Generational shift as Bishops’ Conference gets new leadership

mgr_van_den_hendeAs expected the Dutch bishop’s conference today elected a new president after Cardinal Eijk announced, earlier this year, that he would not be available for a second term at the head of the conference. His successor is Bishop Hans van den Hende (pictured at left), ordinary of Rotterdam and in the past vicar general under Cardinal Eijk when the latter was bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. This is the second time that the presidency goes to a bishop of Rotterdam, after Bishop Ad van Luyn’s 3-year term from 2008 to 2011.

liesenThe president is part of the permanent council of the bishops’ conference, together with the vice president and a third member. This council prepares the monthly meetings of the bishops. The vice president was until today Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond, but health reasons, which he so openly discussed recently in Lourdes, force him to step back as well. He is succeeded by the bishop of Breda, Jan Liesen (at right). The third member of the permanent council, Haarlem-Amsterdam’s Bishop Jos Punt also steps back, and he is succeeded by the new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Gerard de Korte.

The new permanent council represents a generational shift: the average age of the members drops from 68 to 56. Bishops Van den Hende and Liesen, aged 52 and 55, are even among the three youngest members of the conference. Bishop de Korte is the only council member who has been a bishop for more than a decade.

Bishop van den Hende is the sixth president of the bishops’ conference since it was established in 1966.  The first three presidents were the archbishops of Utrecht: Cardinals Alfrink (1966-1975), Willebrands (1976-1983) and Simonis (1983-2008). They were followed by Bishop van Luyn (2008-2011) and Cardinal Eijk (2011-2016).

All three are elected for a five-year term.

  • Hans van den Hende is 52, the youngest member of the bishops’ conference, but has been a bishop for almost ten years now. A priest of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, he was appointed as coadjutor bishop of Breda 2006, succeeded Bishop Muskens as ordinary in 2007. In 2011 he was moved one diocese over and has been the bishop of Rotterdam since then. In the bishops’ conference he holds the portfolio for ecumenism.
  • Jan Liesen, 55, was a priest of the Diocese of Roermond when he was appointed as one of two new auxiliary bishops of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 2010. Less than a year later he was appointed to succeed Bishop van den Hende in Breda. In the bishops’ conference he holds the portfolio for liturgy and Bible.
  • Gerard de Korte, 61 since yesterday, was a priest of the Archdiocese of Utrecht and auxiliary bishop of that same archdiocese from 20o1 to 2008. In that latter year he was appointed to succeed Wim Eijk as bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. Earlier this year, he was tapped as the new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. In the bishops’ conference he holds the portfolios for Church and the elderly, Church and society and women and Church.

Bishop Ernst marks 75 years of priesthood

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He is the nestor of the Dutch episcopate, and at 99 years of age Msgr. Huub Ernst is the 8th oldest bishop in the world today. Last Tuesday he marked the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, with a solemn Mass in the cathedral of St. Anthony* in Breda, the same church were he offered his first Mass in 1941. As the retired bishop of Breda is confined to a motorised wheelchair, he concelebrated the Mass, which was offered by Breda’s current bishop, Msgr. Jan Liesen. They were joined by Bishop Hans van den Hende, bishop of Breda from 2007 to 2011, as well as the current and retired vicars general of the diocese.

Bishop Ernst was one of two priests ordained by Bishop Petrus Hopmans on 7 June 1941. After two years working in the parish he was called to a life of study, education and management. He was vicar general under Bishop Gerard de Vet (bishop of Breda from 1962 to 1967) and succeeded him upon his untimely death. Bishop Ernst, considered a progressive (but not so much that the liberal 8 May Movement did not succeed in alienating him) but also a wise and well-spoken theologian, would remain in office until 1992, followed by an uncommonly long two and a half years as apostolic administrator, until Martinus Muskens was appointed as his successor in late 1994.

After his retirement, Bishop Ernst remained available for certain important events. Not only did he consecrate Bishop Muskens in 1994, but he was also one of the co-consecrators of Muskens’ successor, Hans van den Hende, in 2006. Bishop Ernst has lived long enough to see three bishops succeed him and survived his immediate successor. In 2007 he condemned the proposal of the Dominicans to have lay people be given the possibility to offer Mass as “incorrect, senseless and not the right solution”. In 2010 he was called to testify in a sexual abuse case, claiming that important information was withheld from him when he was asked to appoint a Salesian priest who would later abuse again, after which Bishop Ernst fired him.

While Bishop Ernst is one of the oldest living bishops, he is even higher on the list of most senior bishops by ordination to the priesthood. Only four living bishops were ordained before Bishop Ernst, and among them is another bishop from the Dutch language area. He is Belgian-born Bishop Jan Van Cauwelaert. Now at the age of 102, this Antwerp-born prelate of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was vicar apostolic and later bishop of Inongo, now in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

About his current life, Bishop Ernst said:

“When I had to end my duties because of my age, I experienced that, while possessing a clear mind, I was definitely losing my physical strength. I concluded from that that my task would now be to stand in my own life for what I looked for in the offices. Experiencing this, I said, “Chaplain again, invisibly present. Without this being expressed amid the others who believe. The images I carry with me from my time in the chaplaincy express the relationship in which we live. It is a life of gratitude.””

*It wasn’t the cathedral back then, although it had been between 1853 and 1876, and has been again since 2001.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

Pope Video 6 – Solidarity

Solidarity: it’s a word easily said, but the concept itself is far harder to put into practice. In this month’s video, Pope Francis asks us to pray for more solidarity with the sick and elderly in the cities, where isolation and neglect are so easy to come by. As Christians we are called to do the opposite, not to walk on and ignore, but to stop and encounter.

Small miracles – In Lourdes, Bishop Wiertz gets personal

Visiting Lourdes with faithful from his diocese last week, Roermond’s Bishop Frans Wiertz related a personal story about his deteriorating eyesight. The 73-year-old bishop, the most senior of the active bishops in the Netherlands, has been suffering from an increasing loss of his sight for a while now. And, as he puts it, “it will not get better”.

Perhaps Lourdes was the perfect place to share such a personal experience of a physical ailment. Here, where the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous, thousands of pilgrims come every year to seek healing from what ails them, and the diocesan pilgrimage led by Bishop Wiertz (together with Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, recently retired from ‘s-Hertogenbosch) was no different.

Bishop Wiertz gives no indication that it prevents him from doing his duties as bishop. As he explains, it forces him to focus more on listening instead of watching, and each word he reads requires more time, so perhaps he has to take things a little bit slower. But he has an auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Everard de Jong, at his side to lead the Diocese of Roermond with its 1 million faithful. For now, we need not expect yet another round of bishop appointments.

The full text of Bishop Wiertz’s homily follows below:

“You may have noticed this week that I always read my text with a little light. That is because I can no longer see very well. I will turn 74 this year and even bishops are not safe from all sort of old age ailments. But you need not feel sorry for me: I am in good health for my age. Except for those eyes. Sight is failing. And it will not get better.

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A while ago this bothered me, as I have to read, and read out, much. And in my free time I like to read books: novels, history, theology. I manage with those lights, but I’m not as fast as I used to be. That is no disaster, but it is a nuisance. Until I discovered something a few months ago. Since I have to read more slowly, I also read with more attention. Every word becomes clearer, so to speak. It sticks more and I reflect on its meaning more.

Walking around here in Lourdes, I wonder if this eye problem does not also have a deeper meaning. I may see a little less, but I also got something in return. A more intense awareness of the meaning of words. And in conversation listening becomes more important than looking.

God lets us have new experiences before we realise it ourselves. I do not mean to say that all illnesses or physical defects are a good thing. Not at all. Over the course of the years I have spoken to more than enough people who really suffer. My ailment is like nothing in comparison. But I have also learned from these sick and handicapped people – here in Lourdes, but also in the parishes where I have worked – that there is only one way to overcome suffering: by going through it. And at the same time look for support with God.

Luckily, nowadays doctors can do a lot to cure people are make physical suffering more bearable. But the best way to learn and accept your situation is through prayer. “Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray,” we heard in the first reading. It doesn’t make you better in the literal sense of the word, but it can help you feel better.

God heals in a different way. He helps you discover things in your illness of handicap, things you weren’t aware of before. Call them small miracles who help you every day to handle life.

Many people know Lourdes because of the great miracles. But in all the years that I have been coming here I have never seen those. I did witness many small miracles. People who can handle things again after a pilgrimage. People who find out, here in Lourdes, that they can still do a lot of things themselves. Like me with my more intense readings and more intensive listening. A small miracle. It is nothing compared to the miracle Jesus performs for the royal official in the Gospel. His son lives again even before he realises it himself. And why? What did he do? Nothing more than taking Jesus’ word for it. We can have faith in Jesus, that all that we experience in our lives has meaning. Even when we do not see it ourselves.

That is why we can look for the small positive things that cheer us up. Small things which help us through the day, who make us able able to handle things for a while. The smile of someone we know. A kind word. The good care of volunteers. The fact that we are making such a beautiful trip together. These are small miracles that God gives us. Winks from heaven, which He uses to show us that He thinks of us and grants everyone healing in His very own way.

You will shortly recieve the laying on of hands. You may experience that as a sign that God is with you, that He gives you strength and helps you. Perhaps in a way that you haven’t thought of yourself. Let us always be open to God, who walks His own paths in healing, but never leaves us.

Amen.”

Photo credit: Organisatie Limburgse Bedevaarten

A desperate situation – mother leaves newborn child in ‘foundling room’

For the first time since its establishment in 2014, a so-called ‘foundling room’ run by the Stichting Beschermde Wieg (protected cradle foundation) was used in the city of Groningen last week. The foundation aims to assist mothers who, for whatever reason, can’t take care of their child and do not want, or are afraid or unable to contact official institutions, to safely leave their child in the hands of a volunteer and ultimately a foster family. There are foundling rooms in four cities in the Netherlands. They are small rooms with a bed, chair and information on a wall poster, and the one in Groningen was the first to be used. A volunteer is available within minutes for any assistance the mother may need or want. This volunteer is with the baby soon after the mother has left. After leaving her child, the mother can reclaim her child within six months if she changes her mind or the situation she is in.

The child, which was left behind last Thursday night and whose details remain confidential, has been checked up in a hospital and is now in the care of a foster family. The mother has left her information in a sealed enveloppe in the care of a notary, so that the child, once he or she has reached the age of 16, can know and perhaps contact his or her biological mother.

The foundation’s foundling rooms are illegal under Dutch law, and the police have the matter under investigation. In 2014, when the room was opened, a Groningen city councillor criticised it, stating that all efforts of the city are directed at preventing the abandonment of newborn children. Laudable as that is, the foundation’s website makes it clear that there are cases (usually extremely painful ones) in which a mother is not able to go to a hospital or another official institution to be taken care of, because of psychological issues, abuse or the threat of physical violence to herself or the child. In the Netherlands, some six newborn children are found every year in dumpsters, public toilets, shopping bags or other places. Only two of these six are generally found alive. While foundling rooms are not perfect, they ensure the safety of the child and hopefully also the mother (through the information provided to her there). In many cases in other countries, the foundation claims, this information, and the possibility for personal contact with a volunteer, results in the mother coming back on her decision to leave her child.

In a society where abortion is perceived as just a medical procedure and even a human right, the work of this foundation can only be lauded. Yes, leaving a newborn child is not to be taken lightly. But in situations in which a mother is unable to take care of her child, it is always to be preferred over leaving it somewhere in the cold or, even worse, killing the child through abortion.

One day until number 10 – New bishop of ‘s -Hertogenbosch to be announced tomorrow

359px-Wapen_van_bisdom_Den_Bosch_svgThe rumours now strong enough that several media outlets have also announced it, we can welcome the new bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch at 11am tomorrow. The official announcement from the Vatican will follow at noon.

 Retiring Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, who announced his stepping back for health reasons in September, will either retire immediately, or stay on as administrator of the diocese he led for almost 18 years. If he retires immediately, it is conceivable that Auxiliary Bishop Rob Mutsaerts will be appointed as administrator, although the cathedral chapter may also appoint another priest from their number. Bishop Mutsaerts, however, already took over a significant number of the duties of Bishop Hurkmans when the latter was taking it slower because of his health.

Bishop Mutsaerts is also the most likely candidate to become the new ordinary, judging from various polls and expert opinions. Other names mentioned are those of Bishop Theodorus Hoogenboom, auxiliary of Utrecht; Msgr. Ron van Hout, vicar general of ‘s Hertogenbosch; Bishop Jan Liesen of neighbouring Breda (and former auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch); and even Bishop Gerard de Korte of Groningen-Leeuwarden (although this, in my opinion, is more reflective of his general popularity than anything else). Or it may be someone else completely, of course.

Whoever the new ordinary may be, he will be the first Dutch appointment for Pope Francis (not counting his appointment of Dutch Archbishop Bert van Megen as Apostolic Nuncio to Sudan and Eritrea) and also the first that Archbishop Aldo Cavalli, Nuncio to the Netherlands since March of last year, worked on. This first Franciscan appointment in the Netherlands will be interesting in light of the continuity (or lack thereof) with the appointments made under Pope Benedict XVI. The Pope emeritus is responsible for the vast majority of Dutch bishops being appointed. One of the exceptions was Bishop Hurkmans himself.

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Location of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands.

The Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch is the largest Dutch diocese in number of Catholics: 1.1 million in 2014, which is roughly half of the diocese’s entire population. It can trace its history back to 1559, when it was created out of territory belonging to the Diocese of Liège. In 1629 it vanished again, to be re-established as an Apostolic Vicariate in 1648. In the following centuries it lost territory to Breda and gained it from the Diocese of Antwerp and the smaller Apostolic Vicariates of Grave-Nijmegen and Ravenstein-Megen. In 1853, as the Catholic hierarchy was re-established in the Netherlands, ‘s-Hertogenbosch became a diocese again. The new bishop will be the tenth ordinary since then.

 

In last message, retiring Bishop Hurkmans hopes for unity

In what is likely to be one of his last – if not the last – messages to the faithful of his diocese, Bishop Antoon Hurkmans looks ahead to the upcoming appointment of his successor. He acknowledges that waiting can be a good thing – it makes us look at ourselves and our place in the Church in the diocese – but it should not take too long. The retiring bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch expresses his hope that the divisions in the diocese can be overcome, and that people will be willing to work with the new bishop, to find a greater unity and so to give a strong witness in society. These hopes are not without reason. In recent years we have seen more than a few clashes between the diocese and more liberal groups of faithful – most recently, a priest was even forcefully removed from his own church by a group who wanted to do things their own way. These divisions are a witness of strife, of anger, of closemindedness, not of faith, hope and love, nor of the joy of the Gospel. Cooperation with the new bishop should not be done “to please or praise him, but to strengthen the Church of the diocese”.

Bishop Hurkmans in the monthly newsletter from the diocese:

4ae8de7b-b9ab-4df9-938a-0a0b20ae4a22“In this newsletter I would like to catch up with you. Many people keep asking me, “How are you now?” Underneath often lies the question: how will things go with our diocese now? I can happily say that my health is a lot better. And, together with many of you, I anxiously await the appointment of the new bishop. That this needs time is to be expected. In most cases the preparations for the appointment of a bishop take about a year. But it would be good if the appointment would happen soon. An interval can be good, but it should not take too long.

What is good about an interval? Everyone marks time. We are being thrown back on ourselves a bit. What is my place in the Church? How do I contribute to the whole of the Church of the diocese? A bishop can mean a lot for his diocese when he is united in his duties with his priests, his deacons, with all who work with him in pastoral care and with the faithful. The future of the diocese depends for a major part on, let me put it like this, how we position ourselves. It would be very good if we accept the new bishop gladly and really think and work with him. Upon his appointment, let us strongly search for unity with him, in order to grow in unity with him. Not to please or praise him, but to strengthen the Church of the diocese. A strong witness to society may be expected of us in our time. This is what the Gospel asks, and so do the many people who need the richness of the faith. A divided witness is never strong. That is why I desire unity. This unity can not be restrictive, but must be built on love. The unity of a family. I pray and hope that the divisions in our diocese can be overcome. That there is an inner unity between those who stand with the people in their daily life and faith, and those who serve to maintain the larger context. After all, we all want to be Catholic and we all orient ourselves on Pope Francis. This is part of our Catholic identity.

In the context of the particular situation in our diocese it is especially beautiful that we have been given a Year of Mercy by our Church. Of course, there are initiatives. There is a Holy Door, there are prayer cards, meals are organised and I hear of parishes taking care of refugees. But it is also important that we give God’s mercy a place in our lives in a personal way. Directed at ourselves in prayer, but also directed at the people directly around us. To experience God’s mercy in prayer allows us to deal with others openly. It tears down prejudiced opinions and ideas which we can have of others.

Lastly, I would like to refer to Lent. We will soon begin our preparations for Easter. Once again, as Christians, we can become who we are. It is a good tradition to restore personal relations during Lent, to restore the relation with God and contribute to restoring good relations in the world. We can not remain indifferent to the people affected by wars, by attacks, to people who have to flee, who are persecuted for their faith, to sick people living in institutions or on the street, to people in prison, to the many lonely people in the world. Especially during Lent, we must try and find the steps to take to restore relations. As Church we have the commandment to be open to the world.”