“There is nothing worse” – Bishop Wiertz on sexual abuse

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.

abuse maastricht wiertz

“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

“Unreserved faith” – Archbishop Léonard on St. Joseph and Pope Francis

It’s been a while since this blog featured some words by the great archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, André-Joseph Léonard. Below is my translation of his homily on the occasion of Pope Francis’ installation, yesterday.

The cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, where the Mass was held, could not house all the faithful who had come. Among them was Queen Fabiola. Archbishop Léonard concelebrated with the other Belgian bishops – except for Ghent’s Bishop Van Looy, who was in Rome – Archbishop Giacinto Berloco, the Nuncio to Belgium and Luxembourg, and Archbishop Alain Lebeaupin, Nuncio to the European Union.

The archbishop speaks about the unreserved faith of St. Joseph, and also paints a picture of Pope Francis which shows him as a continuation of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in his modesty and humility.

léonard“Providence decided that the inthronisation of Pope Francis would take place on the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary, but also patron saint of Belgium. Allow me to consider that a small wink in our direction…

This morning the bishop of Ghent, Monsignor Luc Van Looy, represented the bishops of Belgium at the installation in Rome. I am grateful to him for that, as well as to our voting cardinal, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who stayed in Rome for the occasion. In the spirit of simplicity that already characterises our new Holy Father, and since the Belgian representation in Rome was already assured, I thought it better to stay in Belgium to thank God with you all and with my fellow bishops for the gift of Pope Francis.

Saint Joseph played a major part in our salvation history. Eve though he is only the foster father, not the biological father of Jesus, it is yet he who, within the framework of Jewish law, assures that Jesus – the Messiah (in Hebrew) or the Christ (in Greek) – descends from David, of whom we heard in the first reading of this liturgy.

The second reading was chosen to illustrate the faith of Saint Joseph, which may be compared to that of Abraham. For Abraham had faith without reservations in the word of God, which proclaimed that he, despite his and his wife’s advanced age, would be the father of many peoples. And he kept believing in that, even if the apparent death of Isaac, his only son, seemed to rob him of any hope of offspring. Abraham had faith in God, without any reservations. And because of that God recognised him as righteous.

But Joseph as well, he too, had to believe – almost blindly, in a complete surrender – that what had happened with his wife Mary came from God and not from man. He had to efface himself in a radical faith, for an act of God which transcends any understanding; an act which makes us say in the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.”

And the Gospel of today shows us what it cost Joseph, but Mary as well, to make themselves so very small for that mysterious work in Jesus. “Son,” Mary says to Jesus, “why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And then that shocking answer of Jesus! The answer of a child who is only twelve years old, but who already knows that he came from God, who knows, deep inside, what we express in the Nicean Creed, that He is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.” Hence His confusing answer: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Mary had spoken about “Your father and I”, but Jesus quietly corrects His mother’s words: He speaks of “My Father” when He refers to the God of Israel, who resides in the temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus has stayed behind in Jerusalem, that is not the flight of a teenager, but because He – in the innocence of twelve-year-old child – wanted to stay in the House of Him who is His true Father: “In my Father’s house is where I had to be”. And Luke acutely says about Joseph and Mary, “they did not understand what he said to them”.  But they will understand later. After they had kept the events in their hearts and considered them for a long time.

Saint Joseph, then, played a major role in the life of the Church. Through him, because of his role as foster father, Jesus discovered in His human conscience the father figure of God, His sole and unique Father.

Our previous Pope, Benedict XVI, whose baptismal name is Joseph, was also characterised by humility and a great modesty. We don’t know a lot yet about his successor, the Bishop of Rome, Francis. But the first signs which he has given in only a few days clearly indicate that the patronage of Saint Francis of Assisi is not just empty words for him. He will be humble, like Benedict XVI, not just in his personality, but also in the outward signs of his mission as successor of Peter. Like Saint Joseph he will consider himself merely a foster father – if I may say it like that – knowing that we are all children of the one true Father, our heavenly Father, and that the Church, the Bride of Christ, is not here just for herself, but only to lead to truth, goodness and the beauty of her only love: the Christ, her bridegroom.

Of course, there were some in the media – which have the valuable task to inform us – who immediately tried to paint our new shepherd in a negative light. But just as fast there were voices, normally not too inclined to speak positively about the Vatican, which, supported by documents, pointed out the baselessness of these accusations. Let us, for our part, thank God for the gift He gives us: not just a new Pope, but also a shepherd with a totally new style. And let us – like he asked us so touchingly on the night of his election – pray intensely for him, for the universal Church for which he has responsibility, and for this world of which he is the foremost spiritual and moral guide. Amen.”

Photo credit: Phk/Kerknet

O Clavis David!

O clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel: qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris.

[O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel, who opens and no man shuts, who shuts and no man opens: come, and lead forth the captive who sits in the shadows from his prison.]

May the Key of David come and ransom captive Israel; open the doors that lock us inside ourselves and our own prisons. Open the door to yourself, so that we may be freed from all that stains us and keeps us prisoner.

O Clavis David!

O clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel: qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris.

[O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel, who opens and no man shuts, who shuts and no man opens: come, and lead forth the captive who sits in the shadows from his prison.]

May the Key of David come and ransom captive Israel; open the doors that lock us inside ourselves and our own prisons. Open the door to yourself, so that we may be freed from all that stains us and keeps us prisoner.

On the Solemnity of Saint Joseph

Detail of St. Joseph the Carpenter by Georges de la Tour, 1642

In the readings of today, we hear about the pedigree of Christ and the covenant between God and the people Israel, represented by King David. This kinship between God and His people is most immediately visible in Saint Joseph. The foster father of Our Lord was a descendant of David, and so Christ’s humanity, raised in Jewish society by “an upright man” (Matt. 1:19), is related to that of David and the chosen people of God.

Today we celebrate this great saint, the patron of the universal Church, and example for all, especially men, who care for children and everyone who puts their faith in God, despite limitations on their part.

Holy Saint Joseph, pray for us who wish to follow in the footsteps of your foster son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
That we may keep faith, hope and love in the face of doubt, adversity and misunderstanding;
Watch over the love in families, between parents and children, and between those who desire to be married and become parents;
Also, especially, pray for our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, and all who have taken your name at their baptism,
That you may be an example and foster father to them throughout their lives,
As you are for Him to Whom we entrust all our being,
Through Our Lord Jesus Christ,
Amen.

The Epiphany of the Lord

‘Journey of the Magi’ by James Tissot (1902)

“After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, suddenly some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east asking, ‘Where is the infant king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.'”
[…]
“And suddenly the star they had seen rising went forward and halted over the place where the child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

The Gospel of Matthew, 2: 1-2, 9b-11

With the arrival of the Magi, heathen men from the east, Christ reveals Himself to the world. The revelation of the Lord is now visible for all people. He started with but one person, Adam, then revealed himself to a family (Abraham’s), a tribe (Moses’s), a Kingdom (David’s) and now, ultimately, His mercy extends to every person in the world.

The attributes of St. Joseph

Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus, by Guido Reni, ca. 1635

Today, the Church celebrates the solemnity of St. Joseph, breaking the Lenten custom of fasting for a day. St. Joseph is the patron of many things, including the universal Church and yours truly. I chose his name at my baptism and confirmation in 2007, since I consider St. Joseph inspirational because of the trust  in God he displayed. When his soon-to-be wife was pregnant, he accepted the explanation offered to him in a dream, although he did not fully understand it. This is what faith means: it goes beyond a mere acceptance of something as being real. Faith is ultimately about trust, despite all human doubts and failings. In the movie The Nativity Story, these doubts are beautifully shown when Joseph wonders if he can ever teach the Son of God anything. But despite that he continued, silently and with bleeding feet, to Bethlehem, trusting in God the Father.

In art, all saints are usually depicted with certain attributes that identify them. A necessity since the catalogue of saints contains a rather large number of bearded men, among them St. Joseph, who has a certain variety in attributes. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Carpenter’s tool – Pretty self-explanatory: Joseph was a carpenter, although he probably didn’t do the same work as modern carpenters. He may have been an artisan in general, also working with stone, for example.

As a descendant of kings (the Gospels trace his lineage back to King David), Joseph was far from royal. Rather, we get the impression of a fairly average man, skilled perhaps, with a good source of income, but not powerful or overly important in his society.

His tools place St. Joseph firmly in Jewish society in the Roman Empire. Extended forward in time, he remains an average man. As such, his sainthood is an inspiration, showing that faith is not beyond the grasp of anyone. We don’t need any special tools for it, so to speak. But we do need to know what we’re doing, and what we can’t do or know.

A staff with lily blossoms – This can be traced back to an apocryphal legend about St. Joseph. When a husband needed to be found for Mary, each prospective husband was told to hold a staff. In all cases nothing happened, until it was Joseph’s. He was an unlikely candidate, far older than Mary. But when he took the staff, lilies sprouted forth from the tip, symbols of purity and chastity.

The marriage of Mary and Joseph was predetermined, as was their purity, which they kept up, the legend says, even after they were married.

A chalice and a cross – The chalice can mean many things, but the most direct meaning is that of the Eucharist, as the cup containing the Blood of Christ. It also signifies faith, something of which St. Joseph is an example of. The meaning of the cross is of course similar, being the symbol of our entire faith.

The infant Jesus – While we can hardly call Him an attribute, the presence of the child Jesus does indicate a special closeness to Christ. Of course, as His foster father, St. Joseph was indeed close to Him. We don’t read much about St. Joseph in the Gospels, but there are stories about his life with Mary and Jesus. He is usually depicted as being quite a bit older than Mary and it is indeed said that he died in the presence of his wife and the Son of God. That is why he is also the patron saint of a good death. What better way to enter heaven than to do so in the arms of Christ?

Prayer to St. Joseph for the Whole Church

O glorious St. Joseph, you were chosen by God to be the foster father of Jesus, the most pure spouse of Mary, ever Virgin, and the head of the Holy Family. You have been chosen by Christ’s Vicar as the heavenly Patron and Protector of the Church founded by Christ. Protect the Sovereign Pontiff and all bishops and priests united with him. Be the protector of all who labor for souls amid the trials and tribulations of this life; and grant that all peoples of the world may be docile to the Church without which there is no salvation.

Dear St. Joseph, accept the offering I make to you. Be my father, protector, and guide in the way of salvation. Obtain for me purity of heart and a love for the spiritual life. After your example, let all my actions be directed to the greater glory of God, in union with the Divine Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and your own paternal heart. Finally, pray for me that I may share in the peace and joy of your holy death. Amen.

Day of Judaism

The Dutch bishops decided in 2008 to have an annual Day of Judaism in January, following the example of the Church in Italy, Poland and Austria. The purpose of that day is to pay attention to what Judaism means for us Christians.

That’s a pretty general statement, of course. It’s very easy to simply acknowledge the role that the Jewish people played in the past and leave it at that.

A step further is to seek out Jewish people and institutions and actively establish a form of contact with them. The pope will be doing that by visiting a synagogue in Rome, and my bishop will do so likewise with a synagogue in Groningen. This is a way to establish contact and acknowledge one another’s existence and value.

Likewise, there are ways to inform the Catholic faithful about the beliefs and values of the Jewish people. Parish meetings, discussion groups and what have you. I don’t know if this is also done in reverse, that rabbis visit churches or Jewish groups learn about the Christian faith, but this is primarily an initiative from the Dutch Church province.

Why a specific Day of Judaism, though? The Second Vatican Council devoted a declaration to the relations of the Church with other faiths. About Judaism, it says:

[T]he Church of Christ acknowledges that, according to God’s saving design, the beginnings of her faith and her election are found already among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. She professes that all who believe in Christ – Abraham’s sons according to faith – are included in the same Patriarch’s call, and likewise that the salvation of the Church is mysteriously foreshadowed by the chosen people’s exodus from the land of bondage. The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles. Indeed, the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making both one in Himself. (Nostra Aetate 4)

The Jewish people are the olive tree upon which the wild shoots have been grafted. The wild shoots, the gentiles who were not Jewish but became followers of Christ through baptism, are dependent on the tree. Without it they will die.

In the Old Testament we may find the details of the development of the Convenant that God made with the people of Israel. Last night, I attended a faith evening in my parish, where this topic was further discussed. Mark Borst, who made the introductory remarks, explained the line of covenants and oaths that God made with the people of Israel throughout the Old Testament. He took this from Scott Hahn’s book A Father Who Keeps His Promises. It started with Adam and the covenant affected a couple: him and Eve. A second covenant was made with Noah, who was a father, and so the covenant affected a family. Then came Abraham, the leader of multiple families. Moses is next, who leads a complet people, or at least a group of tribes, out of Egypt. David is next, and he is king of the people of Israel, as well as a number of other peoples in the territories he conquered. The last covenant is the one made by Jesus, and that covers all the peoples: a covenant that only God Himself could keep.

We see development in covenants that includes and affects an ever larger group of people. Until the fifth step, the Jewish people are at the core of the covenants with God (which all remain in effect, by the way – they are fulfilled and reinforced in each other and ultimately in Christ), and step six, the covenant that Jesus forged on the cross, comes forth out of them.

With this logic it is clear that there is a very old and strong connection between the Church and the Jewish people. Pope John Paul II rightly called them ‘our older brother’, who taught us about who God is and what He does.

However, there are differences, as should be clear. Not being on expert in Judaic theology, I’ll limit myself to the one difference that is most divisive: the Messiah. In essence, Judaism still awaits the coming of the Messiah, while Christianity maintains He already has come in Jesus Christ. This difference has led to much animosity and misunderstanding over the centuries and indeed it took a while for both parties to achieve a level of mutual understanding.

The Church acknowledges the differences and prays for the recognition of Christ as the Messiah by all people, but no longer accuses the Jews of having murdered Christ and being a forsaken people.

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ. (Nostra Aetate 4)

This Day of Judaism has the potential to bridge the gap that still exists between Christians and Jews. But it does require work. A bishop’s visit to a synagogue is good for local contacts and should be encouraged as such. But when I see only about a dozen people faithfully attending a faith evening about the the covenant of Moses, I can’t help but think that the information will reach only a few people.

Respectful positive dialogue with the Jewish people, coming from both sides, is the way to go, acknowledging the things we share (and we share a lot) and the things that divide us. That is fair to us, to them, and to God.