The thin line of hope – After Syria, Bishop Bonny reflects on Easter

In February, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp visited Syria. Visiting Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, he saw firsthand the destruction wrougth by years of war and also the incessant work of the churches to help the people caught in the middle. For Easter, he looks back on his journey:

Verwoestingen in Oost-Aleppo (2)

I took the photo above in Syria, in the destroyed eastern part of Aleppo. What do you see? A background and a foreground. Two opposed images. In the background only destruction: no doors, no windows, no roofs, no transport, no life. The bombardments and fighting was exceptionally heavy in the final months of 2016. All means were employed, even chemical weapons. Until all the houses and streets were destroyed and all inhabitants had left. But, in the foreground, there is a red round water tank, which the government has recently placed there. A truck comes to fill it every day. Next to the water tank there are four children. They come to collect water in recycled plastic bottles. They will bring it to their mother, somewhere in the ruins. They are two opposite images. The dead stones and the living water. The ruins and the children. An between them: the thin line of hope.

What is Easter about? About death and life. And about the thin line of hope.

The background of Easter is dark and cold. Jesus was nailed to the cross and has died. Friends placed his dead body in a tomb. The disciples have lost all faith and hope. For can anything good come from a grave? What they have gone through with Jesus will fade to memory. Leaving seems their only option. How many people today do not have those feelings! They look out over ruins or a tomb. Little is left of their former joy or friendship. Life of fate has hit them hard. The injustice or irreversibility of what has happened to them weighs heavily. The stone has covered the entrance of the tomb.

But, the foreground of Easter is different. It happens in the early hours. At dawn, the women go to the tomb. They see that the stone is rolled away The tomb is empty.

Jesus is not dead, He lives! He is not gone, He has risen!

Jesus has begun a new story. We celebrate that divine event at Easter. As a sign of Jesus’ resurrection we light the paschal candle and bless the waters of baptism. New Christians are baptised with that water in the Easter vigil. The priest also sprinkles the faithful with that water, not a little, but generously. Water belongs to Easter: fresh water, as a first sign of new life and hope. Are there ruins to clear in your life?

Do you fear the future? At Easter, let yourself by sprinkled with newly blessed baptismal water!

The fresh splash does good. It startled. It breaks through resignation. It makes barren ground soft and fertile.

The photo from Aleppo is my photo for Easter. I had it enlarged and it now stands on my desk. It is not a nice photo. No plus Easter bunny or yellow chick. No pretty creation or decoration. It is reality. When I bless the baptismal water at Easter and sprinkle the faithful with it, I will think of the red round water tank in Aleppo and the children next to it.

Hope does not begin again in a grand scale. Hope beings again small.

Hope begins again where we can collect fresh water to live on. Does that clear the ruins? Does it ensure the future? Not immediately and not by itself. But life is given a new opportunity. We can begin a new story. The thin line of hope appears again.

In the Easter Gospel the women are the first to arrive at the empty tomb. There, they are immediately given a task from the angel: “Go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you” (Mark 16:7). What lies in the heart of Galilee? Not a water tank, but a big lake full of water and fish. There Jesus awaits His disciples, as the Risen Lord.

There they can begin anew, with Him, as “fishers of men”.

What is my wish for you for Easter? That you may find the ‘living water’ and that you may share it, even if with a recycled bottle, like the children in the photo.

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Flowers for the Vatican

Like every year, the flowers that will decorate St. Peter’s Square in Rome for Easter left the Netherlands. In the public flower garden Keukenhof Bishop Hans van den Hende sent them off with a blessing, saying:

“We pray and ask for blessing to thank God for creation, for growth and life, which we receive from God. And we ask God’s blessing for the journey, so that these flowers and plants, which have been the subject of so much work and expertise, may come to full bloom in St. Peter’s Square. At Easter we celebrate that Christ is risen. The colourful flowers, plants and trees emphasise that Easter is our most important feast, looking ahead to eternity with God.”

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Last year, the flowers were subject of several attacks by seagulls. While Bishop van den Hende recalled that gulls and flowers are part of the same creation, and assumed they would be able to settle things together, the Holy See and the Dutch florists seem less sure of that. The flowers will be protected by kites looking like birds of prey and – only when there is no one in the square – lasers. This is similar to methods used at airports to keep landing strips clear of birds.

Meanwhile, on the other side of St. Peter’s, other Dutch flowers are blooming in the Vatican gardens. The tulip bulbs were a gift from King Willem Alexander during his state visit last June, and these have now produced white tulips, Dutch ambassador to the Holy See, Prince Jaime de Bourbon de Parme, reports:

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Photo credit: [1] St. Willibrord parish, [2] Prince Jaime

A cordial first – Dutch king and queen on state visit to the Holy See

While previous visits of Dutch royals to the Pope (and, once, vice versa) were usually perfectly cordial, yesterday saw the first official state visit of the King and Queen to the Pope. Perhaps the time of Dutch political unease with full-blooded Catholicism is now finally completely behind us.

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King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima spoke with Pope Francis for 35 minutes about, according to the Holy See press release,  “certain issues of shared interest, such as the protection of the environment and the fight against poverty, as well as […] the specific contribution of the Holy See and the Catholic Church in these fields.” Migration, peace and security were also discussed. The Holy Father also enquered after the couple’s three daughters. As a family, they had already visited him in April of last year.

Another topic, which may have been discussed in the subsequent meeting with Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was the ongoing kidnapping of Dutch television presenter Derk Bolt and his driver in Colombia. Foreign Secretary Bert Koenders, who also takes part in the state visit to Italy and the Holy See, has been in constant communication with his staff in The Hague and the Colombian government, and the local Catholic Church has also been involved in negotiations to free the two men from rebel movement ELN. Bolt was working to find the biological parents of a woman who was adopted by a Dutch couple, and was kidnapped earlier this week near the border with Venezuela.*

Back in Rome, meanwhile, the meeting between the Pope and the royal couple was noted for its cordiality. Like Pope Francis, Queen Máxima hails from Argentina and thus the three conversed in Spanish. It was noted how the conversation continued for a few more minutes at the doors of the audience chamber, after the official conclusion of the meeting. Pope Francis gifted the king and queen with a medal depicting Saint Martin of Tours and copies of Laudato si’, Evangelii gaudium and Amoris laetitia, and his 2017 Message for the World Day of Peace, while he received white and yellow tulips for the Vatican gardens.

Before their private audience with the Pope, the king and queen visited the Church of the Frisians near St. Peter’s Square. There, they were received by Bishop Antoon Hurkmans, rector of the Dutch national church in Rome.

Concluding the one-day state visit, the king and queen received a commander’s baton which is claimed to have belonged to William of Orange. Won by the Spanish in the Battle of Mookerheide in 1574, it now belongs to a Jesuit monastery in Spain. It is now on loan to the National Military Museum, where it will be displayed next year. Jesuit Superiro General, Fr. Arturo Sosa officially handed the baton to King Willem-Alexander in the Apostolic Library.

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Photo credit: ANP

  • Mr. Bolt and his driver were released on Friday the 23rd of June.

Christus vincit! An Easter wish

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As ever, while Lent sometimes seemed to creep by, the holy days of the Easter Triduum passed in a whirlwind of events, activities and emotions. From the intimacy and promise of the Last Supper, via the agony in the garden and the horror of the Lord’s Passion, all the way to the unimaginable wonder of the empty tomb.

“Do not be afraid!
I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified.
He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said.
Come and see the place where he lay.
Then go quickly and tell his disciples,
‘He has been raised from the dead,
and he is going before you to Galilee;
there you will see him.’
Behold, I have told you.”

What we thought was an ending, what we still too often think as a conclusion, is in fact the very opposite: Jesus is risen, and thus something new begins. We have not reached the end of a story, but began a completely new one.

The tomb is empty, Christ is not there. Let’s not linger where life ended, but go forward to the fullness of life, victorious over death.

A blessed Easter!

“The protection of life to give way to autonomy?” Cardinal Eijk responds to the next slide down the euthanasia slope

It has made headlines abroad as well as in the Netherlands, and it seems that the general response is a negative, amongst people of faith and of no faith alike. I am talking about the proposal presented by members of the cabinet to allow people who feel that their life is complete to be killed. This is a further slide down the slippery slope which began by the liberalisation of euthanasia in the Netherlands, a slope that proponents assured use would never exist. Recently, Cardinal Wim Eijk said in an address to the Canadian bishops that a door once left ajar will always open more. This proposal only proves his assertion.

Yesterday saw the response of the Dutch bishops to the proposal (better late than never, I suppose). once again written by Cardinal Eijk, who is to go-to bishop when it comes to questions of medical ethics. The response was published as an opinion piece in daily newspaper Trouw. Below follows my translation.

Kardinaal%20Eijk%202012%20kapel%20RGB%204%20klein“Last Wednesday the cabinet announced their intention to develop a new law in addition to the existing Euthanasia law to provide for assisted suicide for people who deem their life to be ‘complete’. It concerns situations in which suffering is considered hopeless and unbearable, not because of a medical reason, but because the person concerned no longer considers his life to have meaning after the loss of loved ones, loneliness, decreased mobility or the loss of personal dignity and who therefore have a persistent and active wish to die. The cabinet thinks in this matter mostly about elderly people, without, by the way, indication an age limit.

With this new law the cabinet wants to do justice to the autonomy of people. The duty to protect life is to give way for this autonomy in a number of situations in which life for the people involved no longer has any value. This reasoning, the basis of the new law, is fundamentally wrong.

Man’s autonomy is relative. His autonomy does not include having the disposal over his own life. The human body is not a secondary, but an essential dimension of the human person and shares in his essential dignity, which is never lost, even when the person involved believes that this is the case. Man as a whole, physically and mentally, is created after God’s image and likeness. God and those created in His image are always a goal in themselves and never merely the means to a goal. By ending life to end suffering the body and thus the human person is degraded to a means to remove suffering.

Man having the freedom to end his life, or have it ended, assumes that freedom is a greater value than life. Thatb is also true, but life is a fundamental condition in relation to freedom: without life there is no freedom. Ending human life is also the ending of human freedom.

The new law that the cabinet has in mind will in a certain sense increase the autonomy of people with a death wish, but this is then the external autonomy, which means in relation to factors which limit freedom from the outside (authority figures, laws and social pressure).

But is the same true for inner freedom? Real inner autonomy is the inner strength that enables man to make difficult but ethically correct choices by himself, without it being imposed on him. This is especially true for the choice to continue living. That inner strength is undoubtedly necessary when people physically experience the difficulties and limitations of old age.

Besides, the extension of the external freedom can also be debated. When elderly people have the option to relatively easily stop living and when this would become a trend, it is not unimaginable that they would feel pressured to then make use of the option. When one becomes an ‘expense’ for the health care system, one would almost feel guilty for continuing living regardless.

In short, the duty to protect life should not give way for the respect for autonomy.

+ Willem Jacobus Cardinal Eijk”

The bread of eternal life

Giving the homily at Mass on 22 September, during the German bishops’ autumn plenary meeting in Fulda, Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker of Paderborn discussed the passage in the Gospel of John in which Jesus speaks about the Bread of Life (6:51-58). From that homily come some questions that we should all ask ourselves every now and again:

erzbischof_becker_5_web“The event of Jesus’ sacrifice in the mystery of the Eucharist is perhaps the most demanding in the faith life of every Catholic Christian.

Where do we stand, sisters and brothers? How do we relate to this gift of God, this legacy? How do we stand before this bread that is Christ? Am I aware that I so meet my Creator and Saviour and thus my goal? – “Whoever eats this bread will live forever!” Here I definitely see an occasion to draw attention to our actual behaviour in the celebration of Holy Mass. Do I really think, and if so, when, about whether I can approach the table of the Lord? Do I know the difference between normal food and the Body of the Lord that Christ gives me? Do I say my ‘Amen’ as a faithful response to receiving the food of eternal life?”

I don’t think there’s anyone who sometimes doesn’t come forward to receive Communion on autopilot. We know the deal: come forward, genuflect, kneel and receive the consecrated host on the tongue (or, if you must and where it has been allowed, in the hand). The actual movements are nothing spectacular anymore. But that is completely contrary to what is happening. As the archbishop asked, do we know the difference between normal food and the Christ-given Body of the Lord? If we do, how can receiving Communion ever be a normal thing?

The relevant Gospel passage is actually very clear:

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.

The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?”

Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

We are receiving the holiest thing imaginable in order to receive even more: eternal life and life in unity with the Lord at that.

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

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

bischofsweihe_neu_int_23“Dear sisters, dear brothers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.”

Photo credit: Bistum Limburg