For the Synod, faith, opennes and courage – Bishop Wiertz’ letter for Lent

In his letter for Lent, which was read out in the churches during the first Sunday of the penitential season, Bishop Frans Wiertz looks ahead to the Synod and outlines the right attitude of the faithful towards it.

Bisschop Wiertz“Brothers and sisters,

Every year in Lent we realise that we need moments of reflection and conversion in our life and in our relationship with God. They help us to be more open to God’s mercy and the Words He speaks to us. In this way we can experience those riches that God wants to give us.

In the Church there is a habit of paying special attention to a given topic over the course of the year. Pope Francis declared this year to be the “Year of Consecrated Life”. I already indicated this in my letter for Advent.

At the same time this year also has a special focus in the Synod on the family. This was held a few months ago in Rome and will be continued at the end of this year. In his message to the religious, Pope Francis writes, “I thank the Lord that the Year of Consecrated Life coincides with the Synod on the Family. Family life and consecrated life are both vocations which bring enrichment and blessings for all.”

At the end of the Synod, October last, Pope Francis urged the local Churches to think about the conclusions of the first Synod and let the issues mature. In our diocese we did so by sending the questionnaires, which are the basis of the upcoming Synod, to the parishes. The issues will also be discussed in the various advisory councils.

Now that the vision of Church and faithful on marriage and family have become such a clear topic of discussion, it is obvious that everyone has their own thoughts about it. At the same time we realise that marriage and family revolve around the merciful reality that God grants us and which we can’t invent ourselves. From that realisation Pope Francis made these issues the topic of Synods. Jointly, the bishops of the world Church can in this way manifest the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Looking for what is good and true in the faith is a process of the entire Church.

At the same time this search also and always takes place “with and under Peter”, as the Pope himself put it. Pope Francis emphasises both the importance of the input of all bishops – yes, even of all faithful – as well as the importance of his own presence as keeper of the faith and supreme shepherd of the Church.

In this sense our own thoughts and convictions regarding marriage and family are very valuable, but they are never the final words on the matter. What’s beautiful about the Catholic Church is exactly that we can experience the guidance of the Lord in the words spoken by Pope and bishops.

It may be expected that the Pope will collect the conclusions of this Synod in a so-called Apostolic Exhortation. This document will be a guide for how we deal with issues of marriage and family. No one can afford to take go separate ways in that. The divisions among the faithful which would be the result of that are by definition contrary to God’s will and will have disastrous consequences. After all, we find Him fully within the unity of the Church.

Many of the issues surrounding marriage and family, by the way, have to do with unity and division. At the same time it is somewhat improper to keep talking about the “issues” of marriage and family. We do a great injustice to marriage when we consider it as a source of problems.

Marriage and family are rather the regular way in which people fulfill their lives. The way in which they can be happy. And especially also the way in which they manifest God’s plan with humanity. It would be a grave injustice to consider marriage as a source of fighting and misfortune. What matters especially is the question of how we can respond to situations in which the intentions and convictions from the beginning do not become reality.

From us this requires an attitude of faith and trust in the word of God. And also openness and courage concerning the way which Pope and bishops show us. In that regard we can be convinced of one certainty: that way will be one in line with Tradition and according to the faith of all ages. At the same time a newness will be present which the Holy Spirit continuously grants His Church.

During Lent we want to keep our eyes fixed on God. We will see how beneficial it us to be free from our own desires and wishes. That will also be a good attitude towards the Synod: expecting in gratitude to God what is good for man. We may all be very involved with the process taking place in our Church. But it is a great mercy to have faith that the good Lord guides His Church. Through the Holy Spirit and through the successor of Peter He always remains close to His Church. Let us accept this mercy in faith and trust.

I gladly wish a you a fruitful and blessed Lent.

Roermond,

+ Frans Wiertz, Bishop of Roermond”

Going green – Christians and the environment

VATICAN-RELIGION-POPE-CANONISATIONBefore summer we may expect Pope Francis’ second encyclical, and its topic will be the environment. For some reason the prospect of a green encyclical has a some Catholics all riled up. Apparently, it is not something the Church should be overly concerned with.

I do notice that this subject is quite politicised, especially in the United States, which is where most of the criticism comes from. It is a left-wing or liberal pet subject, it’s true, and that side of the political spectrum quite often clashes with Catholic faith, to be fair.

But concern for the environment is, in fact, quite Christian. Pope Francis touched upon the subject in his homily this morning, when he said:

It is our response to the ‘first creation’ of God. It is our responsibility! A Christian that does not care for creation, that does not make it grow, is a Christian who doesn’t care about the work of God; that work born from the love of God for us. And this is the first answer to the first creation: to care for Creation, to make it grow.”

The creation story in Genesis, which prompted the Holy Father to make these comments, is the clearest indication of our relation to the world we live in. Not as independent agents, even parasites, whose only effect on the natural world is destruction, as some would have it, but as integral parts of it with a clear duty.

God created us and the world we live in. These are not separate things. Humanity has a role to play in the world: we are to be stewards of it. A good steward is not afraid to use the world around him, but does so with responsibility, in the knowledge that, like him, his world is also a creation of God. He is not the master of it, but he has been given a duty, as we my deduce from Genesis chapter 1, verses 28 and 29:

“God blessed them, saying to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all the living creatures that move on earth.”

God also said, ‘Look, to you I give all the seed-bearing plants everywhere on the surface of the earth, and all the trees with seed-bearing fruit; this will be your food.””

There is no debate about man’s use of the world around him. Considering the human influence parasitic and undesirable  is therefore incompatible with Christian teaching. But looking at the larger context of creation as being a product of God given to man for his benefit, we must develop a responsibility. God’s creation is not ours to destroy or give back. It is for us to use and maintain.

In that context environmentalism is a thoroughly Christian concern, and it is no stranger a topic for an encyclical than, say, faith, charity, hope or love.

This year’s saint – St. Dominic Savio

Like last year, I used Jennifer Fulwiler’s Saint’s Name Generator to select a patron saint for the blog for 2015. Last year St. Raymond of Peñafort,  the Dominican canonist from the 13th century, was randomly selected for me, and tis year I was given an entirely different saint: a 14-year-old boy from 19th century Italy.

SA010101On reading the life story of St. Dominic Savio one might be excused for thinking he is a Goody Two-Shoes, doing all the right things, respectful, pious, kind to the extreme and wise beyond his years. But when we are dealing with saints we are always invited to look beyond first impressions. And in this case we have the testimony of another saint, Saint John Bosco, who wrote a biography on his young pupil, to help us. And here we learn that St. Dominic Savio not only led an exemplary holy life – the reason for his canonisation in 1954 – but avoided becoming insufferable.

What does the life and example of St. Dominic Savio mean for a blogger? Perhaps that a life of prayer, the path to holiness that we are all called to, lies at the root of our Christian life. After all, in this way we feed our relationship with Christ, and although we may not advance along it as fast as St. Dominic Savio did, it can give is increasing certainty and faith in the Lord. And in that way we grow ever more towards our fulfillment as human beings, as God intended it when He created us.

That is why St. Dominic Savio has a place in the left side bar of this blog this year, as a reminder that we are nothing without Christ in our hearts.

Good intentions – Pope to the Curia, or to us all

Pope Francis gave the Roman Curia an earful, they say. Rather than limiting himself to general niceties and well-wishes in the traditional Christmas address, he told the cardinals, bishops and other members of the Curia what’s wrong with them and what they must improve to function properly again. They say.

Reality is a bit different, as it often is.

pope francis curia christmas address

To start, the fact of a Pope giving a meaty address is nothing new, and certainly not when that Pope is Francis. He challenges his audience, and on this occasion he chose to do so in light of the preparation for Christmas, of which the sacrament of Confession is an important part. He lists no less than fifteen pitfalls that the Curia must look out for. But only the Curia? Not in the least. At the end of his list he says:

“Brothers, these sicknesses and these temptations are, naturally, a danger for every Christian and for every Curia, community, Congregation, parish, Ecclesial Movement, etc. and they can strike at the individual as much as at the communal level.”

We should all listen well to the Pope’s  words in this, because the risks for the Curia are no different than the risk we ourselves run. Rather than seeing the fifteen points in the speech as stern warnings, we can turn them around and use them as good intentions for Christmas and the new year.

  1. Consider yourself as important as everyone else.
  2. Enjoy the gift of rest and relaxation, and the fruits of companionship and time for others and for God.
  3. Stay in touch with people and their feelings, wishes and hopes (as well as your own).
  4. Have confidence in the Holy Spirit in your work and life.
  5. Know your capabilities and those of others around you, and coordinate.
  6. Always remain in an encounter with the Lord.
  7. Stay true to yourself and consider the interests of others as much as those of yourself.
  8. Always remain a shepherd for others, through example and care.
  9. Speak directly, openly and without complaining.
  10. Think of duties, not just rights, and honour God rather than persons.
  11. Think of others, share with them and take joy in what they say and do.
  12. Be happy, and don’t take yourself too seriously.
  13. Travel lightly through life, don’t be weighed down by possessions.
  14. Remain open to others, also as a group.
  15. Don’t show off or take pride in your abilities or achievements.

Good advice, if not always easy. I suspect that if we apply these good intentions, the change will be astounding. And it’s not our change, achieved by us, but by the Holy Spirit working in us. As Pope Francis says:

“We must clarify that it is only the Holy Spirit – the soul of the Mystical Body of Christ, as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed affirms: “I believe … in the Holy Spirit, Lord and giver of life” – who heals every infirmity. It is the Holy Spirit who supports every sincere effort of purification and every good will of conversion. He it is who makes us understand that every member participates in the sanctification of the Body and in its weakening. He is the promoter of harmony: “ipse harmonia est,” says Saint Basil. Saint Augustine says to us: “While a part adheres to the body, its healing is not despaired of; instead, what was cut off cannot be taken care of or healed.”

The balance of the liturgy – Bishop Hofmann’s thoughts on our worship of God

In an interview for katholisch.de, Bishop Friedhelm Hofmann sheds some light on his thoughts on liturgy in the Church today. Bishop Hofmann, ordinary of the Diocese of Würzburg, is chairman of the Liturgy Commission of the German Bishops’ Conference.

hofmann

Regarding the celebration of the liturgy, he sees the need for a balance between what the liturgy itself needs and what the faithful need:

“It is very important to me to carefully prepare for the liturgy and also celebrate it as such. The conscious awareness of signs, the meaningful involvement of space and music, the careful selection of texts and the quality of preaching contribute greatly to that. On the other hand, we should not tire of reintroducing people to the liturgy and also explaining it. In my opinion, this still happens far too little.”

Bishop Hofmann also identifies a problem with explaining the liturgy, namely the fact that it relates in its essence to the mystery of God.

“The mystery of the liturgy is the faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus and His presence in the service. This is about a mystery of faith and not the rituals! Intelligibility is necessary in the proclamation. In prayer and in meditation. In the variety of signs not everything can or needs to be immediately understandable, but can develop little by little.”

Interesting too, are his comments about the so-called “event liturgies” which, at least in part, rely on spectacle and draw large crowds to bring the message across.

“I need the unhurried and regular liturgy, which carries, supports and converts me, for my daily faith. In addition to that, special services with an “event character”, can be quite helpful and give once again a special incentive. Some people find access to the regular forms of services through the events, and for some the event is also enough. In order to reach people in their search for God, we need them both and the must also exist in relation to one another.”

This may be true perhaps, but the liturgy itself must also be considered, as it revolves not around the preferences of people, but the worship of God. Events can too easily become only about people, a solely horizontal affair, so to speak. God may be found in silence, not in loud music and spectacle, although these may, by providing a contrast, perhaps help in pointing the way to Him.

“[The liturgy] must at the same be of good quality, traditional and in various ways new. The liturgy requires many forms and diverse places. We also need our Church to be a place of identity and of faith. We also need the liturgy in daily life and in the places we live.”

Bishop Hofmann seems to be proposing the liturgy as a sort of balancing act between old and new, between tradition and innovation, but always done well. While this leaves open the question of exactly what should be new and what traditional, the need for quality is certainly a good one. The worship of God is not something we do on the side. In return for His gifts to us we give Him the best we have: our time, our focus, our hearts and minds. In the liturgy of the Mass God comes closest to us, and we should be ready and open to His closeness.

Photo credit: picture alliance / dpa

Prayer and the authentic image of God – Bishop Punt’s letter for Advent

In his message for Advent, Bishop Jos Punt of Haarlem-Amsterdam addresses the distortion of religion in the world, and presents a two-fold solution:

Punt“The world is in chaos, but there is hope. Humanity isn’t completely left to its own devices. 2000 years ago the heavens were broken open. Shepherds saw a great light. Angels showed them the way. The Messiah was born. God’s Son become man. Since then His Spirit comes down on this world. But the Evil is also making tracks. In the end, good shall be victorious. That is a divine promise. The Lord knows His time.

Distorted images of God

If that perspective of God, hope and eternity no longer exists, everything changes. Existing norms and values, the sense of humanity, everything loses its foundation. We have seen it in the last century, dominated by atheist ideologies and an unprecedented contempt of humanity. But religion in itself is no guarantee for peace and humanity either.

Distorted images of God and eternity can equally lead to cruelty. That is something we see especially in our time. In the extremism of the so-called Islamic State religion has taken on inhuman forms. No one seems to have an answer ready. Not the moderate and authentic Islam, and even less the western politicians and military. How to fight people who do not fear death, since they see it as a quick road to Paradise, even if they have to drag innocent people along with them. How to deal with people who think they can please God by cutting the throats of “unbelievers”. Nothing can stand up to that. Politicians and soldiers are powerless.

A father looks for his child

This is mostly a moral and spiritual question. It concerns closing the sources of hate, and denying the distorted images of God and eternity. Extremists draw their strength and fanaticism from them. For decades their hatred against the west has grown, partly because of western neocolonial politics.

What can we do now? I think two things: presenting an authentic image of God, and prayer. Recently I saw a documentary about a father looking for his son. There had been a fight at home, the boy had been unjust to his parents, went out into the world and had gone missing. His father then resigned from his job, sold everything he owned and went looking for his child. For years he travelled, across half the globe, until he had found his son and was able to embrace him again. All the fighting and accusations were completely forgotten.

There is no more beautiful image of who and how God is. You don’t need to look for him. He is looking for you. You only need to allow yourself to be found, by being open for His existence and His love, by the willingness to direct your life towards truth and justice, and by praying, even as a heart’s sigh. No prayer is lost.

Saved by prayer

Centuries before Christ the king of Assyria, Sennacherib, advances on Jerusalem with an enormous army. Hezekiah, the king of Judah, refuses to surrender the city. Sennacherib writes him a  letter and taunts him, “Who do you think you are? You have seen how Assyria has defeated all peoples. How would Jerusalem be saved? Do not be fooled by the God you trust, He will not be able to save you from my hands.” Hezekiah goes to the Temple and places the letter on the altar of the Lord, and prays, “Lord, you alone are God over all kingdoms of the earth. Hear how Sennacherib taunts you, the living God. Save us from his grasp, so that all people of the earth will see that You alone are God”.

That night, Scripture informs us, the angel of the Lord brought down death and confusion on the camp of Assyria. Sennacherib struck camp and returned in humiliation to Assyria, where he died.

Whether it concerns our personal life or the situation in the world, the Lord waits for our prayer and confidence to bring salvation. Let us place our prayer and good deeds, but also our needs and sins, before the Child of Bethlehem, like the shepherds and the wise men did. He will give us peace and a solution, although perhaps along very different roads than we would expect. In that sense, I wish you a blessed Christmas.”

+ Msgr. dr. Jozef M. Punt
Bishop of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam

“No conditions but one profession of faith” for full unity between Catholic and Orthodox Churches

“I believe that it is important to reaffirm respect for this principle as an essential condition, accepted by both, for the restoration of full communion, which does not signify the submission of one to the other, or assimilation. Rather, it means welcoming all the gifts that God has given to each, thus demonstrating to the entire world the great mystery of salvation accomplished by Christ the Lord through the Holy Spirit. I want to assure each one of you here that, to reach the desired goal of full unity, the Catholic Church does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith.”

This passage from Pope Francis’ message to Patriarch Bartholomew I today struck me as a very happy and hopeful one. The Orthodox Churches are so close to us in faith, sacraments and apostolic succession that the most immediate hope for full unity, the goal of ecumenism, is with them. And they have much to give us: a sense of mysticism that we have sometimes lost, especially in the west; of sacramentality and new ways of considering the Divine and how we relate to God in our worship and daily life.

The principle that Pope Francis refers to at the start of passage regards Unitatis Redintegratio, the Vatican II Decree on Christian Unity, and specifically the 15th and 16th chapters thereof. The conclusion of Chapter 15 summarises the principle that is deemed so essential for full communion:

“The very rich liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Eastern Churches should be known, venerated, preserved and cherished by all. They must recognize that this is of supreme importance for the faithful preservation of the fullness of Christian tradition, and for bringing about reconciliation between Eastern and Western Christians.”

Chapter 16 adds to that the importance of the laws and customs of the Orthodox Churches:

“Far from being an obstacle to the Church’s unity, a certain diversity of customs and observances only adds to her splendor, and is of great help in carrying out her mission, as has already been stated. To remove, then, all shadow of doubt, this holy Council solemnly declares that the Churches of the East, while remembering the necessary unity of the whole Church, have the power to govern themselves according to the disciplines proper to them, since these are better suited to the character of their faithful, and more for the good of their souls.”

The liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Orthodox Churches, as well as their laws and customs are no obstacle for full unity. Indeed, they are essential for the further purpose of that unity: the fullness of Christian tradition, worship and evangelisation. The word of God will resound all the stronger.

francis bartholomew

Photo credit: CNS photo/Paul Haring