Four bishops look back – the ad limina in hindsight

Four bishops have written their thoughts and feelings about last week’s ad limina visit down and shared the resulting texts on the websites of their respective dioceses. Here, in full, are my translations, reflecting the encouragement that the bishops took home from their encounter with Pope Francis and the offices of the Curia.

mgr_de_Korte3Bishop Gerard de Korte, bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden:

“What did the ad limina visit bring me as bishop of the North? I think in the first place encouragement. Our report included many statistics which cause concern. The Church, after all, continues to shrink. But the Pope and also his coworkers in the various Congregations and Pontifical Council continuously warned the bishops against a sterile pessimism. The message was always: be patient, make contact, try to connect, don’t write anyone off, don’t blow up any bridges. Every bishop should after all be a ‘pontifex’, a bridge builder. I saw these words as a confirmation of my policy. In a recent article on the future of Roman Catholicism I summarised that policy in two words: clear and cordial. The Church of tomorrow can only thrive when she stays close to Jesus. God’s unconditional love and forgiveness in Jesus for every person and our entire world should be at the heart. God’s mercy should also make us merciful and mild in how we deal with one another.

At the same time that should happen in a heartfelt and inviting way. Not with a pointing finger or a frown, but with an open attitude and a smile. There are many stalls in the modern religious market. For religious searchers the choice for Christ and His Church is not always the obvious one. For many of our contemporaries, faith is a search, a process. Parishes and church communities are called to increasingly initiate people in the treasure of Christian tradition and bring them to Christ, step by step. For ultimately every person is called to live his or her life out of the friendship with the living Christ.

Encouraged by the ad limina visit I continue my work as bishop. In turn, I hope to be able to encourage Catholics and other Christians to live the life of their Baptism. Pope Francis continuously asks us to be brave and to live out of hope. Let us grab the plough, out of the joy of the Gospel!”

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkWim Cardinal Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht:

“The preparations for the ad limina visit of the Dutch bishops were preceded by numerous speculations. What would the new Pope Francis think of the Dutch bishops? Wouldn’t they be strongly chastised for their policies? In that context, many think of the mergers of parishes and the closing of churches, which the bishops would be deciding upon out of ideological motives and because of a shortage of priests. What was striking was that the approach of sexual abuse by Church workers was now getting less attention.

In my article for the November issue of the diocesan magazine Op Tocht, which was also spread to the parishes as a letter, I discussed in detail the painful necessity of parish mergers and church closings in several locations. The archdiocese does not take the initiative to close a church. That is in the first place the responsibility of the parish councils, which then request the archbishop to remove a church from service. But in the end neither the archbishop nor the parish council make the decision, but the people who decide to no longer take part in worship and no longer support the Church financially.

In the 1950s ninety percent of the Catholics attended Church on Sunday. Today that is five percent and that percentage is still dropping. Anyone can see that church closings then become unavoidable. The same goes for parish mergers. Parishes which can no longer survive alone, can join forces with other parishes and form a new thriving faith community. We must now take our responsibility for the future. Our children who still believe must have the opportunity to celebrate and share the faith. It would be irresponsible to try and maintain everything we have now and use up all available means doing so, leaving future generations empty-handed.

The Pope understands this, and so does the Roman Curia. In other parts of the world, for example in the United States, the need for parish mergers and church closings becomes apparent. Between 2000 and 2011, 121 churches in the Diocese of Essen, Germany, were removed from use and closed.

Many other topics were also discussed. The Pope and his coworkers received, for example, detailed information from the Dutch bishops about the situation around the sexual abuse of minors. In the last months, fruitful cooperation has come into being between the chairmen of the Bishops’ Conference, the KNR (Conference of Dutch religious) and KLOKK, the major umbrella organisation for victims of sexual abuse. They jointly established a final date of 1 July 2014 for the reporting of claims of sexual abuse concerning deceased perpetrator and cases of sexual abuse that fall under the statute of limitations. Said chairmen also presented a joint report to Secretary Opstelten on 5 November of this year, the so-called base-measurement, in which the implementations of the recommendations of the Deetman Commission of 2011 were investigated. The report includes a number of solid pieces of advice to improve the approach to claims of sexual abuse. The Bishops’ Conference, the KNR, KLOKK, and the management and overview foundation for sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands have enthusiastically begun implementing this advice. The base-measurement was translated into English and sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Dutch bishops and the KNR coupled the announcement of the final date with a call to all to supply supportive evidence for claims of sexual abuse where possible. We also called all to – contrary what sadly sometimes occurs elsewhere – not oppose victims in any way when they make a claim, or blame them for it, but support hem as much as possible. They suffered enough under the sexual abuse. We called all to help the Church clean her slate in the interest of the victims. The Pope encouraged us to continue on this road. At the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith we were also told that we chose a “good direction”.

The way in which Pope Francis replied to the Dutch bishops’ policies was heartwarming for them. He was visibly moved by the difficulties we face. His biggest fear was that we would become discouraged because of the problems we are struggling with, and that we would succumb to feelings of sorrow. He impressed upon us not lose hope, hope in the promises of Christ: “This hope never disappoints.” The message which he repeatedly drew our attention too was, “Do not look back, try not to keep what you once had, but look ahead.” A word that he continuously repeated was, “avanti, avanti, sempre avanti.” Keep going forward than do not look back at the past. In the past the Church may have had great buildings and structures, but we live in the present. In the present, you must take your responsibility.

As Dutch bishops we feel very much confirmed and encouraged by the Pope and his coworkers to go “avanti”, that is to say, forward on the path we are on. What we take with us from this very successful ad limina visit is that we should not Always look back nostalgically to a rich past, but that we must go “avanti”, forward, with our task to proclaim Christ and His Gospel. We must now take our responsibility and take the necessary measures, even if they are not always popular, to make sure that there are enough means and opportunities to also in the future proclaim the faith in Dutch society. If we don’t do anything now and maintain everything, we take away from our children the means to share the Gospel and celebrate the faith.

For the bishops it was also a special experience to be together for an entire week in Rome. In addition to unity with the world Church, the ad limina visit has also strengthened our mutual unity. Many concrete questions from the bishops have been answered by workers in the Roman Curia. We will get to work with the advice we received, in courage and enthusiasm.

The ad limina visit was closed with a celebration of the Eucharist at St. Mary Major. Here, at the end of the celebration, we answered Pope Francis’ call to us in the address he gave us in writing at Monday’s audience, to dedicate our Church province to Mary. This we did, and we confirmed it by praying the Hail Mary together. We asked Mary to pray for us to God to make our beautiful ad limina visit fruitful for the proclamation of the Catholic faith in the Netherlands.”

hoogenboomBishop Theodorus Hoogenboom, auxiliary bishop of Utrecht:

“What is the homework that Pope Francis gave the Dutch bishops during the ad limina visit?” I was asked in the preliminary conversation before a radio interview… My answer was that an ad limina visit, since its establishment in the 16th century, is first and foremost a pilgrimage of the bishops to the graves of the Apostles Peter and Paul. And that is how I look back on it as well: the ad limina visit was a precious week in which we, the Dutch bishops, prayed in the four great basilicas (St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls), in the Church of the Frisians and in the Santa Maria dell’Anima (where Pope Adrian VI, from Utrecht, lies buried). The fact that, on 2 December, we could first celebrate Holy Mass at the tomb of Saint Peter in the catacombs and shortly afterwards meet the personal successor of this Apostle on the see of Peter, Pope Francis, was for me without doubt the high point of our ad limina visit.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus calls the Apostle Peter to strengthen his brothers, the other Apostles, in their faith. And that is exactly what Pope Francis did towards us as Dutch bishops. Aware of the situation in which the Dutch Roman Catholic Church finds herself, the Pope directed words of hope and encouragement to the bishops and all Roman Catholics in our country. In the ‘group talk’ with the Pope I could ask him, referring to Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper (John 13), how he sees the relation between liturgy, especially the Eucharist, and diakonia. Pope Francis’ answer was that the worship of God and the service to the neighbour, especially the neighbour in need, are inextricably entwined. He also mentioned practical examples from the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires where he was archbishop. We can mirror the practical examples from our archdiocese to that; for example the food collection for the Food bank during the Chrism Mass in Apeldoorn.

That we could start the ad limina visit with a fraternal meeting with Pope Francis, despite original plans,  is to me a gift from God’s providence. During our visits to the Congregations and Pontifical Councils we reported on the developments in the Dutch Church province since the last ad limina visit in 2004. But on those occasions we also looked ahead, and time and again we heard words which referred to the joy of the Gospel, to Christian joy and the trust in God about which Pope Francis had earlier spoken with us so warmly and inspirational. A joyful message which I continue to carry with me in my life and works as auxiliary bishop of Utrecht. It was not about getting homework assigned and which you reluctantly start, but about confirmation and encouragement in performing a joyful duty for life.”

woortsBishop Herman Woorts, auxiliary bishop of Utrecht:

We continue encouraged, with hope and joy, amid the concerns and responsibilities. The Pope and the Curia, people with their inspiration, it has all come much nearer for me. I am grateful for having experienced this and also grateful that we are part of that one world Church, led by the Pope, above all of the Holy Spirit, accompanied by Mary, Peter and Paul and all those other saints and blesseds. It has strengthened me, not least the daily Masses and prayer and sympathy of many at home. That does good.

What will also stay with me: when we left the room after the conversation with the Pope, I spoke with him about the contact with rabbis and Jewish organisations. He squeezed my arm and indicated: continue with that. He was happy about it.”

Cardinal Eijk sanctions a priest for excessive liturgical creativity, so why is the cardinal the bad guy?


Cardinal Eijk is the media’s bad guy again. He sanctioned a priest for ‘forgetting’ a few words at Mass. Well, as it often is when secular media try to report on Church business, reality is a bit different.

It is true that the priest, a Dominican who assists at a parish northwest of Utrecht, has been forbidden to publicly offer Mass for a year. It is also true that he forgot some words. And then some more.

A Mass in which the Kyrie, Gloria, all three prescribed readings, the preface and the entire Eucharistic Prayer were either skipped or replaced is, quite frankly, not a Mass. The bread and wine do not become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the faithful do not partake of Communion with God and Church, and the priest flouted his oath and duty. A previous “misstep”, as the Archdiocese calls it, in the same parish, prompted the cardinal to re-emphasise the liturgical rules in force in the Church.

Is this reason for the sanctions as described above? That can be debated, of course, but the fact is that this is exactly why Cardinal Eijk wanted to focus more and how the liturgy is celebrated in his archdiocese. It is also fact that the liturgy of the Church is not just a collection of rules for their own sake.

In the words of the archdiocese’s own explanation of events (which is altogether more reliable than the reports of secular media):

“[Replacing or skipping the Eucharistic Prayer’] is most serious, since this invalidates the celebration of the Eucharist. It means that faithful came to the celebration, to receive the Body of Christ, in vain. The Eucharist (which refers to the Last Supper of Jesus Christ) is the most important sacrament, in which the faithful celebrate their unity with God and each other. All the more painful in this context is the fact that, on Maundy Thursday, the Catholic Church celebrates the institution of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and the institution of the priesthood. Cardinal Eijk thinks that faithful should be able to rely on valid Masses being offered in the churches of the archdiocese. Not without reason the Vatican instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum states that the complete omission of the Eucharistic prayer is “objectively to be  considered among grave matters […] that puts at risk the validity and  dignity of the Most Holy Eucharist”.

Priests have considerable freedom in the pastoral care they perform for the faithful under their care, in the way they teach and proclaim the faith. They do not, however, have the freedom to change or ignore what God, through His Church, instituted. The sacrament of the Eucharist is the single most precious treasure we have been given: it is Christ Himself. By changing what He wants to give us every single day, we place ourselves above Him. True, we are very important, also to the Lord. But we are not Him.

The priesthood is the channel through which Gods grace, in the sacraments, comes to His people. The channel can not change what it is given to safeguard and pass on.

So, yes, Cardinal Eijk is very correct in taking steps to correct this abuse. No one with a basic understanding of Catholic theology and understanding of the sacraments has any excuse not to realise that. Sadly, none of these people work at newspapers and television stations.

Photo credit: afp

At WYD@Home, Bishop van den Hende on the living Lord

van den hendeIn 2011 Bishop Hans van den Hende, bishop of Rotterdam, gave one of the catechesis classes during the World Youth Days in Madrid. His talk then was met with a standing ovation. This year, although he joined pilgrims for the pre-WYD program in Suriname, he returned home before the start of the World Youth Days proper in Rio. But, as the WYD@Home program took place within the bounds of his diocese, in Delft, Msgr. van den Hende did offer catechesis there.

Here follows my translation of the text, which may be found in Dutch here.

1. Topic of the Catechesis

In unity with Pope Francis and with the youth in Rio we here in Delft also have catechesis. We follow the catechesis program as given in Rio. Catechesis means: putting the contents of our faith into words, explaining and communicating them.

The catechesis here in Delft and in Rio is closely tied into the theme of WYD 2012. Every WYD has its own theme, chosen by the Pope, including this year’s WYD in Rio. The previous Pope, Pope Benedictus XVI, gave the WYD in Rio the following theme: “Go and make disciples of all nations”.

The words of the theme are words from the Bible. They come from the New Testament, from the Gospel of Matthew: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).

2. The Gospel = the Good News of Jesus Christ

In the Gospels the person of Jesus Christ takes centre stage [1].In the first chapter the Gospel of Matthew explains that God’s salvation history from the Old Testament is linked to the person of Jesus Christ (the so-called genealogy). Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise, He is the Messiah (the Anointed One, the Christ). In that way Jesus is at the heart of the Gospel of Matthew.

That is also the case in the other three Gospels. The Gospels tell us who Jesus is: the incarnated Son of God. The Gospel also proclaims the message that Jesus promotes. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The Gospels are the heart of all the Scriptures “because they are our principal source for the life and teaching of the Incarnate Word, our Saviour”.” [2]

As an illustration, three quotes from the Gospels of Mark, Luke and John. These clearly show the intent of the Gospels:

  • The Gospel of Mark’s opening sentence is “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” [3].
  • The introduction of the Gospel of Luke states: “I […] have decided to write an ordered account for you, […] so that your Excellency may learn how well founded the teaching is that you have received” [4].
  • Near the end of the Gospel of John we read: “There were many other signs that Jesus worked in the sight of the disciples, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name” [5].

So the Gospel proclaims to us that Jesus is the Son of God, that the message of Jesus is the Good News of God’s Love, that Jesus gave His life on the cross; He died for us.That the Word of Jesus is trustworthy, that Jesus has risen from the dead; that He lives. In short, the Gospel encourages us to follow Jesus: believe in Him, have trust in Him, build your life on Him: He lives!

3. Jesus lives

To start with, we’ll look at the final part of the Gospel. When Jesus died on the cross, it seemed as if everything was over, had come to a dead end. The Gospel tells us that the dead Jesus was buried [6]. The disciples and other friends of Jesus were truly in mourning. The heavy stone that they had placed before the entrance to Jesus’ grave weighed also, in a sense, heavily upon their hearts.

But the Gospel does not end with the death and burial of Jesus. On the contrary, the Gospel proclaims that Jesus lives. When the disciples visit the grave, it is empty. The Gospel tells us: Jesus is no longer in the grave, He has risen [7].

That is the Good News of Easter: Jesus lives! The Gospels also relate that Jesus visited his disciples several times after His resurrection, that He appeared to them: for example to Mary Magdalen [8], to the Apostles in their home [9], on the shore of the lake [10], on the road [11], and on the mountain (Matt. 28:16-20).

On the mountain Jesus ultimately gave his disciples the special assignment: “Go and make disciples of all nations”. These are the words that are the them of WYD 2013.

Jesus, the Risen Lord, asks his disciples to communicate the Good News to others and to baptise them. In the book Acts we read that the Apostles remain loyal to the assignment to go and make disciples of all nations, which they received from Jesus. The Apostle Pater, for example, holds a speech and proclaims the crucified and risen Jesus Christ to his audience. And Peter subsequently baptises about three thousand people who join them [12].

Jesus lives. He stays with us. In Matthew 28:20b, Jesus promises: “And look, I am with you always; yes, to the end of time”. That is why we – centuries later – stand when the Gospel is read during the celebration of the Eucharist. We have the good habit to stand at the Gospel because we believe that Jesus himself, the living Lord, is speaking in the words of the Gospel [13]. We are called to be listeners to Jesus’ words and also proclaimers and executors of them. As disciples of the Lord we listen to the Word of God to act according to them [14].

van den hende4. To be a disciple of Jesus: learning from Jesus

Jesus is true teacher. That is also the opinion of the rich young man in the Gospel, who asks Jesus: “Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” [15]. Jesus Christ is a good teacher in the words he speaks and the actions he performs in His life amid the people: what Jesus asks of us, He also does himself.

A) In the first place the words Jesus speaks. We may learn from the words of Jesus. In the first place Jesus makes use of the expressive language of parables. The Gospels tells us: “He told them many things in parables” [16], and: In all this Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables; indeed, he would never speak to them except in parables” [17].

When we are a little bit familiar with the texts of the Gospels, we all know a few parables, for example: of the sower who sows on different kinds of soil: rocky soil, shallow soil, soil with weeds and thistles, good fertile soil [18]. The Catechisms states that parable are mirrors for man: “will he be hard soil or good earth for the word?” [19]

In the Gospel we can also read that Jesus speaks His words as a teacher in conversations with people, for example with the scribe Nicodemus. The Pharisee Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night to converse with Him and he says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher; for no one could perform the signs that you do unless God were with him” [20]. Another example is Jesus’ conversation with Mary, the sister of the deceased Lazarus. Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection. Anyone who believes in me, even though that person dies, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” [21] As disciples of the Lord we can do no else but start listening attentively to Jesus’ words in the Gospel [22].

B) We can also learn from the things that Jesus does in the Gospel, of the actions that Jesus performs. As disciples we may carefully read and see the acts of the Lord, learn from them and imitate them.

  1. Jesus is faithful in praying to His Father. The Catechisms tells us: “When Jesus prays he is already teaching us how to pray” [23]. In the Gospels we read that when Jesus prays to His Father, the disciples at one point asks Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” [24].
  2. Jesus also performed acts of love and charity and so encourages His disciples to truly love their neighbours. Jesus says, “in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me” [25]. And in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you” [26].
  3. Very impressive is the footwashing that Jesus performs at the Last Supper. The washing of feet was, at that time, the work of a servant, but Jesus does it himself and says, “If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you” [27].
  4. Jesus is a true teacher when it comes to forgiveness and mercy. In the home of the Pharisee Jesus expressly forgives a women who is known to be a sinner, but who is penitent [28]. To an adulterous woman who is about to be stoned for her sin, Jesus says, “Go away, and from this moment sin no more” [29]. And to the taks collector Zacchaeus in Jericho, Jesus says, “I am to stay at your house today” [30]. In the end, when He is dying on the cross after taunts and torture, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” [31]. That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Gospel is the revelation in Jesus Christ of God’s mercy to sinners” [32].

Do we, as disciples, really want to listen to Jesus’ words, keep them in our hearts, and put them into practice? That is only possible if we really want to learn from Jesus, from His words and His actions. As a disciple of Jesus you let yourself be touched by His words and actions. It is necessary to let yourself be formed in your life by Jesus [33]. Because Jesus rose from the dead and lives, He can now be our teacher, shepherd and friend, in the community of the Church.

5. Trusting in Jesus: believing in Jesus

Jesus Christ, the living Lord, asks us, as His disciples, to really trust in Him. This means:

  • Believing that Jesus lives (Jesus is not just someone from the past, He is also close to us now);
  • Believing that Jesus loves you and is interested in you, that He calls you with your talents;
  • Being willing to entrust your life to the Lord by being honest to yourself and to God, asking and receiving forgiveness for your sins (Sacrament of Confession), laying your fears at His feet (Jesus also knew fear [34]);
  • Offering your talents to Him: the willingness to be an instrument of God;
  • Believing that Jesus has given you the Church to learn, to celebrate, to serve and live in faith and love in the community of faith.

It is important to realise that the word of God, the Gospel, is also the word of the Church. Jesus has entrusted His Good News to us, His Church: to write down, to life from, to communicate [35].

6. Following Jesus: building your life upon Christ

As a disciple of Jesus you are invited to build your life upon Jesus. To be able to do and grow in that the following points or of vital importance:

  • Your life with Jesus needs a continuous conversation with Christ in prayer, alone in your inner room [36] and in the community of the Church;
  • Your relationship with Jesus, the living Lord, has consequences for how you relate to people around you (concerning honesty, neighbourly love, forgiveness, pure intentions, etc);
  • Every day requires conversion (if necessary forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation: confession);
  • Your life in faith is never without difficulties (it is necessary to be willing to give something for it, the sign of the cross means victory but also presupposes suffering and sacrifice [37]);
  • Life in faith can never exist by our own strength alone: it is a gift from God, of God’s mercy: it is therefore necessary to keep celebrating the sacraments, to ask and receive the comfort and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, to accept and experience the support of your guardian angel [38];
  • Your life in faith needs good examples: look towards the saints as friends of God. They are our intercessors, which means that they pray with you to God.

In short: your path as a disciple of Jesus is a lifelong journey with Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, in the community of the Church, from day to day, with ups and downs.

7. In closing (through Him and with Him and in Him)

The first word of the theme of the WYD is “go”. That means getting up towards your neighbour to confess your faith in Jesus. You can only do so if you’ve first come to Jesus, meaning:

  • Consciously aligning your heart with the Lord and letting Him touch you
  • Actively uniting your life to the Lord and His Church
  • Choosing to place your life in the light of the Gospel

Only when you’ve come to Jesus yourself, only then you can leave from Jesus and go in His name to win others for the Lord, to make others into disciples of Christ.

8. Questions to discuss

  • Do you believe that Jesus lives? What does that mean for you personally?
  • What would you like to learn from Jesus?
  • What do you think is the most important thing to tell others about Jesus?

+ J. van den Hende
Bishop of Rotterdam

Photo credit: P. van Mulken

Questions and answers, No. 2

Like last week, there is a new set of questions to be answered. People came here in the past week to find answers, and I hope they found at least some indication of them, but if not: here is some more direct and detailed information. I will try my best to give useful and truthful answers, but in the case of some of today’s question it is really better to consult a priest, theologian or Church historian.

1. Is Roman Catholicism legal in the Netherlands?

Simple answer: yes. There is no prohibition on being Catholic or speaking and writing about being Catholic in the Netherlands. Article 6 of the Dutch Constitution protects every citizen to freely confess their faith within the limits of the law.

The Catholic Church is fully established in the Netherlands, with full diplomatic relations between the Netherlands and the Holy See, a resident Papal Nuncio and a bishops’ conference.

2. Explain why the Eucharistic liturgy is meant to be the source and summit of our spiritual lives.

eucharistThis is one of those questions I referred to above. I will try to offer a basic explanation, but you are really best served with someone who is more knowledgeable about this.

The Eucharistic liturgy is the whole of rituals, words, gestures and actions we use to celebrate the Eucharist. That liturgy is a unity and reflects the content of what we celebrate: the Eucharist. And is that Eucharist that is the source and summit of the Christian life. By source we mean that everything we do as Christians has its origins in the Eucharist, and by summit we mean that that Eucharist is also the highest goal that we can achieve. Nothing exceeds or transcends it.

The Eucharist is Christ on the Cross, God who sacrificed Himself for us. The Eucharist is then a supreme act of love. For Himself, God need not have died, but He did so out of love for us. We needed it. He did not.

That sacrifice, that divine love, is the engine that drives our Christian life. Our love for God and our neighbours, our desire to be loved, flows from the divine love.

If we do not give the Eucharist, the Holy Mass, an important place in our Christian life, we take away the driving force, the nourishment for our Christian actions and words, our life. Christ gave Himself for us, now we need to accept Him in our hearts, and that is what the Eucharist does for us, and what we do in the Eucharist.

3. Who initiated transubstantiation in the Catholic Church?

betrayal-last-supperJesus Christ did. At the Last Supper, He gave bread and wine as His Body and Blood to His followers. And these followers were well aware of what Jesus had said about those things earlier:

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the desert and they are dead; but this is the bread which comes down from heaven, so that a person may eat it and not die. I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world” (Joh 6:48-51).

When Jesus then said, at the Last Supper, “This is my body” and ‘This is my blood”, the Apostles would have remembered the above passage. Although they had no way of understanding how, they would also have no doubt that Christ was serious: He is the living bread, and the bread He now brings is, as He says, His body.

But since when does the Church refer to this mystery as ‘transubstantiation’? A quick glance at Wikipedia shows us that the term appeared in the Middle Ages, and at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 the Church first used it in writing. But although they didn’t use the word ‘transubstantiation’, the fact of bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ had already been accepted by the earliest Church Fathers, such as St Ignatius of Antioch and St. Justin Martyr (both in the first half of the second century).

The answer to the question would then be: Christ initiated it, and the Church recognised the mysterious transubstantiation virtually from the very start.

4. Can I have an altar just for saints?

altar_myhomeWell, depending on what you mean by ‘altar’, you either can or can not. If you are referring to the surface upon which the sacrifice of the Mass takes place, I don’t think you can. Such an altar is always for Christ, although it can feature images or statues of saints, of course.

However, if you are talking about a small ‘prayer table’ in your home, you most definitely can, although I would personally recommend that you also include Christ. A set place in the house where you can go and light a candle and pray is definitely a good thing, and such a place can include statues or images of saints to help us pray. Certainly when you have a special devotion to a certain saint, you may want to give that saint pride of place, and frequently ask him or her to intercede for your intentions with the Lord.

As long as there is no danger of your prayer table (ie. not an altar upon which the Eucharistic sacrifice takes place) becoming a site for idolatry, you may certainly use images of saints to help you focus on Christ and your relationship with Him.

Catholic pretense? Protestant leader takes what is not his

bas plaisierIn a series of Tweets yesterday, the former secretary of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (the de facto head of that church community), announced that he was “done with the pretense of the Catholic Church. I see her as a church among churches and freely take part in the Eucharist”.

Dr. Bas Plaisier, who today works as a teacher at a Lutheran seminary in Hong Kong, was the scriba of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands until 2008.

In his statement on Twitter, which was met with both praise and criticism, Dr. Plaisier presumably means to say that he attends Holy Mass (which he is of course very welcome to do) and also receives Communion. He supports this action by saying that many Catholics agree with him and that what matters is who you invite. “And in that respect teachings or church do not matter”.

The Catholic Church invites, to use Dr. Plaisier’s words, those to Communion who are not only in a state of grace, but who also live according to and agree with the faith of the Church. Part of that faith is the consecration: the bread and wine truly becoming the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Protestant churches generally do not share that faith and can therefore not receive Communion. For, in addition to building community in Christ, Communion is also a confession of our faith. By receiving the Body and Blood of Christ we basically express our faith in God, and our intention of following all His teachings that come to us via His Church.

In the Protestant Church of Dr. Plaisier, the Last Supper does share similarities with the Eucharist in that is a communal meal. But in the Protestant service, bread and wine remain bread and wine. That is something that Protestant agree with. Leftover bread can be fed to the ducks and leftover wine may be poured down the sink. That is unheard of in the Catholic Church, as any leftover bread and wine are the physical Lord and must therefore be treated with due reverence.

With his statements, Dr. Plaisier does a great disservice to ecumenism. He basically tells the Protestant Churches’ main partner in ecumenism, at least in the Netherlands, that her teachings and faith don’t matter to him. His own opinion and feeling becomes decisive. Dr. Plaisier is a Protestant, and very obviously does not believe in the transsubstation. But is that reason to take the most precious treasure of the Church, Our Lord Himself, and receive Him without agreeing with what He teaches us? That is tantamount to saying, “Lord, that’s all nice what you are saying, but I know better than you, and will simply do what I think is best.”

The Catholic Church is very emphatically not a church among churches. The Protestant church communities are not a church in the way that the Catholic Church is, and the faith the express and share differs in important ways from the faith that has been preserved through the ages in the Catholic Church. We can’t water that faith down by saying that important things, such as the Eucharist, do not really matter, that what matters is that people feel welcome. Of course people should feel welcome, and we should do our best to make them feel welcome. But does that mean that we should bend every which way to do so, to even ignore or change our very identity to make things easier?

People, Protestant or otherwise, are very welcome to come to a Catholic Church, to attend Mass, to pray with Catholics. They are not free to take Catholic teachings and faith and change them to suit their perceived needs. That is deeply insulting for the host (both human and divine) and makes the human person, not God, the decisive factor in such matters. And when it comes to God, we do not decide. He does.

Photo credit: Gerard van Rhoon

Unity in faith or unity of feeling – Ecumenism explained once more

By word of the diocesan vicar, the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch has released an open letter, addressed to the “parishioners of Someren and Lierop and other interested parishioners elsewhere”, about ecumenism. The aforementioned parishes had earlier cancelled a planned ‘ecumenical Eucharist’, after the diocese said that something like that is not allowed. The explanation offered by Fr. Ron van den Hout (pictured below)should not come as a surprise to anyone with some understanding of what the Church teaches about ecumenism and the nature of the Eucharist.

Below I have translated the core passages of the letter, which can be read in full, and in Dutch, here.

“The Catholic Church encourages ecumenical contacts with Protestant communities. They should get to know each other; they can undertake social activities together; they can listen to the Word of the God and pray together. It is however not permitted to celebrate the Eucharist or Last Supper together. That prohibition has been repeated time and again by the Popes, but also by the Dutch bishops. Why is it not permitted? Because Last Supper and Eucharist, although they both refer back to the institution and assignment of the Lord, are not the same. The Roman Catholic Church believes that the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is made sacramentally present, and that bread and wine truly and permanently become the Body and Blood of Christ. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, this Eucharist is source and summit of the Church’s life. According to Catholic understanding only a validly ordained priest can consecrate the Eucharist. Protestants don’t have validly ordained priests. They do not believe in the true transformation of bread and wine and have a more symbolic understanding of this sacrament. That is the reason why the Church does not allow a joint celebration. She also does not allow non-Catholics to receive Communion and Catholics to take part in the Protestant Last Supper. This in order to prevent confusion regarding this sacrament which for us is the heart of faith.

Misguided ecumenical actions, such as joint celebration of the Eucharist/Last Supper, hurt the unity and do not advance ecumenism, on the contrary. Unity is then no unity of faith, but a unity in feeling. What matters is that we as church communities, and so not so much as individual parishes and communities, learn to discover, through discussion, conversation and study, what the Lord truly intended with His Church and  the sacrament of unity. In the meantime we pray in parishes and communities for the Holy Spirit’s help. Only He can bring true unity closer, step by step.”

The diocese’s letter comes in the wake of some discussion which mostly focussed on the perceived authoritative stance of the diocese. Several media have published this letter as a press release, much like it earlier published a critical letter on a local newspaper’s front page.

Ecumenism, not as easy as it seems

Once more because of its (apparently) big, bad, grumpy bishop, the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch is making headlines because Bishop Antoon Hurkmans forbade the parish in Lierop, east of Eindhoven, to celebrate an “ecumenical Mass” (contradictio, right there…) in which both the local priest and Protestant minister would celebrate.

It’s one case under the banner ‘ecumenism’ that has been making the rounds again. And everyone, it seems, has come out to denounce the bishop as unchristian, legalistic, bureaucratic and strict (or other words to that effect). Anyone who actually knows Bishop Hurkmans also knows that these descriptions do not fit him at all. But why, then, does he make such harsh decisions, some may ask.

An answer to that question must include an exploration of what ecumenism actually is. Then, we must also find out what a bishop’s duties in these and other matters are as chief shepherd of a diocese.

What is ecumenism? For one thing, it expresses the desire for unity among all Christians. This answers directly to Christ’s prayer “that all may be one” (John 17:21). Ecumenism is relational; we don’t do ecumenism by ourselves. It is also a goal, since full unity has not been achieved yet. There are still many Christians outside the one Church. These are all facts that we must acknowledge. The various Churches and church communities have their differences and their own identities. We owe it to ourselves and our ecumenical partners to be open and honest about our identity. If we take ecumenism, the desire for unity, seriously, we don’t pretend that we are one when we are not. We don’t hide our differences, but recognise them and try and work towards removing them.

The Mass is the Catholic celebration of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice and sacrament. As such, we have a different understanding of it than Protestants do. These are rather fundamental differences which must be overcome before we can speak of unity.

An ecumenical celebration, like the one proposed in Lierop, is a pretense: it’s a lie. We pretend that we are one when we are not. Unity can only be celebrated when it has become fact, not before.

In the case outlined above, Bishop Hurkmans has exercised his duties of safeguarding the transmission of faith. Were priest and minister to concelebrate the Mass, both would be communicating, to their respective flocks, that there is no longer any difference between the Catholic Mass and the Protestant Last Supper. Both would be guilty of lying and misleading the faithful. All this before even considering that a layman, which the minister is, is unable to celebrate Mass. Only an ordained priest can. And the damning thing is that the priest in question should have known that very well.

Does all this mean that Protestants are not welcome in Catholic Churches and at Mass, as certain media have suggested? Of course not. There are many things that Catholics and Protestants have in common and that they can do together. Ignoring the fundamental differences between them is not one of them.

Photo credit: Roy Lazet/Eindhovens Dagblad