“Gaudete et exsultate” – A summary and some reflections on Chapter 1

Pope-Francis-writing-740x493As is characteristic of Pope Francis, his latest document, the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, is not “a treatise on holiness, containing definitions and distinctions helpful for understanding this important subject, or a discussion of the various means of sanctification”. Instead, the Holy Father has the practicality of daily life in mind: he simply wants to repropose the call to holiness “for our own time”.

In this post I will take a look at the first chapter of this new document. I will try to add some thoughts and connections of my own, as well as provide a summary for those who haven’t gotten around to reading the whole thing yet. I haven’t either, so what you read here very much is a collection of first impressions.

The first paragraph of the exhortation emphasises that the call to holiness lies at the heart of being a Christian. Too often it seems as if Christianity is just a system of rules and regulations, but, Pope Francis reminds us, “[The Lord] wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence,” for He created us for true life and happiness. That is the goal of following Christ. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI in paragraph 21, Pope Francis writes, “holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full.”

Holiness is not something to be achieved alone. On the contrary, there are countless numbers of saints that lead by example. They “may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord,” the Pope writes. In paragraph 5, he reminds us of a recent change he made to the reasons why a person can be declared to be a blessed or saint: when “a life is constantly offered for others, even until death”. The processes of beatification and canonisation recognise the heroic virtues, which people in the past, but also “our own mothers, grandmothers or other loved ones” consistently display to inspire and guide us on the path to holiness.

And holiness is not just a goal on the horizon, distant or otherwise. In paragraph 7, Pope Francis speaks of “the middle class of holiness”: parents, people who work hard for their loved ones, for the sick, our next-door neighbours who display God’s presence among us. It is these people who make real history.

Holiness also unites, especially when we look at the martyrs. People are persecuted or killed for their Christian faith, and the persecutors make no distinction between Catholics, Orthodox or Protestants. Theirs is a ecumenism of blood.

But these are just some factual statements, important as they may be. In Gaudete et exsultate, Pope Francis “would like to insist primarily on the call to holiness that the Lord addresses to each of us, the call that he also addresses, personally, to you: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44; cf. 1 Pet 1:16). The Exhortation should, then, be read as a personal letter to all of us. Paragraphs 14 to 18, under the header “For you too”, are essential reading in this regard. Each has their own way of achieving holiness, and while examples are good and helpful, they are not meant to simply be copied, “for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us.” We are tasked to find our own path, our own vocation in life, because that is what is attainable for us.

In paragraph 12, the Holy Father stresses the “genius of women” which is “seen in feminine styles of holiness”. While listing a number of important female saints, he returns again to the “middle class”: “all those unknown or forgotten women who, each in her own way, sustained and transformed families and communities by the power of their witness.”

Holiness, or the attempt at achieving it, is essential to the mission of a Christian in the world. That mission, which each of us has, is “to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.”

But what is that holiness, then? Pope Francis offers a deceptively simple answer: “[H]oliness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him. But it can also entail reproducing in our own lives various aspects of Jesus’ earthly life: his hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love.” We can incorporate these mysteries in our lives by contemplating them, he writes, quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola.

It is important to recall that saints, which we are called to be, are not perfect human beings. After all, only God is perfect. “Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect.” That is why we must look at “the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person”. We must also look at the totality of our own lives, not just dwell on individual mistakes or successes. Pope Francis encourages us to always listen to the Holy Spirit and the signs He gives us; we should ask in prayer what Jesus expects from us at every moment and for every decision we make.

Holiness requires an openness to God. “Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit,” we read in paragraph 24. If we don’t, our mission to speak the message of Jesus that God wants us to communicate to the world by our lives will fail.

Our striving for holiness is intimately connected to Christ. We must work with Him to build His Kingdom: this is thus a communal effort. We cannot seek one thing while avoiding another. “Everything can be accepted and integrated into our life in this world, and become a part of our path to holiness. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission,” the Pope writes in paragraph 26.

What are the sort of activities that can help us on the path to holiness, then? As each path is different, it is impossible to provide a simple list, but the Holy Father does give some directions: “Anything done out of anxiety, pride or the need to impress others will not lead to holiness.” We must be committed, so that everything we do has evangelical meaning. But that “does not mean ignoring the need for moments of quiet, solitude and silence before God. Quite the contrary.” We live in a world of distractions, a world not filled with joy, but with discontent (the social media world is certainly no stranger to that). In moments of silence we are able to open ourselves to God, which, as we have read, is a prerequisite for starting on our path to holiness.

Paragraph 31 summarises the above well: “We need a spirit of holiness capable of filling both our solitude and our service, our personal life and our evangelizing efforts, so that every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing love in the Lord’s eyes. In this way, every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to growth in holiness.”

But that path can also be scary, as it seems to take us away from what is familiar. In paragraph 32, Pope Francis echoes a quote from Pope Benedict XVI, who said, “Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything.” Pope Francis writes the same about holiness: “Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.” This, as I have written above, is the heart of being a Christian: the path to holiness leads us to becoming the fullest version of ourselves.

In this first chapter, Pope Francis establishes that this is a personal letter to each of us. It explains that holiness lies at the heart of being a Christian, and that it precludes neither the contemplative nor the active sides of life: we should never choose one over the other, but both are required. With this text he also emphasises his own focus on spirituality: Christianity is a faith with its roots in the muck of daily life. Holiness is not something high and unattainable, no, it can become visible in the most mediocre things. Holiness has a middle class of hard work which is at least as important as the first class of theology and contemplation. I found the various references to the fullness of life which God has created us for especially striking. I think it is a beautiful invitation to find our own path to holiness and follow Christ every day.

I will look at Chapter 2 in the near future.


Like this post? Think of making a donation! 

 

Advertisements

The cardinal’s testament

On a day in March 2009, Cardinal Karl Lehmann sat down and looked ahead at the day he would pass from this life into the eternal life. Almost nine years to the day later, his successor would lead his funeral Mass and share the spiritual testament with the world.

die-insignien-des-verstorbenen-kardinal-karl-lehmann-auf-dem-sarg

In a requiem Mass celebrated by Bishop Peter Kohlgraf (who also marked his 51st birthday) and five other bishops*, and in the presence of almost the entire German episcopacy (as well as Cardinals Adrianus Simonis from the Netherlands and Walter Kasper from Rome), Cardinal Karl Lehmann was interred in Mainz’s Cathedral of St. Martin of Tours and St. Stephen today. After the Mass was concluded, the text of the cardinal’s spiritual testament was published on the diocese’s Facebook page. Below, I share my translation.

“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

My testament as bishop

I thank God for all gifts, especially the people He has given me, especially also my parents, teachers and my homeland. I am greatly thankful for the many full-time and voluntary sisters and brothers with whom I was allowed to work and who have supported me.

Theology and Church have been the breath of my life. I would choose thusly again! We all , especially in the time after 1945, have buried ourselves deeply in the world and the times, also in the Church. This is also true for me. I pray God and the people for forgiveness. Renewal must come deeply from faith, hope and love. Hence I remind all of the words of my motto, which come from Saint Paul, and which have become ever more important for me: “Stand firm in the faith!”

With gratitude and a request for prayer for me, I greet the Holy Father, the bishops, priest and deacons, all coworkers and all sisters and brothers in the Diocese of Mainz, in my home Diocese of Freiburg im Breisgau, as well as friends in our Church and in ecumenism, and the Catholics of our country, for whom I gladly was chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference for more than 20 years. I was always concerned with the unity in faith in the diversity of our lives, without blinkers and uniformity.

I leave the arrangement of the requiem Mass and the burial to the cathedral chapter and the auxiliary bishops. We have many good customs!

There are two things under which I have suffered time and again, and ever more: In many ways, our earth and, to a large extent, our lives are wonderful, beautiful and fascinating, but they are also profoundly ambiguous, destructive and terrible. Lately, the frightfulness of power and how man deals with it has dawned on me more and more. Brutal thought and the reckless pursuit of power are to me among the harshest expressions of unbelief and sin. Resist their beginnings! I increasingly keep Jesus’ words from Luke in mind:”When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Choose a good successor! Pray for him and for me! Goodbye!”

Mainz, 15 March 2009

+ Karl Cardinal Lehmann

Bishop of Mainz

der-sarg-wird-zur-beisetzung-die-krypta-getragen

In his homily, Bishop Kohlgraf fondly remembered the popularity of Cardinal Lehmann, something that was proven in the days after his death by what people shared on social media:

“One shared that Bishop Lehmann had confirmed him and how much that meant to him. Others shared everyday encounters in the street and small conversations. I know of others for whom the cardinal was a true pastor and guide on he search for a personal faith. Not without reason do the people of the Diocese of Mainz call him “our Karl”. He was able to converse with everyone: with the so-called simple folk and with those with social, ecclesiastical and political influence.”

Bishop Kohlgraf referred to the cardinal’s spiritual testament several times. About the comment that the Church had  ‘buried’ itself in society in the last decades, the bishop said:

“A Church burying itself in the times: in its brevity and poignancy this sentence seems to me to be prophetic. The temptation to plan and create everything, as if administration, planning, material possession is the decisive factor, does not grow smaller. In this way our late cardinal warns us to live according to faith, hope and love, before starting to “create”. The source, which gives us true life, must not be forgotten.”

Cardinal Lehmann instead insisted that the search for God lay in the heart of people: something that is innate to all human beings. This search leads to a God who has a name, who can be addressed.

“The God of the Bible is a God who enters into history, a good of liberation, who accompanies people, “God with us”. He ultimately reveals Himself unparalleled in Jesus Christ. The cardinal’s coat of arms contains an open Bible, a reference to this God who speaks to people and joins them on the way: on the coffin today, likewise, there lies an open Bible. Today, God is also “God with us”. Since this God is so great and has numerous ways of speaking, there is an endless number of ways to come to Him, as numerous as the people and their means of expressing themselves. Theology must be diverse, faith experiences must be possible for different people, faith is not narrow, not uniform”.

The requiem and funeral Mass for Cardinal Lehmann was witnessed by thousands of people along the route of the funeral procession, in the cathedral and on the square in front of it, where faithful could watch the proceedings on big screens. Among the guests were the prime ministers of the federal states of Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate, on whose territory the Diocese of Mainz is located. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrived under police escort when the procession had entered the cathedral. Chancellor Angela Merkel had wanted to be there, but had duties in Berlin. She is expected to attend tomorrow’s requiem service in Berlin’s St. Hedwig cathedral.

*Concelebrating with Bishop Kohlgraf were Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, Apostolic Nuncio to Germany; Reinhard Cardinal Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference; Gerhard Cardinal Müller, former priest of the Diocese of Mainz; Bishop Gebhard Fürst of Rottenburg Stuttgart, representing the Oberrhein Church Province, from which Cardinal Lehmann hails; Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr of Erfurt, former priest and auxiliary bishop of Mainz; and Bishop Udo Bentz, auxiliary bishop of Mainz.

Photo credit: [1] Arne Dedert (dpa), [2] Boris Roessler (dpa)

A life of mission – Bishop Münninghoff passes away

herman_munninghoffOn Wednesday, on a hospice in Wijchen near Nijmegen, the oldest Dutch bishop passed away: Msgr. Herman Münninghoff, bishop emeritus of Jayapura in Indonesia. Aged 96, he was among the last surviving bishops who had left the Netherlands for the mission in the years following the Second World War.

In his early 20s when the war broke out, young Herman spent the final years of that conflict in hiding, attempting to avoid deportation to Germany to work there in the war industry.  A failed raid by the German secret police led him to sanctuary with the Franciscans in Megen. “That is how I escaped from the German police, but not from the net that the Lord had cast for me. In the middle of war and violence I heard His voice in Megen!”

Ordained a Franciscan priest in 1953, Fr. Münninghoff left for Indonesia to work in the mission there. Of his work, he would later say, “Of what a missionary does maybe ten or fifteen percent – I don’t know, I didn’t do the sums – is related to religion and church. The rest is all in the fields of medicine, health care, culture, what they’re not at all familiar with. I think that is one of the most important things. The development of these people must take the very first place in missionary work.”

In 1972, after a short time as parish priest and vicar general, he was appointed as bishop of Jayapura, on the northern coast of Irian Jaya, the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea. He stayed in office until his retirement in 1997, returning to the Netherlands in 2005. As bishop he stood with the Papuan people and for the well-being of all, most significantly in the 1990s, when he fought for the release of several western hostages held by Papua freedom fighters, and a black book by his hand led to the arrest of four Indonesian military officers for the murder of eleven Papuans. Bishop Münninghoff also insisted that the union of Irian Jaya with Indonesia in 1969 was a forced one, with Papuan elders coerced to vote in favour of the move.

In 2017, Bishop Münninghoff celebrated the 45th anniversary of his ordination at the care facility in Wijchen, with Msgr. Theodorus Hoogenboom, auxiliary bishop of Utrecht, as the main celebrant.

Photo credit: Franciscanen.nl

In Message for World Communications Day, Pope Francis emphasises the importance of independence, objectivity and truthfulness in media

Yesterday’s message for the World Communications Day, in which Pope Francis focuses on the topic of fake news. A topical buzzword, understood here as ‘news’ that deceives and is not in service to the truth.

“The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Communication is part of God’s plan for us and an essential way to experience fellowship. Made in the image and likeness of our Creator, we are able to express and share all that is true, good, and beautiful. We are able to describe our own experiences and the world around us, and thus to create historical memory and the understanding of events. But when we yield to our own pride and selfishness, we can also distort the way we use our ability to communicate. This can be seen from the earliest times, in the biblical stories of Cain and Abel and the Tower of Babel (cf. Gen 4:4-16; 11:1-9). The capacity to twist the truth is symptomatic of our condition, both as individuals and communities. On the other hand, when we are faithful to God’s plan, communication becomes an effective expression of our responsible search for truth and our pursuit of goodness.

In today’s fast-changing world of communications and digital systems, we are witnessing the spread of what has come to be known as “fake news”. This calls for reflection, which is why I have decided to return in this World Communications Day Message to the issue of truth, which was raised time and time again by my predecessors, beginning with Pope Paul VI, whose 1972 Message took as its theme: “Social Communications at the Service of Truth”. In this way, I would like to contribute to our shared commitment to stemming the spread of fake news and to rediscovering the dignity of journalism and the personal responsibility of journalists to communicate the truth.

1. What is “fake” about fake news?

The term “fake news” has been the object of great discussion and debate. In general, it refers to the spreading of disinformationon line or in the traditional media. It has to do with false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader. Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests.

The effectiveness of fake news is primarily due to its ability to mimic real news, to seem plausible. Secondly, this false but believable news is “captious”, inasmuch as it grasps people’s attention by appealing to stereotypes and common social prejudices, and exploiting instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration. The ability to spread such fake news often relies on a manipulative use of the social networks and the way they function. Untrue stories can spread so quickly that even authoritative denials fail to contain the damage.

The difficulty of unmasking and eliminating fake news is due also to the fact that many people interact in homogeneous digital environments impervious to differing perspectives and opinions. Disinformation thus thrives on the absence of healthy confrontation with other sources of information that could effectively challenge prejudices and generate constructive dialogue; instead, it risks turning people into unwilling accomplices in spreading biased and baseless ideas. The tragedy of disinformation is that it discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict. Fake news is a sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes, and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred. That is the end result of untruth.

2. How can we recognize fake news?

None of us can feel exempted from the duty of countering these falsehoods. This is no easy task, since disinformation is often based on deliberately evasive and subtly misleading rhetoric and at times the use of sophisticated psychological mechanisms. Praiseworthy efforts are being made to create educational programmes aimed at helping people to interpret and assess information provided by the media, and teaching them to take an active part in unmasking falsehoods, rather than unwittingly contributing to the spread of disinformation. Praiseworthy too are those institutional and legal initiatives aimed at developing regulations for curbing the phenomenon, to say nothing of the work being done by tech and media companies in coming up with new criteria for verifying the personal identities concealed behind millions of digital profiles.

Yet preventing and identifying the way disinformation works also calls for a profound and careful process of discernment. We need to unmask what could be called the “snake-tactics” used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place. This was the strategy employed by the “crafty serpent” in the Book of Genesis, who, at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news (cf. Gen 3:1-15), which began the tragic history of human sin, beginning with the first fratricide (cf. Gen 4) and issuing in the countless other evils committed against God, neighbour, society and creation. The strategy of this skilled “Father of Lies” (Jn 8:44) is precisely mimicry, that sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments.

In the account of the first sin, the tempter approaches the woman by pretending to be her friend, concerned only for her welfare, and begins by saying something only partly true: “Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” (Gen 3:1). In fact, God never told Adam not to eat from any tree, but only from the one tree: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat” (Gen 2:17). The woman corrects the serpent, but lets herself be taken in by his provocation: “Of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden God said, “You must not eat it nor touch it, under pain of death” (Gen 3:2). Her answer is couched in legalistic and negative terms; after listening to the deceiver and letting herself be taken in by his version of the facts, the woman is misled. So she heeds his words of reassurance: “You will not die!” (Gen 3:4).

The tempter’s “deconstruction” then takes on an appearance of truth: “God knows that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). God’s paternal command, meant for their good, is discredited by the seductive enticement of the enemy: “The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye and desirable” (Gen 3:6). This biblical episode brings to light an essential element for our reflection: there is no such thing as harmless disinformation; on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences. Even a seemingly slight distortion of the truth can have dangerous effects.

What is at stake is our greed. Fake news often goes viral, spreading so fast that it is hard to stop, not because of the sense of sharing that inspires the social media, but because it appeals to the insatiable greed so easily aroused in human beings. The economic and manipulative aims that feed disinformation are rooted in a thirst for power, a desire to possess and enjoy, which ultimately makes us victims of something much more tragic: the deceptive power of evil that moves from one lie to another in order to rob us of our interior freedom. That is why education for truth means teaching people how to discern, evaluate and understand our deepest desires and inclinations, lest we lose sight of what is good and yield to every temptation.

3. “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32)

Constant contamination by deceptive language can end up darkening our interior life. Dostoevsky’s observation is illuminating: “People who lie to themselves and listen to their own lie come to such a pass that they cannot distinguish the truth within them, or around them, and so lose all respect for themselves and for others. And having no respect, they cease to love, and in order to occupy and distract themselves without love they give way to passions and to coarse pleasures, and sink to bestiality in their vices, all from continual lying to others and to themselves.” (The Brothers Karamazov, II, 2).

So how do we defend ourselves? The most radical antidote to the virus of falsehood is purification by the truth. In Christianity, truth is not just a conceptual reality that regards how we judge things, defining them as true or false. The truth is not just bringing to light things that are concealed, “revealing reality”, as the ancient Greek term aletheia (from a-lethès, “not hidden”) might lead us to believe. Truth involves our whole life. In the Bible, it carries with it the sense of support, solidity, and trust, as implied by the root ‘aman, the source of our liturgical expression Amen. Truth is something you can lean on, so as not to fall. In this relational sense, the only truly reliable and trustworthy One – the One on whom we can count – is the living God. Hence, Jesus can say: “I am the truth” (Jn 14:6). We discover and rediscover the truth when we experience it within ourselves in the loyalty and trustworthiness of the One who loves us. This alone can liberate us: “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32).

Freedom from falsehood and the search for relationship: these two ingredients cannot be lacking if our words and gestures are to be true, authentic, and trustworthy. To discern the truth, we need to discern everything that encourages communion and promotes goodness from whatever instead tends to isolate, divide, and oppose. Truth, therefore, is not really grasped when it is imposed from without as something impersonal, but only when it flows from free relationships between persons, from listening to one another. Nor can we ever stop seeking the truth, because falsehood can always creep in, even when we state things that are true. An impeccable argument can indeed rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful. We can recognize the truth of statements from their fruits: whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.

4. Peace is the true news

The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people: people who are not greedy but ready to listen, people who make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge; people who are attracted by goodness and take responsibility for how they use language. If responsibility is the answer to the spread of fake news, then a weighty responsibility rests on the shoulders of those whose job is to provide information, namely, journalists, the protectors of news. In today’s world, theirs is, in every sense, not just a job; it is a mission. Amid feeding frenzies and the mad rush for a scoop, they must remember that the heart of information is not the speed with which it is reported or its audience impact, but persons. Informing others means forming others; it means being in touch with people’s lives. That is why ensuring the accuracy of sources and protecting communication are real means of promoting goodness, generating trust, and opening the way to communion and peace.

I would like, then, to invite everyone to promote a journalism of peace. By that, I do not mean the saccharine kind of journalism that refuses to acknowledge the existence of serious problems or smacks of sentimentalism. On the contrary, I mean a journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines. A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all, especially those – and they are the majority in our world – who have no voice. A journalism less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts, in order to promote deeper understanding and contribute to their resolution by setting in place virtuous processes. A journalism committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.

To this end, drawing inspiration from a Franciscan prayer, we might turn to the Truth in person:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion.
Help us to remove the venom from our judgements.
Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters.
You are faithful and trustworthy; may our words be seeds of goodness for the world:
where there is shouting, let us practise listening;
where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony;
where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity;
where there is exclusion, let us offer solidarity;
where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety;
where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions;
where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust;
where there is hostility, let us bring respect;
where there is falsehood, let us bring truth.
Amen.

From the Vatican, 24 January 2018, the Memorial of Saint Francis de Sales.

FRANCIS

The state of the world at Christmas, according to Bishop Punt

In his regular ‘Word from the Bishop’ column, Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam this time looks ahead to Christmas, and particularly the state of our world today. Are political grandstanding and military threats really an answer, he asks. While we live in a broken world, power is needed to keep opposing powers in check, but real change starts in the hearts of people, he argues.

20160110_punt_70“We are celebrating Christmas in a tense time. The Middle East is on fire. North Korea and American are threatening “fire and fury” upon each other. Almost all countries are rearming themselves. Each one, in their own opinion, to defend themselves against the others. That is how the First World War started. How do we break this spiral of fear, hate and violence?

The world leaders are betting on diplomacy, shows of force and alliances. Understandable. At the same time, everyone knows that that is not the ultimate solution. What we need is a New World Order, many politicians therefore claim. Especially a world government with complete power and authority to control international conflicts. What they forget is that leaders are also always people with exactly the same weaknesses. They, too, easily fall into self-interest, greed and lust for power. We see it everywhere around us. We have already seen in extreme way, in Hitler, Stalin and Mao, what the concentration of power leads to. On a worldwide level the consequences will be unimaginable.

Great thinkers from the past have long foreseen this and warned against it. Think of Dostoyevsky or George Orwell, or of Aldous Huyxley with his famous novel Brave New World (1932). Or also of Robert Benson, an English priest from the 1900s, with his novel Lord of the World (1907). Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict have referred to it as a warning to us. Visionary, Benson describes a secularised world in which mankind, plagued by fear and chaos, calls for a strong leader. Then, an all-powerful dictator rises, a sort of Antichrist. He does indeed bring order with power and control, but ultimately robs mankind of all its dignity and freedom. A new world order is not the answer to chaos and war, but sooner or later a highway to the most complete dictatorship of all time. As long as we live in this broken world, powers must always be confronted by other powers.

But how should things be? I have said it before: the world will only change when man changes. Diplomacy, alliances and sometimes military interventions are necessary, but can only combat the symptoms of a wounded world and an inwardly wounded mankind, but it is not the cure. That should take place in the heart of man. And the Good News of Christmas is that this is possible. Man has a conscience and is able to change. He can became great and holy, a force for good for all mankind. Great and small people defeating evil, first in their own hearts, and then changing their surroundings and the world. Our time needs such people, not least in politics. Nothing in man’s being or in his history should be an obstacle to that, the Lord promises.

You will probably the beautiful song Amazing Grace. What you may not know is that it was written by the captain of a slave ship in the eighteenth century, John Newton. In a storm he was touched by the light of God, and saw the great evil of his life. He had the courage to confront it and ask for forgiveness. One moment of grace completely changed him. He began to strive for the abolishment of slavery, and later became a gifted preacher who drew full churches in England. Only the change of heart can offer the solution. The entire Bible is an encouragement to open yourself up to the touch of God’s Spirit.

But Scripture also teaches us that that touch is never open-ended and always presents us with a choice. When the Spirit comes in force, as it did for John Newton, his mild Light will let you feel the love of God, but also show you the dark places of your heart and your hidden sins. Not to discourage you, but to give you the chance to change what is not right, and to receive forgiveness. That is why Christ has come, Scripture tell us, to save us through the forgiveness of our sins. We can leave behind everything that we regret and confess honestly. When you believe in this Child, love incarnate, and bring everything that weighs you down and holds you back to Him, He will carry it with and for you, and give you strength to be a force for good for the world around you. And after this life He will receive you in His eternal Kingdom. Some will receive this gift of redemption in gratitude, like the shepherds and the magi, and kneel down to worship the Child. Others will be too prideful for that, like Herod, and hold on to their power, greed and lust, persecute the Child and banish God from their lives.

Christmas is the feast of the Light. The Light of God’s Love and truth that enlightens the hearts of people, and through them the world. May this Light be ours in these days. In that sense I wish you all a Blessed Christmas.”

 

A little prayer for Christmas

prayerA little prayer I whipped up this morning for my wife to use in her school’s Christmas celebration. As it was to be prayed before (and, it is hoped, with) an audience of teens who are generally only vaguely familiar with the act of prayer and the Christian faith as a whole, I chose to focus mostly on human kindness and charity instead of more difficult theological concepts such as the Incarnation. Still, Christmas can’t exist without God, the Light of the world, the Word become flesh, so even when celebrating with people unfamiliar with such things, it is no good to be so general as to ignore that world-changing event.

And, yes, there are traces of the well-known prayer of St. Francis in there.

“Lord God,

We celebrate Christmas. In the darkest time of the year we celebrate that it became Light. That Light enlightens our world and ourselves.

We see that there is much that is wrong, that people do things that harm others and the world. We, too, sometimes make mistakes.

We celebrate Christmas. A new beginning. The child in the manger shows us that beginning. Now, at the start of the Christmas holidays, in which we will also begin a whole new year, we want to ask You to keep lighting our way. So that we can bring peace where there are fights and arguments, joy where there is sorrow, hope where people no longer know where to go, light in the darkness.

And when we may find ourselves in darkness, may we also encounter people of light.

We celebrate Christmas.

Amen.”

Last Advent – Bishop Wiertz looks back

In his final letter for Advent, Bishop Frans Wiertz, until last week bishop of Roermond, looks back on his almost 25 years at the helm of the southernmost diocese of the Netherlands. The letter will be read out in churches throughout the diocese this weekend.

Dies 2017-2823

^Bishop Wiertz, front row centre, is pictured with priests and seminarians of the Diocese of Roermond at Rolduc, yesterday. In this final meeting with them, he urged them to be missionary and to listen to people.

“Brothers and sisters,

On Saturday 2 December I celebrated my 75th birthday. On that day, as requested, Pope Francis has allowed me to retire as bishop of Roermond. I bade my farewells over this weekend and entered retirement. The pope will appoint a new bishop for our diocese in some time.

You can imagine that I have been thinking a lot over the past months about the almost 25 years that I was your bishop. I especially recall the many visits to parishes, during which the confirmations have always been especially impressive. On one of those occasions a confirmand once asked me, “Do you like being a bishop?” To which I gladly answered ‘yes’.

And also now, as I am stepping back, I can say, “yes, I have gladly been your bishop”. Because you are not a bishop for yourself, but for the people in the diocese with whom you share the same faith. Saint Augustine said it as follows, “I am a Christian with you and a bishop for you.”

No one applies for being a bishop. It appears on your path. When it became clear it would also be asked of me, it was rather frightening. “Can I do this? Is there no one better?” But when Pope John Paul II indicated that he wanted to appoint me, I said ‘yes’ with all my heart.

I was confident that things would turn out fine. I took that confidence in the first place, of course, from Christ, who called me to this office. When He places something on your path, He will also help you to fulfill the mission. Did He also not help the Apostles to fulfill their mission? “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” He reminded His disciples.

But I also feel the support of a number of saints. In the first place Saint Francis de Sales, my patron saint. From him comes the quote, “God is God of the human heart”. With these simple words he drew a link between God and man. He loved people and was united to them. From an inner faith, Francis de Sales could pass on God’s love. I also tried to do so.

There are two others saints who have shown me my way as bishop: Saint Servatius and Saint Willibrord. Upon the grave of the first in Maastricht we built the Basilica of St. Servatius. This holy Armenian came to our parts in the fourth century to proclaim here the faith in the triune God. He was later followed by Willibrord, who came from Ireland.

These saints, who came from far to proclaim the faith in our country, made me aware that we belong to a world church. Within that greater body of the world church, local faith communities can help and support each other in difficult times. That is why I made mission trips to various countries. I was able to visit flourishing churches there, and I was a guest in churches who exist under the cross, but where the faithful fire of the people touched me deeply.

Just like Servatius and Willibrord came to us, I went from here to other countries. I asked for priests there, who will make sure the God’s voice does not fall silent and that the holy sacraments will continue to be celebrated in the future.

I am exceedingly grateful that, at this moment, 45 young men from various countries are studying for the priesthood at Rolduc. With our own priests from Limburg that can create the link between people and God and God and people in the future. Their enthousiasm and honest inspiration fill me with great joy.

Finally, in the years that I was your bishop, I always knew I was supported by Our Lady, who we invoke here in Limburg with the title ‘Star of the Sea’. She is connected to the Diocese of Roermond in a special way. Her statue in Maastricht draws a continuous stream of people, who light a candle before her and pray a couple of Hail Marys.

Like at the wedding at Cana, Mary has always whispered to me, “Do as Jesus tells you to.” I listened to His word every day in the liturgy and I let myself by nourished by Him every day in the holy Eucharist. I also gladly celebrated the other sacraments and so continued Jesus’ work of salvation for us.

“Do as Jesus tells you to”. That was the way I was shown at my ordination as priest and bishop. The person of Jesus and what He does for people was always the guiding principle in the difficult questions which appeared on my path.

That is why I am so saddened by the fact to so many people have given up their membership of our Church. I want to say to them, that they have not been written off and that the Church knows that, in many cases, she is party to their decision. But I also hope for many to return. The door is always open.

Mary also always inspired me to pray to the Holy Spirit, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles.When the disciples flee every which way after Good Friday, it is Mary who calls them back together and says, “Let us pray! Let us pray to the Holy Spirit!” At Pentecost the Apostles receive the courage to go out to all parts of the world. They can no longer remain silent. A missionary Church is born.

As members of that missionary Church we are in this Advent on our way to Christmas. In a few weeks we will celebrate that we were introduced, through Mary, to the Son of God. It was she who brought the world into contact with Jesus. Seen like this, Mary was the first missionary. I would like to urge you to be missionary with here and spread God’s love throughout the world.

“Do you like being a bishop”? the confirmand asked. In response I can say that I have gladly been your bishop. And also that I have been a happy bishop because of that. Through the inspiration of Jesus, His mother Mary and the other saints.

As bishop emeritus, because of my increasing physical limitations, I can no longer be active. Just like many religious become contemplative when they grow older, I will also remain united in prayer with you and the Lord, who entrusted me with the office of bishop almost 25 years ago.

Let us pray to the Holy Spirit for love and faith.

Roermond, 2 December 2017

+ Frans Wiertz,
bishop emeritus of Roermond”