Clean feet -a more inclusive Easter liturgy?

So the Holy Father went and had the Congregation for Divine Worship decree a change in the liturgy. For most parishes, at least here in Western Europe, the change will be unnoticeable, as most have made it years or even decades ago. But does that mean it is a mere formality, a change on paper only?

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^ Footwashing at St. Joseph’s cathedral in Groningen, last year.

Since 1955, the footwashing is a notable part of the liturgy of Maundy Thursday. The priest washes the feet of twelve men, in imitation of Jesus Christ’s washing of the feet of His disciples. As the new decree underlines, the rite revolves around the servitude of all those who wish to follow Christ, who came, after all, not to be served, but to serve. In the Gospel of John we read the following:

“Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father, having loved those who were his in the world, loved them to the end.

They were at supper, and the devil had already put it into the mind of Judas Iscariot son of Simon, to betray him. Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God, and he got up from table, removed his outer garments and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘At the moment you do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ ‘Never!’ said Peter. ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus replied, ‘If I do not wash you, you can have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said, ‘Well then, Lord, not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!’ Jesus said, ‘No one who has had a bath needs washing, such a person is clean all over. You too are clean, though not all of you are.’ He knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said, ‘though not all of you are’.

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments again he went back to the table. ‘Do you understand’, he said, ‘what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you. In all truth I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, no messenger is greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know this, blessed are you if you behave accordingly.'”

The rite of the footwashing is in the first place exactly what Jesus tells us it is: an example for us to follow, in the context of the relation between servant and master. For the priest, who washes the feet of twelve faithful, this is especially poignant. As an alter Christus he is especially tasked to lead by serving, made tangible in this subservient act.

In the Roman missal the faithful whose feet are to be washed are described as ‘vir’, men. Although many priests have not felt called to limit the faithful they chose for the rite to be only men, others, who understand that the liturgy is not just a collection of symbolic rituals, have followed what the missal stipulates. Pope Francis has now removed the rule that only men’s feet are to be washed in the ritual, stating only that they must be chosen from among the People of God: the faithful community assembled for the liturgical ritual. So not only men, but also women and children.

Of course, the changes have been met with comments far and wide. Before delving into some of those, it should be noted that this is not an issue of dogma, and that the Holy Father is completely free to make such changes. There are those who are all too keen to take every chance to denounce Pope Francis, but this is not one. This is Papal authority in action.

I have seen some comments expressing surprise that there even are rules about such things, but also pride in having been ahead of the curve in including women in the footwashing. Apparently, those who know of what the missal stated, have not felt the urge to take it seriously and keep to the rubrics. I have to wonder what the liturgy is for some people: a collection of quaint rituals to be performed or not as mood or times dictate, or something given as a task to perform by the Church, a rite reflecting the divine liturgy, which can not be changed by individual priests or liturgy committees (a silly concept in itself) as they desire. It should be clear what my position is, which happens to be what the Church herself also teaches. I may like or dislike what the missal contains, but it is not mine to change. It is, however, the Pope’s to change (as long as the changes are not dogmatic). He has that authority.

Some have also chosen to see this change as having to do with a right that until now has been denied to women. It is not. As the decree explains, Pope Francis wanted this change to better reflect the full make-up of the People of God, who all share in this commandment of service: it is therefore not a right that until now has been denied to women, but a duty that they are equally called to perform. Pridefully boasting that this is an equal rights issue is simplistic and out of place.

On the other side of the debate, more conservative commentators have taken issue with the fact that a liturgical tradition has been altered. They say that the presence of only men at the footwashing is a reflection of the footwashing as performed by Jesus. He also only washed the feet of men: His disciples. In this way it better reflected the relation between Christ and His followers, and thus reminds the priest and faithful of what the priesthood is: a service in a context of authority. I have to wonder, however, of the ritual itself, even if it includes only men, succeeds in this. At least in my experience, catechesis makes more of a difference than the gender of those whose feet are washed. For most faithful present at the footwashing, the actual ritual is too short and too far away to be fully witnessed and taken in.

Others have wondered if this is really the most urgent liturgical change that was needed. Aren’t there liturgical abuses that need to be adressed first? Of course there are. I think of the complete lack of reference for or even understanding of Who we received in Holy Communion, to name but one. But a start needs to be made somewhere, and the fact that changs are made is more important than the order in which they take place.

In closing, I would like to comment on what some have wondered about the role of Cardinal Robert Sarah in this. As Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship he is the one who issued and signed the decree announcing the change. Pope Francis made the request for the change in late 2014. It took more than a year for the decree to be published. Did Cardinal Sarah delay it, because he disagreed with it? Or is it perhaps more likely that the cardinal, who had only arrived at the Congregation in November of 2014, needed the time first to familiarise himself with his new duties, had to clear a banklog of files which had built up in the three months between the departure of the previous Prefect, Cardinal Cañizares Llovera, and his own arrival? And add to that the fact that there are other files to deal with in the course of the normal work of the Congregation, and it seems that this is a more likely reason for the apparent delay than any alleged delaying actions out of a theoritical opposition to the Pope’s reforms.

 

Kneeling before the child – Bishop Schwaderlapp strikes again

Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp does it again. Recently, he spoke about the erosion of faith, and in his homily for the feast of the Epiphany he outlines an attitude to counter that. Taking the example of the Magi, he explains the importance of kneveling; not just the physical action, but the inner attitude of faith it both signifies and nourishes.

Read the entire homily in the original German via the link above. I share the part in which Bishop Schwaderlapp discusses the concept of kneeling below.

schwaderlapp“”They found the child there, with his mother Mary, and fell down to worship him” (Matt. 2:11). The unified translation states that they “paid homage”, but that is too weak. This is about worship. The three Magi understood what even the Apostles understood only gradually. The child is not only just a child, but is at the same time also God. It is the God-man. They knelt before they child, and only before the child, dear sisters and brothers. They did not kneel for the power of Herod, but they avoided him and went back to their country by another way. They did not kneel for their wealth, but presented it as a gift for the divine child. And they did not kneel down for their own convenience, but went on their way to the God-child – an arduous way.

He who kneels before the child does not bow down for the powerful! He who kneels before the child does not bow down for wealth and its temptations! He who kneels before the child does not bind himself to his own selfishness!

“They fell down and worshipped him!” How is that with us? Dear sisters and brothers, it always depresses me a little, when now and then – unfortunately, more and more often – I notice in parishes that kneeling is seemingly out of fashion. And this new “fashion” does not end with the fulltime employees. A Belgian priest, who has been working in our diocese for decades, told me, “When we removed the kneelers in my country, the crisis really began”.

Dear sisters and brothers, kneeling by itself is no solution to any crisis, but without kneeling no crisis will be resolved! The Magi show us what it is about. It is about kneeling before the child, so that we do not bow down before all fears, powers and everything that depresses and holds us down, that we find in him the support and strength to tackle what can be tackled.

Let us ask ourselves: do we kneel? Do we do it again and again? Or do we too forget it? A priest or bishop is also not immune for this. It is easy to preach about kneed, piety and worship. And yet it is a great temptation, in the bustle of daily life, to pass by the manger of Bethlehem. Let Christ not be left out! Kneel down before him, for he is the source of everything that is new, the source of faith, source of comfort and source of truth.”

The faithful of Cologne would be loath to see their auxiliary bishop go, but in Aachen, Limburg and Dresden-Meißen they are looking for a new bishop…

Seriousness and joy, two bedfellows in the Year of Mercy – Archbishop De Kesel’s installation homily

Last Saturday, Msgr. Jozef De Kesel was installed as the 24th Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, at the Cathedral of St. Rumbold. Attending were, among others, the Belgian king and queen, all other Belgian bishops (including Archbishop De Kesel’s two predecessors, Archbishop Léonard and Cardinal Danneels), as well as Cardinal Wim Eijk from the Netherlands and Bishop Gérard Coliche from France. In his homily, the new archbishop looked at the readings of the third Sunday of Advent, and kept close to the theme of the Holy Year of Mercy. In the spirit of Pope Francis, he called for a Church that goes out into the world, to confront “our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.”

Read my translation of the homily, which was given in both French and Dutch, below.

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“Dear friends,

The Scripture readings we have just heard are the reading for the third Sunday of Advent. They are words that are being read today and tomorrow everywhere in the world, wherever Christians come together on the Sunday. They prepare us for Christmas. But they do give us mixed feelings. On the one hand we have John’s call for conversion. That we do not miss He who is coming. For He is coming, he says, “to clear his threshing floor”. Not exactly a comforting message. Words that point out the seriousness of the situation and our responsibility.

But at the same time there is also the call to joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” he says. Of old this Sunday has also been called this: Sunday Gaudete! And Saint Paul adds, “Have no anxiety …  the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds. The Prophet Zephaniah shares the same call for joy. They seem unlikely bedfellows: the seriousness and responsibility that John emphasises and the call to joy and happiness. But it is these two which brings us together today: great responsibility, but also great joy.

Yes, the words of John are binding. He calls to conversion. Yet when those who have just been baptised ask him, “What should we do?”, his response is surprising. He asks for nothing extraordinary or sensational. Share what you have. They should not give everything, but what they have. If you have more clothing than you need, then give to those who do not have enough. The same applies to food: share what you have more of than you need. And to the tax collectors he does not say to cease their work. He simply says, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed”. Beware of corruption. And the soldiers who come to him, he does not ask to desert. He simply asks them: do what you do properly, without abusing your position and without the use of arbitrary violence. Never forget that you are human like everyone else. What John asks requires string commitment. That is true. But he does not ask anything extravagant. A baptised person does not keep a distance from others. We are to return to the responsibility and solidarity that we share with all men, regardless of their religion of belief.

But why be baptised? Why be Christian? The liturgy of this Sunday gives us the answer, and it too is astonishing. It is the joy that makes me a believer. It is not out of necessity or because I feel obligated. I am a Christian in freedom and love. We are known and loved by God. This is the heart of our faith. This joy and all love is therefore a call to fidelity and conversion.

This is the heart of Christianity. Not in the first place a doctrine or morality. But the certainty that we, frail and temporary people, are known and loved by God. It can hardly be imagined. But how, if this is true, can we not rejoice? Of course this does not answer all questions or solve every problem. But we know from experience how much this makes us happy, gives meaning and direction to our existence: that we are known, appreciated and loved by other people. That we are not nobody. Exactly that is the joy of the Gospel: to know that we are not only by those who are near to use, but by God Himself, the Creator and source of all that exists. Known and loved and radically accepted. Not without reason did Pope Francis call his first Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel”. And not without reason did he, last Tuesday in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, at the start of the great jubilee, open the door, the door of God’s mercy. Like we will do tomorrow here, and in Brussels and in Nivelles and in all cathedrals and jubilee churches in the entire world.

No, God is not an indifferent God. No arbitrary power, only concerned with Himself. We people are worth everything to Him. That is why He ask that one thing: that we are also not indifferent to each other. Especially not to those who stand at the side and do not matter, the poor and vulnerable, and the countless who are fleeing from war and violence. That we respect all life, no matter how small and vulnerable. Respect for the religious and philosophical convictions of every man. Respect and care for the planet we inhabit. We are also responsible for future generations. This world can be a hard place. This is what the Gospel asks from us: that we do not became hard and indifferent, insensitive and merciless. Because that is our greatest danger today: the globalisation of indifference.

This is the Gospel that the Church proclaims. The Gospel of God’s tenderness. And this is not just rhetoric. He is committed to the very end. And His Son, Jesus Christ, became one of us, vulnerable and defenseless as a child of men. A miracle of humanity. A love to which there is only one answer: to love in our turn. We appreciate and respect each other. Proclaiming the mercy of God and calling for respect and love, that is the mission of the Church. This is the place it searches out in our pluralistic and modern society. Nothing more, and nothing less. In a secularised culture, she can and must make her voice heard. And so much more than a religious fundamentalism that at this time constitutes a very real threat.

Not a Church that looks inward, but a Church that shares in the joys and sufferings of the world. Sympathetic to the plight of humans, of any kind. This was the message of the Second Vatican Council. Last Tuesday, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, it was exactly fifty years since the closing of the Ecumenical Council. The Constitution on the Church in the world begins with these impressive and moving words: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

This is the vocation that the Church has received from God. To that we want to dedicate our best forces at the task entrusted to me today. I with you, and you with me. As we heard from John: no extravagant or spectacular projects. But a search for a consistent experience of the Gospel. And with that one certainty: that we are known and loved by God. That is our joy and faith today.

+Jozef De Kesel
Mechelen, 12 December 2015″

Opening day – Holy Door opens in Groningen

Without doubt the first time in history: a Holy Door in my own cathedral, the church I attend. Bishop Gerard de Korte was one of countless bishops opening Holy Doors in their cathedrals or other churches (all other Dutch bishops opened at least one today). As a ceremony it was unfamiliar and logical: Prayer, a reading from the Papal bull, Misericordiae vultus, and a procession to the Holy Door while singing the hymn for the Holy Year of Mercy. By the time I rounded the corner of the cathedral, the bishop had already opened the door.

The Holy Door, which is usually unused and closed, serving as an emergency exit at best, is located between the main entrance and the door to the parish hall. Within the cathedral it opens onto the right aisle at the pieta. In a fitting coincidence, the stained glass window above it shows the crucifixion, the greatest act of mercy of all.

Having witnessed the ceremony at my own church this morning, and new seeing photos on social media of bishops doing the same at churches across the world gives a wonderful sense of unity: we really do have a Church unlimited by human boundaries. Jesus is everywhere, as is His mercy.

I posted a few photos on my Facebook page, and I’ll share some of these here.

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^About an hour before the opening of the Holy Door, the outside decorations were being installed.

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^Decorated but closed.

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^The faithful gathered beside the cathedral, ready for the short procession to the front.

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^Bishop de Korte begins with prayer.

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^The Holy Door is open, the Holy Year of Mercy has begun in our diocese.

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^First in: The Word of God

After the Ad Limina, Bishop Schwaderlapp on the “erosion of faith”

In his homily for the second Sunday of Advent in the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Cologne, Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp, auxiliary of that diocese, looked back on the recent Ad Limina visit of the German bishops. The full text of his homily can be found, in the original German, here, and below I present a translation of the relevant section concerning the Ad Limina. It touches upon some of the most frequent criticism against the German episcopate and church, and succeeds, in my opinion, in indicating where the solution lies.

schwaderlapp“Everywhere he went, John the Baptist proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). That promise that John proclaimed can only enter into our hearts when we are willing to repent and begin anew. Repentance is painless when we want and demand it from others. It only becomes real when it is about me personally. Where do we need to repent? Where do I need to repent? When about two weeks ago we German bishops were in Rome for the Ad Limina visit, the Holy Father gave us a speech to take with us, one peppered with warnings: Clear words! In it, he speaks about the “erosion of faith” in our country. I once looked up on Wikipedia what erosion means: Improper land use removing especially fertile soil.

Dear sisters and brothers, the Church in Germany is certainly the best financed and best organised in the entire world. But what do we actually do? How can it be that – with all the means at our disposal – we must conclude that knowledge of and belief in the faith are ever more decreasing?

Are we really taking our mission to proclaim the faith seriously? We do it in other areas. For example: in our archdiocese, in an effort to prevent sexual abuse, hundreds of thousands, who are working with young people, are being trained. They must follow a set curriculum. Is there a similarly compulsory curriculum about questions of faith? No! Pope Francis has said, “New structures are continuously being created, but there are not faithful to fill them.” Are we obsessed with structures? In short, a word that is a warning for us as bishops and the Church in Germany.

And the Holy Father continues with what the erosion of faith means to him concretely. He discusses the Holy Eucharist and Confession. Holy Mass – the gift of God’s presence par excellence! Fewer than 10% of Catholics in our archdiocese attend it on Sunday. And when, because of decreasing numbers of priests, Mass times change or even, in some places, a Mass is no longer possible on every Sunday, a whole range of people stays away from Holy Mass. Has the Holy Eucharist become a sort of folklore in our lives, to embellish our Sundays? Our is it the foundation of our lives?

We are talking about new beginnings needed in our Church. Indeed, that is needed. But one thing is clear: When we do not make the first call of Jesus, “Repent and believe in the Gospel”, our own, when we do not make the call of John the Baptist our own, when we do not rediscover Confession as a place of God’s  mercy, there will be no new beginning! We can not make a new beginning by ourselves, but only implore God’s mercy for it.

Let us also ask ourselves: what does my faith look like? How seriously do I take it? How seriously do I take the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of Penance? Do I try to deepen my attitude, my practice, to really experience this great gift of the mercy of God?”

The true spirit of the Holy Year of Mercy

12310548_731823440286073_6495785121618758678_nIn his homily during the Mass for the opening of the Holy Year of Mercy, today, it seemed clear that Pope Francis considers this Jubilee inextricably linked to the Second Vatican Council, which ended fifty years ago. He called  for the Church to once again take up the missionary that the Council called for in reaching out to the people of our time, and not to neglect the spirit which came forth from the Council, which is the spirit of the Samaritan. These are interesting comments, as the phrase “the spirit of Vatican II”, with good reason, continues to send shivers up more than a few spines.

It is good, therefore, to realise that Pope Francis’ is a different one than the one people have claimed to belong to the Council: the spirit which says that the liturgy is mostly about doing things, and which has led to all sorts of liturgical experimentation. That false spirit is a very limited one as it concerns itself only with what we do in our Church buildings, and generally only in the sanctuary for that matter. The spirit that Pope Francis names, the one of the Good Samaritan, has a far wider scope. It goes out into the world, helps people by bringing them to God, even if the road is long and the steps small. “Wherever there are people, the Church is called to reach out to them and to bring the joy of the Gospel,” the Holy Father said.

Outreach, joy, Gospel. Three words that, in addition to mercy, obviously, should play a major role in this Holy Year. And not just in the big structures of the world Church, among the prelates and priests, but also, for the major part, in us, the faithful who profess faith in Jesus Christ, who want to follow Him in His Church.

I am the first to admit that this is not easy. It means, for most of us, a change in our behaviour and habits. It begins, I believe, with finding out what mercy is, by looking at the examples given by Jesus Christ. I intend to look into that over the course of the year, at irregular intervals in this blog.

May the Holy Doors, which, starting today, will open in many churches in the world, be an invitation to us to enter into God’s mercy, not only to receive it for ourselves, but especially to pass it on to others, in and outside the Church.

Photo credit: CNA

Archbishop Léonard’s farewell, part one

On Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard bade his first of four farewells to the archdiocese he led for six years. He did so as Mechelen’s cathedral of St. Rumbold, for the vicariate of Mechelen and Flemish Brabant, in the presence of priests, faithful, auxiliary Bishop Léon Lemmens and his predecessor, Cardinal Godfried Danneels. In his homily, the translation of which follows below, the archbishop looked back on the past years and his own efforts in shepherding the faithful of Mechelen-Brussels “towards the heart of our faith, the person of Jesus Christ Himself”.

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“Dear brother priests,

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am very happy to be able to say goodbye to you on this first Sunday of Advent. For, as you may perhaps know, I took my episcopal motto from the prayer at the heart of this liturgical time: “Yes, come Lord Jesus!”. Of course, the second coming of Jesus in glory will be preceded by terrible tests; a bit like everyone’s arrival into eternal life will be preceded by the narrow passage of our death. That is why we do not give in to fear, but recover and rise again, for our salvation is at hand.

In the six years that I was bishop among you, I tried to lead you to the heart of our faith, namely the person of Jesus Himself, true man and true God, crucified to bear all our pain and resurrected so that we down here could already have a taste of a life which continues past death. I have tried to raise you up “on high”, to the Lord, true my teaching and especially through the celebration of the liturgy in a way worthy of the Lord and which could teach our hearts most deeply. That is why I wanted to meet you all in the field, in the 15 deaneries of our vicariate of Flemish Brabant and Mechelen. I was touched by the warm welcome that I received everywhere and by the wealth of what is happening in numerous parishes. For that I thank you from my heart.

At this time you are working hard on the restructuring of the parishes. That operation is necessary, but sometimes also a but painful or disconcerting, as, by the way, is the case with every ‘operation’. But this restructuring is only a means. As my successor has said at the press conference for his appointment: the essence lies elsewhere, the essence is the blazing flame of love, the spiritual, yes, even prophetic elan which must inspire the structures. This inspiration can only be received as a grace, through prayer and adoration, because it is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

When I met you during my pastoral visits, I was full of admiration for the engagement of so many lay people, so many consecrated persons, and a great number of very well-formed deacons. But you will understand that I will express my special gratitude, first and foremost to my auxiliary bishop, Msgr. Lemmens, and his coworkers, on whom I could count, and finally to all my brother priests. I was very pleased with you engagement, you availability for all people. I when I met brothers who experienced difficulties or about whom I had heard bad words, I tried as best as I could to give them a new chance, by given them my trust, every time anew.

The best gift I could give you, dear brothers, at the end of my episcopacy, seemed to me to be the assurance of succession: young brothers who are able to continue your pastoral task, even along new ways. This year our archdiocese has 55 seminarians: 20 in the familiar diocesan program, 20 in the Redemptoris Mater seminary and 15 in the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles. Among these future priests there are – I admit – only eight fully Flemish. That is progress compared to the past. But among our seminarians of foreign descent there are several who are trying their best to be properly bilingual, so that can also work in Flanders. I entrust these future priests to your good care and your prayer. For they are bearers of hope, of that hope about which the prophet Jeremiah says, “Look, the days are coming when I shall fulfil the promise I made to the House of Israel and the House of Judah.” But what interests us here today is especially everything that can contribute to the happiness of our diocese, and especially of our beloved vicariate of Flemish Brabant and Mechelen. Thanks to all of you that you are willing to contribute to that happiness, in a great community of the heart with my successor!”

André-Joseph Léonard”

The three other occasions to bid farewell to Archbishop Léonard will be at the cathedral of St. Michael and Gudula in Brussels on 5 December, the national basilica in Koekelberg on the morning of 6 December and the Collégiale Sainte-Gertrude in Nivelles in the afternoon of that same day.

Photo credit: Phk/KerkNet