For Scandinavia, a nuncio used to great distances

Pope Francis today appointed a new apostolic nuncio to Sweden and Iceland. These two non-adjacent countries will undoubtedly soon be joined by Finland, Norway and Denmark as the new nuncio’s area of operations. The Nordic countries, although they each have their own nunciature in name*, have always shared one nuncio among them.

Monseñor_James_GreenAn expansive territory to cover, made even more expansive by the Scandinavian bishops regularly meeting in Germany, it is now under the diplomatic responsibility of no stranger to large distances. Archbishop James Patrick Green, 66, comes to Scandinavia from his previous posting in Peru, where he has been the nuncio since 2012. His other postings include the southern tip of Africa (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland) from 2006 to 2012, and China, where he was Chargé d’affaires, from 2002 to 2006. Earlier in his diplomatic career, he also served at the nunciature in the Netherlands.

Archbishop Green was born in Philadelphia, USA, in 1950, and was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia by its then-archbishop Cardinal John Krol. In 2006, upon his appointment as nuncio to South Africa, Namibia and Botswana (Lesotho and Swaziland would follow later), he was consecrated and named as titular archbishop of Altinum.

Archbishop Green is characterised as “accessible, friendly, gracious and impressively capable”, and is credited with creating a stable episcopate in southern Africa. In Scandinavia, with only six serving bishops, he will have rather less chances to do so. The most senior Nordic bishop, Helsinki’s Teemu Sippo, is 69, followed by Stockholm’s Anders Arborelius at 67, and Copenhagen’s Czeslaw Kozon, who is 65. Although a bishop can retire before the age of 75 for health reasons, the expectation is that it will be another six years before Archbishop Green needs to get to work to collect information for a new bishop. The nuncio himself is still nine years away from retirement, so it is possible that he will be reassigned before that, especiallty considering that he never spent more than five years at his earlier assignments.

The Catholic Church in Scandinavia is growing, mostly due to immigration from traditionally Catholic countries like Poland and the Philippines. It is still numerically small, though, and exists in highly secular societies: many people nominally belong to the Lutheran church which, until fairly recently, was the state church in most Nordic countries, but most will consider themselves atheist or agnostic. The immigrant population differs in that respect from the native Scandinavians, and this will undoubtedly affect how the Church acts and is perceived.

The appointment of a new nuncio was no surprise. Archbishop Green’s predecessor, Archbishop Henryk Nowacki, nuncio since 2012, had already announced his early retirement. At 70, he retires for health reasons.

*Finland was the first in 1966 to get a full diplomatic representation in the form of a nuncio, followed by Iceland in 1976. Denmark and Norway followed in 1982, leaving Sweden to change the old offices of the Apostolic Delegation of Scandinavia into the Nunciature of Sweden. The nuncio still resides in Stockholm, in the northern subburb of Djursholm, although the general secretariat of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference is located in Copenhagen.

Phot credit: Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Peru

In Reykjavik, the new bishop arrives

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Bishop Bürcher and Bishop-elect Tencer with Pope Francis

For the first time in almost three decades, Reykjavik’s Christ the King Cathedral will host the consecration of a bishop, as Msgr. David Bartimej Tencer, O.F.M. Cap. becomes the fifth bishop of the diocese.

The Mass in which the new bishop is conmsecrated is scheduled for 18:00. Consecrator will be the retired bishop of Reykjavik, Msgr. Pétur Bürcher, and co-consecrators will be  Archbishop Henryk Nowacki, Apostolic Nuncio to Iceland and the other Nordic countries, and Bishop Tomáš Galis of Zilina in Slovakia. Like Msgr. Tencer, Bishop Galis was a priest of the Diocese of Banská Bystrica, and later he became auxiliary bishop of the same diocese before coming to Zilina in 2008. I assume he is co-consecrator to represent his diocese, or because of a personal friendship with the new bishop (or both).

The Diocese of Reykjavik’s website is pretty completely available in English, although pretty frugal in detailed information, but a report on tonight’s consecration may become available in both Icelandic and English soon.

For the north, the closest thing to a native son for bishop

tencerEight months after Bishop Pétur Bürcher’s requested retirement was accepted, the Diocese of Reykjavik gets ready to bid their ten-year bishop goodbye, and welcome a sort-of-native son as his successor. Bishop-elect Dávid Bartimej Tencer, O.F.M. Cap, while Slovak, has been active in Iceland as parish priest since 2004 and that makes him more of an Icelander than any of his four predecessors. The fact that the new bishop is yet to be ordained means that Reykjavik’s cathedral of Christ the King will see it’s first bishop’s ordination since 1988.

In a way this could be considered evidence that Reykjavik is grown up as a diocese, now that it can supply its own bishop. The Church in Iceland is largely an immigrant Church with some 13,000 faithful, and all but one of its priests coming from abroad.

Bishop-elect Tencer was ordained in 1986 for the Diocese of Banská Bystrica in south-central Slovakia, and for the following four years he worked in parishes there. In 1990 he started his novitiate in Order of Capuchin Friars Minor and made his profession the next year. From 1992 to 1994 he studied Franciscan spirituality at the Antonianum in Rome, after which he made his final profession. Back in Slovakia he held various offices within the order, including superior at a convent in Hrinová. In the period between 2001 and 2004 he taught various topics at two seminaries. In 2004, Bishop-elect Tencer came to Iceland and was appointed as parish priest in Reykjavik. Since 2007 he has been parish priest in Reyþarfjörþur and a member of the council of priests of the Diocese of Reykjavik.

Bishop emeritus Bürcher has tried his best to establish religious communities in his diocese, something that Bishop-elect Tencer is well suited to continue.

The Diocese of Reykjavik covers the entire country of Iceland and was established in 1923 as the Apostolic Prefecture of Iceland. In 1929 it became an Apostolic Vicariate and in 1968 a full Diocse. Bishop-elect Tencer will be the 7th ordinary and 5th bishop. His predecessors were:

  • Bishop Martino Meulenberg (Prefect Apostolic 1923-1929; Vicar Apostolic 1929-1941)
  • Bishop Johánnes Gunnarsson (Vicar Apostolic 1942-1967)
  • Bishop Hendrik Hubert Frehen (Bishop 1968-1986)
  • Bishop Alfred James Jolson (Bishop 1987-1994)
  • Bishop Joannes Baptist Mathijs Gijsen (Bishop 1996-2007)
  • Bishop Pétur Bürcher (Bishop 2007-2015)

Bishop-elect David Tencer’s ordination and installation as Bishop of Reykjavik is set for 31 October. Bishop emeritus Pétur Bürcher will remain in office until that date, after which he will divide his time between the Holy Land (where he will focus on prayer as well as organising spiritual exercisies and pilgrimages to support the local Christian communities) and Switzerland (where he will live with the Dominican sisters of St. Peter’s convent in Schwyz).

From the tundra to the desert – Bishop Pétur retires

 It is no surprise, but for the small Church in Iceland a seismic event nonetheless as Bishop Peter (Pétur in Icelandic) Bürcher announces that he has offered his resignation to Pope Francis. At 70 he is still 5 years under the mandatory retirement age, but, as he himself puts it, the “glacial cold of the high North” badly affected his health, which was further compromised by pneumonia. He now follows the advice of doctors to exchange the barren cold of Iceland for the warmer climate of the Holy Land.

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Bishop Bürcher will remain in charge of the Diocese of Reykjavík until the Holy Father decides otherwise, but he will travel to Israel when the situation allows it. He will eventually take on duties for the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, in agreement with Patriarch Fouad Twal.

The Church in Iceland is a small but growing one, with promising developments for the future, including new monastic communities (something that the bishop has long worked for) and new churches.

To the faithful in his diocese, he writes:

“Already now I would like with all my heart to thank you in Iceland and everywhere. I offer you my deepest gratitude for your understanding and for your faithful cooperation in the proclamation of the Gospel, in the celebration of faith and the Sacraments as in the service of all our brothers and sisters. As one of my fellow-bishops said, I can also say: I am happy to be a bishop and I am often a happy bishop. I have been able to plant, another will water and another will be able to reap. Thanks to God for all.”

Bishop Pétur was born in Switzerland and auxiliary bishop of Lausanne, Genève et Fribourg from 1994 to 2007,and in that latter year he was appointed as the fourth bishop of Reykjavík.

The Diocese of Reykjavík was established as the Apostolic Prefecture of Islanda in 1923, split off from the Apostolic Vicariate of Denmark. In 1929 it became an Apostolic Vicariate and in 1968 a full Diocese. It has had one native bishop in the person of Johánnes Gunnarsson, who was Vicar Apostolic from 1942 to 1967. Other bishops have been from Germany, the Netherlands, the United States and, lastly, from Switzerland.

In memoriam: Bishop Jo Gijsen

The Diocese of Roermond reports the passing of Bishop Jo Gijsen today. More news as it becomes available.

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Joannes Baptist Matthijs Gijsen was the bishop of Roermond from 1972 to 1993. Three years after his retirement, he was appointed as bishop of Reykjavik in Iceland. He retired from that see in 2007, and returned to the Netherlands to spend his final years with his sister in the city of Sittard, Diocese of Roermond. Bishop Gijsen was 80 years old.

Photo credit, Msgr. Gijsen pictured in front of Reykjavik’s Cathedral of Christ the King: Gerard Klaasen/RKK

Criminal or careless? Bishop Gijsen accused in Iceland

It is a story that not so much indicts him as a criminal mastermind or even a bishop with ill will against his accusers, but depicts him much more as a bishop in a strange land who relied too much on his local clergy. The investigation into the abuse history in Iceland’s Diocese of Reykjavík mentions the name of emeritus Bishop Joannes Gijsen several times, most notably in the case of a man who accuses him of covering up a case of sexual abuse by a priest.

A bit of investigative journalism by Dutch blogger Remco van Mulligen reveals facts that the regular media avoids (in favour of partial and suggestive reporting). He outlines the case which is detailed in the report by Icelandic commission which looked into the matter, and we learn that it relates to abuse committed years ago by a now deceased priest of the Diocese of Reykjavík. Bishop Gijsen’s predecessor, Bishop Alfred Jolson met with the victim, who handed him a sealed letter outlining the case, and although the bishop assured the man that he would make sure nothing similar would happen in the future, the letter was left in the diocesan archives. When Bishop Gijsen arrived in 1996 he was urged to pick up the case again. He did so, met with the victim and both agreed that the letter should be destroyed, since there was no clear indication of sexual abuse. All this, according to Bishop Gijsen’s written statement to the commission. There is no letter and the victim is no longer alive.

The sad fact is that the priest in question, who was involved in other abuse cases as well, had an unrivaled position of power within the Icelandic church. Since all of Reykjavík’s bishops have come from abroad (the last four bishops were from the Netherlands, the United States and Switzerland), they relied heavily upon the local clergy, at least to get to know the local situation. No priest was more relied upon, at least by Bishop Gijsen, than one Fr. Ágúst George. And he is now revealed as the main perpetrator of more than one case of sexual abuse.

As Van Mulligen writes:

“The Commission creates a picture of the priest George as someone who saw bishops come and go, and wasn’t concerned by anyone or anything. Gijsen, for example, urged George several times to create an administration of what happened in his school [George served as headmaster of a Church-owned primary school]. The priest assured him he would, but did not keep his word. Gijsen allowed this to happen.”

Whatever the reasons that Bishop Gijsen had for not insisting on further investigation of the claims (for this case was not the only one that he, or Bishop Jolson, neglected), it is clear that more should have been done. Now, under current Bishop Pierre Bürcher, the sad extent of the sexual abuse by Fr. George and physical abuse by school teacher Margét Müller becomes clear only now.

Coupled with the fact that much of the diocesan archives from the period that Gijsen was bishop in Roermond are missing, we get the picture that Bishop Gijsen may have had the right intentions, he lacked the firm proactive hand that should have been employed when the first rumours became clear. It also shows that bishops have the duty to get to know their diocese and take an active role in the running of it, but administratively and pastorally.

Synod of Bishops – Day Six

With the Saturday sessions, presided by Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya (pictured), the Synod of Bishops wrapped up its first week. As usual, there were interventions, 24 by Synod fathers and one by a fraternal delegate.

The Patriarch of Venice, Francesco Moraglia, made an important point about catechesis and youth:

“[T]he majority of young people, once their Christian initiation is complete, lose their relationship with the Church, the faith, God. There are multiple causes for this: however, I believe that in a not insignificant number of cases the faith is not supported by a catechesis that is friendly towards reason, able to offer a true anthropological instruction and able to legitimize the plausibility of the Christian choice. It is necessary to relaunch the CCC, giving greater space to its content in order to avoid reduction to a “do-it-yourself” faith; the fides quae is often missing from our catechesis.”

Other topics discussed were the personal experiences in the social pastoral field of several countries, but also, once more, the use of mass media in the new evangelisation.

Cardinal George Alencherry had interesting things to say about the lives and ministries of priests in recent decades:

“During the 50 years after Vatican II, the renewal of the Church has been multifaceted and highly productive. At the same time the lives and ministry of priests and men and women of consecrated life have become more functional than spiritual and ecclesial. It would seem that the present-day formation of priests and the religious personnel tends to make them functionaries for different offices in the Church, rather than missionaries inflamed by the love of Christ. Even in places of ad gentes missions of the Church, functioning through institutions have made the priests and the religious lose the impelling force and strength of the Gospel to which they are committed by their vocation. Secularization has impacted the lives of individual Christians and also of ecclesial communities. New Evangelization demands a thorough renewal of the lives of individual Christians and the reevaluation of the structures of the Church to empower them with the dynamism of the Gospel values of truth, justice, love, peace and harmony.”

Bishop António Da Rocha Couto (pictured), of Lamego in Portugal, asked himself, his fellow Synod fathers, and in extension all of us,

“Yes, we need proclaimers of the Gospel who are without gold, silver, copper, bags, two tunics… Yes, it is of conversion that I speak, and I ask myself this question: why did the Saints fight so hard, and with so much joy, to be poor and meek, while we work so hard to be rich and important?”

Bishop Berislav Grgic, prelate of Tromsø in Norway, painted the following picture of the Church in Scandinavia:

“The Catholic Church in the Northern Lands – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – is a very small minority and therefore has neither the advantages nor the disadvantages that the Catholic Church often comes across in traditional and prevalently Catholic regions. Despite its limited relevance, numeric as well as social, our Church is nonetheless a growing Church. New churches are built or bought, new parishes are instituted, non-Latin rites are added, there is a relatively high number of adult conversions and baptisms, there are vocations to priesthood and to religious life, the number of baptisms is much higher than the number of deaths and number of those who abandon the Church, and attendance at Sunday Mass is relatively high.
In certain sectors of society there is great interest for the faith and spirituality, by non-believers who are searching for the truth as well as by Christians committed to other religions who wish to deepen and enrich religious life. It is also interesting to see that during the past years a relatively high number of contemplative orders have opened their own convents.
The transmission of the faith, often however, is made difficult because of the vast distances. Our priests must travel far – sometimes up to 2,000 km per month – to visit our faithful who live in distant places and celebrate Mass. This is very tiring during the winter months.”

The fraternal delegate who also intervened was Dr. Geoffrey Tunnicliffe, general secretary of the World Evangelical Alliance. He spoke about ‘holistic evangelism,’ evangelisation which lies at the heart of the person and which is radically committed to worl evangelisation.

Following the interventions, the composition of the Commission for Information, supplying media and interested parties with information about the Synod, was announced. The Commission is chaired by Archbishop Claudio Celli, the president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, with Archbishop Ján Babjak, of Prešov of the Catholics of the Byzantine Rite in Slovakia, serving as vice president. The other regular members of the Commission are:

Archbishop John Onaiyekan, of Abuja, Nigeria
Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, of Minsk-Mohilev, Belarus
Bishop Manuel Macário do Nascimento Clemente, of Porto, Portugal
Archbishop José Gómez, of Los Angeles, United States
Archbishop Francis Kovithavanij, of Bangkok, Thailand

There are two members ex officio: Archbishop Pierre-Marie Carré, the Synod’s general secretary, and Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops.

Lastly, Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, serves as secretary ex officio.

In the afternoon the interventions continued, this time by 15 Synod fathers. Father Heinrich Walter, Superior General of the Schönstatt Fathers, spoke about the role of the family in the renewal of the Church in the west:

“The family remains the foundation for learning the faith. The family means seeing one’s home as the house of God. Children, with their parents, follow the lengthy path in learning the faith. The vitality of a community is connected to these homes. Families are not only the privileged location for evangelization, but inasmuch as they are laity they are also agents of evangelization.”

Bishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner (pictured), auxiliary bishop of Brasilia, raised an interesting point. He said, “New evangelization should take youths into consideration as ‘new agents’ of evangelization: the young who evangelize the young.” Rather than seeing young people strictly as ‘consumers’ of catechesis and education, it should be possible to turn some of them also into educators themselves. That would mean a different focus on the sort of catechesis presented to young people. Not only would they need to be able to learn, but also to teach by example and certainly also through being catechists themselves.