In deep shame, remembering what is good – Bishop de Korte urges “joyful faith” in “days of crisis”

downloadFollowing his earlier comments on the latest revelations about past abuse in the Catholic Church, and in light of the impact this has had on Catholics, also in the Netherlands, Bishop Gerard de Korte has written a letter to the faithful of his diocese. But its message is just as pertinent for Catholics in other dioceses and even other countries.

Without wanting to diminish the suffering of the victims – the bishop describes how he has personally been in touch with a number of them – the letter reminds the reader of what is being done today to fight abuse, despite the failures of the past, and asks to remember of the good the Church still offers. It is good to remember, in my opinion, that there is no distinction between ‘the Church’ and the faithful in the pews. They – we – are the Church, and Bishop de Korte’s letter must be read in that light, so that it does not become a bishop’s call to not leave him and his priests, but an invitation to work together as God’s Church in the world.

“Brothers and sisters,

In the past weeks our Church has frequently been negatively in the news. There was the news about sexual abuse of minors in the United States. And on the highest level of our Church our good pope is accused of not having responded adequately to signs of abuse.

Altogether, the recent news reports are for many cause for pain and sadness. Several victims of sexual abuse who have I have spoken with in the past, have contacted me and told me that their pain is resurfacing because of the news. More than a few faithful in the parish are experiencing sadness with so many negative reports.

In recent history, religious, priests and bishops have been unfaithful to their vocation. They have committed crimes and seriously damaged the lives of people. Their behaviour did not bring people to God, but, in many cases, tested or even extinguished the faith in the hearts of people. This is a reason for deep shame.

In the Netherlands, the sexual abuse of minors was revealed in 2010. From that moment on, the Dutch bishops have been intensively involved in ding justice to the victims of the abuse. They have done their utmost, and will continue to do so, to purify and renew the Church.

All the recommendations of the Deetman commission, which investigated the sexual abuse of minors in our Church, have been followed. A great number of measures have been taken recognise victims and, at the same time, to prevent new victims being made. Of course, constant vigilance is needed, but I am strongly convinced that our Church in the Netherlands is a safer place than it was in the past, especially also for children and young people.

In these days of crisis our bond with the Church is being tested. May I ask you, especially now that it is difficult, to remain faithful? Now that we are going through an exceptionally difficult time for the Church, no one can be missed.

There are countless good things happening in the faith communities of our parishes. Things that can give us courage and hope. I think of celebrating God’s love together, as made visible in Jesus Christ. I’ll also mention all kinds of activities in the fields of communicating the faith and catechesis. And in the last place I gladly emphasise all sorts of charity and other forms of service, within and without the parishes. I think not only of the care for the elderly and the lonely, but also of efforts towards peace, justice and the maintenance of God’s creation.

The Church of our country and most especially of our own Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch only has a future if many take the faith of their baptism seriously.

In these dark days, let us stay close to Christ and His Gospel, also by being close to all who are struggling. In these times we need Catholics who, despite everything, live their faith joyfully.

Thank you to all the faithful, priests, deacons, pastoral workers and all other baptised who form their faith in loyal perseverance.

Let us, inspired by the Holy Spirit, make our friendship with Christ visible in today’s world.

Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte”
Photo credit: ANP / Ramon Mangold

A Belgian encyclical – updating Populorum Progressio

In March of 1967, Blessed Pope Paul VI published his fifth encyclical, “on the development of peoples”. Populorum Progressio discussed the development of man, and especially the problems that were present then and still are today: social inequality, poverty, hunger, disease, people seeking a better life elsewhere. It is also discussed progress, freedom and solidarity. The encyclical coincided with the establishment of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which has now merged into the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

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^Bishops Jean-Pierre Delville (left) and Luc Van Looy (far right) present Populorum Communio.

The bishops of Belgium released a pastoral letter to update the encyclical today. They have dubbed their text Populorum Communio. According to Bishop Luc Van Looy, the bishops have wanted to explore the social dimension of mercy. The Holy Year of Mercy, then, is a major inspiration for the document, which also served as the bishops’ letter for Lent, since “Lent liberates from what is superfluous, makes us man among men.”

As the document is rather lengthy, I present my translation of the official summary below.

“On 26 March (Easter) 1967, Pope Paul VI released his encyclical Populorum progressio (on the development of peoples) to the world. He broadened the Church’s social teaching by calling for economic development and social justice for all peoples. The document led to a worldwide solidarity movement in the Church, which was prepared by Paul VI on 6 January of that same year 1967 by the establisment of the Commission of Justice and Peace. In our country, Broederlijk Delen (solidarity campaign for Third World countries during Lent) and Welzijnszorg (an Advent campaign against lack of opportunities in the fourth world in our own country) had been active since the early 1960s, and these seamlessly joined this movement.

With the Holy Year of Mercy, which closed in November of last year, Pope Francis provided a key to live the Christian faith in a renewed and creative way. Just before the start of Lent (Ash Wednesday 1 March), it is the basis to think more deeply about the social impact of mercy.

As we know, the challenges are not negligible. There is an increasing lack of opportunities and social injustice, the question of migrants and refugees, pollution and the threat to the ecological balance … All this does not only require the development of the peoples, but also unity between the peoples to work together for the future of the planet. And mercy is key to achieve this unity. “It is important to have aheart for those in misery”, Pope Francis says. “It is a new sensitivity which allows itself to be challenged by the other and leads to a new attitude.”

John’s story of Jesus healing a blind man (9:1-41) is the guideline of the pastoral letter. The story of healing is a call to keep believing that mercy can drive back exclusion and that a unity which itself is merciful can develop in society. “Like the healing of the body results in the healing of the soul, we dare to hope that the promotion of development results in a spiritual discovery and gives new meaning to the mission of mercy,” the bishops write.

The pastoral letter addresses four great challenges for modern society, which cause both progress and exlcusion: technology and science, economy, politics and ethics. What is the role of Christians and what is their influence on the world’s development? The social teachings of the Church and the notion of mercy as developed by Pope Francis offer inspiration for possible answers.

  1. In his encyclical Populorum progressio, Paul VI makes clear that social justice also includes the economic development of underdeveloped countries and that development is not limited to merely economic growth, but must be directed towards the development of every man and the entire person. Pope Francis adds that social justice requires the social integration of the poor to be able to hear their voice.
  2. The means for achieving social justice, Populorum progressio teaches, is solidarity. Pope Francis emphasises that solidarity demands the creation of a new mentality which thinks in terms of community, of the priority of the life of all to the appriation of goods by a minority. Or, “solidarity must be lived as a decision to return to the poor what is theirs”.
  3. Regarding politics which today lead to war and violence among peoples and societies, the establishment of unity between peoples make a world peace possible if it is inspired by mercy. Everyone deserves confirmation and respect, especially those who are habitually excluded.
  4. True solidarity with the poorest in the world means that we question our way of life and choose a sustainable economy which takes the capacity of the world into account. “We must believe in the power which can realise change when go forward with many,” the bishops write. This faith in the power of “transition” is the area of common ethics, which includes our entire planet and transcends the exclusion of the weak. The “dynamics of transition” addresses everyone, no matter how weak, and urges the politically responsible to form one front to save the planet. In this way we will achieve a dimension of unity between peoples at the service of the entire earth.

The bishops conclude their letter with a word of thanks to all who are already working for the integration of the poor in society andpol who are at the service of reconciliation in the world. At the start of the Lent they invite all people of good will to create the link between stimulating changes and true conversion, through prayer, fasting and sharing. They remind that Fasting is liberating, as it liberates from all that is superfluous. Fasting is becoming more human, more solidary, more concerned with our earth. It is living according to the ethics of simplicity which create space to live well.

And the letter concludes as follows: “We invite you as Christians, in spite of the injustice and violence affecting our world, to continue working for a more just and sustainable world without inequalities, and this together with all men and women working for the same.””

Photo credit: Kerknet on Facebook

 

God and our freedom according to Jesus Sirach

Today’s first reading at Mass summarises, for me, quite clearly the esteem God has for our freedom. The text comes from the Old Testament book of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus.

“If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;
if you trust in God, you too shall live;
he has set before you fire and water
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.
Immense is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power, and all-seeing.
The eyes of God are on those who fear him;
he understands man’s every deed.
No one does he command to act unjustly,
to none does he give license to sin.”

Sir 15:15-20

While the text does not shy away from emphasising the consequences of (not) trusting in God, it does not claim that God demands that trust. God created man as a being with full freedom, including the freedom to choose his own path: “whichever he chooses shall be given him”. This freedom also influences how we should treat other people, especially people who have made different choices than we have. We can’t force anyone to adopt our choices.

But there is a catch: refraining from imposing our choices on others does not mean  that all choices are equal or equally good for people. The passage from Sirach also reminds us that God is aware of us and knows what we need, what is best for us. He does not say that anyone is free to act unjustly or to sin. While anyone is free to be unjust or to sin, these choices are not by definition good ones. God’s wisdom and care for us should inform our process of deciding what to do.

As in many other occasions, God is like a parent to us. A good parent respects their child’s freedom, even encourages the development of their capacity to think and act for themselves. But at the same time a parent knows what is best for their child, and while their well-informed and carefully made choices must be respected, because they are the choices of free human beings, a parent will sometimes advise against them. In those cases, it is good to include our parents’ advice in our choosing.

It is no different with God. He knows us, understands why we do what we do, but His wisdom is also immense. It is good to listen to what he has to say to us about justice and sin, and take it seriously. After all, how free are we if we don’t have all the information we need?

“The bishop bearing witness to the Cross” – Cardinal Woelki’s homily at the consecration of Bishop Bätzing

On Sunday, Bishop Georg Bätzing was ordained and installed as the 13th bishop of Limburg. Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, the archbishop of Cologne, gave the homily, which I share in my English translation below. The cardinal also served as consecrator of the new bishop, together with Bishop Manfred Grothe, who lead the diocese as Apostolic Administrator during the two and a half years between bishops, and Bishop Stephan Ackermann of the new bishop’s native Diocese of Trier.

bischofsweihe_neu_int_23“Dear sisters, dear brothers,

An ordination – be it to deacon, to priest or, as today, to bishop – is always a public act; an effective action which changes both the person being ordained – although he is an remains the same person – and his environment. This is true even when an ordination must be performed in secret for political reasons. And so public interest, especially at an episcopal ordination, is a most natural thing. Today too, many eyes are focussed on Limburg; perhaps even more eyes than usual at an episcopal ordination. In recent years, the focus of the media on Limburg and its bishop has been too strong, if the question of how things would proceed now was not one well beyond the Catholic press.

The man who will be ordained as the thirteenth Bishop of Limburg today, is being sent to “bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted” (cf. Is. 61:1). He knows the wounds that need healing; he knows that the faithful in this diocese must be brought together and united again, and he knows the challenges which face not just the Church in Limburg, but everywhere, when she wants to proclaim, credibly,  Christ as the salvation of all people, also in the future. His motto, then, advances what has already been important to him in his various pastoral duties in Trier: he was and is concerned with unity in diversity – Congrega in unum. It is no coincidence that today’s ordination concludes the traditional week dedicated to the Holy Cross in the Diocese of Limburg.

The feast of the Cross and the Week of the Cross have a long tradition here, which is applicable in this situation. At the introduction of the feast in 1959 by Bishop Wilhelm Kempf its goal was to establish an identity in a young diocese. He chose the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross as diocesan feast, with an eye on the relic of the Holy Cross kept in the reliquary of the cathedral treasury of Limburg. But not from this artistic and outstanding treasure of Byzantine art, before which one can linger in amazement and admiration like before an exhibit in a museum, does the Church in Limburg derive her identity. No, it is from that which is hidden within: the precious Cross of the Lord, by which we are saved. Only that grants the Church of Limburg, yes, the entire Church, her identity. The Apostle Paul knew this, and following him, everyone who is appointed to the episcopal ministry therefore knows this.

Our new bishop also knows. Because this is the heart of his calling and mission as bishop: to proclaim Christ, as the Crucified One in fact. He is not to proclaim Him with clever and eloquent words, so that the Cross “might not be emptied of his meaning” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:17).

On the Cross hangs the unity of the Church, because from the crucified Body of Jesus the Church emerged. In her all the baptised are woven together. All the diversity of the Spirit, which animates and moves the Church, has its origin there. Understanding the mystery of Christ depends on the Cross. No salvation without the Cross! Without the Cross no Gospel, no Christianity! Only in the Cross do we recognise who God and who man is, what God and what man is capable of. We say that God is love. These horribly absurd, often abused and yet so eagerly awaited words gain their sober and exhilerating depth and truth against all kitsch and all shallow romanticism only in the light of the Crucified One.

Saint John the Evangelist reminds us that God so loved the world, that He gave His only son (cf. John 3:16). This was not an “either-or” devotion. It was not a game of God with Himself without us humans, no large-scale deception, no comedy. Christ died and so He become equal to us all, we who received everything that we have from God and who always violently want to “be like God”, on our own strength, as we can read in the first pages of the Bible, in the history of the fall. And then he, the Son of God, did not want to cling to His divinity with violence, like a robber, but He emptied Himself, became man, creature, became the second Adam, who did not want to be like God on his own strength, but wanted to be obedient until the death on the Cross. Only in this humiliation, in this selfless devotion to God’s love for us, He is raised: the Crucified One lives! The humiliated one reigns!

This is then the case: The God who we imagined as unapproachable, as fearsome, is dead, definitively dead! It was not us who killed him, as Nietzsche claimed, but this Jesus of Nazareth, He has killed him. But the true God lives, the God who came down to us, unimaginably close in Jesus Christ. This God lives, who we recognised on the cross as God-with-us, and whom we continue to recognise only through the cross of Christ, recognise in that complete sense in which recognition means acknowledging, loving, being there for others.

And so, after all, understanding this world and our lives also depends on the cross. Its image assures us that we are ultimately embraced by the mercy of God. That, dear sisters and brothers, is our identity as Christians and therefore also our identity as Church. That is what a bishop is to proclaim, even more, to live. Before everything, he is to be a witness of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the decivise salvific act of God. From this everything else flows: our commitment to and engagement  with Church and society, our commitment to peace and social justice, to human dignity and rights, to the poor and homeless, to the suffering, the sick, the dying, to life, also of the unborn. Everything flows from the mystery of the cross, and so the bishop promises just before his ordination to care for all, to be responsible and seek out the lost to the very end. “Tend to my sheep,” (John 21:16) does not mean, “Tend to my sheep where it is easy, where no dangers lurk.” It means to protect every human being as God Himself does – also there where it becomes abysmal and dark; where people lose themselves, where they put trust in false truths or confuse having with being. God knows how vulnerable we people are, and how much care and mercy each of us needs to live in such a way that it pleases God: not loving ourselves, but God and our neighbour. The cross is the reality of this love which desires to exclude no one, but which also recognises the “no” of those which it addresses. The openness of the most recent Council to a universal understanding of divine salvation allows us to see those who believe differently, only half or not at all as potential sisters and brothers. Such an understanding of and relationship with all people also permeates our Holy Father, when he wants to cure the sickness in ecclesial and social coexistence with the medicine of mercy (cf. Jan Heiner Tück).

As universal sacrament of salvation the Church only has one single Lord: Jesus Christ. God Himself anointed Him (Is. 61:1). That is why we always must ask ourselves what He wants from us and where He wants to lead His Church. The future of the Church is critically dependant on how the different charisms that God has given us can be developed. At the time that Bishop Kempf established the feast of the Cross it was, in addition to establishing an identity, about bringing together unity and diversity, centre and periphery in the young diocese.

This program can not be better summarised than in the new bishop’s motto: “Congrega in unum“. Also today, it is the mission of a bishop to discover charisms, recognise talents, guide developments, allow unity in diversity: “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another” (Rom. 12:4-5). Where he succeeds in this service, oaks of justice can grow (Is. 61:3) and plantings can develop through which the Lord can show His justice (61:3) – in the heart of history, in the here and now, in the heart of this diocese. Where this service is successful people are encouraged and empowered to imitate and let God guide their lives – also when He may lead them, for a short while, “where they do not want to go” (John 21:18). We humans may be sure – in all hazards to which we are exposed or expose in faith – that we are protected by God; He has entrusted the bishop with the most valuable task that He has to give: “Feed my sheep!” (John 21:17).  Nothing more – but that absolutely.

Amen.”

Photo credit: Bistum Limburg

The bishop’s agenda – Bishop de Korte’s homily

Bishop Gerard de Korte has the habit of not writing out his homilies. He usually makes somes notes, but for the most part he speaks from memory. His homily during his installation Mass as bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, yesterday, was no different. But, contrary to past occasions, the bishop’s notes were published, and they’re complete enough to reconstruct the lengthy homily that ended in a welcoming applausse from the full cathedral basilica.

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The bishop begins by reflecting on the person whose feast it was yesterday: the Apostle who was chosen to replace Judas, St. Matthias. An important criterium in his election was his being a witness of Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1: 21-22). And since a bishop is a successor of the Apostles, his first task is to be a witness of the resurrected Lord. The Church is a community around the living Christ, the bishop said, so let us live with Christ and His Gospel as our basis.

Of course, there was occasion to look back, first to Bishop Bekkers, who was buried from St. John’s basilica exactly fifty years before Bishop de Korte’s installation. He remains a symbol for many Catholics of a loving, mild and hospitable Church. But also to Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, the now retired bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Bishop de Korte thanked him for his work as parish priest, seminary rector, vicar general and bishop.

Then, a look to the future. Bishop de Korte’s takes up the call of Bishop Hurkmans to defeat all division in the diocese. Tolerance is a virtue, there is room for different emphases and spiritualities in the Catholic house, and, most importantly, if Christ has chosen us, who are we to not accept each other?

As ever, Bishop de Korte has a realistic eye for the Church in our times. Yes, there are few young people, yes, the Church is vulnerable, yes, in many ways these are the years of truth. Like he said in his letter with that title from January 2015, Catholics must take their responsibility. Priests, deacons, pastoral workers, religious and all the baptised.

The bishop extended a specific invitation to the religious in his new diocese, asking them to work with the diocese, to reinforce and support each other.

Ever with an eye for ecumenism, Bishop de Korte siad he wants to continue working for better ecumenical relations in his new diocese. To not only celebrate, but also learn and serve together and so bear witness together of the risen Lord.

Taking a page from Pope Francis’ book, the bishop desires a Church which is open to the needs of the world, that joins all spiritual forces to realise more global justice and the protection of Mother Earth.

In closing, the bishop directs the attention to Mary, to whom there is a strong devotion in the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Mary continuously refers to Christ (Do what He tells you to). Mary is also the mother of the faithful, a source of comfort, an example of the love for God and the neighbour. Let’s follow her example.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

Discordant voice? Confusion about what bishops should do when confronted with abuse

Msgr. Tony Anatrella’s statement – “Bishops are not obliged in all cases to report allegations of sexual abuse to the authorities” – has led to shocked headlines and articles in the media. And it is not hard to see why. Isn’t this exactly what the Catholic Church has done in the past and what it continues to be accused of doing? Keeping the facts hidden to protect her own image? Well, yes and no.

AP3063773_LancioGrandeYes, it is true that image was often the first thing that needed protection, instead of the victims of an abusive priest, or so many in the Church thought and acted upon. And no, this is not really what Msgr. Anatrella, speaking at the regular course for new bishops in the Vatican (a previous meeting pictured), said.

He added something to the above statement: “It is up to the victims and their families to do so”. And that is true: the victim decides what should be done, not in the first place the bishop. If a victim, for example, wishes that no legal proceedings take place (and this has happened), a bishop can (and should) urge for the wisest course of action, but has to abide with the victim’s wishes. This is a consequence of the primary concern that needs to be given to this victim, a concern urged for by Pope Francis, his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and many prelates and bishops’ conferences.

As John Allen points out, Msgr. Anatrella’s speech could have been much better if it did not only focus on canon law and psychotherapy, but also on the interactions between Church and state authorities in these matters: what can and must a bishop do or not do when confronted with such terrible crimes against the dignity of a person? Not just with the means at his disposal as a shepherd in the Church, but also as a person living in a modern society.

And there lies the rub: in our modern western societies (at least most of them) reporting allegations to the police is the surest and safest way to see justice being done. In many countries this is not a given. Police forces and judicial systems are not always just and safe, but corrupt or tainted by political, social and religious ideologies which are not necessarily sympathetic to the Christian churches and faithful.

As Father Lombardi pointed out yesterday, Msgr. Anatrella said nothing new. And the fact that his statements were published as part of the proceedings of the entire course does not mean that there is a new Vatican policy on dealing with sexual abuse. But Msgr. Anatrella could have phrased things differently, emphasised the continuity of his statements with those of the Popes in recent years and suggested that, all things being equal, legal proceedings are a necessity towards justice, as long as the victim desires it.

Affairs like these do muddle the issue and give false impressions of the Church’s resolve to prevent the past from repeating itself. The will is there – as is clear from what Pope Francis and other prelates have said in multiple occasions – but the execution sometimes lacks. However, I do not expect any bishops to have come away from this course with the idea that they don’t have to act when someone approaches them with the terrible news that they have suffered abuse in the one place they should have been nothing but safe.

Photo credit: Vatican Radio

Sent out into the world for mercy

logoWednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent (yes, it’s almost Lent already), and in this Holy Year of Mercy it is also the day of another notable event: the day on which more than one thousand special “missionaries of mercy” are sent out by the Pope into the world, to manifest God’s mercy in a specific way, by their ability to forgive the most grave of sins, which are usually beholden to bishops or the Pope alone.

Earlier, we already learned that all priests in the world have been given to authority to forgive the sin of abortion (normally residing with the bishop, all Dutch priests have had this faculty already). Archbishop Rino Fisichella, who is the chief organiser of the events of the Holy Year, outlines the five sins which can only be forgiven by the special missionaries of mercy. These are:

  • Desecration of the Eucharist
  • Breaking the seal of confession
  • Consecrating a bishop without papal approval
  • Sexual contacts by a priest and the person he has those contacts with
  • Violent actions against the Pope

Of course, some of these are more likely to happen than others, but they all touch upon the core values of our faith and Church: the sanctity of sacraments, the unity of the Church and the seriousness of vows and promises. By making the forgiveness for such sins more easily available, Pope Francis wants to emphasise that, even in such serious matters, mercy comes first (with the caveat that true mercy always incorporates justice).

12647487_441962256013964_8703646690579720740_n13 priests from the Netherlands and 33 from Belgium (11 from Flanders, 22 from Wallonia) will be appointed as missionaries of mercy. One of the Dutch priests is Fr. Johannes van Voorst, of the Diocese of Haarlem-Amsterdam (one of seven from that diocese; the other six come from the Diocese of Roermond). Fr. Johannes (seen above offering Mass at St. Paul Outside the Walls today) will be going to Rome to receive his mandate, together with some 700 of his brother priests (the remaining 350 or so will receive their mandate at home). His adventures in Rome can be followed via his Facebook page, where he also posts in English.

After receiving their mission, the names of the missionaries will be made known, so that they can be at the disposal of the faithful in the country.