A small treasure among palaces – A visit to Copenhagen’s Cathedral of St. Ansgar

For the past two weeks, my fiancée and I have been vacationing in Sweden and Denmark, and on Sunday the 19th we attended Mass at Copenhagen’s cathedral of St. Ansgar. Bishop Czeslaw Kozon offered the Mass, and proved to be a kind and gracious host at the charity lunch in the cathedral garden after Mass. He asked us not only about our holiday and daily life, but, when I told him I try and sometimes blog about Church affairs in the Netherlands and sometimes also Scandinavia, also about recent developments in the Church here: parish mergers, Church closings and what that meant for faithful and priests alike. A validation of sorts that there is definitely interest in the Dutch Catholic Church from abroad.

Of course, we also took in the cathedral church itself, of which I share a number of photos below. St. Ansgar’s cathedral is a small church as cathedral go, and shares the Bredgade street with the Orthodox Church of St. Aleksandr Nevskij and the impressively domed Frederiks Kirke, also known as the Marble Church. Acorss from the latter lies Amalienborg castle, the residence of Queen Margrethe II.

St. Ansgar’s is the cathedral of the Diocese of Copenhagen, which covers the entire country of Denmark, as well as the Faroe Islands and Greenland. The cathedral was consecrated in 1842, and was put on the same footing as a cathedral in 1942. In 1953, upon the establishment of the diocese, St. Ansgar’s really became a cathedral.

The cathedral has enjoyed one papal visit, in 1989, when Pope St. John Paul II toured the Nordic countries.

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A view towards the sanctuary gives an overview of the cathedral. Apparently there had recently been a wedding, judging from the roses decorating the pews. The pews are the originals installed in the 19th century and some still bear the coat of arms of the Habsburgs, as the church was under the protection of the Austrian legate in Copenhagen.

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A closer look at the sanctuary, with the cathedra at the centre. This was a change made by Bishop Kozon, whose coat of arms can be seen above the chair.

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The dome over the sanctuary is decorated first with images of the Blessed Virgin and various saints of import for Denmark and northern Europe as a whole. Above them are Jesus Christ with the Apostles, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and at the top is God the Father.

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The windows are all decorated with one saints each. These were installed on the initiative of Bishop Johannes von Euch between 1885 and 1894, replacing the original clear panes.

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The organ in the choir loft, installed here in 1995.

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In the right aisle, adjacent to the sanctuary, stands the baptismal font with a quote from Mark 16:16: “Salvus erit, He is saved”, in front of a painting of Saint Ansgar, who shared the Gospel in modern northern Germany, Denmark and Sweden, eventually becoming archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen.

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To the left of the sanctuary, an image of the Blessed Virgin with the Child Jesus, a gift from Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I, and plenty of burning candles in front of it.

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An overview of the entire front of the cathedral.

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One last glimpse.

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In the church garden there was a charity lunch, with the proceeds going to the local Caritas. We enjoyed strawberry tarts, juice and wine, as well as the blooming garden and the conversation with some of the faithful and Bishop Kozon.

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Remembering Baptism – Archbishop Schick’s Letter for Lent

schickIt’s time again for bishops writing their faithful on the occasion of the season of Lent. I will share a selection of these letters here over the coming weeks. First of is Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg, who writes about Lent as the season of preparation for Baptism, or, as in the case of many faithful, a remembrance of our Baptism.

“Oh Blessedness of being baptised”

Dear sisters and brothers!

In the liturgical year, Lent is the time in which the “joy of the Gospel” is to be renewed. We are invited to engage deeper into the imitation of Jesus. We will experience anew: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

The year 2015 will be celebrated as a “Year of Orders”. Pope Francis has set it is a “Year of the Vocation to Religious Life”. Additionally, in the Archdiocese of Bamberg we celebrate 1,000 years of religious life among us since the establishment of the Benedictine monastery on the Michaelsberg in the year 1015. In this year we will get to know above all the orders and other religious communities better, consider religious life, express our appreciation for the religious Christians and pray for and promote vocations for them.

But this can only be meaningful and successful when we strengthen the meaning and feeling of the vocation and consecration of all Christians. Not just the religious and the priests, but all Christians are called by Jesus Christ and consecrated by the Baptism of God. In the second reading from the First Letter of Peter we have heard: “It is the baptism corresponding to this water which saves you now — not the washing off of physical dirt but the pledge of a good conscience given to God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has entered heaven and is at God’s right hand, with angels, ruling forces and powers subject to him” (1 Pet. 3:21-22).

I have been baptised and consecrated to God

All Christians are consecrated to God through Jesus Christ, who in Baptism gave us a clear conscience and has inextricably linked us to Himself; in HIM, the Risen One, we have “life in full”, here in faith, hope and love, there in unending joy with all who are saved. All baptised are also called to cooperate in building the Kingdom of God, “the saving justice, the peace and the joy” (cf. Rom. 14:17). Pope Francis expressed this as follows: “This offering of self to God regards every Christian, because we are all consecrated to him in Baptism. We are all called to offer ourselves to the Father with Jesus and like Jesus, making a generous gift of our life, in the family, at work, in service to the Church, in works of mercy.”

Ik would ask you to think about your calling to Baptism and the consecration to God through Baptism in the time of Lent that lies before us.

Above all, Lent, the time of penance before Easter is in the Church dedicated to immediate preparation of the catechumens, who will receive the sacrament of Baptism at Easter. With the catechumens, those who have already been baptised will experience anew the gratitude and joy of their Baptism. In the Easter night, then, all baptised are called to solemnly renew their baptismal promises, a burning candle in their hand. Before all individual callings in the Church, who all have in common “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, over all, through all and within all” (cf. Eph. 4:5-6).

Baptism as a gift and a task

We are Christians since Jesus Christ has given us his irrevocable yes. It was His initiative – not of our making – to call us into his “wonderful communion”. In Baptism we say our yes to this calling and are consecrated to God.

Almost all of us were baptised as small children. Our parents and godparents spoke the yes of our Baptism on our behalf. This has been common in the Church, the family of Jesus Christ, since the beginning. Like the parents give their children everything what is important to themselves and what they consider valuable for life from the start, they also let their children receive the divine gift of Baptism immediately after birth. Over the course of life every Christian, independently and on their own responsibility, will then discover their calling to Christian life ever deeper and confirm his consecration to God. Our being Christians is never complete. Ever deeper we will “grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth” of God’s love for us (cf. Eph. 3:18-19). We will express this love ever more in our daily life through active love of God and neighbour. That is what are invited to do in every Lent.

Considering the baptismal promises

Dear sisters and brothers!

Baptism effects our belonging to Jesus Christ, our following and becoming similar to Him. At the beginning of Lent 2015 I would cordially invite you to think about your calling of Baptism and your consecration to God through Baptism. Suggestions for “remembering Baptism” can be found in our Gotteslob, n. 576. In the coming weeks, read the baptismal promises. Speak about your Baptism in your family and among your friends, in the parish council, youth group, society and seniors’ club. Ask yourself what it means for you to be called by and baptised in Jesus Christ. Read – or even better sing – the hymns in Gotteslob: “Ich bin getauft und Gott geweiht” (GL 491) or: „Fest soll mein Taufbund immer stehen” (GL 870). Think about what it means to answer the question “Do you believe?” every time with “I believe” and “Do you renounce?” with “I renounce”! A good confession should be a part of Lent: it can encourage the joy of being a Christian. The sacrament of Penance is called a “second Baptism” by theologians. It renews the grace of Baptism as it frees one from sin and makes a new start in one’s Christian life; put differently: the sacrament of Penance renews the vocation of following Christ and the consecration to God.

We Christians need more self-awareness, which makes us humble and modest, like true Christians. We find this self-awareness in the living encounter with Jesus Christ, who, through Baptism, “called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light”. This allows us to work zealously and firmly for the propagation of faith and to cooperate in the building of the Kingdom of God. Thus prepared, we can join joyfully in the celebration of Easter and renew our baptismal promises.

Baptism – Life in the Church

Baptism is always a calling to the Church, to a life in the mystical Body of Christ and to walking with the people of God towards Heaven. We can also better serve one another in the community of Christians with the gifts that each has received, and which also have an effect on the community. For that we regularly need spiritual support; the most important of which is the Sunday Eucharist. When attended the Eucharist is not possible, we should come together in a celebration of the Word of God or a prayer service, in which we hear God’s Word, pray and sing together. In our pastoral plan “Den Aufbruch wafen – heute!” from 2005 everything relevant for the celebration of the Eucharist is outlined on the pages 52 to 54. The daily morning, evening and table prayers are connected to the Eucharist. These should all be a matter of course for us. It is also important that we show ourselves publicly, in word and action, as Christians. That strengthens us and helps maintaining Christian standards and values in our society. The spirit of Jesus Christ is  indispensable for a good future and a good working relationship between us and the world.

 Blessed Lent

Dear brothers and sisters!

I wish you a blessed lent in the “Year of Orders” and in the “Year of the Vocation to Religious Life”. May the time of penance before Lent help us increase the joy of our Baptism, the joy of the community with Jesus Christ and the Gospel, the joy of the Church and the cooperation in the Kingdom of God. Pope Francis writes to us: “During the season of Lent, the Church issues two important invitations: to have a greater awareness of the redemptive work of Christ; and to live out one’s Baptism with deeper commitment.” Let us accept this double invitation.

May the good God therefore bless you, the + Father and the + Son and the + Holy Spirit.

Your Archbishop,

Dr. Ludwig Schick

The consistory of the marginalised – a look back

Cardinals of St. LouisAnd so the Church gains twenty new cardinals. Much has already been said about the unique nature of the group, their places of origin and pastoral and other qualities which would spell out much regarding Pope Francis’ game plan for the future of the Church, both universally and locally in the dioceses and countries of the new cardinals.

Perhaps it can be best summarised as follows: The new cardinals bring the peripheries of the world Church to Rome and Rome to the peripheries. There is much variation in Catholic life across the world, and the needs and questions of one place are not necessarily the same as the needs of another. By creating cardinals from places as different as Communist Vietnam, violent Morelia, diaspora Myanmar, refugee-struck Agrigento and distant Tonga, Pope Francis acknowledges this and wants to make good use of the variety. The creation of these cardinals also expresses the closeness of Rome to these different locations, and lends extra weight to the Church’s presence and influence there.

pimiento rodriguezThe actual ceremony of the creation of the new cardinals was nothing out of the ordinary as these things go. One cardinal, José de Jesús Pimiento Rodriguez (at right), stayed at home, but he may be excused for that, being 96 years old, and thus the third-oldest member of the College. Cardinals Rauber and De Magistris, respectively 80 and 88 and both physically incapable of kneeling before the Holy Father to receive ring and biretta, both received the signs of their title from a standing Pope Francis who came to them instead of the other way around. Of course, we saw something similar in last year’s consistory for wheelchair-bound Cardinal Jean-Pierre Kutwa.

This consistory was unique in another regard: the appointment of title churches and deaconries. While there were a fair number of vacant titles, Pope Francis chose to fill only seven of these, and created thirteen new ones. Of course, every single cardinal has a title church or deaconry in Rome, which makes 227 of them. Creating thirteen new ones would seem somewhat unnecessary as there are now still one vacant title church and nine vacant deaconries available. But who knows, maybe they will soon be filled if the rumours of Pope Francis wanting to increase the number of cardinals who vote in a conclave from 120 to 140 turn out to be true…

Manuel Macário do Nascimento ClementeOf the pre-existing titles and deaconries there were some examples of continuity. The Patriarch of Lisbon, Cardinal Manuel Macário do Nascimento Clemente (at left), was given Sant’Antonio in Campo Marzio, previously held by his immediate predecessor in Lisbon. Santissimi Nomi di Gesù e Maria in Via Lata remained with a retired and experienced worker in the Curia: previously held by Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci, it is now the deaconry of Cardinal Luigi De Magistris. Sant’Antonio di Padova a Circonvallazione Appia kept its Belgian connection: first held by Belgian Cardinal Julien Ries it is now in the possession of the former Nuncio to Belgium, Cardinal Karl-Josef Rauber.

Age-wise, this consistory not only created one of the oldest cardinals, the aforementioned de Jesús Pimiento Rodriguez, but also the two youngest: Cardinal Daniel Sturla Berhouet of Montevideo, 55, and Cardinal Soane Mafi of Tonga, 53.

hendriks mambertiThere was a Dutch delegation at the consistory, in addition to Cardinal Wim Eijk who, as a member of the College of Cardinals, attended all meetings. Bishop Frans Wiertz was in Rome with a group of pilgrims from his Diocese of Roermond, and Bishop Jan Hendriks attended because of his acquaintance with Cardinal Dominique Mamberti (pictured above). He blogged about it on his personal website, and writes about the presence of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI:

“Pope Benedict XVI […] [was] stormed by the cardinals and bishops present in order to briefly greet him.

Various members of the diplomatic corps followed. Other faithful were also able to find their way, but needed some more time to get to him.

In the photo [I took] one can discern a small white zucchetto: that is Pope emeritus Benedict!


The Pope emeritus underwent all these gestures, smiling friendly and almost shyly.”

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^Bishops Jan Hendriks and Frans Wiertz in St. Peter’s Square

Finally, in closing, the text of Pope Francis’ homily during the Mass with the new cardinals on Sunday. Some have called it a roadmap of his pontificate:

“Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean”… Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out his hand and touched him, and said: “I do choose. Be made clean!” (Mk 1:40-41). The compassion of Jesus! That com-passion which made him draw near to every person in pain! Jesus does not hold back; instead, he gets involved in people’s pain and their need… for the simple reason that he knows and wants to show com-passion, because he has a heart unashamed to have “compassion”.

“Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed in the country; and people came to him from every quarter” (Mk 1:45). This means that Jesus not only healed the leper but also took upon himself the marginalization enjoined by the law of Moses (cf. Lev 13:1-2, 45-46). Jesus is unafraid to risk sharing in the suffering of others; he pays the price of it in full (cf. Is 53:4).

Compassion leads Jesus to concrete action: he reinstates the marginalized! These are the three key concepts that the Church proposes in today’s liturgy of the word: the compassion of Jesus in the face of marginalization and his desire to reinstate.

Marginalization: Moses, in his legislation regarding lepers, says that they are to be kept alone and apart from the community for the duration of their illness. He declares them: “unclean!” (cf. Lev 13:1-2, 45-46).

Imagine how much suffering and shame lepers must have felt: physically, socially, psychologically and spiritually! They are not only victims of disease, but they feel guilty about it, punished for their sins! Theirs is a living death; they are like someone whose father has spit in his face (cf. Num 12:14).

In addition, lepers inspire fear, contempt and loathing, and so they are abandoned by their families, shunned by other persons, cast out by society. Indeed, society rejects them and forces them to live apart from the healthy. It excludes them. So much so that if a healthy person approached a leper, he would be punished severely, and often be treated as a leper himself.

True, the purpose of this rule was “to safeguard the healthy”, “to protect the righteous”, and, in order to guard them from any risk, to eliminate “the peril” by treating the diseased person harshly. As the high priest Caiaphas exclaimed: “It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn 11:50).

Reinstatement: Jesus revolutionizes and upsets that fearful, narrow and prejudiced mentality. He does not abolish the law of Moses, but rather brings it to fulfillment (cf. Mt 5:17). He does so by stating, for example, that the law of retaliation is counterproductive, that God is not pleased by a Sabbath observance which demeans or condemns a man. He does so by refusing to condemn the sinful woman, but saves her from the blind zeal of those prepared to stone her ruthlessly in the belief that they were applying the law of Moses. Jesus also revolutionizes consciences in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt 5), opening new horizons for humanity and fully revealing God’s “logic”. The logic of love, based not on fear but on freedom and charity, on healthy zeal and the saving will of God. For “God our Saviour desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4). “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Mt 12:7; Hos 6:6).

Jesus, the new Moses, wanted to heal the leper. He wanted to touch him and restore him to the community without being “hemmed in” by prejudice, conformity to the prevailing mindset or worry about becoming infected. Jesus responds immediately to the leper’s plea, without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences! For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family! And this is scandalous to some people!

Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal! He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity. He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp (cf. Jn 10).

There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost. Even today it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking. The thinking of the doctors of the law, which would remove the danger by casting out the diseased person, and the thinking of God, who in his mercy embraces and accepts by reinstating him and turning evil into good, condemnation into salvation and exclusion into proclamation.

These two ways of thinking are present throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. Saint Paul, following the Lord’s command to bring the Gospel message to the ends of the earth (cf. Mt 28:19), caused scandal and met powerful resistance and great hostility, especially from those who demanded unconditional obedience to the Mosaic law, even on the part of converted pagans. Saint Peter, too, was bitterly criticized by the community when he entered the house of the pagan centurion Cornelius (cf. Acts 10).

The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement. This does not mean underestimating the dangers of letting wolves into the fold, but welcoming the repentant prodigal son; healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination; rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world. The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity; to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the “outskirts” of life. It is to adopt fully God’s own approach, to follow the Master who said: “Those who are well have no need of the physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call, not the righteous but sinners” (Lk 5:31-32).

In healing the leper, Jesus does not harm the healthy. Rather, he frees them from fear. He does not endanger them, but gives them a brother. He does not devalue the law but instead values those for whom God gave the law. Indeed, Jesus frees the healthy from the temptation of the “older brother” (cf. Lk 15:11-32), the burden of envy and the grumbling of the labourers who bore “the burden of the day and the heat” (cf. Mt 20:1-16).

In a word: charity cannot be neutral, antiseptic, indifferent, lukewarm or impartial! Charity is infectious, it excites, it risks and it engages! For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous! (cf. 1 Cor 13). Charity is creative in finding the right words to speak to all those considered incurable and hence untouchable. Finding the right words… Contact is the language of genuine communication, the same endearing language which brought healing to the leper. How many healings can we perform if only we learn this language of contact! The leper, once cured, became a messenger of God’s love. The Gospel tells us that “he went out and began to proclaim it freely and to spread the word” (cf. Mk 1:45).

Dear new Cardinals, this is the “logic”, the mind of Jesus, and this is the way of the Church. Not only to welcome and reinstate with evangelical courage all those who knock at our door, but to go out and seek, fearlessly and without prejudice, those who are distant, freely sharing what we ourselves freely received. “Whoever says: ‘I abide in [Christ]’, ought to walk just as he walked” (1 Jn 2:6). Total openness to serving others is our hallmark, it alone is our title of honour!

Consider carefully that, in these days when you have become Cardinals, we have asked Mary, Mother of the Church, who herself experienced marginalization as a result of slander (cf. Jn 8:41) and exile (cf. Mt 2:13-23), to intercede for us so that we can be God’s faithful servants. May she – our Mother – teach us to be unafraid of tenderly welcoming the outcast; not to be afraid of tenderness. How often we fear tenderness! May Mary teach us not to be afraid of tenderness and compassion. May she clothe us in patience as we seek to accompany them on their journey, without seeking the benefits of worldly success. May she show us Jesus and help us to walk in his footsteps.

Dear new Cardinals, my brothers, as we look to Jesus and our Mother, I urge you to serve the Church in such a way that Christians – edified by our witness – will not be tempted to turn to Jesus without turning to the outcast, to become a closed caste with nothing authentically ecclesial about it. I urge you to serve Jesus crucified in every person who is emarginated, for whatever reason; to see the Lord in every excluded person who is hungry, thirsty, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith, or say that they are atheists; to see the Lord who is imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper – whether in body or soul – who encounters discrimination! We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized! May we always have before us the image of Saint Francis, who was unafraid to embrace the leper and to accept every kind of outcast. Truly, dear brothers, the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is at stake, is discovered and is revealed!

Some thoughts about cardinals, (re-)marriage, divorce and communion

kasperCardinal Walter Kasper has come increasingly under fire from fellow cardinals and others in the Church for his comments about marriage, divorce and Communion. While some are concerned by these visible disagreements, and Cardinal Kasper himself having even suggested that his critics are personally attacking him and Pope Francis, this really is simply what Pope Francis has said he wanted: open and free discussion about the topics that the Synod will devote its time to next month. And while I usually don’t want to commit myself to stark distinctions between left and right, orthodox and liberal, in this discussion it really does seem that those who want the Church to change or loosen up her teachings are honestly insulted by those who disagree.

In an interview for Vatican Radio, Cardinal Kasper commented on the situation. I have translated some of his answer which I think are most interesting in this context.

“Of course everyone has the right to publicly state their opinion. Nothing can be brought against that. But I wonder if the entire Synod is not being reduced to a single point. It is about the pastoral challenges in the context of the new evangelisation. That is far broader field. An insider problem is being place at the centre here. What matters is to be able to speak again and discuss the beauty and the Christian understanding of the family, which many today no longer know – it is about far more fundamental problems than simply this one. And secondly: what sort of understanding of the Gospel is this? It is the Good News. One can’t turn it into just a legal codex alone and then say that there can be no discussion about this point anymore. That makes the Synod a joke. Nobody has the right to say in advance what is possible and what is not. The Pope wants an open discussion, and that should be held. Then, in the Synod, to listen quietly to one another, in an atmosphere of prayer, and the in the end make a decision for the good of the faithful. I will not enter into polemics.”

“Without doubt the family is the cell of society and the cell of the life of the Church. In the family, in marriage and family, life and faith come closest together. It is an essential reality of life which has been raised to the glory of a sacrament. In that way it is a very vital and central issue for the Church to stand for marriage and family and offer solutions for the crisis that exists today. It is about these pastoral challenges, which is the theme of the Synod, not a war of doctrine. Of course, pastoral care is impossible without being oriented on the truth. But the truth is not an abstract system, but in the  end it is Jesus Christ in person, and we need to bring the people close to Christ. In that sense the Synod must be oriented on the truth and understand  Tradition as a living and bubbling spring and not as a rigid system.”

“I have posed a question, not simply suggested a solution. And I posed that question in agreement with the Pope. That’s very important for me. I asked, “When a marriage has failed one should do everything to repair it. But when there is no way back, when someone has entered into a new relationship which is, humanly speaking, a happy one, lived in a Christian fashion, when there are children, one can’t give up this new relationship without serious consequence. And we must also see how God offers new chances – and God does. That is His mercy, that He does not let go of anyone of good will. And everyone does what he can in their situation. And I think that this should be pastorally clarified in every individual case, after a period of orientation. That is called the ‘Via poenitentialis’ – but those involved suffer enough already without it. They do not need to perform great acts of penance. But a new orientation is necessary. That should be the sacrament of penance – that is why we have it – and the sacrament of penance also means re-admission to the Eucharist. But as I said, that is not the solution for all cases, presumably for a minority of all people who live in our communities, who suffer from it and have an honest desire for the sacraments, who urgently need the sacraments to deal with their difficult situations.”

In general it is hard to disagree with much of what the cardinal says. He is very right that the entire Synod is indeed being reduced this single topic (and his perceived opponent Cardinal Burke recently said the exact same thing). His words about the importance of family and the Church’s  defense of and communication about it are also very important, as are his concerns for those who are involved in a good, Christian, loving second relationship while their first marriage is still canonically valid. There is a problem there, but  not with the quality of the second relationship.

And that’s were the problem of the discussion lies. Too many people shift the focus to those second relationships and how the mean Church wants to destroy them and the happiness of those involved. That is a clear untruth. The fact remains that a marriage is a sacrament, and therefore something that can’t be broken by human hands (we simply need to listen to Christ’s words: “What God has joined, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9)). So when a marriage exists (we’re looking at pure existence here, not quality), there can’t be a second marriage next to it. This is, in essence the basis of the argument. All discussion and, indeed, pastoral care needs to be built on it. And at the latter the Synod will look in detail.

Cardinal Kasper’s mistake, in my opinion, is that he sweeps aside this basis when he says, “One can’t turn [the Gospel] into just a legal codex alone and then say that there can be no discussion about this point anymore. That makes the Synod a joke. Nobody has the right to say in advance what is possible and what is not.” There must be discussion, certainly, for the good of the faithful. But there are also parameters, which are set by Christ. If we want to follow Him, we must accept and work within His parameters. The Codex of Canon Law is the result of centuries of understanding these parameters and translating them for a host of situations, places and times. There must always be such development, and in that sense the law can change. But it can not be overwritten, swept aside or corrected as if what was once true no longer is. In the end it reflects the Truth that is its founder, Jesus Christ.

The Synod will certainly look at the law, but not in order to change it. No, it will concern itself with translation and communication. How can the pastoral care that the Church now offers be improved, so that what she asks the faithful is also possible for them to achieve. In a recent interview Cardinal Burke said, “It simply makes no sense to talk about mercy which doesn’t respect truth. How can that be merciful?” He’s right. Truth and mercy are not separate. How is it merciful to encourage someone to move further away from the truth that he or she wants to follow? And how are we true to what Christ’s asks of us if we show false mercy?

Honest Thomas – some thoughts about today’s saint

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, best known as Doubting Thomas. The passage from John 20, in which Jesus appears after His death on the cross, but Thomas happens to be absent is well known. Thomas refuses to believe what he didn’t see for himself, only to be corrected by the Lord when He appears again and shows His wounds to Thomas, even inviting him to place his hand in the wound in His side.

“You believe because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).

thomasRich as this passage from the Gospels is, and it teaches us much about the nature of faith, there is more to St. Thomas than this. In the Bible, he appears in all four Gospels, as well as in the Acts of the Apostles. Matthew (10:3), Mark (3:18) and Luke (6:15) first list him among the Apostles called by Jesus, while John first mentions him in the story of the death of Lazarus, where Thomas seems a bit defeatist. Upon hearing Jesus’ decision to go to Bethany, in the land of the Jews who had earlier tried to kill Jesus, he says, “Let us also go to die with him”  (John 11:16). Still, it indicates a willingness on Thomas’ part to follow Jesus whatever the consequences, even if death is one. Not exactly the sign of a doubting follower.

Later in the Gospel of John, we see another side to Thomas: the questioning follower, the man trying to understand. As Jesus announces His return to the Father, telling the apostles that they know where He is going and how to get there, Thomas replies, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). This prompts Jesus to teach him – and us – that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Thomas comes across as honest and straightforward, not afraid to ask about what he doesn’t understand. The next time we come across him is in the aforementioned passage of the Lord’s appearance in his absence. Thomas doubts, is still as honest and straightforward as ever, but not stubborn: he accepts what the Lord teaches him and professes his faith in his Lord and God.

Thomas appears once more among the disciples to whom Jesus appears at the Sea of Tiberias (John 21;2), but the Evangelist does not tell us any details about what Thomas may have said or done. But he did witness Jesus giving Peter the task to look after His sheep. After the Lord’s Ascension, Thomas remains with the other disciples, as Acts 1:13 tells us, part of the young and rapidly growing Church.

That’s all the Bible tells us about St. Thomas, but it’s enough to slightly correct the image we have of him as a doubter. It would be more accurate to see him as a very honest man, to himself and to others. He is not afraid to ask questions, or even to ask others to be more clear, but also does not hesitate to recognise his own errors and correct them.

Several post-Biblical sources tell of Thomas travelling to India to preach the Gospel there. Indeed, south India is home to the St. Thomas Christians, who can be traced back to the 2nd or 3rd century. The trip from the Holy Land to India would at least have been possible in the first century, as trade relations existed between the subcontinent and the Roman Empire. It is hard to tell what is true and what is apocryphal in this, but the fact remains that Thomas is strongly connected to Southern Asia, and Christian communities appeared very early in India. A strong-willed follower of Jesus may well have taken it upon himself to undertake such a perilous and uncertain mission to remote parts, all to spread the Gospel and enkindle the faith, serving the Lord as he did from the moment he was first called.

Easter message – Bishop Jozef De Kesel

Bishop Jozef De Kesel of Bruges has an excellent message on the topic of suffering and death in the perspective of the Resurrection.

de kesel“All that is written about us, will be fulfilled by you in these days”. Thus the opening verse of a song that Willem Barnard wrote for the start of Holy Week. Much is said in those few words. That He shared our existence to the very end. That nothing human is unknown to Him. The final days, the days of His passing. These are also the days that refer to what is impossible, but what the Church counts as her deepest conviction: that He is risen. The final days: they are the days of ‘pascha’, the passing from death to life. And in these days He fulfilled all that was written about us.

What is striking is that that also includes His death. You would think that the Resurrection makes everything in order again and that we would better forget this dying and that death. Especially considering how scandalous that dying was: condemned and executed. But that dying and death does belong to what He fulfilled in those final days. No Easter without Good Friday. Death is also part of the Pascal mystery.

The Church has never been tempted to hide or trivialise that death, let alone suppress it. Paul says with emphasis:  “We are preaching a crucified Christ” (1 Cor.1 :23). And when Holy Week begins with the introit of Maundy Thursday, we sing: “Let our glory be in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In Him we have salvation, life and resurrection, through Him we are rescued and set free.”

Glory in the Cross, that is a strange and alienating thing to say. Isn’t suffering being cherished here? Isn’t it explained as something positive? That is something that the Church and Christianity is sometimes accused of. A sort of mystification of suffering. When, a few weeks, the expansion of the euthanasia bill for minors was voted on, we were confronted again with that criticism. Are faithful not aware of the suffering of people? Shouldn’t people be freed from that suffering? Is that not the ultimate at of compassion? Or is it perhaps meaningful and good that people suffer?

Suffering is something we should pursue. That would be absurd. Pain must be relieved and that is possible today. Therapeutic stubbornness can’t be justified. Christianity does not cherish suffering. Not even that of Jesus. Jesus did not seek out suffering. The Gospel informs us that Jesus, when things did indeed get dangerous for Him, retreated more and more. Now and then we read that He did not show Himself in public. In the end He even prayed that that cup could pass Him by. He tried to avoid danger as much as possible. But not at the expense of His mission. He would complete that mission to the end. And if the Cross was part of it, He would accept it. He said so to His disciples: “Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

But there is one question that remains. Why did God not answer the prayer of Jesus? Why couldn’t He change the minds of those who wanted to kill Jesus? Why couldn’t God arrange this differently, without that suffering and without that Cross? For faithful people the Resurrection is the ultimate answer to that question. Here, God breaks through all barriers. Indeed, what awaits is neither more nor less than a new creation. But not without that detour of suffering an death. Like the People of God once, when it left Egypt and tried to escape from a life of slavery, had to make a detour through the desert, a place of testing and suffering. Why no direct route to the promised land? Why that detour? Why Jesus’ death? There is only one answer to that question: because that detour, because suffering and death are a part of the human condition. We are not gods but human beings. About  Jesus it is also said: “Who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. […] and being in every way like a human being” (Phil. 2:6-7).

In the media debate about the expansion of the euthanasia I gradually started to ask myself this question: doesn’t all this also have to do with the fact that death is loosing its place in our secular society? That life is being arranged in such a way that it doesn’t really exist? It is being banned as much as possible from life. And when it comes and can’t be avoided, let it strike as quickly as possible. The euthanasia file is no longer about the physically unbearable suffering. It is increasingly about psychological suffering. And while the danger of a slippery slope as denied at first, the transition seems fairly obvious. Psychological suffering is real suffering, so why exclude it? And why not go further? Existential suffering also exists. Suffering because the meaning of life itself has been affected. It is striking that suicide is no longer a taboo today. Of course it is shocking in the case of young people. And that is the focus is rightfully on prevention. But the elderly? These are people that are “done” with life and so “step out of it”. That language says much. Suicide becomes a lucid and courageous act. Death is being made harmless from the start because it is no longer recognised for what it really is: a sign of radical finality. A sign that I did not decide or want my existence but was given it. A sign that I am not my own origin.

In a column in De Standaard rector Torfs rightfully notes, “life must be beautiful, and if it is not, death is an option. Suicide is today not just an escape for people who are deeply unhappy. It is equally there for someone who, after careful deliberation, decides that his happiness is not enough”. Where one no longer realises that finality and mortality, and so also death, are an essential part of what it means to be “a human being on earth”, life itself in its deepest sense becomes trivialised. Life in itself has then no meaning or value. Meaning and value depend on a presupposed quality to which it has to answer. But what is quality? The lightness with which “stepping out of life” is being discussed ultimately refers to the lightness with which life itself is being discussed.

The Christian faith in the Resurrection does not trivialise death. It belongs to our finite and mortal existence. And it is that finite existence that Christ wanted to share with us. Everything that is written about us, is fulfilled by Him. Including our death. Even if our culture tries to keep death as much as possible out of sight, death is and remains a mystery that we will never fully comprehend, let alone solve. Christian is no mysticism of suffering. But it does not deny death. But – and this is the heart of our faith – it is taken up in the even greater mystery of God’s love defeating death. That is what Christ fulfilled for us.”

Original text

Lent reading schedule

lent_desktopIt’s almost Lent. Snuck up on you, didn’t it? But it’s true, Less than a week away the great time of fasting and penitence will begin and prepare us for Easter.

Time to plan ahead.

For this Lent and Holy Week I want to take the Gospel readings of every day and do some lectio divina with them, a spiritual reading. I’ll be posting the relevant passage every day (well, that’s the plan) and reflect on it. These reflections will be short, as lectio divina is by definition a personal exercise: we prayerfully read a Bible text for ourselves and are open to learn from it. The reflections are therefore what I take from the text: your experience may be a different one, but I hope that comparing what others learn with what you have learned can set you off on new avenues of thought, prayer and discovery.

For those who want to read and reflect in their own time, or if I am unable to post every day, here is a list of the Gospel reading of every day:

  • Wednesday 5 March (Ash Wednesday): Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
  • Thursday 6 March: Luke 9: 22-25
  • Friday 7 March: Matthew 9:14-15
  • Saturday 8 March: Luke 5:27-32
  • Sunday 9 March (First Sunday of Lent): Matthew 4:1-11
  • Monday 10 March: Matthew 25:31-46
  • Tuesday 11 March: Matthew 6:7-15
  • Wednesday 12 March: Luke 11:29-32
  • Thursday 13 March: Matthew 7:7-12
  • Friday 14 March: Matthew 5:20-26
  • Saturday 15 March: Matthew 5:43-48
  • Sunday 16 March (Second Sunday of Lent): Matthew 17:1-9
  • Monday 17 March: Luke 6:36-38
  • Tuesday 18 March: Matthew 23:1-12
  • Wednesday 19 March (Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary): Matthew 116, 18-21, 24a or Luke 2: 41-51a
  • Thursday 20 March: Luke 16:19-31
  • Friday 21 March: Matthew 21:33-43, 45-46
  • Saturday 22 March: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
  • Sunday 23 March (Third Sunday of Lent): John 4:5-42 or John 4:5-15, 19b-26, 39a, 40-42
  • Monday 24 March: Luke 4:24-30
  • Tuesday 25 March (Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord): Luke 1:26-38
  • Wednesday 26 March: Matthew 5:17-19
  • Thursday 27 March: Luke 11:14-23
  • Friday 28 March: Mark 12:28-34
  • Saturday 29 March: Luke 18:9-14
  • Sunday 30 March (Fourth Sunday of Lent): John 9:1-41 or John 9:1, 6-9, 13-17, 34-38
  • Monday 31 March: John 4:43-54
  • Tuesday 1 April: John 5:1-16
  • Wednesday 2 April: John 5:17-30
  • Thursday 3 April: John 5:31-47
  • Friday 4 April: John 7:1-2, 10, 25-30
  • Saturday 5 April: John 7:40-53
  • Sunday 6 April (Fifth Sunday of Lent): John 11:1-45 or John 11:3-7, 20-27, 33b-45
  • Monday 7 April: John 8:1-11
  • Tuesday 8 April: John 8:21-30
  • Wednesday 9 April: John 8:31-42
  • Thursday 10 April: John 8:51-59
  • Friday 11 April: John 10:31-42
  • Saturday 12 April: John 11:45-56
  • Sunday 13 April (Palm Sunday): Matthew 26:14-27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54
  • Monday 14 April: John 12:1-11
  • Tuesday 15 April: John 13:21-33, 36-38
  • Wednesday 16 April: Matthew 26:14-25
  • Thursday 17 April: John 13:1-15
  • Friday 18 April (Good Friday): John 18:1-19:42
  • Saturday 19 April (Holy Saturday): Matthew 28:1-10
  • Sunday 20 April (Easter Sunday): John 20:1-9

It’s much, to be sure, but it is an investment that’s worth the effort. Lent is especially a time to return to the basis, to the Word, and allow the Lord to join us on our way.