On abuse, the pope calls the bishops to Rome

synodIn February of next year, Pope Francis will receive the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences to discuss the “protection of minors”, as today’s press communique states. It is obvious that this announcement, originally proposed by the Council of Cardinals who concluded their 26th meeting today*, comes in the wake of, and is a reaction to, the events of the past weeks.

Some think that February’s meeting, which has not been identified as an Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, as the participation of conference presidents only suggests. comes rather late. After all, the crisis is happening now, but it would be foolish to think it will be gone when the new year rolls around. The current crisis was triggered by investigations by a grand jury in the American state of Pennsylvania, but at this time, the attorneys general of six more states have either already subpoenaed dioceses in their states, have announced that they will do so, or, in some cases, dioceses themselves have invited AG’s to study their paperwork. This, and similar procedures in other countries, including Germany, assure that the abuse history of the Church will be with us for a long time to come. Things will not have blown over by the time the bishops meet in Rome.

That said, the Church, from the Pope on down, does not have the luxury to sit back and do nothing until February. Too many high ranking prelates, including the pope himself, have been implicated or somehow included in accusations of silencing victims, hiding abusers, and not reporting crimes. The crisis has by now, rightly or wrongly, involved so many people, and high ranking ones at that, that proper action has become not only unavoidable, but extremely necessary.  And continued silence is not that proper action.

Finally, as some have rightly pointed out, while the prevention of abuse of minors  and the identification and punishment of perpetrators remains high on the list of priorities, the current crisis in the Church is not only about that. The victims have not solely been minors. In the case of Archbishop McCarrick, they were seminarians, so young adults, and the abuse was later covered up by other priests and bishops. It is to be hoped that February’s assembly will recognise and discuss that aspect too.

DSC_2699_31481e79b67ab70c5ca711c62299f166While Pope Francis is free to appoint other delegates to the assembly, and he would be wise to do so, the presidents of the bishops’ conferences are expressly invited, or, if you will, summoned. There are 114 Roman-rite conferences in the Church, and a further 21 of Eastern rites. The presidents of these are elected by the members of each conference, and they need not be a cardinal or archbishop (metropolitan or not). The president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference is the bishop of Rotterdam, Msgr. Hans van den Hende (pictured), while the Belgian bishops, on the other hand, are headed by Cardinal Jozef De Kesel, and the Germans by Cardinal Reinhard Marx. The Nordic Bishops’ Conference then, made up of bishops from five countries, have the bishop of Copenhagen, Msgr. Czeslaw Kozon, as their president. It is unknown if bishops from dioceses which do not belong to a conference, such as Luxembourg, will be invited as well.

*And not on Monday, as I wrote earlier. Thanks for the correction sent by e-mail, David Cheney of Catholic Hierarchy!

**A detailed investigation of several years has revealed, media suggest, almost 4,000 victims of abuse over the course of 6 decades. The official report is to be published in two weeks time.

Photo credit: [2] KN/Jan Peeters

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Hidden dangers – Bishops of Belgium on decriminalising abortion

logo bc_0As Belgian politics are once more on the verge of discussing the topic of abortion and whether or not it should be decriminalised, the bishops of Belgium warn against the risks of doing so. Their concerns are not unrealistic, as recent developments in other countries have shown. The slippery slope of further liberalisation, actively sought out or not, is real, When abortion comes to be seen as a right, the room to disagree, to conscientiously object, starts to disappear. The bishops write that there are only ever losers in these cases, especially when abortion is considered as a normal procedure.

“In our country, abortion has been legalised under certain circumstances for quite some time now. Several proposal have now been presented to the Belgian parliament to completely depenalise abortion. Current practice will perhaps not change much because of it, but it is nonetheless a serious decision with a strong symbolic meaning. The opinions on the termination of pregnancy will fundamentally change. And the consequences are significant. Hence, we ask ourselves questions. These are questions which transcend ideological boundaries.

In a democracy the criminal code guarantees the protection of human dignity and the physical integrity of every person. Can this protection be disregarded when it is about human life developing before birth? The life that many people desire, which many protect and fight for, for which medicine makes the greatest progress, that precious life. Why should that life in its earliest beginnings not be protected as if it isn’t life yet?

Abortion will never become commonplace. Not even when it is removed from the criminal code. It will never become a normal ‘operation’. It will never happen gladly. There are only ever losers. Certainly, circumstances can make people desperate and hopeless. Exactly then man is so distraught en lonely. If the law would then only suggest that it is a normal operation, no justice is done to what those involved experience and go through. Why then look for advice or assistance? The requests themselves run the risk of not being taken seriously from the start. It will only increase the desperation and loneliness.

That is the danger we wish to point out: when abortion is removed from the criminal code, there is the risk that it becomes a normal medical intervention like any other. It is no longer an infraction in those cases provided for by the law. It becomes a right. Those questioning it or refusing abortion, will then have to justify themselves. And that is true for both the doctor and the woman involved. Even when the clause of freedom of conscience is maintained, it will be able to be invoked increasingly less. A medical intervention requires a medical decision, after all, and not so much a decision of conscience.

Our society increasingly struggles with everything that blocks our plans, with everything that disrupts our way of life. That goes for people who are old or sick, for people with physical disabilities, for the poor, strangers or refugees coming to us. It is also true for unborn life. In his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis says that this is all connected: “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away” (n. 120).”

Cardinal Jozef De Kesel and the bishops of Belgium

By acknowledging that abortion is never considered gladly, never becomes normal, and that those seeking it out are often desperate, seeing no other option, the bishops show the way in how to deal with such situations. Not by presenting abortion as just another medical operation, but by acknowledging the pain and loneliness felt by the people involved, and by finding new ways of alleviating that. Not by killing an innocent person, but by standing with the parent or parents (because too often the mother stands alone in these situations).

 

From Bruges, new auxiliary bishop for Mechelen-Brussels

One year after the death of Bishop Léon Lemmens, the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels receives a new auxilary bishop, the first such appointment under Cardinal Jozef De Kesel.

koenThe new bishop, appointed as episcopal vicar for Flemish Brabant and Mechelen, is Msgr. Koen Vanhoutte. The new bishop comes from the Diocese of Bruges, where Cardinal De Kesel was bishop before being appointed to Mechelen-Brussels in 2015. The bishop-elect has served as vicar general of Bruges since 2010, and has been diocesan administrator of that diocese twice: first, in 2010, between the forced retirement of Roger Vangheluwe and the appointment of then-Bishop De Kesel, and then, for the major part of 2016, between the departure of the De Kesel and the appointment of Bishop Lode Aerts.

He has been considered a likely candidate to succeed either Vangheluwe or De Kesel in Bruges, but evidently a position as auxiliary bishop was in the cards first.

Cardinal De Kesel obviously knows Msgr. Vanhoutte well, having appointed him as his vicar general when he came to Bruges in 2010. The cardinal writes:

“When I was appointed as bishop of Bruges, Koen Vanhoutte became my vicar general. I worked with him for several years. He has great experience in both formation and the management of a diocese. […] He is very dedicated person, a hard worker, with much faith and very concerned with people and the faith communities.”

The new auxiliary bishop will wrap up his duties in Bruges over the next month and move to Mechelen in July to join auxiliary bishops Jean Kockerols and Jean-Luc Hudsyn in the archdiocese. His consecration is scheduled for 2 September in St. Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen. Cardinal De Kesel will be the main consecrating bishop.

About his appointment, Msgr. Vanhoutte writes:

“When hearing about my appointment, God’s word to Abram spontaneously came into my mind: “Leave your country…”Not an easy thing, but when God asks it of me through His Church, I will gladly do it.”

As episcopal motto he chose “Veni sancti Spiritus” (“Come Holy Spirit”). The new bishop explains:

“Living in service in the spirit of the Gospel, in the mindset of Jesus, requires extra strength which the Spirit can give us. That is why I chose for my bishop’s motto the opening words of a hymn sung in the liturgy of Pentecost: “Come Holy Spirit, Veni, Sancti Spiritus”. It is good for the Church to invoke the Spirit, as a source of strength and renewal. That Spirit grants diverse gifts, but also makes us grow in unity and community.”

Bishop-elect Vanhoutte has been given the titular see of Thagora, in modern Algeria. He is the tenth titular bishop of that diocese, with Bishop Giuseppe Marciante, now of Cefalù and then an auxiliary bishop of Rome, as his immediate predecessor.

 

New cardinal appointments reveal papal focus

Yesterday, some of the new cardinals created by Pope Francis in his latest two consistories (November 2016 and June 2017) were given their duties in the Roman curia. More than simply an honorary title (although it sometimes is just that), a cardinal is expected to sit on various councils and congregations and so assist the Pope in running the affairs of the world Church. They are expected to be in Rome regularly to facilitate this, which, I imagine, does little to make life easier for some. Cardinal Mario Zenari, for example, serves in daily life as the Apostolic Nuncio to war-torn Syria. He has now been assigned to serve as a member of the Congregation for Oriental Churches as well.

763Among the cardinals in question are Jozef Cardinal De Kesel (at left), archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, and Anders Cardinal Arborelius, bishop of Stockholm. They have been appointed as members of the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life, and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, respectively.

The appointments of both cardinals are logical ones. Cardinal De Kesel has spoken out on numerous occasions on the role of the laity in the Church, and the dignity of human life. His appointment will undoubtedly herald his continued role in the debate about these topics, not least in the context of the Amoris laetitia its interpretation. Cardinal Arborelius has long since been involved with ecumenism, which is unavoidable in a country like Sweden. The Catholic Church is small but growing and has to relate to the secular society of the country and its Lutheran background.

The dicastery to gain the largest number of new members is the Dicastery for Integral Human Development. With five members (Cardinals Patrick D’Rozario (Dhaka, Bangeldesh), Maurice Piat (Port-Louis, Mauritius), John Ribat (Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea), Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun (Vientiane, Laos) and Gregorio Rosa Chávez (auxiliary of San Salvador, El Salvador), all from Pope Francis’ favoured ‘peripheries’, it perhaps shows the importance he attaches to the dicastery which he established at the start of this year.

Photo credit: Reuters

 

A great heart goes home – Bishop Lemmens passes away

This morning brought the sad news of the death of Bishop Leon Lemmens, auxiliary bishop of Mechelen-Brussels, after a struggle with leukemia. The bishop had laid down his duties towards the end of last year and was admitted to hospital in October of 2016, which is where, at the university hospital in Louvain, he passed away last night.

Lemmens1

Bishop Lemmens was an auxiliary bishop of the sole Belgian archdiocese since 2011, when he was appointed as such together with Bishop Jean-Luc Hudsyn and Jean Kockerols. He was appointed for the vicariate of Flemish Brabant and Mechelen, and wuithin the bishops’ conference he was responsible for the pastoral care to prisoners, contacts with the other Christian churches and  contacts with the Muslim community. The late bishop was also member of the Community of St. Egidio. Speaking on behalf of that community, historian and member Jan De Volder characterises the bishop as follows:

“Leon Lemmens was an extraordinarily cultivated man, a polyglot, who left an impression because of his stature and sincere cordiality, also on the young people he met. He possessed a robust faith and a great heart, especially for the poor, the homeless, the refugees.”

The titular bishop of Municipa was a priest of the Diocese of Hasselt since his ordination in 1977. He studied moral theology in Rome, after which he served as parish priest in Genk in the early 1980s. A professor at the diocesan seminary since 1984, he rose to its leadership in 1997. In 1998 he was appointed as vicar general of Hasselt. In 2004, Msgr. Lemmens went to Rome, to serve as rector of the Romanian College, and in 2005 he also started working at the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. In 2011, he was one of three priests called to serve as auxiliary bishops under the then recently-appointed Archbishop Léonard of Mechelen-Brussels. In 2015, shortly before being forced to relinquish his duties, Bishop Lemmens accompanied Bishop Guy Harpigny and the later Cardinal Jozef De Kesel on a solidarity mission to northern Iraq.

Aboput his final months and weeks, Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt, Bishop Lemmens’ home diocese, says:

“We knew that he was ill and we visited him regularly. I spoke with him over the phone only last week. He bore his illness in full faithful surrender.”

The funeral Mass for Bishop Lemmens will take place on Saturday 10 June, in the Cathedral of St. Rombald in Mechelen.

Quoting the wish from the vicariate of Flemish Brabant and Mechelen: “Let’s remain united in prayer with him, and ask the Lord to embrace him with great affection and grant him eternal life.”

Photo credit: Philippe Keulemans

Answering like Mary – Cardinal De Kesel upon taking possession of his title church

On Saturday, the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, Cardinal Jozef De Kesel was in Rome, to take possession of the title church granted to him upon his creation as cardinal. The Basilica do Santi Giovanni e Paolo al Celio, its full title, in the heart of Rome, is an ancient church, a cardinal title since the sixth century, and previously held by no less than six future popes. Cardinal De Kesel devoted his homily to the question of how and why God loves us and what that means for us. The Dutch text linked to above is sprinkled with Italian quotations from Scripture, and I have copied these unchanged in my English translation below. The general gist of it should be clear enough.

TitelkerkkardinaalDeKesel00004

“Good friends, no one has ever seen God. The prologue at the beginning of the Gospel of John states this. God resides in inaccessible light. He does not belong to this created world. He is invisible, ineffable. He transcends everything that exists. But Scripture also tells us that He has wanted to be known. That He came to us to live among us. What’s more: to belong completely to us and share our existence. It is the point of today’s feast. He has asked Mary if she was willing to become the mother of His Son. We praise her today with the entire Church for having answered, “Avvenga per me secondo la tua parola”.

Why does God wish to reside among us? Of course, we humans also search the proximity of others. We search for support and a sense of security. No man lives for himself alone. We can’t do without others. But He is God, not a man. What, then, has He seen in us? Why does He want to be with us? What can He find with us that He doesn’t already have? And why did He choose to become like us? Scripture says that the reason is that He loves us, that we people and this creation are worth everything to Him. Out of love: that is indeed the only answer. But it doesn’t explain anything. It only invites the other question: why does He love like this? There is no answer to that question. It remains the mystery of His love. That is how God wants to be: not for Himself, but for us. That is the mystery of which Paul says that it was hidden in eternity, but has now been revealed in the incarnation of God’s Son.

It is striking in the story of the Annunciation that God does not impose Himself, He does not force, He does not want to act without man’s cooperation. He calls Mary, invites her, asks her. As is written so beautifully in the book of the Apocalypse, “Ecco, sto alla porta e busso. Se uno ascolta la mia voce e mi apre, io verro da lui.”  That is what happened with Mary: she heard God’s voice, she opened the door, and the Lord entered That is powerlessness of love. It has to knock and wait until the door is opened. Without man’s yes God remains powerless. But when man answers, everything becomes possible.

Jesus was once told that his mother and brothers were waiting for Him outside and wished to speak with Him. He then pointed to His disciples and said, “Mia madre e i miei fratelli sono coloro che ascoltano la parola di Dio e la mettono in pratica”. It is exactly what Mary did: she heard God’s word and acted accordingly. With her great faith, she not only received her Son in her body, but also in her heart.

But not everything was self-evident for her. She is greeted with those beautiful words we still express in the liturgy: “Il Signore è con te”.  That is the mystery of God’s love: that He wants to be there for us That is not self-evident. Not for us, and neither for me: those words frighten her. The angel puts her at ease: do not be afraid. And he also says why: You have found favour with God. Everything that God will ask her will be nothing but a sign of His great love. And when she is told that she will bear a Son, she still ask questions. How can this be, since I have no relations with a man? Only when she hears that that too will be the work of God’s grace does she speak her yes: May it be done to me according to your word. She did not immediately say yes, did not answer lightly. Her yes was conscious and free.

Friends, Mary is the image of the Church. We are called to do what she has done. “Mia madre e i miei fratelli sono coloro che ascoltano la parola di Dio e la mettono in pratica”. Today, too, He stands at the door and He knocks. It is the vocation of the Church and every one of us to answer, consciously and free, in word and action. That is also not self-evident for us, not without questions. We no longer live in a world and society where the Christian faith is commonplace. Modern society is increasingly characterised by secularism and pluralism. But in this society we are also called to be witnesses of God’s love. It is no wonder that we sometimes fearfully wonder, “Come avverrà questo, poiché non conosco uomo?” But the same message is addressed to the Church today, in the midst of all the questions and challenges: “non temere“. She is also told, “Hai trovato grazia presso Dio“. And she is also and always overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.

Friends, let us celebrate this feast of the Annunciation to Mary in great joy and gratitude. And also in hope and confidence. The Church is and remains called, not only to proclaim God’s word, but also to first hear it herself and act according to it. Let us be grateful for the way in which Pope Francis helps us to do so. Not a Church which closes itself off from the world and looks inwardly, but a Church which sympathises with the people, especially the poor or other victims of the globalisation of indifference. A Church that is close to people. That is precisely what we celebrate today: God who does not only want to be close to us, but even wanted to share our existence, human among humans.”

In the video, also shared by Kerknet, Cardinal De Kesel speaks about the purpose of cardinals having a title church, and also addresses the topic of his homily. Here, I share a translated transcript of his words on the first topic.

“You must known that the Pope is the local bishop of the city of Rome. He is not only the universal shepherd of the entire Church, but he is in the first place the bishop here, of his own community, of his own city. And originally, the cardinals are parish priests. That is to say, his immediate coworkers, with whom he built up the Christian community here in Rome. The College of Cardinals has of course become more international, but it has been held onto symbolically, that cardinals also always have a connection with the local church of Rome. And that is also an official title: one is a cardinal of the Roman church, not of the Roman Catholic, but of the church of Rome. And of course, that is a titular church now, as there is a parish priest here, this is a convent church, but they have wanted to symbolise the connection with the Pope, with the bishop of Rome.”

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^The coat of arms of Cardinal De Kesel adorns the facade of his title church.

“Precious in His eyes” – Cardinal de Kesel’s homily at the consecration of Bishop Aerts of Bruges

BRUGGE CONSECRATION BISHOP AERTSTaking a cue from the new bishop’s episcopal motto, Cardinal Jozef de Kesel spoke in his homily for the consecration of Bishop Lode Aerts of Bruges about the love of God, but also about the conversion needed to open ourselves for that love. And, with St. Augustine as an example, the newly-created cardinal emphasised that a bishop needs a second conversion.

“Dear friends, it is noteworthy that no Gospel begins with Jesus. It starts with John as a prophet in the desert. No Gospel comes straight to the point. Apparently, one can’t begin immediately. One has to be prepared. The terrain must be made made smooth. A inner transformation, a conversion, has to have taken place beforehand. And that is what John does: he calls for conversion. He calls people to the desert, which is traditionally the place of conversion. That is where everything began. That is where Israel found its vocation. There it became the People of God. There they found how valuable they were in God’s eyes. So that is where they have to return to. There is no way to Jesus than through that voice calling in the desert. Without that conversion, we won’t be able to hear Him.

Precisely for that reason, Jesus is so harsh for some Pharisees and certain Saducees. It is more about more about a mentality than about person. This mentality has lead to the conflict that made Jesus its victim. It is the mentality of those who do not conversion. Who are content with themselves and thank God that they are not like the others. The mentality of those who say, “There is nothing wrong with us, we have Abraham as our father!”

John’s call is also directed at us and the Church of today. We need conversion. We must get rid of self-assurance. It is a grace to us that Pope Francis continuously appeals to us for this. We must not fall back on ourselves. We must acknowledge our poverty and smallness. As long as we do not acknowledge this poverty, also in ourselves, Jesus has nothing to offer to us. They will also be Jesus’ first words: “Blessed are the poor of spirit!” It is the Spirit of the Messiah of which Isaiah speaks today. The Messiah, who is inspired by a spirit of deep humanity and sympathy. “He shall judge the poor with justice … strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth”. We must get rid of all complacency. Not a Church who is only occupied by herself, as Pope Francis requests. We have received the Gospel. It is our greatest treasure. But we did not earn it. “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give”.

As long as you accept it is normal that another loves you, you do not know what love is. As long as you think that you have earned and have a right to that love, you do not know what you mean to another. Only when you have dropped all pretense and know you are being loved undeservedly, only then you know how valuable you are in the eyes of those who love you. That is what God asks of His Church and of us today, this conversion, this emptying and this poverty. It is what Charles de Foucauld searched for. Last Thursday it was one hundred years ago that he died. And Augustine also experienced it in his life. He searched God with all his heart. It took a long time. He had to give up certainties before being able to surrender himself. “Too late have I loved you, but then You called and shouted (!); You have broken through my deafness and touched my heart.” So he became a Christian and a great bishop.

But oddly enough, in order to become a bishop, Augustine had to convert also. A second time! He had to soul of a monk. Becoming a priest was not something he sought at all. When he finally was one, his fame spread. In one of his homilies he said to have had so much fear of becoming a bishop that he avoided going soemwhere where the seat was vacant. But in Hippo, which he passed, he did not take into account that Bishop Valerius was old and people were looking for a successor. There was no avoiding anymore: he became a bishop.

You are familiar with his writings. You know that, when he wrote or preached about being Christian, he always did so with great inspiration and enthusiasm. But when he discussed the office of the bishop, he was always somewhat more muted. He writes about very lively: about the burden and the weight and the pressure of that office. I am not telling you this to frighten you. It can also encourage and comfort you to know that Augustine also knew and experienced it. But most of all to tell you that these two can not be separated: being a Christian and being a bishop. One needs conversion for both. But they do spring from the same source: the faith that we are loved by God, “precious in His eyes”.

Christian and bishop. The latter can sometimes be a great burden. But the former always turns it into a great grace. For yourself and for the entire faith community of which you are now the shepherd. You will, as Pope Francis says, sometimes walk ahead, sometimes among the sheep, sometimes after them. But always together and united with them in love and suffering. Knowing that there are no rulers and servants, but that we are all brothers and sisters, friends of Jesus, children with God our Father. Paul says it today: “Accept each other as members of one community”. For you are called with your entire church community to proclaim God’s love. We will soon hear it on Christmas Eve: how God’s charity appeared when he shared our existence in Christ, man among men. He loved us so much. So precious in His eyes.”

BRUGGE CONSECRATION BISHOP AERTS

Bishop Aerts was consecrated on Sunday afternoon by Cardinal de Kesel in Bruges’ San Salvator Cathedral. Ghent’s Bishop Luc van Looy and emeritus Bishop Arthur Luysterman served as co-consecrators, a logical choice as Bishop Aerts was a priest of that diocese (and dean of Ghent for a month until his appointment to Bruges.

ceremonieel_wapen_website_internet%202Bishop Aerts’ motto is featured in his coat of arms and comes from the Book of Isaiah (a fitting choice for Advent, by the way). About it, the bishop writes:

“We are infinitely precious in God’s eyes. Everyone, believing or non-believing, exemplary or not, everyone is precious in the eyes of God. It comes from Isaiah, a passage about a people in exile. Somewhat comparable to today’s circumstances. A time of crisis, there is fear and insecurity. And there aren’t very many of them left, either. And precisely then God say, the prophet tells us, that they are precious in His eyes.”

Photo credit: [1, 2] Kurt Desplenter, [3] Bisdom Brugge