Back home, Bishop Van Looy shares his Synod experience

In a letter to the priests, deacons and pastoral workers in his diocese – in other words, everyone entrusted with the pastoral care of the faithful – Ghent’s Bishop Luc Van Looy joins the ranks of Synod fathers looking back on the past three weeks. Bishop Van Looy does so not only as a diocesan bishop, but also as President of Caritas Europe. This focus already became clear in the first of two interventions he made at the Synod, when he spoke about the plight of migrants and refugees.

van looy marx

^Bishop Van Looy (right) shakes hands with Cardinal Marx at the Synod. Photo credit: CNS

In this letter, Bishop Van Looy focusses on the three steps of listening, accompanying and integration when it comes to exercising mercy.

I must add that his focus on a new beginning, or that the time of condemnation and judging is over, seems to indicate a rupture with the past that simply is not there. The Synod did not go about inventing a new Church, but making the existing one more effective in her pastoral care. Too often I see this false opposition between doctrine (the past) and mercy (the future), or doctrine and reality. Sure, we can well speak of a renewed focus on mercy, of new ways of exercising pastoral care, but not without starting from the foundation that is there. Mercy is not complete without doctrine.

Anyway, on to the letter, which does reflect Bishop Van Looy’s enthusiasm about what was discussed and decided at the Synod.

To the priests, deacons and parish assistants of the Diocese of Ghent

Dear friends,

As you know, I participated in the Synod on The Vocation and the Mission of the Family in the Church and the World of Today. It has been a remarkable experience of being Church, a true Church council. The attention of media from all over the world confirms that this Synod was of special significance.

Rightly there has been talk of the “tenderness of the Church”: she is mother and the Pope is father.

The atmosphere of friendship and shared responsibility which existed among the 270 cardinals and bishops, the 40 lay people and the 20 representatives of other Christian churches and 10 religious made a true impression. Not only were the continents together, almost all countries in the world frankly made their voices heard. This gave us the opportunity to listen to the great variety of traditions and customs in marriage. The cry of distress to give the millions of people living in refugee camps and shelters, or in precarious situations anywhere in the world a future in which they can live as a family in serenity and human dignity and can assure the education of their children, sounded strongly at the Synod.

The Church has taken an important step forward towards cooperation and shared responsibility. The Church we experienced there is new and provides a well-founded hope for the future. Cardinal Danneels said, “The Church has changed”, and Pope Francis said that “the pyramid is turned upside down”. Synodically speaking, much work remains in the local churches, in the regional structures such as bishops’ conferences and also centrally in Rome. The right attitude is mercy understood and listening, and “listening is more than hearing”. That is always the starting point, followed by “accompanying”, recognising the real situation in which every family finds itself, and lastly working for “integration” in the Church. All baptised are members of the Church, divorced and remarried couples are also welcome, no one is excommunicated.

In the parable the father invited both his sons at the table, the prodigal son and also the oldest son, both sinners if you will. This image clearly expresses what mercy means. The good Samaritan did not ask if the wounded man was a Jew or Greek, married or divorced. These images indicate that man was at the heart of the Synod, in his or her real context, not theory or doctrine.

What is expected of the Church and the bishops? That they are close to the people and speak with them. That they take on “the smell of the sheep” and so find out what God’s Spirit plans for them. Discernment of the Spirit, together with mercy, could be called the keyword of what the Church is to do.

It was rightly said that the time when the Church was out to judge or condemn is over. The Synod shows a new image of the Church. People in difficult situations are invited to “a greater and also more complete participation in the life of the Church. Growing towards that is the goal of the pastoral guidance offered to them” (final document, nr. 86).

The influence of Pope Francis is great in such an assembly. Even though he says nothing in the general assembly, his sympathetic and available presence shows a new image of leadership. His opening homily, the address at the 50th anniversary of the Synod, his speech after the voting and his homily at the final Eucharist showed that he wants to be a humble servant who does however state calmly but clearly that service to the people, in the first place to the poor, comes first. Every authoritarian attitude is alien to him, and he rejects it.

“We walked like the disciples of Emmaus and have recognised the presence of Christ in the breaking of the bread in the Eucharist, in fraternal communion, in the discussion of pastoral experiences” (final document, nr. 94).

I wanted to share this with you, and entrust this to your care. The past weeks did not only mark those present, they are also an assignment for us all. Together, we continue working on it.

With best regards,

+ Luc Van Looy

The Synod – time for some personal thoughts

There is so much talk about the Synod that it’s hard to decide what to blog about it when available blogging hours per day are limited. Should I focus on what I thought about all the interventions, the rumours, the hopes and fears? Or would it be a good idea to make available the translated texts from some of the Synod fathers that have been making headlines in the runup to the Synod? Just some of the questions I asked myself. Obviously I decided to focus on the latter, and it has proven to be a good decision, judging from the interest it has been getting.

But of course I do have thoughts on the Synod, and as this is a blog, I will be sharing some of them.

First of all, we are looking at glimpses of the Synod from the outside, which limits the amount of reliable information we are getting. Of course, some reports and interpretations are more reliable than others, and personally I find myself gravitating towards the more level-headed reports. The Synod is not over yet, so I find myslef annoyed at the fear and panic in some quarters of the web. As if they already know what the result is going to be: a disaster for Church and faith. I somehow doubt that. We should be glad if this Synod even has a lasting effect.

I have been translating the interventions of the Belgian and German Synod fathers (it’s a shame that the sole Dutch Synod father, Cardinal Eijk, has chosen not to disclose his text). Does that mean I agree with them? No, not automatically. I also don’t subscribe to the notion that just because it’s written by a Belgian or a German it’s automatically heresy. They have good things to say. They also say some things which I find worrisome. An example. I’m not a theologian, but I don’t see a reason for divorced and remarried Catholics to be allowed to receive Communion. If we take the indissolubility of marriage seriously, as well as the words of Jesus in Matthew 9, we can’t say that divorce and remarrying is no big deal. Certainly, this makes things difficult for the people involved, no doubt about that. But what is the basis of our faith? The person, words and actions of Jesus or the emotions and feelings of people? The latter, which does not mean we should not take the latter seriously. And that is what I believe this Synod is, or should be, about.

As the German bishops especially have emphasised, we must go to the people where they are. Jesus did. But He didn’t tell them to stay there. He told them to change their circumstances. “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus does not condemn us, but does urge us to change our ways. That is what we as Church should always keep in mind and try to emulate. Not condemning people, but urging them to leave their wrongs behind them.

The fruitful path for the Synod is, in my opinion, not to be found in changing doctrine, but in pastoral practice. There is much to win there in term of efficiency.

How to deal with all the rumours about the Synod? Ignore them. There is one reliable source to learn about the atmosphere, the factions or lack thereof, on the Synod floor, and that is the Synod fathers themselves. They’re categorically denying the existence of factions, of fighting and anger. It’s a good and fruitful effort, they say, with room for debate, discussion, disagreement even. That’s the hallmark of any proper debate. We shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming to know what certain cardinals, bishops or even the Pope wants or tries to do. If we learn about a letter to the Pope, that is no reason to scream “rebellion!”, but a perfectly normal way of communicating. The Pope is not above debate and can deal with questions and even different opinions.

We are Catholics, which means we have a living faith of hope and beauty. We are not unfamiliar with some optimism and trust in the Holy Spirit. Let Him do His work. Do not presume to always know better .

francis synod

^Even the Pope has reason to smile going into the Synod, so let us not be too grumpy

The home of mercy – Cardinal Danneels´ brief intervention

francis-danneels-640x480Kerknet publishes the brief intervention given by Cardinal Godfried Danneels. It is one of the shortest I’ve come across, and does not speak about any of the hot topics at the Synod. Rather, the cardinal, whose suitability for attending the Synod has been questioned by some, speaks about the “home of mercy” in every person, where God’s Spirit dwells, and the “little shepherds” in His field.

Holy Father, brother and sisters in Christ,

My intervention is not theological, canonical or pastoral; it is spiritual.

In general, our western countries are prosperous; there is social policy and care for the poor; medical science makes great leaps forward and the medical care in hospitals is of high quality. Materially, much is done for spouses and families. For all these reasons, everyone, or at least almost everyone, in the west, should be happy. And yet!

Despite all these effort from society, the cry of the prophet resounds from the heart of every man: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” (Psalm 130).

Day after day, all people keep asking the same two questions:

  • Where will I find a place where I am truly listened to?
  • Who will speak a liberating word on my behalf?

Luckily, deep in every man, in every woman, there is a hidden place where someone lives, someone who always listens and offers a saving word. It is the place where God lives; where His Spirit lives in us.

That place is called “the home of mercy”.

The Hebrew word for mercy (rahamin) does not know the word “heart”, but uses the word “womb” (uterus). For in that “womb of mercy” there is tenderness and security, which is even greater than marital intimacy. In God’s  house, man is secure as in the womb. Man is at home there. There is true listening and speaking there. God lives in the “home of mercy”: He listens, speaks, heals and forgives with a mother’s tenderness. Even when her child’s situation is hopeless, a mother knows how to be a mother.

God lives there, as a shepherd, the great shepherd. But there are also “little shepherds”. The priests in the first place, but there are also many lay people who are shepherds. Is there a man or woman to whom no lamb is entrusted? The little shepherds are part of the house staff of the “home of mercy”. Thanks be given to all little shepherds – priests and laity – in God’s field.

Over the past months, thousands of people have sent questions, suggestions and wishes in preparation for this Synod. All of this comes from the heart. From that place, where there is truly being listened and deeply being spoken. It is the place where God lives: the “home of mercy”.

Thanks to all who have shared their concerns with us. Thanks also to the priests and all the other little shepherds.

+ Godfried Cardinal Danneels

Germanicus 2 – the German language group digs into mercy and truth

The language groups have published their second summaries of their discussions about the second part of the Instrumentum laboris. The German group gets decidedly more theological in theirs, as they discuss the false opposition between mercy and truth, grace and justice, graduality, and the practical consequences of understanding sacramental marriage in a historical and biographical way.

In today’s press conference, Cardinal Vincent Nichols recommended the German contribution as the most theologically sound.

This is my translation of the German original that was, once again, composed by Archbishop Heiner Koch:

synod german circle“We have extensively discussed the concepts of mercy and truth, grace and justice, which are constantly treated as being in opposition to one another, and their theological relationships. In God they are certainly not in opposition: as God is love, justice and mercy come together in Him. The mercy of God is the fundamental truth of revelation, which is not opposed to other truths of revelation. It rather reveals to us the deepest reason, as it tells us why God empties Himself in His Son and why Jesus Christ remains present in His Church through His word and His sacraments. The mercy of God reveals to us in this way the reason and the entire purpose of the work of salvation. The justice of God is His mercy, with which He justifies us.

We have also discussed what the consequences of this are for our accompaniment of married couples and families. It excludes a one-sided deductive hermeneutic which subsumes concrete situations under a general principle. For Thomas Aquinas as well as the Council of Trent, the implimentation of basic principles of prudence and wisdom to the particular and often complicated situations, is pending. This is not about exceptions to which the word of God does not apply, but about the question of a fair and reasonable application of the words of Jesus – such as the words about ithe indissolubility of marriage – in prudence and wisdom. Thomas Aquinas explained the necessity of a concrete application, for example when he says, “To prudence belongs not only the consideration of reason, but also the application to action, which is the goal of practical reason (STh II-II-47, 3: “ad prudentiam pertinet non solum consideratio rationis, sed etiam applicatio ad opus, quae est finis practicae rationis“).

Another aspect of our discussion was in the first place the gradual introduction of people to the sacrament of marriage, beginning with non-binding relationships, via couples cohabitating or only civilly married couples to valid and sacramental marriage, as frequently mentioned in Chapter 3 of the second part, Accompanying these people pastorally in the various steps is a great pastoral task, but also a joy.

It also became clear to us that we are too static and not biographical-historical in many debates and observations. The Church’s  doctrine of marriage was developed and deepened in history. First it was about the humanisation of marriage, which condensed into the conviction of monogamy. In light of the Christian faith the personal dignity of the spouses was recognised more deeply and the divine likeness was perceived more deeply in the relationship of husband and wife. In a further step the ecclesiality of marriage was deepened and it was understood as a house church. Subsequently, the Church became more aware of the sacramentality of marriage. This historical path of deeper understanding is today also visible in the biography of many people. They are first touched by the human dimension of marriage, in the environment of the Church they become convinced of the Christian view on marriage and from there they find their way to the celebration of sacramental marriage. As the historical development of the Church’s teaching has taken time, so her pastoral care must also accord the people on their path to sacramental marriage a time of maturing and not act according to the principle of “all or nothing”. Here the thought of  a “growth process” (Familiaris Consortio, 9) can be developed further, as John Paul II already established in Familiaris Consortio: “The Church’s pastoral concern will not be limited only to the Christian families closest at hand; it will extend its horizons in harmony with the Heart of Christ, and will show itself to be even more lively for families in general and for those families in particular which are in difficult or irregular situations” (FC 65). Here the Church inevitably stands in the conflict between a necessary clarity in teaching about marriage and family on the one hand, and the specific pastoral task to accompany and convince those people whose lives only comform in part with the principles of the Church on the other. It is important to take steps with them on the road to the fullness of life in marriage and family, as the Gospel of the family promises.

Personally oriented pastoral care, which equally includes the normativity of doctrine and the personality of the person, keeps his ability to be conscientious in mind and strengthens his responsibility, is necessary in this regard. “For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths” (Gaudium et Spes, 16).

We ask to consider to more aspects for the final text:

Every impression should be avoided that Scripture is used only as a source of quotations for dogmatic, legal or ethical convictions. The law of the New Covenant is the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the faithful (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, N. 1965-1966). The written word must be integrated into the living Word that resides in the hearts of people through the Holy Spirit. This gives Scripture a broad spiritual power.

Lastly, we have struggled with the concept of natural marriage. In the history of mankind natural marriage is always shaped culturally. The concept of natural marriage can imply that there is a natural way of living of people without a cultural imprint. We therefore pro[pose to formulate: “Marriage justified in Creation”.”

As the Synod begins, a short note from the cardinal

Via, a short note from Cardinal Eijk, who is the sole Dutch participant in the assembly of the Synod of Bishops which was opened yesterday with a Holy Mass.

“The opening celebration, in which we prayed for the support of the Holy Spirit, was impressive, and we are ready to begin this intense period of listening to and deliberating and discussing with each other. I hope that faithful across the world and in especially in the Netherlands pray with us for God’s blessing over this Synod.”

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 Cardinal Baldisseri addresses the Synod, flanked by the Pope and, at his right, Archbishop Bruno Forte, the special secretary, and Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, president delegate. Seated in the third row from the bottom, second from the right, seems to be Cardinal Eijk, flanked by Cardinals Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal and Christopher Collins.

Today was the first full day of deliberations, although for the majority of Synod father, much of it was taken up by listening. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod, once again explained the processes of the coming three weeks. Cardinal Péter Erdö, relator general, held a long exposition outlining the context and topics of the Synod. John Allen has a good analysis of the cardinal’s talk. His clear words about the impossibility of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, ruffled a number of feathers outside the Synod hall, but it should be clear by now that the Synod is not about to change doctrine. Rather, its focus is pastoral care and how it may best be developed and practiced. As Cardinal Vingt-Trois put it at this afternoon’s press conference, “If you think you will find a radical change in Church doctrine, you’ll be disappointed”. The archbishop of Paris, who serves the Synod as one of four President Delegates, stated that the Synod has two goals: to propose the Gospel of the family and the pastoral accompaniment of families in their realities.

Photo credit: L’Osservatore Romano

Don Danneels? The power struggles of the Belgian cardinal

danneelsIn an extensive biography (cover pictured), published earlier this week, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, retired archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and personal choice of Pope Francis to attend the Synod of Bishops assembly in two weeks time, speaks frankly about his membership of a group of cardinals and bishops, which he likenes to a maffia. This group, named Sankt Gallen for the Swiss town where they would meet, became active in 1990s and included among its members the late Cardinals Carlo Martini and Basil Hume, Cardinals Kasper and Lehmann, as well as Bishop Ad van Luyn, bishop emeritus of Rotterdam.

It should be noted that I have not been able to read the biography myself yet, so I draw my conclusion from those snippets I have read and from what others have written.

The group, which Cardinal Danneels called a maffia in an interview, had the aim of radically modernising the Church following the papacy of St. John Paul II. Members could speak freely and no records were kept, as the cardinal admitted once the group’s existence was revealed in research related to the writing of the biography.

Unhappy with the course of the Church under Saint John Paul II (who appointed Cardinal Danneels as archbishop in 1979 and cardinal in 1983), the group tried to influence the conclave of 2005, and Cardinal Danneels freely admits to have been disillusioned when the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was elected as Pope Benedict XVI. Apparently they had a Pope in mind in the mold of Pope Francis, and his 2013 election was met with satisfaction.

It is one thing to discuss the future and express hopes and wishes, it is quite another to form a sort of shadow cabinet in blatant opposition to the Pope and expressing disappointment when the wrong pontiff is chosen. Cardinal Danneels does not seem to see it as problematic that he so callously disregards one Pope and creates an artificial opposition between him and his successor.

As Catholics we believe in the guidance of the Holy Spirit when a new Pope is chosen. We believe that his work is for the good of the work, even when we may sometimes disagree with the way he works or what he focusses on. There is a certain element of loyalty involved, especially on the parts of cardinals and bishops, who have been created and appointed to assist the Pope in the affairs of the world Church. Loyal disagreement, which may be expressed personally to the Pope or even publically when well-founded and expressed with aforementioned loyalty and faith in the Spirit is certainly possible. It may even be good sometimes.

But this is not what the Sankt Gallen group did. Secret meetings, no records, a maffia… This does not give an impression of loyalty, but of an attempt to influence things in secret, behind the scenes. And while the group is evidently happy with Pope Francis, he may turn out to be their greatest enemy. From the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has wanted to end the backroom politics and hunger for personal gain in the Curia and has been very clear about what a bishop should be: concerned not with power, but with the sheep.

Personally, I do not like pidgeonholing people (Cardinal Wilfrid Napier has a good article in the Catholic Herald on that same topic, by the way), and I don’t believe for one second that Cardinal Danneels is or has been all bad, as some would have us believe. But that does not take away the fact that he has gone beyond his authority and the conduct expected of cardinals and bishops.

Changes in ‘s Hertogenbosch – past, future and some guesses

With the announced retirement of Bishop Hurkmans it is a good time to look back an ahead. In his letter announcing his retirement, the bishop already indicated that a new period was beginning, a time of transition followed by a new bishop at the helm of the numerically largest diocese of the Netherlands.


The Hurkmans era, to call it that, began in 1998, when he was appointed on the same day that his predecessor, Bishop Jan ter Schure, retired. Unlike the latter, who had the misfortune to have been appointed when the polarisation between modernists and orthodox (in which group the bishop could be grouped) was at a final high point, Bishop Hurkmans was and is considered an altogether kinder and approachable man. That does not mean that he avoided making the difficult decisions, and especially following the appointment of two auxiliary bishops in 2010 (later whittled down to one, as Bishop Liesen was soon appointed to Breda), there were several major cases in which the diocese stood firm against modernists trends. But these things never came easy to him. The general idea that I have, and I am not alone, I believe, is that Bishop Hurkmans was altogether too kind to be able to carry the burden of being bishop. He accepted it, trusting in the Holy Spirit to help him – as reflected in his episcopal motto “In Virtute Spiritu Sancti” – but it did not always gave him joy. That said, while he is generally considered a kind bishop, there remain some who consider him strict and aloof, in both the modernists and orthodox camps. As bishop, you rarely win.

In 2011 he took a first medical leave for unspecified health reasons, and a second one began in 2014. While he regained some of his strengths, as he indicates in his letter, it was not enough.

hurkmans ad limina

^Bishop Hurkmans gives the homily during Mass at Santa Maria dell’Anima in Rome, during the 2013 Ad Limina visit.

In his final years as bishop, Msgr. Hurkmans held the Marriage & Family portfolio in the Bishops’ Conference. It is perhaps striking that he was not elected by the other bishops to attend the upcoming Synod of Bishops assembly on that same topic – Cardinal Eijk will go, with Bishop Liesen as a substitute. Before a reshuffle in responsibilities in the conference, Bishop Hurkmans held the Liturgy portfolio, and as such was involved with a new translation of the Roman Missal, the publication of which is still in the future.

Bishop Hurkmans was also the Grand Prior of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in the Netherlands, and as such he invested new knights and ladies at the cathedral in Groningen in 2012.

Mgr. Bluyssen

^Bishop Hurkmans buried several of his predecessors, such as Bishop Bluyssen in 2013

At 71, Bishop Hurkmans is young to retire, as 75 is the mandatory age for bishops to do so. Still, it is not unprecedented when we look at the bishops of ‘s Hertogenbosch since the latter half of the 20th century. Bishop Johannes Bluyssen retired, also for health reasons, in 1984 at the age of 57. Bishop Bekkers died in office in 1966 at the age of 58. Bishop Willem Mutsaerts, related to the current auxiliary bishop, retired in 1960, also aged 71. As for Bishop Hurkmans, may his retirement be a restful one.

mutsaertsLooking at the future, the inevitable question is, who’s next? Who will be the 10th bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch? Guessing is risky, but there are some likely candidates anyway. In my opinion, one of the likeliest candidates is Bishop Rob Mutsaerts (pictured), currently auxiliary bishop of ‘s Hertogenbosch. He has been taking over a number of duties from Bishop Hurkmans during the latter’s absence, and he is at home in the diocese. Speaking against him is his sometimes blunt approach to problems, especially when Catholic doctrine is being disregarded, which does not always sit well with priests and faithful alike (although others, including myself, appreciate him for his clarity and orthodoxy.

Other possible options are one of the other auxiliary bishops in the Netherlands: Bishop Hendriks of Haarlem-Amsterdam, Bishop Hoogenboom and Woorts of Utrecht and Bishop de Jong of Roermond. I don’t really see that happening, though, with the sole exception of Bishop de Jong. He is southerner, albeit from Limburg, while the others are all westerners, and that does mean something in the culture of Brabant. Still, it has happened before.

Anything’s possible, especially under Pope Francis (and this will be his first Dutch appointment, and for new Nuncio Aldo Cavalli too). Diocesan priest and member of the cathedral chapter Father Cor Mennen once stated that he would not be opposed to a foreign bishop, provided he learn Dutch, if that means the bishop gets a good and orthodox one. I don’t see that happening just yet, though.

And as for when we may hear the news of a new bishop? Usually these things take a few months at most (although it has taken 10 months once, between Bishops Bluyssen and Ter Schure). The summer holidays are over in Rome, so proceedings should theoretically advance fairly quickly. A new bishops could be appointed and installed before Christmas then.