One more day in Sweden – papal visit extended

The papal visit to Sweden has been extended from one to two days, the Diocese of Stockholm recently announced. Pope Francis will not only be marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with the Lutheran World Federation on 31 October in Lund, but he will also celebrate All Saints in Lund on 1 November. We may assume that this is because of the wish of many Catholics that the Holy Father not only come for the non-Catholic Christians but also for the growing Catholic Church in Sweden and all of Scandinavia.

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^Pope Francis and Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm, photographed before the canonisation Mass of Swedish Saint Maria Elisabeth Hesselblad, 5 June 2016. Bishop Arborelius will be the Catholic host of the Holy Father in October.

The plans as they exist now, as outlined on the website of the Scandinavian bishops’ conference, include the Reformation service in Lund’s Lutheran cathedral (which will be broadcast live on Swedish television), and a three-hour meeting with the Pope for a broader audience (with a special focus on the young) in Malmö Arena, Sweden’s second largest indoor arena which can house up to 15,000 people, on 31 October. On 1 November Pope Francis will celebrate Mass for the feast of All Saints in Lund. The location for this Mass has not been revealed yet.

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Malmö Arena (pictured above) is located in an industrial and shopping area south of the city of Malmö. Not the most appealing of places, certainly not when compared to the charm of the old city. But, when drawing tens of thousands of people, needs must, as they say.

Photo credit: [1] Osservatore Romano, [2] malmotown.com

Bishop Ernst marks 75 years of priesthood

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He is the nestor of the Dutch episcopate, and at 99 years of age Msgr. Huub Ernst is the 8th oldest bishop in the world today. Last Tuesday he marked the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, with a solemn Mass in the cathedral of St. Anthony* in Breda, the same church were he offered his first Mass in 1941. As the retired bishop of Breda is confined to a motorised wheelchair, he concelebrated the Mass, which was offered by Breda’s current bishop, Msgr. Jan Liesen. They were joined by Bishop Hans van den Hende, bishop of Breda from 2007 to 2011, as well as the current and retired vicars general of the diocese.

Bishop Ernst was one of two priests ordained by Bishop Petrus Hopmans on 7 June 1941. After two years working in the parish he was called to a life of study, education and management. He was vicar general under Bishop Gerard de Vet (bishop of Breda from 1962 to 1967) and succeeded him upon his untimely death. Bishop Ernst, considered a progressive (but not so much that the liberal 8 May Movement did not succeed in alienating him) but also a wise and well-spoken theologian, would remain in office until 1992, followed by an uncommonly long two and a half years as apostolic administrator, until Martinus Muskens was appointed as his successor in late 1994.

After his retirement, Bishop Ernst remained available for certain important events. Not only did he consecrate Bishop Muskens in 1994, but he was also one of the co-consecrators of Muskens’ successor, Hans van den Hende, in 2006. Bishop Ernst has lived long enough to see three bishops succeed him and survived his immediate successor. In 2007 he condemned the proposal of the Dominicans to have lay people be given the possibility to offer Mass as “incorrect, senseless and not the right solution”. In 2010 he was called to testify in a sexual abuse case, claiming that important information was withheld from him when he was asked to appoint a Salesian priest who would later abuse again, after which Bishop Ernst fired him.

While Bishop Ernst is one of the oldest living bishops, he is even higher on the list of most senior bishops by ordination to the priesthood. Only four living bishops were ordained before Bishop Ernst, and among them is another bishop from the Dutch language area. He is Belgian-born Bishop Jan Van Cauwelaert. Now at the age of 102, this Antwerp-born prelate of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was vicar apostolic and later bishop of Inongo, now in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

About his current life, Bishop Ernst said:

“When I had to end my duties because of my age, I experienced that, while possessing a clear mind, I was definitely losing my physical strength. I concluded from that that my task would now be to stand in my own life for what I looked for in the offices. Experiencing this, I said, “Chaplain again, invisibly present. Without this being expressed amid the others who believe. The images I carry with me from my time in the chaplaincy express the relationship in which we live. It is a life of gratitude.””

*It wasn’t the cathedral back then, although it had been between 1853 and 1876, and has been again since 2001.

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

End of a chapter – Dachau’s last priest prisoner dies

At the age of 102 Father Hermann Scheipers passed away last night. He was the last surviving priest of Dachau concentration camp.

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Fr. Hermann Scheipers in 2011, photographed in Dresden on the occasion of the beatification of Alojs Andritzki, who was killed in Dachau in 1943. Fr. Scheipers and Blessed Alojs were both in the camp’s sickbay with typhoid fever for some time.

Domradio has an obituary, written by Andreas Otto, which I share in English below:

As prisoner ‘number 24255’ Hermann Scheipers survived hell in Dachau concentration camp. Nevertheless, the priest and enemy of the Nazis survived, to die now at the age of 102.

Hermann Scheipers had a mission. He had to tell young people of that time: how he, as a young priest in 1940, was arrested by the Nazis and taken to Dachau concentration camp, how he survived the war and how he was once again oppressed, this time by the communist dictatorship in the German Democratic Republic. How he survived that time, too, he continuously impressed upon his listeners. On Thursday night Scheipers died in Ochtrup, aged 102. He was the last surviving German clergyman to have been imprisoned in Dachau.

In the Nazi eye

Scheipers hails from Ochtrup in Münsterland. As there were too many priests there in the 1930s, he decided to go to Bautzen in the middle German diaspora. There Scheipers, born on 24 July 1913, was ordained to the priesthood, and began working in the rural parish of Hubertusburg. Apparentry with some success. His self-assured Catholic work among the youth drew the attention of the Nazis. Because he was sympathetic with Polish forced labourers, celebrated Mass with them and heard their confessions, he was arrested on October of 1940 and brought to Dachau concentration camp five months later. His file, which he came across by chance,  states the true reason for his arrest: “Scheipers is a fanatical proponent of the Catholic Church and thus likely to cause unrest among the population.”

‘Number 24255’

The priest is – especially denigrating – taken to Dachau together with criminals. During the transport one of them wonders, “Well, did you sing out of tune from the pulpit?” Scheipers survived hell as prisoner ‘number 24255’. “You are without honour, without help and without rights. Here, you can either work or perish,” the camp commander welcomes the new inmates. Like many of the priests in Dachau, Scheipers slaves away as a field worker, receiving mostly watery soup to eat. Persons who aren’t fast enough are whipped, hung by the arms or drenched with icy water. Many die. “The only thing one could do was escape or pray,” Scheipers recalled.

Escaping the gas chamber

In 1942 an attack of weakness brings him close to his own murder. His twin sister Anna travels to Berlin, to the Reich security offices and bluffs to the head of the priest department: Everywhere in Münsterland people are saying that her brother is to be gassed. And if it comes to that, the Catholics there will not accept it… This civil courage has effect: he escapes the gas chamber.

Amid all the danger, Scheipers is aware of God’s help, even at that time. “I noticed this closeness frequently.” He can not forget how a fellow priest gave him his ration of bread before he was transported towards his death. “Everytime when I celebrate Mass and break the bread, I think of that.” In April of 1945, Scheipers finally manages to escape from a death march towards Bad Tölz.

15 Spies in the DDR

After the war he returns to his former place of work. As a priest in the Diocese of Dresden-Meißen he resists those in power in the unjust GDR state. When Scheipers sees his Stasi file after the fall of communism, he has a big scare. 15 Spies were set on his case.  The papers show that a trial against him for distributing subversive propaganda was to be convened. “I was in Dachau for the exact same reasons,” Scheipers commented.

After his retirement Scheipers lives in Münsterland again, from where he travels again and again, despite the discomforts of age, to speak about his experience as a contemporary witness.

Of this his multiple-edition book ‘Gratwanderungen – Priester unter zwei Diktaturen’ [Balancing act – Priest under two dictatorships] – also speaks. This too is a  witness of his unshakeable faith, which he sees expressed in a word from Romano Guardini: “Security in what comes last gives serenity in what comes before.”

Dachau housed virtually all of the clerical prisoners of the Nazi regime: 2,720 clergy were imprisoned there, with the vast majority, 95%, being Catholic. As Fr. Scheipers’ story shows,the Nazis needed little excuse to arrest priests. The Church was a serious opponent to the National Socialist rulers who accepted loyalty to the party and Adolf Hitler alone. Many of the Catholic clergy prisoners have since been beatified, among them Blesseds Titus Brandsma, Bernhard Lichtenberg, Karl Leisner and the aforementioned Alojs Andritzki.

Fr. Hermann Scheipers’ death is a bookend to a formative period in recent history, not only of Europe, but certainly also of the Catholic Church and its relationship to state and government.

“Farewell diocese” – Bishop de Korte says goodbye

While the Mass for his installation as bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch has begun, here is my translation of Bishop Gerard de Korte’s final message to the faithful of Groningen-Leeuwarden, the diocese he leaves behind:

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“On Monday 29 February, around 10:30, the Papal Nuncio, Msgr. Aldo Cavalli, rang and asked if he could come to Groningen that day. He wanted to discuss an “important topic”. I knew then that it would be about the succession of Bishop Hurkmans of Den Bosch. And my intuition was confirmed that afternoon. The Nuncio told me that Pope Francis had appointed me as the new bishop of Den Bishop. The news led to some necessary chaos, both for me as for many faithful in our diocese.

In september of 2008 I was installed in the cathedral as bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden. Despite all sorts of great and small concerns – when is our earthly life ever without clouds? – I look back on the years behind me with gratitude. A few years ago, the downsizing of the diocesan offices caused many concerns. Especially the letting go of several respected employees, solely for economic reasons, was a difficult but also necessary decision.

A lot has happened in the past years. Almost automatically, I recall the merger of parishes and caritas groups. After a long period of preparation and a broad consultation of pastoral teams and parish councils, the decision was made in autumn of 2011 to merge the 80 parishes into some 20 new parishes. This process must be completed on 1 January 2018. Starting point is the vision to combine administrative upscaling with pastoral downsizing. In the large diocese of the north we must try and maintain as many of the 80 faith communities as possible. In my letter “The years of truth” (January 2015) I made a distinction between church building and faith community. When it is no longer possible to maintain a church building, but the local faith community is still (relatively…) alive, the faithful can choose to continue coming together for the liturgy and other activities. The core thought here is: keeping the Church as close to the faithful as possible.

By now, I have moved to ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Moving is an exercise in the art of letting go. I have to say goodbye to a nice house, a great team of coworkers and so many other good people. In recent days I have spoken of an Abrahamic experience. Like the father of our faith I must leave the good and familiar country and go into the unknown in the hope that it will be good to be there as well. By the way, I am confident that I will soon find a true home again in Den Bosch.

You will go on as Catholics of the north. A small but conscious minority. I gladly repeat the call from my letter “The years of truth”: Catholics, take your responsibility. You are called to manifest the faith of your baptism. Pope Francis urges Catholics not to remain hidden in the sacristy or church building. Vital faith communities are missionary communities with open doors. All things being equal, we gather in out church buildings for the celebration of the Eucharist and other forms of liturgy. This feeds our soul and gives us the strength to give form to the imitation of Christ in our daily lives. Pope Francis frequently speaks of a Church which looks towards all of society. A Church that prefers to be dirty because she has spent too much time in the streets, instead of sick because she has been inside too much.

Finally, I would invite you to pray for each other. Hopefully you are willing to pray for the success of my new mission in the south. My task will not always be easy, but much is possible in the power of God’s Spirit. In the south I pray for wisdom for Pope Francis and all who are preparing the appointment of a new bishop. I hope for a new bishop who will work for a warm and hospitable Church around Christ as our living Lord. I wish you all the best and God’s  blessing. Continue on the path of faith, hope and especially love “trusting in Christ”.

+ Msgr. Dr. Gerard De Korte”

Photo credit: Ramon Mangold

For clarity – Pope Francis and female deacons

deacon ordinationPope Francis’ recent suggestion that a commission should be formed to study the form and fucntion of female deacons in the early Church (with, one would think, an eye on their possible re-introduction into the life of the Church today) has led to much enthusiasm and outrage, both for all the wrong reasons.

The papal comments came as an answer to the question if the permanent diaconate could not be open to men and women alike. It being a spontaneous question-and-answer session, the Holy Father obviously did not have all the necessary information at the ready, so he chose to share what he recalled from conversations with a Syrian theologian he used to meet in Rome, well before he became Pope.

And those recollections immediately point out some of the problems in equating male and theoretical female deacons. The latter’s role was found in sensitive and private situations between women: baptism, which at that time was performed by full immersion, but also cases in which a woman would have to present the physical evidence of an abusive husband! The differences with the duties of a male deacon – who has financial and charitable responsibilities, as well as clearly-defined duties in the liturgy of the Mass – are clear.

A 2002 study by the International Theological Commission, summarised here, also states this, and further reaffirms the unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders – the grades of deacon, priest and bishop. A deacon is, at least in theory, able to be ordained as priest and bishop. The Church only has the authority to ordain men, not women (as Pope Francis has pointed out more than once), so in regard to the sacrament, female deacons are not possible.

Many of the duties of a deacon can be performed perfectly well by a woman. In fact, as Father Dwight Longenecker points out, in many parishes, women are already in charge of finances and run the charitable efforts of the community. You don’t need to be ordained for that. Pope Francis is not wrong when he started his answer with the half-joke that the female deacons of the Church are the religious sisters.

That leaves the duties for which ordination is a prerequisite: the liturgy of Holy Mass, such as, for example, reading the Gospel and giving the homily. Here, the deacon or priest does not do anything for himself: he performs the duties of proclamation and teaching of Christ. He is an alter Christus. The Church teaches that this is no act or show, but a sacramental reality, which we are asked to acknowledge in faith.

Some have chosen to see Pope Francis willingness to look into this matter as evidence that he wants female deacons, which is a ridiculous conclusion to draw. By that reasoning, Pope St. John Paul II wanted the same thing when he asked to International Theological Commission to study the matter…

Pope Francis said he wants clarification in this matter, and a conclusion along the lines of the 2002 study is no less a clarification than one that says, yes, there can be female deacons. But, it has to be said, all signs indicate that we should not expect the latter conclusion to be drawn.

Comings and goings – two dioceses prepare for a new bishop

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In preparation for Saturday’s installation, Bishop Gerard de Korte’s (redesigned) coat of arms is placed above the cathedra in the cathedral basilica of St. John the Evangelist in ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

In a couple more days, ‘s-Hertogenbosch will have its new bishop while Groningen-Leeuwarden will welcome its temporary diocesan administrator. This administrator, most likely vicar general Msgr. Peter Wellen, is to manage current affairs in the diocese until the new bishop arrives. The next step of the selection of that new bishop now lies with the Nuncio, Archbishop Aldo Cavalli. The cathedral chapter of Groningen-Leeuwarden has sent him their list of three candidates, the so-called terna, and it is the Nuncio’s task to collect information on the men on it, as well as collecting the advice and suggestions of the others bishops in the country. The list and information will then be sent to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, after which Pope Francis will make the final choice. For now, I expect one of the auxiliary bishops of Utrecht, Herman Woorts or Theodorus Hoogenboom, to come to Groningen-Leeuwarden. Yes, that is slight change in previous ideas on my part.

Whoever it will be, his appointment will probably take place after the summer, which means that the diocese’s major annual event, the St. Boniface Days in Dokkum on 10 to 12 June, will happen without a resident bishop. Under Bishop de Korte, this event has seen a significant development, and this year it will for the first time expand beyond Catholic boundaries, containing a significant ecumenical element in the participation of local Protestant churches. Bishop de Korte will attend and offer the Mass at the procession park in Dokkum on the final day. He may also participate in the preceding procession, but an episcopal presence is at least assured in the person of Bishop Karlheinz Diez, auxiliary of Fulda. Both Groningen-Leeuwarden and Fulda have events dedicated to St. Boniface, being the places where he was respectively killed and lies buried, and Bishop de Korte has previously attended the Fulda festivities.

Groningen-Leeuwarden, in the mean time, has taken every opportunity in bidding their beloved bishop farewell, not least during the diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes earlier this month, as well as in a special edition of the diocesan magazine.

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Photo credit [1] Ramon Mangold, [2] Marlies Bosch

Palm Sunday – The inevitability of the Passion

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It’s Palm Sunday, which means Holy Week has begun. In the Gospel reading at Mass we heard the entire Easter narrative, from the Last Supper to Jesus’ entombment – we’ll go over the same events in the course of this week, especially from Thursday onwards. But today we especially marked Jesus’ joyful entrance in Jerusalem:

“Jesus proceeded on his journey up to Jerusalem. As he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples. He said, “Go into the village opposite you, and as you enter it you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it here. And if anyone should ask you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you will answer, ‘The Master has need of it.’”
So those who had been sent went off  and found everything just as he had told them. And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them,  “Why are you untying this colt?” They answered, “The Master has need of it.”
So they brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks over the colt, and helped Jesus to mount. As he rode along, the people were spreading their cloaks on the road; and now as he was approaching the slope of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of his disciples
began to praise God aloud with joy for all the mighty deeds they had seen.
They proclaimed: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He said in reply, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!””

Gospel of Luke 19:28-40

This is the reading we heard at the start of Mass. In many places, the faithful then processed into Church, carrying palm branches, so recreating the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem. It’s more than symbolism, of course, as Jesus is not just symbolically with us, but in a very real way: it is good to remember that every now and then in the way we behave around Him. If only we wouldn’t change our mind so quickly as the people in Jerusalem did in those faithful days leading up to His Passion. From “Hossanah” to “Crucify Him!” just like that…

The text from the Gospel of Luke above has a distinct sense of things falling into place. Jesus seems to know exactly what needs to be done, as well as what otherwise complete strangers will say and do. Later on, as Jesus prays on the Mount of Olives, we find out more about this inevitability: He ask that this cup be taken from Him, but “not my will, but yours be done”. Jesus knows what needs to be done, and also why: to redeem the people of God, to take all their pain and suffering upon His shoulders, so that they don’t  have to, and accept all the consequences… He is to do what they, we, can’t. What was our death now becomes His. The events we read above seem to prefigure that: it is inevitable that a colt be found, that the owner be told the Master needs it (and that he accepts it), and even the praise is unavoidable. The Pharisees who complain about it are told that if the disciples don’t praise God, the stones will: For what is about to happen, God deserves praise which can’t  be stopped.

Strangely enough, we read nothing here about the people of Jerusalem cheering and waving palm fronds: it is the disciples who are doing the praising and spreading their cloaks on the ground before the colt on which Jesus rides. In the other Gospels, especially in those of John and Matthew, we do read about people coming out of the city to meet and accompany Him. By focussing solely on the disciples, Luke emphasises the contrast between them and Jerusalem: there is a sense of hostility in the city already. The first thing we encounter there are Pharisees almost ordering that Jesus tell His disciples off for their joy. There is jubilation and praise, certainly, but all is not as happy as it seems. The coming days will show exactly how hostile things will become…

Photo credit: Catholic News Agency