A rapid retirement for Bishop Wiertz

IMgr. F.J.M. Wiertzn a circular letter to be read out in the parishes of his diocese next Sunday, Bishop Frans Wiertz of Roermond informs the faithful that he has asked Pope Francis to be allowed to retire on his 75th birthday on 2 December. ND.nl broke the news this morning. Normally, the request for retirement is sent upon reaching that age, and then it can take months or even years before the retirement is accepted.

The Holy Father responded positively to the bishop’s request. In addition to retiring immediately, Bishop Wiertz has also asked not to be appointed as apostolic administrator for the period between his retirement and the installation of a new bishop.

In his monthly column, Bishop Wiertz asks for prayer:

“I speak from experience when I say that it is very important for a new Church leader to know that he is supported by the prayer of many.

That is why I wish to urge you to pray in the coming months for the Church in our diocese, and for a good shepherd, teacher and manager.”

The bishop, who has headed the southeastern diocese since 1993, has been struggling with health issues for some time now. His eyesight has been progressively failing, as he revealed in May of 2016.

In February of this year, a poll held among priests of the Diocese of Roermond revealed that the new bishop should be a man in the line of Pope Francis: communicative, no stranger to social media, and able to be strong and inspirational in his policies.

Bishop Wiertz was the oldest serving bishop of the Netherlands, and also the most senior in terms of years served. His 24 years in office is the longest period since that of wartime Bishop Jozef Lemmens, who served from 1932 to 1957.

In his retirement, Bishop Wiertz has decided to take up residence in Maastricht, the city where he was parish priest from 197 to 1985. Maastricht oncde also hosted to oldest cathedral in what is now the Netherlands, and is today also a titular see (currently vacant).

Here follows the full text of the circular letter:

“Brothers and sisters,

“Jesus Christ is the same: heri, hodie, cras.” Thus writes the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews: “yesterday, today and forever.” (Heb. 13:8).

The world is changing, the times are changing and the Church is naturally also changing. But our mission remains the same: to proclaim Christ in every era and carry His Gospel to the ends of the earth.

It is now more than 24 years since Pope Saint John Paul II appointed me as bishop of Roermond. In the past years I have tried to proclaim Christ in this office. I have said before that that is a mission which requires more people. One man alone does not possess all the talents needed to fulfill the office of bishop.

Luckily I can say that I have had the support in all those years of the immediate coworkers in the diocese, in the staff, the chapter, the advisory councils, the seminary, the colleges of priests and deacons, of the pastoral workers and catechists and the many volunteers in parish councils, work groups and parishes. All of them – all of you – have helped me in word and deed to fulfill the office of bishop through liturgy, catechesis, charity and pastoral care. I thank you all.

I especially thank my auxiliary bishop Everard de Jong and vicar general Msgr. Hub Schnackers and their immediate predecessors in those offices, with whom I have worked in great kindness and friendship. My thanks to all who – each in their own way – have worked to proclaimed Christ is immeasurable. The Church in the Diocese of Roermond, as we know it today, is due in large part to them.

I am obviously aware of my limitations, sins and shortcomings. I realise that, over the course of the years, there have been people, also among you, who have been hurt because of what I did. For that, I wish to appeal to your gift of forgiveness.

Recently, Pope Francis once again called upon all bishops to present their resignation when they rech the age of 75. Since I hope to reach that age on 2 December, I have presented my resignation to the pope several months ago, and I have already received a positive response from him.

In my letter of resignation I also asked the pope not to appoint me as administrator of our diocese after 2 December. This because of my greatly reduced vision. This means that I will really finish my episcopal activities on 2 December.

In canon 412 and 413, canon law allows a bishops who is prevented from fulfilling his pastoral duties to let the chapter appoint a temporary administrator. He will govern the diocese in my name until a new bishop has been appointed.

On Saturday 9 December I will bid my farewell in a celebration of thanksgiving in St. Christopher’s cathedral, and subsequently at a reception in De Oranjerie in Roermond. I have been able to fulfill the office of bishop with great joy. There have definitely been difficult times, but I can look back in great gratitude on the almost quarter of a century in which I could be your bishop and could walk through the times with you. They have been happy years.

I will bid you farewell in the certainty that Christ remains the same as He was, as He is and as He will be in the future: the Son of the living God, our Saviour, on whom we can establish all our hopes, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

On this occasion I gladly ask for your prayer for a good successor on the seat of Roermond. On the intercession of Our Lady Star of the Sea, who is so loved in our entire diocese, I wish you salvation and blessings. In my new place of residence in Maastricht I hope to be united with you in prayer for some years.

I wish you all well. Adieu, adieë, until before God.

Roermond, 4 october 2017
on the feast day of Saint Francis,

+ Frans Wiertz,
bishop of Roermond”

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The protective hand of the mother – Dutch dioceses consecrated to Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart

On Saturday afternoon the Dutch bishops consecrated their dioceses to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, coinciding with the centenary of the first apparition of Mary in Fatima and the tail-end of Pope Francis’ visit to that pilgrimage site in Portugal. The bishops did so at the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady in Maastricht. All the active Dutch ordinaries and auxiliary bishops were present, as was Cardinal Ad Simonis, archbishop emeritus of Utrecht. From Groningen-Leeuwarden, which is expecting their new bishop on 3 June, diocesan administrator Fr. Peter Wellen was present.

Cardinal Wim Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht and metropolitan of the Dutch Church province, led the consecration during a Vespers, and gave the following homily:

“After the downfall of the Portuguese royal house as the result of a revolution in 1910, a very anticlerical government came to power in which freemasons dictated the tone. This government issued various measures against the Church: the wearing of priestly clothing was forbidden, as was taking religious vows; monasteries and religious orders and congregation were abolished by law and their possessions confiscated; Jesuits were forced to renounce their Portuguese citizenship; religious education in schools was abolished and the government gave themselves the right to appoint professors to seminaries. The brain behind these measures, Alfonso Costa, had the goal of eradicating Catholicism in Portugal in two generations.

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He did not succeed in this for various reasons. The faith of the Portuguese people was too strong en the Holy See resisted successfully. But a very important factor was the apparitions of Mary to three shepherd children in Fatima: Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta. These apparitions greatly impacted Portugal, as well as, by the way, the rest of the Catholic world. After an angel appeared to them in 1916, Mary first appeared to them om 13 May 1917. She would do so six times in the period between 1 May and 13 October 2017.

The apparitions of Mary at Fatima are part of a string of important Marian apparitions: in La Salette in 1946, Lourdes in 1858 and Castepetroso in 1888. At all these apparitions, Mary’s message was that we should return to Christ, the Son of God and her son, do penance to gain forgiveness for our own sins and those of others and devote ourselves intensively to prayer, especially the Rosary. But of all these apparitions, those at Fatima were the most prophetic.

This had to do with the content of the three secrets that Mary entrusted there to the shepherd children. The first concerned a vision of hell and a call to prayer, conversion and penance to save souls and bring them to eternal salvation. The existence of hell was (and is) denied by many Christians and is not or barely mentioned by Christian preachers and catechists. The solemn warning of Mary must, however, be taken serious.

The second secret was an announcement of the end of the First World War, but also of the Second World War if people would not stop insulting God. Mary called for prayer and penance to implore God to bring peace. She also asked to consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart to prevent atheistic communism to spread from Russia to other countries. Various popes, beginning with Pius XII in a radio message on 31 October 1942, have responded to this. It is significant that communism in Russia fell in 1989.

The third secret was a vision of a bishop in white, the pope, being persecuted, falling down as if dead under the sound of gunshots amid the bodies of bishops, priests, religious and lay people, fallen like martyrs for the faith under communism and fascism. It is an image of the way of the cross that the Church, led by the popes, has gone. On 13 May 2000, Cardinal Sodano announced, during a visit of Pope John Paul II to Fatima, that this vision referred the attack on the pope in St. Peter’s Square in Rome on 13 May 1981.

How should we now look at Mary’s messages in Fatima, and what do they add to our faith in Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer? The revelation of Holy Scripture, the public revelation to all of humanity, has been completed with Jesus Christ. Nothing can be added to that.

Mary’s messages to the shepherd children in Fatima are private revelations. Private revelations do not add anything to the deposit of faith as a whole:  “It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (art. 67). The messages of Mary at Fatima helped to better understand what the faith in Christ required to hold onto under the serious threats to the Church in the twentieth century.

A specific guidance from Mary at Fatima was her call to consecrate Russia, but also other countries or persons, to her Immaculate Heart. The heart represent the interior of the person here, and also the conscience, where the heart of man’s relationship with God lies. We call Mary’s heart immaculate because God safeguarded her from the original sin from the moment of her birth, and also because she remained free from sin in the rest of her life.

The consecration to her Immaculate Heart means two things specifically. Firstly, this consecration means that we want to follow Mary in the choice that she made in her heart of hearts, when the angel asked her to be the mother of God’s Son. She expressed her yes to God with the words, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Like Mary, we want to achieve a complete consecration of ourselves to Christ.

We realise, however, that we can’t do so on our own and need God’s grace. And this brings us to the second important meaning of the consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary: it also expresses that we consecrate ourselves to her motherly care. In other words, that we entrust ourselves to her intercession with God.

Mary’s concrete message at Fatima especially concerned the critical situation of the Church in the previous century. But the message is still current. The situation of the Church has certainly not improved in our century. Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world. Additionally, there is not only persecution from outside, but also from within.

Pope John Paul II said this his life was saved on 13 May 1981 because Mary deflected the trajectory of the bullet that could have killed him. That bullet is now incorporated in the crown of the statue of Mary in Fatima. To that protecting hand of Mary, through her intercession, the Dutch bishops entrust their dioceses in this Vespers. We pray that Mary places the path of the Church and our personal lives in the protective hands of the Risen Lord, through her constant intercession. Amen.”

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The bishops were joined by numerous priests, religious, seminarians and lay faithful, filling the medieval basilica. Following the consecration, representatives of various groups lit candles at the statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

As 13 May was also the feast day of St Servatius, the first bishop in what is now the Netherlands, several bishops briefly visited the crypt where his remains lie, in the Basilica of St. Servatius, also in Maastricht. While some 130 altar servers from Germany celebrated Mass in the church above, the bishops prayed at the tomb.

 Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

Kevelaer provides a bishop again, bringing Münster back to five

This week, the Diocese of Münster saw the its full roster of auxiliary bishops, no less than five of them, completed again. And like the last time, it is the rector of the Marian Shrine of Kevelaer who gets to wear the mitre.

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^Rolf Lohmann, the newest auxiliary bishop of Münster, before the chapel in Kevelaer holding the image of Our Lady, which launched alomst four centuries of pilgrimages.

Msgr. Rolf Lohmann was appointed on Tuesday following the transfer, in April of last year, of Bishop Heinrich Timmerevers to Dresden-Meißen. As mentioned before, there is a strong tradition in German dioceses for the vicars of the various pastoral areas to be made auxiliary bishops. Münster has five of these pastoral areas, and thus also five auxiliary bishops.

Bishop-elect Lohmann will be assigned to the pastoral area of Niederrhein, the southwestern-most part of the diocese, adjacent to the Dutch diocese of Roermond and ‘s-Hertogenbosch (and a small part of the Archdiocese of Utrecht). This includes the old cities of Kleve, Wesel and Xanten, as well as Kevelaer, the major pilgrimage site dedicated to the Blessed Virgin in northwestern Germany, which continues to draw large numbers of pilgrims.

The new auxiliary bishop was ordained in 1989 and served in various parishes until 1997, when he was appointed as rector of the shrine of St. Ida in Lippetal-Herzfeld. In 2007 he became a member of the cathedral chapter and in 2011 he succeeded the then newly-appointed auxiliary Bishop Stefan Zekorn as rector of Kevelaer.

Bishop-elect Lohmann enjoys a close friendship with another auxiliary bishop of Münster, Wilfried Thiesing, who he succeeds in Niederrhein. Bishop Thiesing now resides in Vechta as episcopal vicar for the northern Oldenburg area, but comes from Niederrhein. The friendship between Thiesing in the north and Lohmann in the south should serve to bring the diocese closer together, Bishop Thiesing joked.

The appointment comes at a special time for Msgr. Lohmann. As rector of Kevelaer he has been preparing and looking forward to the 375th anniversary of the Kevelaer pilgrimage, to be celebrated at the end of May and beginning of June. With his new assignment, his role in that celebration will be different than he expected. Bishop-elect Lohmann considers the pilgrimage to be the future of the Church. As bishop, he wishes to continue contributing to a renaissance of pilgrims.

As bishop, Msgr. Lohmann will hold the titular see of Gor, in modern Tunisia. A date for his consecration is yet to be announced, but it will robably be before the summer holidays. Canon law dictates that a bishop must be consecrated within three months after the announcement of his appointment.

Photo credit: Michael Bönte

“He is with us!” Bishop Van Looy looks at ahead to the turning point of Easter

In a letter for Easter, published yesterday, Bishop Luc Van Looy of Ghent presents a hopeful message about the turning point that is Easter, and especially Maundy Thursday, the day, this year on 13 April, on which we commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. He draws from the Easter events as described by St. John the Evangelist (and plainly calls St. Mary Magdalene an Apostle).

The events of Easter, we Christians believe, are a turning point in history. We call them the Holy Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. But it is not limited to these three days. The arc of this entire period spans from the confusing entrace of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday up to and including the Ascension and Pentecost. Where is the heart of these days? Obviously in the overwhelming experience of the empty tomb and later of the appearances of Jesus. But there are also the Last Supper and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. According to tradition, both events took place in the Cenacle, the upper room where the disciples prepared the pascal meal upon Jesus’ request (Mark 14:15) and where they habitually spent their time after Jesus’ death (Acts 1:13), and perhaps where, fifty days after Easter, they were also together on the feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). There the Spirit came down on them in the presence of Mary and others, there they opened doors and windows towards the future, there the Church was born. Also according to tradition, the Cenacle lies above the grave of David, linking the Old and the New Testament.

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Turning point

But let us return to the period from Maundy Thursday to Easter. The events are inseparable. The Last Supper opens onto suffering and death, the burial in the tomb onto the ressurection, the empty grave opens onto the encounter with the Apostle Mary Magdalen and with the disciples. The appearances open onto the ultimate reunion of Jesus with His Father and the coming of the Spirit. I consider what takes place on Maundy Thursday to be a turning point. After the tense entrance into Jerusalem the events of Maundy Thursday reveal the true meaning of the incarnation. Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. The Master becomes a servant.

He remains with us!

At the same time, Maundy Thursday points ahead to the resurrection. He remains with us, under the appearance of bread and wine. He will stay with us forever, which becomes clear in His prayer at supper: “Father, the hour has come. Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you, just as you gave him authority over all people, so that he may give eternal life to all you gave him. Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:1-3). Then, when he says in His prayer over His disciples, that He “sent them into the world”, it becomes clear this His mission involves all of humanity. He already implied this in the blessing of the bread and the wine: “Do this in memory of me”. A new history begins, He remains with us. “I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them” (John 17:26).

Past, present and future

For Christians these are no events from a distant past. They ground us in the present, in what happens in the world today. It often seems as if God has disappeared from our world. With Jesus, we sometimes desperately wonder if God has abandoned us. We also better understand what Jesus meant when he predicated that His disciples would also have their share of difficulties: “No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (John 15:20).

Dear friends,

as workers in the vineyard of the Lord nothing surprises us anymore. The friends of Jesus were also afraid, they gave up in despair and disillusion, like the two on the road to Emmaus. But what matter is that they came back after a period of despair and fear. The attraction of their Lord was so strong that they no longer feared the rulers, that Peter spoke plainly about Jesus, even when he was imprisoned for it. The story of Paul who travelled across the world as it was known then to speak about the resurrection of Christ can only be cause for amazement. He was precisely the one among the Apostles who had never known Jesus personally. Resistance could not deter him from his conviction that Jesus lived. And in these difficult times His world resounds again, full of hope: “So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:22).

Resurrection means that He is waiting for us. The joy that we will experience in the coming days, then, comes from His presence: His body and blood are food for eternal life. His word confirms the love that the Father has for us. He precedes us to Galilee, as a missionary on the road with his followers.

I wish you a happy and hopeful Holy Week and a faith-strenghtening experience on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter.

+ Luc Van Looy, Bishop of Ghent

Photo credit: Bisdom Gent, Frank Bahnmüller

Answering like Mary – Cardinal De Kesel upon taking possession of his title church

On Saturday, the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, Cardinal Jozef De Kesel was in Rome, to take possession of the title church granted to him upon his creation as cardinal. The Basilica do Santi Giovanni e Paolo al Celio, its full title, in the heart of Rome, is an ancient church, a cardinal title since the sixth century, and previously held by no less than six future popes. Cardinal De Kesel devoted his homily to the question of how and why God loves us and what that means for us. The Dutch text linked to above is sprinkled with Italian quotations from Scripture, and I have copied these unchanged in my English translation below. The general gist of it should be clear enough.

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“Good friends, no one has ever seen God. The prologue at the beginning of the Gospel of John states this. God resides in inaccessible light. He does not belong to this created world. He is invisible, ineffable. He transcends everything that exists. But Scripture also tells us that He has wanted to be known. That He came to us to live among us. What’s more: to belong completely to us and share our existence. It is the point of today’s feast. He has asked Mary if she was willing to become the mother of His Son. We praise her today with the entire Church for having answered, “Avvenga per me secondo la tua parola”.

Why does God wish to reside among us? Of course, we humans also search the proximity of others. We search for support and a sense of security. No man lives for himself alone. We can’t do without others. But He is God, not a man. What, then, has He seen in us? Why does He want to be with us? What can He find with us that He doesn’t already have? And why did He choose to become like us? Scripture says that the reason is that He loves us, that we people and this creation are worth everything to Him. Out of love: that is indeed the only answer. But it doesn’t explain anything. It only invites the other question: why does He love like this? There is no answer to that question. It remains the mystery of His love. That is how God wants to be: not for Himself, but for us. That is the mystery of which Paul says that it was hidden in eternity, but has now been revealed in the incarnation of God’s Son.

It is striking in the story of the Annunciation that God does not impose Himself, He does not force, He does not want to act without man’s cooperation. He calls Mary, invites her, asks her. As is written so beautifully in the book of the Apocalypse, “Ecco, sto alla porta e busso. Se uno ascolta la mia voce e mi apre, io verro da lui.”  That is what happened with Mary: she heard God’s voice, she opened the door, and the Lord entered That is powerlessness of love. It has to knock and wait until the door is opened. Without man’s yes God remains powerless. But when man answers, everything becomes possible.

Jesus was once told that his mother and brothers were waiting for Him outside and wished to speak with Him. He then pointed to His disciples and said, “Mia madre e i miei fratelli sono coloro che ascoltano la parola di Dio e la mettono in pratica”. It is exactly what Mary did: she heard God’s word and acted accordingly. With her great faith, she not only received her Son in her body, but also in her heart.

But not everything was self-evident for her. She is greeted with those beautiful words we still express in the liturgy: “Il Signore è con te”.  That is the mystery of God’s love: that He wants to be there for us That is not self-evident. Not for us, and neither for me: those words frighten her. The angel puts her at ease: do not be afraid. And he also says why: You have found favour with God. Everything that God will ask her will be nothing but a sign of His great love. And when she is told that she will bear a Son, she still ask questions. How can this be, since I have no relations with a man? Only when she hears that that too will be the work of God’s grace does she speak her yes: May it be done to me according to your word. She did not immediately say yes, did not answer lightly. Her yes was conscious and free.

Friends, Mary is the image of the Church. We are called to do what she has done. “Mia madre e i miei fratelli sono coloro che ascoltano la parola di Dio e la mettono in pratica”. Today, too, He stands at the door and He knocks. It is the vocation of the Church and every one of us to answer, consciously and free, in word and action. That is also not self-evident for us, not without questions. We no longer live in a world and society where the Christian faith is commonplace. Modern society is increasingly characterised by secularism and pluralism. But in this society we are also called to be witnesses of God’s love. It is no wonder that we sometimes fearfully wonder, “Come avverrà questo, poiché non conosco uomo?” But the same message is addressed to the Church today, in the midst of all the questions and challenges: “non temere“. She is also told, “Hai trovato grazia presso Dio“. And she is also and always overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.

Friends, let us celebrate this feast of the Annunciation to Mary in great joy and gratitude. And also in hope and confidence. The Church is and remains called, not only to proclaim God’s word, but also to first hear it herself and act according to it. Let us be grateful for the way in which Pope Francis helps us to do so. Not a Church which closes itself off from the world and looks inwardly, but a Church which sympathises with the people, especially the poor or other victims of the globalisation of indifference. A Church that is close to people. That is precisely what we celebrate today: God who does not only want to be close to us, but even wanted to share our existence, human among humans.”

In the video, also shared by Kerknet, Cardinal De Kesel speaks about the purpose of cardinals having a title church, and also addresses the topic of his homily. Here, I share a translated transcript of his words on the first topic.

“You must known that the Pope is the local bishop of the city of Rome. He is not only the universal shepherd of the entire Church, but he is in the first place the bishop here, of his own community, of his own city. And originally, the cardinals are parish priests. That is to say, his immediate coworkers, with whom he built up the Christian community here in Rome. The College of Cardinals has of course become more international, but it has been held onto symbolically, that cardinals also always have a connection with the local church of Rome. And that is also an official title: one is a cardinal of the Roman church, not of the Roman Catholic, but of the church of Rome. And of course, that is a titular church now, as there is a parish priest here, this is a convent church, but they have wanted to symbolise the connection with the Pope, with the bishop of Rome.”

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^The coat of arms of Cardinal De Kesel adorns the facade of his title church.

“Be channels of mercy” – Pope Francis addresses Dutch pilgrims

It was the high point of a multi-day pilgrimage of some 2,000 Dutch faithful to Rome to conclude the Holy Year of Mercy. Holy Mass at St. Peter’s offered by Cardinal Eijk and other Dutch bishops, together with numerous priests and even almost 85-year-old Cardinal Adrianus Simonis, followed by a visit from Pope Francis, who addressed the pilgrims before shaking hands and greeting a number of pilgrims. Subsequently, the papal words were repeated in Dutch by a priest who had accompanied the Holy Father into St. Peter’s.

Before Pope Francis spoke, Cardinal Eijk addressed him in Italian. The English translation of his words follows below.

“Holy Father, we are here in Rome with more than two thousand pilgrims from the Netherlands. Your proclamation of the Holy Year of Mercy has resounded also in the Netherlands, in our dioceses and in our parishes. There have been celebrations of mercy in many churches, with Vespers and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, during which there was the opportunity for Confession. In this way many, including several young people, discovered or rediscovered the valuable sacrament of penance and reconcilation, an almost forgotten sacrament in the past half century in the Netherlands.

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In addition, many in our dioceses and parishes have dedicated themselves to maniest the works of mercy in various ways, but especially towards immigrants. The Dutch Bishops’ Conference has called upon all Catholics to care for immigrants as volunteers in every possible way, according to their talents and gifts. The Conference has done so at the start of the Holy Year of Mercy through her Christmas letter Hospitable Netherlands. It is reason for great joy that many have answered this call.

Holy Father, the Conference has therefore decided to make an inventory of all the best practices by which our volunteers assist immigrants, so that our parishes and our charitable work groups can learn from each other and be inspired. It is a great joy to me to give you the first copy of the the booklet, also entitled Hospitable Netherlands, which contains aforementioned best practices. Of course this booklet is written in Dutch, but we have considered you a little bit by translating the explanation of the maps of the dioceses and the icons used in this booklet into Italian.

Holy Father, on behalf of all the Dutch pilgrims gathered here I thank you for proclaiming the Holy Year of Mercy and also for receiving us so generously. We promise to also pray for your intenties, especially in these days. Holy Father, A thousand times thank you for everything.”

As the Holy Father approached the dais to speak, he was interrupted by a little boy presenting him with a bunch of yelow tulips. Of course the Pope stepped back and accepted the gift. Children come first.

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The full text of Pope Francis’ words, delivered in Italian, is available in Dutch here, and my translation follows below:

“Dear brothers and sisters,

It is a joy for me to greet you in the Basilica of St. Peter, on the occasion of the “Dutch day” in the Holy Year of Mercy. It is good that you have come together here, in a joint pilgrimage to Rome, with shepherds and faithful from all Dutch dioceses. In this way you express the vitality and community of the Church in the Netherlands and her unity with the Successor of Peter.

The Holy Year invites us to an even closer bond with Jesus Christ, the face of the Father’s mercy. It is impossible to ever fully understand this great mystery of God’s love! It is the source of our salvation: the entire world, every one of us needs mercy. It is this what saves us, gives us life, recreates us into true sons and daughters of God. And this salvific goodness of God can be experienced in a special way in the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Confession is the place where we receive the gift of God’s forgiveness and mercy. There the transformation of each of us begins, and also the transformation of the life of the Church.

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I therefore encourage you to open your hearts and let yourself be transformed by God’s mercy. In this way you will in turn become implements of mercy. Once embraced by the merciful Father who always grants us His forgiveness, you will be enabled to witness of His love in everyday life. The men and women of today thirst for God, they thirst for His goodness and love. And you too, as “channels” of mercy, can help to quench this thirst. There are so many people you can help to rediscover Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of mankind! As missionary disciples of Jesus you can “irrigate” society with the proclamation of the Gospel and with your love for your neiggbour, especially for the poorest and those people who have no one left but themselves.

I entrust you all and the entire Church in the Netherlands to the motherly protection of Blessed Mary, Mother of Mercy, and gladly give you my blessing. And please, pray also for me.”

 Photo credit: [1] Ramon Mangold, [2]AFP/Zenit, [3] Bisdom Roermond

‘From Conflict to Community’ – Nordic bishops on the eve of Pope Francis’ ecumenical visit

The members of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference – covering the countries of Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland – have written a pastoral letter looking ahead to Pope Francis’ visit to Lund and Malmö, as well as the state and future of ecumenical relations with the Lutheran church in their countries. They rightly indicate that the anniversary of the Reformation, which will begin with the events in Lund that the Pope will attend, is no reason to celebrate for Catholics.

My translation of the document, which generally aligns itself closely with ‘From Conflict to Communion’, the 1999 document in which the Catholics and Lutherans agreed on the doctrine of justification. My translation follows:

7904248_orig“In 2017 we mark an event which has had great consequences for the Christian faith, in the first place in Europe. In the year 1517 Martin Luther initiated a process which became known in history as the Reformation and which, especially for our Lutheran fellow Christians represents an important moment in the development of their ecclesiastical tradition and identity. But since the Reformation would have been impossible without the Catholic basis, it is appropriate that we, as Catholic Christians, also think about it. That is already expressed in the document ‘From conflict to communion’, the result of dialogue in the Lutheran-Catholic Commission for the Unity of the Church. This tekst is directed towards a common commemoration, which is based on reflection rather than triumphalism.

Despite all explainable reasons, the Reformation caused a split in Christianity, which remains painful to this day. In the Nordic countries this split meant that the Catholic Church could only start again after many centuries. That is why the 500th anniversary of the event of the Reformation can not be observed as a celebration in the true sense. Rather it should be recalled in contrition. The process of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the churches of the Reformation began many decades ago. But we can not tire of striving for the full unity in Christ.

At the start of the 16th century, the Catholic Church was in need of reform, something that not only Martin Luther, but also others acknowledged and expressed at that time. But instead of dealing with the necessary doctrinal questions, Christians of different confessions have instead done much harm to each other. At the closing of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Pope Francis prayed for “mercy and forgiveness for the unevangelical behaviour of Catholics towards other Christians”. In Sweden several Lutheran ministers have responded to that and also asked us Catholics for forgiveness.

The important questions is now, how we can continue together to come closer together in faith, in hope and in love? We, the Catholic bishops in the north of Europe, want to go on this path of reconciliation with our Lutheran brothers and sisters and do everything to promote unity.

Ecclesia semper reformanda

The Church must always let herself be converted and renewed by Christ. We are indeed a holy people, but a people of sinners on pilgrimage to eternity. Conversion, contrition and maturing in the faith are important stations on this path. Through the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church opened herself to many things that are also important to Lutheran Christians, for example the role of Holy Scripture and the meaning of the priesthood of all baptised. Thus, many difference have actually disappeared.

What still divides is, among other things, the sacramentality of the Church, as well as the understanding of the sacrament and the office. As Catholics we believe that the Church is the fundamental sacrament in which the incardinated word becomes present through the sacraments, in order to unite with us in love and transform us in Himself.

At the same time we see that many faithful Lutheran Christians become increasingly open to these aspects. A questions that remains pending and which is painfully felt on both sides is that of the common Eucharist. As much as this desired is justified, the unity of the Lord’s Table must also reflect the full unity in faith.

The Petrine office is also difficult to understand for many Lutheran Christians. But the personality of Pope Francis has made it more understandable. Pope Saint John Paul II already invited all non-Catholic Christians to think about other ways of  exercising the Petrine office (Ut Unum Sint, N.95).

Traditionally, the role of Mary and the saints has also been contentious. But among many non-Catholic Christians the meaning of Mary as the Mother of God and example in faith is being re-acknowledged.

Despite the mutual approach in question of doctrine, greater differences in questions of ethics and morality have recently appeared. But even when these make the dialogue in some respects more difficult, it should not be given up.

Definition of the Christian faith

In all ages Christians have formulated teachings to clearly define doctrine, distinguish them from false ideas or to convey them intelligebly. Often such formulations evolved into bones of contention, which for a long time created great frontlines between Christians. The principles of the reformers were similarly divided for many centuries. It is nevertheless fruitful, also for Catholics, to constructively engage with them.

Sola fide

The faith is undoubtedly necessary for justification. We share the central mysteries of the faith – for example, about the Trinity, about Jesus Christ, about salvation and justification – with our Lutheran brothers and sisters. We rejoice in this unity of faith which is based in baptism and expressed in the joint declaration about justification. That is why it is our mission to be witnesses of these truths of faith in our secular society. In our Nordic countries, where few practice their faith, it is important to proclaim the good news together and with one voice.

Sola Scriptura

Only through Holy Scripture can we receive the full revelation about the salvation which is offered to us in Christ. This revelation in received and shared in the Church. Through the teaching office of the Church this living tradition in Holy Scripture is codified. For us Catholics Church, teaching, tradition and Scripture belong together. In the Church and with the Church, Scripture is opened for us.  In this way the faith becomes ever more alive for us. Recently the number of Lutheran Christians who agree with  us believe that Scripture and the tradition of the Church are closely connected, has been on the rise.

Sola gratia

“Everything is mercy”, the saintly Doctor of the Church Thérèse of Lisieux, who can be considered as the Catholic answer to Martin Luther, says. Without God’s mercy we can do nothing good. Without His mercy we can not come to eternal life. Only through God’s mercy can we be justified and holy. Mercy can truly transform us, but we must also respond to this mercy and work alongside it. In the Mother of God, Mary, full of mercy and immaculate, we see how much can God can do in a person.

For many Lutheran Christians it is still difficult to agree with this truth. But we also see that many of them are open to similar questions about growth in prater and in holiness.

Simul iustus et peccator

We are all at the same time justified and sinners. As Catholics we believe that we are really sinners; but through the mercy of God we can receive forgiveness of all guilt in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. As baptised Christians we are called to holiness. The Church is a school of holiness. The saints, who we can ask to intercede for us, are shining examples and role models of this holiness. One of these role models is a woman from our countries, Saint Elisabeth Hesselblad, who was recently canonised. She is an incentive to all of us to go the way of holiness more consciously.

We see that many Lutherans are also open to the saints, such as, for example, Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In our secularised world we need such witnesses of faith. They are living and credible witnesses of our faith.

Martyrium

We know that also in our time many Christians are persecuted for their faith and that there are also many blood witnesses. Martyrdom unites Christians from various churches. We think of all Christians, also in the Middle East, who are persecuted and yet remain true to Christ and His Church. Their example also strengthens us in our faith. Many Christians from these countries have also come to us in the north. it is therefore important that we, all Christians in our countries, maintain, protect and deepen what we share in faith. Then we can also increasingly give and common witness of the risen Lord.

Future perspectives

The joint declaration ‘From conflict to communion’ closes with five ecumenical imperatives, suggested to us Catholics and Lutherans to take further steps on the common way to unity. They are:

  1. Beginning from a perspective of unity and not of division, and promoting what we have in common.
  2. At the same time allowing oneself to be transformed by the witness of the other.
  3. Committing oneself to the search for visible unity.
  4. Rediscovering jointly the power of the Gospel of Christ for our time.
  5. Witness together of the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

Also when these five imperatives speak of great and not always simple concerns, their message is clear, but only when we devote outself completely to Christ and together rediscover the power of the Gospel (cf. 4th imperative).

We are happy and thank God that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, will be coming to Lund on the occasion of the commemoration of the Reformation, to strengthen us in faith.

We therefore invite all Catholics to accompany the preparations for the papal visit with their prayer and to participate in as great a number as possible in both the ecumenical meeting in Malmö Arena and the Mass in Swedbank Stadion. In that way we will show both the joy, as Catholics, of being with Pope Francis, and also respect for the identity of our Lutheran fellow Christians, grown from the Reformation. Despite the still existing differences we are convinced, confident in the mercy of God, that ways towards common unity can be found.

On the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila, 15 October 2016

+ Czeslaw Kozon, Bishop of Copenhagen

+ Anders Arborelius OCD, Bishop of Stockholm

+ Bernt Eidsvig Can. Reg, Bishop of Oslo, Administrator of Trondheim

+ David Tencer OFM Cap, Bishop of Reykjavik

+ Teemu Sippo SCJ, Bishop of Helsinki

+ Berislav Grgic, Bishop-Prelate of Tromsø

+ Gerhard Schwenzer SS.CC., Bishop emeritus of Oslo”

csm_vollversammlung_01_37cd1858a6^Bishops Grgic, Sippo, Eidsvig, Kozon, Arborelius and Tencer, with Sr Anna Mirijam Karschner CPS, the general secretary of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference.