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Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp considers the Christian faith’s authenticity and the physicality of the Resurrection.
How do you know if someone is sincere? How do you feel if someone is genuine? There is a simple measure: when the body confirms, or even transcends, the language of words. What use do I have for someone who says a lot about solidarity, but never shakes my hand? What use do I have for someone who has good views about the family, but is never home? What use do I have for someone who speaks about human rights, but always eats at the most expensive tables? The proof of the pudding is not in thoughts or words, but in the body. Where you go, from whom you make an effort, with whom your body wears or ages: that is the measure of authenticity. Ordinary people know this all too well.
Christians believe that God’s Word became “man” in Jesus. In the Greek and Latin it actually says that God Word became “flesh”, or took on bodily form, in Jesus. God did not limit Himself to words and promises. He did not get stuck in conversations with His people. Undoubtedly some wished He did: the continuation of a fiery discussion with God, with arguments for and against. God did not walk into that trap. He became man in Jesus, a man of flesh and blood, who embodied what He said. People looked at Jesus and saw that He was sincere: towards them and towards God.
Jesus paid a great price for that. When people could no longer stand His words, He had to go. It wasn’t so much His message that had to be fought or denied. It was God’s “becoming man” in flesh and blood that had to be blocked, if need be with brutal violence. That which made Jesus bodily present, that had to end. Silence fell around Jesus on Good Friday. Nothing had to be said any longer. His dead body on the cross surpassed the words He could have said. By the way, there was no one who wanted to hear them anymore. His body was laid in the tomb.
At Easter we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus from the tomb. In the Creed we will solemnly sing that we believe in “the Resurrection of the body”. That is indeed what Easter is about: about our faith in the resurrection of the body. Jesus is risen completely and forever. Everything in Him has been brought to completion and glory by the Father. Nothing was left behind, least of all the body with which He had confirmed His words and completed His sacrifice. After Easter Jesus carried in His hands and sides the scars from the Cross. Thomas could put his fingers in them. That completed the wonder and joy of the disciples. In Jesus, the Father most certainly made a man of flesh and blood rise from death!
The power of the Resurrection does not hover like cloud above the earth. It enters this world and our loves, into the core of our humanity. And especially: it enters the language of the body. Places where the Resurrection breaks through have everything to do with the proof of the pudding, which has to come from the body. Where strangers shake hands, where a volunteer pushes a wheelchair, where a child is born, where an ill person struggles with pain, where partners remain loyal, where the gun is put down, where a kiss is genuine, where food aid is being distributed, where gossip falls silent, where solidarity can come from gut feeling: that is where the power of the Resurrection breaks through. Where the body can put the signature of God, that is where the world has a future.
I wholeheartedly wish you a happy Easter!”
A short personal note from Bishop Antoon Hurkmans of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, in which he encourages us to seek “open encounters” with people, especially those outside the Church.
In a few days Holy Week begins. A “holy time” during which I am happy to meet you through this short letter. I wish you a week full of bountiful mercy and a Blessed Easter.
Allow me to accompany my Easter wishes with a thought.
Personally, my experience is that open encounters are live-giving. You, as priest, deacon, pastoral worker, pastoral assistant, as faithful, as man and woman, are called to encounter one another. Pope Francis ask to find opportunities to encounter people ‘on the periphery’ in Church and society. Our work is often about many official meetings and about organisation. That is hard. For that reason it would be good for us to regularly seek an open encounter with someone. To give concrete expression to our being faithful.
An open encounter
Simplicity, humility, openness. These are important requirements for an open encounter. Give the other first place. To be there for the other. To listen to the other. To very much leave the other free. This places a major demand to the person seeking such an encounter. To not immediately come to the other with a message or with plans. Meet the other from the starting point of prayer. It gives depth. Remain in God. Remain in love. So prepared, go to the other and the rest will follow. The man or woman across from you will often be the first to speak about disappointment, about pain pressing on the heart. He or she will speak about “the others” who make so many mistakes. Sometimes that is all. But you can often hear the hope that lives in the heart. When you can listen deeply, you also hear the desire for repairing broken threads of life.
People who experience that they can be at home with us, will feel that there is room for their life history. When they in turn – who knows when – meet us in Church, they will be able to open up to God who waits for them. They can then experience that they can be a child of God. That God is a merciful Father. That Jesus gives His life on the Cross out of love for all people. To repair the broken threads of life. That the Holy Spirit has lived in them since their Baptism and Confirmation. That Jesus strengthens them at the altar. They will, when the time is there, begin to surmise that God is indeed as great that He made His Son rise from the dead. Step by step, they will open up to the Resurrection and to life after death.
In our time it is more than ever necessary that we present the faith to our fellow men and women with simplicity, humility, along the road of open encounters. By living it ourselves and making witness of it.
I sincerely wish for you to be able to give priority, amid all the work, to open encounters. It will do you good.
I warmly wish you all a Blessed Easter.”
“I will take the children of Israel from among the nations
to which they have come,
and gather them from all sides to bring them back to their land.
I will make them one nation upon the land,
in the mountains of Israel,
and there shall be one prince for them all.
Never again shall they be two nations,
and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms.”
Ezekiel 37: 21-22
With the news yesterday (both the Pope’s apology and the news about Bishop Gijsen) opinions pop up. Everyone has something to say about what it all means, and how other people are wrong about it. It gets depressing sometimes.
The Word of God often offers inspiration, a new view on things, but also comfort. So today, as I looked for some of that comfort on the readings of today. The first two verses of the first reading, from the Book of Ezekiel, are a potent reminder that in God no division can last. God brings His people back to their own land, to Himself. He unites them again.
If only we would hear Him.
Various bishops have written messages to their faithful on the occasion of Lent. In this post I want to go over six of them, written by bishops in and around the Netherlands. I have been scanning the various diocesan websites for them, and an interesting conclusion from that is that there aren’t a lot. I have found one in the Netherlands, and a few in Belgium and the Nordic countries. Oh, and one from Luxembourg. None from Germany, oddly enough.
Anyway, let’s see what the bishops who did write a message found important to share.
From Utrecht, Cardinal Wim Eijk speaks about charity. He writes:
“For many of us [Lent] is a time of abstinence, a period in which we deny ourselves “the pleasures of life” or at least limit ourselves. Lent is a journey through the darkness to the Light of Easter, a journey through the desert to the Source. And we take the time for that: this is not ‘merely’ a Four-Day March, but one of forty days. We do not fast with an eye on losing weight or adopting a healthier lifestyle – although these can certainly be positive side effects… [...] During Lent we place not ourselves but God and also our neighbours at the centre. It is the we have in mind when we downsize our consumption pattern.”
But the cardinal warns, Lent is not just about saving money to give to some charity. He quotes Pope Francis, who said that if we do not have Christ and the Cross, we are a enthusiastic NGO, but not a Church. In other words, we can’t lose sight of our faith when doing good. In addition to fighting material poverty, we must also fight spiritual poverty.
“[Lent] is after all a time in which we make room to enrich our heart and our spirit, through prayer and reading Scripture, by directing these on what the should be the heart of our existence: our personal relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ. We remove the frills and side issues from our life to experience that our wellbeing does not depend on them.”
In essence, Cardinal Eijk explains, our charitable actions can not be seen separate from the Eucharist.
“In the sacrament of the Eucharist we come closest to Our Lord Jesus Christ. In receiving the Eucharist we are conformed to Him. This creates obligations and holds an assignment: from now on, try to act in His Spirit.”
He concludes with pointing out several “desert experiences” that deserve our attention: the loneliness of people around us, and the loneliness that we as faithful can sometimes experience.
“We live in a time in which faith has long since ceased to be a matter of course, in which not belonging to a religion is increasingly becoming normative. Going to Church on Sunday has almost become “socially maladjusted behaviour” now that this day is beginning to look more and more like every other day of the week. And then there is the unavoidable fact that several churches will have to be closed in the coming period, churches in which parishioners have often had decades worth of precious experiences and memories. It is clear: a person of faith in the year 2014 must stand firm to continue following Jesus faithfully.
But the person of faith and his faith can also be shaken from within. Every faith life has fruitful and barren periods. Barren periods during which we are locked up in ourselves, imprisoned by doubt and sorrow. Sorrow for the loss of a loved one or the disappearance of what was once familiar. In those dark nights of abandonment it may seems as it of our prayer do not reach beyond that barrier of sorrow, as if they return to us like a boomerang.”
Countering that is the realisation that Christ is with us, even in times of sorrow and suffering, even of sin.
Brussels’ Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard sheds a light on the three constituent elements of Lent – fasting, almsgiving and prayer – and asks his audience some direct questions. About fasting, he writes:
“Properly understood, fasting is an act of love for God. Is it not right to happily deny ourselves something for the people we love the most? [...] The way in which our Muslim brother and sisters practice Ramadan can inspire us in an exemplary manner to be at our most generous in this field.”
About almsgiving, the archbishop explains:
“This is an important aspect of Lent. Brotherly sharing starts at home. With that I mean the sharing of friendship, respect, patience and service.”
Lastly, there is prayer. Archbishop Léonard remind sus that the most important prayer is the Eucharist. About personal prayer, he asks us a question:
“We all know, at least in theory, the importance of prayer. But reality shows that a solid reminder sometimes does wonders! I ask you again: “How much time did we spend on prayer over the past month? Where were we?” Lent is an excellent opportunity to make a new start or, who knows, finally get started. Spending a few minutes a day with the Lord is not to much to ask, is it?”
And prayer is not hard:
“We must at least realise that every one of us can pray, even a longer prayer. Prayer is not reserved to priests and religious. It does not require a diploma or any special talent. The desire for prayer and asking Jesus, like His Apostles did, “Lord, teach us to pray!” (Luke 11:1), is enough. Let su listen to the voice of the Lord, who asks us, “Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share a meal at that person’s side” (Rev. 3:20).”
Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg uses his message to urge the his faithful to devote themselves even more to the practices of Lent and Easter. In order the hear the voice of God, we must be ready to do so, he writes.
“I [...] propose we fast and do abstinence every Friday during this time of preparation for Easter. A simple meal can help us break down barriers in our daily routine and to open ourselves to Christ’s call. It is also a gesture of solidarity with the poor. And it would be good to not do it alone, but to do so in our various communities. Fasting and abstinence open our hearts and make us better able to pray. Would this not be an opportunity to pray more, to maintain dialogue and contact with the living God? Without personal prayer these things elude us!”
Archbishop Hollerich also speaks about almsgiving, about giving something up for the other. And this is also good for ourselves:
“Let’s shake ourselves up during this Lent! Let’s open our hearts to the distress of the world, which also exists in Luxembourg. Only someone who opens their hands to share can receive this gift: the freedom of the children of God.”
The archbishop urges us to celebrate all of Lent, not just Easter, but also Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, in order to encounter Christ fully in our hearts.
Despite the problems the Church faces, and we as individual faithful also, Lent is ultimately a season of hope, and that hope grows the closer we come to the Living Lord.
Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm takes a slightly different approach to his message for Lent, as he does not explicitly discuss what we can and should do during this season. Instead, he begins with the image of a forgotten God, opening his letter with these blunt lines:
“We forget God. We live in age where God has become the forgotten God. Even the one who says, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me” (Isaiah 49:14) has in fact himself forgotten God.”
But God does not forget us, he continues. We can’t imagine how close God is to is, and how much he loves us. It is up to us to remind others that, while they may forget Him, He never forgets them. And that is hard to communicate, but we must remain hopeful.
Forgetting God contains an enormous risk for us, the bishop explains:
“When we forget God, there is a great risk that we also forget man and fail to see him in his dignity of being created in the image of God. When God is forgotten, creation itself is diminished and so are all created beings. In a time and environment where consumerism is paramount, everything – and everybody – is easily reduced to things that can be consumed. When God is out of sight, so is humanity – indeed all of creation is brought down and diminished.”
But God is knowable in His creation, Bishop Arborelius states. “His presence permeates everything”. And when we get to know God, our respect for His creation grows. In Lent, that respect is shown by our refraining from making unnecessary use of created things.
“We eat less. We disengage ourselves from our covetousness. We try to help our neighbour. We meet God in the poor and naked. We forget ourselves so that we can set God in the centre. We serve those who need us. We praise Go for His goodness. We deepen our faith. Lent helps us to seek God with greater eagerness. We are more receptive to God’s will for us.” St. Birgitta likens God to a washerwoman, who constantly washes us clean of our sins and guilt. During Lent we are serious about our conversion. We prepare ourselves for the triumph and joy of Easter through contrition and penance, by receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation and by participating in the Eucharist more often. We unite ourselves to the suffering and crucified Christ so that we can meet Him as the Risen and glorified Lord. The cross always leads us to the joy and peace of Easter.”
During Lent we must make a choice, the bishop insists.
“We must choose sides. We cannot limp on both sides. Mediocrity and half-heartedness must give way to devotion and commitment. We must begin each day anew in the new life of grace. We must seek the face of God each day by praying to Him and serving Him in our neighbour.”
But we need not stand alone in this radical choice. We are part of the community of the Church, which strengthens us, and the saints in heaven support us by their prayer. This is an antidote against selfishness and forgetting God.
Bishop Arborelius concludes his letter by presenting the Blessed Virgin, to whom the bishops of the Nordic countries will consecrate their nations on 22 March in Lund, Sweden, as our great help in heaven. She helps us be more evangelising and a better witness of Christ.
Antwerp’s Bishop Johan Bonny devotes a major part of his message to the Belgian bill which allows euthanasia on minors. He quotes part of the bishops’ response to that immoral piece of legislation, which was sadly signed into law by King Philippe only days ago.
“The bishops agree with all who have expressed themselves unambiguously against this law on the basis of their experience and expertise. They fully support the rights of the child, of which the rights to love and respect are the most fundamental. But the right of a child to request his or her own death is a step too far for them. It is a transgression of the prohibition to kill, which forms the basis of our humane society.”
Following this reminder of the Church’s opposition to the laws of death, Bishop Bonny writes about the two complementary topics of freedom and solidarity.
“From where does our freedom come, and what does it consist of? Where does our solidarity consist of and what does it consist of? In the Christian view of humanity and the world freedom and solidarity are inseparable. They are like twins who belong together and strengthen each other.”
Using the example of St. Damian, Bishop Bonny then asks what connection we still make between freedom and solidarity. Lent leads us to the answer to that question.
“What was Good Friday but the ultimate unity of those two: freedom and solidarity. Why did Jesus end up on a cross? On the one hand because He wanted to be free: free to witness to the truth free to say and do what the Spirit of God inspired Him to do, free to give His life for His friends. On the other hand because He wanted to remain solidary: solidary with poor and broken people, solidary with the martyrs of all times, solidary with a weak and sinful humanity. He did not make a success story out of His life. He lost His trial. He was carried off through the backdoor of society.”
And so we come full circle, as the bishop seems to want to imply a link between the victims of draconian laws and Jesus Christ.
Reykjavík’s Bishop Pétur Bürcher writes about the Year for Consecrated Life that Pope Francis has announced for 2015, and uses the opportunity the address the religious communities in Iceland which, he says, “are a sign of hope for our Church!” The bishop goes on to relate the contributions that the religious communities have made to Catholic Iceland and announces a plan for the future:
“I would like to establish a male monastery, if possible with the Benedictines or Augustinians who in the Middle Ages possessed several monasteries in Iceland. We have already found a large piece of land with houses and a heated church in Úlfljótsvatn. Now we have to find a monastic community! I have undertaken a lot to find it and hope soon for a fulfillment of my dream which has become one of many people in Iceland and abroad!”
Lastly, Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt opens his message by acknowledging that our environment does not make it easy for us to have the right attitude to start Lent.
“There is very little around us which calls us to it. The chocolate Easter eggs are already in the supermarket and commercials and media have always spoken with more easy about carnival, dieting and the Ramadan than about Christian fasting. Lent is apparently considered to be a private matter which we had better not discuss too much.”
But Lent is a precious time of conversion, the bishop says, drawing parallels with Christ’s time in the desert and the forty years that the people of Israel spent in the desert. It is a time of conversion from worldly things, in preparation for the future. And that conversion begins with the person of Jesus. Quoting Pope Francis, Bishop Hoogmartens says we must understand Christ’s deepest ‘being’.
“Jesus reveals Himself, not with worldly power and wealth, both more so in weakness and poverty. He came to us with a love which does not hesitate to sacrifice itself. He became like us in every way, except in sin. He carried our suffering and died on the Cross. It is He who we must open our hearts and lives much more to during Lent. From out of the love of Jesus, out of His mercy as the Christ, we can, as it were, ‘practice’ our witnessing, in honest love for the other, during Lent.”
The bishop emphasises the two sorts of poverty we must address, material and moral. About the latter he says:
“The extreme emphasis on human autonomy, for example, which became to shockingly visible in the recent amendments in Belgium regarding euthanasia, must urge us Christians to even more support care and nearness to suffering people according to the Gospel.”
In the first place, the bishops concludes, we must first make a conversion ourselves, before we can address the various sorts of poverty we see around us, for it is in Jesus that we find the means to fight it.
As many styles as there are bishops. Some offer deep theology, others outline plans for the future, but all offer points that we can keep in mind during Lent.
“He said, ‘The Son of man is destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death, and to be raised up on the third day.’
Then, speaking to all, he said, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, will save it. What benefit is it to anyone to win the whole world and forfeit or lose his very self?”
A rather gloomy prediction of the future we hear today in our reading of the Gospel. Jesus gives a clear image of what His immediate future will hold; an image of pain and suffering, but certainly also of hope. His ressurection on the third day would have reminded his audience of the prophecies regarding the Messiah, even if most did not yet realise that the Messiah was the one telling them this. The rejection that Jesus foretells is by the hand of “the elders and chief priests and scribes”, the very leaders of the religious establishment and community. These are usually the ones that are trusted to do what is right, but their future betrayal of the ultimate truth that is God shows how deeply the salvation the Messiah brings is needed. This is more than the personal sins of individuals, but extends into the very heart of civilisation. Christ’s sacrifice will bring healing to all of society, to its individual members and to the relationships that unite them.
Christ does not only speak about Himself here, but also about us. The decision to follow Him is a big one, and just like His sacrifice and salvation, it reaches down to the very roots of our humanity and society. We must renounce ourselves, which means that we mustachieve a balance between respecting and making use of what has been given to us by God as His creation, and denying what distracts us from Him and His desire to brings us to Him. In other words, do not put yourself first, but always look at yourself as a being created by and wished by God. We must look at ourselves with His eyes, not our own. That is why Jesus speaks about losing our life “for His sake”. Just losing our lives is a shameful waste without any merit. But losing our lives for Him (in other words: handing over our lives to Him) is essentially the opposite of losing it. God gave us life, and He did not do so by accident. He has given us our very self, which is far more than the mere fact of being alive. Life has a greater meaning than that.
We are asked to lose our lives for God, which means we acknowledge the fact that our life, or being, was not ours in the first place. God will not take it and then ignore us. He will accept our very being and lead it on the path to fulfillment, to reach our full potential. And that path is hard. Jesus is the first to go that path, to show us the way. His death and resurrection foreshadows what he asks us to do. To die for ourselves and be reborn in God.
Be careful not to parade your uprightness in public to attract attention; otherwise you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win human admiration. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
‘And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
‘When you are fasting, do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they go about looking unsightly to let people know they are fasting. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put scent on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.”
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
What better way to start the great season of Lent with some very direct instructions from the Lord Himself? In this passage, Jesus outlines the three main elements of Lent: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These three are interlinked, as each one bleeds into the others and makes the others more fruitful. That is why it is important that we do not just pick one or two to focus on during Lent.
The general tone of the Gospel passage above is one of modesty and secrecy. Jesus basically tells us not to show off. The reason for this is that we do not fast, pray or give alms for ourselves; we do it for God and our neighbour. The benefit of our actions is theirs. Once we do it for the benefit of our own public image and social standing, the result of Lent will be strictly negative: we become concerned only with ourselves and ignore those around us. We become islands, egotistical human beings who only act for our own benefit, no matter the cost for others.
Christ also links such behaviour directly to our “reward from our Father in heaven”. Prayer, almsgiving and fasting all have their reward in this passage. Jesus mentions it multiple times. He does not say what that reward will be, but we can gather from this that it is directly related to our actions.
Every action has a result or a consequence. When deciding to do something, we are often aware of that consequence, and the same goes for when we decide not to do something. This is a truth independent of our motivations. When we focus solely on ourselves, the consequence will be that we lose sight of others and become egotistical. When we focus on others and on God, the result will be that we grow in our relations with people and with God, and are able to flourish as human beings. We are, after all, not created as solitary creatures. From the very beginning, God created humans as beings in relation to all of Creation and ultimately in relation with each other and with Himself.
Our Lent must be secretive insofar that it must not become a goal in itself. If we make a show of how prayerful, how generous and how hungry we are, we are only seeking adoration for ourselves. Lent is a means to an end, and that end is what matters. God matters, our neighbour matters, and our relationship with both matters. God calls us to Him, and when we say yes to His invitation, we must prepare ourselves to meet Him. And that means striving for the holiness with which He created us in the beginning, a holiness which must not remain locked up in our hearts, but must be set free to create the links that will make all of Creation holy.
Art credit: “The prayer in secret”, by Alexandre Bida.
He led a diocese for less than four hours, but Bishop Manfred Melzer probably won’t lose any sleep over it. It is simply standard procedure in Cologne: as the archbishop retires, leadership of the archdiocese falls automatically to the most senior auxiliary bishop. Until, that is, the cathedral chapter has picked a diocesan administrator, and they didn’t take very long to do that. Vicar General Msgr. Stefan Heβe (pronounced “Hesse”) (pictured at right) runs the ongoing affairs of the archdiocese until Pope Francis confirms the election of a successor to Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who retired today after 25 years, two months and a few days at the head of one of Germany’s oldest sees.
In 1988, Cardinal Meisner came to Cologne from Berlin, 14 months after the death of Cardinal Joseph Höffner. Today he becomes the first archbishop of Cologne in almost 129 years to retire, and he does so at the almost unprecedented age of 80. Cologne now joins three other German dioceses – Erfurt, Passau and Freiburg in Breisgau – which are also still awaiting a new bishop, in the case of the former two since October of 2012.
Cardinal Meisner leaves Cologne in the hands of diocesan administrator Msgr. Heβe, and Auxiliary Bishops Melzer, Dominik Schwaderlapp and Ansgar Puff. The diocesan administrator now had the duty to collect an expansive report on the state of the archdiocese and send that to the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic. In the meantime, the see of Cologne is Sede vacante nihil innovetur, in other words, while there is no new bishop, no changes may be made. In other respects, Msgr. Heβe has the same rights and duties as a diocesan bishop.
The Archdiocese of Cologne, or Köln as it is properly called, is the second oldest in Germany (only Trier is older), dating back to the year 200, and once dominated the western part of modern Germany as well as major parts of the Low Countries. The Dioceses of Roermond (Netherlands), Magdeburg, Aachen and Essen (Germany) and parts of Liège (Belgium) were at one time or another all part of Cologne.
The archbishops of Cologne were powerful men, in that rather German way that they were both spiritual and worldly leaders, being electors of the Holy Roman Empire. Today, while not the primatial see of Germany, Cologne remains important, being the largest diocese in number of faithful (some 2 million) and covering a significant part of the Industrial Ruhr area and including the major cities of Cologne, Bonn (former capital city of West Germany) and Düsseldorf. Cologne has produced 10 cardinals and 7 ordinaries who were declared saints.
Joachim Meisner was born on Christmas Day 1933, in what is now Wroclaw in Poland, but at the time the city of Breslau in Germany, which was rapidly falling into the clutches of the Nazis. Having lived through the war as a child and young teenager, Joachim Meisner ultimately became a priest of the Diocese of Fulda in 1962, days before his 29th birthday. In 1975, he was appointed as Auxiliary Bishop of the Apostolic Administration of Erfurt-Meiningen, which has been established only two years before (tensions between communist East Germany and the Holy See meant that the former had almost no full-fledged dioceses). Bishop Meisner was also given the titular see of Vina. In 1980, he became the bishop of Berlin, which, because of the aforementioned tensions, was not yet an archdiocese. Bishop Meisner stayed there for eight years, being created a cardinal in 1983, before being called to Cologne in 1980 (a poster welcoming his arrival is pictured at left).
Coinciding with his retirement, Cardinal Meisner published his final Lenten letter, which is also a farewell to his archdiocese and the faithful for whom he was pastorally responsible. He concludes the letter as follows:
Dear Sisters, dear Brothers,
I was allowed to serve you as Archbishop of Cologne for a quarter of a century. I have always wanted to testify to the peace of God and bring this across to you, since it is the strength of our hope. I thank you once again from my heart for all the strength which I found in that and beg you all very much for your forgiveness when my service were not a source of strength, but perhaps a source of irritation. The Lord will complete everything which was only fragmentary in my service. I will remain – God willing – among you until the hour of my death and will now have more time to pray for you all, and bring all your concerns and hopes to the heart of God.
The all-powerful God bless you all, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit!”
And now? The Archdiocese of Cologne has already started the process of selecting a new archbishop by appointing a diocesan administrator. Possible candidates will now be chosen by several entities, all according to the Concordat that the Holy See signed in 1929 with Prussia, the state of which Cologne was then a part. Among these entities are Archbishop Eterovic (pictured) as the Papal Nuncio; the bishops of the other dioceses which were part of Prussia: Aachen, Berlin, Erfurt, Essen, Fulda, Görlitz, Hamburg, Hildesheim, Limburg, Magdeburg, Münster, Osnabrück, Paderborn and Trier; and the cathedral chapter of Cologne.
The Nuncio will then collect all proposed candidates and will create a list of three candidates which he considers the best choices. This so-called terna will be added to the other proposals and sent to Rome, where the Congregation for Bishops will draft its own terna based on the information provided. The list will then go to the Pope, who will either confirm it, or make some changes of his own. Then, the list goes back to the cathedral chapter of Cologne.
The cathedral chapter will elect the new archbishop from final terna. Voting continues until one candidate has an absolute majority of votes (at least 8 out of 15). After three voting rounds, only the two candidates who got the most votes continue. If all candidates have five votes after the second round, only the two oldest candidates continue on. For the fourth round of voting a simple majority is sufficient. Do both candidates still have the same amount of votes, the oldest candidate is elected.
After a new archbishop is elected, the governments of the States of Nordrhein-Westfalen and Rheinland-Pfalz can voice political concerns against the elected. The Nuncio must seek and obtain the permission of the elected for this. Once the governments agree, the Pope officially appoints the new archbishop.
In the countries around us the results of the Synod of Bishops questionnaire have been published and they show a worrying image. While the data differs slightly per country, the general trend seems to be that Catholic faithful in general do not agree with Catholic teaching about sexuality and gender. In Germany the bishops have said that the faithful considering same-sex marriage a matter of justice and equality. Celibacy for priests is equally considered outdated and should be abolished.
This points to a serious problem: the Church in these countries has not succeeded in communicating her teachings very well, and where it has, it has done so according to the stereotype of the Church who forbids everything. Catholic teaching about sexuality is rooted in a profound understanding of human nature, according to his being created by God who has created man with a purpose.
This teaching, founded in that of Jesus Christ and unchanged (if developed) since then, is one that often exists at direct angles with society. Society in the west teaches something radically different than the Church: sexuality is a commodity, gender is self made, free choice trumps all. In essence, it says that the human being is the sole interpreter of who he or she is or can be. The Church, on the other hand, teaches that the human being is called to something greater in all aspects of his being. God calls him to Himself and shows us the way in His Son. That means that we are not limited by what we think, feel or know ourselves, but also that we should take our nature seriously. And that latter part is where we struggle. With those around us who tell us something different, but also with ourselves.
It is certainly easy to go along with what society tells us about sexuality. It is easy, comforting, uplifting even to fight for the happiness of others in love and marriage. It is a measure of control and seeming self-knowledge to decide on our own sexuality and practices. But God tells us something different. He says that we are called to look beyond ourselves, to listen to what He tells us and how He created us.
And that is something that must be communicated well. Until now, it hasn’t. The keyword in this communication is love. We must communicate, teach, inform with love. The love of the Father for us, but also our love for our neighbours and for ourselves. That love can’t be withdrawn when we or others stumble or decide to go another path. We are, after all, people with free will. That is how God created us and that is what we must respect.
What sort of love must we show to others and ourselves? In essence it is the love of the Father, and the best analogy I can think of is the love of parents for their children. Parents want what is best for their children, even when the children disagree. The children know that their parents love them, even when they sometimes forbid them things or correct them. We must emulate that love when we share the teachings of the Church on these very personal and sensitive matters.
Don’t turn anyone away.
Be honest and open. People deserve no less.
Love the person, not their actions.
Condemn actions, not persons.
Lead by example.
People will still disagree when we do, of course. But we are called to share and spread the faith, and to do so fully. Faith without love is nothing.
Cardinal Eijk just can’t win. In an interview for the Reformatorisch Dagblad, which was published yesterday, he explained that the Council of Trent is still current. The statements of that Council, which aimed to put an end to certain practices which had caused the Reformation, but also wanted to emphasise the content of the faith and the consequences thereof in daily life for those who professed it, has not been scrapped in any way in the centuries after. What was said there still goes.
Protestant faith leaders in the Netherlands are none too happy with the cardinal’s clear and open explanation. The chair of the Protestant National Synod claimed that Cardinal Eijk “would give the faithful a burn-out some day”. “The claim that the church is always right is not in line with the Bible”, Gerrit de Fijter said. Well, that’s right, if you have a Protestant understanding of what a church is. The Catholic definition of the Church, the body of Christ which enjoys the promised inspiration of the Holy Spirit, can make certain dogmatic statements (which is not the same as saying she’s always right…). Former head of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, Bas Plaisier (who himself is not too concerned with ecumenical respect for other churches) “does not understand what the cardinal is doing”, calling the statements “formal and hard”. Even Catholic professor Marcel Poorthuis had his reservations. While agreeing that Cardinal Eijk is correct in his statements about the Council and the heresies it addresses, he puts Pope emeritus Benedict XVI opposite to the cardinal, referring to the retired Pope’s statement that Martin Luther was a man of the Church. He even goes so far as to say that he expects Luther to be rehabilitated by the Church.
Cardinal Eijk called the Council of Trent a sign of the Catholic Church’s “capacity to purify herself” from errors and sinful practices. Examples of these are “the trade in offices, the unbiblical understanding of the priesthood en the lack of discipline in monasteries. In that regard, Trent has put things in order. The Council has also been very fruitful. When all the decrees had been implemented this led to a restoration of order in the Church.” The Council also delineated certain truths of the faith, which are still unchanged and valid.
The cardinal relates the anathemas that the Council issued to the Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians, which says, “Anyone who preaches to you a gospel other than the one you were first given is to be under God’s curse” (1:9). “If someone does not share the faith of the Church in the Eucharist,” the cardinal explained, “he can’t receive it either. This curse or anathema essentially means you are blocked from receiving the sacraments, and in that sense it is still applicable.” But, the cardinal continues, these anathemas apply to people who refuse the truths of the Church “in full knowledge, aware of the truth and with free will”. “In a way that is a theoretical question. There are many people who have an incorrect image of the Catholic Church because they were raised that way, or they have another idea of God. You can not directly blame someone for that. You can therefore not understand the anathemas of Trent as being eternally damning for someone. God is the judge; you can and may not make that judgement as a human being.”
A clear explanation of what the Council taught about those who do not adhere to what they know to be the truth of the faith. Does this mean, as the critics I mentioned and quoted above assume, that modern Protestants are damned by the Catholic Church? No, it does not, because to be damned you must know and be aware that the Catholic Church teaches the truth and decide freely to not follow that truth. Clearly, that is not what most Protestants do: they do not believe that the Catholic Church teaches truth. If they did, why remain Protestant? Are they damned by the Council? No. Can they receive all the sacraments? Also no, but for different reason: the sacraments are also a profession of faith and an expression of the desire to belong to the community of faithful that is Christ’s Body. If you don’t share that faith, well…
Yes, all this may not be nice to hear, but it is certainly worthy of being taken seriously and read carefully before being commented on. But, seeing the cardinal as the big bully is perhaps the easier and more comfortable way…
In ecumenical relations with other church communities there is one thing that must always be at the centre: the truth. The truth that the Church, or any other community, claims, must not be hidden for the sake of “being nice to each other”. Cardinal Eijk’s explanation is not a nice one, but it is true. It is what the Catholic Church continues to profess and uphold as truth. Ecumenism is a good thing, but it can never be a reason to ignore who we are and what we hod to be true.