60 years a priest – Cardinal Simonis looks back and ahead

Simonis 60 jaar kardinaal Simonis klCongratulations to Cardinal Adrianus Johannes Simonis, who yesterday celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination in Utrecht’s cathedral of St. Catherine. The 85 year-old cardinal was archbishop of Utrecht from 1983 to 2007 and his successor, Cardinal Willem Eijk, invited him to mark the milestone in his former cathedral, the mother church, in a way, of the entire Dutch Church province.

The fact that Cardinal Eijk had invited Cardinal Simonis, and spoke words of praise about the jubilarian’s life and work in one of the most turbulent periods in recent history for the Church in the Netherlands, may well be seen as some evidence of reconciliation between the two prelates. Following Cardinal Eijk’s arrival in Utrecht in 2008 there had been ruffled feathers because of major changes enforced by Cardinal Eijk in the running of the archdiocese and differences in style and personality between both cardinals. Yesterday, however, Cardinal Eijk concluded his address as follows:

Simonis 60 jaar receptie toespraak kl“In all these developments you always remained true to your motto, which you also quoted in your homily in this morning’s Eucharist: “Ut cognoscant te,” “That they may know you.” The goal of your entire priestly life was and still is that people will get to know and meet Christ, the Good Shepherd, who calls himself “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Through Him we come to the Father. In imitation of Jesus you sacrificed much to bring the people entrusted to your pastoral care to the full truth in the Risen Lord. We are and remain very grateful to you for that. Now that we are celebration the 60th anniversary of your ordination to the priesthood, we pray that the Lord may bless you abundantly.”

At the start of the Mass Cardinal Simonis already referred to Cardinal Eijk’s kind words, and played them a bit down, saying:

I must, however, admit that I have been far from a perfect priest, let alone a perfect bishop in the 47 years of those 60. We are only reconciled if we ask God for forgiveness and continuously return to Him. More than even, I want to pray today for this forgiveness. God has been wonderfully merciful to me for sixty years, but I want to admit to Him and you how much I have failed in even fulfilling this grace. May God be merciful to me and may he grant that we will be together in this hour, in His Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth, of love and of peace.”

In his homily, which, he says, he was advised to make more like a witness than a speech, Cardinal Simonis looked back on his life, often comparing the past with the present.

“The tragedy of my life – if I am allowed to put it like that – is the fact that [religious knowledge among the people] is extremely lacking. […] Roughly half of the Dutch population considers themselves irreligious, while the other half includes many ‘somethingists’. You often hear, “I believe there is something”. That’s it for our Good Lord! The Father and the Son reduced to ‘something’! Sadly, we live in a time of radical secularisation, which in essence means ‘getting rid of God’. There is barely room for God, let alone a personal God. Many have traded faith for indifference, despite the tireless warnings from Pope Francis at the Wednesday audiences. And if there is anything that is clear from the Gospel, from Jesus’ preaching, it is that God is a personal God. The boundless secret of God, simply described by Jesus as “Our God, who art in heaven.”

He continues on a more personal note on this topic:

“How am I under all this? Well, it is the great dark side of my life as priest and bishop. In a manner of speaking, I get up with it in the morning and go to bed with it at night. The only thing I can do now is pray that the Holy Spirit perform the miracle of conversion and true religious renewal.

Isn’t all this too pessimistic? Msgr. Jansen [first bishop of Rotterdam, who Cardinal Simonis succeeded as bishop in 1970] one told me, “You are a pessimist”. I answered him, “No, monsignor, I am a realist”. Upon which he said, “That’s what all pessimists say”. Now, I must admit that the virtue of hope is not my strongest virtue. Which is a disgrace for a Christian, to be honest! That is why I pray multiple times a day for strengthening of faith, hope and love, both for myself and for the more than 400,000 faithful I was able to pass on the Spirit to.”

It being Corpus Christi, and the Eucharist being the heart of the priestly life, Cardinal Simonis unavoidably spoke about the first and foremost of sacraments.

When, in the 1960s, the focus rather one-sidedly shifted from the Eucharist as sacrifice to the Eucharist as meal, Cardinal Alfrink [Archbishop of Utrecht from 1955 to 1975] wrote an article that I have always rememberd: “The Eucharist is, in the first place, a sacrifice in the form of a meal.” That is how I still celebrate the Eucharist, primarily as a sacrfice, sacrifice of reconciliation, of adoration, of supplication and of gratitude; the sacrifice of the new covenant for the forgiveness of all sins. We no longer need to sacrifice bulls, sheep or lambs to God. The one sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, of He who Paul so strikingly calls “the self-giving”, is enough for God. In Him, God’s love was fulfilled completely. That sacrifice was made one, but it is hidden in God’s eternal ‘now’, from which it is made present among us ever anew, so that we people who live some 2,000 years later, can join in that sacrifice and take part in its fruits.”

The cardinal concludes with an earnest desire for the future:

“I have no greater wish than that those who call themselves believers will sanctify the Day of the Lord again by celebrating, if possible, the Eucharist. There will be little future for the Church in the Netherlands when our faith is not continuously nourished by the proclamation of the Word of the God and the reception of the Lord Himself as nourishment for our lives.”

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Concelebrating the Mass with Cardinal Simonis were Cardinal Eijk and his two auxiliary bishop, Msgrs. Hoogenboom and Woorts, as well as Bishops Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Ron van den Hout of Groningen-Leeuwarden and Wiertz of Roermond. From Germany came Cardinal Joachim Meisner, emeritus of Cologne, and from Rome Msgr. Karel Kasteel, former secretary of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum”. Bishops de Jong and Hendriks attended the reception.

Photo credit: Archdiocese of Utrecht

Outreach – Bishop de Korte explains why his cathedral hosts a prayer service to open a gay pride event

Recently trickling into international Catholic media was the planned ecumenical prayer service at ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s cathedral basilica of St. John the Evangelist, planned expressly to open the annual Pink Saturday gay pride event. There has been much concern and criticism that a catholic church, a cathedral even, is used in a manifestitation that revolves around something that is so at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Some feared that the service could be construed as a form of support of the extravagant lifestyle so often associated with pride manifestations.

Following the first meeting of his new presbyteral council, and upon that council’s request, Bishop Gerard de Korte has written the following letter to not only explain the reasoning behind holding the prayer service, but also to delve into the Catholic Church’s teachings surrounding homosexuality and the balance between doctrine and life.

It is a careful letter, but one that should be admired for the bishop’s sensitive treatment of the issue, and attitude that is often lacking in debates about this issue. The bishop acknowledges his own duties as shepherd and has stressed that the prayer service can not contain anything that is contrary to Catholic doctrine.

In the end, the cathedral administrator and the bishop have made one of two choices. They could have kept far away from any acknowledgement of the pride events taking place in their city, or they could have taken the bold step towards some form of dialogue. They have chosen the latter. A prayer service is in the first place about meeting God, the bishop argues, and not supporting or protesting anything.

The location, St. John’s, is also striking since in 2010 it was the site of protests, supported by gay right activists and even some politicians, during Mass against the denial of Holy Communion to a practising homosexual.

bisschop-de-korte“Brothers and sisters,

On Thursday 1 June the new presbyeral council met for the first time. Among other things, we discussed the ecumenical prayer service which will be held at the start of Pink Saturday (24 June) in the cathedral. Some priests were concerned; others were glad about the breathing room provided. The planned ecumenical prayer service not only triggered discussion among priests, but also among other faithful. Homosexuality remains a sensitive topic in our Church, leading to much emotion. The presbyteral council has asked me to clarify my own position in a letter. It will in the first place be about the prayer service in St. John’s, but also about the topic of Church and homosexuality in a broader sense.

Ecumenical prayer service

The ecumenical prayer service at the cathedral is the primary responsibility of the pastoral team, especially the cathedral administrator. I know that administrator Van Rossem carefully deliberated it. He obviously discussed the service with the church council, but also with me. The cathedral is, after all, the bishop’s church. I left the decision with the administrator, under the condition that nothing will be said during the prayer service that goes against Church teaching. The contents of the prayer service can not be allowed to hurt the religious feelings of our faithful.

The cathedral administrator ultimately made a positive decision. It is very important that the service is prepared by the administrator and three preachers from ‘s-Hertogenbosch. They trust each other and are aware of the concerns of a part of the faithful. I have full confidence that the service will be serene. Every worship service revolves around the worship of and encounter with God. Liturgy requires stillness and can never be used for protests or demonstrations. Those present at the prayer service will hopefully be encouraged and strengthened in their faith that God loves us unconditionally in Christ. The cathedral administrator and the preachers have asked me, as bishop, to conclude the service with a brief word and a blessing.

During Pink Saturday there will probably be things taking place in the city which are strongly disapproved of by Catholics and other Christians, including homosexual Christians. In that regard I recall the remark of one of our priests during the presbyteral council meeting on 1 June. During the days of carnival there are also things taking place which are hard to reconcile with Catholic ethics. That is, however, no reason to abandon carnival services.

Church and homosexuality

I have the need to not only discuss the planned ecumenical prayer service in this letter, but also the topic of Church and homosexuality. In the Roman Catholic view marriage, the life bond between man and woman, is the framework of an ordered experience of sexuality. The unconditional love and faithfulness of God as thus reflected in marriage. Other forms of sexuality are considered disordered. As a Roman Catholic bishop I am called to uphold this teaching.

This vision is, however, at odds with the dominant ideas about relationships and sexuality in modern Netherlands. A great part of our own Church people is influenced by modern secular culture. The result is a deep chasm between the word of the Church and the experience of many outside, but also inside our Church. One thing and another often leads to misunderstanding, anger and regret. As a bishop, however, I feel called to continue seeking out dialogue, no matter how difficult it often is.

Every bishop, but also every priest, is not only a teacher, but also a shepherd. He is aware of the tensions between teachings and life, also and especially in the area of sexuality. The Church’s ideal and stubborn reality regularly clash. It is pastoral wisdom to not use the teachings of the Church as a stick to strike with, but as a staff to lean on.

Traditionally the Church has known the saying: a lion in the pulpit, a lamb in the confessional. This implies that a wise shepherd tries to find an accessible way with every faithful. The Church’s norms are rarely achieved in concrete existence. In those cases we are not called to throw stones. When God starts counting sins, no one remains standing. But God is forgiveness and that nourishes us. We can and must appear before the face of the Lord with all the rough edges of a life lived.

Now what?

Faithful homosexuals, but also their parents and other family, often struggle with many questions. Which way to go? Is it possible to find a relationship of love and trust within the limits of Catholic morality? The Church asks homosexual people to live in abstinence. Such a life can only be lived healthily and happily when one experiences true friendship with other people and with God. This is also a duty for our parishes. Within the Catholic community, homosexuals should find kindness and friendship. Christians are called to honest charity. It is about the acceptance of every person as God’s creature.

The Church’s norms about experiencing sexuality are clear and the bar is set high, certainly according to dominant Dutch culture. Faithful are called to relate to the norms of the Church and form their conscience. Every faithful goes his or her way with God and conscience is the final and ultimate authority. A tension may possibly continue to exist between the truth of the Church and the conscience of every individual faithful. When parents find that one of their children is homosexual, they are called to surround that child with all care and love. The same is, I am convinced, true for the Church as mother.

United in Christ,

Msgr. dr. Gerard de Korte
Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch”

All set for the new bishop

Zetel-nieuwAt Groningen’s cathedral of St. Joseph, all is set for the consecration of the fifth bishop of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, at 11am today. The photo at left shows the cathedra, the bishop’s seat, with his new coat of arms applied (more on that below).

Nine years after the last time a new bishop arrived, and 18 after it hosted the consecration of one, the cathedral will be filled to capacity. Attendance is by invitation only: last week the diocese already urged people who did not have an invitation to stay at home and watch the Mass on television (live broadcast is available via the NPO2 public channel, and will be available to stream later). Some 700 guests are expected, which means the cathedral is filled to capacity.

DBVOB7ZWsAAvHUHThe bishop-elect, Msgr. Ron van den Hout has been in Groningen since last week and has already met with various groups of faithful on a private basis: the Saturday evening international student group and a diocesan youth gathering, to name two. In today’s Mass he will first be consecrated as a bishop, and then officially installed as the ordinary of his new see. Until that moment, the diocese is still without its bishop and under the leadership of the diocesan administrator, the former vicar general, Fr. Peter Wellen.

Consecrating the new bishop will be Wim Cardinal Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht and bishop of Groningen from 1999 to 2008, with Bishops Gerard de Korte and Rob Mutsaerts, respectively bishop and auxiliary bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, serving as co-consecrators. Bishop de Korte was, of course, Msgr. van den Hout predecessor in Groningen and the bishop under which he served as vicar general in ‘s-Hertogenbosch for a year.

Hout-wapenPart and parcel of being a bishop is choosing a coat of arms, and the one for the new bishop of Groningen-Leeuwarden was published a few days ago. Msgr. van den Hout’s personal coat of arms is placed on the diocesan gold cross on a green field. It features an anchor blooming into a tree at the top, with the tree referring to the bishop’s family name (Van den Hout means someting like ‘of the wood(s)’) as well as the shield of the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The anchor is a symbol of hope, relating to the motto underneath: In exilio spes, hope in exile. Lastly, the tree also represents the man who trusts in God (Jeremiah 17:8).

The cup on the blue background comes from the coat of arms of the town of Diessen, where Msgr. van den Hout grew up, and represented the earth holding the seed for next year’s crop. The cup on the red background refers to the Eucharist and the words from Psalm 116 (12-13): “How can I repay the Lord for all the great good done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD.”

More on the ceremony later.

Photo credit: Bsdom Groningen-Leeuwarden

Man of peace – Bishop Ernst passes away

“With his down-to-earth faith and his dedication to his mission, Msgr. Ernst meant a lot to many people. Since my installation in 2012 I was able to visit him more often. His health was fragile, but his mind was strong. At the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, in 2016, he was barely mobile, but he very much wanted to concelebrate the Eucharist. The Franciscan sisters increasingly watched over him in the past months. He was able to entrust himself to God. He reflected on his fragility and death very soberly. During a visit last year he told me that someone had advised him to prepare for the end of his life. It was a sign of his vitality that he responded with, “Perhaps it is time to do so”.”

2016-06-07%20Breda_MgrErnst_©RamonMangold_WEB01_410Bishop Jan Liesen responds to the news of the passing of Bishop Hubertus Cornelis Antonius Ernst, emeritus bishop of Breda, six weeks after celebrating his 100th birthday. The most senior of the Dutch bishops passed away late in the evening on Friday 19 May.

Bishop Huub Ernst was the 8th bishop of Breda, from 1967 to 1992, after which he served for two more years as apostolic administrator. He lived long enough to see three bishops succeed him: the late Tiny Muskens in 1994, Hans van den Hende, now of Rotterdam, in 2007, and Jan Liesen in 2012. Bishop van den Hende, in his capacity of president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, reacted to the passing of Msgr. Ernst on behalf of the other bishops, saying:

ernst van den hende 7-11-2015“Into very old age Bishop Huub Ernst was vital and concerned with his diocese, the Church province and society as a whole. He was consecrated as a bishop almost fifty years ago. Recently, we were able to congratulate him with his 100th birthday. Bishop Ernst was our older brother in the office of bishop, possessing a great heart for charity and the work of peace.”

Generally respected as a wise and well-spoken man, Bishop Ernst nonetheless never received a university education. In some quarters he was also seen a progressive bishop, which he was to a certain extent on the classic topics like celibacy, homosexuality and women, although he failed to get along with the liberal 8 May movement after this group ignored his advice and used a ‘table prayer’ of their own making at their annual manifestation.

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Bishop Ernst in 1967

Bishop Ernst chaired Pax Christi Netherlands from 1976 to 1994, reflecting his concern with the projects of peace in the world. Under his guidance, Pax Christi and the Catholic Church in the Netherlands threw their support behind protests against the presence of nuclear weapons in the Netherlands and the world. In 1983, he spoke before 550,000 protestors in The Hague on this topic. He would later also be highly critical of the war against terrorism waged by the international coalition led by the United States. He based these positions in Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical on peace in the world.

One of Bishop Ernst lasting achievements is considered to be the establishment of Bovendonk seminary in Hoeven near Breda. At his installation in Breda, the Theological Faculty Tilburg was responsible for the formation of priests. In 1983, Bishop Ernst estaiblished Bovendonk specifically for late vocations: men are educated and formed for the permanent and transitional diaconate, as well as the priesthood, initially while also holding their day job. Graduates from Bovendonk currently work in all dioceses of the Netherlands.

The period of Bishop Ernst’s mission leading the Diocese of Breda coincided with a time of great change in Church and society. Over the course of the 1970s, he developed a program based on three observations: a decrease in the number of faithful; the presence of core group of faithful willing to carry responsibility in the Church; and a decrease in the number of priests, deacons and religious. Towards the end of his time in office he had concluded that the Church in the Netherlands was in a missionary situation and a minority in society. Bishop Ernst believed that the Church should distinguish itself through charity and displaying the contents of her faith through language, liturgy and the behaviour of faithful.

Bishop Ernst tried to find a balance between Church doctrine and respect for the conscience of individual people. As such, he participated in the Synod of Bishops meeting of marriage and family in 1980.

Following his restirement, Bishop Ernst continued to speak on topics of ethics and philosophy. In 2007, he reviewed a publication by the Dutch Dominicans calling for lay priests from among the faithful to offer the Eucharist when a real priest was unavailable. Bishop Ernst called this “incorrect, not sensible and not the right solution”.

In 2011, Bishop Ernst was called to testify in a court case against an abusive Salesian priest. The bishop’s claimed to not have been informed about the priest’s past transgressions and found it unimaginable that the Salesians withheld essential information from him when he was asked to appoint the priest in his diocese.

A short overview of the life of Bishop Ernst

  • 1917: Born as oldest child of three in a Catholic family in Breda. He attended primary school at the parish school and the Huijbergen brothers. Subsequently, he went to minor seminary in Ypelaar and then the major seminary in Bovendonk.
  • 1941: Ordained by Bishop Pieter Hopmans. He was appointed as parish assistant in Leur.
  • 1943: Appointed as conrector of the Franciscan sisters in Etten.
  • 1947: Moved to Bovendonk to teach moral theology there.
  • 1957: Appointed as chairman of the (wonderfully-named) Society of Catechists of the Eucharistic Crusade.
  • 1962: Appointed as vicar general of Breda by Bishop Gerard de Vet.
  • 1967: Following the unexpected death of Bishop de Vet, vicar general Ernst succeeds him as bishop. He is consecrated by the archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Alfrink.
  • 1980: Bishop Ernst participates in the Synod of Bishops on marriage and family, representing the Dutch episcopate.
  • 1992: Bishop Ernst offers his resignation upon reaching the age of 75. Pope John Paul II appoints him as apostolic administrator pending the appointment of his successor.
  • 1994: Bishop Ernst retires as apostolic administrator upon the appointment of Bishop Tiny Muskens.

Bishop Ernst was main consecrator of his successor, Bishop Muskens, and served as co-consecrator of Bishop Johann Möller (Groningen, 1969), Jos Lescrauwaet (Haarlem, 1984), Ad van Luyn (Rotterdam, 1994) and Hans van den Hende (Breda, 2007).

Bishop Ernst was the oldest Dutch bishop alive. On his death, that mantle passes to Ronald Philippe Bär, emeritus bishop of Rotterdam, who will be 89 in July.

Phot credit: [1, 2] Ramon Mangold

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

No April Fool – 13 months in, the vacancy ends

End of a long sede vacante

It took thirteen months, an almost unprecented long time, but the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden will soon have a bishop again. The Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Aldo Cavalli, had already stated that the name would be known before Easter. With tomorrow being the fifth Sunday of Lent, he was cutting it a bit close. The long time between bishops gave rise to some speculation and rumours, which I wrote about here. These speculations will undoubtedly continue now that there is a new bishop. Many will choose to see the selection, which was ultimately made by Pope Francis, in political terms: the new bishop is either a man in the vein of the Holy Father, which means he is a pastoral figure with an eye for the people instead of the law; or he fits the mold of Cardinal Eijk, which means he is a dogmatic, a stickler for rules. Reality, as often, is more nuanced.

20170330_sHertogenbosch_Bisschoppen_©RamonMangold_03The new bishop

The new bishop comes from the south, and thus, in a way, makes the opposite move than his predecessor, who went from Groningen-Leeuwarden to ‘s-Hertogenbosch. From that later see comes its vicar general, Msgr. Ron van den Hout, to take over the reins of this country’s most northern diocese.

Bishop-elect Van den Hout is 52, not extraordinarily young or old when compared with his predecessors. He has been vicar general of the Diocese of ‘s-Hertogenbosch since 2012. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1993, studied in Rome and Nijmegen, and most recently taught Bible studies at three seminaries, in addition to serving as temporary pastor in the Bommelerwaard region, in the north of the diocese.

The Diocese

The new bisdom inherits a diocese wich, in some ways, is a work in progress. In the eight years (from 2008 to 2016) that Msgr. de Korte was ordinary, the diocese underwent a process of change which saw the number of parish decrease from 84 to 19. While the previous bishop made it policy to maintain the old parishes as communities in the new larger parishes, it is up to the new bishop to see the process to its conclusion and his choice to keep Bishop de Korte’s vision intact or adapt it as he sees fit. With one parish, which includes the cathedral in Groningen, exempt from the mergers, only two new parishes are awaiting establishment,  while a third is already merged, but will see one more old parish join at a later date. The entire process is expected to be concluded by 1 January 2018.

In the years that Bishop de Korte led the diocese, the number of religious establishments within its boundaries tripled. A relatively large increase, in absolute numbers it is perhaps somewhat less impressive: from one to three. In addition to the shrine of Our Lady of the Garden Enclosed in Warfhuizen, which is under the care of hermit Father Hugo, the Holy Ghost Fathers have established themselves in Heerenveen, while the Cistercians from Sion Abbey are working to build a monastery on the island of Schiermonnikoog. Bishop de Korte actively encouraged this trend, and his successor could do worse than do likewise.

The Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden is one of the two youngest in the Netherlands, having been established in 1955, it is the second largest in size, and the smallest by number of Catholics (a little over 100,000, of whom some 10% attend a Mass or celebration over the course of one weekend)*. It covers the three northern provinces of the Netherlands (Fryslân, Groningen and Drenthe) as well as the northern third of the province of Flevoland. Its population varies from traditionally left-wing in the former Communist stronghold of eastern Groningen, to traditionally Catholic along the German border from the southeastern tip of Groningen to the south of Drenthe. Major cities are few, but include the university city of Groningen, which is also home to the cathedral of St. Joseph and the diocesan offices (relocated there by then-Bishop Willem Eijk, bishop from 1999 to 2008). Catholic faithful are clustered in various places, but in general the parish, especially in the countryside, are expansive. Coupled with a relative low number of priests this means that clergy has to be able and willing to travel.

Bishop van den Hout Will be the fifth bishop of the Groningen-Leeuwarden. Two of his predecessors are still active: Cardinal Willem Eijk as archbishop of Utrecht, and Msgr. Gerard de Korte as bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Bishop Hans van den Hende of Rotterdam is a former priest and vicar general of the diocese, and his immediate predecessor, Msgr. Ad van Luyn, was born in Groningen.

In the past eleven months, since the installation of Bishop de Korte in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the diocese has been run by diocesan administrator Fr. Peter Wellen, vicar general under the previous bishop, and general delegate Fr. Arjen Bultsma, formerly the episcopal vicar for Fryslân and the Noordoostpolder.

Reactions

Bishop-elect van den Hout was informed about his appointment last week, and accepted it on Wednesday. His initial reaction was hesitant, but he realised that it was “something that had come his way, and I was obliged to cooperate gladly”.

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^The new bishop, at left, receives a welcome present from diocesan administrator Fr. Peter Wellen.

As for the future, the new bishop sees himself as a man of the parish. “The life of the Church must be realised in the parishes,” he said. “The faithful must take their baptism seriously, while the diocesan curia serves to support this.” As yet unfamiliar with his new diocese, the bishop-elect intends to start visiting the parishes soon after his consecration, which is scheduled for 3 June. Asked about his predecessors and how he compares to them, Msgr. van den Hout said that he simply wants to be himself, to be there for the people. He hasn’t taken up a position on how the diocese should be run, as this depends on the specific  local situation. He is curious and open about the Catholic life in the parishes of his new diocese, and will make any decisions based on what he finds.

More to come.

*Statistics date from 2008. The expectation is that the actual and current numbers are lower).

Photo credit: [1] Ramon Mangold, [2] Mark de Vries

In response to falling numbers, Cardinal Marx calls for lay responsibility

marxCardinal Reinhard Marx is planning to introduce a way of managing parishes  in his Archdiocese of München und Freising which is, out of necessity, already being practiced elsewhere in Europe, La Croix reports.

Whil it is standard that a parish is led by a parish priest, who is ultimately responsible for what happens in his parish (or parishes, federation or parish cluster), Cardinal Marx wants to see if that responsibility could not also be held by lay faithful. This decision stems from the dwindling numbers of priests. While some dioceses, for example in parts of Germany and the Netherlands, cluster and merge parishes to make sure that there is still at least one priest per parish, Cardinal Marx does not believe that is the way forward.

An enlarged parish, created out of a cluster of smaller parishes, would require its sole priest to travel greater distances, and possibly, as financial means are stretched, churches to be closed and active parish communities to be similarly merged. A weekly Sunday Mass in every church in the new parish would no longer be a matter of course. Cardinal Marx believes that this withdrawal of the Church from her territorial roots will lead to increasing local invisibility.

By appointing lay faithful to take on the responsibility for parishes where there is no priest, at least not frequently or regularly, the local church could continue its activities and remain visible. And there is no real reason to not invest lay faithful with such responsibility. It is not as if one needs to be ordained in order to wield it. Some ordained priests, the cardinal says, are not particularly suited to lead parishes, but do wonderful things in other areas, such as pastoral care and liturgy.

There is an element of responsibility that comes with ordination, and that is the responsibility of the shepherd. Priests remain indispensible in the life of the Church, but they are also people, with their limitations. None can be in two places at the same time (barring those holy priests given the grace of bilocation) and there are practical limits to the size of a parish that one man can be responsible for in the way expected of a parish priest. Cardinal Marx’s plan includes an active role for his three auxiliary bishops and himself in selecting teams of lay leaders and reflecting on parish structures and organisation.

Cardinal Marx’ proposal is a response to a problem that many bishops in Northwestern Europe face: dwindling numbers of faithful, and subsequently diminishing financial means to allow for the upkeep of (sometimes ancient and monumental) buildings and pastoral networks. If it is the right response is for the future to reveal.