved him most deeply. Travelling to and with God. This by living according to the example of the Good Shepherd in great service. Not only when it was convenient, no, serving daily. His presence here was rich. Life in reciprocity. Life according to the Gospel. As John was rich with Mary, Mary was rich with John.”

With the name ‘Mariënburg’ referring to Mary and the late bishop’s name being the Dutch equivalent of John, the comparison with the words of Jesus to His mother and his disciple under the Cross (John 19:26-27) becomes clear and gains, in this context, a specific and touching relevance.

The funeral is scheduled for 11:00 o’clock tomorrow.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

Just a bishop in the Lord’s vineyard – on the death of Bishop Bluyssen

Bluyssen“The death of Msgr. Bluyssen has affected me deeply. He was the bishop who ordained me a deacon and a priest. At my consecration as bishop he was one of the concelebrants. My appreciation for him is great. For seventeen, he was bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch with all the beauty, but also with all the difficulties that this office brings with it. His kindness, tranquility and wisdom have helped him in his task. As bishop emeritus he continued to follow and sympathise greatly with the Church, the diocese of Den Bosch. In addition, he loved to study, wrote books and celebrated life with family and friends. Of course, like many others, Msgr. Bluyssen suffered through developments in the Church, but he was able to see them in a larger perspective. I will also miss the paternal presence of Msgr. Bluyssen at diocesan celebrations, which he always tried to attend. I am confident that Msgr. Bluyssen is now with the Lord, together with Mary and the saints. After all, like we do, he believed in a God of the living, and not in a God of the dead.”

Words from Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, second successor of Bishop Johannes Willem Maria Bluyssen, who died peacefully in his sleep on Thursday morning, as his heart surrendered after a life of 87 years in the service of the Church.

bluyssenBishop Jan Bluyssen hailed from Nijmegen and was ordained in 1950 by Bishop Willem Mutsaerts, and served as a parochial vicar in Veghel before studying spirituality in Rome. Returning to the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, he taught at the diocesan seminary in Haaren and also became spiritual director there. On 28 October 1961, Blessed Pope John XXIII appointed him as auxiliary bishop of the diocese, serving with Bishop Willem Bekkers, the ordinary. Bishop Bluyssen was made the first and to date only titular bishop of the see of Aëtus in modern Greece. After the unexpected death of Bishop Bekkers, Bishop Bluyssen was appointed to succeed him in October of 1966. The photo above shows the bishop shortly after his appointment, returning from a post-conciliar meeting in Rome. Bishop Bluyssen served until he offered his resignation for health reasons in 1983. This was granted on 1 March 1984.

Bishop Jan Bluyssen was the last surviving Dutch Council Father. Towards the end of the Second Vatican Council, he attended several sessions and was involved in several post-conciliar meetings on the liturgy. Bishop Bluyssen was the last bishop to be consecrated in the pre-conciliar rites. It is then perhaps paradoxical that he is considered a member of the more progressive wing of the Dutch bishops in the 1960s and 70s, who did most to change the liturgy and the Church in the Netherlands as a whole.

As a bishop, Bluyssen was continuously affected by health problems surround his heart, which ultimately led to his early retirement in 1984. Following his retirement, Bishop Bluyssen devoted himself to writing, of which his memoirs, Gebroken Wit (Broke White), published in 1995, are most notable.

The years of Bishop Bluyssen’s episcopate were  turbulent ones in the entire Dutch Church. The Second Vatican Council had started an unintended chain reaction in which everything was questioned, from the way parishes should function to how the liturgy should be celebrated, even to what the Church and faithful should teach and believe. Bishop Bluyssen was often allied with the more progressive movements, questioning much with them and trying to put the new thoughts into practice. In the seventeen years that he was ordinary, Bishop Bluyssen closed the seminary in Haaren and saw the number of active priests, as well as new seminarians, drop dramatically. Bishop Bluyssen made sure that things remained quiet in his diocese in the time surrounding the special Synod on the Dutch Church that Pope John Paul II convened in 1980. Partly in response to these developments was the appointment of his successor, Bishop Jan ter Schure, who was generally far more conservative and in line with Rome.

Bishop Bluyssen was deeply conscious of his own limitations and failings. This sense of reality, his esteem for people as carriers of the faith and his own modesty made him hugely popular, both during and after his time as ordinary of ‘s Hertogenbosch. The more formal and serious side of being a bishop, which Bishop Bluyssen described as “being bound to the Gospel, bound through loyalty to Christ, whose task I am called to perform … which comes to me via and through the Church”, was coupled with his being a positive and winsome conversationalist.

With the death of Bishop Jans Bluyssen the Dutch Church has lost a good man, a true man, with good and bad sides, a man of faith and a man of the people. Despite his failing health, he remained a integral part of his erstwhile diocese, for far longer than the 17 years he served as its bishop.

On Tuesday, the bishop will lie in state in the bishop’s house, where faithful may visit on Tuesday evening, and Wednesday afternoon and evening. A Vespers for the repose of Bishop Bluyssen will be offered on Wednesday evening at 7 at the cathedral basilica of St. John. His funeral will take place on Thursday from the same church, starting at 11.

bluyssen

Photo credit: [1] Paul Kriele, [2] Peter van Zoest/ANP Historisch Archief, ANP, [3] Wim Jellema/wimjellema.nl

A big pebble in a small pond – looking back at Bishop Gijsen

gijsenBishop Joannes Gijsen, who passed away at the age of 80 today, has left a mark on the Church in the Netherlands. Virtually all elements of his service led to comments, criticism, questions and, also, admiration and support. From his appointment in 1972 to his sudden retirement in 1993, his troubled time as ordinary of Roermond and his efforts to maintain a form of Catholic education in the Netherlands, his surprise appointment to Reykjavik and the comparisons between life there and back home (which often saw the Dutch situation in a bad light); Bishop Gijsen made his share of ripples in the pond of the Church.

But in the very first place, Bishop Gijsen must be understood as a man of faith, Asked if he ever experienced any doubt about his faith, he said in an interview in 2007: “True doubt? No, never! I am convinced that the Roman Catholic faith holds the fullness of all knowledge of God and man.”

He lived his life as a bishop that way, as he illustrated in that same interview:

“We’re all priests of the Catholic Church, and especially a bishop has responsibility for the entire Church. You must be able to be deployed anywhere. Of course, it is something else if you can’t because of health or something. But if you’re healthy, you can never say “no”.”

“If, somewhere in northern Iceland, there are a few Catholics who are interested in the Catholic faith, you must be able to offer it to them. Our Lord didn’t say: I want to convert the entire world in one go. He went to backward little Palestine and walked around there for three years, if not less. He reached only a few people. But that nonetheless became the foundation of the faith that reached the entire world.”

Joannes Baptist Matthijs Gijsen was born on 7 October 1937 in Oeffelt, a village in the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, just on the border with the Diocese of Roermond. He was ordained for that latter diocese in 1957, by Bishop Joseph Lemmens. Although he spent some time in the parish, he was mainly a teacher at the seminaries in Kerkrade and Maastricht, and a student of theology and Church history in Münster and Bonn. In 1972, he was appointed as the 22nd bishop of Roermond, a move that was quite controversial, as the new bishop was known as conservative and his appointment as one imposed from Rome. Reflecting the latter, Bishop Gijsen was consecrated by Pope Paul VI in Rome, with the archbishops of Utrecht and Armagh serving as co-consecrators. Cardinal Alfrink, the archbishop of Utrecht, would have preferred a consecration in Roermond as a first step towards reconciliation, but was evidently overruled. Bishop Gijsen was installed at St. Christopher’s Cathedral in Roermond on 4 March 1972.

As bishop, he modernised the diocese in the line of the Second Vatican Council,determined as he was to put the Council’s documents into practice. In that sense, Bishop Gijsen was not so much a man of the “spirit of Vatican II”, but of the true Council. As a former teacher himself, he worked to maintain some form of true Catholic education in his diocese, with mixed results.

mgrgijsenoverledenBishop Jan Hendriks, auxiliary of Haarlem-Amsterdam, today describes Bishop Gijsen as follows:

“He was a bishop with a vision, not conservative in the sense that he wanted to return to the time before the Second Vatican Council. On the contrary, with heart and soul he wanted to be a bishop who stood in and for that council and wanted to put it into practice. He wanted to be loyal to the Pope and the Church. He wanted “to prepare the way for the Lord”, as his motto was. That moved him, among others, to start a seminary at Rolduc, which has formed some 175 priests, including five of today’s bishops (among them Msgr. J. Punt and myself). As Pope Paul VI hoped and expressed, that little plant has borne fruit for the entire country.”

Above: Bishop Gijsen, third from left, pictured with Bishops Punt (second from right) and Hendriks (far right) and several other priests educated at Rolduc, photographed in May of this year.

In January of 1993, Bishop Gijsen suddenly and unexpectedly retired as bishop of Roermond. He moved to Austria to become the rector of a convent. Although rumours abounded about the reasons, the bishop would later explain:

“I have never had Crohn’s Disease, and I have always enjoyed the support of the Vatican. I can deny rumours of that nature without a doubt. I left because the doctor told me: “If you stay for one more year, you’ll either have a stomach perforation or an intestinal disease from which you will not recover, or you’ll have an aneurysm or a stroke. There is no way you’ll be able to keep this up. You must stop now!” That was the reason why I quit so suddenly. It was sudden for me as well. Agreed, the danger of a collapse was also caused by the developments and the experiences of those twenty years [as bishop in Roermond]. But it was mostly exhaustion.”

Three years of recovery followed, after which Bishop Gijsen relayed his renewed availability to Rome. At that time, the Diocese of Reykjavik in Iceland had been vacant for more than two years, so Bishop Gijsen was sent to the see where his great uncle Bishop Meulenberg had served in the 1930s. He was initially sent to be Apostolic Administrator, but in 1996 he was appointment as diocesan bishop.

Where Roermond represented a time of struggle and management, Reykjavik was by far the more enjoyable of Bishop Gijsen’s appointments. In 2006, he spoke in an interview about his appreciation for the country and the Icelandic people:

“I encountered much understanding. Seen from Rome, Iceland, land of the Vikings, seems a barren and terrifying place. But it most certainly is not. Consider, for one, the weather: here in the city, in the shadow of the mountains, the temperature rarely drops below -5°C. […] From the very start I liked it here. I am very pleased with this place. Life at 66 degrees north is not that different from life in he Netherlands, at 53 degrees. But life is much more organised.”

In 2007, Bishop Gijsen returned home to the Diocese of Roermond and to his family. He moved in with one of his sisters in Sittard, and took on the pastoral care of a small convent. He shunned the media since then, devoting himself, no doubt, to his books and whoever came for a visit.

Looking back on his own life, something he was not too keen to do, Bishop Gijsen said, in the same 2007 interview quoted above:

“I have always tried to simply think along the same line as the Church. I have mainly tried to act on the basis of the Second Vatican Council, because that was our duty, especially for a bishop. I have done so with my abilities and with my inabilities and with the abilities of the people around me, and with their inabilities. We shouldn’t want to judge the result of that this soon. I think we should wait a while. I think you should never want to be your own judge, so I am not going to judge my own life; I’ll leave that to history.”

Today, many priests and bishops have been influenced in one way or another by Bishop Gijsen. As Bishop Hendriks said above, some 175 priests were educated at the seminary he started, but Bishop Gijsen also ordained and consecrated several bishops. In 1983, he ordained the future bishop Everard de Jong, and in 1985, the future Cardinal Wim Eijk. He also consecrated his own auxiliary bishops, Alphons Castermans in 1982, and Joannes ter Schure in 1984. The latter would become bishop of the neighbouring Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch almost exactly two months later.

Of course, Bishop Gijsen suffered his share of criticism, and he was not afraid to offer it himself. Shortly before his appointment as bishop of Roermond, he accused the Dutch bishops of having “set the faithful adrift” following the disastrous pastoral council of Noordwijkerhout. He went his own way, and this in part was reason for Blessed Pope John Paul II to call a Special Synod on the Netherlands in 1980.

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^Bishop Gijsen, right, with Pope John Paul II, during the latter’s visit to the Netherlands in 1985.

Most serious in his later years were several accusations that surfaced regarding sexual abuse, both in Roermond and in Reykjavik. While no accusations were deemed inadmissible in court, they do point towards serious mismanagement on the part of Bishop Gijsen.

Bishop Joannes Gijsen was not perfect. He had his flaws, but he was driven by an honest desire to be of service and to do what was needed. For that, especially during the 1970s and 80s, we should laud him.

The funeral is planned for 29 June, at 10:30 in the morning, from St. Christopher’s Cathedral in Roermond. On the eve of the funeral, there will be a vigil Mass for the late bishop at the Carmelite convent chapel in Sittard.

Photo credit: [1] Bisdom Roermond, [2] arsacal.nl, [3] Dagblad De Limburger