With a new voice, CDF revisits old teachings – Cardinal-designate Ladaria on the ordination of women

After several years in which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was conspicuously silent, perhaps kept silent as Pope Francis tried to decrease its importance among the curial dicasteries, a new leadership brings new sounds. Or old sounds repeated, perhaps.

Prefecto_Mons._LadariaArchbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, soon to be a cardinal, took over the reins at the CDF after Cardinal Gerhard Müller was let go about a year ago.  And since then, the Congregation published two major texts: Placuit Deo on Christian salvation, in February, and Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones on ethics in economy (published jointly with the Dicastery for Integral Human Development), in May. In comparison, that is the same number of documents released during the entire period that Cardinal Müller headed the CDF, from 2012 to 2017.

And this week, another document was released, not by the CDF itself, but by its prefect, who, it may be safely assumed, is given much more freedom to function as Pope Francis’ personal choice to head the CDF. But that does not mean that something entirely new now comes from the offices of the Congregation. Archbishop Ladaria’s recent article focusses on an issue that has been debated for decades and it is firmly rooted in the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II.

On the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood, Archbishop Ladaria once more confirms that that is not something the Catholic Church has the authority for. He writes the article in response to “voices heard in several countries which call into doubt” this doctrine, which was so clearly declared by Pope St. John Paul II, and confirmed by his successors. The archbishop stresses that what John Paul II stated in the 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis was definitive then, and remains so now.

Below I present my translation of the article, based on the German text found here.

“Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me” (John 15:4).  Only because of her roots in Jesus Christ, her founder, can the Church give life and salvation to the entire world. These roots are in the first place to be found in the sacraments, at the heart of which is the Eucharist. Established by Christ, the sacraments are the pillars of the Church, who is continuously built up by them as His body and His bride. The sacrament of ordination is deeply connected to the Eucharist, through which Christ makes Himself present as the source of her life and action. Priests are “conformed to Christ”,  so that “they can act in the person of Christ the Head” (Presbyterorum ordinis, n. 2).

Christ wanted to confer this sacrament upon the twelve Apostles, who were all men, and they have, in time, conferred it upon other men. The Church knew herself to be bound to this decision of the Lord, which excludes validly conferring the ministerial priesthood to women. In the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, of 22 May 1994, John Paul II taught: “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”(n. 4). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith confirmed, in response to a question regarding the teaching of Ordinatio sacerdotalis, that this concerns a truth which belongs to deposit of faith (depositum fidei) of the Church.

In this light it is a great concern to me that there are voices heard in several countries which call into doubt the definitive character of the aforementioned teaching. In order to prove that this teaching is not definitive, the argument goes that is has not been defined ex cathedra and can thus be changed by a future pope or council. Spreading such doubts causes much confusion among the faithful, and not only with regard to the sacrament of Holy Orders, which belongs to he divine constitution of the Church, but also with regard to the ordinary Magisterium, which can infallibly pronounce Catholic doctrine.

On the first point: as for the ministerial priesthood, the Church knows that the impossibility of the ordination of women is part of the “substance” of the sacrament (cf. DH 1728). The Church lacks the authority to change this substance, as she is being built up as Church through the sacraments as established by Christ. This is not a matter of discipline, but a doctrine, as it concerns the structure of the sacraments, the first places of encounter with Christ and the transmission of faith. This is then not some obstacle which blocks the Church from fulfilling her mission in the world more effectively. When the Church can’t intervene in this question, the basis of it lies in the fact that the original love of God intervenes in it. He himself acts in the ordination of priests, so that, always and in every situation of its history, Jesus Christ is visible and active in the Church, “as the principal source of grace” (Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, n. 104).

In the awareness that she cannot change this tradition out of obedience to the Lord, the Church therefore tries to deepen its meaning. For the will of Jesus Christ, the Logos, is not without meaning. The priest acts in the person of Christ, the bridegroom of the Christ, and his being male is an indispensable aspect of this sacramental representation (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Inter insigniores, n. 5). To be sure, the diversity of tasks between men and women does not entail subordination, but a mutual enrichment. It must be remembered that the perfect image of the Church is Mary, the mother of the Lord, to whom was not given the apostolic ministry. This makes evident that the original language of masculinity and femininity, which the Creator has inscribed in the human body, is included in the work of our salvation. Precisely this fidelity to Christ’s plan with the ministerial priesthood allows the continuous deepening and promotion of the role of women in the Church, because “Woman is not independent of man or man of woman in the Lord” (1 Cor, 11:11). This may also shine a light on our culture, which struggles to understand the meaning and beauty of the difference between man and woman, which also affects their complementary missions in society.

On the second point: the doubts raised about the definitive character of Ordinatio sacerdotalis also have a major effect on how the magisterium of the Church is to be understood. It is important to emphasise that infallibility not only refers to solemn declarations from a council or to papal definitions made ex cathedra, but also to the ordinary and general magisterium of the bishops spread throughout the world, when they declare, in unity with each other and with the pope, Catholic doctrine as ultimately binding. John Paul II based himself on this infallibility in Ordinatio sacerdotalis. He also did not declare a new dogma, but confirmed, to remove any doubts, with the authority given to him as succesor of Peter in a formal declaration, what the ordinary and general magisterium had presented as belonging to the deposit of faith throughout all of history. This very kind of statement corresponds with a style of ecclesial communion in which the pope does not wish to act alone, but as a witness in listening to an uninterrupted and living tradition. Furthermore, no one will deny that the magisterium can infallibly express truths that are necessarily connected to what was formerly revealed as good. For only in this way can it fulfill its task to keep the faith holy and interpret it faithfully.

Further proof of John Paul II’s efforts in considering this question is the prior consultation with the heads of those bishops’ conferences who most had to deal with the problem. All, without exception, declared with full confidence that the Church, out of obedience to the Lord, did not have the authority to allow women to receive the sacrament of ordination.

Pope Benedict XVI also confirmed this doctrine. In the Chrism Mass on 5 April 2012 he recalled how John Paul II had declared “irrevocably” that the Church “has received no authority from the Lord” regarding the ordination of women. With an eye on those who do not accept this teaching, Benedict XVI wonders, “But is disobedience really a way […]? Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?”

Pope Francis has likewise taken position on this question. In his Apostolic Letter Evangelii gaudium he underlines: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.” He also urges us not to interpret this doctrine as an expression of power, but as a service, so that the equal dignity of man and woman in one body of Christ may be better understood (n. 104). In the press conference during the return flight from the apostolic journey to Sweden on 1 November 2016 Pope Francis emphasised: “As for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last clear word was given by Saint John Paul II, and this holds.”

The Church in our time is called to response to many challenges of our culture. It is essential that she remains in Christ, like the branches on the vine. The Master therefore invites us to keep His word in us: “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love” (John 15:10). Only being faithful to His words, which do not fade, guarantees our rootedness in Christ and in is love. Only the accepting of His wise plans, which take shape in His sacraments, strengthens the Church at her roots, so that she can bear fruit for eternal life.

Luis F. Ladaria, SJ, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”

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Heading for a Roman answer, German bishops prepare

In two days’ time, on Thursday 3 May, the much anticipated meeting between representatives of the German episcopate and the heads of several Holy See dicasteries will take place, to discuss the question of Communion for non-Catholics. In February, the majority of German bishops voted in favour of devising a pastoral approach in which non-Catholic spouses of Catholic faithful could receive Holy Communion alongside their partner in certain specific cases. Seven German bishops then wrote to the Holy See to find out if this is a decision that could be taken by a bishops’ conference on its own, or if it involved doctrine and Church unity to such an extent that it is something best left to Rome.

Originally, the invitation for the meeting was extended to Cardinals Reinhard Marx and Rainer Maria Woelki, as well as Bishop Felix Genn, with Woelki as the sole representative of the bishops who signed the letter to Rome. Marx was included as president of the bishops’ conference, while Bishop Genn remains uncertain as to why he was invited. He doesn’t believe it is because of his membership of the Congregation for Bishops, though. Joining these three are Bishops Karl-Heinz Wiesemann and Rudolf Voderholzer, president and vice-president of the doctrinal commission of the German Bishops’ Conference; Bishop Gerhard Feige, president of the ecumenism commission; and Fr. Hans Langendörfer, secretary general of the bishops’ conference. The Roman side of the discussion will consist of Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; Msgr. Markus Graulich, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts; and Fr. Hermann Geissler, office head of the doctrinal section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A team with a heavy focus on doctrinal and legislative expertise, then.

The inclusion of Bishop Voderholzer means that Cardinal Woelki is not the only prelate in the delegation who expressed reservations about the issue. In a recent interview, the bishop of Regensburg explained his reasoning for signing the letter to Rome:

bischof-rudolf-voderholzer-gehend“Let me say two things in advance: I consider ecumenism as a fundamental mission from Christ Himself. In the Gospel of John, Christ prays to the Father, “that they may be one, as we are one… that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me” (John 17: 22b, 23). We must remain true to this fundamental mission of Christ. It’s not a matter of ecumenism yes or no, but of the path of ecumenism, the path to unity. We all yearn for this unity – as do I!

Allow me to add another thing: I am aware of the needs and problems which occur in the education of children in confessional marriages, but also in the religious lives of the spouses. I am also aware of the tensions which come from this and which can be hurtful. I know this from conversations with people in these situations and also from my family. I take that with me as bishop.

The point of the letter which I have written with my brother bishops is to find a way which takes the needs of people seriously and which at the same time provides assistance. We are, however, of the opinion that the pastoral “outreach” sought for by the majority of the bishops’ conference, which allows evangelical spouses to receive Communion, does not resolve these problems and needs. It also does not do justice to the meaning of the sacrament of the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the “outreach” does not sufficiently take into account the different understandings of the various confessions regarding the Eucharist on the one hand, and the Last Supper on the other.

In the question of ecumenism we must, lastly, also take the views of the eastern churches into account. They regard the bond between Church community and Eucharistic community even deeper than in the western churches. When the Catholic Church hides this view, she significantly deepens the split with the orthodox churches.”

feigeOpposing the actions of the seven bishops is Bishop Gerhard Feige, bishop of Magdeburg and president of the ecumenism commission of the German Bishops’ Conference. In a contribution to Der Zeit last Thursday, Msgr. Feige stated that not taking the chance to help people deepen the joy of the faith and their participation in the Eucharist, as well as promoting ecumenical encounters and strengthening the marriage bond would be “macabre and shameful”. Contrary to other bishops, Msgr. Feige insists that the pastoral outreach exists within modern theological and legal possibilities, referring to the canon law paragraphs which allow local bishops to decide under which circumstances non-Catholic can receive Communion. These circumstances, however, are emergency situations in which the danger of death and the unavailability of ministers of a person’s own denomination play key roles.

Bishop Feige, who, as mentioned above, will also travel to Rome on Thursday, also expressed strong criticism against the seven bishops who wrote to Rome. He describes his impression

“that the labourious search for a responsible pastoral solution for individuals did not determine their interest, but rather the fundamental fear of not being truly Catholic anymore. Some still seem to be attached to a pre-Conciliar image of the Church and have little internalised the Catholic principles of ecumenism.”

With these words, Bishop Feige seems to be the one who is rather set in his ways, and it hard to see how such an attitude towards his brother bishops will be helpful in Thursday meeting.

rubrikteaserMünster’s Bishop Felix Genn is hopeful of finding a consensus. While the way in which the seven bishops expressed their difficulties with the conference’s vote did not make him happy, he understands their questions of conscience. In an interview for WDR radio Bishop Genn expressed his happiness about the way in which the standing council of the bishops’ conference discussed the issue last week. And although he would have preferred that the seven bishops had first informed the others about their letter before sending it, Bishop Genn’s attitude is perhaps the most consensus-minded in the delegation, which may be a reason for his inclusion. The bishop, for his part, simply thought of his mother’s motto when hearing about being included in the delegation: “One has never got enough work to do.”

Regardless of its outcome, Thursday’s meeting will not only be significant for the German bishops, but for the entire Church, and the entire ecumenical project. For the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith this will be the first major test under the new leadership of Archbishop Ladaria Ferrer. Likewise, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, although represented by its undersecretary, has recently come under new leadership as Archbishop Filippo Iannone succeeded Cardinal Coccopalmerio as president in early April. The question of the role of doctrine and law in a papacy devoted in the first place to pastoral care and mercy will receive a resounding answer.

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

First Advent – Bishop van den Hout looks ahead to Christmas and beyond

Advent is nearly upon us, which means that bishops write letters for the season to their diocese’s faithful. Over the coming days and weeks, I will share a selection of these here, and the first one is from my own bishop. It is Msgr. Ron van den Hout’s first Advent letter as bishop, as he was consecrated and installed in June of this year. As a result, his letter is a sort of look back at the first months in his new diocese and forward to the time to come. Whereas Bishop van den Hout was initially hesitant to say much about any policies he may have, he now says a few things which reveal about his focus as bishop. As Advent is a time of preparation for what the bishop calls the threefold coming of Christ, it is a fitting time to look forward to the future.

Inwijding nieuwe bisschop Groningen-Leeuwarden“Today is the start of Advent, the period of preparation before Christmas. We celebrate that the Lord has come, but also that He is the one who is coming. We speak of a double, or even triple, coming. This thought is dear to me and nourishes my faith life.

The first coming of Christ is a historical one. The birth of Jesus took place in the history as we will hear it in the gospel of the Mass of the night of Christmas: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” and in the Gospel of Christmas day: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” These texts belong to Christmas and are recognised by everyone. Even those who do not expressly believe in God often appreciate the Church and church buildings as an important historical and cultural heritage. Many are concerned about the future of our church buildings and others concern themselves with maintaining Christian values and the sharing of stories from the Bible and the meaning of Christian iconography.

The second coming of Christ is that which takes place in our own faith life now. The becoming present of Christ can be especially experienced in the liturgy, prayer and receiving the sacraments. In order to experience this coming, personal faith and personal engagement are required. It requires more than a general religious interest: submission and openness to God’s revelation through and with the Church.

I would connect the third coming of Christ with moral life and charity. At the end of times Christ will come in His full glory. The last part of the liturgical year, when we make the transition towards Christmas, presents us with the idea that all earthly things will one day cease existing and that God will be all in all. With this in mind we are asked to lead a good and just life in this time and to be prepared to join Him when He comes. Being prepared not only means expecting Him, but also to live accordingly.

The coming of Christ is about then, about now and about later Believing is about history and what once took place, it is my faithful and moral life now, and it is about what we may hope for and look forward to, the fullfilment.

Since my consecration as bishop of our Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden I have been through an intensive period of introductions. The first impressions I have made of a for me new area. The visits to the parishes were informative for me, but also relaxing. At home in the bishop’s house I have spoken one on one with various people, and I was introduced to the various parts of and in the diocese. The introduction will continue for a while longer.

If I may be allowed to give a first impression of what struck me. The different parts and areas are markedly different. The historical, cultural and social developments of Groningen, Friesland, Drenthe and the Noordoostpolder have been very diverse. That makes our diocese interesting. In a demographical context, the remark was made a few times that there are more than a few shrinkage areas. The diocese contains many small communities: none of the merged parishes have a nominal number of Catholics larger than 10,000. The communities are far apart. There are old Catholic enclaves with beautiful old churches, but there are also young parishes which developed in the 19th and 20th centuries from an influx of Catholics from other parts of the Netherlands and even from Germany. This process of establishment continued into the 1960s. The number of pastoral ministers is, compared to other dioceses, relatively large, but absolutely speaking their number is small. The mutual relationships are generally good. There are also many and intensive contacts with other Christians.

The development of cooperation which began decades age has now resulted in a nineteen processes of merger. I think it is a good thing that a single clear model was chosen for the parishes and parochial charity institutions. During my visits there was some mention of the shrinkage that exists in our parishes. Everyone is well aware of that. We will not be able to turn this development around. The question is what we must do and where we should best invest our valuable energy. The cooperation between the different locations in a parish will increase in the coming years; I would like to encourage that process. Seek out each other’s strong points, dare to trust on the strength of the other and embark on new activities together.\

Formulating a new policy is not an issue in this first year. But I am able to indicate a few things. Development of one’s own Catholic identity is, I think, important. Clarity of one’s own mission is necessary in order to play a part in the relationship with other Christians and in society. From one’s own identity, one can enter into conversations and can a  conversation prove to be fruitful. Interior development of one’s own religion seems to me to be indispensable.

Beginning with the substantive interests for the faith we could ask ourselves a few questions which could play a guiding role in organising pastoral care:

  • What does it mean that I believe?
  • Why do I do that with others?
  • What do we need to do so together?
  • What should a pastoral team offer and organise, in cooperation with the parishioners?
  • How can a parish council facilitate this?

We never start anything from nothing and we can only build on what our ancestors provided as foundations. Yet the time has come to rethink parish life and to look at how to adjust to the new circumstances. The priests, deacons and pastoral workers can no longer provide the ‘service’ they used to. The parishioners are asked for more efficacy and more willingness to look for new ways themselves; all this of course within the normal and familiar framework of our Church and in unity with the diocese and the world church. Pastoral care will have to be organised more soberly. And we will have to make choices and bring together and concentrate activities.

Concerning liturgy and the sacraments I would like to one again draw attention to the celebration of the Sunday with the Eucharist. Within the given circumstances everyone will work towards that as far as possible. I would like to ask each of you to pray for vocations to the priesthood and for a climate in which vocations in general can be recognised and responded to. The Church needs priests. There are the close cooperators of the bishop and put their lives completely to the service of the Church, through their celibate state of life.

In the official visits to the parishes I experienced much positivity and willingness to work for people. I admire the energy that I have seen and the enthousiasm for the work. I have also seen, in a number of parishes, what charity work is being done. It is once again time for us as Church to take up our role in society, to be there for the poor, the needy, migrants et cetera. The examples that I have seen have strengthened me in the conviction that it is possible. We also become more Church when we show our charitable face.

As Church we have a social position that we must try to maintain. We carry a culture with us that has defined Europe, which was and is good. We also have moral convictions – for example about life and death – which must continue to be heard, especially in this time. Additionally, as Church we have a responsibility towards ourselves and our fellow faithful, that we are nourished and strengthened and become more convinced of the working of God’s Spirit in our lives.

May I end this letter with a prayer? As a parish priest prays for his parishioners, a bishop prays for the faithful of his diocese.

“God, the time of Advent begins and we prepare for the coming of Christ and the celebration of His birth, At the start of this powerful and expectant time I want to pray for the part of your people entrusted to me, the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. That everyone, personally and with others, may take part in the Kingdom of God, that You bring near to us in your Son.”

I wish you all a good time of preparation or Christmas.

+ Dr. Cornelis F.M. van den Hout, Bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden

Photo credit: ANP

60 years a priest – Cardinal Simonis looks back and ahead

Simonis 60 jaar kardinaal Simonis klCongratulations to Cardinal Adrianus Johannes Simonis, who yesterday celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination in Utrecht’s cathedral of St. Catherine. The 85 year-old cardinal was archbishop of Utrecht from 1983 to 2007 and his successor, Cardinal Willem Eijk, invited him to mark the milestone in his former cathedral, the mother church, in a way, of the entire Dutch Church province.

The fact that Cardinal Eijk had invited Cardinal Simonis, and spoke words of praise about the jubilarian’s life and work in one of the most turbulent periods in recent history for the Church in the Netherlands, may well be seen as some evidence of reconciliation between the two prelates. Following Cardinal Eijk’s arrival in Utrecht in 2008 there had been ruffled feathers because of major changes enforced by Cardinal Eijk in the running of the archdiocese and differences in style and personality between both cardinals. Yesterday, however, Cardinal Eijk concluded his address as follows:

Simonis 60 jaar receptie toespraak kl“In all these developments you always remained true to your motto, which you also quoted in your homily in this morning’s Eucharist: “Ut cognoscant te,” “That they may know you.” The goal of your entire priestly life was and still is that people will get to know and meet Christ, the Good Shepherd, who calls himself “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Through Him we come to the Father. In imitation of Jesus you sacrificed much to bring the people entrusted to your pastoral care to the full truth in the Risen Lord. We are and remain very grateful to you for that. Now that we are celebration the 60th anniversary of your ordination to the priesthood, we pray that the Lord may bless you abundantly.”

At the start of the Mass Cardinal Simonis already referred to Cardinal Eijk’s kind words, and played them a bit down, saying:

I must, however, admit that I have been far from a perfect priest, let alone a perfect bishop in the 47 years of those 60. We are only reconciled if we ask God for forgiveness and continuously return to Him. More than even, I want to pray today for this forgiveness. God has been wonderfully merciful to me for sixty years, but I want to admit to Him and you how much I have failed in even fulfilling this grace. May God be merciful to me and may he grant that we will be together in this hour, in His Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth, of love and of peace.”

In his homily, which, he says, he was advised to make more like a witness than a speech, Cardinal Simonis looked back on his life, often comparing the past with the present.

“The tragedy of my life – if I am allowed to put it like that – is the fact that [religious knowledge among the people] is extremely lacking. […] Roughly half of the Dutch population considers themselves irreligious, while the other half includes many ‘somethingists’. You often hear, “I believe there is something”. That’s it for our Good Lord! The Father and the Son reduced to ‘something’! Sadly, we live in a time of radical secularisation, which in essence means ‘getting rid of God’. There is barely room for God, let alone a personal God. Many have traded faith for indifference, despite the tireless warnings from Pope Francis at the Wednesday audiences. And if there is anything that is clear from the Gospel, from Jesus’ preaching, it is that God is a personal God. The boundless secret of God, simply described by Jesus as “Our God, who art in heaven.”

He continues on a more personal note on this topic:

“How am I under all this? Well, it is the great dark side of my life as priest and bishop. In a manner of speaking, I get up with it in the morning and go to bed with it at night. The only thing I can do now is pray that the Holy Spirit perform the miracle of conversion and true religious renewal.

Isn’t all this too pessimistic? Msgr. Jansen [first bishop of Rotterdam, who Cardinal Simonis succeeded as bishop in 1970] one told me, “You are a pessimist”. I answered him, “No, monsignor, I am a realist”. Upon which he said, “That’s what all pessimists say”. Now, I must admit that the virtue of hope is not my strongest virtue. Which is a disgrace for a Christian, to be honest! That is why I pray multiple times a day for strengthening of faith, hope and love, both for myself and for the more than 400,000 faithful I was able to pass on the Spirit to.”

It being Corpus Christi, and the Eucharist being the heart of the priestly life, Cardinal Simonis unavoidably spoke about the first and foremost of sacraments.

When, in the 1960s, the focus rather one-sidedly shifted from the Eucharist as sacrifice to the Eucharist as meal, Cardinal Alfrink [Archbishop of Utrecht from 1955 to 1975] wrote an article that I have always rememberd: “The Eucharist is, in the first place, a sacrifice in the form of a meal.” That is how I still celebrate the Eucharist, primarily as a sacrfice, sacrifice of reconciliation, of adoration, of supplication and of gratitude; the sacrifice of the new covenant for the forgiveness of all sins. We no longer need to sacrifice bulls, sheep or lambs to God. The one sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, of He who Paul so strikingly calls “the self-giving”, is enough for God. In Him, God’s love was fulfilled completely. That sacrifice was made one, but it is hidden in God’s eternal ‘now’, from which it is made present among us ever anew, so that we people who live some 2,000 years later, can join in that sacrifice and take part in its fruits.”

The cardinal concludes with an earnest desire for the future:

“I have no greater wish than that those who call themselves believers will sanctify the Day of the Lord again by celebrating, if possible, the Eucharist. There will be little future for the Church in the Netherlands when our faith is not continuously nourished by the proclamation of the Word of the God and the reception of the Lord Himself as nourishment for our lives.”

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Concelebrating the Mass with Cardinal Simonis were Cardinal Eijk and his two auxiliary bishop, Msgrs. Hoogenboom and Woorts, as well as Bishops Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Ron van den Hout of Groningen-Leeuwarden and Wiertz of Roermond. From Germany came Cardinal Joachim Meisner, emeritus of Cologne, and from Rome Msgr. Karel Kasteel, former secretary of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum”. Bishops de Jong and Hendriks attended the reception.

Photo credit: Archdiocese of Utrecht

“He is with us!” Bishop Van Looy looks at ahead to the turning point of Easter

In a letter for Easter, published yesterday, Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent presents a hopeful message about the turning point that is Easter, and especially Maundy Thursday, the day, this year on 13 April, on which we commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. He draws from the Easter events as described by St. John the Evangelist (and plainly calls St. Mary Magdalene an Apostle).

The events of Easter, we Christians believe, are a turning point in history. We call them the Holy Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. But it is not limited to these three days. The arc of this entire period spans from the confusing entrace of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday up to and including the Ascension and Pentecost. Where is the heart of these days? Obviously in the overwhelming experience of the empty tomb and later of the appearances of Jesus. But there are also the Last Supper and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. According to tradition, both events took place in the Cenacle, the upper room where the disciples prepared the pascal meal upon Jesus’ request (Mark 14:15) and where they habitually spent their time after Jesus’ death (Acts 1:13), and perhaps where, fifty days after Easter, they were also together on the feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). There the Spirit came down on them in the presence of Mary and others, there they opened doors and windows towards the future, there the Church was born. Also according to tradition, the Cenacle lies above the grave of David, linking the Old and the New Testament.

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Turning point

But let us return to the period from Maundy Thursday to Easter. The events are inseparable. The Last Supper opens onto suffering and death, the burial in the tomb onto the ressurection, the empty grave opens onto the encounter with the Apostle Mary Magdalen and with the disciples. The appearances open onto the ultimate reunion of Jesus with His Father and the coming of the Spirit. I consider what takes place on Maundy Thursday to be a turning point. After the tense entrance into Jerusalem the events of Maundy Thursday reveal the true meaning of the incarnation. Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. The Master becomes a servant.

He remains with us!

At the same time, Maundy Thursday points ahead to the resurrection. He remains with us, under the appearance of bread and wine. He will stay with us forever, which becomes clear in His prayer at supper: “Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:1-3). Then, when he says in His prayer over His disciples, that He “sent them into the world”, it becomes clear this His mission involves all of humanity. He already implied this in the blessing of the bread and the wine: “Do this in memory of me”. A new history begins, He remains with us. “I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them” (John 17:26).

Past, present and future

For Christians these are no events from a distant past. They ground us in the present, in what happens in the world today. It often seems as if God has disappeared from our world. With Jesus, we sometimes desperately wonder if God has abandoned us. We also better understand what Jesus meant when he predicated that His disciples would also have their share of difficulties: “No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (John 15:20).

Dear friends,

as workers in the vineyard of the Lord nothing surprises us anymore. The friends of Jesus were also afraid, they gave up in despair and disillusion, like the two on the road to Emmaus. But what matter is that they came back after a period of despair and fear. The attraction of their Lord was so strong that they no longer feared the rulers, that Peter spoke plainly about Jesus, even when he was imprisoned for it. The story of Paul who travelled across the world as it was known then to speak about the resurrection of Christ can only be cause for amazement. He was precisely the one among the Apostles who had never known Jesus personally. Resistance could not deter him from his conviction that Jesus lived. And in these difficult times His world resounds again, full of hope: “So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:22).

Resurrection means that He is waiting for us. The joy that we will experience in the coming days, then, comes from His presence: His body and blood are food for eternal life. His word confirms the love that the Father has for us. He precedes us to Galilee, as a missionary on the road with his followers.

I wish you a happy and hopeful Holy Week and a faith-strenghtening experience on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter.

+ Luc Van Looy, Bishop of Ghent

Photo credit: Bisdom Gent, Frank Bahnmüller

Answering like Mary – Cardinal De Kesel upon taking possession of his title church

On Saturday, the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, Cardinal Jozef De Kesel was in Rome, to take possession of the title church granted to him upon his creation as cardinal. The Basilica do Santi Giovanni e Paolo al Celio, its full title, in the heart of Rome, is an ancient church, a cardinal title since the sixth century, and previously held by no less than six future popes. Cardinal De Kesel devoted his homily to the question of how and why God loves us and what that means for us. The Dutch text linked to above is sprinkled with Italian quotations from Scripture, and I have copied these unchanged in my English translation below. The general gist of it should be clear enough.

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“Good friends, no one has ever seen God. The prologue at the beginning of the Gospel of John states this. God resides in inaccessible light. He does not belong to this created world. He is invisible, ineffable. He transcends everything that exists. But Scripture also tells us that He has wanted to be known. That He came to us to live among us. What’s more: to belong completely to us and share our existence. It is the point of today’s feast. He has asked Mary if she was willing to become the mother of His Son. We praise her today with the entire Church for having answered, “Avvenga per me secondo la tua parola”.

Why does God wish to reside among us? Of course, we humans also search the proximity of others. We search for support and a sense of security. No man lives for himself alone. We can’t do without others. But He is God, not a man. What, then, has He seen in us? Why does He want to be with us? What can He find with us that He doesn’t already have? And why did He choose to become like us? Scripture says that the reason is that He loves us, that we people and this creation are worth everything to Him. Out of love: that is indeed the only answer. But it doesn’t explain anything. It only invites the other question: why does He love like this? There is no answer to that question. It remains the mystery of His love. That is how God wants to be: not for Himself, but for us. That is the mystery of which Paul says that it was hidden in eternity, but has now been revealed in the incarnation of God’s Son.

It is striking in the story of the Annunciation that God does not impose Himself, He does not force, He does not want to act without man’s cooperation. He calls Mary, invites her, asks her. As is written so beautifully in the book of the Apocalypse, “Ecco, sto alla porta e busso. Se uno ascolta la mia voce e mi apre, io verro da lui.”  That is what happened with Mary: she heard God’s voice, she opened the door, and the Lord entered That is powerlessness of love. It has to knock and wait until the door is opened. Without man’s yes God remains powerless. But when man answers, everything becomes possible.

Jesus was once told that his mother and brothers were waiting for Him outside and wished to speak with Him. He then pointed to His disciples and said, “Mia madre e i miei fratelli sono coloro che ascoltano la parola di Dio e la mettono in pratica”. It is exactly what Mary did: she heard God’s word and acted accordingly. With her great faith, she not only received her Son in her body, but also in her heart.

But not everything was self-evident for her. She is greeted with those beautiful words we still express in the liturgy: “Il Signore è con te”.  That is the mystery of God’s love: that He wants to be there for us That is not self-evident. Not for us, and neither for me: those words frighten her. The angel puts her at ease: do not be afraid. And he also says why: You have found favour with God. Everything that God will ask her will be nothing but a sign of His great love. And when she is told that she will bear a Son, she still ask questions. How can this be, since I have no relations with a man? Only when she hears that that too will be the work of God’s grace does she speak her yes: May it be done to me according to your word. She did not immediately say yes, did not answer lightly. Her yes was conscious and free.

Friends, Mary is the image of the Church. We are called to do what she has done. “Mia madre e i miei fratelli sono coloro che ascoltano la parola di Dio e la mettono in pratica”. Today, too, He stands at the door and He knocks. It is the vocation of the Church and every one of us to answer, consciously and free, in word and action. That is also not self-evident for us, not without questions. We no longer live in a world and society where the Christian faith is commonplace. Modern society is increasingly characterised by secularism and pluralism. But in this society we are also called to be witnesses of God’s love. It is no wonder that we sometimes fearfully wonder, “Come avverrà questo, poiché non conosco uomo?” But the same message is addressed to the Church today, in the midst of all the questions and challenges: “non temere“. She is also told, “Hai trovato grazia presso Dio“. And she is also and always overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.

Friends, let us celebrate this feast of the Annunciation to Mary in great joy and gratitude. And also in hope and confidence. The Church is and remains called, not only to proclaim God’s word, but also to first hear it herself and act according to it. Let us be grateful for the way in which Pope Francis helps us to do so. Not a Church which closes itself off from the world and looks inwardly, but a Church which sympathises with the people, especially the poor or other victims of the globalisation of indifference. A Church that is close to people. That is precisely what we celebrate today: God who does not only want to be close to us, but even wanted to share our existence, human among humans.”

In the video, also shared by Kerknet, Cardinal De Kesel speaks about the purpose of cardinals having a title church, and also addresses the topic of his homily. Here, I share a translated transcript of his words on the first topic.

“You must known that the Pope is the local bishop of the city of Rome. He is not only the universal shepherd of the entire Church, but he is in the first place the bishop here, of his own community, of his own city. And originally, the cardinals are parish priests. That is to say, his immediate coworkers, with whom he built up the Christian community here in Rome. The College of Cardinals has of course become more international, but it has been held onto symbolically, that cardinals also always have a connection with the local church of Rome. And that is also an official title: one is a cardinal of the Roman church, not of the Roman Catholic, but of the church of Rome. And of course, that is a titular church now, as there is a parish priest here, this is a convent church, but they have wanted to symbolise the connection with the Pope, with the bishop of Rome.”

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^The coat of arms of Cardinal De Kesel adorns the facade of his title church.