Mouring and rejoicing after Notre Dame burned

“We are gathered in the Mother Church of the Diocese of Paris, Notre-Dame Cathedral, which rises in the heart of the city as a living sign of God’s presence in our midst.  My predecessor, Pope Alexander III, laid its first stone, and Popes Pius VII and John Paul II honoured it by their presence.  I am happy to follow in their footsteps, a quarter of a century after coming here to offer a conference on catechesis.  It is hard not to give thanks to the Creator of both matter and spirit for the beauty of this edifice.  The Christians of Lutetia had originally built a cathedral dedicated to Saint Stephen, the first martyr; as time went on it became too small, and was gradually replaced, between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, by the great building we admire today.  The faith of the Middle Ages built the cathedrals, and here your ancestors came to praise God, to entrust to him their hopes and to express their love for him.  Great religious and civil events took place in this shrine, where architects, painters, sculptors and musicians have given the best of themselves.  We need but recall, among so many others, the architect Jean de Chelles, the painter Charles Le Brun, the sculptor Nicolas Coustou and the organists Louis Vierne and Pierre Cochereau.  Art, as a pathway to God, and choral prayer, the Church’s praise of the Creator, helped Paul Claudel, who attended Vespers here on Christmas Day 1886, to find the way to a personal experience of God.  It is significant that God filled his soul with light during the chanting of the Magnificat, in which the Church listens to the song of the Virgin Mary, the Patroness of this church, who reminds the world that the Almighty has lifted up the lowly (cf. Lk 1:52).  As the scene of other conversions, less celebrated but no less real, and as the pulpit from which preachers of the Gospel like Fathers Lacordaire, Monsabré and Samson transmitted the flame of their passion to the most varied congregations, Notre-Dame Cathedral rightly remains one of the most celebrated monuments of your country’s heritage.  Following a tradition dating back to the time of Saint Louis, I have just venerated the relics of the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns, which have now found a worthy home here, a true offering of the human spirit to the power of creative Love.”

Pope Benedict XVI, 12 September 2008, at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

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Last night, Notre Dame burned. This morning, we find that more than we could have hoped for was spared of its interior. The roof and spire may be gone, and soot may cover the walls and mangled debris may have reached the floor, but Notre Dame still stands.

And most important of all, the reason of its existence still remains: the presence of the Lord, Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine, the sacraments given to us who wish to follow Him, as well as some of the symbols of the salvation He wrought for us.

Notre Dame is a historical building which has a special place in the hearts and minds of many, first of all the Parisians and the French, but also those millions, including yours truly, who had the chance to visit her, however briefly.*

But more than a monument to history and the civilisation in which we live, Notre Dame is a church. It is the home of God, a prefiguration of heaven, the place where we come to encounter Him as closely as we can. It manifests the presence of God in the heart of Paris, in the place where that great city began, and thus also in the heart of all the works and endeavours we undertake.

Last night’s fire and its timing, as Holy Week begins, can be understood symbolically, regardless of the cause of the fire. The scenes of people praying and singing as the cathedral burned give us hope and remind us that God hears us at the difficult times in our lives, but He remains present when things are going well and we tend to forget or ignore Him. Like Notre Dame, He is always there.

Today, we may mourn the damage done, but we may also rejoice in what remains. Notre Dame still stands. God is still with us.

*Last October, my wife and I had the chance to visit Notre Dame. By chance we participated in a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Aupetit and Bishop Freddy Fuenmayor Suárez of Los Teques, Venezuela, who gifted an icon of the Blessed Virgin to Notre Dame. The cathedral was filled to capacity and the mood was celebratory. The joy of the Hispanic community was palpable and infectuous. A fond memory, which made yesterday’s developments all the more painful.

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Closing the cathedral – A step closer in Utrecht

imgIt appears that the process of secularising and selling the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Utrecht is no more option anymore, but soon to be reality. As reported by Hendro Munsterman in his regular newsletter, the parish council is in the second of an eight-step program that will result in the secularisation and then sale of the sole remaining medieval Catholic church in the city of Utrecht. This second step included informing the parishioners, which happened last weekend. Next up is a series of hearings for those parishioners which should then result in a proposal that will be sent to the archbishop. This proposal is a request for secularisation and the process in which that should place. The decision to secularise lies with the archbishop, even though it was initiated by the parish council.

Although a future use for the cathedral has not been confirmed by anyone, a rumour goes that there is already a contract ready for signing, under which the cathedral will be sold to the adjacent museum Catharijneconvent, which already owns the remainder of the old monastic complex of which the cathedral is a part, for a symbolic sum of 1 euro. A sale to the museum will assure the survival of the building’s interior and history.

In the meantime, parishioners and supporters across the archdiocese have signed a petition to prevent the secularisation and sale of the cathedral. Among the 1438 signatories are a number of priests. One, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “We have all been ordained in this church: we now feel what we inflict upon regular parishioners when we close the church in which they were married and where their children have been baptised.”

Whatever the decision, it is already triggering strong emotions, but the fact remains that the parish is taking these steps in order to stay financially afloat. Buildings, especially old ones, cost money, and if donations and other forms of support don’t cover the bill, such extreme measures become options.

While the cathedral of St. Catherine is not the first or only church considered for secularisation, it is unique in that it is a cathedral. Dioceses need cathedrals, so if St. Catherine’s is sold, the Archdiocese of Utrecht must find a new one. The most logical option would be the other church used by the cathedral parish: St Augustine’s, which is smaller and has been closed for renovation for the better part of two years. While possible, it would be almost inconceivable to move the cathedral outside the city of Utrecht, to a more central location in the archdiocese (the Archdiocese of Utrecht stretches from the Randstad metropolitan area to the German border, with the city of Utrecht situated almost on its western edge).

St. Catherine’s has been the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Utrecht since its reestablishment in 1853. The secularisation of cathedrals is rare, but not unheard of. In the 1970s it happened in the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, where the cathedral of St. Martin was secularised and subsequently demolished, and in 2001 the Diocese of Breda made the church of St. Anthony its cathedral (it had already been the cathedral for several decades in the 19th century). The previous cathedral, St. Michael, was demolished in 2007 and replaced with a new and smaller building.

Photo credit: Katholiek Utrecht

 

For Advent, Bishop Bonny looks to the martyrs of Algeria

Today, nineteen martyrs of the faith will be beatified in Algeria. It’s a varied group of priests, religious sisters and a bishop and their martyrdom is not an ancient event. Rather, they were killed for being Christians in living memory, in te last decade of the 20th century.

In his Advent letter, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp presents us one of the soon-to-be Blesseds. Belgian-born White Father Charles Deckers. He, the bishop says, provides a modern face to Advent, a time of hope and expectation. These are what motivated Fr. Charles and the other martyrs in life, and these still remain.

bonny“What are we waiting for? A justifiable question. Every year it is Advent. Every year we dream about peace and reconciliation. Every years we read pages full of hope and expectation in the Prophets. Every year we construct a nativity scene with a child in the manger. Not once do we feel that those expectations are unnecessary or outdated. On the contrary, year after year current events bring new disappointments or challenges. Our greatest expectations still remain hidden as seeds in the earth, waiting for a better season.

In the middle of Advent, on 8 December, the Antwerp-born White Father Charles Deckers will be beatified in Oran, Algeria, together with eighteen other martyrs. This group of Algerian martyrs also includes a bishop, six sisters, three other White Father and seven Trappists. We know the latter from the movie Des Hommes et de Dieux.

Charles Deckers was born in Antwerp on 26 December 1924. He follows his secondary education at the college of Our Lady. During the Second World War the Jesuits implore their students to aid the needy inhabitants of the city. It marks Charles Deckers for life. After his secondary education he decides to become a missionary in Africa. He ends up in Algeria, then still a French colony. He studies Islam and learns both Arabic and Berber. In Tizi Ouzou, where he lives and works for the longest time, he has a special eye for the young. He establish a technical school where young people can learn a profession. During the Algerian War (1954-1962) he does everything to prevent young people from joining extremist or violent groups. Because the civil authorities do no appreciate his impact on Algeria’s youth, he is forced to leave the country in 1977.

He remains abroad for ten years: five years in Brussels and five years in Yemen. In Brussels he takes part in the establishment of El Kalima, a centre of encounter and dialogue between Christians and Muslims. He is finally able to return to Algeria in 1987. As priest he is attached to the Basilica of Notre-Dame d’Afrique in the capital Algiers. Again, he works for encounter and dialogue, especially among the young. And again, he establishes a polytechnic.

After 1990, political tensions in Algeria steadily increase. Fundamentalist Muslim groups commit deathly attacks against anyone working for peace and reconciliation in the country. Violence against Christians also increases. Despite the threats, most priests and religious decide to remain in the country. Charles Deckers also wants to stay, out of solidarity with the persecuted Christians and his threatened Muslim friends. It is a conscious decision, supported by a deep spirituality. On 26 December 1994 he celebrates his 70th birthday in Algiers. Days later he leaves for Tizi Ouzou, to visit his brother priests. Less than half an hour after his arrival a group of armed commandos break into the building and kill the four White Fathers present, among them Charles Deckers.

Expectation is not giving in to despair or bitterness. It is continued hope for what seems impossible.

After all, humanity’s most beautiful expectations are still hidden like seeds in the earth, waiting for better seasons. When will that hidden seed be able to sprout, grow and flower? It is an open question.

This year, the martyrs of Algeria provide a modern face to Advent.

Their hope and expectations have not vanished. They lie in the earth – also among us – waiting for better times. Advent’s question is not when God will come, but when man will receive Him. It is harder to wait for man that it is to wait for God.”

In Roermond, an experienced native son takes the seat

After a ten-month vacancy (another fairly lengthy one, which unavoidably gave rise to theories of episcopal disagreements reaching as far as the Vatican itself), the Diocese of Roermond has a bishop again. Stepping into the shoes  of Frans Wiertz, who led the diocese for 24 years is Father Harrie Smeets, 57, until now the dean of Venray.

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^The cathedral chapter of Roermond upon the appointment of Dean Smeets to that body in 2015. The new bishop of Roermond can be seen to the right of then-Bishop Frans Wiertz.

BisdomRoermondLocatieThe Diocese of Roermond coincides with the province of Limburg and is located in the south-east of the Netherlands, wedged in between Belgium and Germany, bordering the Dutch (arch)dioceses of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Utrecht, Hasselt and Liège in Belgium and Aachen and Münster in Germany. It shares much of its history with its neighbours, as it was first established in 1559 from territories belonging to Cologne and Liège. It was suppressed under Napoleon and re-established in 1840, again from Cologne and Liège. it has been a full diocese since 1853. The  Catholic history, however, goes far further back, as the diocese also includes the city of Maastricht, which was the seat of a diocese as far back as 530.

The new bishop will be assisted in his work by the longest-seated auxiliary bishop in the Netehrlands, Msgr. Everard de Jong currently in Rome to participate in the Synod of Bishops.

Bishop-elect Smeets will be the tenth bishop of Roermond since 1853. He has served as area dean of Venray, tbe northernmost of Roermond’s thirteen deaneries, since 2004. He has been a priest for more than 25 years and a member of the cathedral chapter since 2015. As such played a part in his own appointment, although one may wonder if the office of bishops is something that any good priest willingly seeks. Until 2011, Bishop-elect Smeets offered televised Masses, which were broadcast on national television live, 14 times. Leo Fijen, TV presenter and head of religious/spiritual programming for broadcaster KRO/NCRV, knows Fr. Smeets well and describes him thus:

“A priest from Limburg, a man of these times, a teacher who speaks the language of the young, a manager willing to make decisions, but also a man seeking God and doing what this pope considers important: opening the doors of the church and seeking out Christ in the neighbours outside the church.”

The exact time and date of Bishop Smeets’ consecration remains to be announced.

Photo credit: Bisdom Roermond

Exiled for most of his life as a bishop, Dominik Kalata returns to his final home

17206641-h-720Friday a week ago, the 24th of August, saw the passing of 93-year-old Bishop Dominik Kalata in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was the end of a life spent for the major part in exile, a life marked by the Church’s attempts to serve the faithful in Communist-dominated lands during the Cold War. Born in Poland, Bishop Kalata was consecrated in secret for the Church in what was then Czechoslovakia, spent 26 years of his life in Germany, only to return to what had then become Slovakia, where he died.

Bishop Kalata, who came from southern Poland, joined the Jesuits in 1943, the middle of the Second World War, and began his studies in the town of Tetschen, in the Nazi German Sudetenland, now Děčín in the Czech Republic. After the war the Communists came to power, and in 1950 all monasteries were closed, which made Kalata’s studies significantly more difficult, as he was first imprisoned and then served for three years in the Czechoslovakian military. In 1951, he was ordained a priest for the Society of Jesus. His priesthood still illegal in Czechoslovakia, Father Kalata earned a living as a carpenter, joiner, lorry driver, electrician and photo lab technician. He was nonetheless imprisoned for a further six years. As by that time, all the bishops in the country were either in prison themselves or else under constant guard, Fr. Kalata was consecrated as bishop in secret, which allowed him a certain measure of freedom of movement, that the known bishops lacked. He was one of a number of bishops thus consecrated. In 1968, Bishop Kalata received amnesty, although any public exercise of his office remained forbidden. A year later, he was allowed to travel to Austria, to complete his studies in Innsbruck. In 1976, he was made responsible for the pastoral care of Czech faithful outside their homelands, in all of Europe and North America.  In 1985, his episcopal office was made sort of official by Rome, as he was appointed as titular bishop of Semta . He was never appointed to a diocese in the Czech republic or Slovakia, unlike some of his brethren. For example, the bishop who had originally consecrated him, Ján Korec, was himself secretly consecrated in 1951, and would become bishop of Nitra in 1990 and a cardinal in 1991.

During his time in Germany, from 1976 to 209, Bishop Kalata served the Archdiocese of Freiburg im Breisgau, conferring confirmations and consecrating altars, clocks and organs in behalf of the archbishop. As such, he served as an unofficial auxiliary bishop, although he had no role in the archdiocesan curia. In 2009, Bishop Kalata returned home to Slovakia.

In remarks made on the occasion of Bishop Kalata’s death, Msgr. Axel Mehlmann, vicar general of Freiburg im Breisgau said:

“He was steadfast in his faith and trust in God. In times of persecution he was for many a sign for the fact that God is among us and does not abandon us. In our time, when the unity of Europe is at risk, as marginalisation, demarcation and oppression become increasingly prevalent, we remember Bishop Kalata with gratitude and respect.

An overview of the Czechoslovakian bishops during the Communist dictatorship can be found, in German, here.

Bishop Kalata was the second-longest serving bishop in the world, having been consecrated on 9 September 1955.

Cardinal no more – McCarrick goes back to purple

A historic development today in the fight against sexual abuse in the Church: a cardinal, albeit a retired one, resigned his title and red hat, and was ordered to cease all his public duties and lead a live of prayer and penance in a yet to be announced location.

_CNS-NY-TIMES-MCCARRICK-SEMINARIANS.jpgCardinal – now just Archbishop – Theodore McCarrick faces two allegations of sexual abuse of minors and several further claims of harassment of and misconduct with adults. The steps taken today come before his case is heard and judged in a canonical trial according to ecclesiastical law, and any legal developments which may take place  in an American court of law, as the law allows (the major obstacle in such cases, which – as here – often took place many years ago, remains the statute of limitations).

The case of McCarrick brings back strong memories of that of the late Scottish Cardinal O’Brien. He too saw all his cardinal rights and duties removed on his own request, but he was allowed to remain a cardinal. Former Cardinal McCarrick is punished more severely, although it is, in some ways, a passive punishment, as it was McCarrick himself who requested it in a  letter to the Pope.

The full resignation of a cardinal is a rare event, and this is the first time it has happened since 1927. In 2015, I wrote a blog post about the history of cardinal resignations, in which I gave an overview of past resignations of cardinals (although in it I erroneously claimed that the last such resignation took place in 1911 instead of 1927).

It remains to be seen if there will be a canonical trial for McCarrick, as today’s press release suggests, and if so, what its result will be. Perhaps there will be further penalties for Archbishop McCarrick. On Twitter,  Dr Kurt Martens, Professor of Canon Law at the Catholic University of America, offers a detailed analysis of the possible penalties that can be levied against McCarrick according to the laws of the Church. He suggests that dismissal from the clerical state is one of the few options remaining, as McCarrick is already retired and so no longer holds any office. Martens mentions two recent examples of prelates having been laicised after allegations of abuse: Raymond Lahey, former bishop of Antigonish in Canada in 2012, and Józef Wesolowski, former Apostolic Nuncio to the Dominican Republic (and thus automatically an archbishop)  in 2014.

Beyond McCarrick, there is a chance that there will be consequences for other bishops in the United States and Rome, as the question of who knew what and when about McCarrick’s abuse remains unanswered.

Theodore Edgar McCarrick was a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, and became auxiliary bishop of that archdiocese in 1977. In 1981, he was appointed as bishop of Metuchen in New Jersey, and then as archbishop of Newark in 1986. From 2011 to 2006 he served as archbishop of Washington. He was created a cardinal in the giant consistory of 21 February 2001 (making him a cardinal class mate of Pope Francis). He held the title of Santi Nereo ed Achilleo. The two allegations of sexual abuse of a minor, which were deemed credible and substantiated by the Archdiocese of New York in June, took place in the early 1970s and involved a then 16-year-old boy. McCarrick was then serving as a priest in New York, and today claims to have no memory of the alleged abuse. At the same time last month, the chanceries of the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Metuchen, where McCarrick served as bishop, announced that they had received three further allegations of misconduct involving adults, and that two of these allegations had resulted in settlements.

Photo credit: CNS photo/Bob Roller

835 years after his death, Saint Hathebrand comes home

It may not look like it today, but the northern part of what is now the Netherlands, especially the provinces of Groningen and Fryslân, were once a monastic heartland. Much of the land reclaimed from the sea was the result of the work by monks or promoted by them. They established massive monastic complexes, of which the town of Aduard is perhaps among the best known.

One of the monasteries was Oldeklooster (which simply means ‘old monastery’) near the village of Feldwerd, near the shores of the Dollard sea arm. This was established by a man named Hathebrand (although the second ‘h’ in his name is sometimes omitted). Hathebrand’s monastery housed both male and female religious and, after a difficult first start, which, the story goes, even included one or more attempts on the life of its founder, the monastery flourished. Hathebrand went on to establish two more monasteries: Merehusen in East Frisia (now northwest Germany) and Thesinge or Germania in the vicinity of the city of Groningen. According to monastic records, Hathebrand died on 30 July 1183.

In 1594 the fortunes of the monasteries turned. The city of Groningen, which controlled much of the lands surrounding it, fell to the forces of the Dutch republic and quickly became Protestant. The Catholic faith became illegal and the monasteries fell empty. Over time, they turned into ruins which were later demolished. In the countryside of Groningen, there is very little that remains of the once ubiquitous religious foundations.

The remains of Hathebrand, by then deemed a saint, were moved to the Catholic south, ending up in Antwerp. While the north forgot about him, in what is now Belgium he was venerated as a saint and helper in need.  The Belgian town of Mortsel still has a street named after him. The relics of Saint Hathebrand found a final resting place in the church of Kortrijk-Dutsel. And there the story ends. Until recently.

In the words of reporter Reinder Smith, writing for RTV Noord:

“He had stopped hoping. Edze de Boer from Uithuizermeeden is almost 92 years old, and has been looking for Saint Hathebrand for more than fifty years. Last March he received a letter from the parish council of Kortrijk-Dutsel.

[…]

“De Boer was born in Katmis near Holwierde and knew from his youth the stories that there had been a monastery on this dwelling mound. He started to study the history, and so learned that the physical remains of Hathebrand had ended up in Belgium.”

[…]

“Former teacher De Boer had already visited [Kortrijk-Dutsel] in 2002, but the relic could not be found then. But the board of the church of St. Catherine kept looking and after 16 years a small chest appeared from the back of a closet, with in it, among other things, a part of the bones of St. Hathebrand.”

Today, those few remains returned home. Not to Hathebrand’s monastery, which is long gone, but to the dwelling mound of Feldwerd, and then to the church of Krewerd, for a public presentation, including a look back on Mr. de Boer’s search for the long-lost saint, medieval organ music, an address on the rediscovery of the saints following the restoration of medieval churches and the related study of medieval church interiors, and a brief word by Catholic priest Fr. Arjen Jellema.

Saint Hathebrand’s return is a temporary one, however. After a brief visit to his native lands, Hathebrand will return to Belgium.