The lost sheep – Bishop Bonny’s letter for Advent

Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp has also devoted his letter for Advent to the topic of loneliness , or rather, to the slightly broader topic of the lost sheep. It seems that the Francis effect is quite visible in this year’s batch of Advent letters…

johan-bonny“In the spring I visited a kindergarten. The three classes had prepared a play for my visit. The performed the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). Two teachers and a dozen toddlers crawled around on hands and feet, dressed like sheep. They had a real sheepskin or a white cloth on their backs. One teacher was the shepherd: she wore a heavy cloak and had a staff in her hand. Another teacher was the lost sheep, that first got lost and was then kindly returned to the stable by the shepherd. I watch and was fascinated and touched. When the first group had performed the parable, the teacher asked a new group of children to play the sheep. “And who wants to be the lost sheep?” All hands went up in the air at the same, “Me, me, me, Miss!” The toddlers pushed and shoved to be allowed to be the lost sheep! I thought, how many hands will be raised when you are thirty or fifty years older? Who of you will then be the lost sheep, not in a play, but in real life?

In real life no one raises their hand to be the “lost sheep”. By the way, you don’t  see the “lost sheep”, it is hidden in society or in the city. Someone who has been really hurt, abandoned or disadvantaged, doesn’t flaunt it. In real life, “lost sheep” have a tough sense of survival. They can survive for a long time in their loneliness. You must literally go out to find them, like the shepherd in the Gospel. And that can take a long time. During Advent, the liturgy asks our attention for the small and forgotten people around us. This does indeed require some searching, since you can easily live in our cities and towns without encountering a “lost sheep”. The preparation for Christmas starts with this kind of searching. Who will join in the searching?

This searching comes from the heart of the Gospel. On a certain day Jesus said of himself that “the Son of man has come to seek out and save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). And when He speaks of the shepherd joyfully carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders (Luke 15:5), He is talking about Himself. There would have been no Christmas if God had not come looking for the “lost sheep”. Jesus would not have been born in a stable, had He not come looking for people on the periphery of society. Advent comes from the Latin verb advenit, “He is coming!” For God this also means “He is searching”. May He also come and find me, in my comfortable home or in my fearful hideout?

In a real nativity scene there should be at least two sheep from the flock mentioned in the Christmas story (Luke 2:6-14). They are not hidden. They are the first sheep of the flock that Jesus gathers around Him as the Good Shepherd. They have found the warm stable where He awaits them. How many people in these coming weeks will not stop for a while at a nativity scene, feeling the homesickness of a “lost sheep” that may stand and be seen? Simply because lost or broken strands join each other for a while around the nativity scene.

I wish you a good Advent: “He is searching!” Not in play, but in reality.”

+ Johan Bonny
Bishop of Antwerp

Loving the Lord – Cardinal Parolin’s homily at the consecration of Archbishop van Megen

Below is the full text of the homily that Pietro Cardinal Parolin gave yesterday at the consecration of Archbishop Bert van Megen, in the cathedral of Roermond. He gave his homily in English, but since there is no video of this that I could find, I have translated the text from the Dutch translation back to English. Here’s hoping the general intention of it remained intact.

parolin tomasi“Your Excellencies, honoured guests, dear Monsignor Bert and family, dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

It’s a special joy to me to preside over the consecration of Monsignor Hubertus van Megen, who has been named by our Holy Father as titular archbishop of Novaliciana and to Apostolic Nuncio of Sudan. On the occasion of this joyful event, Pope Francis asked me to share his heartfelt greetings as well as his communion with all present here. It is a time of great joy for all of us who have come together here in this cathedral today, but for you, dear Monsignor Bert, it is a time of gratitude for all the blessing which God has granted you over the years. Today you are surrounded by your parents and family, your friends and your brothers, the priests of this local Church of Roermond. This Church first raised you in the faith, you were ordained a priest for here and here you spent the first years of your priestly ministry. You also bring to the joy of this day the years of studying in Rome and your considerable experience in the diplomatic service of the Holy See, most recently in Zambia and Malawi. You are now called to return all of this to God and serve Him and new way and with greater responsibility. Today you will be consecrated to be a successor of the Apostles, a herald of the Gospel and a shepherd of Christ’s flock, with the special duty of representing the vicar of Christ in his concern for the Church in the entire world, yes, in his care for the entire human family.

naamloos-6769The rich symbolism of the rite of consecration eloquently speaks of the continuity of the Church’s faith and life throughout the centuries. Through the imposition of hands and the invoking of the Holy Spirit you will be welcomed to the College of Bishops. This college succeeds in all ages the Apostle to whom the Lord Jesus entrusted the care of His flock. So you, Monsignor Bert, will become a link in a living chain which  goes back uninterrupted to Jesus Himself, and will continue to the end of times, according to His promise. It will be your duty to preach the Gospel of salvation integrally, to take care of strengthening the Church community in faith and, by the celebration of the sacraments, to work for the distribution of the Kingdom of Christ in truth and life, holiness and mercy, love and peace.

“Do you love me?”, “Feed my lambs”; “Look after my sheep” (Joh. 21:15-17). Jesus’ words to the Apostle Peter in today’s Gospel are especially applicable to someone who, like Monsignor van Megen, is called to be both bishop and Papal Nuncio. These words remind us that the task of the bishop, his ministry, must first and foremost be based on his personal love for Jesus Christ and his personal relationship with the Good Shepherd. Every day Jesus asks the bishops again, “Do you love me?” In essence this questions is of course also directed to every Christian; each one of us is called to know and love the Lord. During this time of Easter we have contemplated how every one of has died in Baptism and risen to a new life in Christ, how we received the gift of His Holy Spirit and a call to share in the mission of the Church.

parolin van megenBut the Lord’s question – “Do you love me?” – is directed in a special way to those who are also called to shepherd His flock with apostolic authority. It is meaningful that the new bishop receives the ring during the rite of consecration, the symbol of His unconditional love for the Lord and His Church, before receiving the crosier, the symbol of his pastoral authority. Pope Francis reminded us that it is the shepherd’s task to go before the flock as its guide, but also to walk with the flock as a disciple, to listen to its voice and sense where the Holy Spirit, the source of every gift and mission, wants to lead it. “For you I a a shepherd,” Saint Augustine said, “but with you I a a Christian” (Serm. 340:1). To be a loyal shepherd requires those virtues that Saint Paul presents in the first reading today: integrity following from a personal conversion, honest and frank witness to the truth and self-sacrifice in service to all, faithful and non-faithful (cf 2 Kor. 4:1-2;5-7).

If all this is true for every bishop, it is all the more true for the bishop who is also a Nuncio, a personal representative of the Successor of Peter, the rock on whom the Lord built His Church (cf. Matt. 16:18). As a concrete sign of the communion of the local Churches with the Holy See in Rome, the ministry of the Apostolic Nuncio is exercised in a manifestly universal sense: in service to the mission of the Church, he is called to promote the unity in mind and heart of the bishops with the Pope, to confirm his brothers in loyalty to the Gospel and the mission of the Church and to foster a spirit of authentic ecclesiastical community in every aspect of the life of the local Churches. He is also called to everywhere encourage those seeds of justice and peace, which are the leaven of God’s Kingdom. For as we know, the Church is the sign and sacrament of a new mankind, reconciled and renewed in Christ.

Archbishop van Megen introduces his parents to Cardinal Parolin

Dear Monsignor Bert, in the exercise of your own episcopal ministry you are sent as a representative of the Holy Father to Sudan, a country that is dear to him, a country that has suffered greatly in recent years from violence and civil unrest. In unity with the bishops of that country, you will be called to proclaim, in word and example, a Gospel of reconciliation, forgiveness and mercy. In a special way you will also be called to support the Christian community in Sudan, a small flock which nonetheless is very dear to God. Confirm the in their faith and in their loyalty to the great commandment of loving God and the neighbour. In this way you will perform your mission which you receive today: by making, “as a servant for Jesus’ sake”, the glory of God visible as it is revealed in the crucified and risen Lord (cf. 2 Kor. 4:5-7), and by encouraging your brothers and sisters to trust in His victory over the powers of sin and death.

Now that you are preparing for your consecration and your new responsibilities, know that you can count on the mercy that this sacrament hold, on the confidence and prayers of the Holy Father and on our own prayer, friendship and support. We commend you and your ministry to the protection of Saint Josephine Bakhita, a great daughter of Sudan and an excellent witness to the power of God’s mercy to redeem and transform even the most difficult situations. May the Risen Lord always support you in His love and bear rich fruits from the ministry that is about to be entrusted to you. Amen.”

All photos: Bisdom Roermond

Teacher and shepherd – Trier responds

victoria fenderThe Diocese of Trier has come with some sort of explanation for Bishop Stephan Ackermann’s confusing comments on the Church’s moral teaching, which I wrote about before. The response comes in a response to a long letter by Austrian student Victoria Fender (pictured). In it, she expresses her concern for Bishop Ackermann’s reasoning, stating that while reality is one thing, a bishop has a duty to share and promote the Church’s ideal of Christian marriage and sexuality, not give in to what society thinks it is today (and maybe something else altogether tomorrow). And, she adds, there is a very real desire among young people for this countercultural teaching, if only they heard about it.

Part of the response to Ms. Fender’s letter goes as follows:

As Ms. Fender writes, she is personally very enthused by the message of the Gospel and is generally respected for her witness of faith and life by her fellow students. One can only rejoice about that. The responses to the Synod survey have also clearly indicated that the great majority of Catholics shares the basic values of what the Church teaches about marriage and sexuality: lifelong fidelity, openness to the transmission of life, respect for one’s partner… But it also an undeniable truth that every person’s life needs a very personal development to come nearer and nearer to the goal of Christian truth. This way is not always linear.

All nice and true, but the fact that different people come to the truth in different ways does of course not mean that the truth is different for everyone. Marriage is still marriage. Human sexuality still has the same nature and purpose. The letter continues…

In his service a bishop is both teacher and pastor. In her letter, Ms. Fender herself referred to the words of Jesus about the Good Shepherd. For a bishop that means that he is also responsible for those who do not particularly live up to the ideals of Christian morality. Should he, like the Good Shepherd, also not go after the sheep that got lost, to show it, in the mercy of Christ, the way to full community? In his words, Pope Francis reminds us time and again not to discourage people, but to help them to discover the beauty of the faith, so that they can grow in that faith. Bishop Ackermann is committed to this task. In more than a few responses that have come to us in the last few days, this is perceived gratefully.

bischof-stephan-ackermann-trier-hoch_full_pTo me, this sounds like a classic mistake. Of course, bishops and priests (and all faithful) should do their best to find the lost sheep and bring them back to the herd. But we can’t do so by telling those sheep that they were right to get lost or purposely leaving the herd. We can’t change the truth in order to bring them back. Rather, we should show them ever more clearly the beauty of that truth, of the faith, not adapt it to what some think it should be. A bishop has the duty to shepherd and teach, but also to communicate the faith and make sure it is represented truthfully. By saying, as Bishop Ackermann did, that homosexuality is not intrinsically disordered, that contraception is not a problem because it is hard to understand, or that the indissolubility of marriage is no longer valid, he basically admits that the truth that the Church has been teaching for centuries is not set, that it can be changed according to the wishes of the people. That is not good shepherding, that is confirming people in their error, that is telling sheep to get lost and stay away because they think it is best for them.

A bishop should teach the truth, lead people to that truth and show the fullness and beauty of that truth. Even when it is difficult or when people need time to understand and achieve it. That last part is only human, and we should give people all the time and support they need. Telling them that it takes too long, so it must be wrong, is the road to disaster.

Someone pointed out to me that bishops are teachers, so we must let them teach. But what if we find problems with their teaching? Should we not ask for clarification, or even share our concerns. Ms. Fender did the best thing anyone can do. She sent a letter to the bishop, pointing out what she found hard to understand about what he taught. It is a shame that the response is quite unsatisfactory.