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Over the past weekend, the news of the “plausible” abuse by Bishop Gijsen has obviously dominated Catholic news in the Netherlands. For some it was reason for renewed attacks against the Catholic Church, but what struck me most were the thought and feelings of those who had known Bishop Gijsen, who had entered seminary when he was bishop, who have him to thank for setting the first step towards finding their vocation. Those that I read all expressed feelings of confusion, of feeling lost. And that is what abuse, being a complete destruction of the bonds of trust and responsibility, does. It leaves victims stranded, alone, trying to build themselves up again and, too often, in the face of disbelief and accusations of lying.
Below, find my translation of the homily that Bishop Franz Wiertz gave on Monday, in a Mass of penance and reconciliation at Maastricht’s Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady.
“It is Holy Week. For Christians this is a week during which they not only follow Christ in His suffering, but especially look at themselves in this light and question themselves about the why of this death of the cross. The first confessions of faith, which we find in the Acts of the Apostles and also in the First Letter to the Corinthians, indicate the why of the cross very clearly: “Died for our sins”. In order to expiate our sins the Lord died on the cross. This makes us fall silent and we prefer not to hear these words. We don’t like being told that we are people who are not spotless and thus guilty.
Perhaps we think it is a bit strange that the new Pope, when he was asked, “Who are you, Jorge Bergoglio? What do you say about yourself?”, answered, “I am a simply sinful human being.” That means that the Pope does not want to present himself smugly as a perfect person, but as a human being in whose life guilt and sin are also a reality. We struggle with this fact. It throws us back on ourselves.
It is not without reason that guilt and sin are topics which are addressed in many ways in modern literature. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, devotes his play “The Flies” to the freedom of man and the responsibility that comes with it. But also to the feelings of guilt which are the result of choices made. The protagonist can’t live with these feelings of guilt. He tries to suppress them. Every attempt to chase them away is a stroke in the air. The flies return.
You can only come to terms with feelings of guilt by acknowledging them. Not by suppressing them. And certainly not by explaining away what happened. He who acknowledges guilt, will certainly also ask himself, “Who did I hurt? Who is the victim of the evil I have done? How can I repair what happened?”
Handling guilt is not easy for a person. It is more than a stain on one’s reputation. Guilt questions one’s own integrity. In response one attacks the evil of other with strong condemnations. Like David did when the Prophet Nathan told him the story of the rich man who prepared the poor man’s lamb for dinner. David suppressed how he had abused his own power and took the wife of Uriah for his own. How he then tried to hide his tracks by having Uriah die in battle.
Difficulty to accept our own guilt which is the consequence of the acts of her members, and taking responsibility for it, is also difficult for our own Church. Even this week we in the Netherlands and in our diocese were painfully confronted with the fact that a bishop, priests and religious abused their power and undermined their mission. They caused scandal, by actions that do not stand up to daylight: abuse of children and young people. There is nothing worse.
For decades it was denied or suppressed. Now that the true extent has become known, the shame is great. Parents entrusted their children to people of the Church, thinking that there was no safer place than that. Children entrusted themselves to people of the Church and they were abused. Their stories were often not believed.
Although this is also a social phenomenon, that can never be an excuse for people of the Church. Although it happened half a century ago, we experience it as an original sin which is almost impossible to atone for. But we must carry it with us. The Church also does not want to be reminded of the stains in her own reputation, and she frequently made the mistake of David by condemning the mistakes of people with great harshness and without mercy. Why did the Church respond like that? Is it shame? Is it fear of loss of prestige? Loss of face? Did they want to protect the institution more than the hurting victims?
It hurts to be confronted with these sinister and dark sides of the Church. We want to acknowledge that Church authorities and Church members have caused grave scandal and that they have been guilty of grievous acts. In that context the words “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” have perhaps been used too quickly. Since the extent of the abuse became known these concepts were for the victims like a red cloth for a bull. It angered them, because it was misguidedly used to avoid acknowledgement of the facts and to avoid to take responsibility.
This misguided use of the word “forgiveness” should never have happened, because it is a special word and it is a special phenomenon when forgiveness and reconciliation happens between people. But it should always be remembered that forgiveness and reconciliation confer no rights. They can only be received as an undeserved gift.
It always presumes a completely honest acknowledgement of one’s own guilt, without fleeing for the responsibility for what was done in the lives of people. Family members and partners of the victims must certainly not be forgotten in that. Forgiveness is only possible where it is preceded by the acknowledgment of guilt. Acknowledging guilt before the victim and for us a Church also acknowledgement of guilt before God. The forgiveness has a chance and there can be a future again. People can set off on the journey together again. Then they can find each other again as people and appreciate each other for what we can give each other.
May the time come that victims can give their trust to the Church and to people of the Church and forgive them for what was done to them. The Church must wait for that and in the meantime must continuously prove herself to be worthy of it. For now, we work hard together on a “road to reconciliation”. Amen.”
Photo credit: ANP
“It was sharp…”
“We visited the Pope.”
“…white balance was right…”
“We visited the Pope.”
“…and we visited the Pope.”
“We pressed the button.”
“We had more time than we thought.”
“45 minutes. We could ask everything we wanted, all the questions.”
“Yes. And he said to us…”
“Find your treasure, he said, find your treasure.”
“Tesoro, find your treasure.”
“Yes. That’s a clear mission, isn’t it?”
“Oh man, mission. We visited the Pope.”
The reaction of the two young cameramen as they had just returned from the interview with Pope Francis is an example of their enthusiasm and the unprecedented feat that they and the three other interviewers managed to perform. Broadcast on Belgian television yesterday evening, below follows the transcript and translation of the interview as shown. The full report is well worth a look, even if it is in Dutch, with the questions asked in English and the Pope responding in Italian.
“Thanks for accepting our request. But why did you accept it?”
“When I sense that a young man or woman has a certain restlessness, I think it is my duty to serve that young person. To do some service to that restlessness. That restlessness is like a seed that grows and in due time bears fruit. At this time I feel that I can do you a valuable service by listening to your restlessness.”
“Er… I have the second question..”
“Ah, you.” (laughter)
“Everyone in this word is trying to be happy, but we were wondering: are you happy, and why?”
“Absolutely. (smiles) I am most certainly happy. I have a certain inner quietness, a great peace, a great happiness. That also comes with age. Of course, problems appear in everyone’s path, but my happiness does not disappear because of those problems.”
“In many ways you show us great love to poor and to wounded people. Why is this so important for you?”
“Yes… Because (Pope Francis accidentally slips into English here, before continuing in Italian…), because that is the heart of the Gospel. I believe. I believe in God, in Jesus and the Gospel. The poor are at the heart of the Gospel. I heard that someone, two months ago, said, because of my focus on the poor, that this Pope is a communist. But that’s wrong. It is a commandment from the Gospel, not from communism. The Gospel is about poverty outside of ideology. That is why I think the poor are at the heart of the Gospel. It’s what it says.”
“I don’t believe in God, but your acts and ideas inspire me. So, do you maybe have a message for all, for us, for the young Christians, to people who don’t believe, or have another belief, or believe in a different way?”
“I think that you have to find authenticity in your way of speaking. I… My authenticity is that I speak as an equal. We are all brothers, believers or not, of one faith or another, Jews or Muslims, we are all equal. Man is the centre. [...] In this moment in history, man is pushed out of the centre. He has been pushed to the periphery. In the centre, money and power rule, at least in this moment. In a world in which money and power are first and foremost important… young people have been chased out. Young people no longer want children. Families are becoming smaller, families don’t want children. The elderly are pushed aside. Many elderly die because of a sort of hidden euthanasia, because no one cares for them and they die. And now the young are chased out. For example, in Italy, youth unemployment of people under the age of 25 is at almost 50%. We are part of a culture of disposability. If it contributes nothing to globalisation, it is thrown away. The elderly, children, young people. During my years of service, now as Pope and before that in Buenos Aires, I spoke with many young politicians. That pleased me, because regardless of their political preferences, they spoke a new language, introduced a new music. A new music, a new style of doing politics. That gives me hope.”
“When I read the newspaper, or I look around, I sometimes doubt if the human race is capable of taking care of this world and of the human race itself. Do your recognise this doubt?”
“I ask myself two questions about that. Where is God? And where is man? And I also ask myself now: where are you, 21st century man? A question of… And it also reminds me of that other question: God, where are you? When man finds himself, he seeks God. Perhaps he won’t find God, but he sets out on a path of honesty, seeking out truth, a path of goodness and beauty. It is a long road. Some people don’t find Him during their life. They don’t find Him consciously, but they are so real, so honest about themselves, so good and such lovers of beauty, that in the end they have a very mature and competent personality and meet God in all His grace.”
“We are all humans, and we make mistakes. What did your mistakes teach you?”
“I have made mistakes (laughs), and I still make them. They say man is the only animal that falls in the same well twice. In my life I have learned, and I still do, that mistakes are the best teachers. They teach you a lot. I don’t dare to say that I always learnt my lesson. Sometimes I didn’t, because I am very stubborn (laughs). That’s hard to change. But I learned from many mistakes and that has been good.
“Does he have a concrete example about himself, that he made a mistake himself?”
“No problem, I will say it. I wrote it in a book, so it is public knowledge. For example, I became a superior when I was very young. I made many mistakes against authoritarianism. I was too authoritarian. I was 36 years old. I learned then that you have to enter into dialogue and have to listen to what others think. That did not mean I had changed for good. The road is long. I learned much from my authoritarian behaviour when I was that young. That is how I slowly learned to make fewer mistakes. But I still make them. (laughs)
“I do have my fears. What makes you afraid?”
“Myself. (laughs) Fears? In the Gospel Jesus continuously repeats: Be not afraid, be not afraid. Why does He repeat that so often? Because He knows that fear is “normal”. We are afraid of life, of challenges. We also know fears before God. Everyone is afraid. Everyone. So you don’t have to worry. You should ask yourself why you are afraid, before God, before yourself. You should learn to delineate your fear, because there is good and bad fear. Good fear is like prudence, a careful attitude. Bad fear is fear that limits you. It makes you small. It paralyses you, prevents you from doing things. You must lose that fear.
“Last question. The terrible last question”. (laughs)
“Do you have a question for us?”
“My question is certainly not original. It comes from the Gospel. But after hearing all your questions, I think this is the right question at this time.
Where is your treasure? Where does your heart rest? In what treasure does your heart rest? Because that treasure will define your life. The heart is linked to that treasure, which we all possess. Power, money, pride… so many things. Or… goodness, beauty, the will to do good. It can be so many things. Where is your treasure? That is my question. But you must answer it for yourselves, alone. At home.
“Thank you very much. Please pray for me.”
This transcription and translation was based on the questions asked in English and the subtitled responses by the Pope. His answers as given above are therefore translations of translations, with the latter being edited translations to fit a television screen (the art of subtitling comes with a number of demands which are alien to translating for websites). I am fully aware that this is not ideal, but it is what it is.
The photo that Pope Francis is seen signing at the end of the video, as featured on the Verse Vis Facebook page.
In a full cathedral basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul and St. George, Archbishop Ludwig Schick consecrated the new auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Bamberg, Herwig Gössl, at 47 Germany’s fourth-youngest bishop.
In his homily, Archbishop Schick outlined the full calling of a bishop, to be everything for everyone: a bishop has to proclaim the entire Gospel and the entire faith and celebrate all of sacramental life. The entire diocese, all of humanity and the entire world is his work place. He also quoted Pope Francis in saying that a shepherd has to have the smell of his sheep, that he has to be close to his people.
Going further back in time, the archbishop also passed on some advice from Saint Boniface, the Apostle of the Germans, who said that bishops “should not be dogs who don’t bark, not silent onlookers and unpaid servants who flee before the wolf,” but good shepherds “who watch over the flock of Christ. Let all of us, great and small, rich and poor, people of all ranks and ages, proclaim all of God’s plan, to the extent that God, conveniently or not, gives us the strength.”
Among the other bishops present at the consecration were Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg and Heiner Koch of Dresden-Meiβen and the auxiliaries Wolfgang Bischof of München und Freising, Florian Wörner of Augsburg, Reinhard Pappenberger of Regensburg and Otto Georgens of Speyer. Bishops Karl Braun and Werner Radspieler, retired auxiliary bishops of Bamberg, served as co-consecrators.
Bishop Gössl chose a simple style of staff, ring and pectoral cross, but is not a stranger to symbolism, as his coat of arms shows:
The motto comes from the Gloria, “You alone [are] the Lord”. On the red half of the shield we see Mount Tabor, on which Jesus, his monogram shown above the mountain, was glorified. The red refers to the sacrifice about which He speaks with Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:28-36). This Gospel passage is, of course, read on the second Sunday of Lent, the day of Bishop Gössl’s consecration. The right half of the shield shows the coat of arms of the city of Bamberg and below it a river, which is to be understood as the River Jordan and an image the Sacrament of Baptism. The river can also refer to the places where Bishop Gössl worked as a priest: Pegnitz, Seebach, Regnitz and Main. The colours of the coat of arms can, finally, also be seen to refer to his birth place of Munich (gold and black) and to Nuremberg, where he attended school (red, silver and black).
I skipped a few days due to real life obligations, so it’s about time I press on with my completely off-the-cuff and utterly personal (so without any authority whatsoever) reflection on today’s Gospel reading.
“‘For I tell you, if your uprightness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of Heaven.
‘You have heard how it was said to our ancestors, You shall not kill; and if anyone does kill he must answer for it before the court. But I say this to you, anyone who is angry with a brother will answer for it before the court; anyone who calls a brother “Fool” will answer for it before the Sanhedrin; and anyone who calls him “Traitor” will answer for it in hell fire. So then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering. Come to terms with your opponent in good time while you are still on the way to the court with him, or he may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. In truth I tell you, you will not get out till you have paid the last penny.”
What is Jesus teaching us here? Basically, that our access to God, our obtaining full unity with Him, comes only after we have made peace, achieved unity amongst ourselves. Here, I think, we see once more a glimpse of how God created us: as people living in communion with each other and with God, and that is the goal that we should strive for, since we lost that communion.
We must be true to who we really are, how God created us. That is the uprighteousness that Christ speaks of in the first line. Again, we must look at ourselves with His eyes, not our own, in order to see who we really are.
How serious the lack of community is becomes clear when Jesus compares it with killing someone. Of course, both are sinful, but going up to God while maintaining a rift in the relations with other people is the more serious in the end. But the rifts can be closed, and God asks us to do so before coming to Him.
He is perfect and we should not come to Him, be one in Him, while we maintain imperfections we can change.
“‘When the Son of man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory. All nations will be assembled before him and he will separate people one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.”
Then the upright will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, lacking clothes and clothe you? When did we find you sick or in prison and go to see you?”
And the King will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those on his left hand, “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you never gave me food, I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink, I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, lacking clothes and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.”
Then it will be their turn to ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or lacking clothes, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?”
Then he will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.”
And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the upright to eternal life.’”
And so Christ outlines not only where we may find Him, but also the consequences of how we relate to Him. Do we acknowledge or ignore Him? Do we even recognise Him? And if not, why not?
Actions have consequences, as does lack of action. This is an inherent which is not subject to opinion or feeling. It flows directly from the fact that all of Creation is interconnected. Something we do or do not affects other things and people around us. And it affects us. In this case, our direct relationship with Christ, or lack thereof, affects us most directly.
We have responsibility for our actions, but it is good to remember that it starts with gaining this responsibility. We can’t be responsible if we are unaware. Someone who has never heard of Jesus Christ can’t be responsible for not recognising Him. But once we do hear of Him, and have gotten to know Him and established some form of relationship with Him, He asks us to see Him. He sees us, and we must see everyone we are in some form of relationship with.
We encounter Christ in many places: in His Word, in the sacraments, but also in other people, both near and far. In this Gospel passage, He points this out to us. What we do for someone else, especially for the least among us, we have done for Him. Christ tells us that He is among us, He identifies Himself with the least among us.
Aware of that, and part of a relationship with Him, our actions come into play. Do we reach out or do we ignore? Our choice has an effect, in a direct way for the person we help and for ourselves, and also for our relationship with that person, and subsequently with Christ, present in the other person.
We have come to know Jesus. We have responded to His invitation to follow Him. And we follow Him in other people. We are not followers by ourselves. Following Jesus is a relationship, with Him and with our neighbours. Ignoring one or both of those parties means we are not following Jesus fully.
If we don’t follow Christ, if we don’t build our relationship with Him, we can’t expect to enjoy the fruits of fully grown relationship when the time is there. What has not been established can’t be enjoyed, after all.
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the desert to be put to the test by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was hungry, and the tester came and said to him, ‘If you are Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves.’
But he replied, ‘Scripture says: Human beings live not on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
The devil then took him to the holy city and set him on the parapet of the Temple. ‘If you are Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down; for scripture says: He has given his angels orders about you, and they will carry you in their arms in case you trip over a stone.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Scripture also says: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’
Next, taking him to a very high mountain, the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. And he said to him, ‘I will give you all these, if you fall at my feet and do me homage.’
Then Jesus replied, ‘Away with you, Satan! For scripture says: The Lord your God is the one to whom you must do homage, him alone you must serve.’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels appeared and looked after him.”
It is striking to see how factually the Evangelist presents what are some very frightening and supernatural realities. The way in which the devil appears in this text, not to mention Jesus’ curt and sober responses to him, reflect our own reality, even though we often turn a blind eye to it. The devil is real, and he is out to tempt us with power and control, all in return for one small action: falling at his feet and worshipping him. What’s the harm if we look at all we get in return? Surely worship is harmless enough if we are better off for it?
Exactly how ‘harmless’ such a thing is, we learn if we look at Jesus’ responses. 1: There is far more to ourselves than what the devil offers us. Instead of satisfying our physical hunger, we need more than that to live. 2: Trust in God is absolute. 3: Only God is worthy of our homage, and that worthiness is absolute.
Also of interest is the situation in which Christ confronts the Tempter. After a 40-day fast, hungry and alone. Fasting removes those things from our lives which block us from God. We are thrown back on the essentials, on our true self, so to speak. The upside of this is that there is very little left between ourselves and God, but the same goes – and this is a definitive downside – for us and the evil one. We drop our defenses to speed up the connection, one might say, but we must always be aware of exactly what or Who we connect to. In order to that we need what Christ hands us in this Gospel passage: an awareness of what we need to live, trust in God and knowledge of Him, so that we know that we should worship Him alone.
“When he went out after this, he noticed a tax collector, Levi by name, sitting at the tax office, and said to him, ‘Follow me.’
And leaving everything Levi got up and followed him. In his honour Levi held a great reception in his house, and with them at table was a large gathering of tax collectors and others. The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples and said, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’
Jesus said to them in reply, ‘It is not those that are well who need the doctor, but the sick. I have come to call not the upright but sinners to repentance.’”
Jesus calls everyone to follow Him, but in the Gospels we see Him pointing out specific people and presents them with the choice very directly. Apparently, He does not need to have to interact much with people before asking – telling, even - them.. He sees the tax collector at work, and knows enough. This is a man He wants to be seen with.
The world doesn’t understand that, as we see in the reaction of the Pharisees. Why choose to be with these people, these sinners who are spat out by the rest of decent society? But dividing society in wanted and unwanted people is an artificial construct. After all, society is made up by all people, rich and poor, holy and sinful, good and evil. Jesus choose to become a part of this multifaceted society in order to heal it. And just like when our body is sick, we try to heal the parts that affect us adversely, not cut them off. Jesus does the same. He does not cut out the unwanted elements of society, but tries to change them for the better.
Human society, the combined body of all our interactions and relations is not an accident. It flows from our nature as human beings created by God. And as such it is wanted and has a purpose or destination in God. Christ came to put us on the right path to that destination, by healing us from our sins and ills. And he does so first in the ways of society: in the form of a social gathering. He eats and drinks with the tax collectors. We can only imagine what they talked about, but it would be a safe bet to assume that Jesus won Himself a place in the hearts of the sinners He ate with.
We are called to imitate Jesus and introduce Him to the people around us. A good way to start is simply through society, as Jesus did. Not by expounding about the evilness of their ways or pouring boatloads of information about God and faith on them. That can wait, and will come naturally when the time, and everyone involved, is ready. That is the start of evangelisation.
“Then John’s disciples came to him and said, ‘Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?’
Jesus replied, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is still with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
The image of marriage is not unusual when Jesus speaks about Himself and those who follow Him. Here it is related to the practice of fasting, one of the essential things we do during Lent. From the question of John’s disciples we can gather that the followers of Jesus were the odd ones out: they were the only ones not fasting. This already shows us that being a follower of Jesus makes you stand out from the crowd. His ways are not necessarily the ways of the world.
Jesus’ reply to their question tells us that He takes up a very special place: He essentially says that He is the reason that His followers do not fast; the deciding factor in the question of whether or not we should fast and make ourselves ready and able to meet the Lord is He. By saying that His followers do not need to fast, since the bridegroom is with them, Jesus indicates that they are already face to face with the Lord. Once you’re there, there is little need to prepare.
Jesus is with them now, and that fact trumps all reasons for fasting, for preparation. But Jesus says something more. There will come a time when He will not be among them, and then His followers will fast. But why fast after what you were fasting for already happened? That’s pointless. But they will not be fasting after the fact. Jesus has another reason for them to fast: this encounter with God will not be the last. He will return, they will meet again, and that does require preparation.
The same is true for us. We too have met Jesus: in His Word, in the sacraments (especially in our Baptism and in the Eucharist), and in those around us. But we still need to fast, because we will come face to face with Jesus some day. He asks us to make that choice to meet Him. He asks us to allow us to be transformed by Him. Lent is the time in which we try and be open to that, to give Him the reins, so to speak.
Various bishops have written messages to their faithful on the occasion of Lent. In this post I want to go over six of them, written by bishops in and around the Netherlands. I have been scanning the various diocesan websites for them, and an interesting conclusion from that is that there aren’t a lot. I have found one in the Netherlands, and a few in Belgium and the Nordic countries. Oh, and one from Luxembourg. None from Germany, oddly enough.
Anyway, let’s see what the bishops who did write a message found important to share.
From Utrecht, Cardinal Wim Eijk speaks about charity. He writes:
“For many of us [Lent] is a time of abstinence, a period in which we deny ourselves “the pleasures of life” or at least limit ourselves. Lent is a journey through the darkness to the Light of Easter, a journey through the desert to the Source. And we take the time for that: this is not ‘merely’ a Four-Day March, but one of forty days. We do not fast with an eye on losing weight or adopting a healthier lifestyle – although these can certainly be positive side effects… [...] During Lent we place not ourselves but God and also our neighbours at the centre. It is the we have in mind when we downsize our consumption pattern.”
But the cardinal warns, Lent is not just about saving money to give to some charity. He quotes Pope Francis, who said that if we do not have Christ and the Cross, we are a enthusiastic NGO, but not a Church. In other words, we can’t lose sight of our faith when doing good. In addition to fighting material poverty, we must also fight spiritual poverty.
“[Lent] is after all a time in which we make room to enrich our heart and our spirit, through prayer and reading Scripture, by directing these on what the should be the heart of our existence: our personal relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ. We remove the frills and side issues from our life to experience that our wellbeing does not depend on them.”
In essence, Cardinal Eijk explains, our charitable actions can not be seen separate from the Eucharist.
“In the sacrament of the Eucharist we come closest to Our Lord Jesus Christ. In receiving the Eucharist we are conformed to Him. This creates obligations and holds an assignment: from now on, try to act in His Spirit.”
He concludes with pointing out several “desert experiences” that deserve our attention: the loneliness of people around us, and the loneliness that we as faithful can sometimes experience.
“We live in a time in which faith has long since ceased to be a matter of course, in which not belonging to a religion is increasingly becoming normative. Going to Church on Sunday has almost become “socially maladjusted behaviour” now that this day is beginning to look more and more like every other day of the week. And then there is the unavoidable fact that several churches will have to be closed in the coming period, churches in which parishioners have often had decades worth of precious experiences and memories. It is clear: a person of faith in the year 2014 must stand firm to continue following Jesus faithfully.
But the person of faith and his faith can also be shaken from within. Every faith life has fruitful and barren periods. Barren periods during which we are locked up in ourselves, imprisoned by doubt and sorrow. Sorrow for the loss of a loved one or the disappearance of what was once familiar. In those dark nights of abandonment it may seems as it of our prayer do not reach beyond that barrier of sorrow, as if they return to us like a boomerang.”
Countering that is the realisation that Christ is with us, even in times of sorrow and suffering, even of sin.
Brussels’ Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard sheds a light on the three constituent elements of Lent – fasting, almsgiving and prayer – and asks his audience some direct questions. About fasting, he writes:
“Properly understood, fasting is an act of love for God. Is it not right to happily deny ourselves something for the people we love the most? [...] The way in which our Muslim brother and sisters practice Ramadan can inspire us in an exemplary manner to be at our most generous in this field.”
About almsgiving, the archbishop explains:
“This is an important aspect of Lent. Brotherly sharing starts at home. With that I mean the sharing of friendship, respect, patience and service.”
Lastly, there is prayer. Archbishop Léonard remind sus that the most important prayer is the Eucharist. About personal prayer, he asks us a question:
“We all know, at least in theory, the importance of prayer. But reality shows that a solid reminder sometimes does wonders! I ask you again: “How much time did we spend on prayer over the past month? Where were we?” Lent is an excellent opportunity to make a new start or, who knows, finally get started. Spending a few minutes a day with the Lord is not to much to ask, is it?”
And prayer is not hard:
“We must at least realise that every one of us can pray, even a longer prayer. Prayer is not reserved to priests and religious. It does not require a diploma or any special talent. The desire for prayer and asking Jesus, like His Apostles did, “Lord, teach us to pray!” (Luke 11:1), is enough. Let su listen to the voice of the Lord, who asks us, “Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share a meal at that person’s side” (Rev. 3:20).”
Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg uses his message to urge the his faithful to devote themselves even more to the practices of Lent and Easter. In order the hear the voice of God, we must be ready to do so, he writes.
“I [...] propose we fast and do abstinence every Friday during this time of preparation for Easter. A simple meal can help us break down barriers in our daily routine and to open ourselves to Christ’s call. It is also a gesture of solidarity with the poor. And it would be good to not do it alone, but to do so in our various communities. Fasting and abstinence open our hearts and make us better able to pray. Would this not be an opportunity to pray more, to maintain dialogue and contact with the living God? Without personal prayer these things elude us!”
Archbishop Hollerich also speaks about almsgiving, about giving something up for the other. And this is also good for ourselves:
“Let’s shake ourselves up during this Lent! Let’s open our hearts to the distress of the world, which also exists in Luxembourg. Only someone who opens their hands to share can receive this gift: the freedom of the children of God.”
The archbishop urges us to celebrate all of Lent, not just Easter, but also Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, in order to encounter Christ fully in our hearts.
Despite the problems the Church faces, and we as individual faithful also, Lent is ultimately a season of hope, and that hope grows the closer we come to the Living Lord.
Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm takes a slightly different approach to his message for Lent, as he does not explicitly discuss what we can and should do during this season. Instead, he begins with the image of a forgotten God, opening his letter with these blunt lines:
“We forget God. We live in age where God has become the forgotten God. Even the one who says, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me” (Isaiah 49:14) has in fact himself forgotten God.”
But God does not forget us, he continues. We can’t imagine how close God is to is, and how much he loves us. It is up to us to remind others that, while they may forget Him, He never forgets them. And that is hard to communicate, but we must remain hopeful.
Forgetting God contains an enormous risk for us, the bishop explains:
“When we forget God, there is a great risk that we also forget man and fail to see him in his dignity of being created in the image of God. When God is forgotten, creation itself is diminished and so are all created beings. In a time and environment where consumerism is paramount, everything – and everybody – is easily reduced to things that can be consumed. When God is out of sight, so is humanity – indeed all of creation is brought down and diminished.”
But God is knowable in His creation, Bishop Arborelius states. “His presence permeates everything”. And when we get to know God, our respect for His creation grows. In Lent, that respect is shown by our refraining from making unnecessary use of created things.
“We eat less. We disengage ourselves from our covetousness. We try to help our neighbour. We meet God in the poor and naked. We forget ourselves so that we can set God in the centre. We serve those who need us. We praise Go for His goodness. We deepen our faith. Lent helps us to seek God with greater eagerness. We are more receptive to God’s will for us.” St. Birgitta likens God to a washerwoman, who constantly washes us clean of our sins and guilt. During Lent we are serious about our conversion. We prepare ourselves for the triumph and joy of Easter through contrition and penance, by receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation and by participating in the Eucharist more often. We unite ourselves to the suffering and crucified Christ so that we can meet Him as the Risen and glorified Lord. The cross always leads us to the joy and peace of Easter.”
During Lent we must make a choice, the bishop insists.
“We must choose sides. We cannot limp on both sides. Mediocrity and half-heartedness must give way to devotion and commitment. We must begin each day anew in the new life of grace. We must seek the face of God each day by praying to Him and serving Him in our neighbour.”
But we need not stand alone in this radical choice. We are part of the community of the Church, which strengthens us, and the saints in heaven support us by their prayer. This is an antidote against selfishness and forgetting God.
Bishop Arborelius concludes his letter by presenting the Blessed Virgin, to whom the bishops of the Nordic countries will consecrate their nations on 22 March in Lund, Sweden, as our great help in heaven. She helps us be more evangelising and a better witness of Christ.
Antwerp’s Bishop Johan Bonny devotes a major part of his message to the Belgian bill which allows euthanasia on minors. He quotes part of the bishops’ response to that immoral piece of legislation, which was sadly signed into law by King Philippe only days ago.
“The bishops agree with all who have expressed themselves unambiguously against this law on the basis of their experience and expertise. They fully support the rights of the child, of which the rights to love and respect are the most fundamental. But the right of a child to request his or her own death is a step too far for them. It is a transgression of the prohibition to kill, which forms the basis of our humane society.”
Following this reminder of the Church’s opposition to the laws of death, Bishop Bonny writes about the two complementary topics of freedom and solidarity.
“From where does our freedom come, and what does it consist of? Where does our solidarity consist of and what does it consist of? In the Christian view of humanity and the world freedom and solidarity are inseparable. They are like twins who belong together and strengthen each other.”
Using the example of St. Damian, Bishop Bonny then asks what connection we still make between freedom and solidarity. Lent leads us to the answer to that question.
“What was Good Friday but the ultimate unity of those two: freedom and solidarity. Why did Jesus end up on a cross? On the one hand because He wanted to be free: free to witness to the truth free to say and do what the Spirit of God inspired Him to do, free to give His life for His friends. On the other hand because He wanted to remain solidary: solidary with poor and broken people, solidary with the martyrs of all times, solidary with a weak and sinful humanity. He did not make a success story out of His life. He lost His trial. He was carried off through the backdoor of society.”
And so we come full circle, as the bishop seems to want to imply a link between the victims of draconian laws and Jesus Christ.
Reykjavík’s Bishop Pétur Bürcher writes about the Year for Consecrated Life that Pope Francis has announced for 2015, and uses the opportunity the address the religious communities in Iceland which, he says, “are a sign of hope for our Church!” The bishop goes on to relate the contributions that the religious communities have made to Catholic Iceland and announces a plan for the future:
“I would like to establish a male monastery, if possible with the Benedictines or Augustinians who in the Middle Ages possessed several monasteries in Iceland. We have already found a large piece of land with houses and a heated church in Úlfljótsvatn. Now we have to find a monastic community! I have undertaken a lot to find it and hope soon for a fulfillment of my dream which has become one of many people in Iceland and abroad!”
Lastly, Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt opens his message by acknowledging that our environment does not make it easy for us to have the right attitude to start Lent.
“There is very little around us which calls us to it. The chocolate Easter eggs are already in the supermarket and commercials and media have always spoken with more easy about carnival, dieting and the Ramadan than about Christian fasting. Lent is apparently considered to be a private matter which we had better not discuss too much.”
But Lent is a precious time of conversion, the bishop says, drawing parallels with Christ’s time in the desert and the forty years that the people of Israel spent in the desert. It is a time of conversion from worldly things, in preparation for the future. And that conversion begins with the person of Jesus. Quoting Pope Francis, Bishop Hoogmartens says we must understand Christ’s deepest ‘being’.
“Jesus reveals Himself, not with worldly power and wealth, both more so in weakness and poverty. He came to us with a love which does not hesitate to sacrifice itself. He became like us in every way, except in sin. He carried our suffering and died on the Cross. It is He who we must open our hearts and lives much more to during Lent. From out of the love of Jesus, out of His mercy as the Christ, we can, as it were, ‘practice’ our witnessing, in honest love for the other, during Lent.”
The bishop emphasises the two sorts of poverty we must address, material and moral. About the latter he says:
“The extreme emphasis on human autonomy, for example, which became to shockingly visible in the recent amendments in Belgium regarding euthanasia, must urge us Christians to even more support care and nearness to suffering people according to the Gospel.”
In the first place, the bishops concludes, we must first make a conversion ourselves, before we can address the various sorts of poverty we see around us, for it is in Jesus that we find the means to fight it.
As many styles as there are bishops. Some offer deep theology, others outline plans for the future, but all offer points that we can keep in mind during Lent.