Three years of Pope Francis – years of continuity of rupture?

Pope-Francis

^Three years ago tomorrow, the world’s first look at Pope Francis

Tomorrow marks the third anniversary of the election of Pope Francis. Time flies. And of course, countless commentators are picking their high and low points from these past years.  And it amazes me how much opposition the Holy Father still faces, especially in online Catholic media. And I know, that can’t be taken as an accurate reflection of the Catholic world as a whole, but this is communication, and there volume sometimes matters as much as accuracy and perhaps more than representation. It’s not nice, but there you have it.

In these comments, and not just those that specifically aim to give an overview of this pontificate, an artificial opposition between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis is strikingly noticable. Pope Benedict said, this, taught that, and now Pope Francis says something else and teaches another thing, so the commentary goes. The implication being that what Pope Francis is saying, doing and emphasising is somehow contrary to the things Pope Benedict focussed on, and some even go so far as to call the current pontiff a heretic because of this preceived discrepancy. A careful reader of what Pope Francis says (and yes, I admit, a careful reading of his remarks, especially the off-the-cuff ones, can be a challenge), knows that this is not the case. Not only are the two pontiffs in agreement with each other when it comes to the content of the faith, the differences in their focus is also not as large as some would have us think.

A fair few number of people lament the fact that Pope Francis emphasises mercy, care for the poor and creation and the economic inequality that seems an innate element of western capitalist societies. These are not really Catholic topics, they say, and the Pope should devote more time and focus on catechesis, liturgy, prayer, truth as revealed to us in the Gospels. But do these things suddenly no longer matter or exist, just because this Pope speaks about them less or in another way than his predecessor? Of course not. The Catholic Church consists of more than just the Pope, and we all share the same responsibility as he does: to proclaim the faith and defend it, to teach it, celebrate it properly and let it shine through in every part of our being and lives. Maybe we should talk less about what the Pope should say and say and do some things ourselves.

Sure, one may prefer one Pope over the other, but just because ‘your Pope’ has passed away or retired, his teachings have not. St. John Paul II’s teachings about the family and Pope Benedict XVI’s words about liturgy and truth remain as valid and valuable as Pope Francis’ attention to mercy and the environment. The different topics and emphases should not automatically be considered as contrary, but as in continuity. Pope Francis does not suddenly disregared his predecessors’ teachings simply because he speaks about something else. Neither should we.

Network of love – Bishop van den Hende on what makes a diocese

Last month, the Dioceses of Groningen-Leeuwarden and Rotterdam marked the 60th anniversary of their foundation. A week ago, the website of the latter diocese published the text of the Bishop Hans van den Hende’s homily for the festive Mass on 6 February. In it, the bishop puts the sixty years that the diocese has existed in perspective, and goes on the describe the diocese not as a territory, but as a part of the people of God, as the Second Vatican Council calls it in the decree Christus Dominus. Following Blessed Pope Paul VI, Bishop van den Hende explains that a diocese is a network of love. following the commandment of Jesus to remain in His love. This network starts in the hearts of people and as such it contributes to building a society of love and mercy.

20160206_Rotterdam_60JaarBisdom_WEB_©RamonMangold_08_348pix“Brothers and sisters in Christ, today we mark the sixtieth year of the existence of the Diocese of Rotterdam. “Sixty years, is that worth celebrating?”, some initially wondered. “We celebrated fifty years in a major way. One hundred years would be something.”

In the history of the Church, sixty years is not a long period of time. But sixty years is a long time when you consider it in relation to a human life. Many people do not reach the age of sixty because of hunger and thirst, war and violence. There are major areas where there hasn’t been peace for sixty years. Sixty years is long enough to contain a First and a Second World War.

Every year that the Lord gives us has its ups and downs, can have disappointments, great sorrow and joy. Sixty years we began as a diocese. In 1955, Pope Pius XII had announced that there would be two new dioceses in the Netherlands. The north of the country received the Diocese of Groningen. And here the Diocese of Rotterdam was created from the Diocese of Haarlem.

In 1956, on 2 February, both dioceses began. The new bishops came later. The bishops of the older dioceses of Utrecht and Haarlem initially were the administrators of the new dioceses. But in May of 1956 the first shepherds of the two new dioceses were consecrated (the consecration of Msgr. Jansen as bishop of Rotterdam was on 8 May 1956).

Describing the division of dioceses in provinces and areas, I could give you the impression that a diocese is in the first place a territory that can be pointed out geographically. But a diocese is not primarily a firmly defined area or a specific culture. The Second Vatican Council describes a diocese in the first place as a part of the people of God: “portio populi Dei” (CD, 11). The Vatican Council avoids here the word “pars”, that is to say, a physical piece.

A diocese is a part of the people of God. And that automatically makes a diocese a network of people united in faith around the one Lord. A network in the heart of society, connected to people that they may travel with. Pope Paul VI characterised the Church as a “network of love”, with the mission to contribute to a society of love in the entire world.

A network of love in unity with Jesus, who tells His disciples in the Gospel (John 15: 9-17), “Remain in my love”. Now that we are marking sixty years, we must recognise that things can go wrong in those sixty years, that there are things which do not witness to the love of Christ. How we treat each other, how parishes sometimes compete with each other, and also the sin of sexual abuse of minors and how we deal with that, these are part of our history.

Should we then say that this network of love is too difficult a goal to achieve? If we think that, we should remember what St. Paul says in the first reading (1 Cor. 1:3-9). He says: the network of love does not just belong to people, but is united with Jesus Christ, who helps us persevere until the end. Jesus is God’s only Son who has lived love to the fullest, who died on the cross, who rose from the dead and who made no reproaches but said, “Peace be with you” (cf. John 20:21).

The network of love is inspired by the Holy Spirit whose efficacy becomes visible where there is unity, where forgiveness is achieved, where people can bow to each other and serve one another.

To be a network of love is a duty that we must accept ever anew as a mission from the Lord. We are a diocese according to God’s heart, insofar as the witness to Christ has taken root in us (1 Cor. 1:5-6). When we do not consider the disposition of His heart we do not go His way. And when we do not store and keep His life in our hearts (cf. Luke 2:51), we are not able to proclaim His word and remain in His love.

As a diocese (as a local Church around the bishop) we are not just a part of the worldwide Church of Christ, but a part in which everything can happen which makes us Church in the power of the Holy Spirit: in the first place the celebration of the Eucharist as source and summit, and the other sacraments: liturgy. Communicating the faith in the proclamation of the Gospel: kerygma, which – in catechesis, for example – must be coupled with solidarity between the generations. And thirdly, that we, as a network of love, show our faith in acts of love: charity (cf. Deus caritas est, n. 23).

We celebrate this anniversary in a year of mercy, proclaimed by Pope Francis. It is a holy year of mercy. Mercy means on the one hand to continue trusting in God’s love, asking for forgiveness for what’s not right, for what is a sin. Allowing Him into our hearts. On the other hand it means that we make mercy a mission in our lives and show it in our service to our neighbours, in acts of love, in works of mercy. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus summarises this for us: I was thristy and you gave me to drink, I was hungry and you gave me to eat. I was naked, I was homeless and alone. Did you care for me? Jesus does not isolate people in need, but identifies Himself with them: You help me when you approach a person in need (vg. Matt. 25:40).

Characterising the diocese and the entire Church as a network of love is not a recent invention from our first bishop, Msgr. Jansen, but is an answer to Christ’s own mission for His Church. And many saints went before us on that path with that mission. Saint Lawrence was a deacon in third-century Rome (225-258), who helped the people where he could. And when the emperor wanted to take all the Church’s treasure, which wasn’t even in the form of church buildings, as the Christians did not have those yet, Lawrence did not come to him with the riches, but with the people in need. And he said, “These are the treasures of the Church”. These treasures don’t take the form of bank accounts or the wax candles the emperor loved so much, but people, who are images of God. Jesus looking into our hearts also asks us to see in the hearts of people. In this way we continue to celebrate Lawrence and his witness.

And what about Saint Elisabeth (1207-1231) who went out to give bread to people and help the sick? She was of noble birth and was expected not to do this, but she went out from her castle and helped people in need. In this way she was a face of God’s mercy. And consider Blessed Mother Teresa (1910-1997), of whom there is a statue in this church. She saw people collapsing in misery, lying in the gutter, and she saw in their hearts. And also in our city of Rotterdam we are happy to have sisters of Mother Teresa realising mercy in our time.

A network of love and building a society of love. What more can we do in love and mercy? Marking sixty years of our diocese, it is a good time to ask ourselves: has the witness of Christ, has His love properly entered our hearts? And then we should say, and I am answering on behalf of all of us: we could do better. We need mercy and are to communicate God’s merciful love. In this city and elsewhere we are to contribute to a civilisation of love, contribute to a community which builds up instead of tearing down. It is clear that neither the Kingdom of God nor a diocese can be found on a map, because it starts in the hearts of people.

I pray that we celebrate this anniversary today in the knowledge that God’s mercy accompanies us and that we may accept his mission of solicitude, compassion and mercy. This is more than enough work for us, but it is only possible when it fills our hearts. Amen.”

‘Embracing’ mercy – Bishop Hoogmartens’ message for Lent

Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens’ message for Lent, like many others, revolves around the special signifigance of Lent in the Holy Year of Mercy. He describes the Holy Year as an opportunity to become “better and more joyful Christians”, and mentions some of the means to do so in his own Diocese of Hasselt – the Holy Door, the Blessed Sacrament and the sacrament of confession at the cathedral and the preparation for the diocese’s 50th anniversary in 2017.

While treading carefully around such ‘hot button’ topics (or so some seem to perceive them) as personal prayer and sin, Bishop Hoogmartens joins Pope Francis in inviting his readers to make the mercy we receive from God an integral part of our lives, penetrating down into everything we say and do and into eveyr interacting with other people.

11-Mgr-Hoogmartens“Dear brothers and sisters,
Good friends,

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent: a time to prepare ourselves in order to fully experience Easter. This year, Lent is very special because of the Jubilee of Mercy which Pope Francis opened in early December in Rome.

In our cathedral too, in the ambulatory, in front at the left, a “Holy Door of Mercy” has been opened for the duration of the Holy Year of Mercy. Faithful – alone or as a group – are expected to enter through it as pilgrims, with the intention to enter into the reality that Jesus has revealed to us, the mercy of the Father. The image on the Door is that of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. He leads us – in the Spirit – to the mercy of the Father. Further along in the ambulatory of the cathedral one can physically go this path: past Mary, the Virga Jesse which will be placed there for the entire year, via a personal prayer before the Blessed Sacrament to receiving the sacrament of reconciliation, for which the presence of a confessor is assured.

For us faithful it is important to make use of the Jubilee of Mercy – wherever in the world – to become better and more joyful Christians. Lent offers rich opportunities for that. The liturgy frequently mentions God’s mercy. It also invites us to ’embrace’, which should be a part of the lifestyle of the Christian who always wants to make room in his heart for people living in poverty. It also invites us to personal prayer, each perhaps in his own rhythm and his own way, but best after the Biblical example. We are also invited to take part in the confession services which will be organised in the parish federations and deaneries. I will be leading the service in the cathedral on Monday in Holy Week.

By experiencing the Year of Mercy with many others in all its depth, we also prepare for living the glory of God’s mercy in the cathedral on the “starter evenings” on 20 and 21 September. A greater gift our diocese can not receive on the 50th anniversary of its founding.

As modern people, with so many other things on our minds, with a frequently busy life, and each with our own concerns, we perhaps wonder what this mercy means for us and the world? Pope Francis wrote a beautiful letter about it. But we ourselves also sense what it is about. We all know we are often weak, careless, focussed on ourselves, and yes, also sinful. From the mercy that we experience from God we in our turn can then be more merciful towards others, including people living in poverty. ‘Embracing’; Pope Francis calls it the key to the Gospel! The name of God is mercy, after all, as the title of his latest book says.

Would our world, with all its concerns, with so much violence, with the refugee crisis and poverty issues, not gain much when many would experience and contemplate the “mercy of the Father” as Jesus showed it to us?

When that mercy also becomes an incentive for political and economical leaders, of pedagogues and parents and of communities, the world can only become better. It is the joy of Easter which for us Christians always remains the corner stone in this context. And we can already look ahead to that Easter now.

In the meanwhile, let us practice in this Lent for a simpler life, the application of prayer and the sacraments and the love for everyone encountered, who we want to embrace out of God’s mercy.

I gladly wish you a meaningful and blessed Lent, in this Jubilee of Mercy.

+ Patrick Hoogmartens
Bishop of Hasselt”

Clean feet -a more inclusive Easter liturgy?

So the Holy Father went and had the Congregation for Divine Worship decree a change in the liturgy. For most parishes, at least here in Western Europe, the change will be unnoticeable, as most have made it years or even decades ago. But does that mean it is a mere formality, a change on paper only?

foot washing, maundy thursday, cathedral

^ Footwashing at St. Joseph’s cathedral in Groningen, last year.

Since 1955, the footwashing is a notable part of the liturgy of Maundy Thursday. The priest washes the feet of twelve men, in imitation of Jesus Christ’s washing of the feet of His disciples. As the new decree underlines, the rite revolves around the servitude of all those who wish to follow Christ, who came, after all, not to be served, but to serve. In the Gospel of John we read the following:

“Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father, having loved those who were his in the world, loved them to the end.

They were at supper, and the devil had already put it into the mind of Judas Iscariot son of Simon, to betray him. Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God, and he got up from table, removed his outer garments and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘At the moment you do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ ‘Never!’ said Peter. ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus replied, ‘If I do not wash you, you can have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said, ‘Well then, Lord, not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!’ Jesus said, ‘No one who has had a bath needs washing, such a person is clean all over. You too are clean, though not all of you are.’ He knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said, ‘though not all of you are’.

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments again he went back to the table. ‘Do you understand’, he said, ‘what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. 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. In all truth I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, no messenger is greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know this, blessed are you if you behave accordingly.'”

The rite of the footwashing is in the first place exactly what Jesus tells us it is: an example for us to follow, in the context of the relation between servant and master. For the priest, who washes the feet of twelve faithful, this is especially poignant. As an alter Christus he is especially tasked to lead by serving, made tangible in this subservient act.

In the Roman missal the faithful whose feet are to be washed are described as ‘vir’, men. Although many priests have not felt called to limit the faithful they chose for the rite to be only men, others, who understand that the liturgy is not just a collection of symbolic rituals, have followed what the missal stipulates. Pope Francis has now removed the rule that only men’s feet are to be washed in the ritual, stating only that they must be chosen from among the People of God: the faithful community assembled for the liturgical ritual. So not only men, but also women and children.

Of course, the changes have been met with comments far and wide. Before delving into some of those, it should be noted that this is not an issue of dogma, and that the Holy Father is completely free to make such changes. There are those who are all too keen to take every chance to denounce Pope Francis, but this is not one. This is Papal authority in action.

I have seen some comments expressing surprise that there even are rules about such things, but also pride in having been ahead of the curve in including women in the footwashing. Apparently, those who know of what the missal stated, have not felt the urge to take it seriously and keep to the rubrics. I have to wonder what the liturgy is for some people: a collection of quaint rituals to be performed or not as mood or times dictate, or something given as a task to perform by the Church, a rite reflecting the divine liturgy, which can not be changed by individual priests or liturgy committees (a silly concept in itself) as they desire. It should be clear what my position is, which happens to be what the Church herself also teaches. I may like or dislike what the missal contains, but it is not mine to change. It is, however, the Pope’s to change (as long as the changes are not dogmatic). He has that authority.

Some have also chosen to see this change as having to do with a right that until now has been denied to women. It is not. As the decree explains, Pope Francis wanted this change to better reflect the full make-up of the People of God, who all share in this commandment of service: it is therefore not a right that until now has been denied to women, but a duty that they are equally called to perform. Pridefully boasting that this is an equal rights issue is simplistic and out of place.

On the other side of the debate, more conservative commentators have taken issue with the fact that a liturgical tradition has been altered. They say that the presence of only men at the footwashing is a reflection of the footwashing as performed by Jesus. He also only washed the feet of men: His disciples. In this way it better reflected the relation between Christ and His followers, and thus reminds the priest and faithful of what the priesthood is: a service in a context of authority. I have to wonder, however, of the ritual itself, even if it includes only men, succeeds in this. At least in my experience, catechesis makes more of a difference than the gender of those whose feet are washed. For most faithful present at the footwashing, the actual ritual is too short and too far away to be fully witnessed and taken in.

Others have wondered if this is really the most urgent liturgical change that was needed. Aren’t there liturgical abuses that need to be adressed first? Of course there are. I think of the complete lack of reference for or even understanding of Who we received in Holy Communion, to name but one. But a start needs to be made somewhere, and the fact that changs are made is more important than the order in which they take place.

In closing, I would like to comment on what some have wondered about the role of Cardinal Robert Sarah in this. As Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship he is the one who issued and signed the decree announcing the change. Pope Francis made the request for the change in late 2014. It took more than a year for the decree to be published. Did Cardinal Sarah delay it, because he disagreed with it? Or is it perhaps more likely that the cardinal, who had only arrived at the Congregation in November of 2014, needed the time first to familiarise himself with his new duties, had to clear a banklog of files which had built up in the three months between the departure of the previous Prefect, Cardinal Cañizares Llovera, and his own arrival? And add to that the fact that there are other files to deal with in the course of the normal work of the Congregation, and it seems that this is a more likely reason for the apparent delay than any alleged delaying actions out of a theoritical opposition to the Pope’s reforms.

 

Kneeling before the child – Bishop Schwaderlapp strikes again

Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp does it again. Recently, he spoke about the erosion of faith, and in his homily for the feast of the Epiphany he outlines an attitude to counter that. Taking the example of the Magi, he explains the importance of kneveling; not just the physical action, but the inner attitude of faith it both signifies and nourishes.

Read the entire homily in the original German via the link above. I share the part in which Bishop Schwaderlapp discusses the concept of kneeling below.

schwaderlapp“”They found the child there, with his mother Mary, and fell down to worship him” (Matt. 2:11). The unified translation states that they “paid homage”, but that is too weak. This is about worship. The three Magi understood what even the Apostles understood only gradually. The child is not only just a child, but is at the same time also God. It is the God-man. They knelt before they child, and only before the child, dear sisters and brothers. They did not kneel for the power of Herod, but they avoided him and went back to their country by another way. They did not kneel for their wealth, but presented it as a gift for the divine child. And they did not kneel down for their own convenience, but went on their way to the God-child – an arduous way.

He who kneels before the child does not bow down for the powerful! He who kneels before the child does not bow down for wealth and its temptations! He who kneels before the child does not bind himself to his own selfishness!

“They fell down and worshipped him!” How is that with us? Dear sisters and brothers, it always depresses me a little, when now and then – unfortunately, more and more often – I notice in parishes that kneeling is seemingly out of fashion. And this new “fashion” does not end with the fulltime employees. A Belgian priest, who has been working in our diocese for decades, told me, “When we removed the kneelers in my country, the crisis really began”.

Dear sisters and brothers, kneeling by itself is no solution to any crisis, but without kneeling no crisis will be resolved! The Magi show us what it is about. It is about kneeling before the child, so that we do not bow down before all fears, powers and everything that depresses and holds us down, that we find in him the support and strength to tackle what can be tackled.

Let us ask ourselves: do we kneel? Do we do it again and again? Or do we too forget it? A priest or bishop is also not immune for this. It is easy to preach about kneed, piety and worship. And yet it is a great temptation, in the bustle of daily life, to pass by the manger of Bethlehem. Let Christ not be left out! Kneel down before him, for he is the source of everything that is new, the source of faith, source of comfort and source of truth.”

The faithful of Cologne would be loath to see their auxiliary bishop go, but in Aachen, Limburg and Dresden-Meißen they are looking for a new bishop…

The effects of Christmas, 70 years later

I came across this moving story on the website of the Diocese of Regensburg:

Special guests during the Christmas evening Mass in the cathedral of Regensburg: the Vawter family from America returned to the place where their mother experienced her own Christmas miracle in 1945. In that year, 22-year-old Gabriele Meyer arrived in American-occupied Regensburg, after having been set free from a Soviet POW camp in Czechoslovakia. In the Bavarian city, a stranger took care of her, gave her food coupons and took her to Mass at St. Peter’s  cathedral. There, young Gabriele experienced her own Christmas miracle: the festive liturgy and the angelic voices of the choir for the first time allowed her to forget all the pain and terror which had led her here.

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After the war, Gabriele Meyer emigrated to the United States, married a man named Vawter and had three children. These children, daughter Dorle and sons Art and Tom, with their own children, were the personal guests of Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer this Christmas. Gabriele Vawter died in 2010, but she never forgot her experience in Regensburg at Christmas of 1945, and it moved her entire family. They assured Bishop Voderholzer, “We now know what moved our mother so deeply then!”

The power of celebrating, music and practical assistance in times of need. It can transcend decades and generations.

The true spirit of the Holy Year of Mercy

12310548_731823440286073_6495785121618758678_nIn his homily during the Mass for the opening of the Holy Year of Mercy, today, it seemed clear that Pope Francis considers this Jubilee inextricably linked to the Second Vatican Council, which ended fifty years ago. He called  for the Church to once again take up the missionary that the Council called for in reaching out to the people of our time, and not to neglect the spirit which came forth from the Council, which is the spirit of the Samaritan. These are interesting comments, as the phrase “the spirit of Vatican II”, with good reason, continues to send shivers up more than a few spines.

It is good, therefore, to realise that Pope Francis’ is a different one than the one people have claimed to belong to the Council: the spirit which says that the liturgy is mostly about doing things, and which has led to all sorts of liturgical experimentation. That false spirit is a very limited one as it concerns itself only with what we do in our Church buildings, and generally only in the sanctuary for that matter. The spirit that Pope Francis names, the one of the Good Samaritan, has a far wider scope. It goes out into the world, helps people by bringing them to God, even if the road is long and the steps small. “Wherever there are people, the Church is called to reach out to them and to bring the joy of the Gospel,” the Holy Father said.

Outreach, joy, Gospel. Three words that, in addition to mercy, obviously, should play a major role in this Holy Year. And not just in the big structures of the world Church, among the prelates and priests, but also, for the major part, in us, the faithful who profess faith in Jesus Christ, who want to follow Him in His Church.

I am the first to admit that this is not easy. It means, for most of us, a change in our behaviour and habits. It begins, I believe, with finding out what mercy is, by looking at the examples given by Jesus Christ. I intend to look into that over the course of the year, at irregular intervals in this blog.

May the Holy Doors, which, starting today, will open in many churches in the world, be an invitation to us to enter into God’s mercy, not only to receive it for ourselves, but especially to pass it on to others, in and outside the Church.

Photo credit: CNA