Archbishop Léonard’s farewell, part one

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


“Dear brother priests,

Dear brothers and sisters,

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

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

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

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

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

André-Joseph Léonard”

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

Photo credit: Phk/KerkNet

Danger and salvation – At Bishop Bentz’s ordination, Cardinal Lehmann about the office of bishop

udo bentz ordinationIn his homily at the ordination of Bishop Udo Bentz as auxiliary bishop of Mainz, last Sunday, Cardinal Karl Lehmann drew heavily on St. Augustine, and especially on his thoughts on the office of bishop, and the dangers of it. The cardinal wants to emphasise the fact that a bishop always remains a part of the faithful, with whom he  shares a common Christianity.

There is also a personal element in the homily, towards the end, as Cardinal Lehmann reflects on his many years as bishop of Mainz and the people he shared that time with. It is hard not to read this in the light of his upcoming retirement. Aged 79, it is a safe bet that Cardinal Lehmann will retire between now and his 80th birthday, on 16 May next year. He has been the bishop of Mainz since 1983, and as such he is the longest-serving German bishop, and one who is still the ordinary of the diocese he was ordained for.

Here is the cardinal’s homily in my translation:

lehmann“Honourable sisters and brothers in the Lord!

Dear brother Dr. Udo M. Bentz, about to be ordained as bishop!
Dear co-consecrators Karl-Josef Cardinal Rauber and Archbishop Stephan Burger!
Dear brothers in the office of deacon, priest and bishop!

What is a bishop? Why and how do we have such an office in the Church? An initial answer can already be found in the word for this service. “Episcopus“, from which the word bishop comes, is one who “oversees”, and a “guardian”, a “supervisor”. From the Bible, the word also derives from “shepherd”. Incidentally, the liturgy of ordination, the act of ordination, with its ancient signs and gestures, words and hymns, so eloquent and filled with meaning, that any preaching can be but a small introduction to these events. I will mention but one especially impressive image: during the entire prayer of ordination two priests hold the Gospel book above the head of the ordained. The bishop should be completely under the Gospel and serve Him.

Today I choose another path and will discuss some words from Saint Augustine. As is well known, as bishop of Hippo on northern Africa, he would always speak about the office of bishop on the day of his ordination. He would certainly also have done so at bishops’ ordinations in the African Church province. Sita, the titular see of Udo Bentz, in north Africa, belonged to it. One can already learn much from these homilies.  I want to try and do so with you.

For that purpose I have chosen a text from the homilies, which is incidentally also quoted in the great text about the Church from the Second Vatican Council (LG 32): “What I am for you terrifies me; what I am with you consoles me. For you I am a bishop; but with you I am a Christian. The former is a duty; the latter a grace. The former is a danger; the latter, salvation” (Serm. 340, 1: PL 38, 1483).

During the Second Vatican Council this text was cited as an important point in relation to the statements concerning the laity. That may surprise, since there is a separate chapter on bishops. Here in relation to the laity, they and the holders of offices become in a very fundamental way like brothers, yes, like a family of God, through which the new commandment of love in realised. At many points, especially in the second chapter of the Constitution on the Church, the Second Vatican Council strongly emphasised this fundamental commonality. That is why it is a very fundamental decision of the Council to concentrate the understanding of the People of God on the commonality of all believers, and not in advance on any distinction between the various charisms, services and offices. A “true equality” can then be established in building up the Body of Christ and in the call to holiness. As LG 32 puts it: “And if by the will of Christ some are made teachers, pastors and dispensers of mysteries on behalf of others, yet all share a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity common to all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ. For the distinction which the Lord made between sacred ministers and the rest of the People of God bears within it a certain union, since pastors and the other faithful are bound to each other by a mutual need. Pastors of the Church, following the example of the Lord, should minister to one another and to the other faithful. These in their turn should enthusiastically lend their joint assistance to their pastors and teacher” (Constitution on the Church “Lumen gentium”, Chapter 4, par. 32). It is understandable that these words from Saint Augustine have often been repeated very often in recent years and decades, together with the remarks from the Constitution on the Church about the laity.

Certainly, one should not take this text as noncommittal expression of a mere personal modesty. This is about a true theology of office and at the same time about the unity of Christianity in the variety of tasks.

“For you I am a bishop…” Augustine does not see the office as contained in itself, in its value and power. Her understands it entirely in relation to the task entrusted to him. The office of bishop is entirely a service to the sisters and brothers in the faith. Augustine also says this in another way, that  the guidance and leadership are only fulfilled in the fruitfulness and “usefulness” of his service to the people.

As we know, Augustine considered the task of being bishop a burden on his shoulder and which often also depressed him. From that comes the anxiety and doubt if he really did justice to his task, especially in the eyes of others, and fulfilled it adequately before God. This is in sharp contrast to many homilies at a first Mass or anniversary of a bishop, even in our time. For Augustine wonder if this high office, which certainly demands much of him, is not a great danger to himself. We often think differently and often believe that a high official is already closer to God because of his position, and has so many merits that God will automatically save him and give him eternal life. For Augustine, the office is no relief, but a danger to his salvation, as becomes very clear in the sermon quoted at the beginning. In the Middle Ages they thought similarly. One need only think of Dante.

What comforts the bishop of Hippo in the face of this danger, is the shared Christianity with all sisters and brothers. Here the bishop is part of “normal” Christian life. There each is first responsible for himself when this can also be freely extended to others. So Augustine can say, in short, “Learning is dangerous, but students are safe”. He who stands “above” others, must be judged and addressed according to the measure of his task. The terror of this diminishes when one completely becomes a part of the flock of believers. This unity is even more important than the office alone.

Many burdens of office become light when one is quite humble in relations with the normal and simple People of God. I personally often like to speak in this regard of belonging to the “foot soldiers” of God. It then also becomes visible what has been given and asked of others and does not overestimate oneself. This unity in Christianity with many other makes more modest and humble. It is in any case contrary to all overconfidence of office.

Nevertheless, Augustine is very much aware about the own responsibility of the office, which he does not underestimate. He also does not deny it. He talks about the office as a duty (officium). He agrees with Pope Gregory the Great that the bishop is the “watcher”, the one who looks ahead and so has to lead the way. He must be ready for conflicts if the Gospel demands it. Like Jesus he must also be willing to give his own life. This can result in a profound loneliness. That is why the unity with all the faithful is, once again, so important.

That one statement by St. Augustine, “What I am for you…”, which reflects, with many similar insights in his work, a deep grounding in the Triune God, says more about the office of bishop and its execution than many great treatises about the theology of office. I am in any case grateful to St. Augustine for these words. For me they remain valuable and helpful.

As bishop, I have been able to experience  this mutual support, this shared Christianity and life in various duties here in Mainz for a long and rich time. I thank the many women and men, young and old for the solidary way with which they supported our service. Time and again, I was able to gratefully feel this foundation, together with my predecessors Bishop Stohr and Cardinal Volk, and the auxiliary bishops Joseph Maria Reus, Wolfgang Rolly, Franziskus Eisenbach, Werner Guballa and Ulrich Neymeyr. This applies to both voluntary and paid staff. Because of it I was able to always do my duty with joy and gratitude. A prerequisite is certainly that one listens to others and remains in dialogue with them and that one acknowledges what others say until the end, as Saint Benedict teaches us in his rule, and that one is also willing to accept corrections. Only in this way unity is possible without blurring the differences in responsibilities.

With this gratitude I also ask that we maintain this valuable heritage of a good tradition in the Church, for which Saint Augustine stands and which once again comes to life in the Second Vatican Council, through our working together, not only today, but also tomorrow, as an indispensible element in the construction of the Church of Mainz. I also wish this spiritual and pastoral heritage for you, dear Udo M. Bentz, in the name of all present on your ordination day and for your service. Carry the torch of faith onwards. The fire still burns under the ashes. Amen.

Karl Cardinal Lehmann, Bishop of Mainz”


At Rolduc, seminarians encounter the new evangelisation

Gathered at Roermond’s Rolduc seminary for a two-day symposium on the new evangelisation, the seminarians of the Netherlands today heard lectures from Bishops Frans Wiertz and Everard de Jong, ordinary and auxiliary of the Diocese of Roermond respectively, and Professor Karl Wallner, rector of Austria’s Heiligenkreuz monastery.

Although the full texts are (not yet) available online, the live report supplied via Twitter by two seminarians offered a good general idea of what was said. Bishop de Jong, the day’s final speaker, offered a summary of his experiences at the Synod of Bishops, including his own intervention, in which he emphasised the importance of prayer to the Holy Spirit and the angels.

Bishop Wiertz, the first speaker (pictured), suggested we may find a road map for the new evangelisation in the Acts of the Apostles. He emphasised the important role of the laity; they should be given the chance to develop initiatives, without the immediate involvement of the clergy. What we see today, he said, is that when a priest becomes indisposed or unavailable, the initiative also dies. The bishop also advocated trust in the Holy Spirit: if an initiative does not come from the Spirit, it will vanish regardless. An example of a strong lay movement in the Church is Korea, Bishop Wiertz said. Without priests and bishops, for centuries the lay faithful kept the faith alive.There must be a new balance between the people’s Church and the new initiatives.

Professor Wallner, speaking in between both bishops, said that we should not focus on the problems of the faith. The experience of faith is what matters: quantity will come from quality. And prayer must have a prime place in this. We must share what we receive, Professor Wallner said. Faith is mission, and this is contained in the final words of the Mass: ite missa est. The priest, too, is mission personified, so his duty is not his private concern. Like Bishop Wiertz, Professor Wallner also linked the new evangelisation to the Acts of the Apostles. We need places where we can experience the Holy Spirit like the Apostles did at the first Pentecost. Other points touched upon where the fact that we need a holy audacity as there is no place for false modesty in Christian life; the lack of emphasis on the most powerful sacrament of Confession; the new media which need to be used much more (it is a disgrace that there are still dioceses without a website!) and in an honest and true manner – show the world who you are. Regarding the role of the laity, Professor Wallner also reminded his audience that there should not be any form of competition between the laity and the priest. Both have their tasks, after all.

A good start for the symposium’s first day, it would seem. The new evangelisation is introduced as an important topic for the future priests in our country. I hope to be able to present a translation of at least Bishop Wiertz’s words soon, because the topic deserves a broader audience.

Concerning that, it is a shame that such events are not more widely covered by Catholic media or better present by the Church province or other organisers. Considering, for example, that the autumn assembly of the American bishops, taking place now, is streamed live, there is certainly much progress to be made. In that light, the live Twitter coverage by Jan-Jaap van Peperstraten and Henk van Hamersveld was all the more welcome.

To his Creator – Bishop Baaij passes away

Pictured with Fr. Peter Surdel, the superior of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, Bishop Evert Baaij in 2010

On the last day of January, Msgr. Everardus Antonius .M Baaij, S.C.I, passed away at the age of 90. Msgr. Baaij was the second bishop of the South African Diocese of Aliwal, from 1973 to 1981, but was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. In his period as Aliwal’s chief shepherd, the South African Church made the transition to open opposition to the Apartheid policy, a change mainly noticed in the urban parishes of the diocese on South Africa’s southwestern coast. At the same time, the laity took on much more responsibility, only in part because of the shortage of priests, while Bishop Baaij held the see.

Bishop Baaij passed away at a senior living community in Port Elizabeth, having suffered heart failure in his final days. Despite having lived in South Africa for 55 years of his life, Bishop Baaij initially ministered in Canada and the United States, before leaving for the missions in South Africa. Pope Paul VI appointed him Bishop of Aliwal in 1973. His episcopal motto was Veni Creator. He resigned in 1981 for health reasons. He served as chaplain of Nazareth House in Port Elizabeth, where he also died.

The bishop will most likely be buried in Aliwal, according to the superior of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, the late bishop’s religious congregation.

Photo credit: Priests of the Sacred Heart

The archbishop and the pastoral worker, two sides of the same coin

A fairly small news item earlier this week – about Archbishop Wim Eijk of Utrecht asking a parish council to terminate the employment of pastoral worker Tejo van der Meulen – has led to much debate about the role of pastoral workers and the lines they, in more than one person’s opinion, routinely seem to cross.

At first, the piece of information seemed innocent enough: an issue that concerned one parish, but we’ve seen several times already that not all of these issues keep to the boundaries of the parish they originate in. Both secular and Catholic media have made much of it, taken the fact as a reason to write in favour of or against the existence of, the duties of, or the liberties taken by pastoral workers. The case of Mr. van der Meulen is used as a starting point of the debate, and as evidence that pastoral workers routinely ‘play priest’.

Without going into too much detail about the situation of Mr. van der Meulen and the reasons that Archbishop Eijk had for rescinding his mission, it does shed a light on the status of pastoral workers in the dioceses of the Netherlands. Pastoral workers are lay people who are sent by the bishop to a specific parish or area to perform pastoral duties, usually in cooperation with a priest and parish council, although in some areas, for example in the north, priests may be few and pastoral workers will have managerial duties that are usually reserved for parish priests in other areas. Here, pastoral workers also lead the faithful in prayer services, as well as services of the Word and even Communion services. While the Church does require pastoral workers to attend Mass before being sent out to lead a service somewhere else, this does not always happen. Sometimes that is because the pastoral workers in question does not have the opportunity to go to Mass, but that can’t always be the case.

As the above indicates, theory does not always equal practice. And, more often than many would like, we’ve seen liturgical abuses crop up, because the boundaries between priest and pastoral worker vanished. A single clear cause is difficult to indicate, but the lack of priests and a limited knowledge of the faculties and duties of priest and laity are certainly among them. And then we see situation like in the case of Mr. van der Meulen, where the pastoral worker joins the priest at the altar for the Eucharistic prayer, or where the pastoral worker reads the Gospel at Mass. Indications that there is no awareness of what a priest or lay person can or can’t do, and a pretense that the one is the same as the other. And that is something that, I believe, Archbishop Eijk tries to combat. And he should be joined by all other bishops in that, as Blessed Pope John Paul II called them to do as far back as 1980.

Priests and pastoral workers are two sides of the same coin; I often have the impression that pastoral workers work from a strong pastoral concern for the people. A good priest will have that same concern, but will be called to express that concern by means of the sacraments and the proclamation of the Word of God. Together, they can and should work fruitfully together for the faithful under their care, which is possible when they know duties, abilities and limitations, as Father Anton ten Klooster points out.

Actually, come to think of it, pastoral workers and priests who pretend they are something they are not, are mostly doing a disservice to themselves. They have each been given a specific mission in the Church, in which they each can be bearers of the Good News, each in their own unique way. Why throw that gift aside, or switch it for someone else’s?

We are all workers in God’s vineyard, not in our own. Let’s reflect that in our work and vocation.

The weak case of the disobedient priests

The disobedient actions of priests in Austria (there most visibly, but similar feelings are also present among clergy in other countries), who call for married priests, ordination of women and lay people ‘celebrating’ the Eucharist (a sheer impossibility, equal to, say,  having fish wait tables), has also spread to Belgium. From the Diocese of Bruges, to be exact. A manifest titled “Faithful have their say” (‘Gelovigen nemen het woord’) has by now been signed by several hundred people, among them 155 priests. The full text, along with the names of the priests who signed it, is available, in Dutch, here.

The seriousness of the blatant disobedience of these people to their faith, Church, faithful and bishop, is explained by theologian Stijn Van Den Bossche, in an article he wrote for Tertio:

“The manifest at least remains more careful, but because of that also vaguer than its Austrian compeer. It expresses the wish that formed ‘fellow faithful’ be allowed to ‘lead Sunday celebrations’. If that means lay people leading the Eucharist – as is proposed in Austria – this is not only forbidden to Catholic and Orthodox understanding, but it also results in an invalid sacrament – therefore we do not receive a sacrament there.”

The manifest itself expresses the concerns of its author(s) in the form of propositions to which they want answers (provided, I fear, that these answers suit their agenda). The problem that, they say, needs solving is the existence of parishes without priests, Masses on unsuitable hours and prayer services without Communion. While this ‘problem’ in itself already showcases the serious lack of understanding of such things as Holy Orders, the sacraments and the nature of Communion (the latter being not a right of ours), the proposed solutions, presented in the form of aforementioned propositions, are equally untenable.

Let’s go over the propositions one by one, and analyse them. It may seem that I am a bit strict in my definitions of the ‘rules’, so to speak, but for clarity’s sake, I think it’s good to present things as bare-bones as possible. That does not mean that exceptions and adaptations are not possible, but these do not change the rules, of course.

  1. We do not understand why the leadership of our local communities (such as parishes) is not entrusted to a man or woman, married or unmarried, professional or volunteer, who received the necessary formation. The innate nature of the priest is to be a shepherd, in name of the local bishop, of a set group of faithful. This is not just a purely administrative task or a job description given to a man in a clerical collar. Just like Jesus appointed twelve men (specifically men) to lead the developing Church, and gave them the means and abilities to do so because of their faith, so He still appoints men to do so. These men are ordained to be shepherds and to administer the sacraments. That is a core element of our faith and understanding of how God works among His people. The priests, once they are sent to a group of faithful to be their shepherd in the faith, do that 24-7. It’s not a job, so it’s not a question of being a volunteer or a professional. It goes beyond that: through his ordination, a priest is a priest forever. After all, ordination is a sacrament, and a sacrament is forever. It goes without saying that a priest must be an example to the faithful: he needs to practice what he preaches, so to speak. The Latin Church today asks her priests to be celibate, in order to fully devote their life to the Lord and His Church. There are exceptions, such as married Anglican clergy who convert and are later ordained as Catholic priests. But these are exceptions, which change nothing about the rule. In short, The Church established by Christ had a structure, a hierarchy, which she maintains to this day. That means that it is not a matter of simple appointing someone who was ‘formed properly’ to do the work of a priest, who is specifically tasked to lead an educate. Of course, there are such things as parish councils, but these work with the priests and do not, can not, replace him.
  2. We need dedicated shepherds. We do not understand why these fellow faithful cannot lead Sunday services. As already touched upon in the previous answer, a layman or -woman is unable to administer the sacraments. It really is as simple as that. God has chosen to work to specific people when it comes to the sacraments, thus providing structure and certainty. A layman can obviously lead a prayer service – any faithful can pray. He can also read from the Bible and speak about the faith. He can not consecrate or hear confession.
  3. In every living community we need liturgical leaders. We do not understand why – when there is no priest – a service of Word and Communion is not allowed.As far as I understand, this is allowed. But care must be taken that such services remain the exception and do not become the rule. The heart of our faith is the Eucharist: God who became man and saved us through His death and Resurrection. Because of this importance, the Church asks us to attend the Eucharist every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. A service of Word and Communion, despite the value of the Word and of receiving the Lord, does not fulfill this obligation. To pretend it does, is depriving the faithful of a valuable treasure.
  4. We do not understand why skilled laypeople and formed religious educators can not preach. We need the Word of God. We do. And we get it, every time we read our Bibles. But the context of the Mass is not the same as us reading our Bible at home. In the Mass, Christ is present: in the people, but certainly also in the priest and most of all in the Blessed Sacrament once consecrated.  We hear the Word of God in the readings, after which the priest exercises his shepherdly duties of interpretation, education and encouragement. In essence, because the priest is the alter Christus during the Mass, we hear Christ speak to us. A priest is formed and ordained to be able to do this. A priest can not sit back and let someone else discourse about hat he has just read. That would be negligent and deceptive, and possibly simply lazy.
  5. We do not understand why faithful of good will who remarried after a divorce have to be denied Communion. They are equally part of the community. True, but Communion is not a matter of being a community together. It is about being in communion with Christ. In Christ, we form a community. We cannot be a Christian community without Him. Marriage is a sacrament, and as I said above, sacraments are forever. The Church can’t pretend this is otherwise, and therefore can’t allow divorce or remarriage. This doesn’t change of people divorce and remarry all the same. From the position of the Church it is a pretense. This creates a barrier between the people involved and the community of faithful-in-Christ, the Church. The demand Communion anyway is to pretend there is no such barrier.
  6. We plead that, as soon as possible, both married men and woman are allowed to the priesthood. We, faithful, desperately need them. The necessity of priests is not in questions, but altering their identity, or pretending such identity exists, is not the answer. We would be lying to ourselves. As I wrote above, the nature of the priesthood is such that only men are called to it. It is the law of the Church that these men can best fulfill there priestly duties if they remain unmarried and celibate. And besides, the bishops of Belgium, or of any country, can’t change this, since the nature of the priesthood is not a local thing. It’s universal.

Questions about such matters are only understandable, and should be encouraged. Through questions we arrive at understanding, after all. But we must not stop at questioning others, but we must also question our motives when we want to change these things. Do I consider myself above the community, above the Church, above God? Our do I see myself as one who needs God and the community?

The priests who signed this manifest, however… Were these men not educated in seminary? Have they no idea of what they received at their ordination? Do they not know what their duties are to the people and the Church? Are they, I must wonder, their own little bishops and popes?